WARNING! Graphic Content: An Interview with Political Cartoonist Mr. Fish (Part Three)

I was struck by your phrase, “the democratizing power of scatology.” In what sense is scatology democratizing? Are there times when scatology gets used in more authoritarian or fascistic ways?

By referencing the “democratizing power of scatology” I’m partly echoing the preeminent manifesto that has done more to unify the planet with its nonpartisan secular worldview than any other book perused by human eyes – of course I’m talking about Taro Gomi’s seminal work, Everybody Poops – and I’m partly acknowledging how an interest in obscene matters, which is universal, reflects our sameness in defiance of those whose airs and megalomania insist that the opposite is true.

I’m not 100% sure what you mean about scatology being used in an authoritarian or fascistic way, unless you’re referring to circumstances when those in power assume that the use of scatology by the proletariat and lower classes is proof that they are unsophisticated vulgarians worthy of ridicule and/or marginalization and/or abuse. If it is, then, yes, you’re right, but I’d argue that that is less a description of the effect of scatology and more an example of how thuggish and delusional imperiousness often is.

You cite Boss Tweed’s discussion of cartoons as gaining their power because they spoke to people who could not read the printed articles in the paper. This idea of comics as a medium for illiterates runs across its history and there remains a sense that comics speak to people who would not understand or be interested in more “legitimate” or “legitimized” forms of expression. And this moves beyond comics to other forms of satire — for example, the contempt I hear among some intellectuals about young people who get much of their news from memes or from the Daily Show. How do you respond to this claim that cartoons may be “dummying down” political discourse?

There are certainly examples of cartoonists who dumb down political discourse, just as there are examples of writers who commit the same violation, just as there are examples of other kinds of artists and public intellectuals who dumb down the entirety of our cultural acumen with the ideas that they advocate. Rather than look to the whole profession of any of those examples, it would be more instructive to look to the individual artist or thinker and the circumstances that produced the commentary being offered to access whether participation in a dialogue is additive or subtractive.

That said, it should not be overlooked that a great deal – some might argue all – of political discourse is the very deliberate “dumbing down” of humanitarian discourse. (Recognizing the need to reverse our negative impact on the environment, for example, is made perverse by the political notion that nothing can be done to save the ecosystem until a solution can be devised that doesn’t impact the business sector.)

And while I might agree that the majority of cartoonists could legitimately be accused of simplifying political conversation, I’d argue that they are not doing it for the purpose of dumbing down discourse, but rather for the purpose of introducing clarity, common sense and sympathy into the national political dialogue.

A cartoonist, when he or she succeeds, makes politics accessible and understandable and, quite frankly, usable to a large portion of the public who, because of race, education level, income inequality, or any number of schlock justifications for marginalization from elite society, would have no easy way to decode and decipher how and why the world functions and dysfunctions as it does.

As we think about the political effects of cartoons, you show us many examples where cartoonists have ridiculed those in power, but also many where those without power, those on the margins, have been depicted in stereotypical and demeaning ways. Do these two functions get achieved through the same kinds of artistic mechanisms? Is there a way to meaningfully distinguish between these two different kinds of political use of comics as a medium?

Indeed, the use of stereotyping in cartooning will always seek to ignore the humanity of both those in power and those dismissed or abused by power for the sake of either making a joke or exaggerating a virtue or a prejudice in service of expressing an opinion of criticism or contempt.

Is the artistic mechanism of ridicule the same for slandering a king as it is for slandering a peasant? Sure it is, particularly when we recognize art as a language, and one that is made up of an alphabet that is just as indifferent to the ideas that it conveys as a pen would be to the words it is writing.

Thus, there can be no consistent or meaningful way to distinguish between good or bad stereotypes any more than there is a consistent or meaningful way to distinguish between good or bad willful misrepresentations of an intrinsic fact that is open to an infinite number of interpretations. Put simply, it is the intention of the cartoonist that must be judged, not the megaphone – the medium! – through which he or she broadcasts his or her message.

I generally share your celebration of the uncensored imagination, but this raises some questions at the same time. Are there images that are so problematic, so hurtful, that they should not be reproduced and circulated? Does a refusal of censorship necessarily imply a lack of criticism? What should be the society’s response be to images that can be very difficult to embrace?

One of my favorite quotes from Lenny Bruce is, “Knowledge of syphilis is not instruction to get it.” So, no, I don’t believe there are images that are so problematic and so hurtful that they should be censored, for the same reasons why I don’t believe in the censoring of the written word.

In fact, I have never found the parameters drawn by the dominant culture to indicate acceptable behavior or appropriate rules of artistic conduct reliable measures of anything but our most finicky and unimaginative natures.

Still, if the images that we’re talking about are truly toxic and corrupting of our better judgment, better to have them scrutinized in the light than allow them to metastasize in the dark. Knowledge of atrocious and pernicious ideas, whether expressed through text or image, tests the integrity of one’s moral center by providing something contrary with which to compare, resist and rail against.

Exposure to idiocy also serves to unmask the deranged logic of those who advertise the questionable ideas as sound so that the mathematics of the argument can be tested in an open forum and fact can be meted out from conjecture.

Additionally, when straight society misinterprets an unfamiliar wisdom and labels it as deranged logic, it is important to have mandates for free expression in place so that the positive effects of innovative thinking can flourish and not be suppressed by priggish bureaucrats blind to pioneering intellectual advancement.

Can you speak a bit about your own priorities as a political cartoonist? How do you decide which images are worth drawing? What causes require your skills?

Anarchy

 

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Dwayne Booth has been a freelance writer and cartoonist for twenty-five years, publishing under both his real name and the pen name of Mr. Fish with many of the nation’s most reputable and prestigious magazines, journals and newspapers. His work has appeared in Harper’s Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, the Village Voice, the LA Weekly, the Atlantic, The Nation, Vanity Fair, Mother Jones, the Advocate, Z Magazine, Slate.com, MSNBC.com and on Truthdig.com. In May 2008 he was presented with a first place award by the Los Angeles Press Club for editorial cartooning. In 2010 and 2011 he was awarded the Sigma Delta Chi Award for Editorial Cartooning from the Society of Professional Journalists. In 2012 he was awarded the Grambs Aronson Award for Cartooning with a Conscience. His most recent books are Go Fish: How to Win Contempt and Influence People, Akashic Books 2011, and WARNING! Graphic Content, Annenberg Press 2014. He is currently teaching at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

WARNING! Graphic Content: An Interview with Cartoonist Mr. Fish (Part Two)

I was intrigued by your discussion of the classic definition of cartoons as “preparatory renderings.” This is often seen as an archaic or secondary meaning of the concept of the cartoon, but you seem to see it as more closely linked to the kinds of political and culture work cartoons perform. Explain.

Yes, like I said in the book, the purpose of a cartoon, both as a preparatory drawing and as a finished piece of commentary published by a newspaper or a magazine, is never to embody perfection but rather to use imperfection to communicate possibility.

Specifically, a cartoon (both iterations of the word) is the beginning of a conversation on any given subject, not the final word, because it more reflects the deliberation over an emotion or an idea than it signifies a proselytizing conviction. To understand precisely what I’m describing, simply compare a propaganda poster that is designed to vilify an enemy or oversimplify a threat to humanity with a cartoon or a piece of fine art that is designed to challenge over-simplification and add complication to an issue so that it more accurately reflects the messiness and multiplicity of real life.

 

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While your book’s title suggests an exploration of “political cartoons” and “comix”, there is much work here which would not fit a narrow definition of these terms, including photographs, sculptures, performance art, live action and animated video, and traditional paintings. What accounts for such a surprisingly expansive selection of materials?

True, the book was initially conceived as a scholarly examination of the past, present and future of editorial cartooning but very early in the process, when I was forced to define what an editorial cartoon was prior to making any assertions about its history or purpose, I realized that the definition of the word “editorial” was the exposition of a personal opinion and that “cartooning” was merely the rendering of that opinion in a pictorial form, or at least in a form that wasn’t entirely lingual or literary, a definition that encapsulated other forms of artistic expression such as photography, sculpture, performance art, etc.

Can you say a bit about your process in creating this book, especially what you think you gained by creating such a nonlinear and multimedia text, as compared to doing a printed book? What models did you draw upon in imagining what kind of work you wanted to create? There are places here where I found myself thinking about works as diverse as McLuhan’s collaboration with Bucky Fuller, Peter Berger’s Ways of Seeing, or Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. But none of these have the affordances of digital media you drew upon.

It was always my intention to create a book that celebrated and examined art, not as a collection of precious historical artifacts or unique objects that require the context of chronology to have meaning or value, but as an actual living language that I would argue is the most precise and authentic form of communication yet devised by human beings.

Similarly, it was important for me to be able to present the material in such a way that reflected the diversity and expansiveness of art’s voluminous vocabulary, which meant that I needed it to move beyond the fixed confines of being just text and still images. (Reading sheet music is quite a different thing from listening to the sound of instruments being played.)

