Framing the Candidates (Part Three): The Daily Show Parodies

Over the past two posts, I’ve suggested ways educators could use the campaign bio videos produced for the two national conventions as a way of encouraging civic literacy. I’ve suggested that they are powerful examples of the different ways that the parties “frame” their candidates and platforms. The focus on personal biography brings to the surface what linguist George Lakoff calls the GOP’s “Strict Father” and the Democrat’s “Nurturing Parent” models, both of which see the family as a microcosm for the way a president will relate to the nation. I’ve also suggested that the videos surrounding the Vice-Presidential candidates help to broaden the appeal by bringing in aspects of the other party’s “frame” so as to speak to swing voters.

Today, I want to turn my attention to the parodies of these videos produced for The Daily Show. I’ve long argued that one of the program’s greatest functions is to educate us to reflect critically on the discourse of news and politics, especially to focus attention on how issues get “framed” by commentators, how stories get handled by networks, and in this case, how the campaigns construct representations of candidates. As we laugh at its comedy, we learn to look at the “serious news” from a different angle.

In this case, we might see the parody videos as representing the “return of the repressed.” That is, these videos include the elements the parties themselves could never feature, because they reintroduce gaps or contradictions in the candidate’s personas or elements which would play badly in the heartland of the country. At the same time, the parodies are deft at capturing some of the conventions ( in terms of narrative structure, rhetorical framing, and audiovisual style) of the campaign bio as a genre. And, as with the Photoshop parodies of Palin I focused on the other week, these parody videos also use a language drawn from popular culture to help us make sense of a political process that is often insular in its use of specialized language.

Obama and Mother Africa

In subtle and not so subtle ways, the official Obama video engulfed the candidate in America, excluding anything exotic in his background, stressing his mother’s side of the family to the exclusion of his father’s, stressing Kansas and not Kenya. Here, Africa speaks back, asserting itself again and again as the central frame for understanding Obama, “the earthly son of a goat herder from darkest Africa and an anthropologist from whitest Wichita.” The video uses images and music from The Lion King to continually return us to “Mother Africa” — and in the process, to make fun of the often mythic language the Obama campaign uses to describe his candidate. A key moment in his biography here is his trip to Kenya during which he has a “vision” of a Goat who guides him to run for the state senate. Obama’s African background has been a large part of his international appeal with some suggesting that he may be uniquely situated to restore America’s image in the developing world because he is seen as “one of them.” Yet it is an idea that can not be spoken in an American context where Republicans often ridicule Democratic concern with international reputation, one of several meanings of their theme of “putting the country first.”

We also see a parody of the idea of “predestination,” which as we’ve seen is played more seriously in the McCain campaign biography’s suggestion that he escaped death because God had bigger plans for him. Here, this idea is pushed to its logical extremes with the birth of Obama seen as a cosmic event that will set right the rift between the continents created during the Earth’s formation 180 Million Years Ago. We are told, “a child is born, destined to heal that rift.” Or as the title of the video suggests, in a reference to Jerry McGuire, “He Completes Us.” The Obama campaign often deploys his mixed race background to bring together contradictory views of America. Obama, according to this logic, can embody the “American Promise” because he contains within his family background so many different parts of a multicultural nation. As the narrator tells us, “he was black and white, Christian and Muslim, land mammal and sea creature.” The idea that an early childhood experience might foreshadow later political philosophies is ridiculed here with the suggestion that in working at Baskin-Robbins, he “united an astonishing 31 flavors of ice cream.” And there are later images of blacks and whites, Arabs and Jews, even cats and dogs, embracing, as he delivers his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

And of course, running throughout the video, there’s a spoof of the excesses surrounding praise for Obama’s rhetorical prowese. “Every time Barrack Obama speaks, an angel has an orgasm,” we are told, alongside promises that he will “unite the world” and that “change is coming.” The narrator is unable to contain his excitement about Obama’s speeches, lapsing into profanity which can’t make it onto the air, in his enthusiasm.

John McCain: “Reformed Maverick”

The Daily Show‘s spoof of the McCain video works amplifies certain tendencies within the Republican framing, especially the desire to depict McCain’s youth as one of rebellion against authorities (here transformed into the ongoing motif of Marlon Brando which runs through the video) and acknowledges elements that might be repressed in the official videos (such as his involvement in the Keating scandal or his shifts on many major issues.) The video reminds us that the candidate many Democrats knew and admired in the 2000 election is a very different person than the candidate who is being presented this time around, suggested by the way the video divides his life into “The Wild Years, 1936-2006″ and “Abandoning Everything He’s Always Stood For, 2006-Present.” As the video explains, “if John McCain was going to be president, something would have to give.”

The closing moments of the video illustrate something The Daily Show does very well — raiding the news archive for footage that sheds light on recent statements by political leaders, often catching them in overt contradictions. It’s a pity more mainstream news programs don’t do the same because such juxtapositions can be deeply illuminating about what’s going on in American politics.

There is a fair amount going on here designed to parody the hypermasculine imagery surrounding the candidate’s official self-representation. His military career is framed in terms of recurring images of failure (which sometimes gets reframed as rebellion). So, we are told, “Everyone assumed this son and grandson of admirals would be a star at the Naval Academy. He showed ‘em.” The slow pan down the list of his graduating class, showing McCain at 894, makes fun at the way old documents and family photographs are used to authenticate ideological assertions. McCain is depicted as fighting back “against The Man” by crashing five Navy airplanes, while his fellow servicemen are described as “pussies” for keeping them in the air.

The video treads lightly around his POW experiences, certainly hard targets for humor, but then, it makes fun of the fact that these experiences insulate him from criticism, seeing this “inoculation against all future political attacks” as one of the many awards he was given in recognition of his service, alongside the Purple Heart and a “hotter, richer wife.” The video also suggests his wife’s wealth has also “insulated” him from the harsh realities of everyday lives. Here, the POW is seen as “decorating and redecorating the rooms of ten different imaginary houses,” a reference to a recent moment when he was unable to answer a reporter’s question about how many homes he owned.

Media Literacy advocates have long argued that as we study a piece of media content, we should ask our students to reflect on what it doesn’t show or say, what’s missing from this picture. The Daily Show parodies give us a great resource for doing just this, asking students why the official campaigns would not use such framings to represent their candidates and looking at what gets left out of the official videos.

I hope I’ve inspired some of you to take these materials into your classrooms. I’d love to find out what happens when and if you do so. Drop us a line and share your experiences.

Want to Learn More About CMS?

The Comparative Media Studies Masters Program In-House information sessions are held twice during the Fall semester. They offer an opportunity to ask CMS faculty, research staff, and students any questions that you may have about the masters program and to attend one or more classes or the weekly colloquium.

Please RSVP to Generoso Fierro (generoso AT mit DOT edu) if interested in attending.

Information sessions are held on-campus and online from October through early December.

On-Campus

Thursday, October 2, 2008 9am-7pm

Thursday, November 13, 2008 9am-7pm

Online

Thursday, October 16, 2008 8-10am Eastern Standard Time (Asia)

Thursday, October 30, 2008 2-4pm Eastern Standard Time (Europe)

Previous Information Session Transcripts

Framing the Candidates (Part Two): The Vice Presidential Videos

Last time, I introduced George Lakoff’s argument that the two major American political parties adopt different frames, based on images of parenthood and the family, for understanding the political process: the Strict Father paradigm associated with Republicans and the Nurturing Parent paradigm associated with the Democrats. I applied these two frames to looking more closely at the videos shown at the two party conventions to introduce Obama and McCain to the voters. If anything, the models fit too easily onto those videos, reflecting the degree to which Lakoff has not simply described the rhetoric of the two parties, but perhaps helped to shape them. Both groups knew what they were doing in constructing videos which would appeal more solidly to their bases. And my hunch is that both sides read Lakoff as they sat down to produce the videos.

Yet, Lakoff also makes the point that independent voters may be torn between conflicting understandings of the family and that all of us have within us some elements of the other model which also shapes our emotions and actions. So, we should be looking for the elements which contradict these dominant frames as offering ways that the campaigns might broaden their appeal. Last time, I discussed, for example, how the McCain video uses images of his mother, even the phrase “mother’s boy,” to soften his tough, military-based persona, and how he was able to use images of personal suffering to express both vulnerability and toughness. We see many more such contradictions — or appeals across party — when we look at the videos for the Vice Presidential candidates. Traditional logic is that the VP choice is for charging up your base while the Presidential candidates have to work across party lines. It’s easy to see how this works in the two convention speeches. But I would argue that more bridge building takes place in the videos for the VP candidates than for Obama and McCain themselves.

