The Value of Media Literacy Education in the 21st Century: A Conversation with Tessa Jolls (Part Three)

Henry: I really appreciate the work the CML does in translating research into awareness and action, in trying to build a more sustainable and scalable movement for media literacy. As someone who sees themselves first and foremost as a researcher, I am deeply committed to translating our research into language that can be broadly accessible and providing resources which can be deployed within important conversations; I see this blog as part of the work I try to do to broker between different groups of people who should be talking to each other.

My team through the years has done a fair amount of applied work with educators, trying to get our materials out in the field. We’ve come to the same conclusion you have that media literacy is at least as much about rethinking education as it is about rethinking media. We found very early on that developing resources were never enough unless you also helped to train the teachers who would be using those materials. This took us down the path of developing and running teacher training programs in New Hampshire and California, and then publishing a series of white papers which dealt with what we saw as best practices in fostering participatory learning, practices that both dealt with how to integrate the new media literacies into school curriculum but also how to couple them with progressive pedagogies that are very much in line with those that Masterman describes above — pedagogies that are very much informed by thinkers such as Dewey and Freire. See, for example:

 

http://henryjenkins.org/2012/12/play-participatory-learning-and-you.html

http://henryjenkins.org/2012/12/shall-we-play.html

http://henryjenkins.org/2012/09/designing-with-teachers-participatory-approaches-to-professional-development-in-education.html

 

We are back in the trenches again with the latest phase of our work, this time emerging from extensive research (interviews with more than 200 young activists) about the political and civic lives of American youth: We’ve now built an archive featuring videos produced by young activists around a range of causes, many of them appropriating and remixing elements from popular culture, many of them using tools and tactics associated with participatory culture. This time, we are testing these materials in collaboration with the National Writing Project, and working with their teachers (as well as the organizations we study) to develop activities and lesson plans which might allow educators to integrate our materials and insights into their teaching. One thing we’ve learned through the years is that our core strength is ultimately in cultural theory and research and thanks to my move to USC, coupled with media production capacities; we have some understanding of core pedagogical issues; but we do better working hand in hand with classroom teachers to develop the actual activities that make sense in the public schools. And we count on the power of various networks — including both the Media Literacy Movement and those folks involved with the DML world — to get word out about what we’ve created. This is why I place such a high priority in building partnerships which can help us work together to achieve our shared goals.

 

The issue of whether representation remains the core of contemporary media literacy is a complex one, it seems to me. Representation is a powerful principle, one which helps to explain the ways we use media to make sense of ourselves and our lives, and it remains very pertinent in a world where we are encouraging young people to develop a stronger sense of their own public voices, to tell their own stories, to create their own media. Looking critically at existing representations, thinking ethically about the choices they make as they create their own representations as media producers remain core to any understanding of media literacy, but young people are also participating in media which are more focused on social exchanges and personal interactions in which the creation of texts is secondary to the cementing of social bonds.  If we were developing media literacy in response to the telephone rather than television, would we be asking different questions, have different priorities?

 

Representation is itself a process, to be sure, but we also often use it to refer to a product or text: a representation. The disciplines which do much of the heavy lifting on media literacy education — especially language arts but also arts education — tend to focus heavily on texts, and so as the term representation gets translated into their vocabulary, it is not surprising that it comes to circle around texts. This focus on texts can lead us to think in terms of readers and writers/producers but not in terms of participants in an ongoing communication process. And this is a key reason why my vocabulary tends to place a greater emphasis on notions of participation than on notions of representation.

 

TESSA:  Ah…and so down the rabbit hole we go. And we are going on a slippery slope because as you said, it’s complicated.  I’m enjoying the ride!

Which universe are we describing? The physical world that surrounds us and that we perceive on a local and physical level — the world that surrounds us with physical media like logos and traffic signs and billboards and movies and music and candy wrappers — or the alternative global village or digital media that we access only through the assistance of hardware and software media like the internet in general or Instagram or Facebook or games?  In each case, the media are man-made, which means that men (and oh yes let’s be sure to be inclusive and say women too) construct these media messages and devices. Construction always calls for decisions on the part of the creator(s), who sets the initial limits and boundaries through which we may experience his or her creation — media construction, whether digital or not, is a physical representation of the creator’s intention.

So fundamentally, construction and (implicitly) representation must take place before participation is possible.  And participatory culture (whether we participate online or off) is both an input to and an outcome of construction/representation — and the fusion constantly changes the nature of and the expression of the construction, which always has emotional, social and cultural implications. There is a chicken-or-egg quality to the cultural issues and their intersection with media, but it can also be argued that an individual’s mind and group culture itself are also constructions/representations.

But back to media…As an example, let’s think about video games.  The games are media constructions and they provide a software “box” in which players operate, and this software box is constrained by the hardware platform.  The creator of the game designed the game intentionally — to share a worldview and/or to profit from game purchases. Players engage with the game text itself and interact with each other to experience the game in a myriad of ways — visual, verbal, social, emotional — and often players invent new ways of experiencing the game through mods or hardware and they amplify their experiences together.  But because the construction itself is constrained, there are inevitably frames and experiences that are included and excluded.

So much depends on how we parse the world we live in!  But at the same time, to take a scientific approach towards media literacy, we need boundaries and concepts that define and describe a specific field of inquiry — that of media, in this case. While the cementing of social bonds through media use may be a primary goal for youth or adults, media are still the means toward an end, while also acknowledging that digital spaces (constructions) multiply possibilities for and the nature of social engagement exponentially.

I agree with you, Henry, that the focus on the word “texts” — because of its traditional association with physical media — generally limits people’s perceptions about participating in an ongoing communication process that digital media enable.  In today’s context in the global village, the notion of text expands so that “text” may become the entire “box” that encompasses the digital world itself, and the cultural representations within the box and outside it. We now have the physical world and the digital world and their intertwining and as Steve Jobs famously espoused, we need to “think different.”

 

Henry: Your phrase above, “construction and (implicitly) representationmust take place before participation is possible,” hints at the core hesitation which I am trying to flag here. I absolutely agree on the term construction in this sentence and with your discussion of the many different ways that construction takes place on the level of technological constraints and socio-cultural conventions. I have always been drawn to Lisa Gitelman’s definition of media: she argues that a medium is a technology that enables communication and also a set of associated ‘protocols’ or social and cultural practices that have grown up around the technology. She writes, “Protocols express a huge variety of social, economic, and material relationships. So telephony includes the salutation ‘Hello?’ (for English speakers, for example) and includes the monthly billing cycle and includes the wires and cables that materially connect our phones…And protocols are far from static.” These features change over time, work differently in different cultural contexts, and are influenced by the other media that intersect with them at any given moment. So, our models of different media and of the media ecology have to be very nimble to respond to those transitions. But, all of this can be described in terms of the construction of media messages, audiences, and contexts. I would just expand contexts to include not simply forms of production but also the terms, the social norms, that shape our participation.

 

However, I do have some questions about whether “representation” can stand in for the totality of the communication process. We might start with the distinction art critics might draw between representational and abstract art: surely, an abstract painting is a media text, but does it fall under the category of representation. Sure, in an abstract or “implicit” way, such a painting represents the artist’s vision  but at some point, we need to agree either that representation is not the only thing going on here or that the word representation has been stretched so thin that it no longer serves a useful purpose.  So, I would absolutely agree that representation is an important concept to draw into discussions of media literacy, especially given the links between representation (as a mimetic process) and representation (as a political concept) so that we can speak of the struggles of marginalized groups to gain media representation as a struggle that impacts their power in society.

 

But, if we go back to my earlier question about what would have happened if media literacy had taken shape in response to the telephone rather than radio, film or television (depending on which strands we are discussing), we should think about the properties of the telephone (as Gitelman invites us to do here). We do not talk about telephone calls as texts — unless of course we are talking about transcripts or recordings of them. We might ascribe to phone calls a broader range of motives besides power and profit. We do not talk about telephone calls in terms of authors and readers — but rather in terms of participants. There are certainly all kinds of representations involved in telephone calls — from Goffman’s performance of self in everyday life to the narratives we are recounting with each other — but we might well argue that the call allows for communication that operates on other levels and that perhaps the most important thing going on through the call is the establishment of interpersonal relations between the participants. When we say to each other, “I just wanted to hear your voice,” we are speaking about the telephone call as something much closer to pure expression — like the abstract painting — than representation (in much the same way that Marshall McLuhan argued that the light bulb was a medium of “pure information”). Not quite, of course, which is why this is complicated.Yes, there is interpretation involved in the telephone call and definitely construction. In no sense do I mean to imply that the telephone call is somehow transparent. But the media literacy skills we need to understand the telephone call may focus much more on the social relationships being performed and the ways they are embodied through Gitelman’s protocals than they have to do with any notion of texts or audiences which seems to go hand in hand with representation as it is being discussed here.

 

As we turn towards digital media, some of it does generate texts in the classical sense of the term — a podcast or a YouTube video or a blog post, though it matters that these are forms which we can directly engage and respond through the same medium to the same audience and that these tools enable many-to-many forms of communication. Some forms and uses of digital media are much more important because of the communication processes they enable than they are in terms of the product of that communication — text messaging, for example, or Twitter, come to mind, as having more in common with the telephone than with television. So, what I would argue for is not the displacement of media literacy’s historic focus on representation but an expansion of concepts to be able to more fully capture the roles that these new media platforms and processes play in our lives.

 

I know in doing this I am edging back towards the idea that you are obejecting to, the idea that media literacy has historically been framed in terms of mass media literacies — and this is somewhat unfair on the conceptual level. Yes, media literacy covers a broad array of different media in theory but the fact remains that if I went to a media literacy conference at the time that our white paper was first published, the over-whelming majority of talks would have centered around various forms of mass media, including film, television, advertising, and print based media, with some noteworthy exceptions. What gave Media Literacy its urgency throughout most of its history was the pervasive role of television in American culture just as the digital is what gives new media literacies their urgency. When I looked at the production projects being proposed, most of them were modeled on the public service announcement, itself a product of the one-way communication practices of broadcast media, rather than the kinds of dialogic production practices we are finding on Youtube or Tumbler. I like Jessica Clarke’s term, “public-moblizing media”, which stresses a different dynamic between those participating in these media exchanges.  This has changed dramatically over the past decade, we are seeing more work done on the participatory dimensions of media, we are seeing more projects that involve remix practices, though there is still a tendency to think about media in terms of texts rather than process, practices, or to use your word above, relationships that are being mediated through various kinds of communication technologies. Organizations like NAMLA have more than caught up with the changing media environment, but I would argue there needs to be a process of continuous questioning of core assumptions as we work through what if anything is different about the media environment today than at the time some of the founding work in media literacy was first produced.

The Value of Media Literacy Education in the 21st Century: A Conversation with Tessa Jolls (Part Two)

Tessa:  I found myself nodding yes Yes YES! as I read your response. The law of unintended consequences always follows any meaningful action — and some of our discussion falls into that category and Henry, I applaud your action and know that your intentions are the absolute best.  Most importantly, we agree on the primary goal of media literacy education:   as you said, media literacy requires a fundamental paradigm shift in ways to teach all subjects.  Media literacy education— whether it is high tech or low tech — primarily concerns itself with teaching and learning the conceptual underpinnings beneath contextualizing, acquiring and applying content knowledge.

 

Learners gain content knowledge through using their media literacy skills — and these skills are applicable to any content anytime, anywhere on a lifelong basis.  Sometimes this process has little or nothing to do with technology, although I will note that access to technology in the U.S. Is widespread:  in our experience at CML, in the poorest communities in the U.S., cellphones and applications like video games proliferate, but these technologies are frequently barred in the classroom.

 

This changed education paradigm is a radical shift in cultural and education systems where formal learning worldwide has traditionally been confined to content silos whose subject matter is warehoused in physical textbooks and dumped into students’ heads. Since these traditions have dominated since Gutenberg’s invention of the press, they are rooted deeply in our culture.  “Mastery” is no longer the goal for education; constant improvement on a continuum of learning is what we are seeking, while recognizing that some will inevitably be more skilled than others in various domains.  As Len Masterman, a professor from the University of Nottingham and a media literacy visionary, said his his Eighteen Basic Principles in 1989, “…you can teach about the media most effectively, not through a content-centered approach, but through the application of a conceptual framework which can help pupils to make sense of any media text (this includes media texts created by users and software “texts”).  And that applies every bit as much to the new digitized technologies as it did to the old mass media…The acid test of whether a media course has been successful resides in students’ ability to respond critically to media texts they will encounter (or create) in the future.  Media education is nothing if it is not an education for life.”

 

We at CML like to say that thanks to technology, the content is infinitely variable, plentiful and available, but that the media literacy process skills of “learning how to learn” and to be critically autonomous are the constants that learners need to practice and employ and constantly improve — and because of the lack of understanding and training of both teachers and learners, these skills are scarce.  It is going to take more than a village to institutionalize media literacy education. Policy initiatives, coalitions, professional associations, researchers etc. will all play a vital part in realizing this global imperative.

 

Which brings me to the point that being media literate, undertaking research and development, teaching media literacy, and institutionalizing media literacy are widely divergent roles which require various degrees of media literacy knowledge and skills. Who needs what knowledge when, and for what purpose?  Masterman noted that …”media are symbolic sign systems that must be decoded (and encoded). The central unifying concept of media literacy is that of representation (what is represented through media to us and what we represent to others through media).”  Researchers who explore the vanguard of media literacy — such as you and many of those who are part of the DML community — may have a different goal for media literacy education than preschool teachers. Yet each is in the business of sharing knowledge about media literacy  and helping youth and adults to understand and to be able to describe and navigate symbolic media systems — whether these systems are technology-based or not. I do not see conflict — I see coalescence.  Common understanding fuels coalition-building — which is highly desirable and needed!

 

To grow media literacy education at the pre-K-12 level, we need to have pedagogy that can be replicated, measured and scaled.  Only then will media literacy be common knowledge rather than privileged information.  Some of the basic components for achieving this goal have already been developed in ways that fit with new curricular approaches — highly encouraging.  And in the meanwhile, it is also encouraging to note that media literacy education has survived through the grassroots for many years, because some early adopters recognized its importance and refused to abandon their first-hand experience with its benefits and promise (anyone who is interested in this evolution may want to check out CML’s Voices of Media Literacy Project, which features 20 media literacy pioneers active prior to 1990).  Yet in spite of these past efforts, we are at the beginning of the beginning, although Marieli Rowe, president of the National Telemedia Council and I have joked for years that “media literacy is just around the corner.”  So far it’s been a very long block to walk!!