I also wanted the narrative of the book to reflect the unrestrained and scattered trajectory of every conversation I’ve ever had or overheard on the subject of both art and the meaning of life. To enter into a debate about Bauhaus design, for example, one should also be ready to talk about fascism, the Industrial Revolution, the Labor Movement, Expressionism, Haiku, the 1913 Armory Show, Phenomenology, Existentialism, Minimalism, IKEA, Marx, Upper Paleolithic stone carvings, 2001: A Space Odyssey and the very real difference between factualism and truth.

Both Marshall McLuhan and Berger’s Ways of Seeing were most definitely on my mind while writing this book, as was Wolfe’s The Painted Word, Mailer’s later collection, The Spooky Art and Donald Hall’s Life Work – so, too, was the work of Nietzsche, Fromm, Stephen Davies, Danto and others. In fact, I probably drew more on social philosophers and cultural critics than cartoonists and visual artists when trying to determine the function and significance of art.

 

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Your book’s title, which warns about its graphic content, seems at first to be ironic but the deeper you get into this work, the clearer it is that you have set out to publish many of the most controversial images ever published — in part as a celebration of the “uncensored artistic mind.” Were there images here which gave you pause or that presented challenges for your editors? How hard was it to produce a work that was as “uncensored” as this one seems to be?

None of the images contained in the book gave me pause, no. In fact, I just finished a unit on offensive art for a course that I’m teaching at the University of Pennsylvania where I assigned a paper that was designed to prove how the concept of obscenity is a socialized construct rather than an innate reaction to an external phenomenon. For the assignment I asked the students to search for a piece of art that was personally offensive to them and then they needed to defend its right to exist.

After the papers were turned in I asked them to tell me about the experience of searching for offensive art and they told me that the task was nearly impossible when they searched alone because nothing was truly offensive to them. Only when they looked for images with other people around did they feel shock or shame. The exercise was analogous to reading or writing or saying a dirty word while alone versus engaging with so-called obscene language while in a public space; the former inspiring no reaction whatsoever and the latter causing real and genuine discomfort, proving that obscenity, like patriotism, typically requires a herd mentality in order to be conjured.

I also explain to my students that it is in that private space, in that state of aloneness, wherein most artists conceive of their work, which is why some artwork can appear vulgar in its honesty or obscene beyond its intention when viewed in public. Bluntly put, you are more likely to pick your nose or scratch your ass without pause if you are alone than if you are in public and it is within that clarity of purpose and egoless satiation of a dilemma wherein an artist enunciates his or her undiluted utility most succinctly. (And that is why art as a language has greater potential to enlighten, because it operates with fewer restrictions and fearlessly accesses deeper troughs of knowledge with the blade of honesty than publically sanctioned methods.)

The only image from the book that presented any challenge to my editors was the photograph by Hans Bellmer of female genitalia titled I Am God. In fact, it was in danger of being removed unless I could somehow contextualize it within the narrative of my chapter about art that is difficult to look at. The solution, of course, was to add an author’s note that draw the parallel with Gustave Courbet’s famous 1866 painting of the same subject, which was titled The Origin of the World, thusly making the Bellmer piece legitimate by association.

Dwayne Booth has been a freelance writer and cartoonist for twenty-five years, publishing under both his real name and the pen name of Mr. Fish with many of the nation’s most reputable and prestigious magazines, journals and newspapers. His work has appeared in Harper’s Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, the Village Voice, the LA Weekly, the Atlantic, The Nation, Vanity Fair, Mother Jones, the Advocate, Z Magazine, Slate.com, MSNBC.com and on Truthdig.com. In May 2008 he was presented with a first place award by the Los Angeles Press Club for editorial cartooning. In 2010 and 2011 he was awarded the Sigma Delta Chi Award for Editorial Cartooning from the Society of Professional Journalists. In 2012 he was awarded the Grambs Aronson Award for Cartooning with a Conscience. His most recent books are Go Fish: How to Win Contempt and Influence People, Akashic Books 2011, and WARNING! Graphic Content, Annenberg Press 2014. He is currently teaching at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

WARNING! Graphic Content: An Interview with Political Cartoonist Mr. Fish (Part One)

Amongst the many cartoons produced in response to the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, the one which has stuck most powerfully in my memory is one produced by Joe Sacco, the comics journalist whose book, Palestine, sought to tell another side of the story of the occupied territory, one less often heard in the United States. Sacco saw himself as having certain responsibilities in this incident to challenge the dominant frame, and the result was a searing mediation on the power of images.  Like others, he defended the right of cartoonists to use whatever images they wanted, but he also wanted people to reflect on the impact such images had, depicting “a black man falling out of  a tree with a banana in his hand,” “a Jew counting his money,” and images inspired by Abu Girab, among other controversial icons.  Sacco writes, “When we draw a line, we are often crossing one too. Because lines on paper are a weapon and satire is meant to cut to the bone. But whose bone? What exactly is the target? And why?”

As I encountered Sacco’s cartoon, I was reminded of Warning! Graphic Content, a rich and provocative e-book, published by USC’s Annenberg Press last fall. The author, Dwayne Booth, the cartoonist who publishes his work under the name, Mr. Fish, at such publications as Harper’s Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, the Village Voice, the LA Weekly, the Atlantic, The Nation, Vanity Fair, Mother Jones, the Advocate, Z Magazine, Slate.com, MSNBC.com and on Truthdig.com.

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Fish reflects on the art and craft of political image-making via a long, sprawling, image-rich, multimedia essay.  This book is impossible to describe … or to forget. Every page includes images that are designed to cut to the quick, images that have been some of the most controversial ever produced, images that force us to think about what they have to say, yes, but also about their power (and a right) to say it. There is something here that is sure to disturb you, but what that is, where we draw the line, is going to differ from reader to reader, and that’s the core of the book’s argument.

Mr. Fish is a cartoonist who doesn’t know his place, quickly abandoning a focus on editorial and political cartoons, and taking us through the full range of artistic expression, as he seeks to encourage us to think more deeply about how art can serve as a provocation or challenge to conventional ways of thinking, about how art can disrupt (or reinforce) the power of the status quo. So, here you will find ideas about propaganda, stereotypes, and a range of phobias, but also ideas about transgression and liberation.

 

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If you want to download a copy of this multimedia experience, you can do so here.

The moment I saw this book, I reached out to Mr. Fish to see if we could do an interview for my blog.  So, in what follows, you will be able to learn more about his thinking and his work.

 

You begin the book with a note describing the dramatic decline of the number of editorial cartoonists working in American Journalism today, compared to the way this function thrived at the start of the 20th century. What factors do you think have contributed to this decline and what do you see as its consequences, especially given the many examples you offer across the book who distributed their art through channels other than established publication?

Broadly speaking, I think there are two major factors that have contributed to the demise of the editorial cartoonist as a viable and sought after contributor to the national debate regarding news, politics and culture over the last hundred years. The first and most obvious is the concentration of media ownership and the elimination of independent voices by the formation of publishing and broadcast oligopolies whose power and influence derive from their disdain for creative competition and dissent. Through corporate mergers and outright acquisition of media outlets by companies motivated by the procurement of profit above all else, the very mission of the free press to inform, enlighten, agitate and educate has, over time, become less about serving the public good and more about catering to the demands and expectations of multinational corporations who have an active contempt for a diversity of viewpoints, in particular those that undermine the revenue-centric values of advertisers, shareholders and, by proxy, the consumers who revere and respect the absolute power of the marketplace. As a result, the propagation of any idea deemed inappropriate by the business and political elite for which the publishing industry serves and advocates for is prohibited, hence, the power and purpose of the editorial cartoonist as an agitator and outspoken critic of partisanship and complacency is recognized as a liability rather than an asset when it comes to servicing the ways and means of the revised version of the Fourth Estate.

The second reason why cartoonists can no longer earn a living wage is, of course, due to the total collapse of the print media industry and the inability of online publishers to pay contributors for content, having not yet figured out a financial model that is self-sustaining. And while the aforementioned consequences to the profession of editorial cartooning are certainly devastating, they have no effect whatsoever on the drive and instinct of the visual artist for whom graphic radicalism and pictorial civil disobedience are his or her best weapon against systemic injustice and institutionalized dogmatism made harmless by the status quo.

As it’s always been, the best and most insightful visual art has never appeared in newspapers, nor has it been produced by cartoonists for mainstream publication if only because the very definition of the mainstream insists on pulled punches and language that has been compromised for taste and easy digestion.

 

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Some have seen web comics as an important new space where young artists are expressing their visions without needing to go through traditional gatekeepers. Do you see the web as offering opportunities for the kinds of subversive visions you are seeking across the book?

I tend to see the internet as being roughly equivalent to the old party lines offered by the telephone company through the middle of the last century, where multiple parties had equal access to the same phone line and could speak communally or eavesdrop on conversations without reveling themselves. Of course, where there were merely dozens of voices involved with telephone party lines, there are billions involved with the Internet, although I’d argue that there is likely an identical breakdown of meaningful vs. meaningless conversation associated with both.