Keep in mind as you watch that these videos are shorter than those for the top of their tickets and that they were produced under many more constraints. In both cases, the VP choices were announced just a few days before the conventions which means the teams would have had to scramble to pull these together, while the candidate’s own videos were crafted over weeks and probably in planning from the moment they launched their campaigns.

One thing to look out for in these two videos is the role of the music in shaping how we respond to the still images and spoken words. In the case of the Obama video, the music borrowed heavily from Aaron Copeland to give the video a sense of national grandeur and yet to make it a “fanfare for the common man.” The McCain video is much more martial in its tone, helping to establish his toughness and military background. Here, the music tracks are in effect reversed. The Biden soundtrack captures a more forceful tone, while the Palin soundtrack is softer, more wistful. Palin’s music is being used to soften much tougher images and language, allowing her “feminine” side to emerge, even as we are trying to reconstruct the “strict father” model to include the prospect of a “hockey mom” who is like a “pitbull” in lipstick.

Biden and the Nuturing Parent Model

The opening story in this video is used to establish Biden’s toughness: “My Dad used the expression, ‘You don’t measure success on whether or not you get knocked down. It’s how quickly you get back up.’ Because everybody gets knocked down. The measure is in getting back up. That’s the measure of this country. It never failed to get back up.” It’s all here — the appeal to the father who is represented as tough-minded and who demands toughness in his son yet there’s also here the extension of that image to represent the country as a whole. In doing so, there is just a hint of Democratic “nurturing” in the suggestion that “everybody gets knocked down” and the question of what can be done to insure that everyone gets back up. Is this a test of individual character as the story begins or is it a test of the nation’s commitment to its most vulnerable members, as the ending hints?

The most compelling family images here center around Biden as a father: the story of him returning to his son’s bedside following the car crash that killed his wife and daughter and “he never left it.” Here, we see both a suggestion of protection against a harsh world but also the image of nurturing a child who has suffered an emotional loss. There is a strong emphasis throughout the video on the dedication that Biden feels as a father to his children — taking the train back home from Washington every night, always taking their call — as expressed through the testimony of his now adult son. And underlying this is the suggestion that Biden will be a dedicated father to the country. These scenes depend on a post-Feminist conception of the father not as a stern patriarch but as a mutual caregiver. And there’s that warm, fuzzy shot of Biden craddling his young grandchild in his arms, which gives us a vivid picture of his gentle side.

For me, one of the most interesting rhetorical moment here is Biden’s statement: “When you see the abuse of power, you’ve got to speak whether it is a parent slapping around a child or a president taking the nation to war that costs lives that wasn’t a necessary war. That’s an abuse of power.” The move from domestic violence to war, from family to nation, is breathtaking here. We can read the comment as a critique of the stern father model — suggesting that the stern father may also be an abusive father, may not adequately care for his children, may abuse his authority in demanding respect he has not earned. This passage appeals to Democratic anxieties about the patriarchal logic of the Stern Father model. But it also contains the explicit image of another kind of father who cares enough about those who are suffering to stand up to such bullies and defend the weak. Again, there’s just that hint of toughness here which adds some backbone to the images of the nurturing parent. We can also see this as connected with the other image of bullying in the video — the reference to the ways Biden’s classmates tormented him because of his stutter. In this formulation, Biden is someone who has endured pain and humiliation but learned how to stand up to bullies to defend others who might become victims.

Palin and the Strict Father Model

While the “nurturing parent” paradigm is gender neutral, reflecting the reconfiguration of responsibilities within the family and the kinder, gentler conception of the patriarch that it embodies, the “strict father” model gets defined along specifically masculine lines. Lakoff takes his inspiration from James Dobson and Focus on the Family, which sees men and women as playing different and complimentary roles within the family and sees the father as the head of the household. So, the construction of Sarah Palin within the terms of this discourse is a fascinating process. Much has been made among the GOP faithful about how she has retained her “femininity” even as she has broken into the “good Ol’ Boys network,” and the video must somehow suggest this without undercutting the core values the Party wants to attach to their candidates.

This contrast between the models has another implication. While Biden and Obama may stress their partnership, much as husbands and wives are life partners within the nurturing parent model, the Republicans clearly want to subordinate Palin to McCain without undercutting their need to build her up as having the authority and experience to take over from him as president should he die in office. Throughout, she is depicted as a junior version of McCain, as if she was taken from his rib. The opening language of the video, which lists various roles she plays, explicitly mirrors the opening list in the McCain video. McCain, “the original maverick,” (gee, I thought that was James Garner, the star of the 1950s western series, Maverick.), made an “astute choice” when he asked her to join him in Washington as his helpmate. And in the end, she’s described as “Alaska’s maverick” in contrast with McCain who is “America’s maverick.”

But, as others have noted, Palin is probably the most “rugged” Republican to be on a national ticket since Teddy Roosevelt, who also happens to be McCain’s own role model, and so the video wants to wrap her up with the “frontier” myth and thus link Alaska to a broader understanding of the American west. Much of this is carried by the persistent images of the great outdoors, which also serve to reinforce the hints here that she’s an environmentalist, although the kind that likes to shoot and skin moose as opposed to the “tree huggers” and “nature lovers” that Democrats are most often accused of being. Again, we see a form of environmentalism consistent with tough love rather than nurturing. Alaska, here, gains credit for being “the far corner of America,” where-as if we talked about Obama’s Hawaii in such terms, it would be seen as signs that he was “outside” the American “mainstream” and lacked “touch” with “heartland” values. The frontier myth is particularly strong when the video describes her family’s decision to move to Alaska: “attracted to Alaska by its unlimited promise and an environment suited to outdoor adventure.”

And of course, we can’t overlook all of the images here of Palin interacting with service men and women, including the Alaska National Guard, given the emphasis on military backgrounds running through the McCain video. This is another way that Palin gets associated with “strength” even as we are trying to emphasis her status as an average Mom who goes to PTA meetings. But then it’s worth stressing that military images appear far more often in the Biden video than in the Obama video, suggesting the ways that the Vice President is being used to increase the “toughness” of the Democratic ticket.

Reason‘s Jesse Walker has written a very cogent critique of Lakoff’s model, one which reflects upon how difficult it is to understand groups like Libertarians within the framework that it offers.

Framing the Candidates (Part One): A Closer Look at Campaign Biography Videos

George Lakoff’s book, Don’t Think About an Elephant, has been one of the most influential arguments about the nature of American politics to emerge in recent years. Lakoff, a linguist, turned his attention to the “framing” of political discourse. If you want to look more closely at his argument, “A Man of His Words” is an online excerpt which pulls out most of the ideas that are going to interest us here.

Lakoff argues that the Democrats lose elections even though they often have the facts on their side because the Republicans typically frame the debate. Consider for example the ways McCain has transformed the current energy crisis from one which might deal with the environment or economics or alternative energy to one which rises and falls on the question of off-shore drilling. Or consider the ways that the Republicans have deployed terms like “maverick” and “reformer” to distance themselves from the Bush administration. To turn this around, the Democrats need to reinvent themselves — not by shifting their positions but by altering the frame.

As Lakoff explains, “Reframing is social change…. Reframing is changing the way the public sees the world. It is changing what counts as common sense.” Much of the early excitement around Obama was that he seemed to offer the most compelling new way to “reframe” progressive politics and thus offered a way out of failed rhetoric of the past. For some, this is about style over substance or a matter of “just words,” but Lakoff argues that framing is about a structure of ideas that gets evoked through particular words and phrases but has its own deep logic that shapes how and what we think.

In a simple yet suggestive analysis, Lakoff characterizes progressive and reactionary politics in terms of what he calls the Nurturing Parent and the Strict Father frames. According to the Strict Father model, Lakoff writes, “the world is a dangerous place, and it always will be, because there is evil out there in the world. …Children are born bad, in the sense that they just want to do what feels good, not what is right.” The strict father “dares to discipline” his family and supports a president who will discipline the nation and ultimately, the world. According to the progressive “nurturing parent” scenario, “Both parents are equally responsible for raising the children. …The parents’ job is to nurture their children and to raise their children to be nurturers of others.”

Swing voters share aspects of both world views. The goal of politics, Lakoff suggests, is to “activate your model in the people in the middle” without pushing them into the other camp.

We can see this as almost a reverse of old-style Christian doctrine in which the relation of a husband to his wife or a father to his child is supposed to mirror the relations of God to man. In this case, the family becomes a microcosm through which we can understand the relationship of the president to the nation and the world.

This is consistent with an argument that I put forth in the introduction to The Children’s Culture Reader that the Republicans and the Democrats both use the figure of the child as a rhetorical device in talking about their visions for the future of the country, but they understand the family in very different terms. In an analysis of the 1996 GOP and Democratic national conventions, I contrasted Hillary Clinton’s deployment of the phrase “It takes a village to raise a child” with oft-cited Republican images of the family as a “fort” defending its members against a hostile world.

