Damon Young: "The self is everywhere, but also threatened with obsolescence by the rise of AI"

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November 6, 2023

Damon Young is Associate Professor in French and Film and Media Studies. Young specializes in Critical theory, Digital media, Film theory, Gender and sexuality studies, Global art cinema (with a focus on French and francophone). Below is an interview with Young conducted by Lucille Lorenz for her weekly column "What is Humanities Research?" 

Firstly, I would love to hear more about you and your work. How did you first come to film and media, and French? What does your research or work currently focus on? 

In Australia, where I grew up, I studied philosophy, English literature, theater studies, cultural studies (which is big there), but I was always involved in the arts—doing theater productions, and hen I did a degree in film-making as well. But I was also really interested in humanities-based academic research—reading and writing, thinking critically in a critical-theory way, and I was taking courses about radical theory that were exciting me intellectually. So film and media studies represented the meeting of my interest in the arts and my interest in theory. When I came to the U.S. to do my PhD, that field was really well established here, and so I ended up specializing in that, but I’ve always been interested in the broader humanities, and how film and media related to questions also broached in the larger humanities. 

In my dissertation research, I was writing about sexuality, and French cinema was really important. I happened to speak French because I had been an exchange student there, and so I ended up writing a dissertation in which French cinema was a big focus. A lot of the theory I was using happened to be from France as well—post-structuralist theory, continental philosophy, psychoanalytic theory. I ended up moving more into French Studies through my dissertation research, almost accidentally. 

My earlier projects were mostly about film, but currently I’m writing a book called Century of the Selfie, which is about how networked media, including the selfie, shape the ideology and experience of the self. In our current media environments, we have to see ourselves all the time, we put ourselves online all the time, we’re always marketing ourselves, there’s a big discourse on self-care. It also seems like the self is in crisis, which might be its existential condition but is particularly inflected in the age of digital capitalism—online spaces are full of stories of all kinds of anxiety-related, ego-related issues. The self is everywhere, but also threatened with obsolescence by the rise of AI, and other ways in which the algorithm makes the self irrelevant in some sense. So I’m interested in the self in these networked spaces, and also what kind of imaginary relations the self has on the network. I’m taking some of these older questions about subjectivity, identity, relationality—from earlier moments of humanist thought—and I’m bringing them to the networked era to see what happens. It’s been really fun to write this book, and do this research. It involves watching a lot of YouTube videos [laughs]. I have a chapter on vlogs, for example—these kind of meaningless vlogs, where people relate absolutely nothing for hours on end. I call this the “phatic” self.

More generally, what does research in film and media usually look like?

The way that English departments use literature to encompass a wide range of different projects, topics, methodologies—film and media studies does the same thing. It’s a capacious discipline. Some students who take the classes are interested in media production, and learning to think about the history and theory of the media they want to work with. Some research focuses on the aesthetic forms of film and media production—for example, experimental forms and the way they challenge ideas of narrative, and shape time. But there’s also the study of how cultural meanings are made through media. Communication mediums generate the texts through which we orient ourselves in the world—understand ourselves, see ourselves reflected or not reflected, forming ideas about romance, friendship, capitalism, our desires. So alongside the history of aesthetics forms, there is the study of the way meanings are produced through media. The concerns are also much broader. Some colleagues study the environmental infrastructures that media networks depend on, such as the undersea cables that transmit internet signals. Others study the history of computing and graphics, and the way that computers shape our worldview by becoming increasingly integrated into every social and subjective process. Others study early cinema—the effects of new technologies on modernity—which proves central to the study of the early 20th century. Others again study television as a medium, and how it produces a particular relationship to live time, and a structure of shared experience, or shapes domestic space and brings narrative structures into our daily lives. And that’s just a handful of the topics—there are so many. There are also so many different media forms, so there is a vast amount of research that falls under this larger rubric of film and media studies. 

And I know you spoke a bit about critical theory, so I just wanted to ask you a little bit more about that, and how it applies to film and media studies. I recently interviewed Professor Telo (Comp Lit, AGRS, and Rhetoric) and asked him about critical theory, but we talked about it more in relation to literature. Can you tell us about the ways you apply critical theory in your own work, as well as possibly more about what critical theory even is? 

