Break the Election: How to Learn Media Literacy by Remixing Political Advertisements (Part Two)

Many educators may be concerned about the copyright implications of using remix in their classrooms. Some also confused remix and plagiarism. How would you address these concerns?

 

It’s really too bad when these concerns result in chilling innovative education, which includes using remix and technology in the classroom. Remix and plagiarism are of course not the same thing; plagiarism is trying to pass off someone else’s work as your own. Any good remix cites sources and/or uses original ideas to back up an argument, just as students are expected to do when they write a paper. A remix is really just a multimedia essay.

We have a LAMPlit resource guide about fair use, written with K-12 teachers in mind, but there are other resources out there too. I especially like Stanford University’s Copyright & Fair Use Center, American University’s Center for Media and Social Impact and the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University also has some great research plus a pro-bono cyberlaw clinic.

Some might argue that young people are being taught through many different channels to be cynical about political institutions. Is there a danger that these remix practices might contribute to cynicism? How do we distinguish between skepticism and cynicism?

For me, cynicism entails apathy. Skepticism entails constant curiosity. It’s easy to feel frustrated and bombarded in a media-saturated environment, and sure, confronting those media can potentially feed cynicism. But we try to focus on remix as an active means of critical expression, which is valuable in a way that sitting around and complaining just is not. If you can create an argument and back it up with facts – and, even better, point to a positive way forward – then your skepticism is healthy and useful. We think remix fosters this.

What have emerged as some of the common themes in student remixes and critiques of existing political advertisements?

One is authenticity. Students are aware that candidates are trying to appeal to the masses, and that in order to do that they need to seem likable in media. You can see those themes in this remix on Hillary Clinton and this one on Marco Rubio.

There’s also an interest in pointing out how emotionally manipulative the ads can be, like this one remix about Ted Cruz.

I should say there are a lot of great remixes we haven’t been able to post publicly because they don’t meet fair use standards. What makes them great is that the students are clearly very passionate. Fair use is really hard, and takes a lot of practice. We don’t always have as much time as we’d like in programs to go back and refine videos, but I’ve been so impressed with our students’ ability in general to call out political ads for not being substantial enough. They see that publicity stunts, like dancing on Ellen or cooking bacon on a machine gun, happen at the expense of talking about the real reasons why people should vote for someone.

This campaign has shaped into one of the most negative in American presidential history. What should we be telling students specifically about the impact of negative advertising in the campaign process?

This is a great time for students to be learning the difference between feelings and facts. Negative ads often make us feel angry, but they don’t usually make us think too hard about facts, or think that we should question those facts in any way. I think it’s less about what we should be telling students about the impact of negative ads, and more about what we should be helping them ask and explore. Such as, what’s the difference between negative advertising and bullying? When it comes to negative ads, do you think the facts matter to people? Why would someone engage in, or specifically avoid, negative advertising?

The rhetoric in this campaign has been extremely negative but I think our job as educators is to not let that poison our young people’s interest in civic engagement. It’s getting harder and harder to convince people they should take part in such an imperfect democratic system, but I would never counsel a young person to sit out of voting, knocking on doors or forming and sharing an informed opinion. We’ve already seen how remix can be used to powerful effect in this campaign, by the candidates themselves and by citizens. What I want to see is how it can be used to powerful effect in civic engagement for the future – no matter who winds up winning this election.

D.C. Vito co-founded The LAMP (Learning About Multimedia Project) in 2007. Since that time, The LAMP has brought media literacy training to over 3,000 youth, parents and educators, transporting equipment and facilitators directly to communities in need of its services. Under Mr. Vito’s leadership as Executive Director, The LAMP’s programming capacity has grown tremendously from serving roughly 75 students in the 2010-2011 school year, to serving over 850 students by the 2011-2012 school year. Mr. Vito worked as a community organizer for many years prior to The LAMP, having served in the Peace Corps in Mali, managing campaigns for City Council, State Senate and Presidential candidates, and spent eight years acting as Chairman of the Youth Services and Education Committee on Brooklyn’s Community Board Six. He currently sits on the Board of Directors for the National Association for Media Literacy Educators (NAMLE), is a member of the NationSwell Council and was in the 25th cohort at the Coro New York Leadership Center.

 

Emily Long has been with The LAMP since 2008, managing grant writing, project development, internal and external communications, special events, website and social media, strategic partnerships and The LAMP’s MediaBreaker/Studios video remix platform development project Emily earned her Masters of Fine Arts in Dramaturgy and Script Development from Columbia University in 2006. While at Columbia, she edited and catalogued hundreds of interviews and transcripts for the Oral History Research Office, focusing primarily on their 9/11 Project. She has extensive experience with numerous media through her work with Columbia’s Rare Books and Manuscript LibraryAtlantic Theater CompanySesame Workshop and others.

 

Break the Election: How to Learn Media Literacy by Remixing Political Advertisements (Part One)

As we start back to school, many of us are going to be looking for new ways to provide our students with the media literacy skills and contextual background needed to make sense of the craziness which is the 2016 Presidential Campaign (“All Bets Are Off”). One of the many groups working to address these needs is LAMP (“Learning About Multimedia Project”) which describes itself as “bringing 21st-century survival skills to all New Yorkers.” They have adopted a hands-on approach where young people are encouraged to develop critical media literacy by breaking down, remixing, and commenting upon campaign commercials released by the various candidates, using their Mediabreaker Critical Remix tool.  I’ve long advocated that appropriation represents a core cultural competency of our times and that schools should be doing more to build critical remixing into their instruction. I was thus delighted to learn of this great example and happy to be sharing it with my readers. What follows is an interview with D.C. Vito and Emily Long, two of the organization’s leaders, as they share a progress report on Break the Election.

Interestingly, we are seeing more and more examples this election cycle where the campaigns or the PACS working on their behalf are actively appropriating and remixing media towards their own ends. Consider, for example, this video which juxtaposes clips of Donald Trump with bullies from 1980s comedies. Or this one which remixes various Republicans talking about Trump’s tax returns.

The first adopts a playful approach to remix, using popular media to comment on real world political concerns, where-as the other raids the media archive, creating a new context for understanding previous statements. But both demonstrate how remix practices are being deployed by the campaign. What do we do now — remix the remixes?

 

Give us some background on Break the Election. How did this project come about and what are you trying to achieve?

 

We first started thinking about Break the Election during the 2012 presidential race. Up until that point, we were using video remix in our programs for the purpose of remixing and talking back to commercials. We knew we wanted to develop our own video remix tool – up until that point, we used iMovie, which was too complicated for a lot of our students and teachers to learn quickly – but couldn’t justify doing it if the only media we were going to remix were commercials. We knew there were other applications for remix, and it was like a light bulb for us as we were iterating the new tool amid an environment saturated with political campaign ads.

The new tool, of course, was what is now MediaBreaker/Studios, a free online teaching platform built around our MediaBreaker video editing tool designed specifically for remixing third-party video. We’ve done programming where students remix not just commercials and political ads, but also movie trailers, TV shows, music videos…you name it.

One of our largest goals was to provide pathways for young people to become engaged in the election in a way that we hoped would be authentic to their interests. Break the Election allows our students who are still too young to vote to have a say about the issues, and with just every moment of the campaign trail being caught on video, they have plenty of material to use to make their point. It also challenges them to look at how public opinions are shaped by media, and ask some uneasy questions about the democratic process. Do we elect the candidate who is most capable, or do we elect the candidate with the strongest, best-funded media machine? How well do we really get to know a candidate, when our perspective is shaped by outlets trying to keep up with a 24-hour news cycle? These are tough questions, but they have to be asked in a media literate democracy.

Why do you think remix is an important strategy for developing critical media literacies?

Remix requires people to flex every muscle in the standard definition of media literacy, which is to “access, analyze, evaluate and create” media. You have to source your material, which means you need to be able to access it, but you also have to analyze and evaluate in the process of making critical statements and transforming the message – which happens to also be legally required, if you’re going to stick to fair use guidelines so you can share your work publicly. If you can’t remix, I don’t think you’re media literate. Remix really is the canary in the coal mine for critical media literacy.

 

Why the focus on political advertisements?

One of the reasons we like remixing commercials in general is because of the form. Commercials are short, tight persuasive messages, and usually they’re entertaining so young people enjoy working with them. Since they’re only about thirty seconds long, they can be unpacked in a relatively short time, which is important for teachers who only have forty or fifty minutes in a class.

Political advertisements are also rich troves of messaging. They’re very challenging from an information literacy perspective, but they’re also designed to solicit really strong emotions about things that matter deeply, like the type of world we want to live in. Part of what we’re doing is teaching young people to not be indifferent to political ads – even though they are too young to cast a vote, they’re still part of a target audience, from now through the rest of their lives. Media literacy is hardly ever more important than when you’re using it to decide who should represent your voice, and you’re never too young to start practicing and applying those skills.
How might educators bring the Break the Election activity into their classrooms?

 

We have a series of free hands-on resource guides called LAMPlit, and we created one especially for Break the Election. It takes educators step-by-step through the process of teaching students to create critical remixes rooted in political advertisements, and includes a brief history of political campaign ads to help educators contextualize their unique form and purpose. The LAMPlit also has links to other resources to help educators find and select political ads to remix, and prompts from which educators can choose. And of course educators should feel free to adapt the activities in whatever way makes sense for their students and classrooms.

 

What advice do you have about creating the right atmosphere in the classroom for political remix?

 

We’ve found it’s very important to emphasize that remixing a political ad isn’t meant to be an act of partisanship. You can, and should, remix ads based on their content, not based on the candidate you happen to support. The point is to be critical, and there is plenty to critique when it comes to political messaging whether you’re Democratic, Republican, Independent or something else. The focus needs to be on facts, not hyperbole, and healthy, respectful debate. If a teacher thinks the current election is too polarizing for a productive learning experience, we suggest he or she try looking at more historical material.

D.C. Vito co-founded The LAMP (Learning About Multimedia Project) in 2007. Since that time, The LAMP has brought media literacy training to over 3,000 youth, parents and educators, transporting equipment and facilitators directly to communities in need of its services. Under Mr. Vito’s leadership as Executive Director, The LAMP’s programming capacity has grown tremendously from serving roughly 75 students in the 2010-2011 school year, to serving over 850 students by the 2011-2012 school year. Mr. Vito worked as a community organizer for many years prior to The LAMP, having served in the Peace Corps in Mali, managing campaigns for City Council, State Senate and Presidential candidates, and spent eight years acting as Chairman of the Youth Services and Education Committee on Brooklyn’s Community Board Six. He currently sits on the Board of Directors for the National Association for Media Literacy Educators (NAMLE), is a member of the NationSwell Council and was in the 25th cohort at the Coro New York Leadership Center.