That said, I do believe that while there are no more subversive visionaries eager to share their genius with the online world than there were deep thinkers to blow the minds of party line listeners, I do believe that the illusion of privacy inherent with online interactions might be inspiring more contemplative listeners and viewers, which is significant.

Previous to the invention of the Internet, radical art drew very few spectators as it was necessary for the viewer to either travel to the location of the actual painting or drawing, or to be seen purchasing a facsimile of it from a store or checking it out from a library, all of which was as a very public proclamation of interest in the controversial subject matter with which the work was associated, something that was ferociously discouraged by the dominant culture and decent society.

Does having access to a larger audience than ever before allow an artist to influence either members of a society or the architects of power any more than previous artists who were known to fewer people in the past? I’ve seen no real evidence of that. If anything, in fact, I’d say that the Internet has neutered political protest and dissent by isolating and individualizing the experience of ‘revolution’ and making the likeminded community of fist-raising comrades virtual and not publically demonstrated.

The same is true for television: there are likely more well-informed critics of the federal government nowadays than there was 20 years ago, given the work of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, yet the likelihood of genuine political revolt or organized protest is no greater than it ever was because the experience of outrage aimed at buffoonish and corrupt leaders is isolated and practiced in private as mere entertainment consumption.

Dwayne Booth has been a freelance writer and cartoonist for twenty-five years, publishing under both his real name and the pen name of Mr. Fish with many of the nation’s most reputable and prestigious magazines, journals and newspapers. His work has appeared in Harper’s Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, the Village Voice, the LA Weekly, the Atlantic, The Nation, Vanity Fair, Mother Jones, the Advocate, Z Magazine, Slate.com, MSNBC.com and on Truthdig.com. In May 2008 he was presented with a first place award by the Los Angeles Press Club for editorial cartooning. In 2010 and 2011 he was awarded the Sigma Delta Chi Award for Editorial Cartooning from the Society of Professional Journalists. In 2012 he was awarded the Grambs Aronson Award for Cartooning with a Conscience. His most recent books are Go Fish: How to Win Contempt and Influence People, Akashic Books 2011, and WARNING! Graphic Content, Annenberg Press 2014. He is currently teaching at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

Peru’s Digital Futures: An Interview with Anita Say Chan (Part Two)

 

Can you talk a bit about the role which gossip and rumor plays in your book? How might we think about the social networks that get expressed through gossip in relation to the more technologically-based networks that we often think about in discussing new media?

Gossip and rumor here were local means of contesting the dominant narratives around information age reform being pushed from the state and empowered development institutions. I draw here from postcolonial theory and framings of gossip and rumor as means of being able to contend with colonial narratives by subaltern actors. Part of my leveraging of postcolonial theory to frame the workings of rumor and gossip in this particular context of information age production was to offer a distinct framings of gossip and rumor than the version which typically gets focused upon when they are taken up as topics in digital studies.

These conventional framings in digital studies take for granted gossip’s circulation within a Western, advanced consumer society context, where rumor and gossip are typically framed as false news, or commodities manufactured for consumption, or tools to drive online consumer traffic. That rumor and gossip might have other functions, including operating as imagined foils rather than aids to market flows, or that they might function as attempts to add “noise” to the over-amplified narrative and signal of the state, is easily overlooked. There’s clearly plenty to gain, though, from bringing the insights of postcolonial theory into interface with information studies and digital ethnography.

In many ways, your book deals with the comparisons in how two internationalizing discourses collide with the local in Peru — the first has to do with neoiberalism and global markets, the second has to do with Open Software and the development of a kind of global hacker culture. Can you discuss the similarities and differences in these developments and especially in terms of the intersections between global and local concerns?

Part of what I intrigued me about the state’s approach to information society-based initiatives in Peru, was the means by which both urban free software geeks and hackers and rural artisan communities could be targeted as ideal subjects for reform, as well as ideal partners for the Peruvian state in extending and extolling the gains of its new ICT-based plans. In other words, communities that in many ways might look radically distinct from and even opposite to one another – one party representing the height of dynamic information age expertise and future development, and the other representing slow tradition and indigenous craft from the rural provinces – could be simultaneously summoned and targeted as key partners in economic development for the information age Peruvian state.

The key here seemed to turn on the means by which knowledge work and knowledge production could be framed. And while there is a large and significant literature on technology policy in the global south that emphasizes the north as the template from which technology policy and practice get copied, here we see something somewhat more nuanced unfolding within the state logic. Definitions of knowledge work and knowledge production were rather craftily and savvily understood by Peruvian government actors to encompass “traditional and indigenous” knowledge” production as well as high-tech coding and engineering work.

And while this might sound like a rather progressive advancement, I unpack in the book how such heightened investment and targeting by the state brings about rather complicated and not always promising outcomes for traditional artisan communities or networked geek and free software advocacy communities alike.

As you note, out of 40 countries who invested in the One Laptop Per Child initiative, Peru was the only one which came close to meeting the 1 million units that the foundation had demanded as the minimum commitment when the project launched in 2005. This makes Peru an important test site not only for the One Laptop Per Child project but also some of the underlying assumptions about technological change that informed it. Based on your research, what would you tell the folks at MIT who advocated for this project about what did and did not work in Peru?

To take more seriously the experience and wealth of expertise of their local partners, and not to make the conventional and all too oft-repeated mistake of presuming that the knowledge of the world’s most elite engineers is sufficient to conquer any and every global problem or situation. The global spaces where new technological deployments aim to travel today are obviously complex terrains – geographically, culturally, historically and politically – where the knowledge and experience of local partners are not only complementary, but are deeply necessary to successfully sustain any new technological deployment.

These are sites too, where the presumptions of cosmopolitan designers and engineers, no matter how well trained and globally literate, just can’t always be taken for granted. I was surprised to see how lightly deployment engineers and technicians frequently took such considerations, and how little was often invested into gaining an understanding of the layered local histories and cultural complexities of distinct deployment sites.

It was rather common to find OLPC designers, including ones who considered themselves to be invested in deployment sites in Peru, who knew very little of the knowledge and cultural practices of indigenous communities where deployments could be situated; or who knew little of recent political conflicts and uprisings in opposition to contemporary policies of the state that impacted other local deployment zones.

As a simple example of how large such local knowledge gaps were, there were situations in observing the deployment of the One Laptop Per Child Project in Peru, for instance, where highly respected lead engineers on projects entered rural communities expecting to pay for purchases with a credit card, and this was literally several years after OLPC deployments in Peru had already begun.

Gaining mutual understandings around differences in technological uses and literacies, is key and requires hard work. And as important is the work necessary to gain mutual understandings and literacies in the deeply layered cultural, political, and historical contexts that deployments are bringing designers into intimate contact with.

Your analysis of the open software movement in Peru comes to hinge on the transformative potential of play. What are some of the ways that play was conceptualized in Peru and how did playing with technologies open up space for imagining change at an institutional level?

It’s no secret that there’s been quite a lot of hype around the means by which the Internet economy fosters creative work and spaces that accommodate individual freedom, play, and flexibility. The fantastic narratives that surround Google campuses as play spaces – as well as their hyper mediation in the popular press — epitomize such framings, that arguably build towards a kind of “end of labor” narrative. And even while studies show that leading Internet companies like Google and Amazon – actually have among the highest rates of worker turnover and employment instability among all Fortune 500 companies, the notion that the digital economy somehow fosters the most ideal work conditions that can bring about an end to the problems of discontent and exploited labor, persists.

Against these popular framings, there is a growing and much needed scholarly literature on the expansion of playbour and the blurring lines between play and labor in the digital economy. This scholarship critiques, rather than celebrates, the undoing of the binary between the two supposedly polarized poles of play and labor, and has emphasized how play logics can actually operate to enable a more efficient extraction of labor from knowledge workers.

My research on play in Peruvian geek and free software networks revealed some distinct developments around “play” instead – which lead me to draw less from political economic framings of labor, and to instead draw from psychoanalytic, critical theory and anthropological framings of play. These framings emphasize play as a kind of liminal space and condition – one that enables “the real” and the “given” to be tested by actors, to imagine the “world as otherwise” — and that thus understands a certain degree of interpretive work being done, as well as potential for social transformation, that are contained within conditions of play.

You could see the free software community members in Peru grappling with these dynamics of play in some of my chapters. Another clear contemporary example of the means by which digital publics in Peru also engage these dynamics of play are in the massive social movements and street protests that literally overwhelmed the public spaces in Peru in protest of Ley Pulpin (the formerly passed labor law I mentioned earlier).

Just as spectacular as the wave upon wave of massive street protests, were the massive waves of online traffic, social media exchanges, and multiplying hashtags that the law’ critics used to denounce the law – and here, it was primarily online satire, satirical memes, absurd jokes and political humor – that blend the popular aesthetics with the popular accessibility of digital networks to express political critique. See for example.

This was a tactic adopted by AnonOps Peru hackers and average citizens alike. And indeed, after nearly two months of massive unrest that filled the streets (and social media networks) with amplified protesting voices, the new labor law was finally overturned. The same networks are still engaged in political organizing in response to a range of other pressing national issues, ranging from labor rights to media content and censorship. It’s yet another sign, among the others the book highlights, of other technological futures being struggled for by a range of diverse publics at the so-called “periphery” and beyond.

