Science Fiction and the Civic Imagination: Whose Future Does Science Fiction Foretell (Part 3)

Samantha Close: So, thank you all so much for coming. This is really interesting. So, we’ve talked a lot about what we may call it primary texts and primary authors and originators. But one of the things that’s always interested me a lot about the science fiction and fantasy genres is the fandoms and the way that readers become writers and start to interact. And there’s been a lot of conversation in fandom recently about, you know, issues of what does it mean if you take a character and change their race, what does it mean, you know, to reimagine worlds this way, why is this something that hasn’t been done. If we can imagine alien biology, why not a character of a different skin color? And so, I was wondering about the fandoms around these kinds of works.

Nalo: And what specifically about the fandoms are you wondering?

Sam: I guess, we talked a certain amount about this being kind of more underground and more, you know, artistically focused. And so, is that kind of more the mode of fandom where people are reading text and analyzing them or are people kind of transforming, is there interchange between the artists and with the writers and the readers?

Nalo: Some of them, some of them not. They’re not, as far as I have found a lot of people in fandom doing fan writing based in my work. I have found people doing illustrations. And that’s always cool to see how somebody else imagines your work. But it’s also a bit of a shock. What I like about fandom in the science fiction is the ways that it can — they don’t have to have breaks. So, saying earlier that they can imagine stories into places that we might feel we might not want to or might not be able to get published or — and when I first discovered what the term slash came from, which was a fan writing Kirk/Spock fiction where Kirk and Spock were lovers. It made so much sense, I almost stopped breathing. It was, oh my God, of course, I’ve never seen it that way. Of course, that’s what’s going on.

So, I value that. I have to say for myself there is also the reaction of often there isn’t the type of craft I would — that I prefer.

I like the energy of the discussion that happens because they don’t have to deal with the kinds of considerations a published author does. I remember when the last Bordertown anthology came out, it’s a shared world anthology. The world is established and writers are invited to write stories in it. The creative board of talents specifically says, you can write fan fiction, listen, I have no problem with that, you’re not allowed to publish it. And finding a fan discussion board where they’re saying, well, why not, what’s the difference. The writers we’ve invited are writing fan fiction. And they’re getting paid for it.

William: I think the indigenous film and literature sci-fi genre is already so marginal that there’s not a lot, I think, that might be categorized exactly as fan fiction. But I think going back to the idea of imagining and the image, there’s a lot of parody through art. So, if anyone knows Bunky Echo-Hawk, he’s an incredible artist and he’s got a lot of takes on Star Wars. He has this image of Yoda which is titled “If Yoda was an Indian he’d be chief.”

He also engages Darth Vader as Custer, and the mustache works right with his mask. The imperials are the Americans, are the Europeans. So, he plays on that imagery to take it one step further than metaphor. And Walking the Clouds is just great compendium of lots of indigenous science fiction literature. It’s not fan fiction, it’s the canon.

And then there are some things that are parodies, like we watched earlier, the Star Blaks which is from the show Black Comedy in Australia, which is a parody of Star Trek. I think you have more fandom when there is a center to be marginal from.

Muhammad: There’s a lot of re-imaging of familiar western sci-fi. Many things like that are going on in the Muslim world. So, one that I would highly recommend is — there’s a series of paintings by this Turkish artist, Murat Palta. He reimages a lot of western movies like Star Wars, Scarface, Inception, but done in the style of Persian or Ottoman miniature paintings. And those are really amazing. You should — I highly recommend checking them out.

And also in Turkey, I’m not sure if that was intentional, but Turkey — in the 1970s and 1980s, Turkey has this tradition of — reimaging is, I guess reimaging not necessarily the right word, but they re-made some of the western movies like Star Trek and Star Trek, and they have this quality of it’s so bad that it’s good. Those are really interesting to watch.

More recently, there’s a — they just came out just a few months ago. There’s a British-Pakistani artist who reimages Superman but the difference is that his pod lands in Pakistan instead of Kansas. And he actually takes, one could argue that Superman closer to his original looks as compared to what we have been seeing in Superman lately. So, for example, the one thing that — it becomes a political commentary on the Pakistani society as a whole.

So, one thing that Superman — this version of Superman does is that — he does not actively use violence, for example. But during the drone attacks on Afgan-Pakistani border, he actively destroys those bombs which are going to hit civilians, for example. So, it becomes interesting commentary in its own right.

Audience 2: Yeah. I had a question actually for William. And it kind of jumps off a little with Professor Jenkins’ asking regarding the colonizing of genres. And it has to do with whether you could talk a little bit about the circulation of skills like production skills in one of your book that you’re working. And I was wondering about kind of the emergence not only of stories or scripts for the films that people are making but whether they are also envisioning kind of aesthetically a different way of telling them or whether they’re kind of like quality and patterns and it’s like western aesthetics or — basically whether the idea of creating science fiction is also — does it come with kind of like a visual kind of reimagining also of how to tell the stories or is it just —

William: Yeah. It’s a good question. This gets into my dissertations, which followed the social life of film projects in indigenous organizations in Australia. There were two outlets, one outwardly focused on production values and end products, and one by, for, and about remote Aboriginal communities.

And so, there’s a long answer. But to quickly answer, when people are making sci-fi films, they’re high budget productions. They usually come out of a Sundance or an imagineNATIVE initiative. But these are unsual and sleek productions. And so it’s not necessarily that people are making anything they want. It has to be discernibly science fiction, perhaps as utopian, dystopian, alien—recognizably in that genre even if it’s radically departing from it as well. So, in the sort of world of indigenous media, these are anomalies in that they’re highly funded and that’s a reason that most of them are very short.

These programs have been very successful in general. People who made these shorts tend to go on to make features, and not necessarily more sci-fi films. At the very least it’s a great career launch pad because people love sci-fi. And I think that they end up having the more freedom after they do these projects to make other media. I can’t think of anyone whose career hasn’t been significantly furthered after producing one of these sci-fi films.

Audience 3: I’m a film director. I just finished a feature-length animated film called Birds Like Us. And it’s inspired by a 11th century Persian poet Farid al-Din Mohammad ‘Attar — and the book that it’s based on is called Conference of the Birds. And I come from Bosnia, from Sarajevo. And I’m raised as a Muslim. I was also growing up in a multicultural society, multi-religious place. I actually had been exposed to all kinds of religions. And my actually first comic books was a comic version of The Bible.

And for me, growing up in a religious environment, I always have felt that the ultimate science fiction actually comes from the holy books where you have a creature who is reaching out to you and saying here I am, your all-seeing, omnipotent creator of everything, every living thing and you can be like me and this is how. And then, in these books, there are set examples of King Solomon who ruled everywhere and there are — where I’m going with this, there is so much of inspiring fiction, and beyond physical evidence of ideas in the holy books, in religious writings.

But somehow we have the communities, the human mankind actually colonized the race color that — and created actually these smaller parts while the higher idea is actually a very inspiring and moving form from — between asking yourself what is actually science fiction and what’s the difference between the fiction, science fiction and the fantasy and all that. Well, it’s purpose is to inspire and move forward and explain, provide a better living inside of your senses, with your perception of the world.

And do you think that your role as writers and contributors to this vision, is it possible to set yourself free from the boundaries of being Islamic science fiction or Jamaican or native Aboriginal or — can you maybe, I don’t know —

Nalo: I do have an answer and that’s that it does — whatever we identify — whatever particular cultural, ethnic or racial version of science which we’re interested in has no boundaries. It’s talking to things that we all care about. So, I don’t feel like I’m boundaried. I mean, I can write whatever I want and do. But I think it’s not as boundaried as you’re fearing that there’s — I want so — Sherman Alexie was at a literary event and somebody in the audience asked him if he ever felt limited. The wrong thing to ask Sherman Alexie. He blasted her. But his basic answer was any great story you can imagine is happening in my community, I can write it.

And that’s been useful for me to think about. So, no, I don’t feel that there is a boundary. I feel that there is this particular set of interest in philosophies and aesthetics, but it’s all over.

Muhammad: Right. And then to that I’ll add that — continuing on same line of thought that there are certain modes of thoughts, philosophies, aspirations, fears that all human cultures and religions throughout space and time that they share. It’s just that in the concept one must include who indigenous people, are Muslims, are Christians, are atheists. It’s through their life experiences, their histories that that’s the metaphors that they use on their cultures to describe those ideas. So, that’s not necessarily the limiting factor. It just shows where they come from.

So, just may we take the example of Farid al-Din ‘Attar’s Conference of the Birds. Although at one level it’s the cultural product of newly Islamized Persia, and the method to express was using metaphors. But that’s a product of its times but at the same time, it also speaks to universal human feelings of, for example, longing for the divine, for example, which regardless of whatever culture we are in, we can share and appreciate.

William: I think that radical assumptions provides a good definition for science fiction in this realm. I’m thinking of my own family not that many generations back, subjected to genocide in German gas chambers—radical assumptions are sometimes as simple as making it to the next year. It’s very relative and science fiction helps you define what radical is by giving the filmmaker the power to normalize things strategically.

But also, driving from the airport and seeing those Hollywood signs was exciting to me. It made me think about how there’s all of this money in Hollywood. There’s endless money and more that I can imagine. And while I like being on production teams with large projects, the biggest film anyone I ever worked on had a $100,000 budget, and that’s just a rounding error in Hollywood.

Yet, despite the endless money in Hollywood, somehow that can’t find a good script. They’re making the same movie a thousand times, with some notable exceptions. But in Aboriginal communities like the one I was working in, there are endless incredible stories to tell, though there’s very little funding.

It’s interesting just how different what the limited resource is in different places. And I think in a lot of Indigenous communities around the world, people have such complicated histories, and very difficult but incredible lives that it is no surprising just how many stories there are to tell. The problem is that there are not enough hours in the day because there’s so much. And while at the genre level there are sybolic boundaries, when people are making things on the ground, I don’t think that many worry about those boundaries and just follow the story.

Nalo: One more thing to add to that in that as somebody creating it, one of the things that science fiction fantasy teach you is if that place that you’re thinking you don’t dare to go, that’s where you should be going. So, if you think there’s a boundary there, what happens if you break it? And see what happens.

Henry: That’s a perfect note to end this session on. So, go on and break some boundaries.

Science Fiction and the Civic Imagination: Whose Future Does Science Fiction Foretell? (Part 2)

Tok: You talked about your own particular areas of expertise. But what — you know, having heard all these speakers, how do you think that your own projects sort of intersect with each other? How do they speak to each other’s projects?

Nalo: Well, as writers we talk to each other a lot, particularly people who are writers of color or women writers, we see the commonalities in what we’re trying to write about. And we talk to each other. And last year, at UCR, my science fiction research cluster caught a Mellon grant to have a year of discussions about alternative futurisms.

So, for a year, we brought in — our idea was that we have this almost — got Afro futurism, we’ve got other types of ethnic futurisms and that the scholarship about talking to each other, this was a thing that we could start to foster. So, we brought people in, we brought in scholars, I brought in writers, we brought in film directors. And people just shared their work and talked about what they were doing. In a way it’s starting to generate some more connection amongst all these various visions, philosophy, scholarship. So, yes, we are talking to each other.

William: Yeah. I think it’s a great point about generalizing and engaging. This discussion is very difficult in the native studies world. I’m not native myself, and the feeling I get having been in this realm for a while is there’s sometimes a reasonalbe reaction against such inclusionary discourses. One of the reasons that indigenous science fiction is so relatively new, especially in film, is because there’s a sense that there’s been a silencing of people, which is part of settler colonialism and the imperial imagination in which indigenous peoples are relegated to a past in a way that other groups haven’t been—not that this is more or less vicious, but it’s a different process relating to time, history, and existence into the future.

And I think like many things with native studies, the genre is new and developing, and there’s hundreds and hundreds of groups, united by a similar dynamic in relation to history of settler and resource extraction colonial states. Often what the films share as far as a common thread is that they represent indigenous people as more complicated than popular depictions have done. So, it’s not reactionary, but rather shares a common language.

There’s a way in which they can be generalized a little bit more, speaking back to utopian, dystopian, and alien encounters. But that’s changing quickly. I think the first step into a genre is to learn the scales, and new films that are coming out, are much more outside of the typical subgenres. I think that a decade down the line, there’ll be a lot more of that. Because of the history of native studies as becoming relegated to the margins, there is perhaps a hesitancy to engage other futurisms before having a chance to further develop this genre.

Muhammad: My experience is that empathy is usually the key. If you can get people in these different communities to empathize really on their own or to seek out commonalities, if people are more willing to dialogue or even be more engaged in the other communities. And just to give you some examples, like within the Muslim community in the U.S., there’s a whole subgenre of sci-fi coming out, not just science fiction but whole ideology is inspired from what we would recognize as sci-fi themes coming out of the African-American community in which many of the other Muslim communities are not Arab or South Asians are not even aware of.

Yusuf Nuruddin has a really excellent article. It’s called — urban — it’s the approximate title, urban mythologies and — extraterrestrials, urban mythologies and sci-fi jihad. It talks about, for example, some — what I recognize as some of the fringe religious movements within the African-American Muslim communities in the last hundred years — which are inspired from or which have sci-fi elements in them.

Another thing is that there’s actually a lot of material, as I mentioned earlier, that just because we are not aware of it does not mean that it doesn’t exist. So, for example, when we talk about sci-fi produced by Muslims, people generally tend to think about Arabs. But Arabs are actually just a small minority of Muslims around the world, for example. Or even in the U.S. Recently, I’m discovering that there’s sci-fi or proto sci-fi literature which has stories from 1930s in Eritrea, 1940s in Nigeria. I mean, I was not really aware of this until recently and I’ve been looking into this for the last 12 years or so, and I was really surprised that such material actually existed.

And part of the problem is that even the reason that I was surprised that such material exists. I think that it sounds problematic that we assume that such material does not exist. I should have not have assumed that. It’s just that we are conditioned to think in such a way. But I think things are changing. There’s more scholarship with respect to the areas or parts of the world that are previously neglected. So, I’m actually hopeful about the future.

Henry: So, we struggled with how to name this panel. And ended up with the term “foretell” to describe the relationship of science fiction to reality. And we worked through “predict,” “depict,” “imagine,” “recount,” “anticipate”, et cetera. All of which suggest slightly different relationships of science fiction to reality, none of which seems quite adequate to the task of explaining.

So, I think, running through your comments have been some implicit assumptions about how those things connect. But could you lay out a little more what models you have of the role of the imagination in relation to real world conditions and the potential for change?