Emily Long has been with The LAMP since 2008, managing grant writing, project development, internal and external communications, special events, website and social media, strategic partnerships and The LAMP’s MediaBreaker/Studios video remix platform development project Emily earned her Masters of Fine Arts in Dramaturgy and Script Development from Columbia University in 2006. While at Columbia, she edited and catalogued hundreds of interviews and transcripts for the Oral History Research Office, focusing primarily on their 9/11 Project. She has extensive experience with numerous media through her work with Columbia’s Rare Books and Manuscript LibraryAtlantic Theater CompanySesame Workshop and others.

 

Update: Transforming Hollywood 7: Diversifying Entertainment, October 21, USC

Earlier this summer, I posted a hold the date announcement of our upcoming conference, Transforming Hollywood 7: Diversifying Entertainment, which will be held at USC on Oct. 21. I am now able to announce many of the event’s participants, though we still have some outstanding invitations we hope to resolve over the next few weeks and with luck, we will have some exciting new speakers to announce as we get closer to the event. As always, the Transforming Hollywood events bring together industry leaders, creative artists, academics, journalists, fans, and activists for important conversations about the futures of entertainment. Our panels are designed to dig deep and bridge divides. We hope you will join us for this year’s event.

 

Transforming Hollywood 7: Diversifying Entertainment

October 21 Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, University of Southern California

Sustaining Sponsor: AJK Foundation
Event Sponsors: Fusion/Univision, George Foster Peabody Foundation, Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism

Sustaining Organizers: Denise Mann, UCLA; Henry Jenkins, USC
Event Organizer: Stacy Smith, USC

9-9:20 Welcome 

Ernest Wilson, Dean, Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism

Denise Mann, head of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television’s Producers Program

Henry Jenkins, USC Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Art, and Education

 

9:20- 9:50 State of the Field Report 

Stacy Smith, Director, Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative, USC

 

9:45-11 Panel:  Why Does Inclusion Matter?

Moderator: Eric Deggans, Television Critic, National Public Radio; Author, Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation

After hearing about the dismal representation of marginalized groups in entertainment, one question remains: what can be done? As the conversation on diversity and inclusion continues to escalate, several voices stand out from the crowd with solutions, strategies, and attempts to address disparities. This session brings together industry members and experts to discuss four essential topics. First, the panel will address why inclusive entertainment matters. Second, individuals will discuss the underlying causes at the heart of why under or skewed representation persists. Third, the group will overview what efforts are underway in Hollywood to effect change. Fourth, panelists will cover the challenges that remain and the work still needed to increase representation on screen and behind the camera.

Bertila Damas— SAG AFTRA National Chair of the Ethnic Employment Opportunities Committee

Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni —  Pearl Street Productions

Melissa Goodman – director of the LGBTQ, Gender and Reproductive Justice Project at the ACLU of Southern California

Danny WoodburnActor, Chair of Screen Actors Guild, Performers with Disabilities group

 

11:10-1 Panel 2  What Alternatives Does Social Media Offer?

Moderator: Denise Mann, UCLA

This panel explores social media as a powerful tool for artists, activists, and influencers to express their voices of diversity and dissent outside the Hollywood mainstream. Social influencers are a new breed of online creator whose ability to thrive in the platform economy depends on their facility with social media connectivity as a means to amass a dedicated following of online users. Fans, who become invested in the ideas conveyed by a favorite artist or musician, can help spread these messages of change across an exponentially wider circle of social media communities. However, the life of an online creator or influencer is not for the faint of heart. Hollywood’s writers, directors, and actors are protected by talent guilds and guided through the byzantine Hollywood system by thousands of development and marketing executives, who give dissenting opinions via an endless series of story notes and marketing positioning statements. While guaranteed a paycheck via “work-for-hire” contracts, Hollywood talent lacks essential power and agency because they don’t control the copyright for their artistic work. In contrast, actor-creator-entrepreneurs like Freddie Wong and Issa Rae are running mini-studios of their own making and retaining part or full ownership of their creations. While building their “brand”—themselves—over weeks, months, and even years, they rely on a variety of resources: crowdsourcing, Adsense revenues, merchandising, branded content deals, and cross-promotional guest appearances in order to keep their voices heard above the din of clickbait and app fatigue. Therefore, online creators need powerful advocates—talent managers who know how to use social media to help under-represented artists escape from obscurity to become chart-topping celebrities. They also need tech startup experts capable of shepherding the engineers and coders who tweak streaming content aggregators, such as Spotify, Apple Music, and Tidal, so that they serve artists as well as platform founders. Additionally, online artists need powerful insiders— showrunners, producers, and other allies—who understand what it’s like to struggle against the tide of entitlement that prevails in the studio system, and who will help newcomers with alternative voices navigate the gap between the autonomous spaces of the Web and the heavily bureaucratic and hierarchical spaces of mainstream Hollywood.

 

Troy Carter, Founder/CEO, Atom Factory Music +Smash’d Labs, Global Head/Creator Services, Spotify

Bambi Haggins, Associate Professor of Film and Media Studies, Arizona State University (author of Laughing Mad: The BlackComic Persona in Post-Soul America)


Prentice Penny, Executive Producer/Showrunner, HBO’s Insecure (based on Issa Rae’s webseries, The Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl)

Freddie Wong, Founder, Rocket Jump Studios, online video pioneer and VFX artist

 

1-2 Lunch

2-3:50 Panel 3: How Do We Change the Script?

Moderator: Henry Jenkins, USC

Within the entertainment industry, genre conventions help to shape what stories get told and how productions get promoted and marketed to particular audiences. As we push for greater inclusion, we need to reconsider the ways that these genres encode old assumptions about race, gender, and sexuality, and the ways these scripts need to be reimagined to reflect more diverse perspectives. Many of today’s creators find themselves pushing against taken-for-granted assumptions and long-standing formulas, and as a consequence, often fall back on old tropes and stereotypes. These particulars look somewhat differently whether we are considering realist or fantastical genres but both offer opportunities for “changing the script” but they also bring with them a  lot of historical baggage. The news media likes to focus on the white male backlash in fandom against some of the shifts taking place within genre entertainment, but we also know that many active fans are embracing these changes and indeed, modeling through their creative responses what an even more diverse form of genre entertainment might look like. And activists are holding producers feet to the fire, asking critical questions about the ways even more diverse and inclusive productions may fall short of our hopes and expectations. So, how do we change the script? How do we embrace new stories? How do we tell the old stories differently? And what role can the fantastical or speculative genres perform in imagining alternatives to current racial realities?

Grace Dillon — Professor in the Indigenous Nations Studies Program, Portland State University; Editor, Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction

Javier Grillo-MarxuachWriter/ProducerLost, The Middleman, The 100, Xena: Warrior Princess

Nakul Dev Mahajan — Dancer/Choreographer, So You Think You Can Dance

Ebony Elizabeth ThomasYoung Adult Writer; Assistant Professor,  Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania

Phil Yu — BloggerAngry Asian Man 

 

4-6:15 Panel 4 How do We Move from Stereotypes to More Complex Characters?

Moderator: Maureen Ryan, Chief Television Critic, Variety

The challenge of creating more diverse representations often centers on the construction of characters. It is not enough to put diverse faces in front of the camera: we need to depict those characters with nuance and complexity, in ways that audiences will recognize from their own lives, in ways that inspire their imaginations. Where does the responsibility rest for generating compelling characters in contemporary popular entertainment? What roles do producers, writers, and actors play in defining who these people are, what they desire, how they react, what goals they pursue, and what relationships they form? And how should we respond when bad things happen to good characters, when subsequent production decisions undercut or marginalize characters whose presence is particular significant for under-represented segments of the population?

Evelyn Alsultany— Associate Professor; Director of the Arab and Muslim American Studies Program, University of Michigan; Author of Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation after 9/11

Effie BrownDirector, Dear White People  

Kathy Le Backes — Vice President, Research and Development, Wise Entertainment

Melissa Silverstein— Blogger, Women and Hollywood 

 

6:30-7:15 Keynote Conversation

Moderator: TBA

Melissa Rosenberg —  Executive Producer, Marvel’s Jessica Jones

 

7:15-  Reception

Registration for the event is now open on a first come, first serve basis. For more information, visit our website. Tickets are $40 for the general public and $10 for students, faculty, and staff of academic institutions.

Save the Date — Transforming Hollywood 7: Diversifying Entertainment October 21

Transforming Hollywood 7: Diversifying Entertainment
October 21 Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, University of Southern California

Sustaining Sponsor: AJK Foundation
Event Sponsors: Fusion/Univision, George Foster Peabody Foundation, Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism

Sustaining Organizers: Denise Mann, UCLA; Henry Jenkins, USC
Event Organizer: Stacy Smith, USC
The past few years in America have been marked by heated debates around issues of diversity (from the politics surrounding racialized police violence to the struggles around immigration reform) which have placed renewed emphasis on who is being represented through popular media and how. Social media — especially the phenomenon of so-called “black twitter” — has created a space where people of color are organizing on-line to advocate for new kinds of new forms of entertainment content which more fully reflects their lived experiences. And new kinds of “social influencers” are emerging online, a group which includes a growing number of people of color amongst the top internet celebrities.

The response from Hollywood has been mixed: on the one hand, overall industry numbers measuring diversity in front and behind the camera has remained surprisingly static over time. Women and people of color remain grossly under-represented. On the other hand, there have been many high-profile efforts to feature mixed-race and minority-centered casts on American television. Scandal’s Kerry Washington was the first black actress to be the lead in a dramatic television series in three decades, and her success has led to other black actresses getting the leads or strongly featured in prime-time serials. We are also seeing minority experiences come to the fore on sitcoms, including Blackish, Fresh Off the Boat, Master of None, and Jane the Virgin. We are watching the major Comics Publishers DC and Marvel embrace more female protagonists, including most dramatically, an American Muslim youth of Pakistani descent becoming Ms. Marvel, and since the comics publishers represent a major pipeline into Hollywood production, some of these shifts are being felt in production decisions The debate around diversity in cinema has come to be short-handed by the hashtag, #oscarsowhite, that stands in for the failure of the film industry not only to expand the range of stories told and the people employed, but also the unwillingness to respect and award accomplishments from those who succeed despite the odds. Rightfully, the quality of these new representations are being hotly debated, again taking advantage of the affordances of new media, such as podcasts, blogs and social media.