 

Anita Say Chan is an Assistant Research Professor of Communications and an Assistant Professor of Media Studies in the Department of Media and Cinema Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Her research and teaching interests include globalization and digital cultures, innovation networks and the “periphery”, science and technology studies in Latin America, and hybrid pedagogies and collaborative research for the digital humanities. Her manuscript on the competing imaginaries of global connection and information technologies in network-age Peru, Networking Peripheries: Technological Futures and the Myth of Digital Universalism was published with MIT Press in 2014. Her research has been awarded support from the Center for the Study of Law & Culture at Columbia University’s School of Law and the National Science Foundation, and she has held postdoctoral fellowships at The CUNY Graduate Center’s Committee on Globalization & Social Change, and at Stanford University’s Introduction to Humanities Program.

Peru’s Digital Futures: An Interview with Anita Say Chan (Part One)

The language we use to talk about the World Wide Web is often universalizing: the web is seen as exhibit one in the argument that the world is flat, thanks to the ability of messages to travel from any point to any other point. For others, the Web is an Americanizing force, one which has made English an even more pervasive language among the world’s youth than ever before, one which is transforming governments and altering cultures without regard to the desires of local residents.

Anita Say Chan’s Networking Peripheries: Technological Futures and the Myth of Digital Universalism adopts a position somewhere in between in part by starting with a straight forward but surprisingly rare move — she shifts the attention away from the digital cultures of North America and Europe, focusing instead on what the coming of the web has meant in the context of the global south and in particular, in the context of Peru. Her focus shifts chapter by chapter, from the stories of indigenous artisans struggling over what the future of their craft is going to look like to the saga how the One Laptop per Child initiative got taken up in rural classrooms. Her approach is skeptical, but not cynical, about claims of digital advocates that all of these changes are for the best, being attentive to shifts in local autonomy and the impact on who has power within the culture.  She writes about the impact of new media on traditional and emerging forms of intellectual property with an ethnographic perspective, one which is attentive to both universalizing and localizing forces on how people live their everyday lives.  Chan shows us the power that comes from de-centering the study of new media, from understanding media change from the peripheries.

Chan was a classmate of Candis Callison, whose book on climate change I featured on my blog last week. Chan and Callison were contemporaries entering our Comparative Media Studies Masters Program at MIT — the second cohort admitted to the program. I was lucky enough to watch them grow as media scholars and then to be able to turn them over to the faculty at MIT’s PhD Program in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society. Both of them have published their first books in recent months, and it’s a great pleasure to be sharing some of Chan’s thoughts via this interview.

 

You begin the book’s preface with this core question: “Why study digital culture and information technology (IT) in Peru?” And you take much of the book to fully address it. Can you provide us a brief overview of your response here?

Briefly, I underscore how that very question originates from a perspective on IT and the digital – one that’s changing, but still dominant – that presumes that there is a single digital future in the making that naturally extends from given centers of innovation and engineering, like Silicon Valley, MIT or Stanford. And according to this perspective, it’s this single digital future in the making that somehow, inevitably awaits the rest of the world.

This kind of imaginary, and the taken-for-grantedness of spaces like Silicon Valley as the center of the digital universe and its universalizing future, operates so powerfully that it’s easy to forget that even with Silicon Valley based companies like Twitter and Facebook, most of their user bases (and thus increasingly, revenue futures) lie well outside of the US; that the number 1 tweeting city in 2012 was nowhere near Silicon Valley, but was in fact Jakarta, Indonesia , and that statistics show that native English speakers online will soon be (and likely already are) outnumbered by Chinese native speakers. Yet despite such clear developments, there still remains a powerful presumption that sites like Silicon Valley are behind the digital future that naturally awaits us all.

In the book, I argue that the kind of thinking expresses a kind of Digital Universalism that disguises the means which elite designers and entrepreneurs of the IT world’s leading corporations work to promote and circulate it – whether in the pages of Wired magazine or across any number of TED conference stages. It also disguises the diverse imaginaries and investments around the digital that are cropping up all over the world, including in Peru, from diverse civil society actors – but that are easy to overlook when we focus our attention only on those coming out of just a handful of innovation centers.

Peru, for instance, was the among the first countries to propose national legislation for the use of free and open source software in public office in 2001. It was the first nation chosen by the United Nations to host its conference on the use of free and open source software in Latin America and the Caribbean in 2003. It became the largest national partner for the MIT-launched One Laptop Per Child educational laptop initiative in the late 2000s, when it pledged to deploy nearly 1 million XOs to classrooms across the rural provinces and cities alike. And AnonOps Peru, the Peruvian branch of the networked collective Anonymous, has been especially active helping to mobilize the massive waves of protests that just managed to overturn a new labor law, Ley Nº30288, known popularly as Ley Pulpin (that targeted youth workers, and that many interpreted to be an erosion of labor rights overall) — after city streets all over the country were filled with protestors in week after week of sustained demonstrations.

Your book’s title includes the evocative phrase, “the myth of digital universalism.” What do you mean by this? Where does this myth come from? And in what ways does your book debunk this myth?

Simply put, there are many digital futures, constantly in the making by a diverse range of actors, including those at the “periphery” of innovation centers, but who are far from simply passive recipients of a digital destiny supposedly being made for them from elsewhere. Digital Universalism distorts our perception of how diverse (and still undetermined) those investments around the digital really are by insisting that we keep our attention focused only and exclusively on future visions being spun out from centers of digital innovation. We shouldn’t forget how powerfully such a message operates when it’s directly promoted and reinforced by some of the tech world’s most powerful and seductive corporate leaders and entrepreneurs, who today, have not only become household names worldwide – but who often take on the roles of global ambassadors or sorts, arranging one on one meetings with government leaders that seemingly overnight, can turn their own visions of the technological future into nationally deployed policy.

My own work has been to disrupt such limited but repeatedly amplified visions of a technological future, by turning a spotlight on the many diverse imaginaries and investments around the digital that we find cropping up at the so-called “periphery,” and from diverse civil society actors. In Peru, this includes some of the parties I highlight in the book: rural artisans recruited as partners for new intellectual property for development programs; urban geeks and hackers working around free software advocacy networks; and collaborations around digital education projects in the Andes that bring the expertise of indigenous language activists, rural teachers, and free software coders into novel interfacings.

You use the example of what happens to ceramics craftspeople in Chulucanas to explore the ways that the neoliberal agendas of nation-states in regard to IP and IT can have unintended consequences on the grounds for the lives of rural and indigenous populations. What can we learn from looking at this particular example? In what sense was the outcome “not brave but brutal”?

The chapter highlights the ways that radical, neoliberal policy reforms and the demands of information age economic transformation can be narrated by their promoters as indeed, heroic, brave, and necessary. What’s striking is how such policy promoters can acknowledge that the kinds of reforms they advance might be deeply disruptive (or even largely destructive) of other social resources, established traditions or institutions, but how they can at once insist that the scale of market optimizations projected – ones that are almost always narrated as promising not only reform, but economic salvation – will ultimately be worth the price of destruction.

In Chulucanas, what we actually saw were family and kinship networks — the kinds of social support networks that artisans traditionally relied upon for ceramics production — devastated, following the state’s initiative to push intellectual property titlings as a means to reform traditional craft production for export in the village. Distrust and pitched competition between artisans grew palpably, and traditional production practices that had been maintained as a regional knowledge practice and tradition since the literally thousand of years when the pre-Colombian Vicus and Tallan civilization settled northern Peru’s coasts, eroded in the interest of newly optimized, export-scaled production. It that sense, such contemporary reform policies were quite literally brutal.

 

Anita Say Chan is an Assistant Research Professor of Communications and an Assistant Professor of Media Studies in the Department of Media and Cinema Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Her research and teaching interests include globalization and digital cultures, innovation networks and the “periphery”, science and technology studies in Latin America, and hybrid pedagogies and collaborative research for the digital humanities. Her manuscript on the competing imaginaries of global connection and information technologies in network-age Peru, Networking Peripheries: Technological Futures and the Myth of Digital Universalism was published with MIT Press in 2014. Her research has been awarded support from the Center for the Study of Law & Culture at Columbia University’s School of Law and the National Science Foundation, and she has held postdoctoral fellowships at The CUNY Graduate Center’s Committee on Globalization & Social Change, and at Stanford University’s Introduction to Humanities Program.

How Diverse Publics Understand Climate Change: An Interview with Candis Callison (Part Three)

As you note, there has been a struggle throughout much of the 20th century between fundamentalist Christianity and science, particularly around the topic of evolution, but also around issues of sexuality and reproductive rights. How have some evangelical leaders been able to reconcile a concern for climate change with skepticism about what their members often see as the “ideological” nature of modern science?

One of the groups I interviewed were the leaders behind Creation Care, which was a kind of sub-movement at the time of my research in the mid to late 2000s. These were the same people who had worked on “What would Jesus drive?” a highly successful campaign to turn transportation into “a moral issue” for Christian communities.