As a teacher, I’ve found that one of the best ways to introduce this important argument to my classes has been to engage in a critical comparison between the official campaign biography videos, shown at the national conventions, and intended to link the candidate’s personal narrative with the larger themes of the campaign. Here, we can see very explicit connections between the ways that the two parties understand the family and the nation. These videos are easy to access on the web and bring into your classrooms.

Over my next three posts, I will look more closely at first the videos for the two Presidential candidates, then the bios for the two Vice Presidential candidates, and finally parodies of these videos produced for The Daily Show. I am hoping that this will provide inspiration for educators who might want a way to talk about the campaigns, the differences between the parties, and the role of media in the process.

First, a few general points. Students often react to these videos when they first see them as if they were documentaries, straight forward presentations of the facts of the candidates’ lives. If Obama and McCain tell very different stories, it is because they led very different lives. And this is of course partially true. The videos mobilize elements from the candidate’s biographies to construct narratives about them which are designed to introduce them to the American people. For many votes, these videos and the acceptance speeches are the first time they are paying attention to these candidates.

Yet, keep in mind the role selectivity plays here — we can’t tell everything about their lives in a short video, so get students to think about what they decide to include and what they leave out of these videos. There’s also the question of framing — what gets said by the candidate, by the people in his or her family, by others, and by the narrator — which helps us to understand this person in specific ways. And then there’s the matter of technique — what kinds of images do we see, what role does the music play in setting the tone for these stories.

I’ve found that these videos work best in a classroom setting where I show them side by side so that the students compare the differences in their approach. On one level, there’s a well established genre here — a general framing, followed by childhood experiences, early career, courtship and marriage, education, national service, early political life, fatherhood and family, and launch of the campaign. These similarities make it easy to see the differences in framing at work. If you are pushed for time, as I was in class the other day, you are better off showing the first 2-3 minutes of each, and then getting the discussion started, than showing one through all the way. It is through the comparison that we really understand how these videos deploy melodramatic devices and images of the family to shift how we think about the candidate’s relationship to the nation.

Obama and the Nurturing Parent Frame

From start to finish, the Obama video is focused on constructing the ideal image of the nurturing parent who will insure the well being of all Americans. The very opening lines of the video already evoke the image of childhood: “It is a promise we make to our children that each of us can make what we want from our lives” and the climax of the video comes when we return to that opening statement and build upon it: “It was a promise his mother made to him and that he intended to keep.” Think about the difference between talking about the “American promise” and the “American dream,” and you know a great deal about the ideological differences between the two parties.

The idea of “empathy” is a central cornerstone of the family as depicted in this video. It emerges most powerfully in the story about Obama’s mother urging him to “imagine standing in that person’s shoes. How would that make you feel.” and again, by the end of the video, this concept of empathy becomes a cornerstone of Obama’s relationship to the nation, as he describes how he remembers his mother as he travels “from town to town.” Empathy runs through the list of values Obama tells us that he and Michelle want to pass down to their children: “hard work, honesty, self-reliance, respect for other people, a sense of empathy, kindness, faith.” And we can see this respect for nurturing and empathy when he talks about the death of his mother, who was “the beating heart” of their family. Indeed, moments when candidates talk about personal losses of family members and loved ones are often potent appeals to the viewer’s own empathy, since many of us feel our common humanity most powerfully through our shared experience of mortality.

And this logic of empathy emerges through the suggestion that Obama knows first hand the suffering and anxieties felt by average Americans: “I know what it’s like not to have a father in the house, to have a mother who’s trying to raise kids, work, and get her college education at the same time. I know what it’s like to watch grandparent’s age, worrying about whether their fixed income is going to be able to cover the bills.”

We can see this last comment as part of a larger strategy in the video to depict Obama’s personal narrative as the “story” of America and his “search for self” as a quest to better understand the nation that gave him birth. As the narrator explains, “By discovering his own story, he would come to know what is remarkable about his country.” And this is an outgrowth of the first thing we are told about his mother, that she knew her son was an American “and he needs to understand what that means.”

This video works hard to combat images of Obama’s background as exotic, as outside the mainstream. There is no reference here to Hawaii and only an implicit nod to the fact that he spent part of his life overseas, even though this last detail has been central to the candidate’s appeal internationally. The focus is on the most “heartland” aspects of his family background — a strong focus on his grandparents who come from Kansas, and their experience of the Depression and World War II. Obama got into trouble for suggesting that some people in rural Pennsylvania were “bitter,” so the video is careful to say that his grandparents were not “complainers.” When it comes time to capture his sense of pride in his country, he tells a story about sitting on his grandfather’s shoulders and waiving a flag at the return of the astronauts.

The representation here of his marriage might be summed up with the old feminist slogan, “the personal is the political.” Michelle describes the moment she fell in love with Barrack: watching him deliver a speech in the basement of a community center in which he spells out “the world as it is” and “the world as it should be.” This story collapses Obama’s hopes for his family and his hopes for his country in a sublime moment of utopian possibilities. Michelle emerges as the ideal arbiter of his political integrity because she can testify that he lives these values through his personal lives.

And the final statement of the “nurturing parent” model comes when Obama tells us, “One person’s struggle is all of our struggles.” The government becomes a mutual support system that looks after its weakest members in a world which is often unjust. The president’s job is to insure that all of his children gets what they need and deserve and that the “American promise” gets fulfilled and transfered to the next generation.

McCain and the Strict Father Model

If the Obama video sets up issues of nurtering and empathy from its first images, suggested by the long panning shots across American faces and a voiceover about the “American Promise,” the McCain video opens with us staring directly into the face of the candidate as a young naval officer, trying to read his character and understand the relationship of this national service to the “mission” ahead. The opening narration starts with descriptions of him as “a warrior, a soldier, a naval aviator, a Pow,” before pulling us down to the family — “a father, a son, a husband”, then into his political career. And then we get that surprising moment when he is called “a mother’s boy,” one suggestion of softness amid a series of hypermasculine sounds, images, and terms. My students suggested that the reference to the mother helps him deal with issues of age and mortality, yet it also seems part of a strategy to manage the negative associations which many independents and Democrats may feel towards the repeated references to his toughness throughout the video.

Strength of character and conviction, coupled with physical toughness as proven through war, are the central virtues ascribed to McCain by the video and they are introduced here once again through the narrative of his family. As suggested by the gender specificity of the “Strict father” construction, the family here, except for the references to the mother, is represented almost entirely through patriarchal bloodlines — again a contrast to the absent father and strong mother image in the Obama video. We learn about his grandfather who died the day he returned from World War II; we learn about his father who ordered the carpet bombing of a country where his son was held captive, even as he waited at the border hoping for his return. When we see him with his son in the opening series of shots, he is standing alone with his offspring on the side of a mountain. Fatherhood is an extension of manhood and it gets expressed through discipline and competition more than through images of cuddling and craddling.

The critical moments here, of course, deal with his Vietnam war experience which require a recognition of vulnerability and weakness even as the larger narrative centers around his toughness and will power. Consider this key description: “Critically injured, his wounds never properly addressed, for the next five and a half years, John was tortured and dragged from one filthy prison to another, violently ill, often in solitary confinement, he survived through the faith he learned from his father and grandfather, the faith that there was more to life than self.”

So, again, we see the passing down of civic virtue through male bloodlines as a central motif in this video. There’s no question that the video constructs these experiences as a form of martyrdom out of which a national leader emerged: “The constant torture and isolation could have produced a bitter, broken man. Instead he came back to America with a smile — with joy and optimism. He chose to spend his life serving the country he loved.” or consider the phrase, “he chose to spend four more years in Hell.” Or the ways the video depicts his role in the normalization of relations with Vietnam — “Five and a half years in their hell and he chose to go back because it was healing for America. That’s country first.” Note this is one of the few places where metaphors of “caring” or “healing” surface in the video and it is specifically in relation to the pain of wartime. A more complex metaphor emerges as Fred Thompson reads aloud a passage from McCain’s autobiography about “living in a box” and ends with “when you’ve lived in a box, your life is about keeping others from having to endure that box.”

This toughness and individualism carries over into the discussions of national policy. McCain doesn’t believe that the country should care for each of its members but rather he has “a faith in the American people’s ability to chart their own course.” He is “committed to protect the American people but a ferocious opponent of pork barrel spending and would do most anything to keep taxes low and keep our money in our pockets.” What is implied by that contrast between “protecting” the public and “pork barrel spending” and “higher taxes”? There is a clear sense that as a stern father he will give us what we really need but protect us from our own baser urges and desires.