As with our previous Transforming Hollywood conferences, we want to focus our attention on where change is taking place, bringing together key thinkers from industry, academia, and the public sphere, who have something to say in helping us to make sense of those changes. Diversifying Entertainment will be a day-long public conversation about diversity, inclusion, representation, and entertainment, one which spans developments in television, film, comics, games, and other popular media.

Tentative Schedule

9-9:20 Welcome
9:20- 9:50 State of the Field Report

9:45-11 Panel Why Does Inclusion Matter?

After hearing about the dismal representation of marginalized groups in entertainment, one question remains: what can be done? As the conversation on diversity and inclusion continues to escalate, several voices stand out from the crowd with solutions, strategies, and attempts to address disparities. This session brings together industry members and experts to discuss four essential topics. First, the panel will address why inclusive entertainment matters. Second, individuals will discuss the underlying causes at the heart of why under or skewed representation persists. Third, the group will overview what efforts are underway in Hollywood to effect change. Fourth, panelists will cover the challenges that remain and the work still needed to increase representation on screen and behind the camera.
11:10-1 Panel 2 What Alternatives Does Social Media Offer?

This panel explores “social influencers”—a new breed of online creator whose web-based productions and facility with social media connectivity has helped them amass a loyal following of fans. The top 1-2% of these creative entrepreneurs, dubbed “millionaire influencers,” are securing huge paydays from advertisers eager to access the hundreds of thousands of fans. Most social influencers seeking fame and big payouts will choose the path of least resistance by endorsing fashion and beauty products or by engaging with popular Hollywood media franchises. Instead, this panel focuses on a small, but passionate group of influencers who have chosen the path of most resistance by promoting diverse, inclusive representations of marginalized cultures using exclusively online transmedia storytelling tactics. By operating largely outside of the Hollywood mainstream, these activist influencers face a unique set of challenges: they must engage in the hard labor of producing weekly webseries while also reformatting this content for a diverse array of digital platforms (YouTube, Vine, Snapchat, Instagram, etc)–often on their own dime. Paradoxically, if they want to scale their media empires in order to spread their message of hope, they must accept brand endorsement deals if they want to continue to engage, enlighten, and educate fans about the unique challenges of being a marginalized culture in today’s increasingly networked society.

1-2 Lunch

2-3:50 Panel 3 How Do We Change the Script?

Within the entertainment industry, genre conventions help to shape what stories get told and how productions get promoted and marketed to particular audiences. As we push for greater inclusion, we need to reconsider the ways that these genres encode old assumptions about race, gender, and sexuality, and the ways these scripts need to be reimagined to reflect more diverse perspectives. Many of today’s creators find themselves pushing against taken-for-granted assumptions and long-standing formulas, and as a consequence, often fall back on old tropes and stereotypes. These particulars look somewhat differently whether we are considering realist or fantastical genres: both offer opportunities for “changing the script” but they also bring with them a lot of historical baggage. So, how do we change the script? How do we embrace new stories? How do we tell the old stories differently?

4-6:15 Panel 4 How do We Move from Stereotypes to More Complex Characters?

It is not enough to put diverse faces in front of the camera: we need to depict those characters with nuance and complexity, in ways that audiences will recognize from their own lives, in ways that inspire their imaginations. What roles do producers, writers, and actors play in defining who these people are, what they desire, how they react, what goals they pursue, and what relationships they form? And how should we respond when bad things happen to good characters, when subsequent production decisions undercut or marginalize characters whose presence is particular significant for under-represented segments of the population?

6:30-7:15 Keynote: TBD

7:15- Reception

To register to receive more information, go to http://annenberg.usc.edu/events/events/transforming-hollywood-7-diversifying-entertainment

Connected Youth and Digital Futures: A Conversation with Sonia Livingstone and Julian Sefton-Green (Part Two)

Today, we continue a conversation between Sonia Livingstone and Julian Sefton-Green (London School of Economics), Sangita Shresthova and myself (USC) about our two books that launched the New York University Press/MacArthur Foundation book series, Connected Youth and Digital Futures:  By Any Media Necessary: the New Youth Activism and The Class: Living and Learning in the Digital Age. This time, we move beyond the goals and contexts that generated the books to focus on some of our findings.

If you live in or near London, you have a chance to watch this exchange continue in real time. I am flying to England this weekend and will be participating in an event being hosted around the two books at the London School of Economics’ Shaw Library, Old Building on June 22 from 4-6 p.m. In addition to myself, Livingstone, and Sefton-Green, the event will also feature University of Nottingham Professor of Education Pat Thompson. To reserve a seat please contact Svetlana Smirnova at s.smirnova@lse.ac.uk.

So what did we learn through our research?

Henry and Sangita write of By Any Media Necessary:

We got lucky: many of these groups and campaigns have gained visibility and influence over the period of our study. We were struck watching some of the early Democratic Party debates this U.S. presidential campaign season that many of the core issues — immigration reform, racialized police violence, income inequality, legalization of pot, among them — were issues that these networks had been mobilizing around. Kony 2012, a video produced by Invisible Children, broke all records for internet circulation during the period of our research. The Harry Potter Alliance successfully boycotted Warner Brothers to get them to embrace fair trade policies around the chocolates they produced and sold at their amusement parks. And Obama took executive action to promote the interests of the DREAMers, undocumented youth seeking greater citizenship and education rights. So, we sought success stories and those successes turned out to be more dramatic than we could have imagined when our research began.

Across this research, we identified some core principles shaping this new youth activism as well as some obstacles that are blocking these groups from achieving their full potential. First and foremost, as the book’s title suggests, these groups are seeking to make change by any media necessary. Yes, social media platforms have generated lots of press because they represent the newest technologies for mass mobilization and media circulation. But we also saw them tapping into  street protest and print culture as needed to reach a broad range of potential supporters. These groups had limited access to resources so they used whatever they could get their hands on, though often the most impoverished groups were among the most creative and thoughtful in learning how to use these platforms and practices in new ways.

Second, our work has led us to a focus on what we call the “civic imagination.” Any campaign for social change requires its participants to articulate a shared sense of what a better world would look like, the steps towards achieving this change, the political agency of participants, and often, some empathy for those whose experiences and perspectives differ from their own. Different cultures articulate what they are fighting for and what they are fighting against through different means. We were intrigued to see that, across these very different social movements, popular culture references played central roles in their rhetorical practices. Images from popular media — superheroes, wizards, zombies, and the like — are appropriated, remixed, reframed, and recirculated as a means of creating a common language amongst diverse participants.

Our book is cautiously optimistic about the ways these groups are impacting American politics. These movements model some ideal conditions for scaffolding young people as they transition into more active roles as citizens. These groups map ways that individual participation can add up to something larger. They direct attention to specific issues and propose ways that people can work together to bring about change. They train members to produce their own media and tell their own stories. They offer networks through which these media can circulate and reach an appreciative audience. Above all, they create a context where ‘talking politics’ is a normal, ongoing part of social interactions. In this focus on the conditions that enable meaningful connections between different aspects of young people’s lives, we are very much drawing on insights from the Connected Learning research. Young people are more likely to have both voice and influence when they connect with larger networks pursuing the same goals.

Of course, these networks are not open to all potential participants: there are systemic and structural biases in who can enter through these means; there is uneven access to technological infrastructure, mentorship, skills, and a sense of empowerment, all of which pave the way for new entrants. These groups do not necessarily breakdown on predictable class or racial lines: some of the most innovative and creative activism we’ve seen came from undocumented youth, many of whom lack access, on an individual bias, to the basic tools they need to do their work but have taken advantage of opportunities offered by libraries or community centers.

And these groups, themselves, struggle with core paradoxes as they think through the value of supporting broad participation as opposed to more centralized control over messaging and in particular an emphasis on process as opposed to results. These groups do not always command the respect of political leaders with the power to act on their concerns. They often face various forms of surveillance and intimidation. Participatory practices can be deployed by hate groups just as readily as by human rights groups.

The book coexists with byanymedia.org or BAM, a resource that includes a large collection of original and curated materials related to the themes that emerged through our case studies. When we initially started developing it, we thought that BAM would effectively be a companion reader, a place where people could encounter media examples featured in the book. We ended up with a much more expansive resource that pushes far beyond our initial research to feature media created by a broad range of youth organizations, curated media, and original educational materials created through sustained partnerships we formed with companies like Participant Media and organizations like the Harry Potter Alliance. While we anticipate that various visitors may find their way to BAM, we did specifically focus on educators who want to explore youth driven participatory politics with their students. This is why we piloted and eventually rolled out BAM through collaborations with educators affiliated with National Writing Project and the National Association for Media Literacy Education.

 

Julian and Sonia write of The Class:

It may be that when our class of British 13-year olds gets a bit older, they too will explore such civic possibilities as Henry describes above. But certainly when we hung out with them, they were taking only the most tentative steps towards the wider world – perhaps by joining Twitter to follow the adult worlds of news, sports or celebrity. For them, Harry Potter was definitely a focus for fandom but not yet a pathway to the civic.

Rather, our class was more concerned to sustain clear boundaries between home, school and peer group than to overcome these through digital or social networking. For example, the school devoted a lot of time being distressed by students’ use of Facebook, seeking ways to keep its “drama” out of the life of the school, just as students proved equally keen to protect their free time (not that there was much of it) and spaces (ditto) from prying adult eyes.

One of our driving questions was to understand how digital media were used at home and school and especially, given ever greater access to mobile digital technologies, whether this allows home and school to be connected in different ways. At school we noticed how the teachers’ appropriation of popular culture served to create shared values and norms within but not beyond the walls of the class. So in afternoon registrations the class often watched BBC News. A geography teacher used the model of voting from ITV’s X Factor to liven up math teaching. Role models from the media dotted the classroom walls. But rarely was there any discussion about how the media are produced or who controls them or how they are structured to convey particular messages. For example, films about slavery in Black History Month were tacitly treated as transparent “windows on the world”, seemingly unrelated to the mix of black and white faces of the students watching the screen.

High culture received more explicit prominence, by contrast. The head-teacher favored a boy (who had private music lessons) who could play Chopin when the year group filed into assembly. Activities involving Shakespeare or great works of art were given prominence by the school. Kids learned classical music in school music lessons while enjoying something completely different in the home, and those who learned non-standard music at home received little recognition at school.

Moreover, attempts to use the media across the boundary of home and school were carefully policed. The school’s information management system worked really well as a form of digital surveillance, but all too often the Virtual Learning Environment didn’t work or wasn’t properly understood by teachers or students. Mobile phones, which could be very useful for learning, were forbidden in school (for reasons of concentration and safety). For all the talk about living in a connected world, the students didn’t want teachers or parents to have access to their world; and the same was true of the adults.