What one of these leaders told me explicitly is that who is speaking matters to a great extent in terms of establishing the credibility of climate change as a concern within evangelical communities. He called it “blessing the facts,” and told me that the right “messengers” were required in order for evangelicals to take climate change seriously as an issue of concern that required their involvement and action. Climate change for many evangelicals is caught up in politics, science, and environmentalism, and he argued that such messengers are required in order to steer through all of that and make it about “stewardship” and part of the moral and spiritual obligation of Christians.

In some cases, this means mobilizing evangelical leaders, but in other cases, it means bringing in scientists who are also Christians. For example, the head of Working Group 1 for the 2001 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports is an active and vocal evangelical and a leading scientist. The history of evangelicals with evolution debates and court cases in the U.S. still matter to many, but it isn’t a central issue in need of resolving for those working on climate change. Rather, those I spoke with sought to rearticulate concern for the environment from and within Biblical frameworks hence the term, Creation Care as an alternative to environmentalism.

This goes back to the earlier point I raised about vernaculars. Those who ‘bless the facts’ aren’t rubber-stamping the science; it’s a much different and more nuanced process based on the moral and ethical contours of climate change. The credibility of messengers, as adjudicators of truth and of what’s meaningful within a Christian context, enable them to articulate climate change as a real and science-based issue that needs to be taken seriously because of what the Bible says about taking care of the poor, caring for Creation, etc. So the scientific facts do matter, but they also come with historical and political baggage, and facts by themselves are not an exclusive route to establishing why climate change should be taken seriously.

Many discussions of the climate change debate posit corporate America primarily as villains, who promote skepticism about climate change claims as a means of protecting their own economic interests or defending their current practices. Yet you also point towards a number of corporate efforts to combat climate change. How effective have these efforts been? When and how do they move beyond what some have called “greenwashing”? How are they able to reconcile support for environmental reform with the profit motives which drive Wall Street?

In the book, I look closely at the work undertaken by Ceres, a Boston based corporate social responsibility organization. They aren’t the only group working on climate change and CSR, but they are one of the leading voices, having focused on this issue since the early 2000s.

Ceres was fascinating for me because it took me out of the world of religion, human and indigenous rights, journalism, science, and democratic obligations and into a radically different set of societal institutions where profit, risk, and investment are the key terms. What Ceres has worked to achieve is a transformation of concerns about climate change into investor concerns that may affect future profits and the stability of corporations. Climate change presents a risk to investors that must be accounted for and managed, and Ceres uses a range of mechanisms to help companies articulate these risks related to climate change as well as the actions they are taking to mitigate these risks.

This discursive shift from climate change to climate risk has produced a powerful response within financial frameworks. It’s not without some critique from those who think Ceres could require more from the range of companies they deal with – particularly those whose bottom line is predicated on contributing to carbon emissions. However, mobilizing a business vernacular in order to reframe climate change as a problem that companies must address is an innovative way of moving towards what Ceres hopes will be increasingly progressive corporate action.

There is a tendency to discuss science in terms of rationality and facts, yet throughout your book, you point to the importance of faith, ethics, morality, and other “softer” human values in shaping how and why people embrace or reject such arguments. How might we develop arguments that better bridge between science and faith, rationality and emotion, pragmatism and morality when thinking about these issues?

In considering climate change as only (or primarily) a science-based or science-laden issue, deeper ethical and moral discussions about our relationships to the natural world and to each other often get lost. This doesn’t mean that scientific findings aren’t vital to understanding climate change, but rather: for broad and diverse publics to come to care about the issue and care enough to take actions about it, climate change needs to become much more than a scientific concern.

In the book, I refer to this as the persistent “double bind” related to climate change – where in order for a rationale to act on the issue to emerge, we must maintain fidelity to scientific findings and move beyond them at the same time in order to explore moral and ethical contours related to the issue.

Recognizing the power of social affiliations and networks and accompanying moral and ethical concerns alongside evidence-based analyses and predictions does take us towards a potentially robust and even more rambunctious public discourse. We have yet to develop the kinds of digital and/or other mechanisms that would actively facilitate this discourse. We’re barely past the gate in terms of thinking beyond a broadcast model of news and information, and in terms of contending with differing epistemologies.

I do think there are glimmers of hope here and there as social movements like Occupy and Idle No More (a Canadian indigenous-led movement) demonstrate in various ways both in terms of their use of media and in bringing together varied groups. My hope is that this book contributes to broader thinking about the social and communal life of facts, and to contending with what it means to have shared goals without shared assumptions about how evidence has come to matter.

 

Candis Callison is an Assistant Professor at the University of British Columbia in the Graduate School of Journalism. She holds a Ph.D. in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology and Society and a Master of Science in Comparative Media Studies — both from MIT. Her research and teaching are currently focused on changes to media practices and platforms, journalism ethics, the role of social movements in public discourse, and understanding how issues related to science and technology become meaningful for diverse publics. Her new book, How Climate Change Comes to Matter: The Communal Life of Facts (Duke University Press, 2014) uses ethnographic methods and a comparative lens to bring together the work of professional and social groups working to engage diverse publics in an American context. Building in part on this research, Candis has recently begun new research looking at Arctic-based journalism in an era of environmental change, digital media, and global audiences. She is also midway through two research projects that investigate how social networking technologies like Facebook and Twitter are being used both by indigenous communities and by the indigenous-led social movement, Idle No More in Canada. Prior to her academic life, Candis worked as a journalist in Canada and the U.S. for television, radio, and early incarnations of the Internet (think dialup and early broadband). She is a member of the Tahltan Nation located in Northwestern British Columbia.

How Diverse Publics Understand Climate Change: An Interview with Candis Callison (Part Two)

You argue that part of the problems is that scientists and journalists have conflicting professional ideologies, which prohibit both groups from being strong advocates for the importance of climate change and the values of any particular plan of action. Explain.

What initially got me interested in thinking about climate change were the debates I had encountered between scientists and journalists about whose fault it was that the public didn’t care (enough) about climate change. Yet, when I began researching this problem, I encountered a lot more common ground between scientists and journalists than might be obvious at first glance, particularly in regards to observing and negotiating with professional expectations of objectivity, distance, and independence.

Encountering the findings of climate change – whether as a scientific researcher or journalists, produces a variety of responses for many that I talked to for this book. For some, there is an absolute obligation as a citizen or as an expert to do something about the predictions related to climate change. For others, there is an obligation to speak about the findings only. Some scientists reach out directly to the public or work through social groups, or even more simply, just endeavor to return the call of reporters.

I came up with the term “near-advocacy” as a way of discussing and acknowledging the wide spectrum of responses that emerge as a result of knowing the facts related to climate change (and often as well, knowing what isn’t known and the long tale of unlikely probabilities that create some of the gravest concerns). Advocacy is a still “a third-rail” for many high level professionals who work in science and journalism. Most don’t want to be associated with or slotted into left or right politics such that their credibility as science experts or journalists is compromised. And yet, these same professionals are often the ones most able to speak about the state of climate change findings and predictions. Navigating what has become a very tricky political and politicized terrain is definitely not for those who lack conviction about the role of science in society.

You note that journalists often struggle with the need to distinguish their role in informing the public with other potential functions such as educating the public about science or advocating for particular policy changes. Why have these functions proven so challenging to work through in relation to climate change? How does the climate change debate bring into sharper profile questions about how journalism functions in the contemporary media landscape?

One of the funniest metaphors I encountered that captures the challenges journalists face was from a journalist who described reporting on climate change as akin to “parking your car under a bunch of starlings.” Whenever I quote this in a talk, I always show a car covered in bird shit and get a good laugh.

It’s poignant on a bunch of different levels because it demonstrates the ways in which journalists enter into rambunctious, concerned, and diverse debates when they report on this issue. I argue that this not only speaks to the kind of issue climate change is, but also to the changing structures, norms, and practices facing journalists as a result of the rise of digital media.

Journalists are now not only expected to report on issues and put information out on a 24/7 basis, but they are increasingly expected to be verifiers and chief discussants. Journalistic methods and approaches as well as the facts they relay have never been more open to public scrutiny. In this sense, climate change is an exemplary issue with much at stake in terms of public engagement, policy, and the circulation of information.

Much of the concern about how climate change is reported on stems from the persistence of climate change denial and mis-information — despite the widespread scientific consensus that climate change is a very real problem with a range of predictions and probabilities. For journalists, the spectre of denial is something they have to contend with constantly whether in response to stories or in the choice of experts. This past year at least one major science publication closed off its comment sections after stories, citing the response to climate change stories in particular.

Recent research has shown that this kind of debate does seem to affect public perception of whether there is scientific consensus, but I also think it’s vital to develop much better digital tools for dealing with these kinds of problems related to public debate and engagement. Shutting off comment sections doesn’t solve the issue, nor does it reflect the robust commitment to democratic discourse that many, including me, argue is required particularly on contentious and far-reaching issues like climate change.