William: A thought came to mind when you were mentioned that there’s very little Islamic imagery and representation in the science fiction canon, where there’s lots of indigenous representation. It’s just really bad representation, from wise elders like Yoda to any sort of evil and alien communal society such as the Borg. It’s in almost everything. It’s just very one-dimensional and from the point of view of a colonial society.

Going from that on to answer the question, imagining seems to be the word to me. The Facebook group that engages this genre is called imagining indigenous futurisms. Imagination is something that comes up all the time in that it relates to the image of film itself. If anyone’s heard of the imagineNATIVE film festival, it’s the now the premiere native film festival in the world and half of that word is imagine.

So, the word imagine is really important, I think, partly because it doesn’t give as much of a sense of linear time and progress. It doesn’t seem to have as many baked-in assumptions about western notions of what the future means at a fundamental level. Furthermore, re-imagining is the word I hear a lot.

This is partly because of the implicit assumption that indigenous peoples are not there in the future, at least in a substantial way. They just don’t exist. And I think it’s the battle of ideas that people are often engaged in. It’s very practical in Australia especially as they’re de-funding many Aboriginal communities and organizations. Imagination matters, where on the far right you have kind of vicious desires just to de-fund and overt racism; on the far left there is a liberal imagining of communities as dystopian and beyond repair, and a desire to save kids from suffering and then bring them into cities.

For progressives, if they can’t imagine an indigenous future, their policies will be just as assimilatory, just through a more humane and muted process, but assimilation nonetheless, and in the long scale of history, will lead to similar outcomes.

So, it’s about reimagining what is possible, what should happen, and what can happen. If you can imagine a future through these visceral filmed worlds, then you start thinking about different types of policies. And if you don’t imagine any future, it almost doesn’t matter what your politics are in a way. It’s almost irrelevant.

Nalo: I think one of the things I can do and my friends who are writers do as writers of text-based science fiction, there’s been scientific research that shows that when you read a metaphorical description of a sensation, your nerve endings relevant to that sensation fire. I’m not a scientist so I’m putting this in very, very lay terms, I’m sure it could be correct. But when you read a straight up depiction of that sensation, those nerve endings don’t fire.

So, to say she ran across the room gives you a very different picture than she galloped across the room. You say she galloped and all of a sudden your legs are starting to try and feel those — what that’s like. If you take a literature that imagines — literally imagines what does not exist yet and does that to you, all of a sudden, you are at a somatic level living in that new world. You’re having an experience of a culture you haven’t experienced. You’re having experience of ways of doing things you haven’t experienced.

So, I think this is one of the things that makes science fiction and fantasy very, very powerful because fantasy reimagines the past and imagines our relationships as cultures to myth. And myths are very, very powerful. We use them as driving images. We make new ones, completely new ones, all of a sudden, you have at a physical level a new way of experiencing the world.

I think a lot of science fiction writers will say we don’t try to foretell shit. Often you see in the press people say, well, 1984 predicted this. I think he was trying really hard to not predict it. So, it isn’t really a game of prediction. It’s a game, as you say, of imagination.

Muhammad: That’s a really excellent point about prediction. I guess in my experience it’s like a lot of writers project when you’re imagining certain worlds how things should be. That’s not necessarily always the case. So, if I, for example, take, say, these utopias or the dystopias that have come up of the Arab world, for example, in the last 150 years or so, a lot of times they just project the aspirations of the people around that particular era and time.

Thus during the height of colonialism, for example, a lot of these utopias are actually focused on a better idealized societies. A lot of these writers were Muslims, so they imagine societies which are run by Islamic principles and everyone was happy. If we move forward in time, so they’re just subgenre of sci-fi utopias written by people affiliated with the Muslim brotherhood who were in Egyptian jails in the 1960s and 1970s.

And one common thing about these utopias is that they envision this idealized Islamic government which is running — ran according to the brotherhood’s version of what an Islamic state should be, and contrast that — and we can contrast that with some of the utopias that came out of Turkey around the same era, again by people who were imprisoned by the Turkish state.

A lot of these also imagine idealized Islamic societies. But what is really interesting is that the ones that came out of Turkey imagine a future or the societies which have a more mystical, more metaphorical bend towards their interpretation of Islam. In both of these cases, they’re imagining idealized Islamic societies, but one is more, for lack of a better term, more legal-oriented, and the other is more oriented towards personal relationships, more mystical in nature. And then fast forward that to more recent things where — say, the recent events of the past, especially the failure of the Arab Spring, we have more dystopian outlook about what the future world would be.

Tok:  So, science fiction most often speaks about the future, it’s what we generally think of a science fiction. But in what ways might this be important to groups which have historically been perceived by white America almost entirely in relation to their past or their traditions? How is thinking about the future allow us to rethink the past? I’m also sort of inspired, too, by, for instance, you mentioned the One Thousand One Arabian Nights and all the contributions from Islamic society into Mesoamerican society, the contribution from native America to the contribution by African-American society. So, this is the past that perhaps were past that perhaps we’re not focused on. So, I’m kind of curious, what does science fiction tell us about the past?

Nalo: One of the more powerful stories for me is a piece of Taíno folklore, Taínos being the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean. And the story goes that they used to live on the moon. And that they could see all around them floating in the sky other circular bodies which were like the one that they were living on. And one of those — they were all bright and shiny, they were all lovely, except for the Earth. The Earth who’s this big, round, dirty thing. And they felt embarrassed because the Earth was their neighbor and they should have been looking after it.

So, they get into sky boats made of clouds and they sail down to the Earth and they spent a bit long time cleaning it up. And the story goes on and on, there are various things that happened. The sky boats go away, and so, they’re stranded on Earth, so they have to call to God for help and God sends down the tree that has every edible thing growing on it. And they each take pieces of it and this is how peach and gardens came to be, that kind of thing.

But what I love about this story is that the first thing it does is it dispels any notion that indigenous peoples are primitive and incapable of scientific reasoning. Because these are people who have looked at the things in the sky, have that their body is similar to the one they’re on and then have generated a story about it.

The second is this idea of stewardship. The idea that we live next to this place, it is our responsibility to keep it from getting dirty, getting dysfunctional. And so, we should be cleaning it up.

So, that’s the kind of thing, I think, some of these science fiction and fantasy can do. This is a folktale that I ended up using in one of my own novels. The other thing it can do, it can re-center the story. So, when my friend, Tobias Buckell writes a short story about the Caribbean space program, and it’s about the first Caribbean black astronaut going out and story ends with the line — he names all the people already up there, all the nations and says we coming up, too. And that puts tears in my eyes every single time, that last line.

When Toby released that story, one of the first responses he got was from someone saying, well, the story was implausible because Caribbean people will never make it into space. We don’t have enough technology. So, the kind of imagining we do, the kinds of stories we tell can re-center the conversation that could say, look, start from the basis of this culture. This culture is capable, people who are already in it know what we’re capable of, let’s start talking about that.

It also can put you in a place where you are not necessarily paying attention to what you think the mainstream can handle. So, a lot of times I write in a version of — there are many Caribbean English vernaculars as many as there are Caribbean nations. I’m most familiar with Jamaican and Trinidad and a little bit of Guyanese. Sometimes I mix all three and I write in vernacular.

Caribbean people will get it. It’s a bit of an extrapolation for them but they’ll get it. People who aren’t Caribbean have to take a little more effort. But by the very act of writing that way, I’m not twisting myself into not squiggle what can they understand, what can they not.

And I’ve had readers who really resist that, who — let’s not call them readers because they’d end up not finishing my stuff. And I’ve had readers who’ve told me what that was like for them. If they’re Caribbeans for the first time experiencing a science fiction story told in their modes of speech or fantasy stories told in their modes of speech. If they’re not a Caribbean, how do they relate to this way of speaking and way of thinking and the foods I bring in, the cultures, the colors. So, it can re-center the conversation.

Mohammed: So, I guess part of reimagining the future is actually reimagining the past as well. But the way that we imagine the past is — can describe who we are with ourselves and through others. So, part of recovering, I think there is also this project for a lot of — especially people who were colonized which is basically most of the planet, is describing who they are is also part of recovering their past or pasts, I should say.

So, some of the projects that I found really fascinating is that this research on the print technologies, which are not necessarily lost but we don’t really talk about them anymore from different regions in the world, for example, in the Middle East. There’s a long history — and we were talking about this earlier — there’s a long history of automatas which a lot of people in the west, for example, don’t know about.

One of the most famous ones were done by two groups of people. So, one is the Banū Mūsā family, the Mūsā brothers are very famous. And another one is by Al-Jazari. And so, they had automatas and we’re talking about 12th, 13th century. We had drawings on multiple descriptions of this where — so the most famous one is we have this group of five musicians, automatas, different musical instruments part of an orchestra on a boat. And when the boat moves through the Euphrates River right next to Baghdad, water falls to the automata and then that’s how they play their music. That’s really fascinating.

Al-Jazari had humanoid automatas which move from one side of the room to the other side of the room. Most likely they had blinded mechanisms. So, things like that just tell us that it’s — that other cultures had important contributions to make through science and technology throughout history. And it’s not just that it’s not well-known in the west, but because of the experience of colonialism, part of that actually has been lost to them also. So, recovering the past and whilst recovering some of those things is a part the stories that we tell ourselves with respect to who we are.

William: Yeah. And just going along those great answers, I would re-emphasize that in Australia Aboriginal people are widely known as the oldest living societies, going back at least 50,000 years. And it wasn’t long ago that anthropologists were using them as windows into human evolution, essentially as caveman, and there’s still hints of that. I think that’s deeply embedded that they’re windows in the past like an endangered species. So, that is deeply embedded even if the politics have changed, that core structure is there still.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of temporal sovereignty. The time has been captured like territory and land. I’m still thinking through exactly how sovereignty relates to temporality.

In native science fiction studies, Grace Dillon talks a lot about slipstream exists in other parts of sci-fi. It’s really important in native sci-fi, getting away from the future as the linear progression. Slipstream plays with time and space, where past is ahead of us as much as the future is, in terms of family and kinship.

There’s an amazing VR project through the Initiative for Indigenous Futures at Concordia University directed by Jason Lewis. It’s an amazing project. Time traveler is a VR second life game where you go in and you play a Mohawk character. You can go between 1491 and deep into the future, and it’s all integrated. There’s nothing categorically distinct about pre-contact or the deep future in this. It’s all one interlaced thing in which these demarcations of history are what we project on to something that doesn’t necessarily mean all that much outside of Western history.

And there’s another great series called the Anamata Future News by Maori TV. And they do future news, reporting as though it’s happening in the time period. They go from 50 years from the future all the way to 2,500. In the last episode, there is this interstellar voyaging by the Maori, in which they’re essentially running their interstellar voyages, not like Star Trek, but like Pacific Islander Wayfinding, using that traditional logic with high technology.

I recently published a short story called Planeterra Nullius. It’s a parable replacing Aboriginal Australian history with white Australian history, to increase empathy regarding what it would be like if all of these things happened to Westerners.

Henry: You’ve really talked a little bit of the colonial history in the ways Aboriginal science fiction has to work beyond that or indigenous science fiction has to work beyond it. The metaphor – “space the final frontier” introduces the connection of science fiction to frontier mythologies.

I mean, historians of the pulp magazine era in science fiction tell us that a lot of our ideas around Mars emerged from the fact the writers were reselling stories. And if they couldn’t sell story to the western magazines, they revamped it and sold it as a Martian story to Hugo Gernsback. They couldn’t sell a story about an Amazon to a fantasy exotic adventure story, they set it on Venus and sold it as science fiction.

So, in some ways the whole building blocks of science fiction as a genre in the west starts with colonialism and white supremacy as is true for most of the pulp genres we’re working with today.

So, I wanted to get your thoughts on how we de-colonize genres. What does it take for us to take something that that’s so baked into the DNA, that’s been there from the very beginning and re-imagine it from a new perspective and get that to place where audiences will engage with it in new ways?

Nalo: I’m going to say that just because you don’t experience something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. And so, one of the things I find all science fiction and fantasy teach me to do as a creator is to question my own assumptions and to assume that if I can conceive something, somebody else probably has. So, with my very first novel, I had been reading about Detroit, what happened to Detroit. And at that time, economists were calling it the hole in the donut syndrome where civic support, government support is withdrawn and you have this — they were calling it a vacuum. And you have white flight to the suburbs and breakdown of institutions.

And they were writing about it as though there was nothing there. I’ve been to Detroit. There’s plenty there. At that point I hadn’t yet been to Detroit but I knew what it was like to be living in a situation where services were being withdrawn. I was at that point living in Brian Mulroney’s Toronto. He was our Prime Minister for a while and he had this notion that you should avoid duplication in city services and he was busy withdrawing support.

Engineers have another name for duplication. They call it efficiency. So, I was living in a world in which this was happening, I thought I don’t think it’s right to imagine Detroit as being a hole — there’s got to be something there.

And I began to imagine what it must be like to be — what it could be like to be living in that situation to transport it to Toronto. So, part of what it does is it gives you a way of thinking about the thing that you are taught that is an absence, the thing that you have no paradigm for thinking about. Science fiction gives you ways of mapping that, to start trying to imagine yourself into that space.

And it’s one of the things, I think, that is truthful for lots of activists. I was one of the guests at Ferguson is the Future which was a symposium at Princeton that was about art and activism particularly in the living through the experience of state and police violence against black men here.

And the guest speakers started off with Alondra Nelson and she talked about Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred, which is fantasy novel in which a black woman in the 1970s keeps getting punted back to plantation era past and has to deal with what she finds there, being assumed to be a slave. And Alondra said the thing about Kindred is that black people, and particularly black men living here know that at any moment, they can be snatched back to the past. They can be snatched back to the plantation and be living that nightmare again.

And so, science fiction fantasy can give you a way of (coding that experience so that you have a little bundle of knowledge for what that might be like where before you had nothing. It’s my theory. I just made it up.

Muhammad: I think past can be a really good resource with respect to imagining alternate ways of encounters between different cultures, so that we go outside of this whole colonial encounter. So, for example, if you look at the encounters between non-Muslim cultures and civilizations throughout history, there are a lot of things that can be learned. So, one of my favorite examples is how a lot of Chinese Muslims actually categorize their history.