Perhaps one of the most excruciating things to witnessed was the slow microscopic unfolding of misunderstandings, missed opportunities and social injustices experienced by the young people over the year. There was no shortage of high aspirations, good intentions and ambition but a lack of knowledge by the school about the actuality of the class’ day-to-day lives meant that the way the offer was organized, the way opportunities were constructed, were commonly at odds with how young people and families imagine what learning is good for. This led us to wonder: how would the school be different if teachers knew more about their students’ lives outside school? Why does the school choose not to know much about its students and why might they not want to reveal themselves to the school? In whose interests might greater, or lesser, connection across and between the social world of young people operate?

To return to the relation between our two books highlighted in this blog post, together they provide insights into both the extraordinary and ordinary nature of growing up in the digital age. While one book focuses on civic and political participation and the other on learning, together they capture the two key opportunities that adults hope young people will pursue, enabled by today’s digital and networked media. One book focuses on the exciting possibilities opening up, the other on how everyday realities favor practices of social reproduction that undermine the realization of such possibilities. It is surely now for society to work to bring more of the opportunities within the grasp of most, not just a few, of young people.

 

 

 

Connected Youth and Digital Futures: A Conversation with Sonia Livingstone and Julian Sefton-Green (Part One)

I was proud that our new book, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism, (co-authored with Sangita Shresthova, Liana Gamber-Thompson, Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, and Arely Zimmerman) was selected to be one of the two launch titles for an exciting new book series being produced by the MacArthur Foundation and the New York University Press. As part of the launch of this series, I’ve been involved in a series of conversations with some of the other authors included in the series, including an event to be held next week at the London School of Economics. More details on that event next time.

Here, I am joined by Julian Sefton-Green and Sonia Livingstone. Sefton-Green edits the series and co-authored with Livingstone the other launch title, The Class:Living and Learning in the Digital Age. They both are faculty at the London School of Economics.

 

What’s the series all about? Julian Sefton-Green writes:

May saw the launch of the first two books in a new series Connected Youth and Digital Futures. Building on research supported by the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media & Learning initiative, it offers books about how the day-to-day lives and futures of young people are being reconfigured at the intersection of civil and political reform, transformation in employment and education, and the embedding of digital technologies across all domains of social and personal life.

 

We live in divisive and divided times where the futures that young people may inherit appear more fraught than in previous generations. As Western societies have become increasingly marketised, older forms of social contract – of conformity, working hard and aspiring high – can no longer fulfil the promises they appeared to offer:

 

  • Access to employment, housing and independent living has become increasingly competitive;
  • Generations are being lost from participation in conventional forms of civic activity and political action;
  • Traditional state institutions like schools and colleges seem more peripheral and excluding, and life pathways confused, complex and competitive;
  • Forms of social stratification seem to have become more acute as elites have reasserted their power and privilege.

 

All of these changes call into question the nature and purpose of learning in these uncertain times. At the same time, and somehow entangled with these changes, social life is increasingly mediated through forms of digital technology and the interpersonal and day-to-day life in neighbourhoods and communities have become increasingly surveilled and automated. Many of the claims advanced for the digital are now being tested around the world as institutions, families, and young people themselves negotiate, incorporate or transform in response to these changing possibilities.

 

In this blog post, the authors of the first two volumes in the series, By Any Media Necessary: the New Youth Activism and The Class: Living and Learning in the Digital Age explain why they were motivated to write these books, what we think they achieve and in what ways their themes relate to each other and fulfil the aims of the series.

 

Henry Jenkins writes:

 

Our book, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism, emerged from our participation in the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics Network. Chaired by Joe Kahne, this multidisciplinary network brought together philosophers (Danielle Allen), educators (Howard Gardner) Political Scientists (Jennifer Earl, Cathy J. Cohen), youth advocates (Lissa Soep, Elyse Eidman-Aadahl), and technologists (Ethan Zuckerman), all committed to research or interventions intended to shed light on the political lives of American youth.

Over seven plus years of conversations, we evolved a shared conceptual vocabulary for discussing what we call participatory politics, characterized as “interactive, peer-based acts through which individuals and groups seek to exert both voice and influence on issues of public concern.” Across diverse methodologies, the network was finding evidence that: “the participatory skills, norms, and networks that develop when social media is used to socialize with friends or to engage with those who share one’s interests can and are being transferred to the political realm.”

The network’s survey, involving more than 3000 respondents, was finding some compelling insights about young people’s civic engagement.

  • More than half (56 percent) of those contacted had not been involved in politics in any form over the 12 months prior to the survey. But roughly 40-45 had involved in some form of participatory politics across this same period.
  • Contrary to claims that online political participation decreased “real world” political involvement, the survey found that those who engaged in politics via social media were twice as likely to vote as those who had not.
  • There was greater racial equality in terms of participation in online political actions than in more institutionalized forms of politics. 43 percent of white, 41 percent of black, 38 percent of Latino, and 36 percent of Asian youth had participated in at least one act of participatory politics during the prior 12 months. By contrast, the difference in voting as of 2008 showed a gap of 25 percent between the most active youth (African-Americans at 52 percent) and the least active (Latino Youth at 27 percent).

Our research group’s task was to go behind these statistics and provide a portrait of what forms of participatory politics emerged when we looked at innovative organizations and networks that have been highly successful at getting young people involved in civic and political activities. We ended up selecting groups and networks organized around brands (Invisible Children), fan interests (Harry Potter Alliance, Nerdfighters), faith-based communities (American Muslims), identity politics (DREAMers) and shared ideological and philosophical commitments (Students for Liberty), resulting in an ethnically and ideologically diverse mix of organizations.

In practice, each of these groups blurs the categories we initially proposed and we learned the most by looking at what these groups had in common. Altogether, we interviewed more than 200 young activists who shared with us their “civic paths” (that is, how they were invited into the political process) and the ways that media platforms and participatory practices have informed their activities.

Sonia Livingstone writes:

In parallel with the Youth and Participatory Politics Network work focused on political participation, described above, in the Connected Learning Research Network we have focused on learning opportunities, exploring whether and how “connected learning taps the opportunities provided by digital media to more easily link home, school, community and peer contexts of learning; support peer and intergenerational connections based on shared interests; and create more connections with non-dominant youth, drawing from capacities of diverse communities,” as explained in the network’s research synthesis.

That report highlighted the case of 17-year-old Clarissa, an aspiring screenwriter whose friends introduced her to a role-playing site online where equally enthusiastic peers pooled their creative and critical resources to the point where Clarissa could use her new-found expertise to get into college. Relatedly, Mark Warschaeur and Tina Matuchniak wrote about how 14-year-old Max produced humorous videos and posted them on YouTube, gaining so much fan mail that his video aired on mainstream television. These and many other cases rightly serve to inspire adults and youth, tech developers and the public alike, as does the rise of young vloggers or the popularity of Minecraft communities. Yet these are celebrated precisely because they are exceptions, raising the question – how widespread are such activities, what everyday conditions support them and, more normatively, are these pathways that society wishes to prioritize for its youth?

While research suggests that connected learning opportunities arise when the sites of home, school and other locations for learning are connected and supported, our project was inspired by the observation that few studies based in schools refer to children’s lives at home. Even the idea of spending a year with “a class” evokes a curious fascination, suggesting a closed, intense, yet fragile world of school that adults, especially parents, generally do not see into. Equally, most studies of life at home rarely follow children outside it, tending towards a perception of the home as equally closed, especially from the teachers’ perspective. Of course young people are themselves the link across sites of living and learning, so we designed our research to follow them and get closer to their experiences and perspectives to trace their connections and disconnections.

To do this, we capitalized on our complementary expertise as researchers, each trying to pay attention to what the other found surprising. As we explain in the book, Sonia has spent much of her career with families at home, seeking to understand their media lives and exploring the dynamics of gender and generation in the home. Julian has spent much of his career with students and teachers at school, exploring the conditions by which media use at school and elsewhere could enable creativity and knowledge. Our project was designed to bridge these perspectives.

By spending a year with a class of 13 year olds – at school, at home, with their friends, and online, we could begin to unpack questions such as:

  • Do today’s youth have more opportunities than their parents?
  • As they build their own social and digital networks, does that offer new routes to learning and friendship?
  • How do they navigate opportunities for formal and informal learning in a digitally connected but fiercely competitive, highly individualized world?
  • What is expected of parents, and what do parents actually do, when bringing up their young teens in the digital age?

(More Next Time)

Sonia Livingstone is a full professor in the Department of Media and Communications at LSE. She is author or editor of eighteen books and many academic articles and chapters. The past President of the International Communication Association, Sonia was awarded the title of Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2014 ‘for services to children and child internet safety.’ Taking a comparative, critical and contextualised approach, Sonia’s research asks why and how the changing conditions of mediation are reshaping everyday practices and possibilities for action, identity and communication rights. Her empirical work examines the opportunities and risks afforded by digital and online technologies, including for children and young people at home and school, for developments in media and digital literacies, and for audiences, publics and the public sphere more generally.

Julian Sefton-Green is an independent scholar working in Education and the Cultural and Creative Industries. He is currently Principal Research Fellow at the Department of Media & Communication, LSE and a research associate at the University of Oslo working on projects in London and Oslo exploring learning and learner identity across formal and informal domains. He has authored, co-authored or edited 12 volumes including: The International Handbook of Creative Learning (2011 Routledge); Learning at Not-School (2013, MIT Press); Learning and Literacy over Time (2014, Routledge). Recent volumes are The class: living and learning in the digital age (New York University Press 2016) and Learning Identities, Education and Community: young live in the cosmopolitan city (Cambridge University Press 2016). 

Tracing the Roots of Media Literacy: Raymond Williams and John Fiske

A while back, media literacy educator and advocate Renee Hobbs approached me about contributing an essay to a new anthology she was editing: Hobbs asked some leading scholars to share personal essays about the people who have influenced their own thinking about media, popular culture, and learning. I was asked to contribute something about the role Birmingham cultural studies had played in the development of media literacy, and I was happy to agree.

We were supposed to describe our intellectual “grandparents”, and I ended up writing a deeply personal essay that discussed the relationship between my work on participatory culture and that of Raymond Williams and John Fiske. Along the way, I  also shared something of my biological grandparents — on my father’s side — and the ways I saw myself in some of William’s more autobiographical writings.