You start your discussion with a consideration of the roles which indigenous peoples, especially those who live in the Arctic region, are playing in informing the climate change debate. What value do you think these forms of indigenous knowledge contribute ? In what ways have their voices been hi-jacked by other players and through what means have they learned to be more effective at speaking for their own interests?

When the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA) was released in the early 2000s, it received a lot of attention because of the kinds of predictions it made about how climate change would affect polar regions. It also represented one of the first major and comprehensive attempts to combine indigenous knowledge with scientific knowledge. Indigenous knowledge about the natural world comes out of a different system, tradition, and methodology so this kind of work – bringing scientific and indigenous knowledge together is not an insignificant challenge. In the book, I look at this challenge from varied perspectives, recognizing the diverse ways in which traditional knowledge offers important insights both historically and currently.

What initially got me interested in the Arctic was the human rights claim that was brought by Inuit leaders and elders before the Inter-American Human Rights Commission. The claim was intended not only to put indigenous experiences with climate change in the Arctic before a wide public, but also to confront U.S. policymakers regarding their inaction on the very real and ongoing effects related to climate change. As the ACIA had shown and as much of the testimony offered by Inuit hunters and leaders articulated very powerfully in the claim, their ways of life, their means to support their communities, and their culture were being drastically affected by changes to sea ice, permafrost, and other environmental changes.

I come from an indigenous family, and my father is a longtime hunter and outfitter in my First Nation in northern B.C. so these kinds of stories captured my attention immediately. But, when I began to speak to Inuit leaders, I also began to see that climate change, while being a huge issue, was also the latest in a long line of challenges that have required their communities to deal with scientific researchers, media, geopolitics, resource development, and multiple national interests. The book provides a glimpse into how Inuit leaders were navigating both the needs and conversations going on at the level of villages and regions as well as transnational networks and discourses in order to influence Arctic policies and decision-making.

Candis Callison is an Assistant Professor at the University of British Columbia in the Graduate School of Journalism. She holds a Ph.D. in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology and Society and a Master of Science in Comparative Media Studies — both from MIT. Her research and teaching are currently focused on changes to media practices and platforms, journalism ethics, the role of social movements in public discourse, and understanding how issues related to science and technology become meaningful for diverse publics. Her new book, How Climate Change Comes to Matter: The Communal Life of Facts (Duke University Press, 2014) uses ethnographic methods and a comparative lens to bring together the work of professional and social groups working to engage diverse publics in an American context. Building in part on this research, Candis has recently begun new research looking at Arctic-based journalism in an era of environmental change, digital media, and global audiences. She is also midway through two research projects that investigate how social networking technologies like Facebook and Twitter are being used both by indigenous communities and by the indigenous-led social movement, Idle No More in Canada. Prior to her academic life, Candis worked as a journalist in Canada and the U.S. for television, radio, and early incarnations of the Internet (think dialup and early broadband). She is a member of the Tahltan Nation located in Northwestern British Columbia.

 

 

How Diverse Publics Understand Climate Change: An Interview with Candis Callison (Part One)

The debate about climate change can often seem perplexing for those of us who take the foundations of modern science seriously.  We can become deeply cynical about why certain players refuse to accept “established truths” and become frustrated by the inability of governments to act decisively to curtail behaviors that are helping to create long-term “risks” for the future of humanity and the planet. Yet, we are never going to make progress in such debates, Candis Callison argues, unless we understand what she calls “the communal life of facts,” unless we develop a deeper understanding of the different epistemological commitments held by diverse players in this argument. Candis Callison’s recently released book, How Climate Change Comes to Matter: The Communal Life of Facts, is a spectacular example of how ethnographic work, especially work informed by the science, technology, and society perspective, might inform our ongoing debates around the environment.
Here’s what I said in a blurb for the book:

“A gifted storyteller who brings enormous empathy and nuance to each group she documents, Candis Callison depicts the current discursive struggles over climate change, as such diverse players as corporate responsibility advocates, evangelical Christians, and Inuit tribal leaders, not to mention scientists and journalists, seek to reconcile the need for dramatic change with their existing sets of professional norms and cultural values. This is essential reading for anyone who wants to better understand how science gets refracted across an increasingly diverse media landscape and for anyone who wants to understand how they might be more effective at changing entrenched beliefs and practices.”

Callison’s work ultimately raises core questions around the public communication of science, sharing insights around how advocates and activists might transform this debate. Before she gets there, she seeks first to understand in subtle and complicated ways why these various players believe what they take to be true about our relationships with the natural world. As she does so, she develops a robust account of different  “vernacular” models of climate change that have to be aligned before we can make progress in dealing with these concerns. We are speaking past each other because we see the world in such fundamentally different ways and we will never convince each other unless we understand the diverse languages through which this debate is being conducted. This books makes an important intervention into what remains one of the central controversies of our time.

I read this book with much personal satisfaction. I had been lucky enough to work with Candis Callison, when she was a masters student in the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program more than a decade ago, having come to us with an already established professional career as an award-winning journalist. She went on to complete her PhD in Science, Technology, and Society, also at MIT. She is now  an Assistant Professor at the University of British Columbia in the Graduate School of Journalism and How Climate Change Comes to Matter is her first book, based in part on her dissertation research. Callison was already an intellectual leader in her graduate cohort  in part because of the enormous respect the faculty and other students had for her deep ethical and political commitments, including her desire to use her scholarship in the service of the indigenous community where she grew up in Canada.  I am so proud of the kind of scholar she has become.

Your introduction suggests that you are seeking to better understand a range of vernacular accounts of climate change. How are you defining vernaculars and what do you see as the relationship between scientific expertise and these more popular modes of describing environmental issues?

First of all, thanks for reading my book and for the kind words you say about it. I’m deeply grateful I got to start my graduate life at MIT in Comparative Media Studies. CMS and your Media Theory class are what started me on a path to thinking more broadly about the many and diverse roles media play in, with, and around public engagement.

I started contemplating using the term, vernacular, because of what I experienced when I talked with people who were actively working to mobilize their concerns about climate change. The ways they were talking about climate change drew to a great extent on how they experienced the world, what mattered to them, and how they conceived of a future they wanted for themselves, their social group – and often, for society as well.

The way I’m using the term vernacular borrows from linguistics, philosophy, and anthropology in order to describe these processes I saw unfolding during my fieldwork. How climate change comes to be meaningful outside of a scientific context depends on how it gets talked about and reframed/reformatted/recontextualized within what people are already concerned about. So, for example, Inuit leaders who were at the forefront of global negotiations around climate change talked about it outside of their communities as a human rights issue in order to account for the fundamental changes that have already begun in the Arctic that will affect their ways of life, their cultural and social practices, and the location of their communities.

What was really interesting to think about is how very different concerns related to climate change sound in other contexts. For corporate social responsibility advocates working with Wall Street investors and corporate leaders, climate change concerns were rearticulated as “climate risk” in order to situate the issue within existing financial frameworks that require attention to fiduciary obligations and responsibilities and an accounting for risks that would harm an investment.

In a church setting, evangelicals talked about climate change as being part of Bible-based concerns and dictates to care for the poor and to be responsible stewards of creation.

You describe this debate as much in terms of questions about why the public should care about climate change as  about who or what they should believe. What are some examples of the reasons the groups you study offer for why their members should care about climate change?

Who and what is considered expert is related to a great extent to credibility, and yet how/where are our ideals of credibility formed? In our daily lives, many will trust the word of a New York Times reporter or a MIT-trained scientist – and we’re likely to assume everyone else does too. Our ideals about who and what is credible are inherently social and cultural, based on collective and historical experiences with institutions and a trust in the methods used to arrive at conclusions, analyses, and predictions. That’s the logic behind much of the work done by many environmental activists – they appeal to wide publics to act, based on evidence most will agree is credible.

Amongst those I interviewed and researched for this book, I encountered this straightforward route, but also, a range of alternative means of establishing credibility and expertise. So, my research became about trying to understand the many ways and means by which scientific evidence comes to matter, what kind of an issue climate change is in specific contexts, and how it is articulated as an issue of concern.

I often half-joke now that I would like epistemology to become a household or ‘headline’ word because how we know what we know — and how facts get established — are becoming increasingly open to scrutiny. Just look at the comments after an online story and you see this play out in various ways. But, and this is equally crucial then, the facts that we come to care about and why/how we decide to care about them — the routes by which concern becomes established — are equally important.

Candis Callison is an Assistant Professor at the University of British Columbia in the Graduate School of Journalism. She holds a Ph.D. in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology and Society and a Master of Science in Comparative Media Studies — both from MIT. Her research and teaching are currently focused on changes to media practices and platforms, journalism ethics, the role of social movements in public discourse, and understanding how issues related to science and technology become meaningful for diverse publics. Her new book, How Climate Change Comes to Matter: The Communal Life of Facts (Duke University Press, 2014) uses ethnographic methods and a comparative lens to bring together the work of professional and social groups working to engage diverse publics in an American context. Building in part on this research, Candis has recently begun new research looking at Arctic-based journalism in an era of environmental change, digital media, and global audiences. She is also midway through two research projects that investigate how social networking technologies like Facebook and Twitter are being used both by indigenous communities and by the indigenous-led social movement, Idle No More in Canada. Prior to her academic life, Candis worked as a journalist in Canada and the U.S. for television, radio, and early incarnations of the Internet (think dialup and early broadband). She is a member of the Tahltan Nation located in Northwestern British Columbia.

