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

 You describe Media Matters in your introduction as a “diagnostic framework” for understanding contemporary cultural politics. What do you mean by this and can you provide some examples of what a diagnosis might look like? What symptoms might we identify and what conclusions would we draw as we think about the way the world has changed between when Fiske wrote this book and now?

I take the concept of diagnostic thinking from the political philosopher Hans Sluga, in order to show how Fiske explores the social terrain.[1] As such, I think we can see Fiske as a diagnostic thinker who seeks to understand the contemporary reality in which we live—the structures of feeling—the shifts in the social, economic, and cultural spheres of life that have opened up a multiplicity of understandings, perspectives, and ways of life that are not always compatible and congruent. In this sense he explores he racial, cultural, gender, and economic “illnesses” that are riddled through the social body, as well as offers practical modes of intervention into that illness, so that we can come to understand what is ailing us.

Media Matters offers us a diagnostic framework to unearth the cultural currents that give rise to the politics of everyday life in the media events that momentarily crystallize them. This diagnostic illuminates the ways media events can reaffirm top-down hegemonic or ideological positions, but also opens those positions up to interrogation.

By doing so, this expands our notion of the political by demonstrating how media events are never straightforward. They are always in need of analysis. Media events must be analyzed in terms of their specific contacts, and how different social positions in society render them intelligible and meaningful. Ultimately, media events reveal the complexity of social life and the social inequalities within which our contemporary society is structured.

I also think of diagnostic thinking in terms of what I consider to be the fundamental question that Fiske was always asking throughout his work—what’s going on society?—so the diagnostic approach in which one looks for symptoms, connects us to the dissection of media events. How do we treat them?

In looking at the events of Media Matters and today, there is an uncanny resonance. Once again we are thinking through an uprising in a poor African American neighborhood. As we look at the events of Ferguson, Missouri, we should ask if things really changed so much? Or are we seeing some issues of structural inequality in American society and the consequences of them when the community is pushed over the threshold?

In addition, with Antonin Scalia’s death, we are now in the political upheaval of appointing a Supreme Court Justice, as we were with Clarence Thomas back in the time of the events in Media Matters. It is hard not to think how prophetic the book is in looking ahead to what we see today.

We are at a moment when many are looking back on the period this book documents to try to understand the present moment — from a second Clinton seeking the White House to docudrama series revisiting the O.J. Simpson case. What would you hope a young person learning about the 1980s for the first time in an undergraduate class might take from Fiske’s account of this key moment of political change?

I think there are number of things that we need to consider here, most importantly the “Reagan Revolution” defined by a reactionary moral conservatisms the withdrawal of the state and social programs, the privatization of institutions, the notion of the trickle-down economy, his hostile anti-communist attitude towards Russia and the Cold War, which led to the massive military build up, the notion of “Star Wars” missile “force field” defense system—and the beginning of massive rates of incarceration. These are just a few of the issues I would hope students reflect on now.

Thinking of today, once again we have an actor, in this case Donald Trump, rather than Reagan who is now seeking the Presidency. To go through all these issues would be a course onto itself. But it is hard not to think how this whole nexus of interconnected issues shaped the world we see today. In fact with Trump, we see a resurgence of many of these issues, in terms of social panic around Islam and the rabid anti-immigrant sentiments parallel to the social panic around the Soviet Union and the rabid anti-communist sentiment of the day.

The withdrawal of the state that was occurring then has given rise to neoliberalism today. This unfettered economic logic has eroded social services and infrastructure, and has perpetuated massive economic inequality, to the consequences we have not even begun to understand.

Another significant development during this time to me, certainly defining my youth, was the rise of MTV as a cultural watershed. Here we have the full commodification of culture as spectacle. While commonplace now, maybe even irrelevant now, but then the cutting edge of music, fashion, even news, all packaged into a glossy visual medium that was nothing but advertisements. While primarily for tapes, videos, CDs and other music related commodities, MTV became the direct to consumer conduit for shaping the rise of a hyper-consumer society and the “branding” of products in ways that connected them with music stars, actors, and TV “personalities.”

I’m not sure that I can say enough about the role of MTV in shaping an entire generation, in turn completely redefining the cultural landscape, and through its indoctrination into cultural consumption, the economic landscape as well.

Your publisher placed an image of the #blacklivesmatter movement on the cover of Media Matters, and in many ways, this is the appropriate choice. Fiske describes in that book the kinds of demographic shifts (especially around race and ethnicity) which are having such an impact in today’s politics, he describes a range of “media events”, such as those around Clarence Thomas, Rodney King, and O. J. Simpson, which would become the focal point for discussions around race, class, and competing notions of the truth, and he predicts that we will see a steady stream of such “media events” moving forward. How might we use this book to make sense of some of today’s struggles around racial justice?

The Ferguson unrest, with the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in August 2014, and the months of unrest that followed, weighed heavily on my mind during my conceptualization of the introduction to Media Matters. I kept asking myself, what needed to be written for this politically charged book, in so far as it questioned and undermined the hegemonic perspectives of race, class, and gender in terms of the specific deconstructions and reconstructions of these specific media events?

In the spring of 2015 I put together a panel for the Pacific Sociological Association meetings with the Dean of the law school at UC Irvine and my colleague Bryan Sykes in the Department of Criminology, Law and Society. I titled the panel “Questions of Social Justice: Ferguson, Missouri and Beyond” I argued that the events in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York demonstrate how racial inequities in our judicial system erode perceptions of fairness among communities of color and reinforce beliefs that accountability and justice are reserved for white victims or individuals of higher social status.

Given the growing race and class stratification in employment, education, housing, and criminal justice, the purpose of the panel was to question notions of institutional legitimacy, accountability, and social justice around the unfortunate, untimely, and unnecessary deaths of young men of color. It was in constructing this panel and getting my two colleagues on board that the introduction to Media Matters took shape.

In preparing the introduction for the panel and my presentation, I began to sketch out how Ferguson was a “media event” in that it structured our view of who and what we are as a society. As a media event, Ferguson became a highly visible spectacle dominating the public consciousness and conversation. The uprising in Ferguson became a serious flashpoint where the underlying currents of racial inequality in social life boiled over into the mainstream of society. Like L.A. and Rodney King, we were able to look into the deep anxieties, conflicts, and contradictions in society that are often passed over in mainstream media or excluded from official channels of information.

What is most important is not the event itself, but the struggles that exist underneath the events, which continue on long after any one media event occurs. While the social clashes exposed in media events could lead to a political pessimism, instead they are opportunities for public debate and social engagement.

As flashpoints of cultural struggles, media events are also potential points of political intervention and political contestation opening up points of dialogue in the public sphere. I think the framework Fiske offers us, which allows us to see the multiplicity of perspectives, and the deep conflicting interpretations as to an event’s meaning and significance is essential for today’s politics and our struggles for racial justice.

While media events are highly temporal and fade as others occur and take their place in our public consciousness, we can pursue social movements around issues of racial justice by keeping those truths alive and part of public discourse. I think that movements like Black Lives Matter is doing just that, as they connect cases of police violence and the killing of young African American men across the country, showing us that the shooting of Michael Brown is not an isolated incident, but rather is a systemic problem through the country, one which demands our immediate and ongoing attention if we are to effect serious change in the way that we police society.

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.

 

 

 

 

[1] Sluga, Hans. 2014. Politics and the Search for the Common Good. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

 

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

Full disclosure: I was lucky enough to have had a chance to study under John Fiske, first at University of Iowa where he was a visiting scholar and later at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he closed out his faculty career. He was a gifted mentor, who introduced me to the world of cultural studies, as he did so many scholars of my generation around the world. While he retired several decades ago, I was able to spend some precious time with him last fall when I was in Cambridge on leave, and he still has the same irreverent wit and critical intelligence and the same warmth as a mentor. I am still learning from him decades later.

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I was honored several years ago to be asked to write the introduction to the reissues of the books he had published for Routledge, including Television Culture, which he was writing when we first met and thus will always have a special place in my heart. But the rights to two of his final books — Power Plays Power Works and Media Matters — were owned by another press.  They have recently been reissued with a thoughtful introduction, ” Learning How to Fiske,” by the sociologist Black Hawk Hancock. Hancock helps us to see why these works remain timely, even urgent, today and what lessons scholars and students might take from them to apply to understand more contemporary phenomenon.  Hancock shared with me some of the circumstances which led to their republication:

I was asked to be the keynote address for the luncheon/ acknowledgement ceremony for our AKD (honor society) students in the sociology department. Someone from the department usually does it. I usually don’t attend, but Spring of 2014 my senior colleague who runs the event was adamant that I do it. I was talking with Routledge at the time about PPPW, but nothing was decided. When you did the new editions in 2010 it lighted a fire and I pursued Verso for PPPW, since it is my favorite in terms of theory… So the night before I am to give this address, Routledge emailed and gave me the green light on a new edition. So I dropped everything, tossed the previous talk into the recycle pile and set out writing what was going to be the introduction for PPPW as I had envisioned it in my head for years. It would be a reworking of my presentation at Fiske Matters “Learning How to Fiske.” I thought what better way to leave our graduating students than with lessons learned from someone who continues to animate my intellect today—John Fiske. So at about 10 pm until 3am, I sat down and wrote down 9 lessons John taught us, lessons that were not about the classroom, but about being an intellectual and what should be expected of you as you went out into the world. So the talk was written purely from memory and was an overwhelming success. In actually putting the introduction together, I had to go back into the text to ferret out some material, but I was keen on looking at supplementary texts, as both introductions emphasize, so as not to repeat the arguments of either text verbatim.

Once they had my plan for PPPW, then they wanted MM. So that was a totally different undertaking, and I do outline the two animating factors in my thinking about MM, but again I didn’t want to just discuss the text, I wanted to let Fiske speak for Fiske. I just despise the introduction written such that it simply gives yu a summation of what the books says, rather than animates your thought about what the book can do, and that is what I attempted in the introduction to MM… I wanted the introduction to serve as a springboard for the relevance of Fiske’s approach to cultural studies and its applicability today. So the introduction to MM is really about the generative nature of Fiske’s thought and my attempt to draw out the implicit theoretical framework and tools that he undertook such a magnificent book.

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If Power Plays Power Works is Hancock’s favorite, Media Matters ranks as the book I would most like to see people read today. This is where Fiske dug as deep as he ever had into the specifics of how politics worked and what media had to do with it. He was writing in the wake of Bill Clinton’s election to president — a Democratic victory after the long years of Reagan and Bush. And he saw the election as a byproduct of both demographic and discursive shifts: America was moving gradually towards a minority-majority country and as those shifts occurred, there would be an enormous amount of struggle over race, power, knowledge, which would express itself he felt through a series of media events — such as the Rodney King beating, the confirmation drama between Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, or the O.J. Simpson case — which would often be the battle ground amongst competing frames for understand larger changes taking place.  And he discussed these shifts also in terms of how these discourses worked through and upon the kinds of popular culture circulated at these same moments.