So, there is this founding myth amongst Chinese Muslims, and don’t quote this in your history class because, again, this is a myth, where in this story the Chinese Muslim community was founded when the Prophet Muhammad himself sends some emissaries to the emperor of China and he received these emissaries and he was really impressed. He did not convert himself but he allowed these people to live and live in his domain.

There’s another story which one can even conceptualize that as an alternate history which talks — so, in classical Islamic scholarship, the emphasis is that the prophet is this illiterate person so that all the knowledge he has must be divine. But within the Chinese context, they take — the Chinese Muslims take Confucius or Lao-Tze or the classical Chinese sage as a model, and turns the Arab or the non-Chinese Muslim model on its head where the prophet is depicted as this really wise man/philosopher. And in his lifetime he wrote a large number of books and these books were spread far and wide throughout the world and a lot of people were impressed by his knowledge.

Again, none of that actually happened. But again, this is a myth which gels well with a particular mode of thinking. And I guess that’s one of the reasons why within the Chinese Islamic culture you have things which are very uniquely Islamic and very uniquely Chinese. So, for example, they have — so within the Chinese (inaudible) 01:10:01, for example, even the Chinese language was traditionally written with the Arabic script. And that’s very unique, that’s very different.

In China, you have a 600-year old tradition of female-only mosques. I mean, you don’t have that in any other part of the world. They don’t have — even the imam of the mosques were women and still now. And again, that’s a very uniquely Chinese phenomenon. You would have things like writing Arabic calligraphies but with Chinese strokes and Chinese style.

So, I mean, encounters like these, I think, these are really the goal in mind in trying to understand or trying to extrapolate what could have been or what could be in the future when different cultures interact.

William: I have three quick points. The first relates directly to the idea of the frontier. I’ve been in conversation with the Anthropology of Outer Space. There’s a great book that just came out called Placing Outer Space by Lisa Messeri and David Valentine does a lot of great work as well. What they’re finding is folks like Elon Musk and astrophysicists are using analogs from the colonial Western frontier to think through what outer space is and what the future is going to be like off Earth.

I think these ambitions are not always thought through. There’s this obsession by someone like Musk to get to Mars, but there’s no real thought of, why if we’re getting to a new planet that’s harder to live on, would the same type of society have a better result. There’s no real answer to that; in fact, why wouldn’t it be worse? Martian movies don’t usually end well. It’s that progressive fantasy that if only we could just ascend to the next leve,l there’s a utopian ideal which is always the shadow of something dystopian as well.

I imagine the goal of academics as trying to create these conversations between worlds that wouldn’t always converse. So, just as an example, I just released this blog, Navajos on Mars on which is sort of an imagined science film festival online forum. People like Musk, very, very smart people, get caught up in the fantasy because they’re so objective in their technical attempts.

At a deeper level, one point of sovereignty is to not have to explain yourself to everyone, to not be included, to not have to be assimilated. So, there is a way in which these might be a little internally focused. While the broader culture may get something out of it, I think the deeper idea is very practical.

Indigenous futures are not about technology, it’s survival. It’s not being poisoned by mercury. It’s having a place to live and not being de-funded and not having meth come into the community. So, I think it’s very practical at a certain level. Of course what people really care about are their kids. Are their kids going to feel like they have a future, a place in the world? If it can have an effect on the broader society, I think that’s great, but there is a deeper priority for sovereignty.


Science Fiction and the Civic Imagination: Whose Future Does Science Fiction Foretell? (Part One)

Earlier this year, the Civic Imagination Project hosted a forum focused on diversity, science fiction, and the civic imagination. Here’s how we framed the event:


Science fiction has long provided resources — compelling narratives, rich metaphors — through which we might explore alternative possible directions for technological and social change, especially at a time when profound and prolonged periods of change disrupt established ways of thinking. Throughout most of the 20th century, science fiction, however, was a genre by, for, and about white men and thus offered a narrow range of visions of tomorrow. In recent years, though, a range of groups have sought to speak their truths through speculative fiction and used its language to map past and future trajectories. In this session, we will explore a range of different movements within science fiction that reflect the perspectives of post-colonialist, Afrofuturist, Indigenous, and Muslim creators and audiences, each making claims for the future through their particular deployments of the genre’s core building blocks. This forum will engage the multiple strands of futurism in contemporary science fiction which have helped to diversify what voices can be heard and opened up new modes for thinking through contemporary issues and future aspirations in American society.  Bringing these diverse and alternative conceptions of the future together allows us to debate more richly the directions we want to see our society take.

Here are the bios of our core speakers:

Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad is an Affiliate Associate Professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Washington, Visiting Research Scientist at the Indian Institute of Technology and Senior Data Scientist at Groupon. He is the founder and editor of the Islam and Science Fiction Project that focuses on Science Fiction from the Muslim world as well as depiction of Islam and Muslims in Science Fiction especially in the Anglo-American world. It is the most comprehensive resource on this subject. He has been running the project since 2005. He also edited the first ever anthology Science Fiction set in Muslim cultures in 2008. Recently he launch first in a series of such anthologies titled Islamicates.

Dr. Nalo Hopkinson is an Afro-Caribbean author and sometime editor of science fiction and fantasy (speculative fiction). A Canadian citizen, she moved to California in 2011 to become a professor of Creative Writing at the University of California Riverside, where she is a member of UCR’s research cluster in science fiction. Recognition for her writing includes the John W. Campbell Award, the World Fantasy Award, the Sunburst Award for Canadian Literature of the Fantastic, and the Andre Norton Award for young adult science fiction. She was recently the fiction co-editor of a special edition of Lightspeed Magazine, “People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction,” and an invited guest at Princeton University’s symposium “Ferguson is the Future — Incubating Alternative Worlds Through Arts, Activism, and Scholarship.” Her current novel-in-progress, Blackheart Man, is historical speculative fiction which takes place in an imaginary Caribbean island nation founded by escaped enslaved people and defended successfully for over 200 years.

William Lempert is a PhD candidate in cultural anthropology at the University of Colorado at Boulder. With the support of Fulbright and the Wenner Gren Foundation he recently completed his fourth and primary research trip of 20-months to Northwestern Australia where he worked on the production teams of two Indigenous media organizations. He followed the biographical social life cycles of their films as they travelled between remote communities, regional towns, and national festivals. His dissertation aims to understand the paradoxical emergence of two contrasting national Aboriginal television networks amidst the mass defunding of Aboriginal Australian communities and organizations by articulating the tensions of contemporary indigeneity embedded within the daily practices of diverse film projects. Building on his previous work on the rise of the Native American sci-fi film genre, he is particularly interested in understanding how Indigenous filmmaking can imagine and generate alternative futures. More broadly, he argues for the temporal reorientation of anthropological projects toward futures, especially in relation to Indigenous peoples so associated with mythic pasts and fraught presents. To engage broader publics, he has published blogs, stories, videos, and podcasts through the Medium, Fulbright, Sapiens, Savage Minds, Cultural Anthropology, Visual Anthropology Review, and Australian Broadcasting Corporation websites.

Tok Thompson was born and raised in rural Alaska. At the age of 17, he began attending Harvard College, where he received his bachelor’s degree in Anthropology. In 1999 he received a Master’s degree in Folklore from the University of California, Berkeley, and three years later received a PhD in Anthropology from the same institution, all the while studying under the late great folklorist Alan Dundes. After receiving his PhD, Tok engaged in a two-year postdoctoral position with the Centre for Irish-Scottish Studies at Trinity College, Dublin, where he helped launch a new M.Phil. in Translation Studies. He also researched Irish language traditions in County Fermanagh on behalf of the University of Ulster, Northern Ireland, and the District Council of Fermanagh. In the Fall of 2006, Tok came to USC, where he has been teaching graduate and undergraduate courses in folklore and related topics. Additionally, he has taught folklore as a visiting professor at universities in Northern Ireland, Iceland, and Ethiopia. While still in graduate school, he co-founded and co-edited the journal Cultural Analysis: An Interdisciplinary Forum on Folklore and Popular Culture, which he co-edited for 15 years. From 2013-2017 he was the editor for Western Folklore. He is currently working on a textbook for World Mythology (with Greg Schrempp), and a casebook entitled Posthuman Folklore.

Over the next two posts, I am going to share a transcript of this exchange. Enjoy!

Henry: Hi. I’m Henry Jenkins. I’m one of the two moderators for this event. The other one is Tok Thompson from USC Anthropology Department. This event is being put together by the Annenberg Innovation Lab and Civic Paths research group with funding from the USC Collaboration Grant.

Over the past few years, the Civic Paths group has been spending some time thinking about the concept of a civic imagination. Before you can change the world, you have to be able to envision what a better world looks like. And that’s led us to think very deeply about speculative fiction as a space for political change. What does speculative fiction offer us as activists and as citizens as events in the world are requiring us to think about social justice in new ways. Our group is also taking inspiration from the methodologies of speculative fiction — particularly world building — to think about how communities might work together to determine what a better world might look like, one which supported our shared goals and values.

Samantha Close, a PhD candidate, called my attention to the work of William Lempert, who is an anthropologist who has done interesting work on indigenous forms of science fiction. Zhan Li, an alum from our group, brought our attention to the work of Muhammad Ahmad, who has been doing interesting thinking, writing and curating around Islam and science fiction. And I have known Nalo Hopkinson off and on since I brought you to MIT at the beginning of both of our careers some 20-plus years ago. So, we thought this was a really interesting mix of people to think about the question, whose fiction does science fiction foretell.

So, with that, let me turn over to Tok who had a few things he wanted to say at the opening.


Tok: Sure. Well, thanks, first off, for pulling me into this project. It is a big interest of mine. And when I heard the idea for this, I was just really excited to be a part of it. We’ve also had an opportunity last couple of hours to kind of hang out at Professor Jenkins’ labs and had some very fascinating backward-forward discussions about some of the larger things that we’ve been looking at.

I think my introduction to this as a genre began a little while ago. I read a book by Ursula Le Guin, whom you probably all know for her work. She had a book called Always Coming Home. That was just a fabulous book. And it was a sort of a vision of California. And it was a vision of California where there is super high tech, so super that you really didn’t notice it. That’s how super the high tech was.

And people have these lives that were much more locally based. They were living locally. They were harvesting locally. When they needed to know some information, it was always there. Their lives, although there was, of course, plot drivers of problems in the book, it was a pretty nice lifestyle and became clear, gradually, that this was an indigenous lifestyle, although she never came out and said it. It became clear as you read it. It was all based on indigenous lifestyles pre-colonization, sort of almost an alternative present, or perhaps an alternative future: that, I think just has a lot of promise, when we’re thinking about this. Ursula Le Guin is the daughter of Alfred Kroeber who started anthropology in California, of UC Berkeley.

So, I’ve been thinking of her a little bit. She recently won a very major award for writing. And I just have a little quote from her here that she delivered. This is her quote. “I think hard times are coming when we’ll be wanting the voice of the writers who can see alternatives to how we live now. We can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being. And even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom, poets, visionaries, the realists of a larger reality. Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art.

Profit motive is often conflict with the aims of art. And we live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begins in art, and very often, in our art, the art of words. I’ve had a long career on a good one, one in good company and here at the end of it I really don’t want to watch American literature gets sold down the river. But the name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.”

So, in this issue of freedom, freedom to imagine futures, freedom to compel each other to discuss what we like this world to be in a few years, these are some of the more compelling issues that — and again, within a sense of hope, always a sense of hope– that we can imagine what the future might be.

And so, with that, I’m very, very happy to be in the company of people who are working directly with artists, writers, who are imagining our potential futures.


Henry: So, each of the panelists are going to do about 10 minutes opening comments, reflections, on our core theme. Tok and I have some questions, framing questions to get the panelists talking amongst themselves. And then we’ll open up to the floor for questions . So, Nalo, you want to get us started?


Nalo: Oh, good. So, Henry asked us to do sort of an opening introduction to ourselves and why we’re drawn to this genre. I’m originally from the Caribbean. So, I was born in Jamaica, lived in Jamaica, Trinidad and Guyana, also briefly lived in Connecticut as a child of six when my dad was in a theater program at Yale University and my mother was pregnant with my brother. And the only play they could think of to put my actor father in was Othello.

I’ve always read and enjoyed the fantastic, be it Gulliver’s Travels or Homer’s Iliad because my dad was an English teacher and was teaching those. My first genre science fiction was Kurt Vonnegut’s Welcome to the Monkey House, which I found in the pages of a Playboy magazine I stumbled on to when I was eight years old. And being me what I concentrated on was the fiction.

In that same time period, I remember reading a children’s novel I’ve never been able to find since. It was a fantasy novel. A handful of young children from all walks of life have to power through various trials. And their reward is going to be that they get to a place where any wish they want will be granted.

So, they all succeed and they get to this magical place. The white children wish for things like castles and horses, in other words, wealth, property. Then the book revealed that there had been a black child who’d also won through to this magical place. He hadn’t been mentioned in the book earlier. He was quite poor. He wore torn, patched clothing. And what did he wish to have for all eternity? A watermelon patch of all the watermelon he could eat.

So, as the book closes, one of the last scenes we have the children riding their horses and, you know, examining their jewels. And this little boy with not even a roof over his head, sitting in a watermelon patch, eating slice after slice of watermelon.

Now, I love watermelon, I still do. But I suspect that that children’s book was a big part of the reason why when I moved to Canada from the Caribbean at age 16, it was a while before I would let a non-Caribbean white person see me eating watermelon.

So, some of my earliest connections to science fiction and fantasy and I love epic stories that have ghosts and monsters in them. On the one hand, you’ve got deep racism. On the other hand, you’ve got these adventure epics, Iliad, the Odyssey, you have the coded social critique of Gulliver’s Travels — I don’t know what to Welcome to the Monkey House.

And I got to — since, you know, Playboy was my initiation threw in the wide-eyed innocence of Little Annie Fanny. I don’t know if any of you are old enough to know that regular Playboy strip. It’s about a clueless ingénue who’s frequently surprised to find herself naked and sexually compromised. It was played for humor.

But being a kid, I read Little Annie Fanny as — because I could tell that she was being made fun of, I understood her as the holy fool. You know, the guileless, naïve — through her guilelessness shows up the creepiness of the more worldly people around you. So, this is my intro to science fiction and fantasy.

And I think people ask me what drew me to it and there’s no way to give an honest answer to that. But a large part of it was difference. Science fiction fantasy told different stories than the ones — the real world around me with its pesky laws of physics and its systemic biases and systemic injustices did.