While the Obama video distributed its points across a range of different voices, including a large number of women, the McCain video tends to rely on a voice of God narrator who speaks the unquestioned truth about this man and on comments from McCain himself. All of this creates a more authoritarian/authoritative structure where truth comes from above, rather than emerging from listening to diverse voices, and reflects this notion of stern responsibility rather than nurturing.

This centralized discourse is consistent with the videos focus on experience and its tendency to read McCain as “superior” to others — “no one cherishes the American dream more,” for example, but also no candidate has had his experiences in public service. There is an underlying suggestion here of predestination — “McCain’s life was somehow sparred — perhaps he had more to do.” In this case, the hint is that he is fulfilling God’s plan for him and for the country. This issue of predestination resurfaces near the end when the video repurposes some of the core themes of the Obama campaign, including some that McCain has criticized and turns them around, “What a life, what a faith, what a family! What good fortune that America will chose this leader at precisely this time. The stars are aligned. Change will come. But change must be safety, prosperity, optimism, and peace. The change will come from strength — from a man who found his strength in a tiny dank cell thousands of miles from home.”

There’s so much more that we could say about both of these videos and that’s the point. They are great resources for teaching young people to reflect critically on the ways the campaigns are being “framed.” Next time, I will look more closely at the Vice Presidential videos.

Teaching “Ahab”: An Interview with MC Lars

Not terribly long ago, I made a blog post discussing the nerdcore performer MC Lars and his music video, “Ahab,” as appropriations from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

We have been using Lars’s video as a resource for our Teacher’s Strategy Guide for “Reading in a Participatory Culture.” I ended the post with a plea to help me get in touch with MC Lars and it’s a tribute to the network which has emerged around this blog that a little later, I did hear from the performer (and ex-Lit major) who was excited to learn that we were deploying his performance in schools. Since then, MC Lars agreed to respond to a set of questions submitted to him by Rebecca Rupert’s students from Aurora Alternative High School in Bloomington IN. It serves students who have not experienced success in traditional settings. Rupert’s English Language Arts classes are part of the pilot program for our project. I added a few more questions in the mix myself designed to place the students’ questions in a fuller context.

How would you define nerdcore?

To me, nerdcore hip-hop is a genre of music that has lyrical content of things “nerds” would typically be interested in: computers, Star Wars, Final Fantasy, Magic the Gathering, Lord of the Rings, etc. Culturally, nerdcore “trades on” the implied notion that “authentic” hip-hop artists from urban areas spend less time reading comic books and more time “doing drive-by shootings”, hence the instanty novelty appeal of the genre to any one familiar with pop culture. One can also ascertain the implication that nerdcore is “4th generation hip- hop created by 3rd generation hip-hop’s target audience”, as a new generation of thousands of rappers who make beats on their computers can attest. Nerdcore can be viewed as hip-hop created by a generation of artists whose parents may have grown up listening to artists of the genre’s golden age, such as Chuck D, KRS-One, and Eric B & Rakim (much like the punk generation grew up listening to the three chord progressions of the early Beatles and distilled it into a more distilled presentation). If one wants to be cynical and explore how hip-hop has transcended racial and class boundaries, there is an implication that nerdcore is “white hip-hop”, in lack of acknowledgement of its African American cultural roots.

How did you get involved in the movement?

I started out playing guitar in punk bands as a teenager growing up on the Monterey Peninsula. When I started by undergraduate work at Stanford, I was drawn to KZSU, a station that proudly boasts having “the oldest hip-hop show on the West Coast”. One of my projects was to alphabetize the vinyl library of thousands and thousands of records… and this gave me a quick education on every important performer in the first 30 years of hip-hop. I continued writing and performing my rap songs, and when I went to study in Oxford, I made friends with local indie rock bands who asked me to open for them. This led to me getting signed to a British label and everything else that followed. When “nerdcore” became an “authentic” genre in 2003/2004, I looked it up on Wikipedia and saw that I was officially part of the movement. Reading more about it I was happy to have the label as a description of part of what I do.

How do you see “Ahab” as part of the larger nerdcore movement?

There isn’t an MC in the scene who raps about 19th century American literature. I

thought it was time to make waves, so to speak. Nerdcore is an important cultural

phenomenon because it gives voice to people who write songs about things they love, and nerdcore gives license to people to rap about very “un-hip-hop” topics. I enjoyed my literature studies in college and wanted to write a song about one of my favorite books, and because only people with a certain education and understanding will understand what I’m doing, that makes “Ahab” part of the larger nerdcore movement. My hope is to inspire kids to read more Melville and turn off their televisions (after watching my video, of course).

One of the students got very passionate in arguing that mc Chris was better at rapping than you. This raises the question: How do we evaluate appropriations and remixing of materials within nerdcore?

Great question. Chris Ward is a talented rapper with a strong flow whose success can be directly attributed to his voice work for Cartoon Network and his comedic blurring of the line between “real hip-hop culture” and “nerd culture”. He trades on the notion, as mentioned in my response in your first question, that nerdcore is unique in its lacking of songs about “bitches, blunts, and 40’s”. But Chris surprises people with album titles like “Life’s a Bitch and I’m Her Pimp” and songs about recreational drugs, to show that nerds can relate to comedic elements of gangsta rap culture in their own ways. One might argue that he is a better rapper than me because of this, but I would argue that his act plays on elements of mocking African-American culture and verges on being a minstrel show. His voice and grammatical choices emulate African American culture in a way that would make the typical person laugh, this being its primary selling point. We evaluate mc chris’s appropriation of culture by his closeness to “authentic hip-hop” and his use of comedy in the blurring of lines between “gangsta” and “nerd” culture. Other elements for evaluation of appropriation and remixing include musical craftmanship in constructing “beats”, vocabulary, and originality in subject matter in writing lyrics.

Can you share some of your own experiences as a reader of Moby- Dick? When did you first read the novel? Do you consider yourself a fan of Moby-Dick?

I first read Moby-Dick as a Junior in college. My professor Jay Fliegelman taught a class on Melville, and we read Moby-Dick and some of Melville’s shorter stories. I remember being frustrated at first with the slow pacing of the novel, but found myself being drawn into it one chapter at a time. I love the metaphor of the Pequod as a cross section of 19th century American life, with all of the racial and class diversity of American society at the time, and the depth of the characters who reflected different elements of American life during that time. The layers of metaphor and allegorical references are dense, and the footnotes to the Norton Critical Edition were very helpful in discerning the meaning. I am definitely a fan of Moby-Dick, especially because of the overarching theme of mankind’s hubris in the face of Mother Nature’s sublime indifference.

You’ve sung about the so-called “iGeneration” in ways that are very similar to our concept of new media literacies. What do you think this generation is bringing to the culture and what do you see as the relationship of these new ways of thinking to the things we’ve traditionally taught through school?

The iGeneration is the generation that grew up with an innate familiarity with the

internet. Kids can instantly access music by any band, old or new, and can find

information and background info on any film or book ever written through any medium they want. We are used to hyper-stimulation, chatting on AOL instant messenger while

emailing friends while watching a movie while download torrents while updating our

websites. We are used to creating our own niches within the subcultures through which

define ourselves, through Myspace pages of our local bands, or YouTube videos of our

local comedy troupes. But technology has shortened our attention spans as well, to the

point where if we can’t “Wiki” something and understand it instantly, we move on.

Students can now comprehend the world a lot faster than the previous generation, because we are used to old technologies and are adept at using new technologies more quickly. We are used to processing many streams of information at once and are more discerning about the sources and intentions of those preventing the information (.com, .org, .gov etc.). Basically the “iGeneration” is the “information / internet” generation who is bringing new technologies and creative ways of implementing them and has the

responsibility of using their powers to leave the world a better place when we go. With

all of the technology at their disposal, the iGeneration could come together and find

cures for AIDS and for global warming, if we put down the Wii controller and log off of

Myspace for an afternoon. It’s an exciting time to be alive and affecting culture.

What follows are the student’s questions and his responses, including Lars’s advice to teachers who want to engage the “iGeneration” with excitement about traditional literature.

Why did you want to make this video?

To retell Moby-Dick in an engaging and exciting way and to promote my 2006 release The Graduate. With our media-saturated culture, videos are an important way to promote albums and “Ahab” was a fun single from the last record.

How long did it take you to make this video?

I was on tour in Australia for most of June of 2006 when preparation for “Ahab” began, but the set designers and artists spent three weeks creating the sets, ship, and fish costumes. When I got back, we rented a warehouse in Brooklyn and filmed for two hot summer days, from 6 am to midnight. The post-production lasted another two weeks, compositing such scenes as the boat floating in the sea, the transition between the sailors on-deck and below the ship, and and exiting of the whale’s stomach to reveal a cast of students taking bows. The entire project took 6 weeks of very hard work.