Fiske’s analysis proved enormously prescient, especially as we watch how minority voters have become essential to Democratic candidates, the so-called Obama coalition, which may well determine the outcome of the fall campaign, and as we watch the struggles over race in America play themselves online and on television in the age of #blacklivesmatter and the Dreamer movement. Not coincidentally, we are seeing dramatic television productions focused on the O.J. case (The People vs. O.J. Simpson) and Hill-Thomas (Confirmation) and we are seeing all of this spill over into entertainment television — from Scandal to Blackish, from American Crime to Fresh Off the Boat, From Empire to Master of None, etc. Fiske’s theoretical tools and methodological moves in Media Matters, thus, could not be more timely and I hope the reissue helps more people to discover this work.

Hancock was enormously generous in responding to this interview. When I typically do these interviews, I tend to ask a mix of over-the-plate questions to allow the author to spell out some of their core assumptions and more provocative ones to push beyond the book’s frame. In Hancock’s case, though, I am asking questions about a book he did not write, and I realized only later that what I really wanted was for him to channel John Fiske and tell us how his ideas would have changed in response to, say, Donald Trump. It’s a bit like that moment in Bladerunner where they zoom in on a door knob and see around corners. In any case, Hancock has put an incredible amount of time and effort into providing substantive responses to my sometimes off-the-wall questions, for which I am much impressed and very grateful. The result is an extensive interview which reflects on Fiske, race and American politics from a range of different angles.

John Fiske remains one of the most controversial thinkers in the global Cultural Studies tradition — admired by his students, attacked harshly by critics. Why do you think his work remains so divisive? To what degree is the divisiveness part of what has made his work so generative?

I think a number of factors play into Fiske being a controversial thinker. First and foremost, the central role of resistance—by which ordinary people, through their own conscious or unconscious uses of the material and symbolic resources around them, defied being absorbed into some sort of mindless conformity of a uni-dimensional or mass society—drew the most backlash. This was often caricaturized or dismissed. I think the problem was that his critics failed to read him or just refused to take this seriously.

I find it comical now that so many of those names have faded into obscurity, while Fiske’s work is coming out in new editions. His work continues to endure precisely because of this issue.

Fiske was not simply concerned with Foucault and De Certeau, he worked across disciplines to gather the theoretical tools he uses—drawing from a wide range of theorists—Mikhail Bakhtin, Michele De Certeau, Michel Foucault, Antonio Gramsci, Stuart Hall, Valentine Voloshinov, and Raymond Williams. Other scholars may have drawn on some of these figures in their work, but Fiske drew on the all of them to construct his conceptual frameworks.

Furthermore, the role resistance played in his work was never something established a priori, but was only revealed by actually going out and seeing what was going on—what people were actually doing in everyday life. At the time he was writing, political economy and rational choice theory were dominant theoretical paradigms in the social sciences and communication studies. Fiske refused to fall into any sort of determinism or reductionism, structuralism, positivism, etc…or that any one social structure (political economy) could explain the complexity of social life.

Finally, he refused to think that people were duped by the system, or take an elitist position, like Pierre Bourdieu, that they were simply not smart enough to understand their own conditions of subordination and are therefore complicit in their own domination. Academics who accused him of promoting a “populist” agenda was absurd and intellectually irresponsible. Most of them fell into the very Bourdieusean elitism I mentioned, while Fiske was simply arguing that people are aware of their social conditions and can carve out spaces of autonomy, self-control, and agency relative to those social conditions.

As I started to think about the new introductions to Power Plays Power Works and Media Matters, I went back and looked at some of the original critiques and thought how ironic they were since, at least as an ethnographer and a sociologist or race and culture, Fiske’s ideas are taken for granted, in that they have become absorbed into our intellectual horizon. This is one of the main reasons that his work continues to speak to us today. In the ever-expanding neoliberalism and globalization, his works remain touchstones to help us think about ways of countering these social forces that are eating away at the social fabric of society today.


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For those who have a stereotypical conception of Fiske’s work, what sets the late work, especially Media Matters, but also Power Plays, Power Works, apart, from the earlier writings?  What do you think shifted in his thinking as he entered this final phase of his career?

I’m not so sure I would see them as radically different from his other work, in the kind of breaks or periods of thought in the works Foucault for example, but I do see in these two books the full crystallization of his methodological pluralism and theoretical synthesis. I also think that these two books are two sides of the same coin, in that Power Plays Power Works contributes in terms of theoretical frameworks for interpreting the world, whereas Media Matters contributes in providing the concrete empirical analysis of socio-historical events. I think they support each other while showing opposite ends of the intellectual spectrum.

Having thought a bit more about this, I could also say that the depth in which Fiske was exploring Foucault’s work, how central that became to him, does define the two works as different from the others. Power Plays goes deep into Foucault’s thought, and sets up the theoretical apparatus that he would use in Media Matters.

I think that is pivotal in thinking through these two works because when read together, there was a need, or so it seems to me, in this more Foucaultian approach to extend beyond reading popular culture and move into the realm of the concrete politics defining our time. In a sense Fiske becomes his own “specific” intellectual, to use Foucault’s term, for intervening into particular debates within which one has expertise. In the end that may be why Media Matters is such a charged and passionate book in its intensity and searing critical commentary.

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.

 

 

 

What Kinds of Difference Do Superheroes Make?: An Interview with Ramzi Fawaz (Part One)

From time to time, I use this blog to showcase new books released as part of the Postmillenial Pop book series which Karen Tongson and I oversee for New York University Press. As always, we are interested in hearing from writers and scholars who are doing projects which fit within the flexible boundaries of this particular series — we are looking for ground-breaking work on all aspects of popular media and culture, work that may explore themes anchored in the past but which always does so with an awareness of contemporary developments, especially those having to do with diversity and inclusion.

Ramzi Fawaz fits our notion of Postmillenial Pop perfectly, and it’s been a pleasure to work with him as he has developed and published his book, The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination. The book has been out for only a short while and it has already generated extraordinary responses. Here are just a few:

“A powerhouse one-of-a-kind book! By charting the radical transformations of the comic book superhero in the post-war period, Fawaz brings to light the extraordinary secret history of American Otherness. Truly fantastic.”

—Junot Díaz, Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

“I have never encountered anyone–not Art Spiegelman, R. Crumb, Douglas Wolk, Stephen Burt, or even Michael Chabon–who has addressed himself to superheroes with Ramzi Fawaz’s generosity of spirit and unsatisfiable critical fervor. In this book, one is caught up in the way in which we and the likes of Superman, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and the Silver Surfer share a common terrain of both history and imagination. All sorts of people will bring a long-nurtured, even fetishized familiarity to Fawaz’s pages, and it won’t survive–the most familiar stories are, here, radically, thrillingly new.”

—Greil Marcus, author of Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music

Here are just a few of the things I admire about this book: Fawaz knows his stuff — he combines a fan’s attention to the specifics of comics history with a scholar’s bent for theoretical insights especially having to do with race, queerness, global politics, and otherness. He takes his comic-book superheroes on their own terms with the right mix of playfulness and seriousness. He believes the comics of the 1960s and 1970s matter — in part because they offered alternative conceptions of masculinity, Americanness, and sexuality, that did not bubble up into the mainstream very many places in the popular and mass media of the era. They provide us with “memory traces” of a period of profound disruption and transition. He is not afraid to discuss the progressive and even radical potentials he sees within these larger-than-life stories, as well as to explore the ways that these graphic storytellers often compromised in their efforts to tell this stories through a commercial medium. And he sees the fans and the letters they wrote to the publishers as a kind of alternative public sphere, where people are willing to play with the possibilities for difference that these comics open up within their civic imagination.

All of this makes The New Mutants a lively read and perhaps one of the most provocative accounts of popular media I’ve seen in recent years. I strongly recommend this book, which has implications well beyond the emerging field of comics studies, since it represents such a great model for historically grounded ideological analysis of popular culture in all of its many variations.

As I’ve gotten to know the author better through our interactions around the book, I have come to value his passionate insights and challenging perspectives on popular media and the scope of his interests and expertise. What follows is a guide to how and why superhero stories matter and how and why we should integrate them more fully into our teaching and scholarship.

Why study superhero comics and especially why study superhero comics now?

At their core, superhero comic books tell stories about people gifted with extraordinary (and impossible) abilities who must contend with the question of what to do with those abilities: whether to use them to serve their own interests, to benefit others, to hide them altogether, or to forward a particular vision of progress, social change, or collective governance. These stories are fantasies in the sense that they explore bodily capacities—shapeshifting, controlling the weather, rapid healing, intangibility, super strength etc.—that humans do not actually have access to, in order to both take pleasure in the imaginative possibilities of expanded ability (which, let’s face it, is just plain old fun) and to meditate on what kinds of choices people make with the powers at their disposal.

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Superhero comic books then, are a living archive of our collective fantasies about a number of concerns including the nature of power (its pleasures and dangers), the meaning of ethical action and collective good, visual pleasure in witnessing impossible abilities, and the capacity to change the world. In that sense, superhero comics have a lot to tell us about the underlying desires, dreams, and aspirations that have motivated the American imagination in the 20th century; tracing how superheroic fantasy changes over time gives us insight into larger transformations in what it is that Americans fantasize about, how they struggle over competing visions of the use of power and force, and how they use visual media like comics to creatively narrate alternatives to their own conditions of existence.

Take for example the rise of the superhero team in the 1960s compared to the popularity of singular crime-fighting heroes in the 1930s and 1940s. In the 1930s and 1940s, Americans through the Great Depression and a second World War were drawn to fantasy figures like Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Captain America who were gifted with exceptionally enhanced strength, speed, agility, and fighting power. These heroes used their abilities against a variety of threats to the American way of life including fascism, poverty, political corruption, and organized crime. At a moment when the twin pillars of Americanism—democracy and capitalism—were in terminal crisis, such visions of individual will power, strength, and invulnerability projected fantasies of control over one’s destiny in a world where individual Americans had lost the sense that their personal choices could make any difference in assuaging large-scale economic and political catastrophe.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, however, superhero teams—collectives of individual superheroes binding together to use their powers in the interest of global and intergalactic peacekeeping—became extremely popular; unlike the culture of bootstrap individualism celebrated in previous superhero stories, 1960s superhero comics were dominated by narratives of cooperation, shared deliberation about the nature of a common good, and collective action against threats to the survival of a variety of species throughout the cosmos. These comics tell us something about the shifting fantasies of power that Americans held across this period, including the increasing desire for new forms of collective life and innovative ways to imagine cooperative practices of global care and ethical action.