And as I grew older, I desperately needed models for different ways to do things. Science fiction fantasy provided me with some of those. It takes our unquestioned narrative and it calls them into question. It tells stories about how — about and with those cherished narratives and it messes with them. A well chosen neologism, a coinage of a new word, can lay bare all the assumptions that are buried in the word that we would use in its place.

So, I find that people assume that’s why I like science fiction — that it’s a political reason. And I find — I kind of resist that. It’s partly true but that is buried in the fact that as a creator of it, as a reader of it, I want a story that works. I want a story that on a fictional level works. And in order to do that, it’s got to think about the underpinnings of the world. So, it’s not that — I covered it first, I think, from the creative. And I think the creative needs to take all of this into context.

I have ended up a novelist, short story writer, sometimes a fiction editor. I now teach creative writing at the University of California Riverside. I am part of a science fiction research cluster. And one of the lovely things about it is that you see the student body is something like 77% non-white. For many of the undergrads, whatever their racial or ethnic background, it’s the first time anyone in the family has gone to university.

And to be able to bring this idea of science fiction as something that can help think about how the world could be different, and therefore, how to make it a very powerful place to be doing that.


William: First, I want to start by thanking you for bringing me to campus. It’s been wonderful trip from Colorado. To follow up on a question I was asked after my earlier talk related to how well-known indigenous science fiction actually is, and the short answer is it’s not very well-known. So, I’m always compelled, if I have captive audience, just to try to in very broad brushes to lay out some of the things that are happening in indigenous science fiction because it is quite amazing and expanding quickly.

I’m a PhD candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder. I’ve been thinking about and writing along with indigenous science fiction for about six years now. I also just came back from two years of field work in Northwestern Australia working with Aboriginal filmmakers and media makers in the outback.

I am really pleased to be in this discussion. We shared some great chats in the office just before. I was struck when I saw my first couple of science fiction films made by indigenous producers. When most people think of indigenous peoples, they imagine an ideal past, a tragic history, and a troubled present. I come from the world of anthropology. I don’t know if there’s any anthropologist in the room, but continues to have legacies of the savage slot of the past and the suffering slot of the present. There’s not a lot about the future. This seemed especially clear to me when I started seeing some of these films.

So, more and more filmmakers have begun drawing explicitly on the science fiction genre while reimagining it in quite new ways. Relating to science fiction, native or western or anything else, today we’ve been talking about all sorts of certain sub-genres. It’s a very powerful format that creates an unusually effective cross cultural register and language, and it’s great to hear about some of your projects along those lines of the civic imagination as a way to discuss our deepest hopes and fears about technology, humanity, and climate change.

Film has it has the particular ability to demonstrate world making. David MacDougall makes the argument that there’s something different about creating a world that you see, hear, and can almost touch—and perhaps will in the future—that makes a different kind of argument, not just an intellectual argument but an emotional and visceral one as well.

And so, there are many types of alternative futurisms. A main difference in comparison to Afro and feminist futurisms—which have decades-long literatures and are very developed in ways that indigenous futurisms are not—is not an accident, but because they’ve been structurally silenced by the imperial imagination.

One point I like to make echoes Grace Dillon, the pioneer of indigenous science fiction studies, which is that another main difference in this genre in comparision with other alternative futurisms is that people want sovereignty from the settler state as a higher priority than they want equitable inclusion, justice, or equality as they are imagined in multi-cultural liberal discourse. So, that’s a very seemingly subtle, but important distinction that plays out in this genre.

As Gregory Benford notes, you cannot have a future you do not first imagine, and I often think about this. You can’t have a future you don’t imagine, but also, the futures you do imagine are consciously and unconsciously created based on what we assume to be possible, desirable, or inevitable. So while science fiction—especially if you’re not in a room of people inherently interested in it—might seem to be a sort of fringe interest, actually it’s incredibly relevant because it has to do with the sort of subconscious ideas about possibility through which politicians and bureaucrats enact policy.

So, what I think makes for a good reference is to think about the Western science fiction canon, which you might divide up into utopian and dystopian films. You have lots of self-destruction and alien encounter films, and the alien films perhaps makes this argument most succinctly. Virtually without exception they all replicate colonial encounters. Even in the buddy films like ET, the larger context is that the government that can’t find that extraterrestrial would torture them or do all sorts of horrible things to them if they could, even if it’s in the backdrop.

Where in opposition, native science fiction films are doing things that are very different. As far as utopian films go there’s The Sixth World, which is about the Navajo Nation as the leading partner in the trip to Mars, saving the mission with their sacred corn pollen over the GMO corn which fails. There’s also a film titled File Under Miscellaneous, which shows a dystopian future in which indigenous peoples surgically remove their skin and have it replaced with white skin in a 1984-like dystopia.

And films such as The Visit, a very short film we watched earlier, is a short animated story of a flying saucer visiting a remote reserve in Canada, asking why aliens would necessarily visit New York or some other western metropolis. The policemen don’t know what to do, but the father starts playing his drum and it pulses along with the beat. There is no colonial encounter. It’s an interaction.

There are many ways in which we project through science fiction. As much as there’s a diversity in all Western alien films, in a way, there’s very little ideological diversity. Even exeptions suc as Arrival, which we talked about earlier are only a tiny bit different but still have the same backdrop.

To conclude, I’ve been thinking a lot about what is happening today. We live in this global era defined by apocalyptic rhetoric around climate change, ISIS, Middle Eastern wars, specters of deregulation-induced financial global collapse, the political mobilization of populism and record-high first world income inequality.

With everything going on, something that I mentioned earlier that caught my attention is that the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists recently moved the minutes to midnight, from 3 minutes, 30 seconds forward to 2 and a half minutes to midnight, which is closer than we’ve been since 1953 when we were testing hydrogen bombs in the South Pacific on the Bikini Atoll.

And so, while the world looks opaque and potentially disastrous in the West, I would point out that indigenous futures today encompass Standing Rock, Lakota futures, climate change, planetary futures, and species futures. Increasingly, they’re all interconnected. And if anyone’s been to Standing Rock actions, I think that this is becoming increasingly clear. This is not just happening in science fiction; it’s happening in many ways, which are good in the sense that people are paying attention in a new and broader way.

The way that indigenous peoples see the future has never been more relevant not only for their communities, but also for everyone else. Really what could be more relevant than the imagined futures of people who have lived through the apocalypse and survived it, and who aren’t 2 minutes to midnight but 10 minutes after midnight. So, perhaps they have something really important to say and the medium of science fiction and film provides a really compelling and visceral way to get that point across. Thank you.


Muhammad: Thank you for organizing this, Henry. I’m from Seattle, so it’s good to be in a place where the sun actually comes out. I’m the founder and editor of the Islam and Science Fiction Project also at the University of Washington, and a senior data scientist at Groupon. So, I’ve been interested in science fiction as far back as I could remember. Must have been six or seven when The Next Generation came out, so I used to watch it and I got hooked into the original series.

But my real interest in the intersection of science fiction and Muslim cultures came, I would say, around 2004-2006. That was when I became really fascinated with intersection of science fiction and religion in general. It is my personal opinion that some of the best science fiction novels which are out there have just very strong religious themes. So, a few that comes to my mind are Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny and his work in general. Lord of Light has very strong Buddhist and Hindu themes. There’s a lot of really good Catholic sci-fi out there. The novel Canticle of Saint Leibowitz comes to mind that does have a strong religious, mainly Christian, presence. There’s also the Case of Conscience by James Blish.

So, that’s how it started — it got me thinking about the intersection between science fiction with Muslim characters or Islamic themes in science fiction. I started digging around in books, libraries, different forums online, and I discovered that there was almost no material on this subject. I even found one article where the author, who I will not name for certain reasons, actually went to say that as far as our science fiction is concerned, it [Science Fiction in Islamic background] does not even exist.

And years later I came across an article by an African-American scholar, Yusuf Nuruddin, who diagnosed the problem with saying that just because something has not been covered in certain academic western scholarship that it should not be taken to mean that it does not exist. So, with that, I started collecting material on this subject and that’s how the Islam and Science Fiction Project was born.

So, if you look at history of fiction with fantastical elements that came out of the Islamic world, the most famous is, of course, the Arabian Nights, also known as the One Thousand and One Nights. A number of stories in that collection have what we now recognize as having broad science fiction elements. So, for example, you have invisibility cloaks, you have travel to other planets, you even have stories with time travel, so on and so forth. John Campbell, I believe he’s at University of Alabama is doing some scholarship on a project about — which he describes as one of the first sci-fi novels which was written in Arabic in 14th century by Ibn Al-Nafis.

Ibn Al Nafis’ claim to fame was actually that he was one of the earlier discoverers of circulation of blood in the human body. And the other — not just the fiction or fantastical elements but if you look at other parts of the Islamic worlds in South Asia actually have the largest epic fantasy ever written. And when I say that this is not an exaggeration I actually mean it. So, the whole collection is called TAilsm-Hoshruba or magic that takes your senses away or in other words, mind-blowing magic.

It’s a collection of — it’s a novel or a collection which consists of — literally of one hundred thousand pages. We can safely assume that nobody has read it or at least nobody alive has read it. And it takes a very liberal — especially from contemporary times view of early Islamic history. So, it’s settled in this alternate world where the protagonist is actually the uncle of Prophet Muhammad, Hamza, who unlike real history did not die in a war but became this epic hero [in this story] and went on to fight demons and dragons and other creative creatures in Persia and China and other parts of the world.

The story has a very multicultural cast. Part of his entourage are people from India and China, Persia, a couple of his friends are even Romans. So, it also gives us a very interesting window into a past of the Middle East which was much more color and much more open-minded and much more diverse, one could even argue.

Lets talk about [fiction] closer to the modern era. It’s difficult to say that there’s — it’s even impossible to say that there’s such a thing as the Islamic world, they have multiple cultures which have this belief system as a commonality. They have their own — a lot of them have their own literatures which sometimes intersect. So, for example, a lot of recent literature with respect to sci-fi which is coming out of the Arab world has many dystopian themes which is in light of the events — especially in the light of events which have been going on in the Arab world in the last years or so.

If you look at 19th and early 20th century sci-fi literature in the Arab world, we do have many more examples of utopias. More recently, there’s this award-winning novel which came out of Egypt. It’s called Utopia. It’s written by Ahmed Towfik. Although it’s set in the near future very dystopian Egyptian society bereft with class war and class distinctions.

There’s another novel that came out after the Arab Spring also from Egypt. I believe it’s called The Queue. And it’s set in an unnamed country where a people’s revolution has failed and the government is very authoritarian and controls each and every single thing that people — that citizens are allowed to do or not allowed to do. And one of the more interesting recent novels that came out — actually came out of — from Iraq by this author whose name is evading my mind right now. It’s called Frankenstein in Baghdad.

The premise is that the Frankenstein monster is actually created from people who have died because of the — first because of the invasion and then after because of the civil war. Once the Frankenstein monster, this monster gets animated, it sets itself as its goal to take revenge on people who constitute its body parts. It’s supposed to be a commentary on the invasion of Iraq and the sectarian and religious violence which is going on in Iraq right now.

And if you look at the other parts of the Arab world, so for example, there is this thing called Gulf futurism. Mainly centered around Qatar, Bahrain and Dubai and the other emirates, where the idea is that if you actually look at Gulf even now, it has a very cyberpunk/dystopian feel to it. So, we have — we literally have the tallest buildings in the world and some of the biggest construction projects in the world which appear to be found right off a sci-fi novel. But at the same time, we have a very large underclass of people who are barely getting minimum wages and trying very hard to survive.

Crossing the water, if you look at places like Saudi Arabia, it’s interesting. So, there’s — a couple of years ago there’s these two brothers who even started a publishing house centered around science fiction. They came up with this novel, its translation is actually available freely on the Internet. It’s called HWJN. So, part of the Islamic belief is belief in the supernatural creatures called djinns or in the west we call them genies.

The novel tries to give a naturalistic explanation for them that they live in this parallel universe. And one of the protagonists who is this creature falls in love with a human female who lives in our world. And then, it uses that as a launch pad to explore class divisions within the Saudi society and also religious extremism, religious tolerance. And not surprisingly it got banned within Saudi Arabia. And after the ban that they actually made the novel freely available on the Internet both in Arabic and in English.

And it was hugely popular — I should say, at the underground level it was hugely popular a couple of years ago. So, if I were to make like one generalization about sci-fi coming out of the Islamic world, it’s that it’s the local conditions and the histories that inform what people are envisioning about the future. So, the future is — so one could even argue that the future is actually about the present. We project our hopes, fears and aspirations about what future could be or what future cannot be.

Another place surprisingly where we actually have sci-fi inspired from Islamic cultures, they’re having Islamic influences is actually the United States. The most famous sci-fi novel ever is Frank Herbert’s Dune is inspired from the Middle Eastern culture. Many of the terms that Frank Herbert actually uses are directly lifted from the Islamic religious canon, for example. There are a couple of authors which are well-known, G. Willow Wilson, she’s actually a Muslim convert. So, her novel — her graphic novel is called Alif the Unseen.

It’s set in this cyberpunk setting where the genies that I described, they actually have a way to interact with our modern technology. That’s a pretty interesting read. There’s another sci-fi fantasy author, Saladin Ahmed, is actually the first American Muslim to be nominated for the Hugo. So, he has this novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon, it’s part of trilogy that’s coming out. A lot of interesting work which has been done.

I would end with the note, as I described earlier, that it’s difficult to generalize about such a large mass people. But at the same time, there are certain things and commonalities that we see, basically hopes and aspirations of people which are projected about the present and the future.

And one thing that I would say is much needed is that as we are moving from a western or Euro-centric view of science fiction, we should also not get into the trap of when we are talking about, say, sci-fi from the Muslim world or from China or indigenous sci-fi or from Africa that these are not necessarily bubbles but there should be a cross communication across these different worlds. Because if we really think about it, that actually has been the rule throughout history that cultures have never been born by isolation. There’s always been cross fertilization.



Exercising the Imagination Muscle: Notes from the Imagine 2040 Symposium on April 7, 2017

I wanted to share this report on some of the work being organized by my research team at USC. Our work on the Civic Imagination Project has been funded by the MacArthur Foundation. This research grows out of our last book, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism, which was published by New York University Press. We are hard at work on a new book which will expand our understanding of the concept of “the civic imagination” and the events described here are, among other things, part of the process of ideation around this research. We would love to hear from other research groups that are exploring related themes and topics.

Reposted from the Civic Imagination Project website.