Hobbs’ book, Exploring the Roots of Digital and Media Literacy Through Personal Narrative, has just come out, so I asked her if I could share a bit of my essay as a way of whetting your appetites for this important collection.  Here are a few others who have contributed to this anthology, which offers a novel way to introduce students to the roots of the media literacy movement:

  • David Weinberger on Martin Heidegger
  • Lance Strate on Marshall McLuhan
  • Dana Polan on Roland Barthes
  • Cynthia Lewis on Mikhail Bakhtin
  • Douglas Kellner on Herbert Marcuse
  • Amy Petersen Jensen on Bertholt Brecht
  • Donna E. Alvermann on Simone de Beauvoir
  • Jeremiah Dyehouse on John Dewey
  • Renee Hobbs on Jerome Bruner
  • Vanessa Domine on Neil Postman
  • Peter Gutierrez on Scott McCloud

What follows is an excerpt from my contribution. There’s more where this comes from:

John Fiske can be described as the Johnny Appleseed of Cultural Studies, given the ways that his personal journey as an academic who worked in the United Kingdom, Australia, and finally, North America, helped to spread and reframe the cultural studies approach to new generations of scholars. Fiske also provides an important bridge between his mentor, the Welsh born critic and novelist Raymond Williams, and my generation, many of whom were Fiske’s students, who helped to adopt the British-based approach to deal with the particulars of U.S. culture. Read together, our story represents one trajectory in the relations between cultural studies and media literacy.

Starting with a strong belief in the critical agency of “ordinary” people, the multidisciplinary field of Cultural Studies documents the ways everyday people create meaning and pleasure through their everyday practices. Media Literacy as a movement has sought to insure that everyone has access to the critical literacies which allow them to meaningfully consume, critique, produce — and now participate within — media. One could argue that cultural studies is the theory, media literacy is the practice. We need look no further than NAMLE’s Core Principles of Media Literacy Education, which insist that the concept of literacy can be applied to a broad range of different forms of media and popular culture, that media content gets actively interpreted by individuals and groups based on local frames of reference, and that media literacy is fundamental to the promotion of active political and civic participation, all concepts that come — at least in part — from the British cultural studies tradition.

Along with the historian E. P. Thompson, the literary critic Richard Hogarth, and the theorist Stuart Hall, Williams is widely acknowledged to be one of the founders of the cultural studies approach. More than any other essay, William’s “Culture is Ordinary” (1958) set the tone for the British Cultural Studies movement. Williams offers a more inclusive model of culture, a concept Williams would described in Keywords (1976) as “one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language.” Here, Williams tells us, “Culture is ordinary: that is the first fact. Every human society has its own shape, its own purposes, its own meanings. Every human society expresses these, in institutions and in arts and learning. The making of a society is the finding of common meanings and directions, and its growth is an active debate and amendment under the pressures of experience, contact, and discovery, writing itself into the land.” (p.93) William’s conception of culture contrasts with that of Matthew Arnold, whose 1869 essay, “Culture and Anarchy,” had defined culture in terms of “the best knowledge, the best ideas of their times,” seeing the promotion of high cultural values to the general population as the best defense against what he saw as “harsh, uncouth” about modern industrial culture. Under Arnold, some aspects of human life—the most elevated or perfected aspects, those removed from immediate utilitarian value and from the harshness of a growing machine culture—were worth passing down to the next generation, while others were disposable. Those who embrace Arnold focus on the value they see as intrinsic to “great works,”while those who criticize the tradition focus on what it excludes–including most of what has been written by women, minorities, the developing world, as well as media and popular culture.

William’s approach is expansive, embracing the arts and sciences, the exceptional and the ordinary, the traditional and the emergent. For Williams, culture is at once the stuff of learning, an acquired set of skills and appreciations, and the stuff of experience. Perhaps, the essay’s most radical element is the way Williams pits his own lived experience growing up working class in the Welsh countryside against what his own mentors were teaching him at Cambridge: “When the Marxists say that we live in a dying culture and that the masses are ignorant, I have to ask them, as I did ask them, where on Earth they have lived. A dying culture, and ignorant masses, are not what I have known and see.” (p.96) Cultural studies commits itself to better understanding the ongoing struggle over what counts as culture and who gets to decide what culture matters.

Williams is at his most moving when he describes what reading and writing meant for his family: “My grandfather, a big hard laborer, wept while he spoke, finely and excitedly, at the parish meeting”, (p. 92) he tells us, while his father, a labor organizer, read through the lines of news stories to identify entrenched economic interests. He talks about the value his people placed on library books and tell us many more would have gone to college except for the financial responsibilities they bore to their family and their communities. He describes a visit home after time in college and discusses the tension he felt within himself as he looked at their culture through eyes shaped by formal education: “Now they read, they watch, this work we are talking about: some of them quite critically, some with a great deal of pleasure. Very well, I read different things, watch different entertainments, and I am quite sure why they are better…But talking to my family, to my friends, talking, as we were, about our own lives, about people, about feelings, could I in fact find this lack of quality we are discussing? I’ll be honest — I looked; my training has done this for me. I can only say that I found as much natural fitness of feeling, as much quick discrimination, as much clear grasp of ideas within that range of experiences as I have found anywhere.”(p.99) He contrasts this sense of a community eagerly engaged in conversation with the snootiness of the tea shop just outside his university, which taught him in the most painful way possible that some see culture as “the outward and emphatically visible sign of a special kind of people.” (p. 93) Williams suggests, “If this is culture, we don’t want it.” (p. 93)

Through such images, Williams conveys his discomfort with the policing of cultural boundaries, the ranking of cultural products, and the dismissal of other people’s culture. While himself critical of the “cheapjack” quality of the new industrially produced culture, Williams articulates a great distrust of the “directive” impulse in the Cambridge intellectuals who seek to “impose” their cultural assumptions on the unlearned masses. “There are no masses, but ways of seeing people as masses,” Williams writes (p.96). And he also distrusts the anti-intellectual impulses in his own background, the ways that working class critics dismiss “culture vultures” and “do gooders”, even when doing so cuts them off from resources that might improve the quality of their lives. Something vital is at stake in these struggles over culture, and his goal as an educator was to help people to better articulate their own cultural politics.

“Culture is Ordinary” was published in 1958, the year I was born. I never knew Williams, never heard him speak, never got to talk with him, but I would first encounter “Culture is Ordinary” when doing a directed reading for John Fiske at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. When Williams writes about the experience of taking a bus through the mountains to go off to college, I have come to trace my own drive across the Blue Ridge mountains to go to graduate school.   I have come to see myself as perhaps several generations further into the process of cultural, economic, and technological change that Williams describes there. I had been raised in Georgia, the son of a construction company owner, the grandson of a sheet metal worker, and the great-grandson of a dirt farmer. Across three generations, my family had left the farm, moved to the city, and then, to suburbia, and our class status had shifted along the way. As an upwardly mobile middle class youth, I had experienced with distaste the trappings of “redneck culture” which still found their way into my home: I wanted nothing to do with that “shit-kicking” bluegrass music my grandparents listen to and I cringed when they used earthy language to describe themselves and their values. Yet, I was also starting to make my peace with my roots. When I was heading off to graduate school, my dirt-poor grandfather gave me some money — a small amount for most, but a kingly fortune for him — to take with me on my journey. As I stood in his workroom, surrounded by rusty wire and scrap metal he had salvaged by the roadside, not to mention wooden crosses he had carved by hand, he told me about his own first steps away from the family farm when he went away to France during the first world war. Despite having only a fourth grade education, he had marked in the front of his King James Bible the number of times he read it cover to cover. And alongside it, in his desk, could be found his union card, a book of the collected speeches of FDR, and a postcard depicting Will Rogers, each a marker of a particular form of grassroots politics that had shaped his world view. I’ve come to hear some of that progressive politics as it gets expressed through the bluegrass music I once held in disdain and now, the twangier, the more atonal, the better. I’ve come to appreciate that my grandmother, who made quilts, was a remix artist, who took patches of leftover cloth from the local textile mills and working with other women, made them into something artful which could be used to express their shared joy when a new couple got married or a new baby was brought into the world.

I don’t think I ever felt so “southern” as I did when I left the south to pursue my education. And so, when I first encountered Williams’ account of his struggles to reconcile what he had learnt at the family dinner table with what he was being taught at Cambridge, I recognized myself in his conflicts, and through his eyes, I came to a deeper appreciation of who I was and where I had come from.

As a graduate student, I also felt a strange disconnect from what I knew as a fan about the ways that everyday people might critically and creatively engage with media texts and what I was being taught by my own professors, at a time when prevailing forms of media theory stressed the power of media texts to suture their readers into a powerful ideological system which always worked against their own interests.

And this is the moment when John Fiske entered my life. The first time I saw him, I was struck by his broad toothy grin, the crinkle of his leathery skin, the wicked sparkle in his squinting eyes, and the Akubra hat that he was wearing in the frozen wastelands of Iowa City. He entered our lives as “the Man From Down Under” — something exotic, something wild and untamed, yet it did not take long to discover his gentleness, his modesty, above all, his care for his students.

When Fiske came to the University of Iowa, he sparked a degree of intellectual excitement I have not experienced since. Every week, more students were showing up at his seminar, eager to learn what for us was a new conceptual framework, drawn from cultural studies that informed his work. Like Williams, Fiske offered us a way to see the world that was critical of inequalities of opportunity and the imposition of cultural hierarchies, yet which was hopeful about the prospects for meaningful change and respectful of diverse forms of cultural experience.

Raymond Williams had been Fiske’s personal tutor when he was pursuing his BA and MA in English Literature at Cambridge, and so it would be hard to imagine a better guide to the British cultural studies tradition. I was lucky to have studied under Fiske twice — first when he was a visiting scholar at the University of Iowa and then when he was a faculty member at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Like any great mentor, he empowered me to find my own voice, to draw on my own knowledge and experience, and to make my own original contribution to the field. I soaked up everything I could learn from this man, and in the process, absorbed vocabulary, concepts, philosophies, and ideological commitments, that have become so deeply enmeshed in my own world view, that I am still surprised to come across phrases in his writing that I had thought entirely my own. And, my own commitment to media literacy is deeply bound up with the things I learned from him and through him, from Williams.

When I wrote to Fiske, now long retired, and asked him about his relationship to the concept of media literacy, he stressed that the term was one which he never used directly, but that in retrospect, he now realized that he had been working through ideas about media literacy across his entire career: “I learnt the close reading skills of New Criticism while studying English literature at Cambridge, and soon realized that I wanted to apply them to popular media, television in particular, rather than literature. I had two interlinked aims. One was to show that TV was as multi-layered as poetry and thus worthy of equally serious attention, and the other was to equip ‘literate’ TV readers with the analytic skills to protect themselves against the hegemonic thrust of mass TV. My later work on the active audience grew from evidence that teaching this defensive literacy was less necessary than I had believed. Audiences were already literate in their viewing and had little need of academics like me. They were using their literacy not just defensively but actively in a way that turned a hegemonic text into a subordinate pleasure. They taught me what actual media literacy was all about.” (Personal correspondence with the author, 2013)

To read the rest of this essay, check out Hobbs’ exciting new book.