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Neither the individualist superhero nor the superhero team were mere reflections of their times; rather they were extended creative meditations on what it would mean to enact, deploy, and inhabit different modes of power (whether individual will or collective action) at historical moments when those forms of power were in flux or just starting to emerge as genuine political possibilities: we might recall, for example, how in the late 1950s and early 1960s, global peacekeeping organizations like the United Nations and UNESCO, and egalitarian political movements like the Students for a Democratic Society, the Civil Rights Movement, and third world movements were beginning to provide models of what internationally oriented and democratic forms of governance could look like.

While comics reflected these realities, they also told epic tales of superheroic cooperation that unfolded over years of narrative storytelling, thereby producing extended explorations about what possibilities might unfold from the collective actions of formerly independent heroes; these stories necessarily projected a variety of possible outcomes to projects for global peace.

We should study superhero comics now because the fantasies they narrated and visualized throughout the 20th century have captured the imagination of almost every major American media outlet. While comic book characters and scenarios have appeared in a variety of American media forms since the 1960s (including the acclaimed Wonder Woman TV show, the Spider-Man and Super Friends Saturday morning cartoon shows, and the original Superman movies), starting in the late 1990s, that media influence has accelerated at an exceptional pace; even as Americans read less and less actual comics, they encounter superhero comic book characters with greater frequency and intensity in big-budget Hollywood films, web comics, video games, animated features, television series, toys and merchandise.

This suggests both the incredible durability of this particular fantasy figure, and its ability to do and mean different things in different media platforms. If for not other reason than its continued visibility and popularity, we should be curious about why this figure holds such a powerful sway over the American cultural imagination, and how its appearances in different formats accomplishes vastly differing kinds of work.


Your primary focus throughout the book is on superhero comics of the 1960s and 1970s. What’s changing about the genre during this period and why?

The 1960s and 1970s represented an extraordinary renaissance in superhero comic book production and creativity. The central creative transformation that helped catapult the superhero comic book to new heights of popularity was the intention reinvention of the superhero from a figure of white masculinity, individualism, and Americanism into a genetic and species outcast.

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In this period, comic book creators began to introduce a new pantheon of heroic figures who comprised a generations of mutants, freaks, misfits, monsters, aliens, and cosmic beings who questioned all kinds of assumptions about what it meant to be an ordinary human, or to be an “exceptional” heroic being. These characters—like the molecularly transformed members of the Fantastic Four, or the mutant X-Men, heroes gifted with abilities due to a genetic evolution in their DNA—articulated the value of difference itself, rather than simply exceptional humanity. They modeled surprisingly complex strategies for negotiating a world filled with ever more diverse superheroes, human allies, alien species, and cosmic beings.

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In my book, I argue that this creative shift radically altered the fundamental visual and narrative structures of superhero storytelling: this included the visual scaling upward of superhero comics from the local settings of inner city life (where characters like Superman and Batman traditionally fought urban crime) to a vast range of global and intergalactic locales where superheroes met unexpected allies and fellow travelers, encountered conflicts on distant worlds that echoed the internecine struggles of warring humans, and found ways of finding common cause with people unlike them.

In other words, comics in this period became visually more bombastic, colorful, and expansive in their scope, depicting superheroes traveling the world and the far reaches of space, uncharted civilizations, and even the infinitesimal world of molecules and atoms.

Simultaneously, comics in this period became more responsive to a new generation of young readers who were being influenced by the New Left, the counterculture, and the Civil Rights movements. These readers were savvy teenagers and young adults who sought out the pleasures of comic book fantasy both to be entertained and to see their burgeoning political values modeled and explored in their favorite imaginative stories. Through published letters to the editor, fan clubs, and comic book conventions, readers found new ways to communicate their values and aspirations to creators who engaged with, incorporated, and sometimes productively disagreed with readers’ worldviews. Ultimately, this meant that 1960s and 1970s superhero comics were the product of complex negotiations between creators and readers, rather than merely the creative invention of a single author or creative team.


You discuss the political project of postwar superhero comics as a kind of “world-making.” What do you mean by world-making and how does this concept help us to understand the ways that such comic books might contribute to fostering public discussions around core issues of their times?

I use the term “world-making” to describe acts of creative innovation—including the imaginative invention of fictional characters and stories, and the development of new aesthetic techniques—that facilitate the formation of social bonds, networks, or interactions in the everyday world. In this way, I see world-making as the site where creative or imaginative labor comes into contact with the work of forging solidarities, affinities, and connections in the social realm.

I borrow the term from the fields of science fiction studies and queer theory: in science fiction studies, world-making (often used interchangeably with the term world-building) is understood as the creative work that goes into forming a fully functioning, internally coherent fictional world with its own rules, values, logics, and flow. In this understanding, world-making is a kind of loving attention to the richness, detail, and complexity of a social system that one has imagined into being.

In queer theory, a variety of thinkers like José Muñoz, Lauren Berlant, and Michael Warner, have used world-making to describe the creative and gutsy ways that sexual minorities have invented cultural practices—from drag performance, to camp, to underground sex cultures, to artists’ salons—that allow them to find community and belonging within a larger dominant culture that denigrates and despises them. In this sense, world-making is understood as involving strategies of social survival that allow one to flourish among others who similarly do not fit into the prescribed logics of a homophobic, sexist, and racist society.

In The New Mutants, I deploy world-making in such a way as to link these two senses of the term. I seek to gain leverage on the ways that the creative development of fictional fantasy worlds can contribute to the production of everyday intimate bonds that produce spaces of social possibility for marginalized and outcast people.

This understanding of world-making helps us grasp how superhero comic books of the 1960s and after produced expansive creative worlds (or fictional “universes”) populated by misfit and outcast characters who’s exploits galvanized a generation of readers to forge substantive social investments in the content of comics and their collective reading practices. Superhero comics readers in this period had the opportunity to write to creators (and potentially have their letters published in monthly letters columns appearing at the end of individual issues), respond to one another’s published letters, convene in fan clubs, collaboratively produce fan zines discussing their viewpoints and investments in various series and characters, and potentially join the comic book writing and drawing community.

The creative worlds that comic book companies like Marvel and DC produced in the 1960s then, actively helped forge a social network devoted to exploring the cultural and political ramifications of the stories they were telling; readers of these stories often thought of themselves as outsiders or maladjusts to the norms of American society, not only in their sense of being fans of a denigrated popular media like comics, but also for some, in their attachment to the egalitarian and democratic ideals espoused by so many of their favorite comics. World-making accurately describes this phenomenon and allows us to gain a better understanding of the ways that fictional or fantasy storytelling shapes social life.

Ramzi Fawaz is Assistant Professor of English and Affiliate Faculty in the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at UW Madison. His first book, The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics won the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies Fellowship Award for best first book in LGBT Studies.

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.

 

 

 

What Kinds of Difference Do Superheroes Make?: An Interview with Ramzi Fawaz (Part Three)

You discuss the “queerness” of certain superhero characters — notably the Fantastic Four. In what senses are you using this term and what does it capture about these characters and their relationship to the dominant construction of American family life during this period?

I use the term queerness broadly to describe modes of being in the world that thwart the direction of presumed heterosexual desire and life outcomes, including monogamous romantic coupling, marriage, and reproduction. The terms strikes me as an incredibly powerful and compelling descriptor of comic book superheroes in the 1960s and 1970s because these characters’ stories focused so intently on the ways that misfit, outcast, and mutant superheroes constructed alternative kinships, struggled with competing romantic desires, found themselves more invested in relationships with other outcasts (as opposed to traditional marriage and romance), and often sidelined the goal of reproduction for other practices of world-making.

The Fantastic Four is a brilliant example of the queerness of superhero comics in the 1960s because it depicted four heroes who’s family bond is a chosen kinship (two of the characters are bound by blood but they are orphans). The four become a family both because of their shared experience of being mutated by cosmic rays, but also because of shared ethical values and investments.

The flexibility of their kinships allows them to pursue relationships of affinity and common cause with all manner of life in the universe so that, within the first decade of the series publication, the characters had made allies and community throughout the cosmos. Finally, because queerness references questions of intimacy, sexuality, and kinship, it allows us to talk about how comics successfully projected new kinds of bodily fantasies through these categories, and by making the superhero more vulnerable to human needs and desires.

There has been a concerted effort by Marvel in recent years to diversify their cast of superhero characters, thus we have a black Spider-man, an American Muslim Ms. Marvel, an all-female superhero team, a female Thor, in comics and the emergence of Jessica Jones and Agent Carter on television. In what ways is this push to diversity an outgrowth of the developments you discuss here? In what ways are the underlying approaches to diversity different?

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Ultimately, I think the difference between today’s diversification of characters in Marvel Comics versus the diversity presented in 1960s and 1970s comic book worlds is a distinction between the goals of representational diversity on the one hand, and the investment in exploring the problem of difference on the other. In other words, the mere expansion of different kinds of characters—women, ethno-racial minorities, the disabled etc.—is distinct from the project of exploring how people are different from one another and what they do in response to those differences.

Certainly, the creative world-making of 1960s and 1970s comic book production involved an expansion of the representational diversity of superhero characters—including the introduction of African American, Native American, and international casts of characters and increasing numbers of women superheroes—but this diversification took place within a broader ethos of exploring difference, encountering a range of people throughout the universe, and responding to their unique worldviews.

There are many elements of today’s increasingly representational diversity that are compelling, but this push lacks a fundamental attentiveness or interest in the problem of difference—that is, how people negotiate the fact of their differences from one another—which leaves the diversity of contemporary superhero characters flat and, frankly, boring. I discuss the distinction between these two models of diversity at length in a piece I wrote for Avidly the LA Review of Books blog: http://avidly.lareviewofbooks.org/2016/01/28/the-difference-a-mutant-makes/.

What is interesting about a character like Jessica Jones, to take one example, is not simply that she is a woman superhero, but that she is different than most superheroes in the Marvel Universe because she doesn’t necessarily feel compelled to use her powers for a broader ethical mission. She is, at core, a good person, but she doesn’t have grandiose visions of her own heroism.

This is a difference that matters, in a sense, because it means her motivations, investments, and actions are guided by totally different criteria than most of her fellow superhumans in the Marvel Universe. Her gender plays a role in this difference and significantly shapes how she views hero work, but it isn’t the single or most important variable in the formation of her character.

The series explores the multiple articulations of her difference from other Marvel heroes, including but not limited to her gender, and paints a beautifully complex, gritty, and sometimes unpleasant portrait of this deeply divided character. Her series, then, addressed a substantive difference while also diversifying the ranks of superhero comic books. This is the kind of diversity I find compelling, what I would call true heterogeneity, and that I argue superhero comics championed in the 1960s and after.

Ramzi Fawaz is Assistant Professor of English and Affiliate Faculty in the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at UW Madison. His first book, The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics won the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies Fellowship Award for best first book in LGBT Studies

What Kinds of Difference Do Superheroes Make?: An Interview of Ramzi Fawaz (Part Two)

What roles do formal aspects of comics play in your analysis? Is your book primarily about ideological change or does it also help us to understand the visual strategies of comics as a medium?