Why was it so cheap?

We had a finite video budget of $3,000, which is why the aesthetic differs from a Kanye West video. That’s why it looks “cheap”, or quite conveniently, like a school play.

Why did you put people in fishy costumes?

I made the video to show students how books can help us explore worlds we’ve never been to before. I wanted to bring the world of Herman Melville’s dark tale to light, as done through the eyes of a 4th grade production. Our aesthetic for costume design was that of the feel of 80’s-era PBS learning programs, such as Sesame Street and Reading Rainbow, where the fantasy world of imagination and the real world were brought together with color costumes and low budgets. The entire video was shot in just a few conjoined takes, to give the feel of a live performance. Having kids reenact every aspect of the novel was a pivotal part of the framing device of the presentation is a children’s play for adults, which is why the choreographed dancing in the fish costumes was a key part in the design and presentation. The charm of a grade-school production is meant to help emulsify Melville’s weighty prose.

Why is the whale limpy?

I’d like to have an erudite, complex answer for you, but the truth is that we had a

relatively small service elevator we had to use to get the Moby Dick model up to the

third floor of the warehouse where we shot. Moby was carried by three very patient PA’s on the set, who walked around with walkie talkies and listened as the director Sean

Donnelly shouted directions to them. The tail was originally designed to move up and

down by the people in the costume, but it was snapped in half when we crammed the

costume into the elevator. Hence its unintentional “limpy-ness” – giving it a relaxed,

limp appearance, and perhaps more charm.

What point were you trying to make–were you trying to make fun of Moby-Dick or what was the point behind it?

As a writer, Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope are big influences on my work. Swift

reveals mankind’s shortcomings through his portrayal of the human condition and Pope was a master of the satirical verse and social commentary. Both of these writers were

influences on me as I worked to retell Moby-Dick for a younger audience to remind us that hubris can be deadly, and until we learn that the sublime power of nature is nothing to be tempted, we will be doomed to repeat Ahab’s fate. When I wrote the song in 2005, the Iraq War was in its relatively early stages and many people in the media were comparing Bush to Ahab, a crazed leader in search of the white whale of terrorism, seeking justice in a confused and self-destructive way. It made me think about how relevant the story still was, so I decided to retell the book for a new audience,

updating it with modern references (Steve Wozniak, Supergrass, etc.) and compressed it into a Wiki-Wiki version, the cliff notes version of the cliff notes. It serves as a

warning for future politicians who may become crazed with power, presented in a fun,

catchy way.

How would you teach Moby-Dick to make it fun for students?

Young people have been brought up in a postmodern cut-and-past culture, replete with pop culture references and media saturations. A steady beat and cadence draws listeners in, as they are used to hyper- stimulation. Hip-hop is a very, very effective way to pique students’ interest, in any topic, since it is the platonic manifestation of postmodern culture. I am intrigued by the lineage between Chaucer and KRS-One, a tradition of verse that reflects our struggles and victories as human beings.

As a lesson plan, I would encourage students to read Moby-Dick and find characters with which they identify. I would encourage students to keep an eye open for some of the less famous characters, such as Daggoo or Tashtego. I would then ask them to each write an 8 to 16 line verse that interprets their characters’ experiences in the novel, and ask them to explore how these characters could be translated to a modern context…. either through their similarities to modern celebrities or how they reflect struggles of notably personalities in current events. For instance, Fedallah’s stowaway experiences could shine light on immigration policies, while Pip could shine light on child labor laws or the class struggle.

I would then have students get into groups of three to four people each, bringing their verses together and create a song. I’d ask them to find similar themes between themselves to find a “hook” for the chorus song. They could then think of a lyrical chorus that reflects these similarities between character, and perform the “rap” for the class. Some instrumental beats that could convey the cadences and rhythms of such a translation are as follow:

Hip Hop by Dead Prez

Shook Ones Part II by Mobb Deep

MC’s Act Like They Don’t Know by KRS-One

This would show students how the plights of the characters in Moby-Dick relate to current events, and through an updated presentation of the form, this exercise would also inspire them to find more similarities between works 19th century literature and postmodern life in the 21st century.

Speaking of Geeks

A little while ago, I mentioned that the CMS grad students had been reading The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, in anticipation of a conversation with its author, Junot Diaz. Given the interest this generated for some readers, I wanted to add a pointer to the podcast version of that exchange. Diaz offers a masterful account for why he thinks comics, science fiction, and horror may speak truths that are excluded from official histories or from “serious literature” and explains how his novel was structured in part around borrowings from The Fantastic Four and Dune. Enjoy.

Aca-Fen Raise Their Banners High: Transformative Works and Culture

This week, the first issue of a new online, open source journal, Transformative Works and Culture, emerged, offering what promises to be an exciting new space for the work of my fellow aca-fen. The journal hopes to be a site for important new discussions around fan studies and cult media from a range of different disciplinary perspectives and represents the next logical step in the evolution of fan studies as a legitimate academic field. Kristina Busse and Karen Hellekson serve as the journal’s primary editors.

The first issue includes essays, provocations, interviews, and reviews, featuring some of the smartest young writers working in this terrain, with topics ranging from politics (the relationship between the Obama and Clinton campaigns understood in terms of fan politics), horror, soap operas, digital media, fan labor, intellectual property law, and of course, lots about fan fiction, blogging, and vidding practices.

Think you know what academics have to say about fandom — well, there’s probably at least one essay here certain to provoke surprise, shock, even outrage, and that’s part of the fun. And while they want to provide an academically respectable place for young scholars to publish their work, they also see the site as a point of contact between academic and non-academic fans, anyone who wants to go “meta” about their favorite shows and their followings.

I was honored to be

interviewed in the first issue. Here’s part of what I had to say reflecting back on the “Gender and Fan Culture” conversation we ran on this blog:

What the gender and fan culture debate forced me to think about was that there might be a connection between my new emphasis on the relations between producers and consumers and the more male-heavy, less feminist-focused nature of my new work. I need to be concerned that one group of fans may be gaining visibility and influence while other groups are still being excluded and marginalized. My friend Tara McPherson has noted that in general, gender and race have dropped out of academic discussions of digital media, and we need to find ways to reintegrate them into this work. And so, rising to her challenge, I am working much harder now to try to reengage with issues of gender and sexuality through my work. As I note above, my most recent work is about the exclusions within participatory culture and about the unequal relations between corporations and different kinds of fan communities. I am struggling to reconnect my work on participatory culture with the latest rounds of work in feminist scholarship. Fan scholars should try to acknowledge and address these questions of inequality and exclusion in their work. It’s one reason why I speak so much right now about the participation gap and make the point again and again that a participatory culture is not necessarily a diverse or inclusive culture.

Fandom is certainly not exempt from these concerns. For a long time, as a Star Trek fan, I was concerned that we spoke about “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations,” yet those attending conventions are overwhelming white. I now worry a lot about the generational segregation of fan communities. When my wife goes to Escapade, she hears lots of talk about the graying of fandom and sees far fewer fans who are not middle-aged; when I speak at a Harry Potter con, I am shocked by how young most of the fans are. What does this suggest about the social structures of fandom?

Might something similar be going on with race, where we define what shows count as “fannish” according to a set of criteria that may marginalize or exclude minority participants at a time when the shows watched by most white Americans are rather different from those watched by most minority Americans? Interestingly, reality television has been the point of overlap racially, so it would be interesting to know more about how race operates in the fandoms around reality television. But in most cases, reality fandom is cut off from the fiction-focused fandoms.

Incidentally, gender seems to operate differently within some of these fandoms: younger men and women are interacting more together through Harry Potter or anime fandom than was the case with the highly female-centered fan cultures I observed a decade ago.

We need to be asking hard questions within the fan community about how we define our own borders and how different groups of fans interact. They are also questions we need to ask as academics about how we bridge between different scholarly communities that are studying related topics through different language and that may be breaking down along the lines of gender or race. I hope that OTW and TWC can extend the conversation we started on my blog and build connections to other such discussions taking place in and around fandom. But we are only going to achieve that goal if we embrace the broadest possible understanding of what constitutes fan culture and what models might motivate fan studies research.

Many of those featured here — including Louisa Ellen Stein, Anne Kustritz, Francesca Coppa, Catherine Tosenberger, Sam Ford, and Bob Rehak — were participants in my extended series of dialogues on fan studies last year, but there are many new voices which I had not encountered before as well. Those who read this blog will be pleased to see an interview with

Wu Ming 1 as well as to discover the interesting and provocative collaborative, the Audre Lorde of the Rings.