In Defense of Moe: An Interview with Patrick W. Galbraith (Part Six)

Many of us have a strong sense that gender differences are enforced in Japanese culture. I had the experience of crossing to the wrong section of a manga shop in Akihabara and seeming to create some consternation amongst the other patrons. Yet, in many ways, moe itself involves various kinds of transgressions of gender barriers – men consuming texts created initially for a market of young girls. Can you share with us a bit more about the ways gender is reinforced or transgressed in the moe culture you are describing? What does moe masculinity look like?

First of all, I don’t want to give the impression that moe is somehow limited to male fans of media featuring or originally targeting young girls. For one of my first major research projects in Japan, I spent a year with female fans of manga and anime, who referred to themselves as fujoshi, which means “rotten girls.” Why rotten? Well, because they enjoyed watching manga and anime featuring charismatic male characters, who they then would imagine sexual relationships between. They drew fanzines about these imagined romantic and sexual relationships, which they called “couplings,” and then sold these fanzines at conventions or published them online.

Their activities are not really that different from the writers of slash fiction that you wrote about in Textual Poachers, except that they typically were interested in characters from manga, anime and games rather than live-action TV shows and film. This is simply a reflection of the prevalence of manga and anime in Japan, which provides charismatic male characters. Also in line with the prevalence of manga and anime in Japan, these fujoshi tended to draw their fanzines instead of writing textual stories. But aside from growing up in manga and anime culture, fujoshi are not so different from slashers. Indeed, male-male romantic fan-fiction, which is called yaoi in Japan, got started in the late 1970s, which is around the same time that it did in North America and Europe.

The presence of these female fans in Japan in the 1970s is also interesting because they were there in the early days of “otaku culture,” when manga and anime were beginning to attract mature and intense fans. Too often we ignore the presence of these female fans, despite the fact that some of the earliest records of anime fan clubs date back to Umi no Toriton (Triton of the Sea), which was dominated by female fans, including Kotani Mari. The critic Sasakibara Gō goes so far as to say that it is women, not men, who first recognized, celebrated and shared their love of fictional characters. That is, and Sasakibara is quite clear on this, female fans responding to fictional male characters like Triton are the origin of moe culture.

It is perhaps not a surprise that women dominated early attendance of the Comic Market, a central gathering for fanzine buyers and sellers since its founding in 1975, or that women led the charge in drawing sexual parodies of manga and anime characters.

Men were always behind, late to party and responding to what women were already doing. Indeed, just as women consumed across gender/genre lines to find charismatic male characters to slash in their fan works, men then did the same, but in the other direction. The bishōjo or cute girl character, which is now so prevalent in manga and anime, is actually a hybrid of Tezuka Osamu’s manga and shōjo manga, and was developed as a result of women producing manga for boys and men and men producing their own manga in a style inspired by shōjo manga. This is why, in the late 1970s, even as women were pioneering sexual parody fanzines, adult men began to read Ribon, a manga magazine originally intended for young girls.

This gender/genre crossing goes both ways – male to female and female to male. Indeed, Weekly Shōnen Jump, a magazine ostensibly for boys, is not only read by adult men but also a significant number of women. Eventually, the lines blur to the extent that it’s hard to locate the gender/genre boundary. Take for example Sailor Moon, originally a manga for young girls written by a female artist and serialized in the magazine Nakayoshi. It is hard not to notice that Sailor Moon draws on cultural touchpoints that might be categorized as “boys’ culture,” for example a team of young people who transform into color-coded rangers to fight evil. Sailor Moon simply has young women transform into color-coded sailor soldiers to fight evil. It adds a strong dose of melodrama, but its not really so different. Once transformed, the young women wear modified school uniforms with shortened skirts. Is it any wonder that Sailor Moon attracted male fans when it was adapted into a TV anime in the 1990s?The crossing seems calculated at this point.

So, there is certainly a strong tendency to carve the manga and anime market up into target gender and age groups, but there is also a great deal of movement across the boundaries. This typically doesn’t bother anyone, expect perhaps the when adult men come into close proximity with young girls around a shared object of affection, which is to say bishōjo or cute girl characters. The presence of adult men at events surrounding the Sailor Moon anime, which is at least ostensibly for young girls, caused some commotion in the 1990s. Legend has it that when one child began to cry at such an event, one of the women who voices a character in the show defused the situation by referring to the adult males in the room as “big friends” (ōkii otomodachi). It’s a cute story, but my suspicion is that this scene probably makes many people uncomfortable.

Indeed, Mizuko Ito notes a similar discomfort when adults and children came together in the unsupervised environments that sprung up around the Yu-Gi-Oh! card game. There seems to be a general anxiety about adult men being near children, especially adult men interested in fictional girl characters. Even in Japan, when there is a violent crime involving a child, admittedly rare, it is not uncommon for commentators to point out that the perpetrator was a manga or anime fan. As if that explains anything. I have seen politicians in Japan do this, even pointing to cases where the police have not yet revealed if the media that the suspect consumed was in fact manga and anime or not. That is, these politicians have said to me, without a trace of irony, that they can assume the connection to manga and anime because the criminal in question was an adult male who harmed a girl child.

By this point, it’s a foredrawn conclusion – except that it’s tenuous at best and asinine in any case. These men, we are told, spend too much time with manga and anime and are socially isolated and sexually immature. They become warped and cannot tell the difference between fiction and reality. Their desire is suspect, as at any moment their benign perversion might transform into predatory sexuality. That is, by virtue of their interest in cute girl characters in manga and anime, these men become suspected sex criminals.

We are starting to see this all over the world, with arrests and prosecutions for the possession of pornographic (and sometimes not) manga and anime as “child abuse material” in Canada, Australia, the United States and beyond. Men with no record of ever consuming actual or even “pseudo” child pornography, let alone abusing a child, are arrested, convicted and jailed for possessing drawings of purely fictional characters. As these stories circulate in the news, Japan is set up as the perverse sexual “other” of the West, with manga and anime on the whole characterized as child abuse material and anyone who touches it suspected of harboring the darkest of desires.

With all of this negative press, conservative forces in Japan are emboldened to attack manga and anime and argue for stricter regulation. Sometimes the conservative agenda is obvious, as when a library was raked across the coals for making boys’ love manga, which is commercially published and widely available, accessible. The criticism was that young people would be sexually “confused” by this material, though this has not happened since such manga first appeared in Japan in the 1970s. The same logic seems to be at work in saying that manga and anime more generally will lead to “cognitive distortions” about children, though this has not happened in Japan, where manga and anime are widely available.

The conservative and criminalizing discourse about manga and anime is exactly why it’s important to remember the basic definition of moe as a positive response to fictional characters and representations of them. To return to the Sailor Moon scene that might have made us uncomfortable, the adult male fans in the room are not there for the children, but rather for the characters of Sailor Moon. Surrounded by children, they are there to see the drawings, hear the voices and get the merchandise. To conflate desire for the fictional characters with actual children is a gross misunderstanding of Sailor Moon fandom, which potentially makes innocent people suspected criminals. It also ignores that moe is a response in relation to fictional characters, which are kept intentionally separate from reality. Such a critique completely misses the point of the word moe.

What do you hope to achieve with this book?

I hope that the interviews will introduce people unfamiliar with manga and anime to the faces of the men and women, both real and fictional, who are so often talked about rather than talked to. This talking over and around Japan, Japanese fans and criticism in Japanese has led to a seriously biased view of otaku, especially Japanese men who are attracted to fictional girls.

There is a lot of room for more nuance. For example, Kotani Mari talks about “otaku” as those who feel alienated by hegemonic masculinity, as “strange men” who struggle for alternatives. We can certainly see that in people like Itō Kimio, though this male reader of shōjo manga is not among those identified or identifying as an “otaku.” But when it’s Honda Tōru talking about his love for fictional girls, for cute characters, this guru of moe seems like a walking otaku stereotype. We tend to point and laugh rather than listen to what he’s saying, which reveals his own deep discomfort with hegemonic masculinity. Until we actually begin to see the faces and hear the voices, it is difficult to even entertain Honda Tōru’s ideas about “moe men.”

At its worst, its most poisonous, the bias against male otaku in Japan makes it seem as if merely hearing them out and letting them speak is apologia for “perversion” and “pornography” that endangers real children. It’s a gothic narrative, and this iteration of otaku are the bad guys. If you don’t stand against the bad guys, then you stand against the good guys and are one of the bad guys.

There is no way to raise questions about moe in such an environment. It is in this impossible environment that I decided to focus my interviews on male otaku in Japan. It was a purely strategic decision meant as a response to and intervention into the most reactionary discourses that demonize and criminalize manga and anime fans.