Perhaps one of the greatest pitfalls of comics scholarship has been the tendency to separate formal innovation in the medium from social and cultural context. Some scholars have sought to produce universal theories or concepts for explaining how the formal mechanics of comics function, including the movement and flow of sequential panels, various conceptual uses of “the gutter” (the space between panels), the spatial arrangement of narrative, and so forth. While such efforts are valuable for understanding how the medium works in a broad sense, they cannot explain how particular formal qualities of comics get articulated or linked to distinct ways of knowing, seeing, or understanding the world at particular historical moments (or for specific creative projects).

In other words, it’s one thing to explain how the movement of panels across space conveys the passage of time in a comic strip, but wholly another to show how this movement across space is deployed for a variety of different purposes in different kinds of comics, graphic narratives, or works of art. For example, in action and superhero comics the temporal movements across space might signal speed, intensity, or action, while in a graphic novel about AIDS in the 1980s it might signal the deterioration of the human body under the strain of illness across time.

In my book I stress the fact that comic book creators in the 1960s and after actively articulated the formal qualities of the comics medium to new kinds of values and ideals related to the image of the outcast or mutant superhero: for example, the expanded scale of global and intergalactic adventure these heroes engaged took advantage of the idea central to comics art that anything that can be drawn can be believed. In other words, creators realized that if they presented readers with a massive double-page collage of a distant alien planet, readers would believe it; or if they drew superheroes shrinking to the size of a molecule, that would be believable too.

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The ideal of global and cosmic encounter between mutants, misfits, and freaks across all manner of differences then, was materialized through a formal scaling upward of the visual field of comic book art. Similarly, the space between panels, which commonly denotes movement across time, was used to underscore the mutating and shape shifting qualities of this new generation of superheroes: a hero that appeared as an ordinary human in one panel, might appear on fire in the next, invisible, encased in metal, solid rock, or altogether not there.

Ben Morphs into The Thing

Creators exploited this visual trope by making the transition between different embodied forms appear ever more strange, vivid, or intense in order to underscore a variety of bodily transformations that were indicative of the diversity of modern superheroes. In and of itself, of course, the ability to visually depict change across the space of multiple sequential panels is nothing new as a formal trope in the comics medium; rather what was new in the 1960s was the linking of that formal trope to particular instances of bodily transformation. I try to highlight these moments to show how form was one vehicle through which creators expressed a new set of values and creative or imaginative ideals to their audiences.


What roles did comics fandom play in tapping into what you are calling popular fantasy? Would these texts have been as significant on their own terms without the larger conversations and debates they provoked amongst fans?

The significance and cultural power that superhero comics had in the late 20th century would have been severely limited without the existence of a vibrant fan community. This is not to say that the comics would not have been popular or subsequently worth studying, but that their public, social, and cultural dimensions would have been intensely circumscribed. Simply put, fan communities made a form of mass culture (the mass produced superhero comic book) into a form of American public culture (a shared object of collective concern involving a range of participants).

By responding directly to comic book content, using their collective influence to transform the ideals and creative innovations of comics, and participating in a variety of public dialogues about the meaning, nature, and value of superheroes and their medium of origin, fans made superheroes matter, both figuratively in the sense of their significance or social value, but also literally by encouraging the actual material production of more superhero stories across time.

I see fans as neither simply the catalysts for, nor the pure consumers of, superhero comics, but as central participants in the production and circulation of the imaginative worlds presented in their pages. Whether or not Stan Lee or Jack Kirby intended to make a statement about feminism when they introduced the character Sue Storm as the Invisible Girl in The Fantastic Four, it was readers who brought the character within the orbit of feminist debates, demanding a more significant presence for the character in the series, disagreeing with those who believed women superheroes were weak or useless, and underscoring the values of gender diversity in comics. Fans allow us to move our attention away from questions of authorial intention towards shared practices of meaning making, which I believe is a far more compelling and substantive way to understand what role comics have played in our culture.

Dissertation Chapter 3 Resized Figures 1

Given the dramatic ideological reworking of the superhero you describe between its origins in the 1930s and 1940s and what it would become in the post-war period, what accounts for the persistence of this genre over time? Why did not the earlier configuration die out as has to a large degree happened to the western or the Musical?

First, I believe superhero stories remain compelling because of the extraordinary range of ways they can be told. The Western and the Musical both had very long lives (and they are certainly not “dead,” though they may have lost their exceptional popularity), but they were often fixed formulas with a limited number of permutations.

Superhero stories are broad because the genre is less defined by a distinct narrative structure than by a figure, a person with unusual or exceptional abilities, who can be placed in an endless set of scenarios. Until or unless we simply cease to have bodies at all, in a rapidly technologically advancing society fantasies of bodily capacity or superhuman ability will continue to be a key site where we imagine, work through, or grapple with both the limits and possibilities of humans’ ability to influence the material world.

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At the same time, the specific popularity of the superhero in media like film and television has a lot to do with special effects technology; the mere fact that we can now visualize some of these formerly drawn fantasies as though they were “real life” on screen is one driving force behind big-budget film adaptations of superhero comic book stories. In the golden age of Hollywood musicals, the technical ability to choreograph and film large numbers of people in synchronized dance was one motivation (among others) for producing these films.

The long gap in superhero filmmaking between the original Superman and Batman movies and the more recent film adaptations of superhero stories that started with the 1999 release of the first X-Men film had much to do with the failure of special effects technology to adequately capture the full extent of different superheroes’ abilities. With recent advances in special effects technology that allow for the visual representation of such abilities, these movies have exploded in popularity.

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At the same time, during an extended period of intense national crisis, it makes sense that a figure that can easily be articulated to physical and military power has taken a hold on the American imagination. Since so many of these movies are quite literally expressions of technological power—the power to represent superhuman power itself—they often jettison the egalitarian political values of their comic book counterparts for epic stories of Manichean conflict between superhuman champions. They are essentially fantasies of technological superiority in a chaotic world.

Civic Paths Hotspot: Remixing the U.S. Presidential Campaign

Donald Trump for President? Don’t make me laugh!

Well, actually, laughter may be one of the most effective forms of political speech in an election cycle with so many over-sized personalities, so many odd twists of fortune, so many outrageous statements from all the parties involved. We are reminded of an earlier political advertisement from the 1972 U.S. Presidential election where laughing away the opposition turned out to be a key gesture.

Over the past term, the Civic Paths research group has been developing a shared framework for thinking about contemporary politics, one which has been inspired by the groundwork we had done for our recently released book, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism. Here are a few of the defining traits we’ve been talking about together:

  • Activists have always promoted social change by tapping the civic imagination. That is, before you can change the world, you have to imagine what a better world looks like. More and more, young people are using popular culture references as a shared frame of reference for debating the kinds of future they want. This form of the civic imagination tells us what we are fighting for.
  • The civic imagination may also require us to envision dystopian alternatives — worlds gone bad, evil triumphing — so we know what we are fighting against.
  • Activist media is designed to circulate — it is spreadable — through informal social networks both on-line and off, and one of the most effective ways to insure circulation is to make people laugh.
  • These new forms of activism rely on the mechanisms of participatory culture: young people — many of whom would not have been politically active otherwise — are being drawn into engagement via what researchers are calling participatory politics.
  • So, one of the ways to bring these insights together is to be attentive of the ways popular culture and politics are remixed into memes which circulate within and sometimes spread beyond participatory culture communities.

These memes can deploy a range of different media, as we will see — from the tangible to the digital, from images to videos. We are thus seeing a Bernie Sanders-themed musical, modeled upon Hamilton, and Donald Trump as a evil warlord in the world of Game of Thrones, to cite just two examples, of the civic imagination at play.

Sanders ( Bernie Sanders + Hamilton ) from Tabitha Holbert on Vimeo.


We hosted a show and tell session where members of our research group identified examples of grassroots mashups of the political process that were circulating within their own communities. We brought them together for comparison and analysis. And what follows here are short pieces intended to share some of the conversation they engendered. Many of these, as you will see, use parody to express ideas about what is going on out there on the campaign trail and to share what it might mean for the people who will be most impacted by the outcome.

We’ve love to see examples you encounter in your own social networks and especially we would love to see examples of how these same practices may be deployed by conservative groups, given that most of our examples take a more progressive stance. These materials are ephimeral, but significant, in understanding how politics works today. So, we are trying to assemble our own archive for future research and teaching.

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“Participatory Aesthetics” by TJ Billard

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hyperakt (hyperakt.com), Brooklyn, NY

Untitled1Shawn Hazen (hazencreative.com), Chicago, IL

Both of these pictures demonstrate the way appropriating the graphic elements–and in particular typeface–of Obama’s campaign allows citizen content producers to contribute to the campaign’s messaging. The first of these pictures is interesting for two reasons: it uses Gotham (the typeface used by Obama’s campaign) to tie the image into the campaign’s official content, and it uses the famous picture of Barack and Michelle as well; but it also riffs on Shepard Fairey’s HOPE poster, engaging simultaneously with the official campaign content, as well as other citizen-created content. The second image more simply reflects the appropriation of the campaign’s official typeface and color palette, blurring the lines between citizen-originated content and campaign-originated content.

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Mark America Great Again by Yomna Elsayed

We have witnessed some extreme, sometimes “surreal”, political rhetoric this election season. But, many times the response to surreal rhetoric such as that of Trump or Cruz, was equally surreal, even hilarious. After all jokes are a temporary displacement from the control of the conscious to the arbitrariness of the subconscious[1]. Hence it was not surprising to see comedy flourish in atmospheres of fear and racism. Lawrence Levine in his Black culture and black consciousness records how slaves used humor for a variety of purposes from self-control, by releasing a wide range of inhibiting energies and feelings, to subversion and control of the social situation, by using the majority’s stereotypes in their humor “in order to rob them of their power to hurt and humiliate”. Jewish humor was also utilized as a “political weapon and as a provocative form of entertainment during (and in response to) an extreme state of a culture under threat of extermination”[2]. In either case, one can say that humor was a response to a situation that goes beyond human reason, one that deals with primitive human feelings of hate and fear. Humor certainly entertains, but it also works to challenge our perceptions by inviting us to reconsider taken-for-granted assumptions in a different light, bringing about cognitive dissonance to our clearly defined unproblematic understanding of the world. It does so, without necessarily incurring our resistance, but rather clandestinely encouraging us to laugh at ourselves in the company of others. Ultimately, notes Levine, laughter is a social phenomenon.

At a time of conflict, our response to jokes depends not only on how clever they are, but on our relation to their subjects and butts as well. Therefore, the more we identify with a leader the less we are going to enjoy jokes at his or her expense[3]. Hence jokes demarcate by defining those who share the joke as ‘we’, and those who don’t, as the ‘other’. But to muster the will to laugh at someone is to exert power on oneself and others; a power to overcome one’s helplessness in response to what appears to be a ridiculous situation on one hand, and to turn the tables and laugh at those in power (a temporary exchange of places) on the other. In colloquial Egyptian, if someone successfully ridicules someone we’d say, “He has left a mark on them” and that’s precisely what humor does. Humor could be a temporary release of energy, but it is also one that leaves visible marks on what once seemed to be unconquerable.