 

Henry: There’s no question in my mind that the work we are doing today would not be possible without the work of the kind of media literacy pioneers you have been documenting and it is an enormous service to capture those voices and their memories of the early days of the media literacy movement while it is still possible to do so. There has been a tendency for those people who have jumped into this space in the wake of the MacArthur Digital Media and Learning initiatives to forget this history, to see these projects as a new beginning, and as a consequence, we are losing much wisdom, not to mention the opportunity to forge a stronger alliance with those veterans who have much experience in the field of this struggle. This is why I have made a point of remaining connected to NAMLE and serving on the editorial board of the Journal of Media Literacy to make sure those links remain strong.

 

Once we wrote the white paper and turned our attention to developing our own curricular resources, our first major project, which became the book, Reading in a Participatory Culture, sought to bridge between the literary practices of the 19th century (those which gave rise to Moby-Dick), the traditions of the media literacy movement, and today’s remix practices, whether those associated with hip hop or digital media; we wanted to help teachers to understand the differences between plagiarism, fair use, and remix, and we wanted students to think not only critically but also creatively about the many different kinds of texts they encountered in their everyday lives as readers and writers within contemporary culture. Our goal was not about promoting new media per se; we wrote that we hoped to raise a generation which had a mouse in one hand and a book in another. And the approach we took was comparative to its core, seeking to identify connections across media as well as differences.

You are right to say that technologies are becoming more widely available (and thus, one case for teaching media literacy is that we need to help young people think critically about tools and practices that are very much part of their everyday environments.) We certainly still are finding cases where young people lack access to these technologies — or meaningful access — outside the classroom, so that having twenty minutes of restricted access in a public library does not equal the unlimited, anywhere-anytime access enjoyed by other youth. But, we are also finding other inequalities in access to skills and knowledge, mentorship, networks, etc. which result in gross inequalities of opportunity between different youth — this is what we called in the original report, the Participation Gap, and this also is why it is so vital to incorporate media literacy experiences, including experiences working with new media technologies, into every institution that touches young people’s lives, but especially through schools.  MacArthur’s original focus was on spaces of informal learning, which was an important first step, but increasingly, the DML folks are focused on “connected learning,” which emphasizes  building a more fluid set of relations between home, out of school, and in school practices. All of this is why I have shifted from talking about “a participatory culture” to “a more participatory culture” to stress the work which still needs to be done in insuring equity of opportunity.

 

Yes, schools often block access to the technologies which young people use outside of school: for some, this is not a problem, since they see value in a low tech learning environment. But, for me, the bigger issue is that they are blocking ways of knowing and processes of meaning-making which young people are using outside the classroom. In many cases, we’ve wired the classroom and hobbled the computers, cutting them off from any and all forms of participatory culture and learning practices, blocking social media, dismissing Wikipedia, stigmatizing games, and rejecting YouTube and other video sites. All of this means that we are not addressing the consequences of those tools through our teaching and thus losing out on opportunities to help young people develop more meaningful and ethical relations to these platforms and practices.

 

The one phrase here which gave me some pause was your term, “Critically autonomous.” On the one hand, yes, of course — the goal is to get youth to think for themselves, to critically analyze the messages which they receive, to question authority, to be skeptical of motives from other communicators, and to ask probing questions. This goes to the heart of what we both mean by media literacy. But, at the same time, I have called for a recognition that media literacy is a “social skill” having to do with the ways we interface with each other, how we participate collectively within the activities of a networked society. I fear that our schools place too much emphasis on the autonomous learner and not enough emphasis on how we create and share knowledge together. This is perhaps a key way in which the new media literacies differ — we are focusing on notions of collectivity and connectivity more. Our emphasis on participation begs the question, participation in what? I’ve made this a key concern in some of my own recent writings, but the answer necessarily involves something larger than the individual, or it is by nature not participation.

 

Tessa: Hmmmm…you raise a lot of compelling points. I appreciate your exploring the question of “participation in what?” Maybe there are no set answers to this question — maybe our role in media literacy education is to help increase the capacity of participants to participate effectively in whatever they choose to engage with?

 

I certainly agree with you that media literacy is a social skill in regards to how we relate to each other and how we participate collectively within the activities of a networked society. Relationships are — and have always been — central to media literacy and media literacy education. First and foremost, through media literacy we explore our relationship with media itself. We engage with media and given its pervasiveness in our lives, divorce is not an option!

 

In understanding our media relationship, we come to see that there are relationships between the text, the audience and the producers/participants, and as technology has offered increased capacity for interaction and world-wide connectivity, that relationship becomes more and more dynamic and expansive. At the same time, our media relationship affects our very identities as individuals and as affiliative groups — we have private selves (what goes on inside), public/representational selves (how we extend and represent ourselves to others alone or as a group/entity) and what I call “commercialized” selves (that allow marketing and/or ideological elements, such as branding or big data, define who we are or whom we affiliate with and whom we are seen to affiliate with). These notions apply to individuals as well as organizations or groups.

 

I agree with you, that schools emphasize individual autonomy and not enough emphasis on how we create and share knowledge together. (And I believe that higher education is the tail that wags the Pre-K-12 dog in this regard — SAT scores and college admissions departments reward individuals). But sharing is not a new idea — sharing has been part of enlightened media literacy pedagogies for many years. I quote Masterman’s 18 Basic Principles again because — well, he is my master (and I am continually wowed to see how his words resonate through the years): “Media Education is essentially active and participatory, fostering the development of more open and democratic pedagogies. It encourages students to take more responsibility for and control over their own learning…”

 

As technology has enabled the classroom walls to break down through more connectivity, good media literacy pedagogy becomes more and more feasible — and desirable — in both formal and informal settings. “Underlying Media Education is a distinctive epistemology” Masterman wrote. “Existing knowledge is not simply transmitted by teachers or ‘discovered’ by students. It is not an end but a beginning. It is the subject of critical investigations and dialogue out of which new knowledge is actively created by student and teachers.” This dialogue arises in many contexts, not just the formal classroom. And as you said (and it can’t be said enough!), we have a moral and economic challenge in our society to insure that these opportunities are widely and equitably available.

 

Because of the lack of education system imperatives to teach media literacy and to encourage critical autonomy alone and through groups — rather than to meet fill-in-the-bubble testing deadlines — it is difficult at best to deliver media education in a credible and evidence-based way.  Often, media researchers have no clue about what pedagogy is or how school systems work — and it is for this reason that we often say that media literacy is more about education than about media.  The education imperative is paramount:  the promise of the technology in putting power into the hands of the people is squandered if people don’t have the critical thinking skills and complementary new media skills to use technology wisely and to amplify benefits from its use.

 

But then the questions become, what skills are necessary and how do we help people gain media literacy skills?   Your 2006 white paper outlined new media skills that are needed — play, performance, simulation, appropriation, multitasking, distributed cognition, collective intelligence, judgment, transmedia navigation, networking and negotiation.  These are sophisticated skills that are highly suited to the technology and the digital world that enables their use. They rest on the basic foundations of media literacy skills that are usually  missing for students, or that are taken for granted by media researchers who may already have a conceptual understanding of media representations, deconstruction and construction. However — and yes I repeat myself — this basic foundation is absent in American education systems.  Quite simply, teachers cannot teach what they do not know and what the system has not valued.

 

And so we — as educators and as citizens —  have skipped teaching and learning an enormous media literacy underpinning for new media  as well as for non-digital media like the logos on shirts, the billboards, the theater plays, the food packaging, the school posters.  And this lack of understanding of basic media literacy concepts translates from the playground to the Twitter feed.   And as you said, Henry, it also robs researchers of a rich base of knowledge that should inform their work  Yet it’s important to have unity as a field so that we can gain traction and scale our work in a significant way amongst the general population — to translate the Research & Development (R&D) into awareness and actions of use to citizens nationally and globally.

 

This translation goal has been the Center for Media Literacy’s (CML’s) mission since its founding by Elizabeth Thoman in Los Angeles in 1989 (and with CML’s predecessor organization the Center for Media&Values springing from Thoman’s work beginning as a USC Annenburg graduate student in the late 1970’s).  I applaud your work and that of others, to operationalize and to “package” these powerful media literacy ideas and practices into pedagogy and curricula available for all of our citizens and youth — so needed! We must always keep in mind that we are trying to reach and inspire millions of people and so our task is enormous — but other movements, such as the environmental movement, provide us with inspiration and hope for fulfilling our mission.

 

In the meanwhile, we have a foundation to lay, with an expanded repertoire of media literacy skills that are needed in the 21st century (thanks to your groundbreaking work). What are the media literacy fundamentals that have been so neglected these past decades?

 

Earlier I noted that Mastermanfocused on priorities for media literacy education by saying: ”Media are symbolic sign systems that must be decoded (and encoded)… The central unifying concept of media literacy is that of representation (what is represented through media to us, and what we represent to others through media).”

 

He went on to say, “Without this principle, no media education is possible. From it, all else flows.”  This idea is as relevant to today’s media as it was to the media of Masterman’s time.

 

The Value of Media Literacy Education in the 21st Century: A Conversation with Tessa Jolls (Part One)

Tessa Jolls has been a long-time advocate of media literacy education in the United States and around the world. I was honored to be able to attend an event last year at which she was presented with the Jessie McCanse Award from the National Telemedium Council in recognition of her lifetime commitment to fostering media literacy. Jolls was one of the very first media literacy advocates to welcome me to the field and to rally behind the work of our New Media Literacies initiative. Since 1999, she has been the President and CEO of the Center for Media Literacy, where she has pushed hard to develop some shared principles and core questions that might inform a diverse array of media literacy initiatives, and where has shown consistent flexibility and vision in redefining media literacy for the 21st century.

Thus, I was troubled when she told me that she was seeing the Media Literacy movement and the Digital Media and Learning communities talking past each other, often failing to recognize and grab onto moments of potential collaboration. We decided it would be helpful to have a public conversation together which explored some of these issues. Our hope in doing so is that we can expand this discussion to include other media literacy/DML leaders and find ways to be more effective at working together around common concerns.

Across this five part exchange, we talk through core assumptions guiding our work, including dealing with the relationship between research, pedagogy, and practice, the importance of construction and representation as concepts in media literacy work, and how media literacy principles do or do not change as they confront new technologies and new environments. We both throw ourselves — heart and mind — into these e-mail exchanges this summer and we both learned plenty in the process.

 

Henry: When I and other researchers from MIT wrote the 2006 white paper, Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century, we were very aware of building on the foundations of the Media Literacy movement as it had taken shape in North America over the prior several decades.

 

We made a number of gestures across the paper, which were intended to pay tribute to what had been accomplished, to signal the continuities as well as differences  our vision for the “new media literacies.” For example, early in the paper, we emphasized that the newer skills and competencies we were identifying built on the foundation of traditional print-based literacies, core research skills, core technical skills, and media literacies. We wrote, “As media literacy advocates have claimed during the past several decades, students also must acquire a basic understanding of the ways media representations structure our perceptions of the world; the economic and cultural contexts within which mass media is produced and circulated; the motives and goals that shape the media they consume; and alternative practices that operate outside the commercial mainstream….What we are calling here the new media literacies should be taken as an expansion of, rather than a substitution for, the mass media literacies.” (20).

 

Later, in the document, we do challenge whether some of the core frameworks of the media literacy movement have been adequately framed to acknowledge and take account of instances where young people are themselves producing and circulating media, rather than consuming media produced by others, but these were intended as fairly local critiques in recognition of the need to continually re-appraise and reframe our tools to reflect new developments and new contexts. This same passage flags what we saw as some of the core virtues of those same conceptual frameworks: “There is much to praise in these questions: they understand media as operating within a social and cultural context; they recognize that what we take from a message is different from what the author intended; they focus on interpretation and context as well as motivation; they are not tied up with a language of victimization….One of the biggest contributions of the media literacy movement has been this focus on inquiry, identifying key questions that can be asked of a broad range of different media forms and experiences.” (59)

 

If we flash forward to the current moment, it seems that there remain many mutual misunderstandings between advocates for media literacy (who come from these rich traditions) and newer researchers who have entered the field through the Digital Media and Learning tradition.

 

I am hoping we can use this conversation as a means of clearing the air and clarifying our mutual perspectives around these topics. I had felt at the time and rereading it now, I still feel, that it was very clear in signaling my enormous respect for all who have come before in promoting media literacy and Tessa, you have been an early and key supporter of my efforts. So, it troubles me to hear of some of the misperceptions you’ve encountered. Can you share with us some of the things that concern you?

 

Tessa:  I remember well the excitement that I felt when you published your white paper in 2006 (Confronting the Challenge of Participative Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century) — it was (and is!) a profound and significant examination of the new media emerging from the technology advances of our time, and a document that contributed great advances to understanding media literacy skills needed in our society.   Personally, I’ve always embraced your work because I see the added-value to the field and how it builds upon and is compatible with what has come before, and I’ve been puzzled as to why there seem to be rifts when it is far more beneficial to acknowledge our commonality and to leverage it to gain traction in the bigger world of education. Now is an excellent time to reflect and to see “where we are now” and where we might go.

 

I agree with you, that there are mutual misunderstandings between media literacy advocates who have long practiced in the field and newer researchers who have entered the field through the Digital Media and Learning tradition.  Maybe part of the friction comes simply from the words “new media literacies.”  By definition, what is not new is now old — and in our society, being “old” is often considered neither attractive nor cutting edge nor fashionable nor relevant.  But we need to continue to challenge and confront.   When you issued your white paper, It was like you were the town crier shouting, “The British are coming! The British are coming!”  Yes, the internet had arrived, along with (and these were cited in the report) Friendster, Facebook, MySpace, message boards, metagaming or game clans…Twitter was yet to come, as well as Tumblr, Snapchat and Instagram and and and….

 

But in response to your challenge — beyond a small group of media literacy advocates and academic researchers and some concerned parents — most people in the education world particularly were saying “Why should we fight? and  “If it’s so important, where are all the troops?”  Thankfully, the fear surrounding using the internet, the need for tools of discernment — and the genuine opportunities that the internet and social media present to empower people — have helped instill in the public more of a sense of urgency that has propelled renewed interest in media literacy education.