From Media Matters to #blacklivesmatter: Black Hawk Hancock Discusses John Fiske (Part Five)

I was struck re-reading parts of the book by how central “family values” were in the debates of this period. Today, I would say that the culture wars are more apt to be fought in terms of protecting the American Nation, “bringing our country back,” “making America great again” vs. “making America whole”, etc., and around notions of citizenship (whether Obama’s birth certificate or the issue of undocumented immigrants)  rather than in terms of protecting traditional conceptions of the family.  First, would you agree and if so, how might a Fiskean analysis help us to understand why this shift has occurred?

A Fiskean analysis would take us directly into the change in the “structure of feeling” of society and into the change in discourses that are a result of that shift. Thinking through the “structure of feeling” is a way to bridge our own personal experiences in relation to the social structures and historical formations within which we are situated today. In this sense, the feeling—the meaning, values, and practices lived and felt by those who are caught up in them—has a structure that pulls together people’s social experiences and articulates them in terms of shared outlooks and values.

But what has caused such a massive shift in our outlooks and values to bring us to the point we are at today? What is this new set of discourses that is marked by a “crisis” in the Nation. As you point out, there is a dominant undergirding theme here—the insecurity of the nation and the need for protection—the loss of our identity and place as the center of the free world that needs to be restored—the loss of our international status and the need to regain that feeling of international dominance—but I think the most important phrase you picked up on is “making America whole.” This is the lynchpin to the current state of mind or the collective consciousness of the country.

To me this is a true indicator of the status of the structure of feeling. I have an Peter Baker New York Times article from 2014, “A Steady Loss of Confidence,” that I still use in the classroom today. Baker argued that when Pres. Obama took office he “set out to restore society’s frayed faith in its public institutions, saying that the question was not whether government is too big or small ‘but whether it works’ (Baker 2014: A1). He goes on to report:

A 2009 Gallup poll shows that in the heyday of the Obama presidency, public confidence in virtually every major institution of American life has fallen, including organized religion, the military, the Supreme Court, public schools, newspaper, Congress, television news, the police, the presidency, medical system, the criminal justice system and small business. The only institutions Gallup tested that showed slight improvement from 2009 to June 2014 were banks, organized labor, big business and health maintenance organizations. Even so, all four of them had the confidence of just roughly a quarter of the population or less. (Baker 2014: A3)

Whether in everyday interactions or in the public’s collective consciousness, it is clear that collective faith in the structure of feeling as shared values and outlooks is one that is eroding to the point of crisis. This sort of Fiskean work of unearthing the structure of feeling is the first part, and then understanding the discourses that are circulating through society is the next layer of analysis.

In terms of undertaking a Fiskean analysis, several questions need to be posed: What are the dominant discourses that intersect and work to legitimate the current “crisis” of the nation? In addition, we need to ask what has become legitimated as practices through them? Finally, to what political ends do they lead? While there are more, I will stick to the dominant four that stand out for me—all of these are discourses of insecurity, discourses that instill fear, resentment, anger and distrust throughout society.

First, is the discourse of economic insecurity. The financial crisis of 2007-2008 and the global financial crisis of 2008, both devastated the U.S. and led us into a four year recession. Many talked about this as the worst economic situation since the Great Depression. The huge bailout of major financial institutions by the government helped them, but it simultaneously created complete distrust of the banking system, where credit availability tightened, and the stock market suffered as investors lost confidence (and their money).

In addition the unemployment, which led to evictions, foreclosures, etc.…All of these factors created a deepening economic insecurity with what was a complete breakdown of public trust. Economic instability, which leads to economic insecurity, primes the pump for other discourses that reciprocally serve to reinforce economic insecurity, which in turn legitimates extreme responses to that and other forms of insecurity.

Second, the discourse on terrorism as one of complete social insecurity. The overall notion of the “war on terror” in the post 9-11 world has fundamentally reorganized our understandings of safety and vulnerability. From 9-11 followed the Patriot Act, the founding of Homeland Security, the hyper-escalation of military spending, and the centrality of national security as a state of insecurity. From colored warning codes disseminated in airports, to stop and frisk procedures, the discourse on terrorism became the fulcrum to legitimate people giving up their civil liberties for the sake of security. All of this links to our ongoing military presence in the Middle East, the invasions and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the fight against the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, and of course the ongoing struggle to locate ISIS. As a result, we have a seen an escalation in hatred towards Muslims, all of whom are now branded as terrorists.

The entire discourse on the war on terror, which of course can never end since it is framed as a mode of constant vigilance and alert, affords the government the opportunity to constantly tap into responses of anger and vengeance, and fervent patriotism, as opposed to thoughtful and more rational thinking around these issues. Furthermore the ongoing media propaganda, sensationalism and sound-bites have minimized debate and make most claims made by governmental officials and pundits unchallengeable. The war on terror creates a permanent state of insecurity with no end in sight.

Closely linked to the economic insecurity is a third discourse on immigration and illegality. Homeland security enacted massive spending in order to strengthen border security. In addition, all the media representations of immigrants as illegal aliens and threats serve to naturalize illegality as the reason that people can go ineligible for citizenship, defend the rightlessness of those categorized as such, and to neutralize any dissent. As the discourse on immigration-illegality intersects and overlaps with the discourse on terrorism, Mexican immigrants get mixed in with Arab and Muslims, making terrorism-immigration-illegality all part of the same rhetoric. All of this is wrapped in a racialized discourse of the nation, specifically a nation under siege.

These racial threats are also spun into cultural and economic threats as justifications for their eradication. We have gone so far out, as we racially profile “suspects” of either illegality or terrorism to force them into compliance as “patriots” of the state, thus interpellating them into the very discourse that serves to subjugate them. In the end, the discourses of immigration-illegality-terrorism, all serve to criminalize and justify unchecked governmental, police, and military interventions. As public fear and resentment are fostered by politicians (The Donald being a prime example of cultivating xenophobia) we may truly be in Carl Schmitt’s state of emergency, or worse yet, Giorgio Agamben’s “state of exception” where government can suspend people’s rights and the rule of law for the “benefit of the public good.”

A fourth discourse would be the ever-increasing surveillance of social life. With whistle blower Edward Snowden, we were introduced to the massive surveillance by the NSA intelligence agency who was intercepting email, phone calls, and all forms of communication. The information collected is far beyond anything we can imagine, to such a degree that PRISM was set up as a dragnet to pull in al sorts of information.. This surveillance was justified by the war on terror, yet they found nothing having to do with terrorism. In addition we see the ever expansion of video cameras, both for running red lights, as well as blue light police cameras monitoring our streets, as well as satellites and drones monitoring our skies. Google, Facebook, Comcasst record data, as now do retailers who analyze consumers purchases. Our smartphones have GPS pinpointing our location 24/7. Bank cards, credit cards, debit cards, bus passes all track times places location and purchases. At the same time social media platforms, Facebook and Instagram being two particularly popular venues today, provide people the opportunity to openly publicize images of themselves, as well as document their own lives for others to see.

While we may leave in a world of hyper-surveillance, it may not matter, since the self-surveilling effect of the panopticon has come true in new and more insidious self-subjugating ways.

All of these discourses intersect with each adding layer upon layer of fear, and insecurity. If there were ever a time for a Fiskean analysis of notions of nationhood and citizenship in a post-911 era, the time is now.

Reference:

Baker, Peter. 2014. “A Steady Loss of Confidence.” New York Times. October 22.

 

To me, one of the best discoveries in your introduction was to learn more about Fiske’s concept of the work of the public intellectual. I certainly have always looked to Fiske as a model for the way an intellectual might relate to the larger society, but I had no idea he had articulated such a clear vision for this kind of intervention. What insights should we take from his theory of intellectual labor as we think about the role of Cultural Studies at the current moment?

 

We have to see or think about how Media Matters is a book of public Sociology or public Cultural Studies. It was written for a wider audience and is very accessible, the most accessible of all of Fiske’s works, despite the fact that the issues he is grappling with are highly complex. He consciously wrote the book for the general public with the idea that these issues had to be conveyed in a way that everyday people can understand without sacrificing the rigor of the analysis. That is not to say that Fiske held an elitist position, that everyday people couldn’t grasp the big theoretical ideas, but that it was urgent to get this into people’s hands, into their heads, and hopefully into their actions.

I thought that was the goal of the new introduction was to reconstruct the implicit theory or the theoretical framework that is in the background, which allows us to see these events. I felt it important to highlight the particular lenses that Fiske offers, so as to pass on his wisdom to future generations of cultural scholars, students, activists, and everyday people who are invested in social justice and social equality.

The most important aspect of Fiske’s kind of intervention is that he refused to accept that people were duped by some form of ideology, though they certainly could consciously identify with hegemonic positions, but that people in general were creative and far more aware of their circumstances than those who focused solely on political economy. This runs throughout Fiske’s work.

Now Media Matters is a very public oriented book, whereas Power Plays Power Works is much more oriented towards the sphere of the academy, but even if you go back to Understanding the Popular, what was the dominant idea? People are more resilient and aware of their conditions than we as scholars who study them may often think. So he wasn’t changing his position, he was shifting registers if you will. He never took an elitist approach, which is why the question of “how does one learn how to Fiske?” one that I am still grappling with 16 years after his retirement.

It  is important to remember as well that Fiske never felt he was right on all occasions, or that he was ever in any way dogmatic; to the contrary, he was always open to rethinking, and reworking ideas. I raise the issue to be consistent, whether he was addressing the general public or PhD students at the University of Wisconsin, everyone was treated with the same respect. Even if the people Fiske was engaged in dialog with were radically different than himself, for example see the chapter on Back Liberation Radio in Media Matters, he was collaborating in the production of knowledge.

Fiske was someone who saw himself as part of a collective, that together we could help each other understand the world with greater nuance, greater sensitivity, and with the aim of the greater good. The working class was never so driven by necessity that they don’t understand their own material constraints, of course they are aware of them and better aware than anyone else.

I don’t mean for that to sound sentimental, it certainly was not. Fiske thought intellectual labor was a hard painstaking undertaking and never to be considered lightly. That’s why his views on politics shifted from the major revolutionary idea to the Gramscian war of position; one where small victories (or losses) are what one is fighting for in the end. That small social changes could matter and that those very victories proved what he stood for—that everyday people could make a difference.