Well, actually the origins of critical theory in the Western tradition—which is associated with the Frankfurt School—are also related to film, because those Frankfurt authors, such as Siegried Kracuer, Theodor Adorno, and Walter Benjamin, were all writing about film and what they called ‘the culture industry’ and they were really interested in how these modern media technologies were transforming modernity, in terms of society and politics. There’s a fusion of film and media studies and critical theory actually at the origins of critical theory. And then, in the ‘60s and the ‘70s, there was a school of philosophy in France that became very influential in rethinking language, and how meanings are produced, and the structural analysis of texts, including film. In one standard account of the discipline, the influence of this French high theory in the 1960s and ‘70s influenced the formation of film and media studies in the U.S., which means that film and media studies as a discipline has always been really strongly bound up in critical theory, both in the Frankfurt School tradition and in the French post-structuralist tradition. I think film and media are so important to modernity, and now postmodernity, that it’s really hard to imagine a critical theory that doesn’t centrally take stock of how media shapes society and politics. I think film and media theory are among the most speculative, creative, and exciting domains of contemporary critical theory. Our courses in film and media tend to be very theoretically oriented, and a lot of them are cross-listed with the critical theory program.

Since film only just began in the late 1800’s, I assume that film and media is still a very young discipline. And because advancement in media is so rapid, I was thinking it may be hard for institutions to keep their information relevant. How do film and media departments account for the fact that media seems to be constantly changing and adapting?

Part of the discipline is historical, because it’s looking back at the history of film and related technologies. That part at least has an established object, and is not shifting. But part of the discipline is trying to take stock of contemporary media, which is obviously moving incredibly quickly, and there are constantly new areas of inquiry, like environmental media, digital media, television, artificial intelligence, computing. It is exciting, because it feels like you’re in a field that is really testing the larger changes that we’re all experiencing collectively. There are also a lot of students in this field—it’s a very popular topic—so it means we’re able to keep hiring people who are doing new things, which is producing a lot of energy in the field. It’s also overwhelming at times. With my current project on the network, the network keeps changing, even as I’m trying to describe it, so it’s already going to be slightly retrospective. I’ll be describing a version of the network that may no longer be fully contemporary. 

And off of that, I wanted to ask you a little more about AI. A lot of the humanities professors that I’m speaking with obviously take a more negative stance on how AI affects their field, but I was thinking it might be interesting to talk about in terms of film and media, because I was thinking it might be seen more as ‘progress’ in your field. Can you talk a little more about A.I., and also the way that it might be affecting your students’ scholarship?

I know that ChatGPT is producing a lot of problems for the classroom, and I think we can try to design assignments that work with it, probably. That’s just one example of how quickly things change in the world of media, as you point out. But to the first part of your question: I wouldn’t say that film and media scholars necessarily see AI as “progress,” a term we can certainly be skeptical of in general, but they’re interested in it as a new media technology that forms part of a longer history of computing and digital media, and that raises a lot of interesting questions that need to be studied. I taught a class on AI last year that focused partly on the material environmental practices that form the basis of AI: like mining for example, manufactured chips. But also on the labor practices that are made invisible in AI, because AI seems as though it’s happening with no labor, but actually there’s a vast network of laborers, mostly in the Global South who are doing the kinds of human work that are necessary to sustain the AI neural network systems. And then we looked at cultural imaginaries of AI: the stories people tell about it in films, the fantasies projected onto AI, and fears—the idea of AI taking over the world, which is a big theme in a certain strand of sci-fi. And then we did creative projects that used AI to produce various kinds of media works, and that was really interesting. I think we can work with AI as an object of critical analysis, and a historical object, and also as a form of creative practice that is going to be increasingly bound up in the way people produce media going forward. 

I also saw that you were involved in Women, Gender, and Sexuality studies here. Can you tell us a little bit more about this field, and how it has been applicable to your work?