This election season, Trump has been the subject of many comedy shows from SNL sketches to the daily show’s satirical commentary. His outrageous comments regarding minorities, coupled with his unrestrained trolling, made him an amusing figure to media pundits and comedians alike. Other less professional ones, focused on Trump supporters by attending Trump rallies and recording their reactions to seeing an unlikely face. Though others suggested that this maybe an opportunity to reach out to Trump supporters (who “identified with Trump for a reason”) rather than simply ridicule them. However, of the funny videos circulated around Trump, “Your Drunk Neighbor: Trump” stands out to me.

“Your Drunk Neighbor: Donald Trump” has so far garnered over 1 million views since its release in October 2015. The video appeal lay in its use of incongruity, and surprise to draw laughter from viewers. This was one of the few sketches that removed Trump from the presidential candidate podium to a more familiar setting and character: a drunk neighbor. By juxtaposing Donald Trump speeches with the familiar image or frame of “your drunk neighbor”, it exposes the irrationality and lack of seriousness in choosing Trump as a presidential candidate: much like choosing your drunk neighbor for president. However, this video would not have been as successful if it did not build its humor on grounds of a non-threatening familiar situation1, such as that of drinking beer over your porch’s rocking chair in a warm summer afternoon. Furthermore, a recent survey by the university of Quinnipiac, showed that Trump’s name had a polarizing effect “on Americans attitudes about general statements and policies” advocated by the presidential candidate. With such polarization, humorous videos like “Your Drunk Neighbor”, can take away the edge of political criticism, inviting viewers, supporters or not, to assess their position in a non-threatening light situation of both entertainment and release. For Trump himself, one can say, at the very least, it “leaves a mark”.

[1] Douglas, M. (1968). The social control of cognition: Some factors in joke perception. Man 3(3), 361-376.

[2] Kaplan, L. (2009). In Jenkins, H., McPherson, T., & Shattuc, J. (Eds.), Hop on Pop: The politics and pleasure of popular culture. Duke University Press Books.

[3] Lewis, P. (2006). “Divided We Laugh”. In Cracking up: American humor in a time of conflict. University of Chicago Press, pp 1-20.

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Collection of Election-related folk art for sale on Etsy by Samantha Close

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From left to right:

“Ted Cruz Republican Leading the Fight” from ConservativeArt

“Feel the Laser Bern” from DanSchaubDesigns

“Women for Hillary jewelry” from slrfreespiritjewelry

“Donald Trump doll” from TobeyTimeCrochet

 

The stuff of politics is never supposed to be important.  Signs get taken down, pamphlets get thrown away, and people move on to laws, policies, and budget disputes.  In traditional thinking, this arena of financial appropriations and negotiating which and what laws make it on the books is the important political “stuff,” the way you see what the candidates are really made of.  There is a lot of truth to this.

But, as Stephen Duncombe (2007) points out, this is also a highly intellectualized, rationalized, and cerebral way of understanding politics that misses out on much of what inspires and motivates people to take part.  The craft and folk art objects related to candidates in the 2016 presidential election that are pictured here suggest a different, more affective and emotional relationship to politics that requires an outlet in durable, material stuff that will remain long after the candidates are selected and the election concluded.

The contemporary political climate in the United States, as many of my comrades are pointing out in this discussion, is often highly cynical.  Political talk is heavily inflected by irony, humor, and sarcasm—to the extent that, at first glance, many might wonder if the folk art pictured here isn’t taking the piss rather than being sincere.  It’s an elitist, urban—Duncombe might say traditional leftist—sensibility that sees a hagiographic woodcut or hand-penciled (and sharpie-d) portrait as parody rather than proud declaration of identification and admiration (Sweeney, 1997).

Particularly in communication and cultural studies scholarship, this kind of highly invested affective relationship is more familiar in the realm of fandom—we would have little pause in characterizing a Harry Potter amigurumi doll as made out of love.  It is past time that we take as much care and bring as much nuance to analyzing how identification works on an emotional level in the domain of political communication as we do in the domain of popular communication (for one example of such analysis, see Liana Gamber-Thompson (2016) on Libertarian fandom).

Such a politics is at once more and less empowering for the average citizen and very different from how we were taught that our political system works in sixth-grade civics.  It much more closely resembles the Christian “What Would Jesus Do?” philosophy, oriented towards the impact of identification and belief in daily life rather than in official spheres (Jackson, 2006).  This is in line with the religious overtones and symbolism of much candidate-related folk art.  This election folk art suggests a different interpretation of the ubiquitous question “does my vote matter?”  It matters because it matters to the voter, not necessarily for them.

References
Duncombe, S. (2007). Dream: re-imagining progressive politics in an age of fantasy. New York: New Press ; Distributed by W.W. Norton.
Jackson, G. S. (2006). “What Would Jesus Do?”: Practical Christianity, Social Gospel Realism, and the Homiletic Novel. PMLA, 121(3), 641–661.
Jenkins, H., Shresthova, S., Gamber-Thompson, L., Kligler-Vilenchik, N., & Zimmerman, A. M. (2016). By any media necessary: the new activism of American youth. New York: New York University Press.
Sweeney, G. (1997). The King of White Trash Culture: Elvis Presley and the Aesthetics of Excess. In M. Wray & A. Newitz (Eds.), White trash: race and class in America (pp. 249–266). New York: Routledge.

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It’s Over 1000! by Rogelio Lopez

crbergen

I came across this on my Facebook newsfeed and thought it was funny/interesting. The piece is by artist CR Bergen and was apparently posted to his Tumblr on April 5, 2016. The illustration re-imagines a scene from the Dragon Ball Z animated series, where the characters Vegeta and Nappa sense the protagonist Goku’s increase in power as he becomes enraged. The scene became a widely circulated meme on its own, due to the hilarious voiceover for the phrase “It’s over 9000!” Bergen uses the scene to interpret the unexpected populist rise of Bernie Sanders, comparing him to DBZ protagonist Goku. At the same time, Hillary Clinton is compared to Vegeta, an antagonist of the series. The image clearly provides a comical critique of Clinton and the DNC by associating her to imperialist villains from DBZ, while showing support for Sanders. The “Feel the Bern” pin on Sander’s characters while he is engulfed in blue flame is a nice touch.

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Hashtag #HillarySoQualified  by Limor Shifman

hillarysoqualified

Zach Haller ‏@zachhaller

#HillarySoQualified she can only win by buying votes

The story of this hashtag, which started as a pro-Hillary response to Bernie Sanders’ assertion that Clinton is not “qualified” to be president and was quickly hijacked by Sanders’ supporters, is particularly revealing. What it seems to expose (beyond Clinton’s inferiority in this scene) is that some forms, or templates, of participatory “positive” commentary are almost by default inviting cynical responses. Hashtags which are cynical, or ironic, to begin with are thus more likely to maintain their original agenda (e.g. ##distractinglysexy,  #benCarsonWikipedia).

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Donald Trump and Mean Girls by Chloe Yuqing Jiang

I came across this video shared by a friend on my own Facebook news feed last week.

Being one of the biggest fans of Mean Girls, I found this video extremely interesting and captivating (probably given the fact that I could memorize the whole script by heart). The video “stars” Donald Trump as Cady Heron and incorporates some of the key arguments Donald Trump has been making. It also highlights these arguments which makes it amusing to watch. The video was posted on April 3, 2016 under the account TheCrazyGorilla, a YouTube channel made by two guys who produce funny videos weekly. With 185,456 views on YouTube, I think it is a smart idea to combine politics and entertainment to raise more awareness on election, especially for those who are less tuned in with political issues. This video might inspire more young people to create more relatable content like this and share the message through social media platforms to reach more audiences.

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Bernie of Hillary Meme by Michelle C. Forelle

meme1 meme2 meme3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is a meme I’ve been seeing all over my Tumblr dashboard. According to Know Your Meme, the meme originated from a 12-image post simultaneously put up on Tumblr and Reddit on January 28, 2016 by user ObviousPlant, with the caption “Left in the streets of Los Angeles”. It is clearly designed for people to mess with, with big text fields that are very easily Photoshopped. What’s particularly interesting about it is that the blank template could be used by supporters of either candidate – when it’s blank, there is no indication who is favored. Interesting note that I found on the KYM entry for this — there is a Facebook group, now with over 436,000 members, called “Bernie Sanders’ Dank Meme Stash”.

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#Time2Escalate: A movement of movements by Emilia Yang

The Black Lives Matter organization, the anti-deportation campaign Mijente (#Not1More), and the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance (which works on global issues including climate change) promoted a call with a hashtag first popularized by the white-ally network Standing Up for Racial Justice: #Time2Escalate to agitate Drumpf through the GOP’s summer convention and beyond in order for white allies to join and take a stance.

Anti-Trump protesters aren’t trying to change anyone’s mind. Here’s their strategy. (Vox explainers)

The action and the push towards escalation is based on some of these assumptions:

http://us3.campaign-archive1.com/?u=ccd613dafe6681329ae72b256&id=e90f9c901c&e=5649f5c71f

http://mic.com/articles/139615/wisconsin-s-white-people-want-to-stop-donald-trump-too#.9hiDklRz3

Bernie is almost as cute as Mujica <3

http://thingstolovefor.tumblr.com/post/142065321382/every-time-i-see-something-like-this-im-on-the

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Trump’s Bizarre Election by Yining Zhou

makeamericagreat

I found this image on my facebook stream, repost by several friends whose interest lies in the intersection between manga and politics.  Trump was put in a scene from Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure (JJBA) series. In its third series, Stardust Crusaders, JJBA introduced the concept of  supernatural power called “Stands”, which was the semi-physical manifestation of the user’s psychic powers resembles a spiritual familiar standing next to them.

On one hand, the picture offers a critique, pointing out Trump over emphasises “the stance” all the time. On the other hand, it is hilarious smart to juxtapose Trump election with Jojo’s adventure, implying that both of them are kind of radically idealistic and bizarre.

That Was Then, This is Now: Confessions of a Former Teenage Punk

Earlier this term, I featured a number of blog posts written by students in my Public Intellectuals Seminar. The following is another example of the work that emerged from this assignment.

THAT WAS THEN, THIS IS NOW:

CONFESSIONS OF A FORMER TEENAGE PUNK

—Matt Pascarella

 

The Only Lit Parking Lot In Town

I worked nights at the Turkey Hill gas station in Mt. Carmel, Pennsylvania during my last two years of High School.  A typical shift involved stocking and organizing the freezer with ice cream Snicker’s bars, Hot Pockets, and the famed Turkey Hill ice cream.  Then I’d move on to the shelves in the store, restocking bags of potato chips, candy bars and cigarettes. I’d clean as I re-stocked, and then I’d head outside to our massive sign on the corner where I’d change the price of gas with a long pole, which had a suction cup on the end. It was like putting together a puzzle that loomed over you by 20 feet.