Here are a few other excerpts from the journal that spoke to some of the topics we’ve been discussing here in recent months:

Francesca Coppa on how Star Trek influenced the origins of fan vidding:

“All of these vids work to heal wounds created by the marginalization, displacement, and fragmentation of female characters like Star Trek‘s Number One, restoring female subjectivity and community by editing together what was put asunder. To be a vidder is to work to reunite the disembodied voice and the desiring body, and to embark on this project is to be part of a distinctive and important tradition of female art.”

Catherine Tosenberger on Supernatural‘s cult status:

Supernatural‘s pedigree gives some clues to its popularity among slash fans. The format of the show links it to classic male-male buddy series such as Starsky and Hutch and The Professionals, both of which have venerable slash fandoms. Moreover, Supernatural shares not only a thematic resemblance but an actor (Jensen Ackles) with its lead-in show, Smallville….In addition, Supernatural is a direct descendant of The X-Files: in addition to similar themes, structures, moods, and styles, the two shows share many writing and production personnel. Supernatural’s most striking inheritance from The X-Files is its focus upon the intense relationship between its two main characters: as critic Whitney Cox (2006) remarks, Supernatural “is fueled past its failings almost entirely by the chemistry between the two principals, the boys who, like Mulder and Scully, generate enough sexual tension to power a small city”. The fact that Sam and Dean are brothers in no way detracts from the slashy vibe. In fact, as brothers, they are given a pass for displays of emotion that masculinity in our culture usually forbids, which intensifies the potential for queer readings. Executive story editor Sera Gamble described her conception of the show as “the epic love story of Sam and Dean” (Borsellino 2006); while she quickly avowed that her comment was made in jest to tease creator Eric Kripke, many fan writers consider her statement to be a perfectly accurate description of the show, and they use their own narratives to explore all the implications of the “epic love story.” These fan-fictional narratives are known as Wincest.”

Rebecca Lucy Busker on how LiveJournal is changing fandom:

LiveJournal … is made up of many interconnected spaces, most of which are focused on individual people. On any given fan’s LiveJournal, she herself is the topic, choosing what to discuss or not discuss. Even LiveJournal communities sometimes serve only as link repositories, taking a reader back to a poster’s individual journal. The impact of this shift has been profound, and in many ways it has served to take the focus off the source and put it on the fan, and in turn, on fandom.

One such impact has been an increasing awareness of multiple fandoms. When LiveJournal was just beginning to overtake mailing lists as a dominant medium, one of the purported benefits was customization of the fannish experience. Simply put, each fan could choose which LiveJournals she did or did not read, and thus which other fans she did or did not read. However, this customization extends only to people, not to topics. Although LiveJournal does allow the creation of custom filters, a given journal can only be on the filter or not. No mechanism for filtering posts on a given topic exists. In concrete terms, a person who reads my journal for my posts about Batman must also see my posts about Supernatural (2005-present), at least for however long it takes her to scroll past them. And that assumes I keep my fandoms in discrete posts. Pressure not to spam one’s friends list with multiple posts (not to mention just our own pressures on time and attention) encourages the posting of several topics in one post. Thus, if I watch Doctor Who (2005-present) and The Middleman (2008) in one night (something more and more likely the age of TiVo and torrents), I might very well comment on both in one post. The fan who wants to see my reaction to the new Who episode will thus at least run her eyes over names like Wendy Watson and Ida.

As a result, fans have an increased peripheral, and sometimes even very specific, knowledge of other fandoms. Indeed, a popular meme that recurs every so often involves posting “what I know about fandoms I am not in.” The results are sometimes humorous, but are also often fairly accurate. There was a time I could perhaps identify one song by *NSync if I heard it on the radio. And yet I knew the names of all the members, I could identify them by sight, and I even knew a few personal details.

If any of this grabs your interest, there’s plenty more where this came from. So, check out Transformative Works and Culture.

The Informal Pedagogy of Anime Fandom: An Interview with Rebecca Black (Part Two)

To what degree are the pedagogical advances you saw simply a product of being motivated to spend more time writing? to what degree can they be traced back to Beta-Reading and Reader Responses providing greater feedback to the writer?

Well, I believe that one of the best ways to learn a new language and to improve your literacy skills is to practice using the language in meaningful, communicative tasks. So, I think that a good amount of the progress that the English language learners from my study made can be attributed to their motivation to write and read fan fiction and related texts. I also think that their success within the fan community allowed them to develop confidence and begin seeing themselves as people who write and use English effectively. For Nanako and Cherry-Chan, this was very different than how they were viewed in school–basically, in school they were seen as students who struggled with all literacy-based (as opposed to Math or Science-based) tasks. So, if you’re constructed as “bad” at something for long enough, after a while you start to believe it. Fortunately, for Nanako at least, her success in the fan community helped her achieve success and popularity as an online author–which in turn provided her with motivation to continue writing and improving her English. Cherry-Chan, on the other hand, used her participation in the fan community to improve her social connections. Still, she used her language and literacy skills to make her own LiveJournal pages, forums, and web sites, and to post reviews of other people’s fictions and to leave comments on other people’s web pages.

In terms of the effect that beta-reading and peer-feedback might have had on their language abilities–it’s important to note that they were both in English classes at school, so I can’t really make any causal statements; however, over the 3 years that I followed her participation, Nanako’s readers very clearly pointed out grammatical errors that she consistently made in her texts. And, she would acknowledge their feedback and then go back and correct her errors. In terms of second language acquisition, this is an important aspect of learning– actually noticing errors and then figuring out how to correct them. For Nanako, sometimes her readers would tell her how to correct the errors, but other times they would simply point out the phrases, sentences, or paragraphs with errors and leave her to figure out how to correct them. In my opinion, I think these activities helped her to improve her English composition skills. Most of the fan fiction authors that I’ve talked with say that their reviewers and beta-readers were definitely responsible for helping them learn to be better writers.

Some argue that the fan fiction world supports literacy skills precisely because it doesn’t operate under the structures and constraints of formal education. These critics would argue that we would destroy what’s valuable here if we tried to integrate it back into formal schooling. Do you agree or disagree with this claim? What, if anything, can traditional educators learn from this affinity space?

I tend to agree that assigning fan fiction in classrooms would probably ruin its appeal for many students. However, other students might really appreciate having fan fiction texts or gaming-related texts available as options for their in-school composing. For example, many adolescents might feel more comfortable mastering the compare and contrast genre if they were able to write about subject matter that they have some expertise in, such as comparing and contrasting the merits of certain video game character classes or using Inuyasha or Harry Potter to discuss character development. Educators can create lesson plans that include or even encourage different options for students to incorporate their extracurricular literacy activities and/or interests in popular media texts into their classroom activities. Educators can also help students make the connections between their in and out-of-school practices. However, I think it ultimately should be up to students to decide to what extent their out-of-school activities will inform or work in concert with school-based tasks.

What do you see as the value of studying the process of fan fiction writing as opposed to studying fan fiction as a series of texts?

Well, one of the primary values that I see in studying fan fiction writing as a process is that it provides a mechanism for understanding the role of audience participation in the creation of texts. All of my focal participants’ received a great deal of feedback from readers–for example, Grace has received around 9400 reviews, Nanako 7600, and Cherry-chan around 650. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had that many people respond to anything that I’ve written, especially not when I was a teenager. Hmmm… on second thought, you probably *have* had that many people respond to things that you’ve written. Anyway, the fan fiction audience often plays a significant role in determining the direction that a text will go in. As you pointed out in Textual Poachers, the audience has a vested interest in the media series, and they have strong opinions about what should and should not happen with the characters. So, they are happy to provide suggestions for how things should go and complaints about how things should not go in a story. Nanako in particular was very responsive to readers’ suggestions about her texts. Sometimes she would incorporate their ideas into the narrative, other times she would go back and revise her chapters based on reader feedback. She would also use her Author’s Notes to explicitly request guidance on certain parts of her texts, and the audience would respond to these requests. So, simply studying her fan fictions as a body of texts would be missing a great deal of the reciprocal interaction taking place as she goes through the process of writing, negotiating with readers, revising, and finalizing her texts.

Traditional notions of literacy have tended to see it in fairly individual and personalized terms. Yet, one could read your book as making a case for social and collaborative notions of literacy. Would you agree?

Absolutely. I think we have this whole focus in classrooms that’s based around “keep your eyes on your own paper,” and testing for what each individual learner knows, and it really stifles a lot of the potential for collaborative learning. Using language to effectively communicate ideas, negotiate perspectives, and even collaboratively complete projects is important for all students, but it’s especially important for English language learners to have these kinds of interactive learning experiences. Through collaborative interaction, they’re able to build on and extend the knowledge that each participant brings to the space. And, they’re able to further develop their own skills and knowledge by using language for authentic purposes in meaningful contexts.