 

BUT because media literacy education has been ignored and neglected in schools through the years, there was no foundation laid for why media literacy is important, for its foundational concepts and for how to deliver the pedagogy (more on the foundation needed later).  There were few if any troops to call on to be able to deliver media literacy education — very few had been taught, and no one could then teach it on the mass scale that is needed.  And efforts to penetrate the education system in the U.S. meet with resistance since the system itself is based on a 20th century approach emphasizing content knowledge over process skills and a factory model that is incompatible with the collaborative networks and new curricular approaches needed today.

 

One response to the frustrations of dealing with the education system was — and is — to put technology in the hands of the youth and have faith that they will figure it all out.   Using the technology approach, the iPhone is the “school” and anyone who uses it adeptly is the master and anyone over 30 is, well, handicapped at best.   New technologies enable this approach because now, hardware and software are available and production has been democratized — everyone is a producer, a collaborator, a distributor and a participant.  While experiential and project-based learning is truly exciting and an important component of media literacy, it is not synonymous because the outcome of the technology approach is often limited to technical proficiency without critical autonomy. Whether using an iPad, a pencil or a videocam, pressing the right buttons is important but not enough!   This is where many media literacy advocates, including myself, feel that the train has left the station because some researchers, educators and parents, too, think that just learning to use the technology is enough (they probably don’t know about or have access to  alternatives) and they pursue technology projects with no credible media literacy components.

 

Henry: What’s in a name? Nothing but headaches, it would seem.

 

MacArthur was pretty committed to the phrase, New Media Literacies, so we worked hard to try to figure out what kind of meaning to attach to it. We grappled with the issue of whether the emphasis should be the New Media Literacies, the New Media Literacies, or the New Media Literacies. I did want to signal continuities with the Media Literacy movement, so it did not seem altogether a problematic term, but I was also worried about the connotations you describe here. This is one reason why I was so explicit that we were not leaving behind traditional literacies, media literacy, research skills, or technical skills, but that what we were describing were an added layer or an extension of each that now needed to be factored into our consideration of what an ideal curriculum looked like. I did not want to imply that these skills were entirely new — many were things we should have and some of us had been teaching all along — nor were they exclusively about new media per se. We’ve always insisted that these were not technical skills but rather social skills and cultural competencies, and that these were things that can be taught in low tech or no tech ways (and should be, rather than waiting for low income schools to catch up in terms of their technical infrastructure before introducing these literacies into the curriculum.) Despite having spent much of my career at MIT, I have worked hard to avoid any and all forms of technological determinism.

 

Still, there’s some power to attaching yourself to the digital revolution rhetoric (as well as many pitfalls) insofar as it provides some urgency to the message, but ultimately I frame these skills in relation to the idea of a participatory culture rather than in terms of digital change. This is also why I have had reservations all along about MacArthur’s phrase, Digital Media and Learning, since it implies that we are interested only or exclusively in digital media, and that has never been my focus. Keep in mind both that I wrote the white paper in the wake of writing Convergence Culture, which was all about “Where old and new media collide,” and that it emerged from the context of the Comparative Media Studies program, which studied the interplay across media. We find that when we do workshops for teachers and students, they often anticipate that technologies are going to be much more central to our work than they are. Our first task is always to achieve that shift from a focus on technologies to a focus on culture.

 

I share your concern that in many cases, we are now bringing technologies into the classroom as if doing so would substitute for a more comprehensive approach to media literacy. As Liz Losh notes in her recent book, the focus on technology turns media education into something that can be sold — like getting whole school districts to buy iPads — and can be purchased from the school budget, rather than something which as the white paper suggests, should require a fundamental paradigm shift in the ways we teach all school subjects.

 

That said, I got into some trouble with the original white paper in reducing the rich kinds of conceptual models that surround, say, the Computer Club House movement to purely technical skills comparable to penmanship.  (Sorry Mitch) Most of the work which gets presented at the DML conference is about the fusion of hands-on technical processes, whether tied to hacking, games-based learning, the Maker movement, etc., with rich conceptual frameworks which are intended to allow people to understand at a deeper level how the constraints and affordances of digital media impact the world around us. To me, this is a kind of media literacy, though less tied to notions of representation or messaging than previous kinds of media literacy work has promoted. If one does not displace the other, they certainly can co-exist within a more comprehensive model which considers the nature of platforms and programming alongside the questions about who produces which representations for which audiences with which motives. 

In many ways, what we were trying to do with the white paper was to build a coalition which would include people interested in engaging with new media platforms and practices, people committed to promoting media literacy, and teachers seeking new ways to animate the teaching of their disciplines. Where our work has been successful, we have brought together these interests. Such an approach has tended as you suggest here to pull media literacy advocates into more active engagement with notions of media change and new technologies, but it also has the intent to draw people who want to teach using new technology to confront the participation gap, the transparency issues, and the ethical challenges we identify in the white paper and through doing so, to pull media literacy more actively into their teaching practice.

 

MORE TO COME

Tessa Jolls is President and CEO of the Center for Media Literacy, a position she has held since 1999. She also founded the Consortium for Media Literacy, a nonprofit which provides research and a monthly newsletter publication. During her tenure at CML, she restructured the organization to focus, grow and change, preparing to meet the demand for an expanded vision of literacy for the 21st Century. Her primary focus is working in partnership to demonstrate how media literacy works through school and community-based implementation programs.

Transmedia 202: Reflexiones adicionales

Last year, I was happy to share the translations of some of my blog posts on transmedia into Spanish done by Mike Morell / Miguel Bernardo Olmedo Morell. You can see them here. Mike has returned with another translation — this time of my Transmedia 202 post. If you want to see the original in English, you can see it here. Thanks, Mike, for all of your efforts to make some of these ideas more widely accessible in the Spanish speaking world!

 

 

1 de Agosto de 2011

Transmedia 202: Reflexiones adicionales

Por Henry Jenkins

Translated by Miguel Bernardo Olmedo Morrell

El vídeo de arriba fue grabado por Scott Walker durante una de mis presentaciones en la Comic-Con de San Diego, en la cual hablé acerca de algunos de los puntos más controvertidos que ha habido alrededor de la definición de transmedia durante los últimos seis meses, más o menos. Me he mantenido, en su mayor parte, alejado de estas conversaciones, aunque puedes encontrar un muy buen resumen de estos debates aquí.

Me he estado centrando en otros proyectos, y también me he interesado más en las formas que toman estas discusiones, en lugar de intentar intervenir en ellas directamente, pero durante el verano, en varios campos, he estado en un tira y afloja con mis propias definiciones para intentar capturar mi propia concepción cambiante de qué es lo transmediático, especialmente porque estoy preparando una clase renovada sobre el entretenimiento transmediático en la USC. Hoy voy a intentar poner por escrito parte de este pensamiento aún en evolución con la esperanza de que ayude a otros a aclararse en este tema.

Gran parte de estas cuestiones están cubiertas en el vídeo introductorio, así que, si eres de los que procesan mejor el contenido audiovisual que el escrito, siempre tienes esa opción. He escuchado algunos rumores de que Jenkins iba a mostrar una “nueva definición” de “transmedia”: la verdad es que el cambio que propongo no es ni de lejos tan dramático, tan solo propongo algunas clarificaciones y rectificaciones en las definiciones. Esta definición aún cubre, más o menos, a lo que me refiero como narración transmediática:

La narración transmediática representa un proceso en el que los elementos integrales de una obra de ficción se esparcen sistemáticamente a través de muchos canales de distribución con el propósito de crear una experiencia de entretenimiento unificada y coordinada. Lo ideal es que cada medio proporcione su propia contribución original al desarrollo de la historia.

Así pues, considera lo que sigue como Transmedia 202, en honor a mi post anterior, Transmedia 101.

Dado el elevado nivel de gente que ha adoptado (¿y se ha aferrado, incluso?) lo transmediático, no nos debería sorprender que:

  1. Diferentes grupos de personas están definiendo un concepto aún emergente de forma diferente con diferentes propósitos para públicos diferentes en contextos diferentes.
  2. Algunos de aquellos que hablan de transmedia están menos sumergidos en los escritos y pensamientos anteriores de lo que sería deseable y por tanto pueden empañar en cierta medida el concepto.
  3. Algunos grupos están fuertemente motivados a expandir o difuminar el alcance de la categoría con el fin de autopromocionarse y alcanzar sus propias metas.

Así pues, empecemos desde el principio con el tema de la convergencia, que describo en mi libro Cultura de la Convergencia como un paradigma de pensamiento sobre el momento actual de cambio mediático, uno que está definido a través de la división en capas, diversificación, e interconectividad de diversos medios. La convergencia está en contraste  con el modelo de Revolución Digital, que asume que los medios antiguos se verían sustituidos por los nuevos medios. Ciertos aspectos de este modelo de convergencia están dando forma a las decisiones de los productores de medios, publicistas, tecnólogos, consumidores y creadores de normas, y por tanto la convergencia tiene muchos aspectos y consecuencias diferentes.

El concepto de transmedia, usado por sí mismo, tan solo significa “a través de diferentes medios”. Transmedia, a este nivel, es una forma de hablar de la convergencia como un conglomerado de prácticas culturales. Ten en cuenta que Marsha Kinder, en Playing with Power, escribía sobre “intertextualidad transmediática”, mientras que yo fui de los primeros en popularizar el término “narrativa transmediática”. La narrativa transmediática describe un tipo de lógica para pensar sobre el flujo de contenido a través de distintos medios. También podemos pensar en marca transmediática, representación transmediática, ritual transmediático, juego transmediático, activismo transmediático, y espectáculo transmediático, como otro tipo de lógicas disponibles. El mismo texto puede interpretarse desde distintas lógicas. Así, por ejemplo, podrías tratar a Glee como una narrativa transmediática en la que seguimos a los personajes y sus circunstancias a través de distintos medios, pero, más a menudo, las estrategias transmediáticas de Glee enfatizan una representación transmediática, ya que sus canciones se pueden encontrar en Youtube, iTunes, conciertos en vivo, etc., que podemos consumir conjuntamente para dar sentido al fenómeno Glee.

Hay gente que piensa que transmedia es una forma de expandir una marca: yo más bien diría que expandir una marca es algo que puedes hacer transmediáticamente, pero cuando hablo de narrativa transmediática, este no es el foco central de mi interés. Me estoy centrando más bien en las formas narrativas emergentes que aprovechan el flujo de contenido a través de los medios y las redes de reacción de los fans.

Alguna gente argumenta que transmedia es tan solo otro nombre para el franquiciamiento. Esto consiste en una estructura empresarial de producción mediática que tiene una larga historia y que, a través de dicha historia, ha intentado mover iconos y marcas a través de canales mediáticos, pero no necesariamente en un intento de extender la narrativa en formas que expandan su ámbito y significado. La mayoría de las franquicias mediáticas anteriores estaban basadas en la reproducción y redundancia, pero las obras transmediáticas representan una estructura basada en un desarrollo más a fondo del mundo narrativo a través de cada nuevo medio. Si quieres consultar una buena guía de la historia y las prácticas del franquiciamiento, espera atento al próximo libro de Derek Johnson, que ha estado investigando este tema en profundidad.

Gran parte de este franquiciamiento se ha establecido a través de los permisos de concesión, que dificultan el que los productores mediáticos añadan o cambien cualquier cosa más allá del texto primario. La narrativa transmediática auténtica es capaz de emerger a través de estructuras que fomentan la co-creación y colaboración, pero, tal y como apunta Johnson, cuanto más se mueva un productor mediático en esta dirección, mayor será el desafío de coordinación y consistencia.

A veces he hablado de la distinción entre adaptación y extensión como de algo fundamental para entender estos cambios. Básicamente, la adaptación toma la historia en un medio y la cuenta de nuevo en otro. Una extensión busca añadir algo a la historia ya existente al trasladarla de un medio a otro. Christy Dena desafía esta distinción tan clara. Las adaptaciones pueden ser altamente literales o profundamente transformativas. Cualquier adaptación representa una interpretación del trabajo en cuestión y no simplemente una reproducción, con lo que todas las adaptaciones, en mayor o menor grado, añaden nuevos significados al abanico que ya tiene la historia original. Tal y como señala Dena, los cambios entre medios significan que nos enfrentamos a nuevas experiencias y aprendemos cosas nuevas. Trasladar Harry Potter de un libro a una serie de películas conlleva pensar mucho más profundamente en qué apariencia tiene Hogwarts y, por lo tanto, el director artístico/productor de diseño ha expandido y extendido significativamente la historia en el proceso. Quizá sea mejor pensar en la adaptación y la extensión como parte de un continuo en el que los dos polos son tan solo posibilidades teóricas y en donde la mayor parte de la acción tiene lugar en algún punto intermedio.

El tema que pretendía abordar al hablar de la distinción entre adaptación y extensión es la comprensión aditiva, un término prestado del diseñador de juegos Neil Young, para referirse al grado en que cada nuevo texto aumenta nuestro conocimiento de la historia en sí. Así, la novela gráfica Falling Skies es una precuela que nos habla de la desaparición del hermano intermedio y, por tanto, ayuda a mostrar el trasfondo de los motivos que mueven a los personajes de la serie de televisión Turner. En este caso, la comprensión aditiva toma la forma de historia de trasfondo, pero la misma novela gráfica también nos ayuda a comprender mejor la organización del movimiento de resistencia, que podemos ver como parte del proceso de construcción del mundo ficticio. La mayor parte del contenido transmediático sigue una o más de las siguientes funciones:

  • Ofrece una historia de trasfondo
  • Delinea el mundo
  • Nos ofrece la perspectiva de otros personajes sobre las acciones que ocurren
  • Profundiza la interacción de la audiencia

Me ha resultado perturbador encontrarme con escritores que quieren reducir el concepto transmedia a la idea de múltiples plataformas mediáticas sin ahondar más profundamente en las relaciones lógicas entre dichas extensiones mediáticas. Así pues, si tienes que llevarlo a la práctica, es muy importante que tengas una definición que determine cuántos medios se pueden emplear, pero para mí, como académico, este no es un punto central. Cuando pensamos en definir lo transmediático, pues, debemos volver a las relaciones entre medios y no limitarnos a contar el número de plataformas mediáticas. Así pues, de nuevo, imaginémonos un continuo de posibilidades.