Photo by RB Photography

April 7th, 2017 marked an important step forward in the emerging work that the Civics Path Group is carrying out around the idea of the Civic Imagination. With support from the USC Collaboration Fund and the MacArthur Foundation, Civic Paths and the Civics and Social Media research groups convened a one-day symposium on the USC campus called “Imagine 2040.” The event brought together a widely diverse set of scholars, practitioners and activists from across the country and Mexico to think about the civic imagination and to consider key questions that have emerged from our initial work in this area.

We will be continuing to explore the outcomes and ideas from this day for the next several months and will have more in-depth analyses to share as we go forward. But we wanted to get things started by giving a quick account of the event along with some high-level takeaways and reflections from the organizers.
For more background on the civic imagination and previous activities please see our About section and Chronicles page.

​Photo by RB Photography

The Event

Although many of the participants of “Imagine 2040” are already harnessing civic imagination in their work in one form or another, we wanted to create a shared foundation of concept and experience to ground the event so we began our day with a brief presentation from Henry Jenkins and an abbreviated worldbuilding exercise. Dr. Jenkins provided an overview of how we define the civic imagination within our work and how that definition aligns and diverges with others. From there, Sangita Shresthova and Gabriel Peters-Lazaro led the group through an abbreviated version of a worldbuilding workshop similar to one that Civic Paths ran internally in the fall of 2016 in which we collectively imagined the world we’d like to live in in the year 2040.

After a wide-ranging whole-group brainstorm about the future, participants worked in smaller groups to develop and share back narratives about how that world came to be that included stories about sentient birds, participatory pedagogy and sustainable agriculture. Before breaking for lunch we spent a little bit of time reflecting on the process from the morning. Participant Susu Attar, who also helped create the very first worldbuilding workshop that we ran as part of the Media Activism and Participatory Politics (MAPP) project, shared these thoughts:

I think the thing that I really love about the design of this is that you’re considering life on earth and then you’re engaging people through  imagination and creativity about future problems but also future solutions. And that requires listening and building consensus and then making something together….It exercises all the tools you need to really ever do anything in this life.

On our return from lunch we organized the afternoon based on The World Cafe model of discussion. Civic Paths research assistants Samantha Close, Raffi Sarkissian and Yomna Elsayed each led a round of discussion. Each round started with the introduction of a topic related to our collective inquiry into civic imagination, framed with a brief introduction and key points for consideration. Participants then spent 20 minutes discussing these points in small groups around their tables. Notetakers from Civic Paths stayed at the tables to share back summaries of the discussions from each group after each round. For each subsequent round, participants would move to new tables creating new discussion groups.

Discussion leaders Close, Sarkissian and Elsayed share their topics of inquiry and brief accounts of participant responses in the following sections below.

Photo by RB Photography

Round One: Imagination from escapism to escape – Yomna Elsayed

Topic Introduction

 To many parents and educators, daydreaming is negatively viewed as a sign of withdrawal, a kind of solitary confinement by choice that should be resisted for the sake of better involvement with the world around us. Inspirational videos circle the web urging young people to stand up and do something, anything. Somehow doing is more valued than imagining. The rapid pace of our modern lives, and the severity of much of our modern day tragedies, be it the Syrian civil war, the rise of ISIS, transnational migration crisis, all push us to act, and act quickly. After all, we cannot see what someone is imagining, even our tools of description be they language, art or technology repeatedly fail us at capturing the exact details and at the same time vividness of our imagination when constrained by words, materials, colors or what is technologically possible. But like world events have become ephemeral phenomena, so have many of our actions and their effects. How can civic imagination slow us down to come up with civic, possibly better, alternatives that work to reimagine the world we live in, rather than just mend it?

In his 2013 talk, English author and fiction writer Neil Gaiman urged us “We all – adults and children, writers and readers – have an obligation to daydream. We have an obligation to imagine. It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything that we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field. But the truth is, individuals change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.”

To Gaiman, “pretty much every form of fiction [including fantasy] can actually be a real escape from places where you feel bad, and from bad places. It can be a safe place you go, like going on holiday, and it can be somewhere that, while you’ve escaped, actually teaches you things you need to know when you go back, that gives you knowledge and armour and tools to change the bad place you were in. So no, they’re not escapist. They’re escape.” (link)

These divergent views on imagination got us asking: when is imagination ‘escape’, and when is it ‘escapist’, and if there is a difference between the two? Whether imagination is self-sedating or if it can be used to pass critique and/or question reality? And if so, when does imagination become civic?

Key Insights From Round One

Imagination is an active process.

Initially, someone lost in their thoughts, a fiction book or a game, might seem to be a passive contributor to this world, occupying physical space without really contributing to it. Participants however, suggested that imagination can be a processing space, one that is suitable for building fiction, which can itself move us one step closer to a solution. In building up a fiction, authors have to strip away constraining details, thus allowing themselves, even in imagination, to move beyond physical limitations, noted one of the participants. In other words, to many, imagination can be a safe dynamic space for experimenting with ideas.

Participants suggested that even technologies that are often accused of distracting people from “real-life” such as social media and virtual reality sets, have a double function, to both engage and escape. Virtual reality technologies for example, can be used as escapism but also as a tool for empathy, they noted.

Imagination is crucial for activism.

With many of our participants working in activists spaces, the question “does escapism contradict with being woke?” came up more than once. Asked differently, can escapism or even escape be valuable to activism?

While the literal meaning of staying-woke may sound contradictory to the image of someone lost in their thoughts or daydreams; figuratively, however, staying woke is about staying informed and aware of the underlying workings of systems of power, which does not necessarily stand in contradiction with the act of imagination. As one of the participants suggested: escape in itself can be a retreat, a recharging period to reflect, make sense of the world and imagine alternatives.

For marginalized communities, imagination becomes a necessity when reality does not seem to be offering them much to work with. Therefore, they have to start by first pushing boundaries in their imagination: one has to imagine themselves in a particular space first before they can participate in it; it thus takes a leap of faith, sometimes. A similar tension occurs between art and activism, where art needs room to dream and imagine while activism needs a space to act.

Our participants partially concluded that instead of pitting escapism and “woke-ness”, art and activism, against one another, we should view them not as goals in and of themselves but as active and dynamic processes that work together to enable action. Once imagination is actionable, noted one of the participants, it is transformed from being an escapist route to becoming an escape route.

Round Two: Civic Imagination as a mechanism? Civic Imagination as a valence? – Samantha Close

Topic Introduction

Carrying on the thread from the last prompt, one of the enduring debates about both media and technology are whether they are, at their basic levels, empowering for everyday people and conducive to progressive political change or empowering for existing governments and corporations and conducive to conservation of the status quo.  Others argue that media and technology are fundamentally neutral; means that can be turned to a variety of ends.

You could ask a similar question about the civic imagination.  But this might not be the most productive question to ask—at least at first.  Rather than starting off debating if the broad idea of a civic imagination is just a tool, a way of doing things, or if it carries an inherent political and ethical charge, we are interested in when and how particular civic imaginations have been thought up and put out into the world in particular moments.

We asked participants to think of examples of civic imagination that scare, worry, or repulse them—what kind of civic world do they imagine?  How is that imagination expressed?  Then we encouraged them to think of some civic imaginations that inspires them or in which they share.  How are those imaginations expressed rhetorically or put into material practice?  Do these different examples of civic imaginations share anything, either in the ways in which they are expressed or put into practice?  In what is imagined?  If not, where do they diverge—what are the differences in how they are expressed, what they imagine, and how they are materialized?

After considering these questions we asked participants to try to pull back to the abstract level.  If civic imagination is like a mechanism, a way of thinking and doing, what are its key components?  What does an idea need to have or do to be both civic and imagining?  Is it possible to distinguish the progressive or inspiring civic imaginations from those that scare and concern you, to say something like “an ethical civic imagination will have these things”?

Key Insights from Round Two

Imaginations are civic when they are shared.

Participants had little trouble coming up with examples of civic imaginations, pulling together civic imaginations from current politics, history, and popular culture genres from music videos to video games.  But there seemed to be a minor divide over a deliberative/collectivist view of civic and an aesthetic, somewhat solitary, view of civic. According to the first view, when imagination is shared, it moves from the private space of our own minds to a shared public space in which it is engaged in conversation. Some ventured to suggest that even sharing one’s imagination is action in itself (and to a member of a marginalized community, an act of courage). The second view however, suggested that even private imagination is value unto itself, as it is also changing the person who is doing the imagining.

Collectivity is a necessary means but not a good end.

A sense of collectivity is a necessary means, part of the mechanism of any civic imagining, but it is not an ethical end.  Ethical civic imaginations must be built on the fact that there are and will be important differences between people—there will always be people fighting for what they believe in.  Civic imaginations that scared the group generally had in common that they imagined a collectivity of sameness, futures where everyone was alike in the most important ways.

To imagine a civic world, you must also imagine power.

It is essential to imagine power: what it is and where it comes from.  This is a shared feature of many civic imagination examples.  There does not need to be only one kind or source of power, but knowing what they are and how they are accessed is essential.

Round Three: From Imagination to Civic Imagination to Action – Raffi Sarkissian

Topic Introduction

The final prompt brought the discussion of the civic imagination to the work that each of the participants do in their professional and civic lives. In this round, we asked each table to think about how the ideas and approaches discussed throughout the day reflect or reinforce the principles and practices of their own projects. Is the civic imagination active or compatible with their own work? Alternatively, we wanted the groups to discuss potential obstacles to adopting the tenets of the civic imagination across the fields and spaces, both physical and digital, they occupy and intersect. Ultimately, we wanted them to think through ways we can put the ideas of the symposium into practice.

The ensuing conversations around each table were rich with inspiring work participants were already engaged in and raising important provocations as they synthesized the collective thoughts and experiences that informed the discussion throughout the day.

Key Insights from Round Three

Many of the participants shared that key principles of the civic imagination were already present in their work. The discussion around several tables centered on the role of media-makers in creating narratives of the civic imagination beyond what is available in existing popular (and often hegemonic) texts and formats. For instance, one group gave pushback to the confines of the traditional, linear model of storytelling, which included the world-building exercise from the morning session. They raised questions on how to tell stories about individuals doing great work in marginalized communities but avoid the hero/leader trope. How can we expand existing stories and avoid fixed narrative structures in order to tell stories about collective action?

Several groups brought up social media and technology as double-edged swords in that they can foster networked communication but also act as obstacles often slowing us down, whether by trolls, distractions, or exhaustion. Some cited the need to keep resistance alive but push it to the backdrop and instead use imagination to move us forward. Others noted the constant pressure they feel for civic content and outreach to be entertaining. Another table discussed the trade-off between depth of content and breadth of its reach in regards to alternative media narratives, especially in local artist communities. A few others discussed the challenges of inclusion when considering the reach of the civic imagination–how can the civic/political be inviting without being prescriptive?–and recognizing that some groups have been consistently fighting for these goals way before November 2016.

To put much of this work into context, one of the tables likened the civic imagination to a muscle, which needs exercise to grow and see its full potential. While many activists are already engaged in this work, those who are not as attuned to practicing imagination need to work out and flex that muscle. This was an apt analogy to cap off the productive day of collaborative imagination.

Connecting Imagination to Action needs a nudge.

One of the workshop participants, an educator by profession, noted that sometimes all students need is a nudge, possibly referring to constraints of an assignment or a project that encourage students to flex their imagination muscles and equips them with tools for tying their imagination to action. However, the nudge can be anything from a symbolic to a physical limitation that pushes people to experiment with other creative ways of circumventing their apparently constrained realities.

This is of course is not an encouragement for educators or decision makers to become more authoritarian so as to breed creativity, but it is an illustration of how civic imagination need not be only a goal, but also a starting point, better a methodology, whereby imagining civically is one of the ways for carving out an “escape route”.

Photo by RB Photography

Conclusions and Next Steps

One of the primary challenges of conducting such a rich and wide ranging event with so many thoughtful people is to harness and catalog the ideas and energy that emerged from that day. Our group is currently in the process of conducting one-on-one interviews with symposium participants. This gives us and them a chance to let some of the ideas settle and to reflect in depth on the themes and questions of the day as well as to explore possible future collaborations across the emerging network seeded at the event. This work is ongoing but we are already excited to hear from participants about ways the work of that day has stayed with them and about the kinds of creative actions that we are already beginning to plan going forward.

In addition to interviews and written work that we will continue to grow and share on this website, we were also fortunate to have the talented Greg T. Whicker with us as a graphic recorder. Throughout the day, John listened closely to the ideas and conversations flowing through the room and at a steady and focused pace, translated those words into colorful visual representations. Beside being a recommended component of World Cafe, we found the participation of a graphic recorder to be a valuable tool and wonderful complement to our engagement with civic imagination; helping to bring ideas to life in the visual realm and to expand a collective sense of vision and action.

The “Imagine 2040” symposium was a valuable experience for our work and has already influenced the direction of our next steps, helping us to continue to expand and hone our theoretical frameworks around the civic imagination. We are also looking forward to running more events in this model, bringing new voices and perspectives into conversation and growing the network as much as we can. We want to extend a huge ‘thank you’ to everyone who participated in our April event and who helped to make it possible. And we want to encourage any readers who may be intrigued by this account and these ideas to reach out to us for more information or to get involved.

Summary by: Gabriel Peters-Lazaro


Videos from Transforming Hollywood 8: The Work of Art in the Age of Algorithmic Culture

The videos are now available for our May 5 conference at UCLA.

9:00-9:15 a.m. – The Work of Art in the Age of Algorithmic Culture.  Welcome by Transforming Hollywood by co-directors Denise Mann (UCLA) and Henry Jenkins (USC).


9:15-10:20 a.m. – Keynote Presentation,” by Ted Striphas, “Algorithmic Culture.” 


10:30-12:00 p.m. – Panel One: Playing with Snackable Content in Virtual Marketplaces, moderated by Denise Mann, Professor, School of Theater, Film, Television, UCLA.


  • Larry Fitzgibbon, CEO and Co-Founder, Tastemade
  • Thomas Jorion, Head of Strategy and Innovation, Havas 18
  • Rob Kramer, CEO and Founder, PurposeLab
  • Kym Nelson, Senior VP of Sales, Twitch
  • Ted Striphas, Professor, Colorado University

TH8 Panel 1: Playing With Snackable Content in Virtual Marketplaces from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.



