Q: Can you tell us about your research?

A: My research focuses on how visual technologies mediate our experience of the world and ourselves. I’m fascinated by the ways in which institutions and corporations have attempted (to varying degrees of success) over the past hundred-plus years to turn sensory experience into a set of measurable, commodifiable data points. So far my work has been highly interdisciplinary, engaging with media theory, the history of science and technology, cultural studies, and critical approaches to race and gender. Even though I consider myself a scholar of primarily digital media, I do a lot of archival research and see computational technology as part of a much longer “pre-history of the digital” that I argue begins in the late 19th century. My current book project, “Seeing by Numbers: The Long History of Digital Color,” tells the story of how something as seemingly individualized and ephemeral as color came to be so closely linked to numerical exactitude and standardization. With examples ranging from 19th-century commercial paint charts to Pantone’s Color of the Year and Adobe Photoshop, I ultimately reframe color as an experiential category that has been manipulated and calibrated throughout history—often to the benefit of corporate institutions and global systems of power.

I’m also currently branching out into critiques of wellness culture and the overwhelmingly white and affluent consumers it caters to. I’m especially interested in the various rhetorical and ideological parallels between the tech and wellness/diet industries (“detox,” “cleanse,” “hygiene,” “binging,” “hacking”), and the way social media influencers and self-management apps alike claim a holistic or “healthier” approach to daily living while capitalizing on the same logic of deprivation and self-monitoring. I’m also getting into food studies and thinking about international films from the ‘80s and ‘90s like Tampopo, Babette’s Feast, and Eat, Drink, Man Woman, as well as the Eurocentric assumptions built into wine and coffee-tasting rubrics (which, fascinatingly, often take the form of color wheels!).

Q: What drew you to this work?

A: It’s been a long and roundabout journey. My doctoral training was in Film & Media Studies, but prior to getting my PhD my background was actually in Comparative Literature and area studies, so I’ve jumped around a lot between disciplines and methodologies. But I’ve been obsessed with color since I was double-majoring in Russian and Visual Art as an undergrad and writing a BA thesis on Vladimir Nabokov while making large-scale colorful abstract paintings. It wasn’t until a few years later that I realized what fascinated me most about color was the various diagrams that artists, scientists, and philosophers have created to try and harness it. I could spend hours (and I have!) poring over color wheels, charts, and paint chips, thinking about the way we’re invited to view these objects (which typically make a lot of arbitrary decisions about color and perception) as somehow “objective.”

As for the newer research on taste and wellness, it’s a bit of a cliché that academics turn all their hobbies into work, but it’s all too true. When I moved to the Bay Area, I got more serious about learning about wine, and right before COVID got a Level 3 WSET (Wine and Spirits Educational Trust) certification. I told myself it was “just for fun,” but the class, along with the community of people I had gotten to know in the food and wine industries, spurred so many new ideas about the history of perception and cultural politics that the next thing I knew, I found myself teaching a class called “Taste: The Senses on Screen,” and you know what happened next… The “wellness-industrial complex” stuff isn’t too hard to wrap one’s head around, given the precarious times we’re living in and the increase in teletherapy and other virtual modes of “self-healing” in the wake of the pandemic. Since COVID, my work has also gotten a lot more overtly political as I’ve reckoned more with my own racial identity and thought long and hard about the uneven landscape of both mental and physical healthcare in the U.S.

Q: What will you be doing this year through the DISCO Network?

A: As Curriculum Development Fellow, I’m developing a new set of courses offered through the University of Michigan’s Digital Studies Institute that address racism, ableism, and sexism as they manifest in everyday experiences of digital technology. As part of DISCO’s broader aims, these courses are also meant to give students from STEM-facing fields the tools and vocabulary to think critically about the ethical implications of tech. I’m hoping to draw from what I’ve learned about anti-racist pedagogy and accessible course design so that these courses won’t just introduce students to race, gender, and disability on the level of topic, but will also show them what a more equitable classroom environment could look like.

As for my own work, I’m slowly but surely revising my dissertation into a book manuscript, as well as starting to think about future articles and monographs. I’m also co-editing a volume with Carolyn L. Kane (Toronto Metropolitan University) called Color Protocols: Technologies of Racial Encoding in Chromatic Media, which is under advance contract with MIT Press. We have a great lineup of contributors writing about the unexamined intersection between color-based media and systemic racism.

Q: What excites you these days?

A: Aesthetically-pleasing colorful diagrams, always. Podcasts like Maintenance Phase and You’re Wrong About, which are well-researched and entertaining and have the kind of political and cultural outreach I wish academic writing sometimes had. Also: Michigan apples (especially Paula Reds), Lake Superior whitefish, and furnishing my new place with vintage and antique finds.

Q: What’s on your writing playlist?

A: I’m actually unable to write to music if I’m the one controlling the playlist. I’ve been known to put on some generic instrumental “Electronic Study Music” playlist from Spotify if it feels too eerily quiet, but what I really love is being surrounded by low-to-moderate levels of ambient sound in a café. I love the hum of the espresso machine and the clinking of glassware and the conversations around me that dissolve into one another. Making the pivot to writing alone at home during shelter-in-place was really tough for me, since I had always been someone who wrote at cafés or the occasional bar with people around me. I’ll admit that I actually found a few websites where I could stream café sounds as I hunched over my desk alone in my apartment. A sad simulacrum of café ambience, I guess.

As for the music I actually listen to, I feel like my taste in music recently has recently skewed very pop-y and high energy, because I listen to a lot of ‘80s tracks while I trail run in Bird Hill Nature Preserve. So there’s been a lot of Pet Shop Boys and Kate Bush, as well as (appropriately for this postdoc) some disco and neo-disco artists like Jungle.


Q: What are you reading at the moment?

A: On the more academic side, I’m reading Tung-Hui Hu’s Digital Lethargy, which just came out. Despite the topic, I’m finding it incredibly invigorating—you know that moment when a writer so accurately describes a feeling or state of mind that you feel like they’re in your head? It’s rare to find that in a scholarly book. I’m also doing some research on meditation apps right now, and now I’ve found myself with a big pile of religious studies books in front of me on the history of meditation and mindfulness in America—specifically, how Buddhism morphed from a culturally and geographically specific religion to a set of self-help guidelines vaguely rooted in “Eastern thought” starting in the 1960s and 70s.

I also just finished Julia May Jonas’s debut novel Vladimir (shout out to Huan He, one of the other DISCO postdocs, who first told me about it) and all I can say is: 1) WOW. And 2) if you’re in academia, proceed at your own risk. Lolita is probably my favorite novel, ethical thorniness and all, and I loved seeing Jonas turn aspects of it on its head in 2022 (no spoilers).

Finally, I’m almost always reading a food and cooking-related memoir or history. I recently read Mayukh Sen’s Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America and I’m currently devouring—pun intended—Ruby Tandoh’s memoir-cum-manifesto Eat Up!

Q: What are you looking forward to the most during your fellowship?

I’m so excited to be in what feels like a truly interdisciplinary space (UMichigan’s Digital Studies Institute). I think in the humanities there’s a lot of talk of “interdisciplinarity” and often it’s actually just “I work on French and you work on Italian!” or something like that, but since I started here, I’ve encountered humanists, social scientists, architects, and data scientists all approaching digital technology in very different but sometimes intersecting ways. I also feel really lucky to be part of such an amazing cohort of fellows. Research postdocs can often be a bit isolating, and it’s not easy moving across the country by yourself, so it feels great to have a built-in group of colleagues and friends.