Yeah, a lot of my work is about gender and sexuality. My first book was about how cinema produces fantasies and fears around women’s and queer sexualities. I’ve done a lot of work on queerness in the public sphere, but also on queer cinema and media. That field is also quite new, like film studies. It emerged, like film studies, out of the intellectual and political movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s. It was also bound up in developments of high theory, some of which were imported from Europe and other parts of the world. I’ve always been interested in how the cultural meanings that are reflected in films are bound up in our ideas about gender, and also how film is a medium that shapes our fantasies and our desire. That’s why women, gender, and sexuality studies, and queer theory, are related to my interest in film and media. I actually did a double-major that included gender studies in Australia. 

I noticed on Calcentral that you’re teaching Film 145 this upcoming semester. What does this class focus on? 

That class is cross-listed between film and French, and it’s a history of French cinema with a focus on how we can use film to read the relations between history, aesthetics, and politics. We’re going to look at classic films from each decade, and look at their formal innovations—the way they’ve changed film art, but also how each film reflects the tensions of the historical moment of its production. We go more or less chronologically through the 20th and 21st century through cinema. But in this class, I’m trying to break with the established canon—which is mostly white male directors—to include more works from Francophone Africa, from outside France, women, and nonwhite directors. French cinema is such an interesting object, because it's the origin of cinema, and many of the influential movements in cinema happened in France. So it's a great way to think about film history in general. 

What can students who don’t major in film studies gain from taking classes offered by our Film and Media Department? Have you found that non-humanities majors come to film studies from different angles, and what do you think STEM majors can gain from taking elective classes in this department? 

Everyone has a daily relationship with film and media. It’s pretty central to our lives, including the mobile devices you use to text your friends, or what we’re doing now—talking on Zoom. So you actually can’t escape film and media, and it is certainly fun to study this as a topic because the objects are very familiar, on one level, but you learn to think about it in a really different way, and to understand how these various media forms shape all aspects of society, including our very subjectivity—the way that we experience ourselves. For example, the way we monitor ourselves through devices, and thus subject the self to a kind of empirical quantification that is historically new. On the one hand, film and media classes teach the classical aspects of humanities courses—reading and writing essays, thinking critically, making arguments—and it’s a very useful humanities topic in that regard. But they also give incredible insights into the way our contemporary world is shaped through media technologies, and I think that outside of the college classroom, you wouldn’t often have a chance to think critically about the world you’re living everyday in that way. I think some topics apply quite directly to STEM, like AI for example–my class was a mix of engineers, computer programmers and humanities majors. But, regardless, I think the skills and approaches you encounter in film and media studies go to the heart of what’s great about the humanities in general (and why everyone should take humanities classes): not only learning how to use language effectively, but encountering new ways of thinking about the world, understanding history, and defamiliarizing our everyday experience. 

For the last question, I’m usually making it the same for everyone, but I also wanted to ask an additional question for this interview. What book would you recommend to everyone reading this interview? What film would you recommend?

I get asked that question a lot, actually [laughs]. I think people should read classics—classics that shed some light on the present. Two books are coming to mind. One is not about film, but photography, by the French author Roland Barthes: Camera Lucida. It’s an amazing account of how recorded images shape our personal and collective lives in the age of photography, which we’re still living in. And I think, in the context of ongoing colonial struggle, everyone should revisit Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, about dispossession and the ongoing effects and legacies of colonialism, which we’re currently grappling with. It’s obviously not about film and media, but it’s a crucial text. 

In response to the request for a film recommendation, I always think of something different, but at the moment, I think everyone should revisit Todd Haynes’ Safe (1995). Haynes is an American director, who actually has a new film coming out (May December) which is really great. But Safe was made in the context of the AIDS crisis, and captures so much about the contemporary moment, including and resonating with the pandemic, fear of environmental collapse, feelings of alienation from normal life, feeling that there are secret logics and meanings that would offer answers if only we could figure out what they are. It’s a really enigmatic, beautiful and brilliant film, and has the added advantage of starring Julianne Moore. That’s the film I recommend you watch tonight, and tell me what you thought.