Podríamos empezar con la noción de serialidad. La serialidad implicaría el desarrollo de una historia a través del tiempo, normalmente a través de un proceso de despedazamiento (crear pedazos significativos de la historia) y dispersión (dividir la historia en entregas interconectadas). Un concepto central de este proceso es la creación de una historia con gancho o cliffhanger que motive al consumidor a volver para conocer más de la misma historia. Históricamente, la serialidad ocurre dentro del mismo texto.

Así pues, hemos visto a la televisión americana evolucionar con el paso del tiempo desde estructuras muy episódicas (más o menos autoconclusivas) a estructuras mucho más serializadas. La mayoría de programas, sin embargo, combinan elementos episódicos (una trama procedural que se puede resolver en un solo episodio) y seriales (la evolución de la relación entre personajes, una mitología que se desvela, una trama mayor en medio de la cual los episodios individuales funcionan como capítulos). El cambio hacia la serialidad en la televisión americana juega un gran papel en preparar al público para la narrativa transmediática. La mayoría de las historias transmediáticas son muy seriales en estructura, pero no todos los seriales son transmediáticos. Así, Bones, por ejemplo, es un drama parcialmente serializado que, en su mayor parte, permanece en un solo medio.

Pero podemos pensar en ejemplos en los que hay un movimiento entre textos o a través de estructuras textuales dentro del mismo medio. Describo esto en términos de “intertextualidad radical”. Así, por ejemplo, los universos DC y Marvel crean docenas de títulos que se ven como interrelacionados. Los personajes se mueven a través de ellos. Las tramas se desarrollan a través de ellos. Periódicamente, puede haber sucesos que se extienden a través de múltiples títulos, y parte del placer de leer algo como Marvel Civil Wars reside en ver el mismo evento a través del punto de vista de distintos personajes, que pueden tener perspectivas diferentes sobre lo que está pasando. Asimismo, Battlestar Galatica se desarrolla a través de varias series de televisión, mini-series, y películas autoconclusivas. Si Battlestar se limitara a un solo medio, la televisión, entonces sería otro ejemplo de intertextualidad radical. Pero, debido a que Battlestar extiende este proceso para incluir webisodes [episodios en la red] y cómics, que se entienden como parte del mismo continuo, decimos que se trata de una historia transmediática.

Así pues, llamemos a este nivel superior multimodalidad — un término acuñado por Gunther Kress para hablar de cómo el diseño educativo trata sobre las affordances [acciones posibles] de distintos medios instructivos, pero Christy Dena las aplica para hablar de narrativas transmediáticas. El punto central aquí es que los distintos medios requieren distintas formas de representación – así pues, Linterna Verde presenta apariencias distintas en los cómics, una película, un juego, o una serie de televisión animada. Cada medio tiene distintos tipos de affordances – el juego facilita formas diferentes de interactuar con el contenido que un libro o una película. Una historia que se desarrolla a través de distintos medios adopta modalidades diferentes. Una franquicia puede ser multimodal sin ser transmediática – la mayoría de aquellos que repiten los mismos elementos básicos de la historia en cada media formarían parte de esta categoría. Para mí, una obra necesita combinar intertextualidad radical y multimodalidad con el propósito de tener una comprensión aditiva para ser una historia transmediática. Por ello, reducir el término “transmedia” a “una historia a través de distintos medios” no logra más que distorsionar la discusión.

Hasta ahora, nada de esto implica que se deba usar ningún medio en particular para que algo se convierta en transmediático. Uno puede construir un sistema transmediático de alto calibre (una gran película taquillera o programa de televisión y sus extensiones) o un sistema transmediático de bajo calibre (una película de bajo presupuesto y/o independiente, un cómic o serie en línea que sirva de trampolín para algo que pueda incluir representación en vivo o narración oral…). Algunos han intentado argumentar que los videojuegos son un componente central de lo transmediático, pero no quiero priorizar extensiones mediáticas digitales sobre otras formas de práctica mediática.

Por este motivo, es posible encontrar antecedentes históricos para lo transmediático que anteceden a las redes computarizadas y el entretenimiento interactivo. No me preocupa la novedad de lo transmediático. El empujón actual de ello ha emergido gracias a los cambios en las prácticas de producción (moldeadas por la concentración mediática, en algunos casos) o prácticas de recepción (la emergencia de la Web 2.0 y los medios sociales), pero también procede de la emergencia de una nueva comprensión estética de cómo funcionan los textos populares (moldeados en parte por el alzamiento de los geeks y fans a posiciones de poder en las industrias del entretenimiento).

Las opciones disponibles para un productor transmediático hoy en día son diferentes a aquellas disponibles hace algunas décadas, pero aún podemos señalar a los antecedentes históricos que experimentaban con nociones de creación de mundos y estructuras narrativas modeladoras de mitologías en formas que pueden incluir tanto intertextualidad radical como multimodalidad. Desde este punto de vista, se podría decir que Frank L. Baum (en su enfoque en la creación de mundos a través de distintos medios), Walt Disney (en su enfoque en creación de marcas a través de medios) y J.R.R. Tolkien (con sus experimentos en intertextualidad radical) son los antecedentes de las prácticas transmediáticas.

Asimismo, he defendido que Obama es una figura tan transmediática como Obi Wan. No quiero decir con esto simplemente que nuestra vida diaria se guíe a través de múltiples plataformas mediáticas, aunque esto sea cierto. También quiero decir que tendemos a conectar estas piezas de información dispersas entre sí para formar una historia, que la historia que construimos depende en qué extensiones mediáticas nos basemos (Fox News vs. The Huffington Post), y que hay arquitectos que buscan coordinar y construir un abanico de significados que se adhieren a esa historia. En este sentido, la historia de Obama, construida a través de su campaña, incluye tanto intertextualidad radical como multimodalidad.

Cuando escribí Convergence Culture, me centré en la discusión transmedia sobre The Matrix, al tiempo que incluí una barra lateral que trataba sobre The Beast como un Alternate Reality Game [Juego de Realidad Alternativa]. Asumía que los ARG son transmediáticos, y que en ese campo es donde han ocurrido algunos de los debates más acalorados en los últimos años.

El modelo transmedia basado en Hollywood asume una historia contada o un mundo explorado a través no solo simplemente de múltiples medios, sino también de múltiples textos, que se pueden vender al público separadamente y que representan múltiples puntos de contacto con la marca. (Debe resaltarse, para aclarar mi definición, que no importa realmente si el texto forma una sola narración o múltiples historias situadas en el mismo mundo, ya que, en la práctica, la mayoría de las narraciones transmediáticas incluyen múltiples líneas argumentales que se pueden dispersar de distintas formas a través de las distintas entregas). El modelo ARG, sin embargo, asume que distintos medios pueden contribuir a una sola experiencia de ocio. Así pues, es más probable que hablemos de The Beast, I Love Bees, o The Lost Experience como textos completos por cuenta propia (así como, en los tres casos, como parte de franquicias de ocio mayores). Cada grupo tiene motivaciones diferentes a la hora de trazar líneas que distingan e integren estos dos modelos. Es importante entender qué están intentando conseguir cada uno, pero no me resulta tan importante definir en profundidad uno u otro modelo. Tan solo pienso que este es un espacio que merece un trabajo conceptual más profundo que el que ha recibido hasta ahora. Ambos podrían participar de mi  énfasis en la intertextualidad radical y multimodalidad y ambos pueden ser prometedores para alcanzar una mejor comprensión.

Otro debate que merece la pena observar aquí tiene que ver con el tema de la participación del público en el desarrollo de la propiedad transmediática. Estos debates se pueden resumir en dos puntos centrales. El primero tiene que ver con las diferencias que muestra en Convergence Culture entre interactividad y participación. Para mí, la interactividad tiene que ver con las propiedades de la tecnología y la participación tiene que ver con las propiedades de la cultura. Evidentemente, en la práctica, ambos pueden aparecer en el mismo texto. Así, por ejemplo, un juego de ordenador enfatiza la interactividad y, por tanto, experiencias de entretenimiento preprogramadas. La cultura fan tiene altos índices de participación, ya que los fans toman los recursos ofrecidos por un texto y los empujan en todo tipo de direcciones que no son ni preprogramadas ni autorizadas por los productores.

Cuando la gente afirma que la interactividad es un elemento central de la experiencia transmediática, me gustaría asegurarme de que están usando el término de la misma forma. Podemos imaginar un abanico de diferentes relaciones que los fans puedan tener con la propiedad transmediática. En un extremo estarían las prácticas de caza y recolección para encontrar las piezas de información dispersas y averiguar cómo se pueden juntar entre sí para formar un todo con sentido. En el otro extremo, podemos tener el jugar a través del nivel de un juego, superando diversos obstáculos, matando jefes, y recolectando objetos. Pero también podemos pensar en distintas formas de representación de los fans—desde el fan fiction hasta el cosplay— que son más participativas y abiertas y menos dependientes en las elecciones de diseño de los productores transmediáticos.

El segundo punto tiene que ver con la dicotomía continuidad vs. multiplicidad. La mayor parte de las discusiones sobre lo transmediático ponen un gran énfasis en la continuidad—asumiendo que las narraciones transmediáticas requieren un alto nivel de coordinación y control creativo y que todas las piezas tiene que estar cohesionadas en una narrativa o mundo consistentes. Ésta es una práctica bastante difícil de llevar a cabo a través de las múltiples divisiones del mismo equipo de producción, y resulta difícil para los fans contribuir directamente al desarrollo de una narración que pone un gran énfasis en la continuidad. De hecho, muchos proyectos que afirman emplear “contenido generado por los usuarios” lo hacen en formas que protegen la “integridad” de la continuidad a expensas de permitir múltiples perspectivas y una participación más abierta. Hacen que el autor o algún agente designado se convierta en un árbitro de lo que se considera canónico. Por otra parte, hay formas de transmedia producida comercialmente que celebran abiertamente la multiplicidad que surge de ver a los mismos personajes e historias contados de formas radicalmente diferentes. Este centrarse en la multiplicidad nos deja abierto un espacio para que veamos medios producidos por los fans como parte de un proceso transmediático mayor, incluso si entonces queremos intentar aclarar cómo diferentes elementos se marcan como canónicos o alternativas de los fans.

Siento que esto haya acabado volviéndose tan complicado, pero creo que parte del problema surge de que mucha gente está buscando fórmulas simples y una definición que sirva para todos los casos, intentando así delimitar lo que se considera como transmediático. Pero aún estamos en un período de experimentación e innovación. Nuevos modelos surgen a través de prácticas de producción y debates críticos, y necesitamos estar abiertos a un amplio abanico de variaciones de lo que significa el término transmedia en relación a distintos proyectos. Escribí en Convergence Culture que las prácticas de convergencia, en el futuro previsible, no serán más que soluciones torpes, intentos hechos con prisas para conectar distintos medios entre sí, mientras intentamos averiguar qué está pasando y qué funciona correctamente.

No existe ninguna fórmula transmediática. Transmedia se refiere a una serie de elecciones que se hacen acerca de cuál es el mejor enfoque para contar una historia particular a un público concreto en un contexto determinado conforme a los recursos disponibles a unos productores concretos. Cuanto más expandamos la definición, más rico será el abanico de opciones que tendremos disponibles. Esto no significa que debamos expandir lo transmediático hasta el punto en que cualquier cosa pueda valer, sino que necesitamos una definición lo suficientemente sofisticada para tratar con todo tipo de ejemplos totalmente diferentes. Lo que quiero excluir de esta definición son los proyectos “típicos” que no están explorando el potencial expandido de lo transmediático, sino que están simplemente adhiriéndose la etiqueta transmedia en las mismas prácticas de franquiciamiento que llevamos viendo durante décadas.

Para promover conversaciones sobre este tema, por favor enviadme vuestras preguntas, críticas, y otros comentarios a hjenkins@usc.edu, e intentaré responderos en futuras publicaciones.

On Race and American Television: An Interview with NPR’s Eric Deggans (Part Two)

Broadcast and Cable News is over-whelmingly presented by older white men. What do you see as the consequences of these casting decisions? Why does it matter who “presents” the news and does this matter more in an era where news and opinion are mixed so fluidly than it did in an era where news was presumed to be objective?

There’s two effects here. First, news reports are delivered by people that news producers believe are liked and respected by the audience. Anchors are authority figures on their programs. The best of them exude a sense of expertise, gravitas and believability. If the news is delivered mostly by white males, the audience gets a not-so-subtle message about who in life is considered authoritative enough to deliver the day’s news, and who is not.

Beyond that, I know from my brief stint as a guest anchor on CNN’s Reliable Sources, that TV anchors exert a lot of influence over the content of their broadcasts, particularly on cable news. So restricting the field of anchors to white males also helps lock out a wider range of perspectives when it comes to picking story subjects, guests for shows and strategies for telling stories. it’s no wonder that a recent analysis of five weeks of select cable news shows found 84% of the guests were white; 90% of O’Reilly’s guests were white.

 

Near the end of your book, you stress the value of media literacy as a means of combating some of the noxious trends you identify. Many of my readers are supporters of media literacy education. What are the key lessons would you wish media literacy educators to take away from reading your book?

The biggest lesson here is that profitability and moneymaking guide the lion’s share of decisions made in TV and media. Roger Ailes figured out that most consistent viewers of cable news are older and more conservative, so he figured out a cable news channel to cater to their perspective in Fox News. TV producer Mike Fliess figured out how to get huge ratings among female viewers by building a dating shows around a princess fantasy, so The Bachelor was born. CBS found powerful summertime ratings by building up young, white stars within its Big Brother reality show and exporting them to other reality shows. And because the American public isn’t very tolerant of people who fail, news outlets do a terrible job of covering poverty and the poor. That’s why modern advocates for diversity in media are trying hard to show that TV shows with more diverse casts make more money; because if you can show that a certain strategy brings profits, it is much easier to get media outlets to try that strategy.

I wanted to get your thoughts on a controversy around race in the media that erupted after your book was published — i.e. the #cancelcolbert controversy, which in many ways illustrates many key themes you discuss, both in the role of cable television and the role of new media. How do you think this controversy reflects the ways racial politics is playing out in the media at the current moment?