In the future, I hope to do another book focusing on female fans, male characters and moe. Or, better yet, an expanded edition that is not segregated based on the sex/gender of fans and characters. As we can see from the fact that Itō Noizi, a female artist, is one of the most popular illustrators of these characters, bishōjo should not be reduced to “male fetishes” of “sex objects.” I tend to agree with Momoi Halko, who is incidentally also a female artist, when she describes interactions with manga and anime characters as potentially taking us beyond a bodily, binary understanding of male/female into imaginative dimensions of sex/gender.

Patrick W. Galbraith received a Ph.D. in Information Studies from the University of Tokyo, and is currently pursuing a second Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology at Duke University. He is the author of The Otaku Encyclopedia: An Insider’s Guide to the Subculture of Cool Japan (Kodansha International, 2009), Tokyo Realtime: Akihabara(White Rabbit Press, 2010), Otaku Spaces (Chin Music Press, 2012) and The Moe Manifesto: An Insider’s Look at the Worlds of Manga, Anime and Gaming (Tuttle, 2014), and the co-editor of Idols and Celebrity in Japanese Media Culture (Palgrave, 2012) and Debating Otaku in Contemporary Japan: Historical Perspectives and New Horizons (Bloomsbury, 2015).

 

There’s Ain’t No Moe!

In Defense of Moe: An Interview with Patrick W. Galbraith (Part Five)

You also give us a glimpse into the emergence of a generation of Japanese academics who regularly write about moe and otaku culture more generally. Most of this work remains in Japanese, though small samples are starting to get translated into English and have become part of conversations about the global dimensions of fandom. Who do you see as some of the most important thinkers to emerge from this strand of research and what arguments there do you think are pertinent to western researchers trying to address questions of fandom and media consumption more generally?

There are many really fascinating thinkers who in some way or another intersect with otaku culture! Ōtsuka Eiji is one that immediately comes to mind. Parts of Ōtsuka’s work on media mix have been translated by Marc Steinberg, and his arguments about the origins of manga and anime under fascism have been translated by Thomas LaMarre. As both Steinberg and LaMarre point out, Ōtsuka changes our perspective on old questions. For example, his world-and-variation thesis, which was originally published in 1989, brings up the idea of the active and productive fan, which resonates with work coming out of cultural studies, but Ōtsuka is coming at this from the perspective of the corporation. He worked at Kadokawa and Dentsu, a publisher and ad agency, respectively.

This is a broader point that I probably shouldn’t get into here, but I like the way that there is not such an insistence on resistance to, or a critique of, capitalism in Japanese discussions of manga and anime “subculture,” which means something very different in Japan. In Fan Cultures, Matt Hills talks about the need to get beyond the binary approach to fans that can be crudely divided into Frankfurt and non-Frankfurt, production side and consumer side, passive and active, bad and good. I remember reading that and thinking, “Japanese critics are already inhabiting that contradiction!”

Among the results of this, at least in Ōtsuka’s work, is, on the one hand, a discussion of fans gaining access to the mode of production and producing culture by and for themselves. On the other hand, because of his position as a content provider for fans, Ōtsuka also argues that fan activities and productions can be integrated into a system of corporate ownership and profit, which is very interesting. The “world” that is owed by the corporation and provided to fans is expanded and invigorated by the variation that fans produce within it.

To me, this sounds like an immanent critique of immaterial labor. Fans are active and productive, sure, but for whom does their productive activity generate value? That is not a simple question. As Ōtsuka points out, fan labor – and let’s call it that, because many fans work hard at what they love – is very meaningful for fans, even transformative, but it also contributes to corporate profits. How do we work through these entanglements? I don’t know, but it is unlikely to be a heroic refusal of the corporation or capitalism. Dick Hebidge said a long time ago that “subcultures” depend on commodities, and this is even clearer for fan cultures, but I think that he might have overstated the resistance of these cultures, which he thought would eventually lose their edge and be naturalized and trivialized through their own commoditization as styles.

In contrast to Hebdige, Tiziana Terranova has long said that “free labor” is fundamental to capitalism, and it is not the case that someone is outside the system and then gets reintegrated into it. The same is true for subcultures that generate “styles” or fan cultures that generate “content.” This is not to say that there is no meaning to what fans do, because there is, but Ōtsuka seems to be encouraging us to consider how people work and live within consumer capitalist society, how they use media and commodities and how these activities are valued and valorized.

There are many other thinkers in Japan doing similarly interesting work. Okada Toshio, for example, has a lot to say about the differences between “subculture,” “counter culture” and “otaku culture.” He also provocatively suggests that for Japan, and perhaps many other nations, there is not such a clear distinction between “child” and “adult,” which complicates narratives of resistance to the “parent culture.” For me, Okada also raises questions about how we define “child” and “adult,” and what the “youth” in “youth culture” refers to.

While Okada can seem a little narrow and at times even sexist, he is not the only one writing about “subculture” in Japan. Indeed, Kotani Mari’s Tekuno goshikku (Techno Gothic) is a great example of some of the work being done on “feminine subculture,” and it addresses some of the blindspots on sex and gender in Okada and others.

Getting back to what’s exciting about Okada, though! From the position of a content producer, Okada seems to be arguing for education and literacy with the aim of people better understanding and more effectively engaging media. Okada’s discussion of how fans themselves can evaluate media and commodities sounds a lot like Stuart Hall’s “popular discrimination,” but I think a more generous read would be the suggestion of intervening into the contested terrain of culture and taking a position, which is a form of politics that resonates with the later Hall. Perhaps you might call this “culture jamming?”

On the topic of culture jamming, I think it would be helpful to translate Ōtsuka’s book on otaku, ‘Otaku’ no seishinshi (The Intellectual History of ‘Otaku’), and Okada’s Otakugaku nyūmon (Introduction to Otakuology), simply because they are so different in their approach from the ways that I typically see “otaku” talked about in English-language publications. I think that the introduction of these texts into English would really help to shake things up! Two chapters by Okada are included in Debating Otaku in Contemporary Japan, a volume I co-edited that will be out next year, but that is only the beginning.

Another way to push things forward would be to translate the very first book on “otaku,” aptly titled Otaku no hon (The Book of Otaku), which is a collection of short articles on “otaku” by the likes of Nakamori Akio, who created the label “otaku,” Yonezawa Yoshihiro, one of the founders of the Comic Market, Ueno Chizuko, a well-known feminist scholar, and more. The collection was published the same year as Ōtsuka’s world-and-variation thesis, 1989, and is just untimely enough to raise some interesting questions about what is meant by “otaku” and how a discussion of “otaku” might lead to insights for scholars beyond Japan.

A little outside of studies of “otaku,” I personally find Hamano Satoshi and Uno Tsunehiro to be exciting new thinkers, especially their work on digital media, networks and politics. To my mind, Hamano and Uno could very easily be brought into dialogue with thinkers from elsewhere in the world, for example on issues of nationalism and sexism online. One area that I think Japan really excels at is the study of manga, because comics are such a prevalent media form in Japan. Fujimoto Yukari and Ueno Chizuko’s work on shōjo manga offers some fascinating insights into girls reading comics and pornography. The specific genre of “boys’ love” manga has attracted much critical attention outside of Japan, and I think this scholarly discourse could benefit from translating the work of young scholars such as Kaneda Junko, Nagakubo Yōko and Azuma Sonoko. There is much to be said about the sexual politics of this kind of manga and what people do with it.

On that point, I personally have found Nagayama Kaoru’s Ero manga sutadīzu (Erotic Manga Studies) to be extremely helpful in laying out some of the most salient issues in an almost entirely self-regulated and relatively free creative market, which I think could break through some of the stumbling blocks to progress in discussions so far, for example the idea that pornography is made by and for men, harms or endangers women and children and has a generally negative impact on producers, consumers and society. Calling manga characters “male fetish objects” or assuming that otaku are socially and sexually immature men is based on an extremely shortsighted and biased view of manga, anime and games, which I think Nagayama, though concrete examples, challenges quite effectively.

The potential benefits of translation go the other way, too. Manga studies can be a little insular, for example not even building bridging with comic studies elsewhere in the world, let alone impacting disciplinary discussions on consumption, media and fans. We could say the same thing about otaku studies and fan studies, though there has been progress. In addition to translating more Japanese thinkers, we might want to try to get a dialogue going whereby critical traditions that are widely accepted in the North American and European academy might invigorate scholarly work in Japan.

 

Patrick W. Galbraith received a Ph.D. in Information Studies from the University of Tokyo, and is currently pursuing a second Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology at Duke University. He is the author of The Otaku Encyclopedia: An Insider’s Guide to the Subculture of Cool Japan (Kodansha International, 2009), Tokyo Realtime: Akihabara(White Rabbit Press, 2010), Otaku Spaces (Chin Music Press, 2012) and The Moe Manifesto: An Insider’s Look at the Worlds of Manga, Anime and Gaming (Tuttle, 2014), and the co-editor of Idols and Celebrity in Japanese Media Culture (Palgrave, 2012) and Debating Otaku in Contemporary Japan: Historical Perspectives and New Horizons (Bloomsbury, 2015).