 

Then I’d shake out my apron, slick back my hair and take over the register, relieving the shift and taking charge of the store all on my own until about 11pm.  I would do my homework at that register in between selling gas and scratch-off lottery tickets. Everyone always wanted the scratch-offs that were called “Win For Life” but the best I ever saw won was a mere ten bucks.

 

When my school work was done, I’d turn to writing out ideas and sketches for art projects, song lyrics, and poems on the back of old receipt paper. It was usually around that time that I’d get a call from my manager who would tell me that she happened to pass the store on her way home from Bingo or wherever the hell she was, and that she had seen there were kids hanging out in the store’s parking lot once again.  She would say this to me as if the apocalypse was upon us and that the only way to prevent it’s fruition was to rid the parking lot of these savages, ordering me to, “Tell them to leave right now or else I’m calling the police!”

 

They weren’t doing anything crazy — just revving engines, talking to each other, laughing, making plans and making-out.

 

At that point in my life, I was a senior in High School and I had attended about a dozen schools up and down the eastern seaboard.  I knew that kids always create spaces to hang out. But in the Coal Region it was different. My first night in town a horde of kids were chasing a bear through the streets. There just was not much going on, and it turned out that my Turkey Hill’s parking lot was literally the only lot in town that kept its lights on at night. So when my manager would call freaking out, I’d then hang up the phone, walk outside and would tell the kids that if the cops showed up, well, I’d defend them.

 

I must have looked ridiculous standing there with my military buzz cut, holding a broom, wearing a red apron, a white buttoned-down shirt tucked into khaki pants.  Of course, my attempts to defend them never really worked out because most of the time the local cops would descend anyway — all officers on duty at the time, bored and looking for kicks — flying in, sirens wailing, surrounding the parking lot and telling everyone to go the hell home on loudspeakers.  Clearly, they were the ones disturbing the peace so I protested in my own ways, quickly becoming the only employee at the store that charged the cops for coffee when they came in during their shifts.

 

Awakening

In many ways, my true coming of age in terms of becoming intensely critical of media and politics, began to take over much of my life around this time.  It was a time when access to the internet was sparse, and so I’d set off for Bloomsburg, the nearest college town. To do so, I had to risk a drive through the next town over, Centralia — which was abandoned due to a mine fire that ran out of control decades earlier and was still raging on beneath the very road that I had to take. I’d drive the forty minutes each way to Bloomsburg because there was a record shop there that sold Punk Planet magazine and I always had to have its latest issue.

 

I remember the March/April 1999 issue of Punk Planet as clear as yesterday.  The cover story was called ‘the murder of Iraq’ and it detailed the impact of US-driven sanctions in Iraq and an organization that was defying those sanctions in order to provide life-sustaining food and medicine to people who were starving and dying.

 

Just eight years prior I had experienced the first Gulf War in my own intense ways as a child who would watch neighbors and loved ones as they were shipped off, fearing that my own mother — a single mom and a Private in the US Army — may be deployed as well.  My brother and I would sit in large gymnasiums and salute the flag before being told that our community was being mobilized for war in order to promote democracy and freedom in Iraq.

 

Reading this report in Punk Planet eight years later as a teenager began to add a whole new complicated and nuanced set of layers about the world I found myself in, and I felt like I was being pushed to a place where I would have to tackle those issues and unpack those layers head-on.

 

Then the ‘Battle in Seattle’ took place.  I poured over all the coverage I could get at the time.  Each day, I’d walk down to the newsstand, which was one of the few businesses left on main street at that time, and I’d pick up every paper that had a story about the protests against the WTO.   I’d speed home to cut the stories out, paste them on the walls in the loft of a garage we had out back — which was falling apart but that I turned into a makeshift studio — and I’d read the coverage over and over again.  I was in awe that so many people, from so many walks of life, showed up to protest together.  I wanted to know what motivated the protesters; would they be successful in getting what they were asking for; what would increase or decrease their odds of success; why did certain coverage paint the protesters in a bad light; and many, many other questions.

 

I began listening to Jello Biafra’s spoken-word albums.  The most influential of which was his three-disc release, ‘Become The Media’ which was released in the Fall of my senior year.  Soon after, I started my descent into a Chomsky rabbit hole by first reading his ‘Profit Over People.’ I then began exploring Zinn’s work and a history of the United States that was left out of my high school history books.  I then moved on to Nichols and McChesney, and began to understand the media’s role in a healthy democracy, and how this was being subverted by corporations who cared more about their bottom lines than providing a public service.

 

As I’d drive down the narrow backroads of Coal Township, PA each day, making my way to my tiny catholic high school, I’d blast Anti-Flag’s album Die for the Government, screaming along with their songs about how the government failed to care for the veterans of the Gulf War who had been exposed to chemical warfare.  I knew the story firsthand, and yet I’d put all of that aside as I would walk into the school, head to my locker, and take off my blue hoodie adorned with band patches and safety pins, before stripping down to a uniform that matched everyone else: a pressed white shirt, tie, and dress pants and shoes.

 

Back then, our group of friends would share stories, create community and collaborate on projects together.  But it was all offline.  We made our own zines, our own posters for our band’s local shows, made t-shirts and other random merchandise to sell at shows, and we’d also play fundraisers to help local kids and to try and save the few local music venues that still existed within a 100-mile radius.

 

We would abuse the photo-copying honor system in the school library and at Staple’s and we’d copy chapters in books that we wanted to pass on to each other.  We’d make mix tapes, and we’d remix cover songs like Eddie Money’s Two Tickets To Paradise, opening it up into our own vernacular — putting out our own spin on stories and media that we encountered and thought worth passing on.  We’d meet friends at a show or at the local Denny’s and sit around talking and drinking coffee until sunrise.  We’d go to our older friend’s apartments and watch films like Empire Records, Clerks, Gia, and Office Space.  We drank Schlitz beer and gut-rotting Gin, ate horrible canned food and ramen, and got tattoos at truck stops.

 

Yet as ‘defiant’ as we thought we all were, most of us shared something that we rarely, if ever talked about: We were poor.  Well, at least most of us were, and so most of us knew that our shot at a future better than where we had come from was incredibly slim at best.  But what was often our saving grace was the simple fact that we had each other.

 

Many of our parents, despite their best intentions, simply did not have the capacity to help us map out our possibilities, much less offer us a helping hand to actualize such possibilities. They were too busy trying to survive and provide for their families on the most basic of levels. They were treading to stay afloat at blue collar jobs day in day out, before coming home at night to screaming kids and stacks of bills. If we were lucky, the best thing any one of us could get would be a teacher who cared and took it upon themselves to make sure our college applications and scholarship essays got done.  But even they seemed to be a rare experience for most of us.

 

By that time, my mom had become one of the top recruiters in the US Army.  A large proportion of my graduating class had already enlisted in the military.  Most of them were skinny, white, 17-year old kids who had never left the state.  Yet they knew and I knew, that the chances of affording college and getting the fuck out of what was one of the most economically depressed regions of the country, came down to two options: Get a scholarship, or join the military.  It was a time of peace and the military was a ticket towards a better life, a better future.

 

My late night study sessions standing at the Turkey Hill counter paid off.  With the help of my art teacher, Gina Rice, I somehow landed a scholarship at a small liberal arts school in New York City. After surviving Y2K and stepping into a new millennium, suddenly my prospects in life appeared much brighter.

 

But as quickly as that brightness emerged, it was dimmed.  Within just four months of graduating, the twin towers were struck down, the Pentagon was hit, and once again, the communities I came from were readying themselves for war.

 

This time it would be a never-ending, globe-spanning war that would not cease for decades. This time I knew even more people being sent to the front lines — some of whom never returned.

 

As the ashes were still falling in Lower Manhattan, my only choice, my only shot at a worthwhile future, was to pack up my car and head to New York.

 

I stopped at the Turkey Hill to fill up my tank, and as I drove through Centralia for the very last time, the world itself was suddenly on fire.

 

What I choose to do with my life

You know you suddenly have acquired privilege the moment you realize your life is yours, and that you can make the decisions that will likely determine your own fate. That is a feat that most people on this planet simply cannot claim, and it is something — particularly as my friend’s were being shipped off to war and I was entering my first college classroom — that was never lost on me.

 

I kept that knowledge close to my heart as I fell into investigative journalism soon after landing in New York City. I was 19 when I started working with Greg Palast, researching and producing his stories for BBC, The Guardian, Harper’s, and many others. We turned those reports into books, and we dreampt up trans-media, on and offline, grassroots campaigns. I led teams that, together, turned those books into NY Times bestsellers. Some of the reports we did even had an impact on changing laws in several countries. Yet one of the coolest experiences out of all that was producing two spoken-word albums with Jello Biafra. Just three years earlier, he had awakened me into politics and media, and here I was suddenly producing work with him. One of the albums we produced together even hit the top of the CMJ charts!

 

From there I helped launch and run Tar, a successful international arts and culture magazine printed on a single-sheet fed press in Italy. The NY Times called it “A thinking man’s magazine,” and TIME elected our second issue as one of the top five magazine covers of the entire year!

 

After that I helped bring Demotix — a citizen journalism photo news wire with tens of thousands of contributors in 180 countries — into the United States. Demotix went on to win a Media Guardian Innovation Award, a Webby award, and was nominated for the Knight-Batten Award for Innovation in Journalism, among many others.

 

I then went on to work with the brilliant team at Art Not War to support and lead teams that produced trans-media promotion campaigns for the launch of successful organizations and impact projects. This included Van Jones’ Rebuild The Dream, the 99% Spring, and award-winning, viral political advertisements for MoveOn.org. I then lead a national citizen journalism watchdog organization called Video the Vote during the 2012 cycle.

 

 

Back to School

Soon after Video the Vote, I sold pretty much everything I own, took out a massive student loan, and got on a flight to London.

 

After landing, I joined a cohort of some of the most incredible people I’ve ever met. They hail from all over the planet, and together we have been studying for a dual degree at LSE and USC Annenberg in Global Media and Communication. I want to finally get my master’s degrees because in the near future I want to teach at community colleges and high schools in under-served communities, while working for individuals, organizations, and companies that are developing tools for citizen engagement and civic participation.

 

While much of my past work has been very focused on developing high-impact, story-based initiatives from the framework of impacting national change, I am currently pursuing work that attempts to understand how social change takes place when positioned from ‘glocal’ perspectives.

 

In other words, I am interested in how civic institutions, organizations, and campaigns attempt to stretch their work beyond traditional borders of nation states by taking on global issues within specific local contexts, as well as how local issues are being addressed by institutions that situate these issues within a global context.