I wrote about it here. Part of the problem with the cancelcolbert controversy is that it is complex. Suey Park, the activist who started the protest, admits that she doesn’t really believe Colbert’s show should be canceled because someone who manages comedy Central’s Twitter account for the show tweeted a joke without context that has Asian stereotypes in it. Her point is that using such stereotypes in a joke — even when the real joke is that the person using the stereotypes is an idiot — is still offensive. And she rightly doubts that anyone would tell a similar joke like that on a major TV shows about black people — because black people are more likely to object and raise a stink in a way Asians often do not.

So I think Park started this controversy as a way to make comedians think more about the jokes they were telling — not because she actually thought Colbert was racist. But that creates a situation where activists aren’t being totally honest about why they are starting protests, which leave them open to charges of unfairly race-baiting. Park may feel she has achieved her goal by starting the national conversation about Asian stereotypes she wanted. But I’m afraid future protests may fall on more resistant ears if people feel they can’t necessarily trust activists when they say why they are objecting to something.

There seems to be some concerted effort with the casting decisions for this fall’s shows to try to change some of the trends we’ve seen in recent years in terms of the lack of racial diversity on prime time entertainment television. You’ve been raising lots of questions about how racial stereotypes may or may not be reproduced through these series. What should we be looking for as the public gets its first look at these series? A student asked me recently whether it was better to be represented on television in a stereotypical manner or not to be represented at all. Clearly, there are other more desirable options than this binary, but it replicates logics I have heard from entertainment executives, so I wondered how you would have addressed this query.

Look for characters that seem like people and not a collection of stereotypes. In comedies, look for shows where the humor springs from who the character is, not what ethnicity they are. If a person of color is the star of a show, look to see if any other people of color are cast around them as spouses, lovers, friends or relatives. Often, TV shows cast one non-white person in a prominent role and surround them with white characters. Look to see if the characters of color have real lives; often characters of color mostly used to move the plot along or to help the white characters, sometimes to the exclusion of their own well-being.

Eric Deggans is NPR’s first full-time TV critic, crafting stories and commentaries for broadcasts such as Morning Edition and All Things Considered, along with an array of written contributions to NPR.org and the website’s blogs such as Code Switch, Monkey See and The Two Way. He came to NPR in September 2013 from the Tampa Bay Times newspaper in Florida, where he served as TV/Media Critic and in other roles for nearly 20 years. A journalist for more than two decades, he is also the author of Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation, a look at how prejudice, racism and sexism fuels some elements of modern media, published in October 2012 by Palgrave Macmillan. He guest hosted CNN’s media analysis show Reliable Sources many times in fall 2013, joining a select group of journalists and media critics filling in for departed host Howard Kurtz. That year, he also earned the Florida Press Club’s first-ever Diversity award, honoring his coverage of issues involving race and media. He received the Legacy award from the National Association of Black Journalists’ A&E Task Force, an honor bestowed to “seasoned A&E journalists who are at the top of their careers.” Eric also serves on the board of educators, journalists and media experts who select the George Foster Peabody Awards for excellence in electronic media.

On Race and American Television: An Interview with Eric Deggans (Part One)

I wrote in the spring to share some of my experiences serving as a jury member for the Peabody Awards. One of the real pleasures of this process is getting locked in the room with a dozen really fascinating people from many different backgrounds who care passionately about television and who make arguments for and against programs. By the end of the process, you either feel very close to the guy across the table for you or you are not on speaking terms. In my case, for much of the time, the guy across the table from me was Eric Deggans, NPR’s first full time television critic, and the author of the recent book, Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation. Not only did I find myself either agreeing with or convinced by Deggans’ arguments throughout the process but I’ve also regularly been catching up with his journalistic work ever since.  I find him an essential voice as we see ongoing struggles over diversity within American media — from last spring’s #cancelColbert brew-ha-ha to  what it means that we are seeing some increase in the number of people of color on entertainment television this fall.

Deggans’ book provides a big picture of a news and entertainment medium under change — or in most cases, a medium that urgently needs to change and yet refuses to do so. His discussion of racialized politics in American media spans from talk radio and cable news to reality television and fictional programs. He not only goes after the usual suspects — Russ Limbaugh, Fox News — but also shows how some of the same logics and practices surfaces on networks such as MSNBC or even PBS which claim to be more progressive and should know better. This book should be required reading for every media student in the country — both those who will be entering the media industry in some ways and those who are seeking to become better critics and more skeptical consumers. Deggans asks hard questions and doesn’t back away from a fight, but he also brings an insider’s perspective to help us understand what’s taking place inside the news room and production studio as bad calls get made and offensive comments reach the air.

Deggans was nice enough to let me reverse the lens and interview him about some of the book’s core themes and about some recent developments in American television. As we get ready for the start of the fall television season, not to mention this November’s mid-term elections, I hope that his comments will give us plenty to think about.

Let’s start with the word, Race-Baiter, which is the title of your book. What do you see as the stakes in this term — for you, for others who use it — and what does it help us to see about the arguments you are constructing across the book?

The struggle over the definition of the term “race-baiter” is a microcosm of the way some media outlets and political movements have sought to redefine words to serve their current polemical and political interests. In the same way some conservatives managed to turn the word “feminism” into a derogatory term, even for women who clearly believe in the ideas of feminism, others have sought to re-define the word race-baiter from its early uses in describing white politicians who encouraged racial hatred among white people to further their political goals. Now, some idealogues use the term to refer to people of color and white liberals who make allegations of prejudice or racism; the presumption is that these claims are unfounded and unfair — made mostly to gain political or economic advantage.
This is really a different struggle; a way to invalidate the idea of institutional racism or prejudice without ever really arguing the concept directly. Conservative media outlets such as Fox News generally behave as if the institutions of American society are currently fair and treat everyone equally. So, absent overwhelming evidence, they are severely skeptical of any claims that people of color have less wealth, are incarcerated more often, have a tougher time getting good housing or have a tougher time getting into good colleges because of institutional prejudice or racism.
If the term race-baiter can be successfully shifted to refer to people who try to raise questions about institutional racism, then they have created an effective tool for silencing people without ever arguing the concept directly. Because they create a situation where the argument begins with the assumption that American society is fair and people who talk about racism are simply doing so for selfish reasons.
I made it the title of my book because Fox News star Bill O’Reilly tried to silence me in exactly that way, calling me “one of the biggest race-baiters in the country” for my work as chair of the National Association of Black Journalists’ media monitoring committee. It’s a group which help develop suggestions of best practices when it comes to coverage of race by journalists and it also recommends nominees to the NABJ board for the group’s Best Practices and Thumbs Down awards. Guess which news outlet won the thumbs down award the year O’Reilly called me a race-baiter?    

For me, part and parcel of resisting such media outlets is redefining the term race-baiter and refusing to accept the new focus conservative media outlets have tried to attach to it. and that will mostly happen by educating the public on how race works in America, how media works, how political speech works and how some media outlets convert these prejudices and stereotypes in big profits.

 

The second part of the title, “How the media wields dangerous words to divide a nation,” implies a strong sense of intentionality. To what degree do you feel that the various media organizations in this book are intentionally seeking to be divisive,to what degree do you think they are indifferent to the choices they make? And does intentionally matter, given the consequences of this divisiveness?

I’m not sure intentionality is possible to discern or even necessary. One of the big problems in analyzing race-based controversies and issues, is that people too often try to peer into the soul of the person at the heart of the controversy and conclude whether or not they are a bigot. But such determinations are often impossible, requiring mind reading of one sort or another. What you can do is look at the actions of a person or institution and look at the results of their actions. If a news outlet consistently features a pundit who compares a black female congress woman to Whitney Houston and tells her to put down the crack pipe because he doesn’t like her political arguments; if another media outlet misidentifies a photo of a young, shirtless black man with his underwear showing flipping “the bird” to the camera, as slain Florida teenager Trayvon Martin — and then has to admit the photo came from a white supremacist website — then you have to question how those media outlets handle reporting on racial issues.
Different media outlets are superserving the interests of their target audience in order to build loyal followings. But when those tactics include spreading stereotypes and misinformation to reinforce the worldview of one race over the perspectives of others, you have a problem — particularly in news coverage.  

You write early in the book about “the Tyranny of the Broad Niche,” suggesting that a key factor in how race gets depicted on television has to do with the ways some demographic segments are viewed as more economically valuable than others. Can you tell us more about how this “Broad Niche” logic works and what it’s consequences has been in terms of cultural diversity on American television?

Broadcast television in particular is struggling to maintain an audience and its advertising revenue. Advertisers pay most for audiences that are hardest to reach. So that means the most valuable audience in broadcast television per capita is young males, particularly young white males. That’s because more women watch TV than men and people of color watch TV proportionally more than white people.
This means a great many TV shows are aimed at the broad niche of young white men. So most late night comedy shows on TV are now hosted by white men popular with young white male viewers. Seth MacFarlane is a huge force at the Fox network because his animated comedy Family Guy draws a significant number of young male viewers. Unequal standard of beauty exist for women and men on TV shows. There is a lack of diversity among lead roles for network TV shows. In fact,  BuzzFeed featured a story showing that men are 49% of the population, but 57% of characters on the top four broadcast TV networks. White men are 30% of the population, but 50 percent of characters. Asian and Latino men are 11 percent of the population but less than 2 percent of the characters (there are as many robots and magical creatures on TV as Asian and Latino men). The perceived desires of this niche affect programming that everyone watches, giving us all a distorted idea of who gets to have a starring role in real life society, as well.

Eric Deggans is NPR’s first full-time TV critic, crafting stories and commentaries for broadcasts such as Morning Edition and All Things Considered, along with an array of written contributions to NPR.org and the website’s blogs such as Code Switch, Monkey See and The Two Way. He came to NPR in September 2013 from the Tampa Bay Times newspaper in Florida, where he served as TV/Media Critic and in other roles for nearly 20 years. A journalist for more than two decades, he is also the author of Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation, a look at how prejudice, racism and sexism fuels some elements of modern media, published in October 2012 by Palgrave Macmillan. He guest hosted CNN’s media analysis show Reliable Sources many times in fall 2013, joining a select group of journalists and media critics filling in for departed host Howard Kurtz. That year, he also earned the Florida Press Club’s first-ever Diversity award, honoring his coverage of issues involving race and media. He received the Legacy award from the National Association of Black Journalists’ A&E Task Force, an honor bestowed to “seasoned A&E journalists who are at the top of their careers.” Eric also serves on the board of educators, journalists and media experts who select the George Foster Peabody Awards for excellence in electronic media.

 

 

 

The Democratic Surround: An Interview with Fred Turner (Part Three)

Henry: At a time when schools are also closing their arts programs, it is striking to read about how much importance were placed on children’s arts education during the Cold War era. Can you share with us what the rationale for such programs would have been?

Fred: It goes back to the notion that the personality of the individual mirrored and could actually shape the nation to which they belonged. The adults of the 1950s had seen a generation of Germans fall into line behind Hitler and many thought they were seeing the same thing in Russia with Stalin. Social scientists often explained these trends by arguing that these nations had inculcated authoritarian personality styles in their children. Authoritarian children were rigid, obedient, unable to reason or create independently, and above all, intolerant of those who were different from themselves. Democratic children were meant to be flexible, independent, reasoning, creative and collaborative.

In this context, the arts offered an ideal venue for producing the kinds of children who would grow up to be democratic citizens. The Museum of Modern Art in New York, for instance, not only created arts programs for local children, but took those programs to trade shows and fairs around Europe – particularly in formerly fascist Italy. They built these odd, aquarium-like rooms into which only children and a teacher or two could enter. Parents waited outside, watching their children make art together, through portholes. Foreign and American journalists who saw these environments thought they were marvelous examples of the ways that the next generation could escape the authoritarianism that haunted their parents’ childhood.
Henry: You close the book with the line, “the children of the 1960s did not only overthrow their parent’s expectations. They also fulfilled them.” Explain. What did they overthrow? What did they fulfill? Are there some senses in which the 1960s counterculture was less radical than its parent’s generation?

Fred: For a long time, I think we’ve imagined the years after World War II as a single, long episode of Leave It To Beaver – a colorless world, racially segregated, emotionally repressed, blind to the myriad differences between people, cultures, nations. And we’ve imagined that it was only in the 1960s that Americans freed themselves from its shackles.

As I hope this book shows, that story is at best half-true. The social movements of the 1960s and 1970s had an extraordinary impact on American life. But they could not have happened I think without earlier calls for sexual liberation from Margaret Mead, or for aesthetic democracy from John Cage and Herbert Bayer, or racial diversity from Ruth Benedict. These figures called for the very society that the counterculturalists of the 1960s tried to create: a creative, collaborative, individual-centered polity, designed to help every member achieve personal fulfillment. They also called for kinds of media that would help create that society. The New Communalists in particular knew these calls well and took them to the communes with them. So did the makers of Happenings and Be-Ins.

Along the way though, they also lost track of the radical political vision that animated so many in their parents’ generation. For the members of the Committee for National Morale, the Bauhaus refugees, and even key figures in the Cold War USIA, the goal was not simply to increase individual self-fulfillment. It was to build an America and a world that celebrated its diversity – racial, sexual, religious, political. And it was to do it by bringing together the power of the state, the power of the university, and the power of the corporation.

 

Fig 4 Human Be In Hippie

Hippie at the Human Be-In, January 14, 1967, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Photograph by Gene Anthony©www.wolfgangsvault.com. Used by permission.

 

Within the New Communalist movement at least, the children of the 1960s turned away from embracing racial, sexual, and political difference. And they turned away from the state and to some extent, the university, as well. They turned toward personal style, a politics of expression, and to the world of business. There, I’m afraid, far too many pursued self-fulfillment as if self-fulfillment alone constituted social change. In that sense, the most expressively radical movements of the 1960s helped set the stage for the conservative neoliberal society we inhabit today.

Henry: What could today’s intellectuals learn from their counterparts during this post-war period? Are there virtues we as scholars have lost that are worth reclaiming?

Fred: Courage! And faith in the power of ideas.

I think that one of the legacies of the Vietnam era for our generation has been a fear that engaging with state policy or trying to directly influence public life will somehow harm either our ideas or the state itself. Having seen what happened at CENIS in the 1960s, I very much understand that fear. But I think we’ve taken it too far.

Our ideas, even our most academic ideas, can have a far wider influence that we think. In the 1940s, professional anthropologists’ belief that cultures had modal personality styles became the basis of very popular campaigns for creativity and democracy across the United States and Europe. The idea itself emerged within the research world; it travelled beyond thanks to the determined efforts of figures like Margaret Mead to speak to the wider world in a public idiom.