Appadurai suggests that the contemporary imagination is collaborative in nature–that people are growing accustomed to creating and thinking through things in collaborative contexts. We can see examples of this in how many people will post their projects or ideas on a blog or publish their creative texts online and await feedback. It seems to me that this sort of approach to creation and even thought might be a very effective way to come up with robust representations, perspectives, and solutions to difficult problems. So, it may not just be a matter of social and collaborative forms of literacy, but rather a turn towards all sorts of collaborative activities that are facilitated by new media and technologies.

Tell us about the cover of the book. You mentioned to me that it was designed by a fan artist. How did that come about and how did the press respond to working with a fan artist?

Well, after one of my talks, a professor from the audience told me that his daughter was actively involved in the anime fan community, creating fan art and scanlations (which are fan-created translations of Japanese manga) and suggested that I contact her. We stayed in contact a bit over the years, and when I started the book, she seemed like the perfect person to create the cover. I told her about the main themes of the book, and she came up with this fantastic cover with an original anime character actually drawing herself onto the page with a pencil. I thought this had a nice parallel with one of the points I was making in the book–that many of the focal participants were writing different aspects of their identities into their fictions. They weren’t really writing Mary Sue’s, but they did integrate different aspects of themselves and their lives into their fan fiction texts. The series editors, Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel, and the press, Peter Lang, were all very supportive of using this artwork for the cover. I think it speaks to a strong ethos of valuing the communities and the practices that are represented in the text.

Rebecca W. Black is an assistant professor in the Department of Education at the University of California, Irvine. Her research centers on the forms of literacy and social engagement that are emerging in online environments. In particular, Black has focused on the ways that popular culture-inspired environments, such as fan communities, provide adolescent English language learners with opportunities to develop their language skills, establish social connections with global networks of youth, and construct powerful identities as successful authors and knowledgeable fans. Her work has been published in journals such as Reading Research Quarterly, TeacherÂ’s College Record, and the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy. In addition, Prof. Black ‘s book titled Adolescents and Online Fan Fiction was recently published in the Peter Lang series on Digital Epistemologies.

The Informal Pedagogy of Anime Fandom: An Interview with Rebecca Black (Part One)

One of the central animating idea behind the New Media Literacies movement has been the observation that young people often learn better outside of schools — through their involvement in informal communities, such as those formed around fandom or gaming — than they do inside the classrooms. Researchers have sought to better understand these sites of informal learning and the often unconsciously developed pedagogical practices by which they communicate skills and information to newbies. James Paul Gee has used the term, “affinity space,” to describe such sites of grassroots creativity and learning. Kurt Squire and Constance Steinkuehler deploy the “affinity space” concept to talk about communities of gamers. I’ve used the same concept in my discussion of young fan fiction writers.

Rebecca W. Black, one of Gee’s former students, has recently released an outstanding new book, Adolescents and Online Fan Fiction, which uses the study of anime fan fiction as the focus for a consideration of informal learning. Her central focus are on how fandom helps students for whom English is a second language refine their linguistic abilities and sharpen their expressiveness. She argues fandom has allowed many young people — especially those from Asia — to find their voice and gain greater social acceptance because the community is so eager to learn what they know about the cultures where anime is produced and circulated. This book reflects some of the best thinking in the current field of educational research on the value of participating in popular culture and will be of interest to parents, educators, policy makers, and fans.

I had a chance to meet Black some years ago when she was at the beginning of her research; my early conversations with her and with Gee helped to inform my own writing about “Why Heather Can Write” in Technology Review and Convergence Culture. I am proud to share her insights through the following interview.

The central claim of your book is that the practices and processes around the writing and sharing of anime-related fan fiction show many of the signs of a very robust and effective learning community. What aspects of fandom do you think support this kind of learning?

Well, for one I think that the openness and scope of the fan community really fosters learning. And, I should clarify that I don’t just mean traditional school-based forms of learning but rather learning in a broad sense. For instance, in terms of openness, you don’t have to pass any kind of a test, and there aren’t any requirements for gaining access to all the sections of Fanfiction.net. Therefore, youth at all different skill levels have the opportunity to tackle any sort of communication or writing task that they choose. However, in schools the activities that students participate in are often determined by ability level. And while I think it’s important to make sure that curricular materials are accessible, I also think that lessons are often oversimplified for certain groups of students, such as English language learners (ELLs) and struggling writers and readers, to the extent that these students aren’t offered many opportunities to use language in rich and creative ways or to participate in challenging literacy activities. In contrast, ELL youth participating in the fan community often take on challenging tasks, such as writing stories with multiple chapters or creating their own fan-based websites. In addition, they’re able to draw on an array of resources in the community for support. Other fans are available and happy to peer-review their fictions, they visit other websites to receive tips on how to compose their texts or to build their websites, to name just a few examples. Interestingly enough, schools often seem to discourage activities with these distributed forms of knowledge and resources, instead focusing on testing for what students have “inside their heads”. However, I think it’s just as important to recognize, evaluate, and help develop students’ strategies for learning, collaborating, and accessing knowledge that they don’t already possess, as this seems to be much more aligned with what we do as adults. I mean, I don’t know all sorts of things, but I have pretty good strategies in place for finding them out.

You deploy James Paul Gee’s concept of an “affinity space” to talk about FanFiction.net. Can you explain this concept and share some of your thinking about FanFiction.net?

Well, this is related to the previous question. For Gee, there are several defining features of affinity spaces that make them particularly effective sites for informal learning, and many of these features can be seen in fan fiction writing communities. For example, one defining feature is that experts and novices participate in the same areas and activities in affinity spaces. So, as I mentioned previously, novices aren’t prevented from engaging in creative activities that they find interesting, even if these activities are challenging for them. And, through working in the same space as experts, novices are able to benefit from this exposure, by asking questions, collaborating, and by observing how experts go about certain tasks.

Another defining feature of affinity spaces is that they are organized around a common interest or goal rather than around age, socio-economic status, ethnicity, gender, or ability. One of the ways that this is really salient in anime fan fiction communities is in how they provide points of contact for individuals from diverse backgrounds. For example, the participants in my study had people from over 20 different countries reading and leaving feedback on their stories. I used to write fan fiction when I was younger, and the only people who read my stories were my closest friends who lived in the same town, went to the same school, and had similar backgrounds. And even they only saw the stories that I wasn’t too shy to show them. Publishing on the web wasn’t really an option back then. But now, the internet really provides unprecedented options for either anonymously (or somewhat anonymously) sharing content, and for exchanging information and ideas with people from all over the world. As one example, if a fan fiction writer wants to write a story that’s based on high school students in Japan, s/he can post questions to a fan fiction forum asking for specifics about what everyday school and home life is like in Japan, and s/he can be pretty sure of getting some accurate responses from audience members who currently are living or have lived in Japan. And, the diverse and networked nature of affinity spaces also opens up a space for youth to discuss different culturally grounded practices and perspectives. For instance, one of my focal participants wrote a story that involved an arranged marriage between cousins. Now, this arranged marriage wasn’t even a big part of the story, but it was something that several of the readers reacted pretty strongly to. Her response to this was to write a couple of fan fiction stories that focused on anime characters and their arranged marriages as part of a cultural practice that is grounded in familial duty. This was her way of pushing some of these readers to move beyond their limited scope of knowledge and learn more about a practice that is very common in many parts of the world.

These points of cultural connection also are providing many youth with the incentive to learn different languages and to find out about different cultures. I think this is related to the “pop cosmopolitanism” that you discuss in your book Convergence Culture. Many anime-based fan fiction texts are linguistically hybrid, in that they contain more than one language, and, as I mentioned previously, they’re often set in Asian countries. But, it’s important to note that this isn’t limited to anime communities and Asian elements. Fan fiction authors use many different languages and cultural elements to enhance their stories. Sirpa Leppanen has some interesting insights into these hybrid language practices in the article “Youth language in media contexts: Insights into the functions of English in Finland”. I think that reading and trying to write these hybrid texts creates a cosmopolitan sensibility and a culture of interest in learning about new things. For example, online anime translation dictionaries have become very popular; there are forums specifically for fan fiction authors trying to do historical and cultural research to make their narratives more accurate; there are discussions about the historical, cultural, and linguistic accuracy of fan fiction narratives taking place between authors and reviewers on fanfiction.net. And these are just a few examples that come immediately to mind. On a related note, Eva Lam has pointed out that these points of contact in online communities don’t necessarily or automatically bring about empathy and acceptance, and the previous example about arrange marriages clearly supports this. Still, I think that the shared interest of the affinity space provides unprecedented exposure to other linguistic and cultural traditions that just wasn’t available before, and exposure is the starting point for moving toward understanding.