12:15-1:45 p.m. – Panel Two: Fake News and Struggles Over Circulation, Moderated by Henry Jenkins, Provost Professor, Annenberg Communication and School of Cinematic Arts, USC.


  • Mark Andrejevic, Professor of Media Studies, Pomona College
  • Brooke Borel, journalist and Author of The Chicago Guide to Fact-Checking
  • Hannah Cranston, host and executive producer of ThinkTank and guest host ofThe Young Turks.
  • Jon Passantino, deputy news director for BuzzFeed News, Los Angeles.
  • Ramesh Srinivasan, Associate Professor, Department of Information Studies and Design/Media Arts, UCLA.
  • Laura Sydell, Correspondent, Arts Desk, NPR.

TH8 Panel 2: Fake News and Struggles Over Circulation from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.


2:45-4:15 p.m. – Panel Three: Music Streaming & The Splinternets: The New, Competing Cultural Curators, moderated by Gigi Johnson, Founding Director, The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music.


  • Matthew Adell, CEO and Founder, MetaPop
  • Shanna Jade, Director of Community, Stem
  • Alex White, Head of Next Big Sound at Pandora

TH8 Panel 3: Music Streaming & The Splinternets: The New, Competing, Cultural Curators from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.



4:30-6:00 p.m. – Panel Four: Creating Binge-worthy “Streaming Web TV,”Moderated by Neil Landau, author of TV Outside the Box and The Showrunner’s Roadmap.


  • Jessie Kahnweiler, creator, The Skinny (Hulu)
  • Zander Lehmann, creator, Casual (Hulu)
  • Dawn Prestwich, co-executive producer, Z: The Beginning of Everything(Amazon)
  • Nicole Yorkin, co-executive producer, Z: The Beginning of Everything(Amazon)


TH8 Panel 4: Creating Binge-worthy “Streaming Web TV” from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.



All About Seriality: An Interview with Frank Kelleter (Part Four)

HJ: Can the immense amount of backstory produced by serial texts become a drag on the future development of the story? Are audiences less likely to jump onto a story when they feel like they need to do a lot of homework to get up to speed?

FK: I think aligning audience desires with backstory management is always a balancing act. More than that, it’s a balancing act that continually has to readjust itself to a current state of technological capabilities and role differentiations (i.e., how audiences understand themselves as audiences). This being said, serial texts have always defined their backstories selectively and strategically. Any serial narrative tends to change its pasts in the act of moving forward; backstory evolves just like the story itself evolves. This is what is meant by “recursive progression” in the book’s first chapter.

This particular feature of serial storytelling didn’t pose such a big problem as long as serial stories could count on audiences simply “forgetting” all those things and elements that didn’t make it into the current version of a backstory. After all, evolving narratives are defined by the fact that they produce more information than is required by the simple need for coherence and continuity, because such excess information then provides potential connecting options for future usage.

Conversely, everything that’s not repeated, reanimated, or re-presented will not be “remembered” in the current backstory. And that’s okay, because this surplus usually doesn’t challenge a narrative’s evolving sense of consistency: it’s simply not part of the past that’s present. But how do you deal with audiences that conceivably remember everything that has ever been told in a story, so that all connecting options ever presented on screen or paper become potential backstory?

This is a real dilemma for current series. Serial texts in the digital age have to deal with audiences that are often capable of accessing every bit and piece of serial narration. Such audiences are likely to put much higher demands on internal logic and coherence. But then, the more a series tries to meet these demands, the more complicated its narrative will become until it’s just not that attractive to newcomers anymore. As you say, people have to do “homework” to fully enjoy—or even to comprehend—what is being narrated.

HJ: If this is so, what might a better theory of seriality help us understand about the challenges and opportunities this extensive backstory represents?

FK: One way of dealing with the dilemma of extensive backstory is to invite audience members to understand themselves as contributors to a collective game of sense-making. Lost had a good run with this strategy for most of its duration, continually producing more information than a single human mind could possibly process (which is, of course, the very definition of “complexity”). As a result, audience engagement shifted to collaborative acts of playful story reconstruction that mirrored and reinforced the complexity of the series itself. In order not to overtax individual audience members, Lost offered them roles as part-time storytellers in a huge division of narrative labor. It worked quite well until this game had to come to an end.

Another strategy consists in not even trying to connect everything, because this will result in byzantine structures that still won’t cohere in the end. Such overtly complicated (not necessarily “complex”) backstory constructions can also become supremely boring, as the Star Wars prequels demonstrated when they traded storytelling for fastidious myth management.

To avoid this, a serial text can branch out into unexplored narrative spaces, opening up side-worlds or parallel universes that are connected only at one or two plausible points of transfer with established story lines. So that’s stressing the serialization of world-building over the serialization of narrative, and it seems to be a fairly sustainable strategy right now. Taking my cue from your own contribution to the book, I would dare to predict that in some media and some genres, serial storytelling will perhaps be increasingly eclipsed by serial word-building. We’re certainly seeing something like this happening in certain digital games, as Shane Denson and Andreas Sudmann suggest in their chapter.

HJ: How do we situate reboots of media properties in our understanding of the ways seriality operates in contemporary popular culture?

FK: Rebooting is another strategy of dealing with the dilemma of byzantine boredom versus quasi-omniscient audiences. Con Verevis says in his chapter that the reboot may be the film-remaking format of choice for the digital era, because it doesn’t try to cancel earlier versions but feeds on them, operating according to the logic of co-existence.

But there are different rebooting strategies. Kathleen Loock is currently writing this amazing history of film remaking practices, in which she argues that all these formats—the sequel, the prequel, the reboot, but also the classical “remake” in the sense of a re-filming—are best understood as historically flexible praxeologies rather than formal categories. This means that they always bleed into each other, so that even the most faithful “remake” will always also contain aspects of sequelization in a kind of second-order seriality.

The same with reboots: there are many practical options. Reboots can serially reanimate storyworlds that have lain dormant for a long time, almost in an act of archeological rediscovery. They can do so with storyworlds that were originally serialized or not. But reboots can also turn to recent complex multiverses and then return them to an initial state of enforced simplicity. And many other possibilities.

One of the most interesting cases lately was Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which looks like a cross between a prequel (situating itself in a timeline before a recently concluded series) and a tie-in or spin-off (filling in, or creating, blank spaces in the original narrative), but then it’s really more of a reboot, because tonally and ideologically, this film offers not just a variation but a decided alternative to existing Harry Potter stories (much more so than most previous spin-off series have done, I would argue). Unlike Rogue One, which implicitly re-makes the first Star Wars film in the form of a prequelized side-story, Fantastic Beasts really tries to re-think—and actually to qualify—the original series. That’s a risky move, but highly interesting. We will have to wait and see how it continues and how far this can be pushed (or not).

HJ: Do you have any thoughts about Rogue One as an intervention in the Star Wars universe, given the degree to which George Lucas’s original inspiration for the franchise emerged from classic movie serials of his youth? What kinds of interventions does this new film make into the serial structure of the series as a whole?

FK: I’ve heard the term “legacyquel” used for The Force Awakens—and I think it fits Rogue One as well. If this is indeed the film’s goal, the result is fairly successful. Formally, Rogue One achieves a largely convincing balance between remembering and renewing, fan service and pacing. If we consider how many Star Wars films have sunk under the weight of their accumulated narrative cargo, this one is pretty agile. But it’s also a bit redundant, after The Force Awakens already stressed the remaking aspects of sequelization.

So you wonder why Rogue One doesn’t make more use of the freedom provided by its sideway position in the series. But then, versioning and modernization—rather than revision—seem to be key ambitions of both films: both The Force Awakens and Rogue One basically revisit the same narrative template and then try to update it for a new media generation.

In a word, these are tightly franchised films, perhaps more so than seems necessary. So we get all these dialogues which reference irrelevant names and events, and such dialogues are always more obtrusive than visual Easter eggs, because unlike something you simply see or don’t, a dialogue always takes up time and it potentially confuses viewers who don’t know if this information is significant for the story at hand or if it merely seeks to place the film within the franchise. Even in Rogue One, there were some moments early on when I feared another retconning disaster, but then the film quickly got its act together.

Of course, the emotional climax comes in the end, when we find ourselves at the beginning of the franchise again—but not in terms of performative coherence because the 1977 film looks hopelessly obsolete now, not like something that could possibly “follow” Rogue One in terms of film style or technological standard. So, the emotional force of this prequel effect truly resides in second-order seriality (as Kathleen Loock and myself have called it). Which is to say that this scene touches audiences at the level of their media memories, their generational belonging, their biographical brand attachments.

I watched Rogue One the day after Carrie Fisher died, so the appearance of her digital avatar in the end was both poignant and creepy—almost obscene, in fact. But my fifteen-year old daughter didn’t think this moment was particularly important or powerful, although she knows the original Star Wars, but for her it’s nothing special, just some old film. For many viewers of my generation, that’s different.

In terms of modernization, then, the chief variation—or intervention—of this new version really occurs at the level of representational politics. Dan Hassler-Forest has written insightfully about this. I agree with him that Rogue One’s progressive casting policy allows the film to discard the metaphysical quest plot of earlier versions and the hokey Freudian family drama. But even without these elements, Rogue One is ruled by the same media nostalgia that animated George Lucas’s original, only that this time it’s not nostalgia for classical Western and adventure serials but for earlier Star Wars movies.

And I would argue that this strongly shapes the film’s political structure as well, above and beyond its diversity activism—which is a little compromised anyway by the sacrificial death of its entire non-white cast, as if we’ve watched a one-off redshirts saga. Either way, exchanging white Jedi knights for multicultural rebels simply doesn’t change the fact that this film is still telling the same story of populist uprising that in many Anglophone countries passes for antifascism.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to downplay the importance and timeliness of Rogue One’s representational achievements—it’s the best thing about the film—but Rogue One is performing this innovative move in a slightly gimmicky fashion, while simultaneously reproducing the same generic (almost genetic) script that’s been organizing American political storytelling across party lines for a long time now, the script of “the people” vs. the evils of centralized government. This also explains why the film’s innovatively cast characters turn out to be such easily recognizable figures. Jyn Erso, but also Rey in The Force Awakens or, for that matter, Katniss in The Hunger Games are all variations of one type—a fact that considerably qualifies the originality of casting a female lead.

So, regarding the film’s politics—and I hope I’m not stepping on anyone’s toes here—Rogue One’s understanding of fascism is pretty much the same well-intentioned but ultimately inane understanding of fascism that has been dominating Hollywood films from classical sound serials through Star Wars and Indiana Jones all the way to The Hunger Games. And I wouldn’t even complain about this, because a lot of it is fun to watch and told tongue-in-cheek, so that ideology-critical “decoding” isn’t a particularly appropriate method for reading these texts, but in 2016/17, all of this is happening at a time when we’re in dire need of more accurate theories of neo-fascism and when we could use some mature political storytelling in our popular media. I’m not sure this is what the conspicuous self-politicization of Rogue One provides. In the end, it’s a film about Heldentod with digitally resurrected celebrities. That’s scary stuff, if you think about it.

Frank Kelleter is Chair of the Department of Culture and Einstein Professor of North American Cultural History at John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany. His main fields of interest include the American colonial and Enlightenment periods, theories of American modernity, and American media and popular culture since the 19th century. He was the initiator and director of the Popular Seriality Research Unit (2010-2016). Frank writes in German and English but finds it incredibly difficult to translate his own texts. Most recent publications: Media of Serial Narrative (ed., 2017), David Bowie (Reclam, 2016), Serial Agencies: “The Wire” and Its Readers (2014), Populäre Serialität (ed., 2012).

All About Seriality: An Interview with Frank Kelleter (Part Three)

HJ: From an audience point of view, the greatest enthusiasm for serial texts seems to come mid-stream when there are many different directions for interpretations and speculation. Why have so many serial texts had difficulty sticking the ending?

FK: As with all living things, the end is a sad affair, at best a moment of relief, but hardly ever an occasion for joy and celebration. I’m exaggerating, of course, but only slightly. As commercial products—and that’s an important “preposition” of this material: its openly commercial nature—popular series would like to go on forever. A successful television series is renewed; that’s the mark of its success, as Jason Mittell says: being successful means being able to continue.

Of course, all parties involved know that there is no such thing as real infinity, not even for very successful prod­ucts. All television series must end sooner or later. But when they do, this almost never happens because everything that was meant to be told has been told now. On the contrary, in most cases, television series do not “end” at all, in any strict sense of the term, but they simply disappear. This shows them as what they are: popular commodities, profitable only for so long. The narrative simply doesn’t return from its seasonal commercial break.

Sometimes a series knows in advance that it will be written off, but the result of such knowledge is often some flimsy sense of finalizing structure, usually imposed in a rather forced manner. In fact, it was relatively rare until recently that final seasons would be announced as final seasons—and even in that case, carefully prepared closure typically consists in making the series look retroactively like a multi-part work, and even then, there are often oblique options for future continuation. (Miniseries are different, of course, but only at first glance, because they, too, are frequently serialized now with a second season.)

All in all, there is no satisfying ending to a story that is structurally premised on its own return and continuation. Long-running mystery series—like Lost, where the secrets proliferated along with the show’s various narrative identities—will never be able to answer all the questions they have spawned. Even largely episodic programs, like sitcoms, reach a moment of narrative crisis when the final episode arrives. Seinfeld reacted to this challenge by brilliantly looping back to a remote beginning, but many people didn’t like that either, because they wanted the show to go on, not to eat itself up.

So, Sean O’Sullivan has a point when he says that satisfaction is not such a useful concept when we talk about serial storytelling. But then it’s an empirical fact that many viewers are dissatisfied or angry or sad when their favorite series disappears from their daily lives. In terms of audience attitudes, there are probably two extreme poles here: there are those audiences who would like to see their series as self-contained artifacts, closed and coherent “works,” like bourgeois novels, and so they expect a certain resolution in the end, a final “payoff” for all the time they’ve invested in watching or reading. And then there are those who relish precisely the challenges of storytelling on the go. Those are perhaps the ones most likely to engage in public storytelling themselves, be it fan fiction, be it audience activism, be it some more bureaucratic or academic type of narrative account keeping.

These para- and post-textual activities can go on for a long time after a series’ core text has stopped moving forward. And interestingly, this type of receptive production often tends to perform a switch from valuing satisfactory storytelling to valuing satisfactory world-building, because the pleasures of world-building are potentially endless too. This is what you discuss in your contribution to the book: an imaginary map will never be completely filled with information. There will always be blank spaces for future exploration.