In the end, I really think Fiske’s intellectual weapons were the most important, since they were all forged for the greater project of social change. This is the importance of theory; theory is what links the individual experience to the collective, the isolated to the community, the disenfranchised to the relevant, such that each encounter could possibly link people to a greater collective consciousness about ourselves, our communities, and the world we want to live in, not just the world we do.

Perhaps it was redundant for me to argue that theory contextualizes the specificities of everyday life and illuminates the often latent political dimensions within those contexts, providing new perspectives and opening up new possibilities; or that theory provides a shared conceptual language to speak across different social formations and social positions.

For Fiske, we must remember, intellectual work can both cultivate a collective consciousness and be put into service for informing social practices and to interrogate, to transform, and to overturn them. As I have said before, the most important lesson about theory in the work of Fiske is to remember that theory was never used for the sake of theorizing; rather it was always used to figure out “what’s going on.”

Fiske embodied the public intellectual in his scholarship, teaching, mentoring, and friendship. All of these were merely facets of the same approach—ways to provoke us and to make us aware that interventions into the public sphere were of necessity, not just academic performances.

Furthermore, Fiske never let us succumb to the “detached ivory tower perspective” of intellectual life; he took the role of the intellectual and the intellectual labor one produced to be important contributions to society. For Fiske, the production of knowledge was not just to understand our social conditions, but to work to improve them.

The corpus of Fiske’s scholarship works to promote such a democratic advancement. For Fiske, this is never about changing people’s consciousness alone; rather it is provoke people to examine the material conditions of their lives where inequalities are experienced most viscerally.

Intellectual labor, for Fiske, must take on all areas of society, from the political, to the economic, the educational, and the industrial. Fiske always cautioned us to remember that the politics of everyday life are never sufficient on their own to create social change. However, everyday life is political, and those politics can be, and often are, possibilities for progressive change.

Fiske always encouraged us to see the potential or progressive elements within popular culture and the possible political ends to which people put it to use. While he cautioned that popular culture alone would not produce radical change in society, it was always a resource that could aid in transforming one’s control over their everyday lives. As such, the power of popular culture was always in its possibilities, possibilities without guarantees.

All of this leads me to think about the current state of Cultural Studies. I think that it is important for us to remember in the wake of Fiske’s work that we need to be vigilant about what Cultural Studies can still do and what directions we need to take it. Given that universities, where of us work, are more than ever, subject to marketization, the commodification of knowledge, and the disappearance of state funding. In addition, changing requirements for tenure and promotion, where as journal articles and other professional writings strictly targeted to academics, take precedence over other forms of work make the challenge today even greater.

We need to collectively think about the role and relevance of Cultural Studies today, as public intellectuals, for the defense of civil society itself. This is the most critical issue on the table today. Given the conditions within which we work, and the ways that we are often dismissed or ignored by the general public, we must really work at coming up with new strategies, collective strategies of political intervention, new strategies of connecting to other publics, lest we wind up cultivating their own obsolescence.

How we do so is the big question, of course, but to just say we educate our students and they go out into the world and may make changes is not enough, nor is simply publishing a trade book or writing an op-ed piece alerting people to some issue or another. These things all help, but they are not enough. We need to connect across disciplines and areas of expertise, we need to be having wider conversations, not locked in our offices like silos. his is the challenge for all liberal arts and social sciences today, as colleges and universities cut programs, we must collectively work towards rethinking the place of the academy in society, in a way that makes it valuable to the wider society.

Again these are big questions that I don’t think any one individual can answer. Our only hope lies in coming together, and that is a massive, yet not impossible undertaking.

Black Hawk Hancock is an Associate Professor of Sociology at DePaul University. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in Sociology, and his B.A. from the University of California at Berkeley in English and Philosophy. He is both an ethnographer whose work focuses on issues of race and culture, as well as a social theorist. His first ethnographic monograph, American Allegory: Lindy Hop and the Racial Imagination was published with The University of Chicago Press. His next book, In-Between Worlds: Mexican Kitchen Workers in Chicago’s Restaurant Industry, is currently under contract at The University of Chicago Press. His theoretical work includes two books with Roberta Garner, Social Theory: Continuities and Confrontations, 3rd edition (The University of Toronto Press), and Changing Theories: New Directions in Sociology (The University of Toronto Press), while his articles have appeared in such journals as The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, and History of the Human Sciences.

 

 

 

 

From Media Matters to #blacklivesmatter: Black Hawk Hancock discusses John Fiske (Part four)

 

 

Fiske had much to say about the role which pirate radio played in the 1990s in transmitting and encoding counter-knowledge and counter-history. He had less to say about digital media, even though it was taking shape at this same moment. How might this framework help us to understand the role which social media is currently playing in today’s civil rights struggles?

When I think back to the historical context of Media Matters, I can’t help wonder if the media event of Rodney King, (the chase, the beat down, and the arrest), was truly the first moment whereby the camera was turned back on the police. That event to me was like a tectonic plate shifting in society. It took the country, or at least parts of it by surprise, and validated other parts of it that this was everyday life for them. I raise this in particular because my students today were not born then, so to get them to think about the significance of this, the role that media played at the time was crucial.

In the chapter “Technostruggles” in Media Matters, Fiske had already mapped out the ways that information technology both circulates discourse and produces and applies power. For Fiske, at the time of Media Matters, it was surveillance, the top down Foucaultian panoptic gaze, that was becoming the most efficient, totalitarian, and hardest form of power to resist.

If Fiske were writing today, he would be writing against the domination of the surveillance society, documenting all the new ways that media platforms have proliferated since the first edition of Media Matters—with the development of smart phones, the internet, social networking sites, blogs, Tumblr, Instagram, Twitter, tablets, mp3 files, streaming, YouTube, and virtual information storage—and how this diverse forms of media are now more pervasive through out society than ever.

This shift in the social landscape, or as Fiske would argue, a shift in of “structure of feeling,” through new forms of technology opens up ever-new possibilities of expressing identities, communities, perspectives, and most importantly as weapons for engaging in political struggles. These “weapons of the weak” to borrow James Scott’s terminology become the very tools of resistance.

In fact, Fiske would be having a field day with his critics! He was right all along! I can’t help to remark about the responses to his essay “The Culture of Everyday Life” in the Cultural Studies book. It is just too good of an example not to mention. If Fiske ever reads this interview, I hope he revisits that just to have a laugh at how obtuse those people were and how WRONG they got it!

In writing this review I had to revisit that. I didn’t mention it in the new introduction, but that was not the place for assessing the worthlessness of his critics, but this forum is precisely the place since I’m the one making the critique. These are exactly the types of developments that no one could predict, thus being exactly the kinds of resistance Foucault himself would have pointed to—to make sure we remember where there is power, there is always the possibility of resistance—making them unable to be completely interpellated back into the hegemonic power bloc.

Not only do they provide weapons, they are new modes of documentation, new modes of constructing counter-knowledge and counter history through turning the lens back on those surveilling. It is not simply the documentation with video from smart phones, as one example of use, but the speed and breadth one can circulate that knowledge. People can post videos instantly and they can circulate globally, connecting people and informing people from all different sorts of communities.

We can take any number of examples of African American men killed by police that have been documented through a multiplicity of video devices—from Jason Harrison documented on a police-worn body camera, Jerame Reid documented on a Dashboard camera, John Crawford III documented on a Walmart surveillance camera, to Kajieme Powell and Eric Garner documented with a bystander’s cellphone. These can be immediately uploaded and used by citizens to challenge authority and hold authorities responsible for unauthorized use of violence—and in these cases all ending in death.

People are now turning these devices into weapons to fight back, protecting themselves through the innovative uses of these new technologies. While racial domination and police brutality continue, the speed and intensity of making visible what might have gone invisible, as well as the ability to connect across vast physical distances with other social networks, social movements, community organizations, and activists, has opened up a new form of politics we are just beginning to explore.

As you discuss in your introduction, Fiske’s own politics underwent a change from a focus on Macro-level politics (overturning capitalism) towards micro-level change (“change from within … a gradual shifting rather than a revolution.”) Is this distinction still useful in making sense of contemporary models of cultural politics?

Yes, I absolutely do, but the challenge is immense. With Neoliberalism seemingly unstoppable in its expansion around the globe, along with the privatization of social services and infrastructure, I think micro-level politics are all we have. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I heard the word capitalism, except if someone were teaching Marx. I think the erasure of the term capitalism or the euphemism of neoliberalism has made capitalism all but invisible and no longer something on the table to discuss.

People, politicians, etc., discuss the economy, job disappearance, unemployment rates, but none of these issues are linked to structural inequality, directly to capitalism itself. If this is even hinted at, conversation automatically stops because you must be a heretic or a socialist. This conversation goes nowhere. So in terms of macro-level transformation, I just don’t see it as a viable strategy. I don’t see social change happening through the grand revolution, nor do I see it occurring within the confines of a two party political system.

I think as intellectuals that we need to focus more on connecting with the people, communities, institutions, organizations we study, offering our expertise while coming to better understand their perspectives in relation to our own. The idea of that we can affect changes in our communities or our local institutions on a much smaller scale, doesn’t diminish the larger ideal. Rather, we should focus on how small shifts or small accomplishments of change could be connected, such that small changes cumulatively add up, perhaps eventually adding up to enough to challenge the bigger picture.

In addition, I think we need better networks, locally, nationally, globally, to create what Pierre Bourdieu referred to as the “collective intellectual“ where collective research, collaboration, and the cultivation of a community of intellectuals could foster more effective research with an agenda for social change. We could certainly step out of our discrete disciplines and begin to communicate and coordinate this sort of community. While requiring a great deal of effort, the payoff may be worth the labor.

This is a great challenge for intellectuals today. We may reach our students, and they are an important public to reach as they go out into the world, but perhaps there has to be more. Given how marginalized intellectuals are in the US, this makes it problematic from the start, but I think in many ways we have let that occur. We need more optimism, less pessimism, but it is hard to remain optimistic when we continue to see the fraying of the social fabric day in and day out.

As universities have become ever more subject to marketization, the commodification of knowledge, and the disappearance of state funding, which in turn necessitates alternative modes of financing through private corporations or public-private partnerships. The escalation of these trends over the last 15 years has served to cut wages and benefits, and shifted the labor market away from tenure-track and tenured faculty to adjuncts and part time lecturers, all of which undermine the autonomy and intellectual mission of higher education. These dynamics have shifted the terrain on which ethnographers pursue their craft.