But it also travelled because Mead and others like her were not afraid to mix it up with people in power. Today we need to do two things I think: first, campus-based writers like you and I need to keep trying to speak outward, to the world beyond the walls, in plain English. Second, we need to work with and if necessary build new kinds of institutions to support the kind of society we want. New social networks, new peer-to-peer collaborations are nowhere near enough. What we need are places where people who are unlike one another can gather and work together, slowly, over time. We are far too entranced with the power of networks today. What we need are not better ways to contact others like ourselves, but better ways to work across our differences. What we need are not better networks, but better institutions.

With that said though, I’m hopeful. If the kind of civic imagination I’ve chronicled in The Democratic Surround could have flourished at the height of the Cold War, it can certainly come back to life today.

 

Fred Turner is an associate professor of communication at Stanford University. He has written several books about media, technology, and American cultural history, including the widely acclaimed From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism.

The Democratic Surround: An Interview with Fred Turner (Part Two)

Henry: I was struck as I read your description of the aesthetic practices of the surround that you are evoking many categories that also shaped the aesthetics of new media — including notions of interactivity, nonlinearity, immersion, multimodality, and transmedia. These links are implicit in the book, but I know you think about new media, so I wanted to see if you might be willing to speak about the similarities and differences in how these ideas operated in these two periods.

 

Fred: Happy to. In many ways, the book is an effort to write a genealogical history of the categories you’ve named. In the time I’m writing about, the essential distinction was between immersing audiences and surrounding them. Walt Disney and his team, for instance, designed media to be like carnival rides. They tried to immerse their viewers not only in narrative, but in kinesthetic experiences that would cause them to disengage their critical faculties and just go with the flow. In 1958 they sent a movie about the United States to the World’s Fair in Brussels. It was shown in what they called “Circarama” – eleven film projectors showing the moving in 360 degrees just over the viewers’ heads. Journalists who saw the show were thrilled to see the bodies of the spectators all swaying in time together. To the Committee for National Morale or Herbert Bayer and his Bauhaus colleagues, people swaying together would have smacked of hypnotic fascism. The whole point of aesthetic experience in their view was to awaken the reason, to individuate citizens by creating aesthetic conditions under which they could have unique individual experiences, but together, as an egalitarian group. In that context, it wasn’t just what was on the screen that mattered; it was how viewers moved between the screens. In the propaganda exhibitions that Bayer designed for the Museum of Modern Art in World War II, visitors could see pictures overhead, at their feet, and at various heights along the wall. They came in all sizes and interspersed with text. They were quintessentially multi-modal media – and that was key. Bayer and his team wanted viewers to practice doing the linking work themselves. They were to engage, even interact with the whole pattern of images and not just any one message they might contain.   Fig 2 Cage Prepping Piano John Cage preparing a piano, circa 1960. Photograph by Ross Welser. Courtesy of the John Cage Trust.     The same thing was true later with John Cage’s soundscapes. You’ll remember that his most famous piece, 4’33”, features a piano player who sits down at the keyboard but never plays a note. Cage is asking his audience to see that they are surrounded by the sounds of their environment. He’s asking them to knit those sounds together in the way that would be most meaningful for them. No piano player, no conductor, no musical dictator demands their attention. The audience, like the sounds themselves, are meant to be free, interacting with one another on equal terms. In that sense, practices of interactivity, multimedia display and design, non-linear aesthetics – they were all tools meant to liberate and democratize the senses. They were meant to be alternatives not simply to commercial entertainment, but to the kind of media immersion that many – though not Walt Disney – still feared could produce authoritarians. The trouble is, these new modes for making liberated citizens also meant a new mode of management. In each case I’ve studied, a team of experts built an environment and selected an array – an often very rich array – of media for audiences to engage. Audience members moved freely, selected what mattered to them, congregated, dispersed – and based on all the archival records I’ve seen, many really did experience themselves as free in these spaces. But of course they weren’t. Or not completely. They may have had more control of their bodies and their senses and their reasoning faculties than, say, the swaying viewers of Disney’s Circarama, but the visitors to surrounds inhabited a thoroughly curated world. They could interact, but the terms of their interaction had been set for them, before they even entered the rooms. Even in Cage’s 4’33”, a designer hovered behind the experience – Cage himself. Today we’re surrounded by digital media and I think we’re just waking up to the quandary these experiences represent. On the one hand, we want the kind of individualized agency that surrounds seem to offer; on the other, simply entering those spaces opens us up to management and surveillance. Some of those modes are top-down – curators really can and do shape what we see, and some of those curators come from states and corporations with agendas that have little to do with democratizing our lives. Other modes are more psychological. If anything defines our historical moment, it’s the off-loading of the labor of production and self-management onto the individual citizen. You can see this in free-lancing and internships and any number of other places. But you can also see it in media. The modes of interactivity and multi-media storytelling that empower audiences to make their own unique sense of the media around them usually invite them to make sense of that media specifically – media which have often been pre-selected and pre-digested for them.   Fig 3 Moviedrome Interior of Stan VanDerBeek’s Movie-Drome, Gate Hill Cooperative, Stony Point New York, circa 1963-65. Photograph by Stan VanDerBeek. Courtesy of the Estate of Stan VanDerBeek.         You can see this to some degree online. But you can see it much more clearly in the ways that so many material environments are becoming multi-media experience machines. Think of airplanes, with TVs on every seatback. Or think of sports bars, with all the games on at once. Or think of the apps on your cell phone. We’ve entered a world in which the interactivity and multi-modality that once promised to free us from fascism has in fact brought us into ever closer relationships with large institutional forces. Now, just to be clear: I’m not at all arguing that corporations or states are necessarily authoritarian. I am arguing that we need to see that the terms of our media freedom these days are a lot more constrained than we may think.

 

Henry: The Democratic Surround explicitly seeks to push beyond some of the encrusted ideological critiques of the Cold War and the idea of domestic containment. You want us to understand that in many ways, the leading thinkers and artists of this period were pursuing a progressive, even multicultural agenda, for whatever blind spots or complicities they might seem to display. What do you see as some of the most significant misperceptions about American thought during the 1950s? What do you see as the value of rethinking this period?

Fred: The history of the Cold War that we’ve inherited has largely been written by a generation of scholars who grew up in the 1960s and came of professional age in the 1980s. They witnessed the Vietnam War, the recession of the 1970s, the rise of Reagan and Thatcher. Out of those times, their generation has carried a deep fear of the government, a faith in the power of self-organized networks, and a belief that personal expression, properly organized, represents the highest form of politics. These beliefs have made it harder for them to see the complexity of the 1940s and the 1950s and much harder for all of us to deal with the complexities of our own time. The canonical story runs something like this: After World War II, America settled into a pattern of ubiquitous repression in its foreign policy, its domestic race relations, and its family life. When a new generation realized how personal politics could be, they took to the streets, and only once they got there did political change begin. This story contains some large grains of truth, but it misses crucial distinctions. World War II, for instance, gave rise to the military-industrial establishment, but it also sparked a radical critique of American racism. That critique flourished not only among disenfranchised bohemians, but among elite intellectuals and public officials. By 1948 or so, large numbers of Americans supported a very radical vision of world government. It wasn’t the Communism of the 1930s, but it was a deeply collectivist vision of global unity. That vision has been read in recent years as an oppressive universal humanism, an effort to turn the entire world American, white and middle-class. In the 1950s, the United States would certainly leverage that vision in an effort to contain Communism abroad. But the vision itself, then and now, contained within it the seeds of our own celebration of human diversity. A second belief: that the personal only became political in the 1960s. This claim seems to have been born out by the host of identity-based political movements that emerged in the 1970s. But it’s not true. The effort to distinguish America from Germany at the start of World War II set loose a critique of racism, anti-Semitism, and even gender conformity – in the late 1940s and early 1950s – that has largely been forgotten. Figures like Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict believed that the personalities of a given culture made that culture what it was. Democracy in their view was always simultaneously a political and a psychological phenomenon. Freedom consisted in the ability to be oneself; a free society empowered individuals to fulfill their potential, together. What matters here is not only that the personalization of politics that we associate with the 1960s began a generation earlier. What matters is that it lived in the epicenter of American intellectual and political life. Writers who grew up during the Vietnam War, as I did, remain deeply suspicious of the state, for very good reasons. Yet governments are not monoliths. As I dug into the archives of America’s premier Cold War propaganda agency, the United States Information Agency (USIA), I found extraordinary arguments going on about the nature of democracy, about the degree to which Americans should impose their agendas on others, and the like. During World War II, members of the Committee for National Morale advised President Roosevelt and his cabinet; at the height of the Cold War, John Cage lectured at the same 1958 World’s Fair at which the USIA was promoting our national goals – and he spoke in terms that would have been entirely familiar and congenial to the most ardent American propagandists. I point this out to show that during the 1940s and 1950s, the American intellectual landscape had not yet been cordoned off into countries of ardent Cold Warriors confronted by equally ardent strivers after civil and human rights. Nor had the state as a whole become an exclusively oppressive force, internally or even internationally. I don’t mean to downplay the tensions of the time. I’m well schooled in McCarthy’s witch trials, the race riots of the 1940s, the very real gender re-segregation that took place after World War II, and the darkness of the Cold War closet. But I believe that if we can jettison the notion that only bohemian, expressive politics lead to social change of a personal kind, we can begin to see our own lives in a new light. In our moment, it isn’t our personal expression that’s under attack. On the contrary, we live in an era in which the mainstream mass media celebrate our array of sexual and racial identities. Think of the TV show Modern Family, for instance. Right now, it’s our institutions that are suffering. Have you looked up at a highway bridge lately? Have you popped into a public school and counted the number of kids in an average classroom? Have you looked at more than a decade of war and wondered how it is that the government has been able to keep troops in the field so long with nary a peep from the American public? And how has the left responded to these events? Well, we had Occupy – a movement organized around the collective expression of identity in public places and the building of mostly temporary networks. Meantime, the right has had the Tea Party – a movement anchored in already existing institutions, often churches, aimed at building new institutions, and it has already had an extraordinary effect on our government. Occupy has certainly framed the debate – it’s important know who’s part of the 99% and who isn’t. But it’s the Tea Party that has actually changed – or really, paralyzed – government policy. I’m hoping that if we can look back into the 1940s and the 1950s, we can see a world in which it is possible to work for radical political transformation within and around the most powerful institutions of our day – including the media and the government.

Henry: Anthropologists, Sociologists, and Psychologists (not to mention early Communication scholars) play key roles in shaping policies in the United States during this period. Why were these disciplines so central to the thinking of the American government during the war and post-war years? What factors have shaped a shift in the status of these humanistic fields in the subsequent decades? Today, many universities are closing down their anthropology programs, for example, and our educational policies are very much driven by a STEM agenda.

Fred: These are pretty tough questions! I’ll do my best. I think the answer to the first question has to do with the kind of country America was at the time. In the 1930s and 1940s, the United States was not yet a global hegemon. In a lot of ways, it was a somewhat backward place – largely rural, racially divided, and not yet even fully unified geographically the way it is today by the highway system. Within this world, anthropologists especially, but also psychologists and sociologists, seemed to offer a window on the world beyond our shores. They seemed to understand how things really worked – in far away Asia and Africa, in the urban jungles of our own cities, in the tropics of our minds. They also shared an understanding that individual personalities and cultures mirrored one another and that communication – mediated and interpersonal – shaped both. When World War II began, scholars in these fields seemed to have a uniquely sharp-eyed view of the international field in which the United States now felt compelled to play. They also seemed to understand how to motivate the American people to go to war. But that’s not quite enough to explain their appeal over time I think. For that, we need to acknowledge the technicist character of some of their analyses. Mead, Bateson, Allport, Fromm – they were humanists. But many of their colleagues committed acts of highly technicized social science – field and laboratory experiments for instance, quantitative content analysis, and the like. These sorts of scientistic activity produced the actionable results that government leaders needed. And even where they didn’t, they produced the image of social scientists as men of action (and yes, they were almost all men). How did such scholars lose their place at the table? Vietnam. One of the most painful moments I had researching this book came as I read through the history of the Center for International Studies (CENIS) at MIT. CENIS was a social science think tank funded partly by the CIA. In its papers, you can see social scientists like Walt Rostow and Ithiel de Sola Pool turning the pro-democratic tools of the 1940s into instruments for crushing Asian communism. It’s horrifying. I don’t think American intellectuals have quite forgotten what happened there. Some of the best and brightest social scientists of the 1950s and 1960s, working with the very best of intentions, helped mastermind a national atrocity. This is part of the reason that the historiography of this period remains so stark. The generation of scholars who grew up during Vietnam identified with personal liberation movements here and with post-colonial liberation abroad. Some even tended to conflate the two. This has created a slow-burning identity crises within several fields. If a field is designed to map more or less universal rules of social engagement and if the application of universal rules is an essentially oppressive, colonizing endeavor, then what is the proper job of a social scientist? You can see the legacy of Vietnam in the anxiety for scholars of culture, and particularly anthropologists of the 1980s and 1990s, to be “reflexive” in their work – that is, to so thoroughly disclose the biases of their own social position as to inoculate themselves against charges of intellectually colonizing the Other. For what it’s worth, I don’t agree that the social sciences have faded from view. I do see that the lion’s share of funding from the government now goes to STEM disciplines. I think that happens because the outcomes of training in those areas can be so clearly linked to things Congressman care about – jobs, profits, economic growth. But the power of STEM per se isn’t new. The space race and the Cold War drove research in that area to a level of funding and creative abandon that would be hard to imagine today except perhaps in the privately funded stratospheres of Google and Apple and Microsoft. Even with government funding down, the social sciences remain intellectually pretty hardy. Psychology in particular remains very strong. Communication has been reinvigorated by the rise of digital media. Anthropology’s role has certainly shifted — partly I think because America has changed. After World War II, we became a much more cosmopolitan nation, and as we did, we no longer needed anthropologists to manage our first contacts with foreign peoples. Sociology has split I think into a more technicist, campus-bound wing, and a more public-facing style. Just think of the popularity of Malcolm Gladwell – not a social scientist, but certainly a purveyor of sociology.

