One of the most critically challenging and illuminating directions in media studies in recent years has been the so-called “material turn” which has encouraged more precise analysis of the objects, infrastructures, spaces, and labor which form concrete components of all media experiences but which are often obscured by a preoccupation with content. Infrastructures studies, which pays attention to what Lisa Parks has humorously characterized as “the stuff you can kick”, has proved especially valuable in shining light on systems of media distribution that are taken for granted yet contingent and incomplete. Principles and methods of queer theory can bring a particularly rich critical framework to studies of media materialities but have been significantly under-used in favor of studies of representation. This critical shift shows particular potential if we take seriously – and as inherently queer – the material instabilities and failures that haunt media systems and the unexpected emergences that arise from encounters with media which often confound how identifications and relations are articulated to media reception practices. Notably, queer affect studies have richly theorized the experiences of queer bodies that do not fit, are disoriented by or disarticulated from heteronormative protocols of time and space.
In this presentation, I will outline some of my current attempts to apply queer critique to sociotechnical infrastructures and to uncover the queer potential of infrastructural failure. In particular, building on what I have elsewhere called “lossy media” (Payne 2018), I will explore the possibility of a queer theory of media formats. Formats have been identified in media studies scholarship as normative and taken-for-granted yet contingent protocols that fit a given medium to ensure its smooth operation. But how do we account for formats that do not fit? What emerges from an encounter with a medium for which other format protocols were prescribed or for which standards have moved on? A queer theory of formats might offer a way of accounting for the strange, generative potential of aesthetic and affective experiences of queer format fits.