Casting nets and framing films: an ethnography of networks of cultural production in Beirut
Dakessian, Areck Ardack
Filmmakers first received widespread academic attention as case studies into the increasing casualisation of labour in post-industrial economies. Their precarious existence in project-based labour markets provided much food for thought about the future of work, while their status as artists and producers of culture entered them into debates around just what art is and how to approach it. But in light of recent transformations in the cultural industries and the accompanied blurring of boundaries between production and consumption, academic understandings of the lives filmmakers lead have also been somewhat blurred. This ethnography of networks of cultural production in Beirut re-introduces filmmakers into the very sociological debates that they helped spark. Might a return to the situated experience of these theoretically and methodologically challenging people, who form workgroups and collaborate with each other repeatedly across projects as they craft their own careers, shed productive light on academic understandings of precarity, cultural production and indeed our increasingly confusing relationships with the objects around us? With that in mind, in this thesis I ask the following research question: how are networks of film production formed and maintained in Beirut? Based on an ‘insider’ ethnography of various film projects weaved into a mixed-methods social network analytic methodology, I adopt a relational sociological approach that conceives of production networks as akin to social worlds and find three analytic planes to delve deeper into: markets, objects and relationships. In relation to markets, I echo the argument that current classification systems of cultural production are too consumption-based and adopt a social network markets framework more sensitised towards production. Here, I find that the cyclical, project-based relationship of patronage that ties production networks to their clients is highly varied and contingent, shaping not only the process of cultural production but also its organisational structure. Further, I argue that the management of these contingencies is key to the potential repeat collaboration not just with clients (and their own social networks), but fellow producers as well. But past projects do not simply disappear once completed, they might well come back to haunt their makers. Drawing upon ethnographic and recent historical data on a number of web-series that emerged out of Beirut between 2009 and 2012, I compare using two-mode networks the past and more recent projects my interlocutors were involved in. Here, I find that one’s past projects shape one’s future by conducing or hindering their chances of finding new work. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, I find that filmmakers (and those around them) increasingly define themselves (and are defined by others) in relation to the past projects they have done. Over time, though, as filmmakers collaborate on an increasing number of films, their relationships take on deeper characteristics than monochrome economic considerations. Here I draw upon the notion of embeddedness to shed light on emergent meaning at the network level across a number of projects and, therefore, the emergent social world-ness of networks. While the first set of findings relates to debates in the sociology of work and the second to those in the sociology of cultural production, my final analysis shows just how intimately the two are connected. I conclude by highlighting the potential of empirically-grounded relational sociological approaches to finessing our understandings of cultural work in its economic, social, but also material and technical contingencies.