HJ: How might a better understanding of how seriality works contribute to our grasp of transmedia storytelling?

FK: I would say seriality has an almost natural affinity to transmedia storytelling. Popular series are not easily contained within their core texts and media. Again, this has to do as much with their commercial mode of existence as with their narrative practices, because both are related and mutually reinforcing. Christina Meyer writes about this in her chapter on the Yellow Kid, one of the first serial comics figures. And Con Verevis in his chapter points out that remade blockbuster films in the digital age are almost necessarily intermedial.

Of course, when a story is told across media, the challenges of recursive sense-making proliferate tremendously: serial continuity management and serial self-observation are confronted now not only with a constantly growing number of episodes but also with different technologies of storytelling. What’s interesting about this process is how it can prompt serial storytelling to become explicitly modular. This is especially visible in contemporary trends, so I’m tempted to say that modularity might become the most likely form of seriality within our digital media ecology.

And again, there will be viewers who will cherish modular consistency, hoping (and even demanding) that a story’s transmedia manifestations fit into each other like the pieces of a puzzle—and there will also be viewers who will be fine with parallel processing, seeing modules as building blocks with different functions that can be rearranged or ignored in changing constellations. In both cases we can expect very intricate and controversial “canon” constructions to evolve. Of course, much of this has been prepared and pioneered by the expanding Star Wars universe.

HJ: Audiences have long used the gaps in the flow of serial texts as points for discussion and speculation. How might today’s social media contribute to these forms of engagement? Does binge viewing alter the dynamic by which consumers engage with serial texts?

FK: A number of issues are at work here. First of all, I would say that any type of large-scale reception practice does indeed alter the dynamic of popular seriality, especially when it concerns the temporality of story engagement. So, yes, eliminating the time gaps between episodes potentially changes both story consumption and storytelling. In the case of Netflix original series, with their full-season dumps, the result is paradoxically to slow down the reaction time for collective discussion and serial self-observation, because this business model shifts seriality from the level of the episode to the level of the season.

But that’s not an entirely new phenomenon. After all, this is what serial storytelling does, in terms of social practice: it organizes time and it does so for very large collectives, virtualized collectives. What we call “binge watching,” for example, is only the latest—perhaps we should say: the timeliest—manifestation of serial culture’s interest in continuous reception and production.

But in the history of mass media, every new medium has provoked such discourses of addiction and substance abuse, all the way back to social-hygienic concerns about novel reading in the 18th century. And I’m not saying this to mock the motivation behind such concerns; as with anything that we feed our bodies, there are good reasons to think about questions of dosage and long-term effects. But historically, there is nothing inherently disruptive about binge viewing or social media. These developments are evidently attuned to the current techno-state of our physical existence.

So when we think about audience-text-hookups, I find evolutionary accounts more convincing than revolutionary ones. The self-understanding of serial audiences really coevolves with the affordances of serial media.

Frank Kelleter is Chair of the Department of Culture and Einstein Professor of North American Cultural History at John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany. His main fields of interest include the American colonial and Enlightenment periods, theories of American modernity, and American media and popular culture since the 19th century. He was the initiator and director of the Popular Seriality Research Unit (2010-2016). Frank writes in German and English but finds it incredibly difficult to translate his own texts. Most recent publications: Media of Serial Narrative (ed., 2017), David Bowie (Reclam, 2016), Serial Agencies: “The Wire” and Its Readers (2014), Populäre Serialität (ed., 2012).

All About Seriality: An Interview with Frank Kelleter (Part Two)

HJ: A key claim here is that seriality in its modern sense emerges from 19th-century print culture. Explain. Doesn’t Homer produce works that can be understood in terms of their seriality?

FK: Stories told in installments are probably as old as human culture. So, yes, manifold structures of repetition and variation can be identified in Homer, in medieval story cycles, in picaresque and chivalric novels, and so on. The specificity of modern (or “popular”) seriality reveals itself when we begin to think of seriality not as a narrative device but as a cultural practice. The medium of print and its affordances are crucial here, because print allows for a heretofore unimaginable production of “intimacy at a distance” (as Horton and Wohl called it). As Daniel Stein shows in his chapter, this is exactly what we witness in the first newspaper novels of the 19th century, starting with Les mystères de Paris.

Newspapers are important in this regard because they tremendously speed up the process of synchronizing the most heterogeneous spaces and demographics—a process which then comes to describe itself as “modernization.” This, at least, was Benedict Anderson’s point, when he argued that the print revolution afforded the idea and the reality of the modern nation. And Harold Innis had something similar in mind when he said that large territories first became governable with the invention of modern communication machines that coordinate time and space.

HJ: How do the stories published there differ from, say, story cycles involving recurring heroes, found in the Classical world for example?

FK: It’s certainly possible to compare narratological structures in classical storytelling with popular seriality, but in the early 19th century, we see an entirely new and distinct temporal regime come into existence that has everything to do with a media revolution that leads us from periodical newspapers to broadcasting media to digital media, each with their own specific synchronicities and non-synchronicities: with their distinct seriality practices, that is. We can call this larger system of continuous reading/viewing “print capitalism” or “media capitalism” or simply “popular culture”—and depending on which description we choose, we can critique it or celebrate it—but in all cases it’s important to see that serialization takes on different functions, and hence different meanings, when it operates within new technologies, even if their formalisms resemble earlier conventions.

For instance, think about the news as one of our most ubiquitous serial forms, and then think about what it meant for the evolving function and the evolving meaning of something appearing as “news” when the technologies of newsmaking switched from event-based media (such as the pamphlets of the early modern era) to increasingly fast-paced periodical accounts (such as weeklies and dailies). Ever since this happened, the newsworthiness of a piece of information has been heavily co-determined by the media logic of regular publication, and not just by the novelty or relevance of the information itself. In other words, the modern newspaper, as a serial publication, is forced to produce news even when nothing strikingly new has happened. And after a while it needs to do so daily—it needs to do so always, not just on certain ritualized occasions. Newspaper novels and almost all later types of popular seriality follow similar time constraints: episodes are typically written under a strict deadline, and the deadline very much modernizes the good old game of repetition and variation, encouraging new practices of standardization and multi-authorization, for example.

HJ: How might we think about the cultural status ascribed to serial texts?

FK: For the longest time, popular-serial texts have not been particularly interested in cultural status—and when they have achieved it, they commonly did so in non-serialized form, for example, when a serialized novel was republished and reworked as a bound book. So, historically speaking, if popular-serial texts have resisted canonization, this is because they’ve often not sought it.

If you think of traditional serial formats—newspaper novels, dime novels, comic books, TV shows of the network era—it becomes clear that in their aesthetic self-conception, indeed in their very materiality, these products never meant to become validated objects of cultural memory. Instead they aimed at rapid reception. As commodities, their prime interest was to attract as many readers or viewers as possible, in as short a time as possible, and then to quickly make room again for new offers.

That’s why, materially, they didn’t even imagine the possibility of future storing or archiving. Printed on cheap, almost deliberately unsustainable paper, or broadcast without back-up copy into the living rooms of anonymous viewers, entire genres and periods of popular seriality have become unavailable to us, because they were never meant to be seen again, let alone be analyzed by future historians. Popular culture always has this deep investment in the present moment.

So, whenever canonization takes place, it has to circumvent certain formal, material and experiential features of the canonized material. An important technological prerequisite is the existence of sustainable and generally accessible storage media. Derek Kompare, Jonathan Gray, and Jason Mittell have written about how the DVD box set has helped canonize certain TV shows—and, even more importantly, how the prospect of DVD releases has prompted TV serials around the turn of the millennium to try out, or in some cases to mimic, narrative techniques that can be aligned with culturally validated practices, such as complex but coherent plotting, narrative closure, overt stylistic experimentation, deep psychological characterization of figures, and so on.

But that’s not the end of the story. Clearly there’s another change underway in our own time, when the notion of cultural status itself is becoming increasingly problematical, because a text’s value now isn’t necessarily dependent anymore on the material distinctions of specific media forms but can also be associated with a text’s interfacing accomplishments in a system of textual co-presences within one and the same medium (acting as a super-medium).

HJ: Seriality seems to be one of those traits that gets dismissed when talking about soap operas but praised as one of the defining traits of today’s “quality television.”

FK: It is telling that in the 1990s and 2000s, many academic observers of the new “complex” television shows of the time thought that they were reading “novels.” Unsurprisingly, this comparison was particularly widespread among scholars who were trained in doing exactly that: reading and teaching novels. So, for a while it became a topos almost in certain intellectual circles to preface your professional interest in, say, HBO series by declaring that you usually don’t watch television or that you don’t even own a television set. The term “quality television” is best understood here as a legitimating term, not a descriptive term, because it implies that the most valuable type of television is the one that looks the least like television. But TV seriality, even in explicitly artistic programs, is usually not about epic scope or integral completion but about explorative movement. Twin Peaks understood this early on.

So when seriality gets dismissed in soap operas but praised in supposedly novelistic shows, the meaning of seriality itself is shifted toward more oeuvre-like notions, especially the notion of a whole that is made up of parts. And this is not just a question of literary scholars starting to watch a few television shows. We find similar moves within television studies.

Issues of gender and class play an important role here, I would say. They always do when we talk about legitimacy and prestige. I think this largely explains why soap operas—very complex and highly self-reflective narratives—have seen so little cultural valorization, even within television studies, at least in the sense of valuing soaps in their aesthetic and formal achievements as serial television (rather than valuing their populist use-value).

Conversely but accordingly, the “soapy” qualities of shows like The Sopranos or The Wire—say, their employment of melodramatic scripts and effects—have been systematically overlooked until critics like Robyn Warhol, Linda Williams, or Amanda Lotz pointed out that the most highly acclaimed (early) examples of digital-age television all shared one characteristic: they all told sentimental tales of white masculinity in crisis. Jason Mittell takes up this point in his chapter on Breaking Bad, when he discusses the melodrama of Walter White as a “‘women’s film’ told in reverse.”

HJ: Jason Mittell here suggests the challenges of interpreting serial texts, since meaning often rests on how an idea gets worked through across the entire work, and the full implications of an action may not be revealed midstream. So, what are critics to do with serial texts?

FK: I think whatever they do, they should try to respect the fact that they are dealing with serial texts. I wouldn’t want to argue for a unified methodology or research agenda. Marxist critics will do Marxist work, ethnographers will do ethnographic work, feminists will ask feminist questions. But in every case, the material comes with certain praxeological traits—Latour would say: with certain “prepositions”—that should be respected and accounted for, so that we don’t turn our objects of study into mere illustrations of pre-established assumptions or arguments.

And that’s where Jason Mittell’s point about endings becomes important, because when Jason reminds us that critical assessment of a serial text must remain fluid as long as that text is progressing, he’s not saying that we have to wait for the finale to uncover “what it all means,” like the last scene of a whodunit. Rather, the final episode is important for our assessment of the series “as a whole” because afterwards, no more additions can be made, at least not by the narrative itself, not until this narrative is revived again or reinterpreted in later versions.

So, the ending of a serial text is not necessarily its conclusion, and certainly not its solution. But it is the moment when the narrative—at least for a while, sometimes for a very long while, sometimes for ever—stops being able to react to its own effects, as serial narratives are wont to do. The feedback loop turns into a concentrated point of dispersion, so to speak, a launching pad. If storytelling continues, it has to continue now outside the bounds of the original core text—consider the many different versions of The Wire that have been circulating in public arenas after the show’s final season.

So, what are critics to do with serial texts? I would say, anything that seems important but let’s remember that we are dealing with moving targets. This means that even when these stories have come to rest now, they once existed as lively networks of multi-authored practice. This has always been their textual reality too.

Frank Kelleter is Chair of the Department of Culture and Einstein Professor of North American Cultural History at John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany. His main fields of interest include the American colonial and Enlightenment periods, theories of American modernity, and American media and popular culture since the 19th century. He was the initiator and director of the Popular Seriality Research Unit (2010-2016). Frank writes in German and English but finds it incredibly difficult to translate his own texts. Most recent publications: Media of Serial Narrative (ed., 2017), David Bowie (Reclam, 2016), Serial Agencies: “The Wire” and Its Readers (2014), Populäre Serialität (ed., 2012).

All About Seriality: An Interview with Frank Kelleter (Part One)

In the summer of 2012, I paid a visit to my friend Jason Mittel who was spending his sabbatical year in residence at Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, where he joined a group of researchers working on historical and contemporary forms of serial entertainment, headed by Frank Kelleter. While I was there, we discussed an advanced copy of the chapter on media engagement for my then forthcoming book Spreadable Media and I did a public lecture sharing early ideas about Comics and Stuff, which I hope to finish up the summer. But for me the most valuable part of the encounter was getting to know the members of the research unit on “popular seriality – aesthetics and practice”:  they gave me a glimpse into their individual and collective research, around which we had a lively and rigorous exchange.

Some years later, Frank Kelleter has released a new anthology, Media of Serial  Narrative, which brings together a collection of outstanding essays that emerge from the research group over its multiyear history. Contributors include Jared Gardner, Daniel Stein, Christina Meyer, Scott Higgins, Jason Mittel, and yours truly (an essay about world building in and around L Frank Baum’s Oz books). The collection ranges  from print culture in the 19 century to Hollywood serials to contemporary television, games and Transmedia franchises. The book makes the case for the centrality of seriality as an underlying aesthetic principle shaping much popular entertainment, offering new critical and theoretical vocabularies for understanding its narrative logic and cultural functions. Such work contributes much to our comprehension of the formal, industrial and ideological dimensions of popular entertainment.

Over the next few installments of this interview, Kelleter provides a cogent overview of some of the book’s core insights about serial narrative, moving back and forth between contemporary and historical examples, between theory and application in ways that represents the strength of the collection as a whole.

HJ: Let’s start with a bit of back story. What can you tell us about the origins and history of the Popular Seriality research network?


FK: The Popular Seriality Research Unit started in 2010 as a group of 13 scholars from different German universities. We came from different disciplines, too, but all of us were fascinated by stories that never seem to end but then simply disappear one day, or stories that always come back looking the same, but then after the tenth time, or the hundredth time, they’re not the same anymore. The German Research Foundation gave us a large grant for six projects, and so for three years we got to watch a lot of television and read a lot of comics. But most importantly, we used these first years to hook up with like-minded scholars from all over the world—chiefly the US, however—and suddenly, we found ourselves immersed in this amazing international network of people and projects and schools of thought, all trying to understand serial popular culture. Our sponsor was satisfied, too, and we received another generous grant for three more years. At the time, we already knew that this would be the final season, because that’s the allowed maximum for Research Units in Germany, six years. So we added another seven projects, some of them reaching back into the 19th century, others about digital games, non-fictional seriality, and other topics.