 

Fred Turner is an associate professor of communication at Stanford University. He has written several books about media, technology, and American cultural history, including the widely acclaimed From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism.

The Democratic Surround: An Interview with Fred Turner (Part One)

I was lucky enough to have gotten to know the social-cultural-technological historian Fred Turner during some time he spent at MIT at the start of his academic career, and we have stayed in touch off and on ever since. I have lost count of the number of times I have taught chapters from his landmark book, From Counterculture to Cyberculture, or the number of times that I have ended up citing this book in my own research on participatory culture and politics. It came out in a moment when there was so much focus on new media that it was as if the world had developed amnesia — discussing everything as if it had been invented yesterday rather than understanding the ideologies and cultures that had led up to the digital revolution. Turner’s book helped to place the utopian rhetoric I was hearing at MIT around “new media” in a richer, more nuanced, and more historically grounded perspective. It quickly became essential reading in the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT, which I headed at the time, and indeed, it has been core reading at programs all over the world.

Turner’s new book, The Democratic Surround:Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties expands the terrain even further, showing us how the counterculture itself emerged from the theories of media, culture, psychology, and political persuasion that took shape during World War II and achieved their greatest impact during the Cold War Period. As with the first book, Turner offers what might once have been considered intellectual history — a focus on key thinkers, who in this case, include anthropologists, psychologists, artists and art critics, musicians, communication scholars, photographers, curators, policy makers, and many others — but combines it with social, technological, political and cultural history. The book is full of fascinating people — from Margaret Mead, John Cage, Buckmeister Fuller, to Andy Warhol and Marshall Mcluhan — and he not only reminds us of their own contributions to society, but shows the strong connections across their work.

He shows us how the media (and especially museum and World’s Fair installations of the period) reflected larger aesthetic theories about the forms of perception required to foster a democratic personality, which were in turn shaped by new models of psychology and anthropology, all of which were put in the service of the Cold War. Beyond that, through, he transforms how we think about the politics of the period, pushing through the encrusted critique of the Cold War and the domestic containment of the 1950s, to identify the liberal/progressive impulses that inspired these thinkers, showing how they were more open to diversity, equality, and freedom than had been acknowledge by many recent writers. He doesn’t ignore the blindspots and complicity in their thinking, but he does help us to appreciate why Family of Man, say, was seen as such a transformative work at the time that it commanded the attention of audiences around the world. He challenges assumptions about the propagandistic use of media during the Cold War to focus on what people at the time understood as a more “democratic” approach to spectatorship and in the process, implicitly at least, he suggests some of the roots of the focus on interactivity, nonlinearity, multimodality, immersion, and transmedia in our own times.

Because of his journalistic background, he is an engaging, vivid writer, one who tells compelling stories, but he is also a first rate archival historian and a world class theorist and critic of media practices. His work is at once programatic — in that he now takes us on a history of media and politics from the World War II to the present — and also boldly original — constantly forcing us to look again at things we thought we already knew. I have no doubts that The Democratic Surround is going to be as important a book as From Counterculture to Cyberculture.  Everywhere I have traveled this summer, people have been reading and talking about this book, but if you have missed it so far, you are in for a treat.

I am proud to be presenting the following interview with Turner about the book and its implications for those of us interested in the contemporary media environment.

Henry: Let’s start with the title, The Democratic Surround. Can you explain this concept? In particular, can you speak to the connections your book makes between a political concept — democracy — and an aesthetic approach — the surround? How did these two concepts come together during the period your book documents?

Fred: Well, the book stretches from the late 1930s to the late 1960s and across that time, the thing I’m calling the “surround” took three forms: It was an actual, existing genre of mediated communication; a tool for producing more democratic citizens; and a model of how to organize a well-run democracy. To their promoters, surrounds could help Americans experience a deeply liberating alternative to totalitarian systems. Fifty years later, we can see that surrounds also gave rise to a new mode of management, a mode of self-regulation through media that dramatically shapes our lives today.
To see how the aesthetic and political came together the way they did, we have to go back to World War II. The story takes a bit to tell, but it’s worth it.

In the late 1930s, many Americans were terrified – and baffled – by the rise of fascism. Hitler had taken over Germany, Mussolini had grabbed Italy, Franco had overrun Spain, and Imperial Japan had invaded China. Everyone wondered: How had so many sophisticated nations fallen under the sway of dictators? And particularly Germany – despite World War I, Germany remained a beacon of culture for American intellectuals and artists. How had the home of Goethe and Beethoven fallen for Adolf Hitler?

A surprising number of Americans argued that it must have been mass media that had brought Hitler to power. First, Hitler had taken control of the German media and dramatically restricted what his citizens could see and hear. Second, many believed that the one-to-many dynamics of broadcasting and the print press themselves could turn people into authoritarians: Just being one of the many, tuned in to a single leader, forced you to practice being part of a faceless crowd.

If the problem was mass media itself, many feared could America go the way of Germany – especially because by the time Hitler invaded Poland, fascism had visibly metastasized in the United States. To take just one example, in February, 1939, twenty-two thousand Americans rallied in Madison Square Garden to support German-style fascism here. They cheered under a giant banner that read “Stop Jewish Domination of Christian America.”

Fig 1 Bund Parade 10 30 39

German-American Bundists parade swastikas and American flags down East 86th Street, New York, October 30, 1939. Photograph from the New York World-Telegram. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, NWT&S Collection, LC-USZ62-117148.

All of this left American leaders with a dilemma at the start of World War II: How could they use media to stir their citizens to take arms against fascism without turning them into fascists?

Two groups actually set out to answer this question, starting about 1941. The first consisted of about 60 social scientists who called themselves the Committee for National Morale. They were really a Who’s Who of American social science at the time — Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, Gordon Allport, the list went on and on. Together they believed that every country drew its strength from the individual personalities of its citizens. And if mass media had produced authoritarian personalities in Germany, Americans would need to develop a kind of media that would that would produce a democratic personalities here.

In the Committee’s view, authoritarians were psychologically fractured, unable to reason, bigoted and obedient. Democrats, they argued, should be highly individuated and highly collaborative. They should reason and choose, and above all, embrace the diversity of American society.

To produce such personalities members of the Committee proposed creating exhibitions at museums and in other public halls, surrounding individuals with images and sounds, and freeing them to move among them. These aesthetic environments would give Americans a chance to practice doing the individual work of making meaning of the world around them, but they would do these things in person, together. Surrounded by images, they would collaborate in forming their own democratic personalities and at the same time, a mode of being together that was unified, not massified, American not German.

The members of the Committee didn’t know how to build these environments. But in the late 1930s, a generation of Bauhaus artists had just fled to the United States from Germany. They carried with them very sophisticated designs for multi-screen displays and immersive theaters, and they were more than happy to apply their skills to promoting American democracy. Throughout World War II people like Herbert Bayer and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy designed museum exhibitions and media to promote the war effort. They created the spaces that the American social scientists had dreamed of – spaces in which Americans could practice moving their bodies individually together, looking high and low at the world around them, and arriving at a new mode of political unity in the process.

Once the Cold War began, the exhibition designs they created became cornerstones of two seemingly contradictory developments: American anti-Communist propaganda abroad and avant-garde art here at home. In the 1950s, America built a series of multi-media exhibition spaces abroad with the explicit intent of turning the psyches of potential allies and enemies in more democratic (meaning, pro-American) directions. The most famous of these was probably the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow, where Nixon and Khrushchev had their Kitchen Debate. At the same time, artists such as John Cage opened up the soundscape and the world of performance, with an equally explicit desire to engage their audiences in a world of aesthetic democracy – a place in which every sound, no matter how lowly, would be equal to every other, a world in which the European hierarchies of the symphony no longer held sway. By the late 1960s, Cage’s experiments in particular had helped transform the pro-democratic propaganda aesthetics of the 1940s into the Happenings and the Be-Ins of the counterculture.

Henry: Many of my readers will know your groundbreaking work, From Counterculture to Cyberculture. In many ways, this new book represents that infinite regress that historians are prone to do. In many ways, you could have called it From the Cold War to the Counterculture. How do you explain the relationship between the two projects?

Fred: I hope the historical regress here won’t be quite infinite!
I began The Democratic Surround as a way to solve a puzzle I first saw when I was writing From Counterculture to Cyberculture. I’d always been told that the generation of 1968 had rejected the culture of the 1940s and the 1950s. But when I was researching the Whole Earth Catalog crew, I saw that they were steeped in ideas and books from those periods. When they headed out to build their communes, the New Communalists of the 1960s tucked books by their parents’ generation into their backpacks. They read Norbert Weiner, Buckminster Fuller, Erich Fromm, Karen Horney, Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson – and I wondered why. When I went back to those books, I saw the appeal. These thinkers were far more radical than we remember. They and other leading liberal intellectuals of the period challenged the prejudice that ran through American society. They called for the United States to become much more egalitarian, diverse and accepting than it was. Some, like Mead’s teacher and friend, anthropologist Ruth Benedict, called loudly and publicly for racial equality in America more than a decade before the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s. Mead herself gained national renown in part by urging American women to become sexually liberated. And all of these figures saw the personal as political in a way would suffuse the countercultural movements of the 1960s.

By going back to these figures, I’ve been trying to do a few things. On the historical front, I want to de-mythologize the sixties. We’ve labored for too long under the illusion that hippies represented a break in American history and an alternative to mainstream American life. As I hope my last book showed, the New Communalists were in many ways an opening wedge for the hyper-individualized, tech-centered ways many of us live and work today. On the contemporary front, I want to decouple our claims about the social impact of digital media from the dreams to which they’ve become attached. Those dreams flowered in the 1940s, and not only in the technical worlds that brought us computers. They flowered in social science, politics, propaganda – all across public life. Today, we inhabit a multi-screen world in which we manage our lives in terms set by any number of organizations that remain invisible behind the screens. We often imagine that it is somehow digital media that have brought us this world. But they didn’t, or at least, they didn’t do it alone.

Fred Turner is an associate professor of communication at Stanford University. He has written several books about media, technology, and American cultural history, including the widely acclaimed From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism.

The Steampunk Scene in Brazil: Strategies of Sociality

One of the pleasures of running this blog is the chance to engage with readers all over the world, who are able to share with me  what’s happening in their countries. The phenomenon I discuss here — from participatory culture and politics to new media literacies to transmedia entertainment — are playing out right now on a global scale. Thanks to these contacts, I have been able to share with my readers new developments in Russia, China, India, Poland,  among many other examples, and I look forward to sharing other such cases in the future. Recently, I have corresponded with Éverly Pegoraro who has been researching the Steampunk scene in Brazil. And after some back and forth, I am happy to be able to share with you today some of his findings — in words and images.

By the way, readers in Brazil may be interested to know that there is now a Portuguese edition of our most recent book — Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture (with Sam Ford and Joshua Green)– which is published there as Cultura  da Conexão: Criando Valor e Significado por Meio da Mídia Propagável. You can learn more at the Aleph website. Thanks so much to our friend, Maurico Mota, for his hard work to make this book approachable to our friends down in Brazil.

 

Steampunk scene in Brazil: strategies of sociality by Éverly Pegoraro  

What motivates steampunks? For some, just nostalgia. For others, daydreams. Amid fans and critics, the fact is that steampunk and other retrofuturistic movements extrapolate elements from the literary imagination as the basis for generating creative urban experiences. A meaningful example of this process may be perceived in Brazil. The steampunk “scene” in Brazil has already a substantial number of participants, spread across 13 states. Steamers, as they are known here amongst fans, participate in many activities.

Each Brazilian state holds a different group of steamers. For the past three years, I’ve had the opportunity to follow one of the most active steamer . groups in Paraná state in southern Brazil, Steampunk Council of Paraná Lodge. In this space, generously provided by Professor Jenkins, I will share some impressions about the research, which is part of my doctorate thesis.

Unlike other countries, Brazilian steamers are organized in lodges (a Masonry inspiration) in each State, which are administered by local councils. All are supported by Steampunk Council. The Steampunk Council’s mission is summarized on their official web site:

The Steampunk Council was conceived with the central idea of ​​democratization, flexibility and sustainability of steampunk movement. It is less an organization and more a concept, on which representatives of steampunk community can create their lodges, as the cells are called from the concept of the Council. [ ... ] The Steampunk Council‘s mission is to provide mechanisms for the dissemination of steampunk culture, provide reference material, promote all sorts of related events, encouraging cultural production of this sort of subjectivity and paying tribute to all those who create and produce material of Steampunk culture in all possible forms. (Available at http://www.steampunk.com.br/conselho-steampunk/)

Each regional group is autonomous to develop their own activities. The Steampunk Council of Paraná Lodge has existed for about four years and is managed by a group of the most active founding members. Besides them, there are many participants, some more regular and active (about 25 people), others only occasional visitors. Adopting the fluid, ephemeral and diversified characteristics of neotribes characterized by Maffesoli (1987), they form a heterogeneous group, across genders, ethnicities and ages (ranging from 14 to 50 years). Members are from different social classes, studying and/or working in many areas, such as writers, musicians, housewives, professors, and service providers.

As organized groups, they have the opportunity to create more permanent social ties than the relative ephemerality of the neotribos. This is a strong characteristic of Paraná’s group. The several proposed activities during the year encourage face to face interaction amongst the participants and create spaces where each discovers and develops artistic, literary, media production skills.

The Steamers’ creations blend the imagery of the nineteenth century, the individual preferences of media culture and the creativity of each participant. The Victorian aesthetic is strongly present in this urban culture, especially in the costumes and in the context of the stories. But steampunk enables a wide dimension of contextualization that are not directly inserted in Victorian Era.

Therefore, the selection of this period is not exclusively due to the visual. Steamers say they seek values ​​from the Victorian imaginary. They want more romanticism, sensibility and personal investment — in other words, less mechanical and utilitarian relationships.