 

This work involves exploring and expanding upon existing empirical research, and experimenting with theoretical models from a host of disciplines including social psychology, sociology, interpersonal and organizational communication, media studies, as well as work in the fields of economics, socio-cultural anthropology and global studies. These models help build a repertoire of practical applications concerning the role that media and communications can play in leading this form of social change.

 

 

Impact Generation

The biggest take-away from that work, in addition to my past experiences is, as follows:

 

I have heard my generation referred to as apathetic, as not giving a shit about the world we live in, as unfit to change the all-out destructive course prior generations have left in their backwash for us to drown in.

 

But I don’t believe any of that.

 

I believe my generation — millennials — are more aware, smarter, and far more meaningfully connected to each other, than any generation prior.

 

In fact, the consciousness which binds us as a generation is to make the world a better place, and we share a fundamental collective desire to accomplish that together.

 

We are far from uninterested, unconcerned or unmoved when it comes to the challenges of our day. We are not apathetic. In fact, we are acutely-aware of the cacophony of problems bequeathed to us.

 

Unlike generations before us, we were born with an average of 232 synthetic chemicals already in our bloodstreams due to our mothers’ involuntary exposure to a toxic world. We grew up with the fear of AIDS, race riots, NAFTA, the WTO, a stolen presidential election, 9-11, brutal wars that have no end in sight, and a savage economic disaster that left millions in our country homeless and unemployed. We grew up with major American industries bleeding out, with rampant corruption, with greed and even the bankruptcy of an entire city — all while watching the planet melt in front of our eyes — oil spill, after oil spill, after oil spill. Super storm, after superstorm. Hurricane after hurricane.

 

We are well aware of what we have inherited and it is offensive to say otherwise. We are sick from the problems and of the problems.

 

It is not that our generation does not care about what is happening to our country and to our world. It’s that the traditional systems for participating have long since imploded. And so we are left starving for logical, accessible, meaningful, and actionable pathways for participating in real solutions.

 

That is why we have been at the forefront of coming up with the alternatives, with working hard to build new ways to make our voices heard, with solving the problems of our day, and with having a lasting impact on the betterment of the world — and we have been doing this work despite the tremendous obstacles that have been thrown in our paths.

 

At the heart of this, is that it is in my generation’s marrow to gather in the only lit parking lots we have in order to share our stories, to collaborate on meaningful projects, and to build communities of action that are already leaving the world in a better place for the generations that will follow. And if those parking lots don’t exist, we will make them ourselves.

 

Coming back to school has not only expanded my critical thinking and my research skills, it has also led me to become friends with incredible people — people who each, in their own ways, have reminded me of how proud I am to be a member of this generation.  As I walk across the stage at graduation one week from now, and begin to look for what’s next in my career, my only hope is that I can continue to play my part in building the tools for people to participate in solving the biggest problems of our day.

Happy Star Wars Day!: Odds and Ends

bunky_04

Bunky Echohawk is a Pawnee artist: his picture, “If Yoda Was an Indian, He’d Be a Chief” represents a Native American repurposing of the iconic figure from the Star Wars saga. I stumbled upon it reading a fascinating article, “Navajos on Mars: Native Sci-Fi Film Futures,” suggested to me by my graduate student Samantha Close. The essay moves from a consideration of the way indigenous cultures around the world have been appropriated for science fiction film and literature, and in return, more recently, how these same groups have sought to tell their own stories within the science fiction genre. There’s a wealth of resources and insights here that I have just begun to dig into, but I wanted to flag this for others who care about science fiction as a genre and about current struggles to bring more diversity and inclusivity to the entertainment industry.

I am opening this post with this image because today is May 4, unofficially known as Star Wars Day. The designation comes from the bad pun, “May the 4th be With You,” but over the past few years, this holiday has taken root amongst fans, and Star Wars day stands not only for the George Lucas franchise but also for a broader appreciation of the popular imagination.

And of course, fans are not the only ones to attach themselves to this emergent national holiday. This morning, John Kassich released a Star Wars themed campaign video, describing himself as the GOP’s “Only Hope.” Of course, Kassich suspended his campaign just a few hours later, leaving all of us utterly without Hope. And Kassich is not the only Star Wars fans among the candidates this season, since Hillary ended her remarks at one of the debates with “may the force be with you” and Ted Cruz’s campaign did its own remix video.

I have intended this post, however, primarily as a shout out to #TeachMeYouDid, an innovative campaign by the Rebel Alliance, a fan activist group focused on calling out the role of dark money in American politics, to pay tribute to teachers and mentors who have made a difference in their lives. As it happens, this year, May the 4th coincides with National Teacher Appreciation Week, and so an enterprising group of fans have chosen to use the resources of participatory culture to call attention to educators, who like Yoda did for Luke, have taught them to see themselves and the world differently. For more information about the campaign, visit their homepage. Below are some of the videos produced by fans in response to this call.

I am posting this late in the day because I have been, well, busy myself as a teacher as I help my students through the end of the term. But I had promised Andrew Slack from the Rebel Alliance that I would share some of my thoughts about teachers and teaching as a way to help promote this worthy project, so here are a few brief and inadequate thoughts.

As someone who has been working in the space of media literacy for the past decade plus, I often think about the incredible educators I have had a chance to meet. I have enormous respect for the many educators around the country who have chosen to incorporate media literacy activities and resources into their teaching in the absence of institutional support and sometimes in the face of institutional opposition. They have done so because of their own personal commitments to insuring that their students have the capacities for critical thought and social action. They have done so, sometimes, by bonding together within a larger media literacy movement, forging networks with other teachers, seeking out insights through journals and website and podcasts and blogs and webinars, mostly on their own time and at their own expenses.

Let me be clear that when I talk about educators, I do not mean only classroom teachers, but also librarians, community organizers, religious leaders, and others who have brought discussions of media literacy into their domains. I find this commitment inspirational but also frustrating, because there’s no question that many more resources and interventions are needed. Part of the point of bringing media literacy into our schools is to insure equal access to experiences and knowledge which can help us to foster a more participatory culture.

We have been lucky to be partnering with educators from the National Writing Project and the National Association for Media Literacy Educators as we are launching our new book, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism. You can access the book online for free thanks to the collaboration of New York University Press and the MacArthur Foundation. It is one of the launch titles for a new series focused on Connected Learning.

One key theme we stress in the book is that these new activist groups have been successful in part by bridging between the everyday life concerns of youth and the realm of contemporary politics. Neta Kligler-Vilenchik describes “mechanisms of translation” which enable organizations, such as the Harry Potter Alliance and the Nerdfighters, among many others, to help young people grasp political issues via connections forged with popular media franchises which are already part of their world. We’ve found that these groups are not necessarily attracting the “usual suspects” — that is, white middle class upwardly mobile youth, but are also attracting youth who might not have been inspired to take civic action in any other way. Research has traditionally shown that young people are most apt to become politically engaged if they are raised in families where the parents model participation and have dinner table discussions about current events, where they have access to teachers who bring political figures and practices into their classes, where they participate in after-school groups which have a civic focus, and where they volunteer in their community.

Reflecting on the educators that matter to me, I can see ways that my own civic path was shaped both by traditional and informal means. Lately, I’ve told the story with an emphasis on informal paths into politics. For me, the key text was Star Trek which modeled what a better, more diverse, more inclusive, and more accepting society looked like, and helped to foster my civic imagination. I was watching Star Trek even as I lived in a segregated community, went to segregated schools, and attended a segregated church. And I did so even as I was living in Atlanta which was at the center of the Civil Rights movement. So these things came together to inspire a strong sense of social justice, especially as it related to issues of freedom and equality. My political consciousness came a bit later: I was a child of the Watergate era, becoming obsessed with watching the hearings on television, and plowing through the vast archive of documents being released to the public. I first voted in the 1976 election when I supported Mo Udal as he struggle unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination.

But, telling the story that way cuts out the strong role which educators played in that process. As I think about my civic education, I think first about Betty Leslein, from whom I took American Government and a range of other social science classes. She was herself actively involved in trying to form a teacher’s union and she later ran for the Georgia General Assembly (allowing me to help her campaign). She knew government leaders at all levels and brought them into her classes. I recall for example meeting Max Clevland, who would later become the head of Veteran’s Affairs during the Carter Administration and who later still became a U.S. Senator: at the time, he was a representative in the state government, as I recall. Leslein gave extra credit for attending governmental hearings, and this got me to watch city council meetings and the like. She supported her students even when it put her at some risk: I worked with student leaders from a range of high schools to pull together what we called the Students Rights Organization, and she let us use her house to host our first meeting. Unfortunately, news of the meeting leaked to the Principals and the school board, and as a result, we all got called on the carpet, including our teacher. But she had taught me the importance of standing up for your beliefs, taking risks in the name of your core rights, and getting involved in the political process. These lessons have stuck with me for more than 40 years. I was lucky some years back to sit down with Ms. Leslein, then retired, and share with her my own experiences, including testifying before the U.S. Commerce Committee after the Columbine shootings, and it was wonderful to see the pride in her eyes about how I had continued to build on the skills and knowledge she had taught me.

But, I also had the other advantages that the research on civic engagement flags. I had parents who were very active in their communities, and especially in their church community. I was very active in a range of school activities, including student government, the school newspaper, and the debate team. There, I recall with fondness Donald Meeks, who was the adult leader of the debate team (we never won a debate but we had a grand time together) and Marjorie Throckmorton, who was the faculty advisor to the student newspaper (and what a plague I was on her, given my tendency to always push the limits of what we could publish and sometimes cross the line.) I also benefited from participation in the Boy Scouts of America, where we were blessed with great adult leaders, and where I had my first experiences teaching, including teaching merit badges around theater and photography, early steps into the world of media studies.

By the time I was an undergraduate, then, I was well on my way to being an active and engaged citizen. My mother even allowed me to claim to be sick for a day when I went to a Democratic party gathering where all of the core candidates for the 1976 nomination were speaking. As an undergraduate, I once again had great teachers, though, including George Grief, a nervous retired city editor, who sharpened my writing and thinking skills through putting me through my paces in my first reporting classes. But above all, my life was influenced by William Thomas, then a leading expert on the U.S. Supreme Court. Thomas was also someone who brought the world into his classroom and sent his students out into the world: I remember most vividly a course I took on Criminal Justice, which had us riding in patrol cars with cops, watching trials in courtrooms, interviewing prosecutors and defenders, and otherwise trying to make sense of the various ways that discretion entered the legal system. He was the advisor for my undergraduate thesis, which dealt with film and politics in the 1930s.