Two issues arise from these new conditions. First, time, given the duration that good research takes, it becomes more and more challenging to conduct long-term fieldwork. Second, ironically, given tenure and promotion concerns, intellectuals may have to conduct more “professional research” as opposed to “public research” in the end.[1]

I’m not say that we should give up scholarship and all become activists. But given that we need to consider doing research that connects with people beyond the walls of the university, tearing down those walls may be our best start.

[1] For a slightly different version of this same argument, see Fine, Gary Alan and Black Hawk Hancock. “The Ethnographer at Work” Qualitative Research. Forthcoming

Black Hawk Hancock is an Associate Professor of Sociology at DePaul University. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in Sociology, and his B.A. from the University of California at Berkeley in English and Philosophy. He is both an ethnographer whose work focuses on issues of race and culture, as well as a social theorist. His first ethnographic monograph, American Allegory: Lindy Hop and the Racial Imagination was published with The University of Chicago Press. His next book, In-Between Worlds: Mexican Kitchen Workers in Chicago’s Restaurant Industry, is currently under contract at The University of Chicago Press. His theoretical work includes two books with Roberta Garner, Social Theory: Continuities and Confrontations, 3rd edition (The University of Toronto Press), and Changing Theories: New Directions in Sociology (The University of Toronto Press), while his articles have appeared in such journals as The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, and History of the Human Sciences.

 

 

 

From Media Matters to #blacklivesmatter: Black Hawk Hancock discusses John Fiske (Part Three)


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In some ways, the Rodney King video set the stage for many subsequent debates about racialized police violence. Here, as now, the incident was caught on video and shown to the nation, yet then as now,  the police faced no legal sanctions for their action and public outrage boiled over into the streets. What conceptual tools might Fiske’s account of these events contribute to the current debates around Ferguson, Baltimore, etc.?

I’d like to focus on the last part of the question, on the conceptual tools that can contribute to the current debates around Ferguson, Baltimore, etc. Before fully responding to this question, I should point out the other animating force behind the new introduction to Media Matters is what Berkeley Sociologist Michael Burawoy refers to as “public sociology,” whereby we as intellectuals intervene in the political debates and social problems of our time in the multiple publics or social spheres in society. [1] Public sociology takes on two dominant forms, the traditional public sociology, which disseminates information and attempts to stimulate debate in traditional media venues, such as popular trade press books, newspapers, magazines, and the organic public sociology that engages the particularistic interests of more circumscribed publics —community organizations, hospitals, schools, trade unions, etc. Public sociology, in either form, seeks to take information beyond any specific community and circulate it as widely as possible.

UNITED STATES - AUGUST 14: Demonstrators march on W. Florissant Ave., in Ferguson, Mo., August 14, 2014, during a gathering to show concern over the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed teen killed August 9th by a Ferguson police officer. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

UNITED STATES – AUGUST 14: Demonstrators march on W. Florissant Ave., in Ferguson, Mo., August 14, 2014, during a gathering to show concern over the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed teen killed August 9th by a Ferguson police officer. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Fiske is doing a bit of both forms of public intellectual labor in Media Matters. I argue that what runs throughout Media Matters, and specifically captured in the excellent chapter on Black Liberation Radio, are the critical tools of constructing “counter-history” and ”counter-knowledge.” I find these to be of critical importance in our struggle for racial equality. These two approaches to documenting social life serve as correctives or alternatives to the official history and knowledge, or the history and knowledge that has been institutionalized by the dominant groups in society (the power-bloc) in order to create competing ways of interpreting the world as well as reposition and reinterpret the facts of the dominant knowledge. Counter-history assembles experiences and historical events in order to reveal the workings of power relations in society and how those power relations structure societies in inequalities. Counter-history illuminates the effects of those power relations upon bodies, revealing how those bodies have been subjugated, exploited, excluded, marginalized or silenced. In addition, counter-history reveals the social formations and social positions to which those bodies have been relegated. The focus on the body emphasizes how power relations are not simply conceptual, regulating the mind, but are also physical in that our socialization is also always embodied as well. Counter-history is the embodiment of past experiences that serve as a reservoir of knowledge that has been omitted from the official record. Counter-history gathers those past experiences and articulates them, connecting the past to the present, in effort to affect the present. Counter-history challenges the production and legitimacy of truth and knowledge by calling into question what official history erases, represses, denies or excludes. Counter-history is “effective” in that it is functional in giving articulation to a multiplicity of voices, understandings, and experiences that official history tries to silence in its homogeneity. Counter-history reveals the embodied experiences and truths of the disempowered that have been omitted from the official record. As such, it highlights the ways in which events, objects, statements, are never self-evident, but are always interpreted, articulated, and put into particular contexts. In doing so, the objectivity of official history, as the production of institutionalized knowledge, is undermined and shown to be the ideology of the dominant groups that govern society. Counter-history not only reveals alternative ways of knowing and subordinated experiences, it also illuminates the material, economic and technological disparities for circulating information between groups. Counter-history is never as strong as the dominant history, nor does it seek to replace the dominant history as the only truth of the world; rather counter-history works to be “effective” as it is constructed and operates to provide documentation and testimony to subjugated positions in society. As a result, the contestation between official history and counter-histories is one which always one that cuts across social, cultural, and political-economic realms of society.

The formation of knowledge or counter-knowledge, the ways that people understand themselves and their social relations, is always a matter of constructing a set of meanings. Since facts are never self-evident, knowledge is always a process of production in the interests of a group situated within a social system of power relations. Facts are resources that are linked together—articulated—within specific social contexts for particular ideologies, politics, and practices. This process requires a constant and ongoing articulation, disarticulation, and re-articulation of facts in the construction of knowledge. Since facts are always open to disarticulation and re-articulation, we can see how the classes that dominate social relations attempt to dominate the production of meaning/knowledge. Writing a counter-history/counter-knowledge requires “stealing” or the re-articulation of facts for the interests and effectiveness of a group’s social location. Groups that challenge those dominant meanings and rearticulate them in a counter-knowledge is what enables those groups to assert and attempt to preserve identities of their own self-definition and self-understanding.

By thinking about how constructing these alternatives are both intellectual and political endeavors, we can then start to think of strategic ways of deploying this information, as we forge alliances across different groups and publics who are invested in collective social change and social equality.

[1] Burawoy, Michael. 2005. “For Public Sociology.” American Sociological Review. 70(February): 4–28)

For Fiske, change in entertainment media and change in news media both help to shape the “structure of feeling” and the political climate of the country. As you note in your introduction, “According to Fiske, culture is always political.” So, the current debates around race are taking shape alongside struggles for more inclusion and diversity in the entertainment industry, not to mention real breakthroughs in terms of the representation of race — From Scandal to Empire, from Fresh Off the Boat to Master of None. So, what tools does Fiske offer us for thinking about the interplay between news and entertainment?

I think there are two parts to this line of questioning. First, the debates around race and diversity, and second the interplay between news and entertainment. As Fiske argued, culture is political, in that the production of meaning is always a contested site of social struggle through which the social order can be reproduced, but also questioned, critiqued, challenged, and changed. This is central to Fiske’s intellectual project of cultural critique.

The current debates around race and representation, both in terms of the ways that racial identities are portrayed and presented, and in terms of the sheer numbers of people of any particular group that are represented. So in this sense, I would see Fiske as pointing not just to the content of the performance, whether or not the character reinscribes some stereotype, but rather to the pressing political shift in terms of recognition. The Oscars were a breakthrough in terms of social and political pressure applied to the awards in a way that is unprecedented. Issues of diversity are not new, but the shift in our culture, such that they are now part and parcel of movie awards is front-page news and on the public agenda in a way I don’t think we have seen before. This defines something new, some shift in the “structure of feeling” in terms of how we as a society see ourselves and how the issue of diversity, in terms of recognition and validation, around the sheer numbers of people making cultural contributions can no longer be silenced or marginalized. Furthermore, the quality and popularity of minority dominated TV programs and films, also speaks to a shift in the fabric of society. To me this speaks to a new configuration of multiculturalism, a shift in terms of how we think of diversity on many levels of social life. I think this is very important for us to reflect on, given that when I was at Berkeley as an undergraduate in the early 1990s, multiculturalism, and the possibility of requiring a course of study on the topic was the political issue of the day.

There were strikes, sit-ins, protests, coming from both the left and the right, all over the possibility of having to take a course on multiculturalism. Now I teach courses on multiculturalism. It has become institutionalized. In fact my students today have grown up in an era where multiculturalism wasn’t something to be fought for, it is something that they take for granted (at least in terms of its rhetoric). In fact, I would argue that the issue of diversity and multiculturalism is one that is reconstituting the very social organization of society. Only through making multiculturalism central to both our thinking about society, and central to our politics, can we hope to gain any purchase on achieving social cohesion and reducing, if not eliminating, the mechanisms that structure societies in inequalities.

Second, as far as the ongoing interplay of news and entertainment, we have seen nothing but an ongoing erosion since the time of Media Matters. As Fiske argued, media have fundamentally changed our social relations in contemporary society, to the point where we can no longer rely on a “news” event vs. “entertainment” event distinction. When news and entertainment blur, distinctions of truth and false, real and unreal, objective and subjective distinctions become increasingly difficult to maintain. While I agree with Fiske that we cannot succumb to a pessimistic viewpoint that society has completely “imploded” into the “hyperreal” where the world is nothing but images, I do feel at times that we are getting closer and closer to that implosion. While I try and teach my students the forms of cultural literacy and cultural analysis that Fiske taught us, I see less and less “critical” in the ways those students interpret media and the ways they put those interpretations to use in everyday life. As a result, the analysis of media events, and the kind of cultural literacy and critical analysis Fiske advocated for, becomes ever more important in helping us negotiate these cultural shifts in society today.

Black Hawk Hancock is an Associate Professor of Sociology at DePaul University. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in Sociology, and his B.A. from the University of California at Berkeley in English and Philosophy. He is both an ethnographer whose work focuses on issues of race and culture, as well as a social theorist. His first ethnographic monograph, American Allegory: Lindy Hop and the Racial Imagination was published with The University of Chicago Press. His next book, In-Between Worlds: Mexican Kitchen Workers in Chicago’s Restaurant Industry, is currently under contract at The University of Chicago Press. His theoretical work includes two books with Roberta Garner, Social Theory: Continuities and Confrontations, 3rd edition (The University of Toronto Press), and Changing Theories: New Directions in Sociology (The University of Toronto Press), while his articles have appeared in such journals as The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, and History of the Human Sciences.