[Steampunk] refers to a time when people cared more about delicacy, gentleness, there had been a different culture, a more educated one. I find it interesting to extrapolate the technology of this period and advance it as if it had been nothing after, to increase the capacity of a technology that actually has not developed much. I find it interesting to explore more things that sometimes were not explored in the past. (Brazilian steamer)   What fascinates me is the Victorian aesthetic, the well done style, with the smallest details, it has the seriousness of the men, the femininity of the women, the clothes […] the court society, the social rules. And there is also the convenience of the technology how we have today, the clothes are not made ​​by hand, not everything is very expensive, we have the benefits of communication, medicine, entertainment, movie theaters. (Brazilian steamer)

 

We see the old aesthetic is beautiful, more farfetched. A time when people had more free time to take care of themselves, but the values ​​were different. It’s interesting you deal with an older aesthetic, but with current values​​, especially for women. The corset is nice, but nobody wants to live as it was before. So, it’s cool to have that aesthetic, an aesthetic that people will look strange, for it’s old, but with values […] the female steampunk characters are not housewives, all professions in steampunk can be applied for men or for women.(Brazilian steamer)

The interviewees’ statements above indicate an attempt to retrieve the values ​​and behaviors of an idealized past. Such desires suggest the search for a less rationalist and mechanical subjectivity and the need to invest more deeply in relationships.

Homi K. Bhabha (2011) offers some interesting clues to consider the social articulations that occur in these inter-spaces of difference and minorities, in which there are complex processes of negotiation and cultural hybridisms. He conceives such cultural hybridism as a third space that enables new positions of meaning and representation. The negotiations that take place in these spaces allow hybrid agencies that do not seek cultural supremacy. Such movements are articulated in the “arts of the present”, defined by the author as the performances by which different minority group elaborates strategies of survival, identity formation, political contestation, social relations, and aesthetic manifestations. The steamers below talk about why they participate in this urban culture:

We’re putting a question to rethink who we are, it’s not to think who we may be in the future, it’s to rethink who we are today. Which were our real choices in the past that brought us here, and based on which choices we could have made. That’s what draws me into steampunk. (Brazilian steamer)

 

I think it’s a fascination for a time that is chronologically so close, but so radically different from our reality. (Brazilian steamer writer)

 

I do not think the nineteenth century so far, not so different. […] Over the past 200 years, more things happened than between 1400 and 1600. […] The planet got smaller because of communication technology, for better and for worse. […] The nineteenth century, for being so close, is a rich context to be described and to criticize the current moment. What is science fiction? It’s to put into perspective our reality through the accentuation of problems and defects from that historical moment. (Brazilian steamer writer)

Freedom of expression […] It’s a hobby to get away a little bit of our ordinary everyday, encouraging people to do something different. It’s for the pleasure [...] to meet different people, search new experiences. (Brazilian steamer)

Brazillian steamers’ strategies of visuality and sociality are acts of resistance to contemporary spatiotemporal compressions, providing an inter-space of temporality and hybrid culture, which combines different historical periods. However, steampunk hasn’t derived from a pure and simple import of Europeanised customs, which, in turn, would result in similar actions to the Brazilian Belle Époque. Neither has it intended to celebrate a tradition originated from English distant past of ladies and gentlemen.

Besides the fascination with the Victorian imaginary, what unites Brazilian steamers, no doubt, is the science fiction in its various products, questioning the inventions that marked the transition to the modern world, especially in science and technology. This identification is made clear in the narratives constructed individually and collectively by the steamers. Some seek to insert elements of  history and Brazilian literature, as in the following example:

I tried to imagine how it would be a world in which the Baron [Mauá – Brazilian historical character] was even more influent, decisive to the directions of our country. So, I thought that the Abolitionist Campaign would be more successful with, let’s say, not only the prohibition of the slave trade in the 1850’s, but with the release of all slaves and with the attraction of foreign and specialized labor and, most importantly, a world in which there had not been the Paraguayan War, what would’ve stopped the waste of lives and money we had in reality. (Brazilian steamer writer)

The events that promote steampunk and encourage sociality among the participants are the main feature of the Brazilian group. Aiming to give visibility to their initiatives, steamers often attend events of other youth cultures, such as Victorian picnics (an event that has become a reference there). Each activity promoted by Steampunk Council of Paraná Lodge has a specific theme, in honor of historical characters and events, often from a specifically Brazilian context. They do not have a fixed schedule, but each event usually involves music, dance, literature and individual performances. The three major events promoted by Paraná steamers are named as the Steampunk Picnics, Steam Coffee (In Portuguese, Cafés a Vapor) and the workshops to learn how to customize clothing and objects.

The Steampunk Picnics are annual events held at parks in Curitiba, capital of Paraná state. The steamers enjoy the sunny Saturday or Sunday afternoons to do the “steampunk scene”, where they go dressed in their costumes, play games and participate on sweepstakes, gymkhanas and photographic sessions.

Convescote Steampunk, março de 2012. Curitiba, Paraná, BrazilConvescote Steampunk, março de 2012. Curitiba, Paraná, Brazil  

 

Convescote Steampunk, março de 2012. Curitiba, Paraná, Brazil_2 The customization workshops occur every two or three months (there is no strict regularity) in Curitiba. They are also used as a shop window for steamers to exhibit their artistic abilities. They are artisans, designers, stylists and photographers who take the opportunity to promote their work and, in some cases, sell them.

After posting on their blog (http://pr.steampunk.com.br/) and on the group’s profile on Facebook (in Portuguese: Loja Paraná do Conselho Steampunk), the interested ones meet on a Saturday afternoon to learn basic techniques of steampunk styling. The workshops are taught by the older group members or by some guest who has a specific skill that can be useful in customizing clothing and accessories. During an afternoon, someone is highly unlikely to finish the process. But the steamers themselves make clear that the workshop will explain the basic technique. It is up to each person to develop (and even enhance) what was taught.

During workshops, Brazilian ......During workshops, Brazilian steamers discuss alternatives to materialize their imaginative ability

The workshops are characterized as a meaningful moment of sociality among the steamers, because there is sharing, exchange of ideas and interaction among them, while they discuss alternatives to materialize what they imagine. Tutors seek to encourage creativity by presenting a variety of objects made at home. The “students” identify themselves with these possibilities and discuss alternatives to adapt them to their purposes. Tutors share the difficulties to develop the techniques, aiming to ease the situation for those who are beginners.

Workshop to Make Mini and Top HatsWorkshop to make mini and top hats

Customizations are used in the practice of steamplay (adaptation of the term cosplay to the steampunk universe), when steamers perform their steampunk character, constructing their identities and embodying their clothing and accessories as well as their historical and social context. Public performances happen in the events that Steampunk Council of Paraná Lodge promotes or participates. Several factors influence the character creation, such as preferences and hobbies of each participant or their ability to afford the steamplay.

Steam Coffees are evening events. As an example, the night of Steam Coffee: The steampunk evolution (Tribute to Charles Darwin) began with the performance of a traditional tribal dance, created by two dancers for the event. According to one of them, the ethnic tribal dance joins elements and techniques of folk dances from around the world. The steampunk concept appears on the mix of industrial music and the aesthetic of the costumes.

 

Musical performance at Brazilian steampunk eventMusical performance at Brazilian steampunk event

Steampunk Event in CuritibaSteampunk event in Curitiba, Paraná, Brazil

Performance of a a Traditional Tribal DancePerformance of a traditional tribal dance, created to a Brazilian steampunk event  

Participants of a Brazilian Steampunk EventParticipants of a Brazilian steampunk event    

During the event, the participants had fun with a steampunk musical repertoire of a steamer DJ who shared music videos. Some steamers shared a steampunk tale written by one of the participants of Curitiba’s group, who is also a writer. Indeed, the practice of writing tales, editing magazines and creating all kind of steampunk media products (even if they’re not mainstream, but only released on the internet) is common among steamers. As pointed out by Jenkins (2010), these informal learning communities encourage participants to develop writing skills and styles as well as to build confidence in their own abilities before entering in the professional market.

Members of Steampunk Council of Paraná Lodge share a wide range of cultural interests drawn from the content of media culture products over which they claim a sense of ownership and mastery. Practices similar to those discussed by de Certeau (1998) and Jenkins (2010) in terms of bricolage or “poaching.” Steamers appropriate different science fiction books, movies, comics and RPG games, but giving them new meanings, expanding the stories, deepening their interpretations of the characters and reimagining the story world. The creations may even suggest impossible mixtures through the insertion of fictional or historical characters from different periods in the same narrative.

Similarly to what Jenkins (2010) describes, such practices involve a form of aesthetic perversion of the traditional limits imposed by the dominant cultural hierarchies which outline the desirable and undesirable cultures. Thus, they build a cultural and social identity through appropriation and modification of cultural products.

The first Brazilian steampunk photo roman – Curitiba’s steamers are pride to point out it as the first one – is a striking example. Steampunk Carnivale[1]photo roman (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ehm8RJ8KVwo) is a collective production involving performances by the various members of Steampunk Council of Paraná Lodge, who customized their costumes and accessories and collaborated to generate the plot. The work – which combined science ficton and intrigue — was shared via Youtube.

Despite the understandable limitations of an amateur production, this photo roman can be characterized as contributing to an urban culture that has taken shape around a common interest in steampunk retrofuturism with the production and exchange of such products acting as part of what Thornton (1995) describes as a micromedia circuit. What matters here is not so much the aesthetic merits of the community’s productions or their comparison with more mainstream cultural products but rather the social and cultural dimensions of participants interactions with each other.

The cultural products that emerge from the steamers’ appropriation and remixing practices do not always fully cohere. Participants continually negotiate their relationship to the genre and to pre-existing culture materials according to their most immediate interests. As an example, note the following explanations of two steamers of Curitiba:

I really like gothic, so I wanted to make a gothic steamplay. I’ve brought a little bit of everything: I have keys, the belt that has potions, also weapons, which were made in the workshops. [ ... ] I’ve watched the movie The Crucible (and also read the book), and I’ve been writing the story for me. [...] Harry Potter has also influenced a little bit, so that my wand is from Harry Potter, it is not customized, I did not want to change it. (Brazilian steamer)   One of my ideas is inspired by Assassin‘s Creed games, which there are murders [...] it is like a secret society, fighting against the old Knights Templar. (Brazilian steamer)

This is how steamers – between pirates and nomads (Jenkins, 2010) – create their performances and products in an experience that is both individual and collective, within a vast network of connections that constitute this participatory culture.

 

Brazilian steamer at Steam Coffee. Curitiba, Paraná, Brazil, 2012.Brazilian steamer at Steam Coffee. Curitiba, Paraná, Brazil, 2012

 

Brazilian steamersBrazilian steamers

Steamers start from the media culture products that most interest them and become producers of new texts including fictional narratives, photo romans, illustrations, photographic essays, customized objects, crafts, dance and music performances, fashion and accessories, magazines, events. These acts of cultural expression are informed by two competing logics: the Do It Yourself (DIY) aesthetic from the punk movement and the contemporary conception of Do It Together (DIT) as it has taken shape around the Maker movement. One emphasizes individual, the other collective production. Thus, even though DIY logic prevails, the premise is surrounded by a mutual aid policy: each steamer helps the others with his skills in making products and accessories, embodying the DIT logic of participatory culture.

This idea is summarized in the interview with one of the forerunners in Paraná, Carlos Alberto Machado:

People sometimes send e-mail asking: ‘do you sell steampunk clothing?’. ‘We are not selling, what we do is teach you how to do,’ I say. [ ... ] Paraná is the state that is promoting more workshops. And the workshops are bringing a lot of people and a lot of good things. There is the shyest person who ends up getting more outgoing, and makes friends. [ ...] We do not call it as a class, the idea is not to teach you the ‘abc’. The idea is to encourage the participants to bring things and the group teaches the group. [...] They bring this knowledge and show them what they do to encourage the participants to try to do something similar. (Brazilian steamer)

Thus, the interest in steampunk by Curitiba’s group is structured through the desire to interact and be part of a community that shares broader cultural and social interests. Sociality grows from mutual interests, reflecting the group’s particular interpretative conventions as they are shaped by individual and collective acts of story telling, performance, and cultural production. While there is a strong emphasis here on self-creation, we should recall that all of this activity occurs within a consumerist context, where critical interactions between man and technology coexist with leisure, hedonism, and consumption. Their retrofuturist imaginings emerge from a particular local context and get circulated through a micromedia circuit.

Brazilian steampunk reinserts questions that turn away from traditional political participation. Steampunk encourages its participants to return again and again to the core question: “what if had it been different?”. Besides, creating a story of an invented past is a way to discuss current and relevant issues. It’s not an attempt to return to past, not about engaging with an exotic foreignness, but an inter-space that mixes criticism, socio-temporal concern, hedonism, entertainment. More than the fascination for the historical period of Victorian Age itself, what prevails is the will of the steamers to recreate their own fictitious historical memory, which is strongly impacted by media culture.

 

Éverly Pegoraro is a Brazilian university lecturer and PhD candidate in Communication and Culture at State University of Midwestern Paraná, Brazil . His doctoral research deals with the relationship between visuality and sociality in steampunk. He is the leader of the Communication and Sociocultural Interfaces research group. Contact:everlyp@yahoo.com.br ou https://www.facebook.com/everly.pegoraro.

 

References

Bhabha, Homi (2011).O entrelugar das culturas. In: COUTINHO, Eduardo (Org.). O bazar global e o clube dos cavalheiros ingleses: textos seletos. [The global bazaar and the English gentlemen's club: selected texts].Rio de Janeiro: Rocco.

Certeau, Michel. de. (1998). A invenção do cotidiano. Artes de fazer [The practice of everyday life].(3rd ed.). Petrópolis, Brazil: Vozes. Conselho Steampunk. http://www.steampunk.com.br/.

Deleuze, Gilles; Guattari, Felix. (1995a). Mil Platôs. [Thousand Plateaus]. Vol. 1. São Paulo: Ed. 34. ______. Mil Platôs. (1995b). [Thousand Plateaus].Vol. 2. São Paulo: Ed. 34.

Jenkins, Henry. (2010). Piratas de textos.Fans, culturaparticipativa y televisión.[Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture]. Barcelona: Paidós.

Maffesoli, Michel. (1987). O tempo das tribos.O declínio do individualismo nas sociedades de massa. [The time of tribes.The decline of individualism in Mass Society]. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Forense—Universitária.

Thornton, Sarah. (1995). Club cultures: Music, media andsubcultural capital. Cambridge, England: Polity.

 

[1] Although the name of the photo roman refers to Carnival, one of Brazil’s major festive periods, the theme has no direct reference to the subject. Curitiba is not known for its Carnival tradition. Besides, in the days of this festivity, there is an alternative event for those who do not enjoy Carnival: Zombie Walk. As the organizers of the event use to say: “in Curitiba, Carnival is a horror”.