But one day, he pulled me aside and said that he had noticed that while Political Science was my major, my real passion was the work I was doing on the Entertainment Section of the campus newspaper, and that I should consider going to graduate school in film studies. There were two things in that sentence that changed my life — the first was the idea of going to graduate school. I was among the first in my family to go to college and none of us had gone to graduate school so the idea had never crossed my mind. I COULD GO TO GRADUATE SCHOOL! And second, I had no idea you could go into graduate school in film studies. This sent me racing to the library, looking up programs, and putting together the pieces which would shape the rest of my working life. So, Thomas has always been a model for me of a committed teacher and mentor, someone who notices the abilities and interests of students, someone who helps them find a path that makes sense for them, even if it not necessarily the path you have followed yourself. Thomas, after all, was a political science professor and I was a major in his department, so going to graduate school in film meant changing fields. I have thought about Thomas a lot as we’ve been putting together this new book, which is very much about what we look at politics through the lens of media and cultural studies. Sometimes paths diverge and converge in unexpected way.

It’s been a long time since I’ve heard from any of these teachers. I am not sure which of them are still with us. I’d like very much to hear from them if this post reaches their eyes. But regardless, I want to use this post to say thanks to them and the many other educators who have made a huge difference in my life.

May the Fourth Be With You.

Multichannel Networks and the New Media Ecology: An Interview with Stuart Cunningham and David Craig (Part Three)

The Amazing Race this season has featured a range of social entertainment personalities as their contestants, and many of them seem to be recognized as they travel around the world in ways that previous contestants on the show have not. Does this suggest something about the transnational nature of the media ecology you are describing? Is this another example where U.S. produced content dominates global markets or are we seeing talent emerge in other national contexts which circulates as broadly?

There is indeed a strongly transnational dynamic in new media ecology. Take a couple of examples: Turkey takes a particularly strong interventionary stance with regard to the potential disruption to the political, religious and social order posed by the digital platforms, including YouTube, and has regularly blocked them. The national carrier, Turkish Airlines, however, uses YouTube content creators and multichannel networks in developing a clone of the Amazing Race format ‑ youth-oriented, social media-based engagement strategies ‑ in its attempt to build brand recognition in the ultra-competitive international airline market. Musicians like Elissa from Lebanon or Iranian-Saudi Arabian acapella artist Alaa Wardi or comedians Bader Sadeh, aka the “Saudi King of Comedy”, have harnessed SME platforms to launch global careers and secure cross-cultural and diasporic Middle Eastern audiences less inhibited by local online platform or content censorship. An Australian multichannel network primes aspiring online musicians in their attempts to break into booming Asian pop scenes. India has experienced breakneck growth of amateur content creation, while China is creating a parallel universe of social media entertainment unbeholden to Western platforms and capital.

It is notable that 80% of YouTube traffic comes from outside the US, and 60% of creators’ views come from outside their home country.

Media globalisation has been an enduring topic in film and media studies. It is possible to posit a qualitatively new wave of media globalisation based on the global availability and uptake of YouTube which is relatively frictionless compared to national broadcasting and systems of film and DVD release and licensing by “windowed” territory. And compared to film and television, there is very little imposed content regulation (apart from substantial self-regulation) on the major platforms such as Google/YouTube and Facebook ‑ some of the world’s largest information and communication companies ‑ as their use as content distributors proliferates globally. But it is media globalisation with the difference.

For streaming services such as Netflix, aggressive global expansion (having reached 130 countries to 2015) requires it to negotiate with pre-existing rights holders in each new territory and often requires it to close down informal means of accessing its popular content such as VPN workarounds in such territories. While, longer term, the streaming giants may well drive territorial licensing to the wall, SME content is largely “born global”. This is because this massively growing content industry, in stark contrast to content industries in general and Hollywood and broadcast television in particular, is not primarily based on IP control. YouTube elected to avoid the messy and legally cumbersome traditional media model of owned or shared IP. YouTube also avoided paying fees for content as well as offering backend residual or profit participation. Rather, YouTube entered into ‘partnership agreements’ with their content creators based on a split of advertising revenue from first dollar. In the eight years since the partner plan launched, YouTube has secured over 1 million YouTube partners worldwide.

YouTube talks of being primarily a facilitator of creator and content in the many international markets in which it operates. The key difference between traditional media operating multi-nationally and YouTube is that the former produces, owns or licences content for distribution, exhibition or sale in multiple territories, while the latter seeks to avoid the conflation of YouTubers as the IP creators with YouTube as “platform” and “middleman” operating to facilitate linking of brands and advertisers with YouTube creators and MCNs.

There are significant reasons for YouTube not taking an IP ownership position, which have to do with its continued status as a platform or online service provider rather than a content company. The US Digital Millennium Copyright Act 1998, in addition to criminalising circumvention measures and heightening the penalties for copyright infringement on the Internet, created ‘safe harbour’ provisions for online service providers (OSPs, including ISPs) against copyright infringement liability, provided they responsively block access to alleged infringing material on receipt of infringement claims from a rights holder.

Sceptics would argue that while anyone can post content on YouTube and the other video sharing sites, only a small handful gain the top level of visibility. So, what kind of filtering mechanisms are at play here? Does this suggest the persistence of old-school commercial criteria in shaping who reaches the top? Can we make a case that the production and circulation of niche content plays a different or more significant role here than in other media systems? Should our focus be on the true mass successes, applying Broadcast standards, or should we consider the amplified voice available to creators who reach smaller audiences that are still significantly greater than they would have been able to reach in the past?

 

While most critical scholars will assert the top-down, determining hand of corporate capitalism, we think the situation is a little more nuanced than that. Digital platforms provide the fundamental communicative affordance and certainly (attempt to) profit from the communicative activity that takes place on the platform, but they do not determine what content works, what ‘trends’, what ‘goes viral’. The great part of the platforms’ agency in respect of content is responsive/reactive, not determinative. The greatest busyness on the part of the platforms is the massive undercurrent of work responding to takedown notices, maintaining the precarious viability of what is managed as civic/civil discourse. It is estimated that Google deals with more than 60 million takedown requests a month! Meanwhile, of course, the AdSense algorithm takes care of the basic revenue streams that continue to pour into Google’s coffers. As Temple University communication professor Hector Postigo says, YouTube is in the happy position of betting on all the numbers at the roulette table.

Stuart, you’ve spent much of your career focused on questions of media policy, and I know some critics have argued that the media policy tradition has lost its way, shifting from a focus on public service media, towards one more centered around issues of entrepreneurship. What would you say to such critics in terms of the agenda and policy implications of this current research?

Contemporary policy questions, including media policy, can be very much preoccupied with issues of entrepreneurship. Perhaps not so strongly in the US, but in many countries media policy concerns itself with the sustainability of start-up careers and small and medium businesses as well as curbing or harnessing the power of the big conglomerates. If there isn’t vibrant local content production capability to command space in the media diet, what’s the point of curbing or harnessing Big Media power?

Traditions of independent public service media, which of course are much more central in the media ecologies of Western Europe, Canada, Japan and Australia than in the US, are engaged these days in the facilitation of regional and local capability. In Australia, for example, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) engages with media entrepreneurs, including YouTube content creators, by providing off Broadway opportunities through iView, its hugely successful catch-up service.

David, you’ve come to this project with a background working in the American entertainment industry. How have your own experiences as a media-maker impacted your agenda and perspective on this project?

This project has exposed, affirmed, and challenged my deep-seated subjectivities. As a former producer and programming executive, I am hyper-attenuated to certain topics and perspectives. Not surprisingly, I can’t seem to stop discussing the agency and precarity of creative management and labor.

Plus as an LGBT producer, activist, and scholar, I may be more attentive to their presence although this functions counter-intuitively. I can sometimes be even more cynical about the progressive value of these LGBT creators, their commercial and representational practices, and potential media effects.

In addition, I am fluent in “Hollywoodlish”. This argot allows me to better understand and critique some of these industrial practices as well as filter out some of the Caldwellian industry “spin”. That said, when it comes to “techlish”, I am often lost in translation.

Alternatively, I fall into old patterns of privileging business logics over critical, cultural, and media effects. Fortunately, I have Stuart there as a mitigating influence, forcing me exert some distance from the economics of this industry to more critically account for how power is operating both positively and negatively in this space.

None of us can project the future, but does your research provide any insights on where all of this might be going? What are the long-term implications of the trends you are identifying and documenting here?

The new digital platforms are competing as much against each other as they are posing challenges to established screen media industries. There are clear dividing lines between platforms (Netflix, Amazon) committed to professional content and competing directly against cable and broadcast and those which, though iterating content strategies and monetising through advertising, remain firmly on the social media side of social media entertainment (Facebook, Vine, Snapchat, Instagram). YouTube sits somewhere in the middle. More intense competition with diverging business models amongst these platforms may see a destructive fragmentation of the new screen ecology.

There is an emerging sense that we might be coming to the end of the first phase of the development of social media entertainment. In the eighteen months since Disney acquired Maker, the acquisition of or investment in these SME intermediaries has declined. There is emerging evidence that the rate of venture capital investment is slowing, indicating that the entrepreneurial ‘buzz’ around the multichannel networks has dissipated. The platforms’ revenue model has been based around programmatic advertising and this has significant limits, although we have seen evidence of platforms moving to capture a higher order value by building brand relationships, squeezing the MCNs in the process. Subscription is being trialled (Red) and this has seen YouTube flex its muscles in a way that should really worry anyone who sees cultural potential in social media entertainment.

There are historical precedents and some impetus for the assimilation over time of this new screen ecology into mainstream protocol and practice, but there is more evidence to suggest it may grow in parallel with, and as a continuing challenge to, the more traditional, established modes of professional screen industrial practice. Rather, with proliferation of new screen platforms capable of luring away traditional media advertising, there is less incentive for the new screen players to transition to the mainstream. Having carved out their own media brands, through unique audience-centric practices and content innovation, the social media creator might survive as a wizard of a parallel screen ecology. Then we’d no longer be in Hollywood, Dorothy.

Stuart Cunningham is Distinguished Professor of Media and Communications, Queensland University of Technology. His most recent books are Digital Disruption: Cinema Moves Online (edited with Dina Iordanova, 2012), Key Concepts in Creative Industries (with John Hartley, Jason Potts, Terry Flew, John Banks and Michael Keane, 2013), Hidden Innovation: Policy, Industry and the Creative Sector (2014), Screen Distribution and the New King Kongs of the Online World (with Jon Silver, 2013), The Media and Communications in Australia(edited with Sue Turnbull) and Media Economics (with Terry Flew and Adam Swift, 2015).
 
 
David Craig, Ph.D. is a Clinical Assistant Professor at USC Annenberg’s School for Communication and Journalism, where he teaches multiple courses regarding media and entertainment industries, management, culture, and practice.  He is also veteran film, television, web, publishing, and stage producer and former television programming executive at A&E and Lifetime.  He has produced more than thirty projects that have garnered over 70 Emmy, Peabody, Golden Globe, GLAAD, and other awards and nominations including two personal Emmy nominations.  In addition, he is an LGBT media producer, activist, and scholar and has his doctorate from UCLA and masters from NYU.