Wu Ming on Convergence Culture

I was very flattered to have the Wu Ming Foundation write the introduction to the Italian language edition of Convergence Culture, which came out late last year. I have been corresponding with Wu Ming 1 off and on over the past year. You may recall the interview I did with Wu Ming 1 and 2 in the blog late in 2006. I’ve been dying to read what they have to say about the book and Wu Ming 1 just shared with me an English translation of their text. Their introduction does a first rate job of linking the arguments of the book to the current work I am doing on new media literacies, mostly by relying on content originally published on this blog. They open with some interesting comments about what my book might contribute to European discussions of popular culture and cyberculture, which I thought would be of interest to my readers here:

In the best of possible Italies, the publication of this book would be a telluric event, one that would shake the debate on the Internet and the new technologies of communication. If nothing happens, not even a twitch, it will mean that there’s no actual debate, no semblance of life, only a deserted house with loose shutters in the wind. In comparison, poltergeist activity in a graveyard will sound like Rio de Janeiro’s carnival.

Convergence Culture is a revolutionary work in many ways. It remains a fascinating and comprehensible reading all the way through, and it’s crammed with examples and evidence. The works of European theorists are often cited, explained in a vivid language, and used to analyze concrete behaviors and practices, with none of the original intricacies. It works like magic: in the pages of this book any obscure convolution turns to crystal-clear, no-nonsense talk. Professor Jenkins plunges into the culture of our time and gives an accurate picture of how the new technologies are changing it, then he re-emerges and gives us a report not so much on the media, but on the people who are using them to communicate. The picture shows us, all of us.

A propos of this, it is necessary to make a distinction clear.

In Italian, by “cultura popolare” we usually mean folk culture, a pre-industrial heritage whose manifestations have managed to survive until today. Sardinian cantores and tarantella dances are cultura popolare. Those who use the phrase in other contexts do it with reference to the English homologue “popular culture”, which is more commonly translated as “cultura di massa“. Although the latter expression also exists in English (“mass culture”), it may cause equivocation and – as Jenkins observes – there are different shades of meaning between “popular culture” and “mass culture”.

Equivocation: la cultura di massa is transmitted through the [mass] media (cinema, tv, print etc.), but it isn’t necessarily aimed at the big masses. It may also include music addressed to a niche of listeners, or cinematic sub-genres appealing to specific subcultures. In fact, the majority of today’s cultural products are not di massa. We live in a world of countless niches and subgenres. The mainstream, what we call “il nazional-popolare“, is far less important than it once used to be, and it keeps getting smaller.

Shades of meaning: the expression “mass culture” stresses the way this culture is transmitted, i.e. through the media. On the contrary, “popular culture” emphasizes the role of the people who receive it and then reappropriate it. Usually, when we talk about what a song or a film means in someone’s life (“Listen, it’s our song!”), or how a crime novel or a comic book influenced its era, we call it “popular culture”.

The problem is that, ninety times out of a hundred, the Italian debate on pop culture focuses on junk TV, as if that were the only way to be “popular”, as though there were no quality distinctions and historical evolutions, as though Sandokan, Star Trek, Lost, TG4 and Beauty and the Geek were all of the same mould. It’s like saying that there are no differences between Bruce Springsteen, REM, Frank Zappa and Shakira, and no possible distinctions between Stephen King books and Totti-joke collections, since both categories of books hit the top charts.

There are two armies fighting each other, and we should stay away from both of them. On one side are those who shield behind the “popular” to produce and peddle crap. On the other side, those who despise anything not aimed at an elite audience or readership.

These positions are perfectly symmetrical, they feed each other and share common views. One is that pop culture only addresses mute audiences probed by people meters, masses that express themselves only as percentages in opinion polls or figures at the box office.

And here’s another merit Convergence Culture has: it gets to the roots of equivocation and puts them out. The focus shifts from an inextricable tangle of banalities to a new perspective, a way of tackling all issues by redrawing known boundaries and barricade lines.

Next Time: Thoughts on the Serious Games Movement in China