Reworking Raymond Williams’ concept of “structure of feeling”

The US streaming provider Netflix between “mobile privatisation” and “private mobilisation"

Department of English and American Studies, University of Vienna
Betreuerin: ao.Univ.Prof.Dr. Monika Seidl

This subproject has two aims: one is a diagnostic critique of the streaming service Netflix based on Raymond Williams’ notion of ‘structures of feeling’. And by doing so, it secondly seeks to re-evaluate and rework the very notion of ‘structure of feeling’. The thesis will therefore work foremost with and under Williams’ theoretical contributions regarding the study of media and culture, but will also integrate ideas from mobility studies, media studies and subject theory.

Williams’ analysis of television as a cultural form (1974) will serve as a starting point to understand Netflix in a similar way: as part of a contemporary everyday material culture with a wider socio-political scope. By investigating articulations of consumption and production, (e.g. streaming, binge-watching, programming and social media efforts), of regulation (e.g. licensing, geo-blocking and net-neutrality) and representation (e.g. content, promotional material and media coverage) and by asking about historical/cultural continuities and breaks, Netflix will be analysed as part of a structure of feeling that negotiates the dominant, emergent and residual (Williams 1977).

I am therefore interested in the discursive level of making Netflix meaningful: what kinds of “practical consciousness” and “signifying practices” (Williams 1977) one is subjected to when engaging with Netflix; and how this can be seen as part of a larger discursive formation set at the conjuncture of mediality and mobility.

With his notion of “mobile privatisation”, Williams describes the contradictory tendencies of an urban-industrial society that allows more and more mobility, but at the same time celebrates the family home as a stable and set space. I will continue this line of argument, but will render my diagnostic critique along the notion of “private mobilisation”, arguing that especially with TV going online – “streaming” – and Netflix’ overall affordances of personalised, on-demand programming and mobile consumption via portable devices, the private sphere is also a mediated and mobile location of subjectivation.

Following Williams’ commitment to active audiences and productive media cultures I will have a closer look how “private mobilisation” is a key problematic in the seemingly egalitarian and visionary agenda of Netflix, and how this relates to the narrative of participatory culture of web 2.0. The idea of a flexible, active, cosmopolitan and therefore highly mobile subject is an underlying assumption I wish to further scrutinize: as a commodified subject that favours, but is also exhausted by, neoliberal ideas set in a digital context on the one hand, and as a seemingly (un)bound modern subject, that is, however, seeking confinement and re-basing via media(usage) on the other.

The analysis of the 2013 Netflix Original series, House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, will further illustrate these lines of argument and will provide vignettes for a “diagnostic critique” (Kellner 1995), which suggests that media cultures negotiate the fantasies, hopes, fears and desires of a society: agency, im/mobility, self-government and control as contingent focal moments in a structure of feeling of “private mobilisation”.