HJ: How did this book emerge from the network’s ongoing investigations?


FK: In 2013, when we got the follow-up grant, the group’s core activities moved from Göttingen to Berlin. The book was conceived at this time, at the moment when we were both branching out and already beginning to think about the end. All in all, it seems appropriate that Media of Serial Narrative is coming out now, shortly after our big valedictory conference in 2016, but it’s not a conference volume. The book almost feels like a condensed summary of the Research Unit’s work, within and without the German core group. So we’ve got collaborative chapters that are based on projects from our first funding period, such as Ruth Mayer and Shane Denson on serial figures, or Christine Hämmerling and Mirjam Nast on what they call “quotidian integration.” And then there are chapters that are more explorative, because they’ve emerged from brand new projects, such as Kathleen Loock and me writing on film remakes as serial forms. Some of the contributors were Fellows of the Research Unit in Göttingen or Berlin or both, such as Jason Mittell, Sean O’Sullivan and Con Verevis. And we’ve got chapters by close collaborators, such as Jared Gardner, who’s been a tremendous inspiration for our comics projects, or Scott Higgins, a good friend of our cinema projects.


HJ: Why study popular seriality across genres, media, nations, and historical periods?


FK: To study seriality means to study things in motion. It’s more of a kinesiological task, if you will, not so much an ontological one. So the study of seriality is often the study of specific temporalities. Rhythms, speeds, frequencies, the timing or non-timing of pauses, intermissions, and gaps, but also larger historical conditions like the timeliness or untimeliness of modes of production and reception—all these kinetic concerns are essential to make sense of how serial stories make sense.


HJ: How are you defining the concept of popular seriality?


FK: I would preface any definition by pointing out that serial stories usually move forward in adaptive feedback loops with their own effects. This kind of feedback can be more or less direct; it’s not necessarily a matter of audiences immediately influencing a narrative—there are also more indirect forms of interaction between storytelling and story consumption. So I’m not making a populist argument for fan autonomy here, but I want to highlight that serial storytelling is evolving storytelling. And evolving storytelling is always dispersed storytelling. In other words, seriality (both in its episodic and its progressive manifestations) necessitates a certain division of labor and it usually provokes all kinds of authorization conflicts.

So, pointing out the importance of feedback loops is not the same as claiming that serial storytelling is democratic storytelling. Rather, we’re saying that series and serials can observe their own effects. They watch their audiences watching them—and they are able to react. As developing and proliferating stories—as stories that are not easily programmed toward a predetermined ending or an ending that would be really final, without potential further resurrections—series and serials are virtually forced to adapt to their own consequences, to the changes they effect in their cultural environments.

Here is a definition, then (with the term “series” referring to both episodic and progressing formats): series can be defined as self-observing systems. And self-observing systems always produce theories about their own motions—they do so in order to keep moving. Likewise, series usually experiment with formal identities and they “think” about their own possibilities of continuation. However, when I say that series are “doing” these things, I don’t mean that they are intentional entities. Of course series do not act like human beings—or instead of human beings. But they involve people and intentions. Just think about what it means that the producers of a specific serial text—the writers, illustrators, actors, photographers, marketing managers, and so on—are sometimes much younger than the series in question, and that they will often express a sense of practical commitment to “their” series rather than a sense of originating authorship.


HJ: What can popular seriality teach us more generally about the nature of popular culture?


FK: The larger argument here is that all serial forms are such entities of distributed intention and that they all tend to generate, in historically specific ways and forms, what I would call reproductive intelligence. In fact, this process can be observed not only in the evolution of individual series but in the evolution of popular culture at large. So when we focus on seriality in our study of popular culture, we will sooner or later be looking for vocabularies that help us describe popular culture’s systemic dimensions, its reproductive intelligence … which can include all kinds of reproductive stupidity too—and representational violence and injustice.


HJ: Given the centrality of seriality to many different media, why has there been so little scholarly writing on this topic?


FK: A lot of scholarship uses serial texts to make some argument or other. But it’s rare for these studies to truly engage with the seriality of their material. So you get a lot of articles and papers and talks about “the representation of this-or-that in X,” with X being a serial text. And that’s valid research but it’s not seriality studies.

At the other extreme, you find the scholasticism of both narratology and axiomatic master-thought. So there are formalist typologies that basically see seriality as a narrative device, with all sorts of classificatory problems and solutions in tow. In rhetorical competition with this approach but following a similar logic, you have the writings of Sartre or Deleuze or Adorno and their continuations in academic storytelling.

Both types of scholarship have given us absolutely useful vocabularies to make certain distinctions—tempting vocabularies, too, because they’re so easily re-applicable once you’ve overcome the initial difficulty of learning their production code. Narratological terminology and philosophical rhetoric are great time-saving machines. But they also tend to define seriality as a fairly abstract “principle” or “force” or “structure”—or, in the case of Sartre, as an axiological term that serves to uphold a somewhat questionable theory of “mass culture.” For Sartre, the concept of seriality is basically a scholastic tool to solve a scholastic problem, the problem of aligning an existentialist script with a Marxist script. And that’s true for a lot of theoretical employments of terms such as “series” or “seriality” or even “repetition” and “variation.” Philosophies of art and culture often take the concept of seriality as a given: as something that can be used to explain things rather than something in need of explanation, something in need of historical retracings. It’s like the reduction of kinetics to ontology again.


Frank Kelleter is Chair of the Department of Culture and Einstein Professor of North American Cultural History at John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany. His main fields of interest include the American colonial and Enlightenment periods, theories of American modernity, and American media and popular culture since the 19th century. He was the initiator and director of the Popular Seriality Research Unit (2010-2016). Frank writes in German and English but finds it incredibly difficult to translate his own texts. Most recent publications: Media of Serial Narrative (ed., 2017), David Bowie (Reclam, 2016), Serial Agencies: “The Wire” and Its Readers (2014), Populäre Serialität (ed., 2012).

What Ever Happened to the Promise of Participatory Television?: An Interview with Adam Fish (Part Three)

While your book relies heavily on interviews with more than 80 people — men and women — involved in the television industry, you also rely on participant-observation — your own experiences as a contributor to Current and Free Speech Television. What can you share of your experiences there and how did they contribute to your analysis of these forms of civic media? Why did Current, for example, fail to achieve its goals of democratizing television news?


Between 2006 and 2009, I worked as a freelance documentary video producer for Current where I made 15 short videos on issues such as Iraqi refugees, divided cities like East Jerusalem, and religious contestation in India for UK, US, Irish, Italian cable and satellite television. This provided a valuable position from which to view the technoliberal ideals. It this was a heady time for the network as they were not being driven by economic liberal principles as much as by social liberal principles, meaning they didn’t have to worry about money too much and instead were burning their venture capital in an attempt to build hype around the very web 2.0, participatory culture ideals of media democratization, citizen video journalism, and other forms of technological empowerment.

As a go-to producer for Current I was at the front-lines of both receiving the propaganda about how networked technologies and new television-grade video cameras were transforming television—while at the same time receiving the precarious and unsufficient paychecks which enabled me to travel the world uninsured and unsupported. Fun, crazy, dangerous, and great for research. My position enabled me to embody the technoliberal paradox of technoliberalism. I was also able to see the weight of the contradiction eventually destroy the social liberal idealism as the market pressures mounted with the global financial crisis of 2008 and the exhaustion of the VC funds. (So, following the excellent work and guidance ofSherry Ortner and John Caldwell, I advocate that graduate students interested in the media industries attempt to work in those industries. No better access can be had!)

Current failed in terms of both economic liberalism and social liberalism, exposing the fallacy of that the technoliberal digital discourse can ameliorate this liberal paradox. The social liberal media democratization failed because there were not the global armies of camera-wielding activists and storytellers capable of making even remotely television-grade programming. Current did everything it could at film festivals, film schools, online and off, and found all of us and frankly there were not that many, a few hundred.

Democratization wasn’t the result but rather professionalization. Our content wasn’t that good, to be frank, and wasn’t scheduled but was randomly shuffled, so the audience didn’t develop around shows and stars so advertisers and cable providers weren’t interested. Eventually owners Gore and Hyatt sold the network to Al Jazeera for $100 million and a substantial personal profit, so it worked for these techno-elite and their technoliberal digital discourse apparently worked as well.

One of the most interesting chapters here deals with debates about the origin of the internet which erupted in the face of campaign statements by Al Gore and Barack Obama. What are some of the alternative understandings of digital history proposed? Who advocated them? And what do you see as the stakes in this debate?


Most people are familiar with former Vice President Al Gore’s statement about the internet while campaigning, “During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the internet,” uttered on CNN on March 9, 1999. But former President Obama also aligned himself with the internet on the campaign trail, saying on July 13, 2013: “The internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the internet so that all companies could make money off the internet.”

My argument is that aligning with the internet and all the good it symbolizes is a technoliberal political ploy. Gore fetishizes the internet while Obama mythologizes it and in the process both hope that their star will rise along with the NASDAQ and the hype of Web 1.0 for Gore and Web 2.0 for Obama.

But than a degradation ritual began in which both politicians are lambasted in the press. The different approaches used by the critical journalists expose the various types of technoliberal digital discourse. L. Gordon Crovitz at The Wall Street Journal started the polemic by going against the accepted wisdom and saying that former President Obama was wrong, it was Xerox PARC, and therefore corporations and not the government made the internet. Farhad Manjoo of Slate rebutted that the President was correct, the state did fund and support what became the internet. Harry McCracken of Time added to the debate by bringing back an old idea that never gets old in technology journalism, that it was not the state or corporations, but brilliant individuals like Tim Berners-Lee who created HyperText Markup Language (HTML), who should be thanked for creating the internet. Finally, Steven Johnson writing in The New York Times said it was not states, corporations, nor smart individuals but the people, namely, a public of open-source coders that should be thanked for building the software with which states, corporations, and individuals access the inter- net. These four liberal historiographies form contradictory dyadic pairs between economic and social liberalism.

What is at stake is what is always at stake in historiographical revisions: the path dependent direction of the present and future. And there is a clear winner, Crovitz.

Though likely the least accurate of the four historiographies, Crovitz’s argument is winning the present direction of internet — into the hands of the neoliberal elites and the politicians that support them. It is important, to differentiate the technoliberal and the neoliberal elites. Much like corporate liberals, technoliberals give lip-service to social liberalism and corporate, social, and self responsibility. Not so with the neoliberal elites whose ideology is non-contradictory. It is a pure breed of efficient economic liberalism without the baggage of social liberalism. Considering the ascent and present domination of technocapitalism in the last two decades, to read Crovitz is to hear the gloating of a victor. News Corp. owns The Wall Street Journal in which Crovitz gave his technocapitalist historiography that falls directly in line with the neoliberal principles which governs News Corp. and Murdoch’s longtime relationship with governments and other media corporations. With the 2008 US Supreme Court ruling, Citizens United v the Federal Election Commission, enabling unlimited economic contributions by corporations to political campaigns, on the premise that money is speech, the centrality of economic liberalism in US representational democracy is secured. While civil society groups like the Media Reform Coalition in the UK and Free Press in the US advocate for network neutrality and against media conglomeration, they have been largely omitted from power. This had been going on for decades but with the assignment by Trump of Ajit Pai to be the FCC Chairman, the final assault on socially liberal regulation of television and the internet will begin.

The media reform movement in the United States has often been divided between those who reach fatalistic conclusions based on the analysis of media ownership/concentration and those who maintain somewhat more optimistic perspectives based on expanded access to the means of production and circulation. Does your book offer any alternatives for thinking about what forms of media reform we should be advocating? What should we be fighting for?

As a cultural anthropologist, I need to oscillate between empirical case studies and broader theoretical interpretations and socio-political contexts. Hopefully, this regular movement between the micro and the macro dissolves the binaries, dualities, and other reductive absolutes. At each of the poles it is easy to be either cynical or optimistic.

At the political economic structural level the media landscape appears to be one in which the scale is winner-takes-all, resistance is coopted, and there is less and less opportunity to speak and be heard. On the ethnographic level one can participate in inspiring actions of media empowerment. If one adds the element of time, ebbs and flows of relative openness and closure become evident.

But in order for the openness which is necessary for robust participatory culture to survive and thrive activists need to focus on developing both the micro-level hacker-like skills of technological use and misuse as well as macro-level policy interventions. That way, if the trends toward closure and technocapitalism continue to dominate the present age of television and internet convergence in a mode of negative liberty and economic or neoliberalism than we are at least preparing to develop the next transmission system which can create a disruptive opening for temporary amateur and activist voicing.

I think the present is more about this form of subversion than it is about counter-hegemonic resistance and policy activism. We shouldn’t be fighting, but rather just getting on with making the subversive media we want to make, legal or not. In the memory of Aaron Swartz, we should just do what is right regardless of legality. Illegal downloads/uploads, radical free speech, whistleblowing, exfiltration, dark net uses, TOR encryption, DDoS—these practices are illegal while the NSA and GCHQ and other cyber-state cops are regularly using them against citizens in unwarranted investigations. States have become hackers while hackers are being thrown into state and federal prisons.

This is one of the issues taken up in my other 2017 book, After the Internet, and will be the single focus on my new book with Luca Follis, Hacker States (a continuation of concepts developed here and here): what rights will remain and what will be the future of democracy if nation states continue to prosecute hackers while hacking, leaking and depositing scandalous material, and using bots to pollute the public sphere?

Adam Fish is cultural anthropologist, video producer, and senior lecturer in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University. He employs ethnographic and creative methods to investigate how media technology and political power interconnect. Using theories from political economy and new materialism, he examines digital industries and digital activists. His book Technoliberalism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) describes his ethnographic research on the politics of internet video in Hollywood and Silicon Valley. His co-authored book After the Internet (Polity, 2017) reimagines the internet from the perspective of grassroots activists and citizens on the margins of political and economic power. He is presently working on a book about hacktivist prosecution called Hacker States and a book and experimental video called System Earth Cable about “elemental media”–atmospheric and undersea information infrastructures in the United Kingdom, Denmark, Iceland, and Indonesia. This project deploys drones to map the undersea fibre optical cable system as seen here at Landeyjasandur, Iceland.