What led you to an interest in fan fiction as a space for understanding informal learning?

Well, I was actually a fan fiction writer as a child. It started when I read Tolkien’s trilogy for the first time. I was pretty upset that Arwen Evenstar had to give up her immortality to be with Aragorn. So, I came up with my own version of how this part of the story might go. I’d rather not go into detail about that particular fic, but I’ll at least say that it involved a magic immortality potion and a bird carrying letters back and forth between Middle Earth characters. Unfortunately, I didn’t really have any friends who were interested in this sort of writing; they were more interested in television and MTV, so I gradually abandoned these writing activities for others. Almost 20 years later I went to UW Madison to work on my doctorate with Jim Gee, and I started looking at the literacy practices of fans in gaming communities. This led me to online fan fiction, and to be honest, I was pretty excited to find that there were so many people like me, writing their own versions of popular texts. Also, my background is in linguistics and teaching English as a second language, so I became particularly interested in the communities where non-native English speakers were composing and interacting in English. At the time, there was very little discussion of fan fiction in relation to literacy–in fact, I think that only Kelly Chandler-Olcott & Donna Mahar and you had even remotely touched on the literacy aspect. So, I decided that a dissertation based on English language learners and online fan fiction might help us to understand how this literacy phenomenon might be impacting immigrant youth’s literacy development and language socialization and providing a significant venue for informal learning.

You offer detailed accounts of how and what several young fans learn through their participation in the world of fan fiction. How was the world of fan fiction able to facilitate and support their different goals and styles as learners?

My focal participants were all in very different situations as English language learners, and they had very different goals for and outcomes from their participation in the site. For example, Grace lived in the Philippines, and she learned English as a third language there. Most of her experience with English had been in writing academic texts in her classrooms. In an interview, she explained that participation in fan sites helped her learn how to “speak American” and that made her feel more comfortable developing the texts for her own websites and interacting with people online. So, for Grace, the value of writing these texts in English was that it provided her with feedback and input on how to “Americanize” her existing English skills. Nanako, on the other hand, didn’t learn English until she moved from China to Canada with her family when she was about 11. She used to start many of her fictions with an Author’s Note explaining that she was just learning English and really wanted to improve her language and writing skills. And, the audience was pretty receptive to this. They would comment on her grammar and spelling errors, but in supportive or constructive ways. Some readers would give her very specific feedback on grammatical errors that were common in her writing, and she would take note of this and actually go back and correct these errors in her writing. The audience also would give her a lot of positive feedback about her plotlines which helped bolster her confidence enough to continue writing in spite of her early struggles with grammar and spelling. As a very different example, another focal participant, Cherry-chan, found it taxing to write the sort of long, narrative texts that Grace and Nanako would write (for example, Grace has one fan fiction that’s 30 chapters long, and Nanako has one that’s 14 chapters long). So, she got into Role Play (RP) Writing, which is a type of fan fiction that takes place on a synchronous medium such as instant messenger. RP writers will take on the personas of different characters and then take turns constructing the narrative from each character’s point of view. Cherry-chan liked the social aspect of this collaborative kind of writing. RP writing also gave her immediate feedback on how her co-author was responding to her text, and it more or less forced her to continue writing.

Angela Thomas has done some interesting work interrogating adolescents’ identity construction in RP writing that helped me think about how this form of composition was a way for Cherry-chan to extend her social relationships and use the anime characters to “ventriloquate” some of her own identity issues and perspectives. I think this is a common element of both RP and traditional fan fiction– in that the authors use the characters to represent issues that they are struggling with in their own lives. As one example (that might be a little bit off topic), while I was conducting my study, I came across a “suicide fic” in which the teenage author depicted the anime protagonist committing suicide. The author concluded this fiction with an Author’s Note stating that this would be his final story. Basically, he was implying that he was considering suicide himself. What was so powerful about this event was the outpouring of support he received from the audience of readers. There were youth and young adults alike offering up supportive advice, encouraging him not to give up, and providing their instant messenger addresses so that he could contact them at any time when he felt like giving up. Now, I’ve had some people ask me if it was actually harmful to have all these untrained people offering this young man encouragement and wouldn’t it be better for him to reach out to a suicide hotline or a counselor where someone trained in such matters could help? This is where I think the affinity space aspect of fan communities comes into play again. Specifically, I think a lot of youth who are in crisis might have a difficult time approaching total strangers with whom they have nothing in common. However, in the anime fan community, they feel at least some point of affiliation and contact with the people that they’ve been sharing stories and feedback with. This might make it easier for them to reach out within the affinity space where they feel comfortable, when they might otherwise not reach out at all.

Rebecca W. Black is an assistant professor in the Department of Education at the University of California, Irvine. Her research centers on the forms of literacy and social engagement that are emerging in online environments. In particular, Black has focused on the ways that popular culture-inspired environments, such as fan communities, provide adolescent English language learners with opportunities to develop their language skills, establish social connections with global networks of youth, and construct powerful identities as successful authors and knowledgeable fans. Her work has been published in journals such as Reading Research Quarterly, TeacherÂ’s College Record, and the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy. In addition, Prof. Black ‘s book titled Adolescents and Online Fan Fiction was recently published in the Peter Lang series on Digital Epistemologies.

DJ Le Clown Rocks the Total Recut Contest

A while back, I posted an interview with Total Recut’s Owen Gallagher to publicize their video competition around the theme, “What is Remix Culture?” I had been asked to join a panel of judges ranging from intellectual property expert Lawrence Lessig to fan vidder Luminosity in assessing the finalists in the competition. This weekend, Total Recut announced the winners of the contest and I wanted to give a shout out to the finalists here.

The First Place prize went to DJ Le Clown for his haunting and hypnotic Xmas in New York City. In his artist’s statement, the DJ writes:

I’m a perfect product of the TV generation. I was raised with TV; through it I discovered cinema and music. I think cinema is now old enough to become an international langage – maybe the strongest one, along with music and painting.

Hazards of life led me to be a musician, and each song or piece of music I created brought images into my mind. Then came the computers time, that gave anybody – through the screen again – the opportunity to create whatever they could imagine.

3 years ago I started to work on “Mashups” ; it consists of melting songs from differents horizons together. I must confess that I first considered “Mashups” or “Bootlegs” as the most vulgar form of music possible, before I realized – trying it myself – that it was another way of giving songs a kind of second chance…A second life.

Songs (especially since they’re recorded) are like Movies – somewhere a kind of lifes trap, and the good one always survive their creators…so as I decided to make videos for each of my tracks to play them live, it was natural for me to use any image sources I wanted – movies, the artist’s images, of course, but also TV series, shows, commercials – well all bits of what I consider like our common cultural backup, and that you can now find easily on the web!

I really think that all of these belong to us – from Popeye the Sailor Man to David Vincent and Dracula or Dr Mabuse; it’s now part of our culture ; like a bank of symbols anyone can use to express his own ideas.

His video starts with fairly comforting images of Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra sharing egg nog and talking about the Yuletime season. Before the video is over, Sinatra’s “Santa Clause is Coming” begins to feel more like a warning than a promise. The soundtrack samples and remixes Sinatra with AC/DC, The Rolling Stones, Benzio and the Pogues while the visual track creates complex layers and juxtapositions drawn from music videos, old Christmas specials, and disaster films. There is an unnerving suggestion of dystopian or appocalyptic futures awaiting us as Santa descends on New York City, such that the snowflakes normally associated with Christmas carry hints of nuclear fallout or cataclysmic climate change, depending on what your generation is and what you’ve been taught to fear. As one of the judges notes, the video may go on a tad too long but it never the less creates its own aesthetic through both sound and images which suggests how we may plow through the image banks and sound files of the past to give them new life through remix culture.

The Second place winner, Jata Haan’s Composition, is perhaps even more original and provocative in its approach, but it is not as self contained and depends more heavily on its written statement to achieve its full effect. As she explains:

For my first experiment in remix video I wanted to create a short work entirely from creative commons licensed media, with an aim to simply illustrate the vast amount of this content that is available online, and the potential for using it in creative ways. I was also very interested in demonstrating the opportunities that remix culture combined with the Internet present for collaborative work, which for me reflects exciting new ways of communicating and interacting globally. I chose the Sydney Opera House as the subject of my piece not only for it’s connection with my homeland, but also for it’s iconic appearance and the amount of material available online. This short video was made possible through the use of creative commons content (with an attribution or attribution share-alike license) from more than 100 individuals, which when remixed together brings to life this beautiful building in a unique composition.

This is a fascinating experiment in collaborative authorship: the filmmaker is able to integrate snap shots produced by a range of photographers to create a continuous flow of images of the Sydney Opera House seen from many different angles. The use of retro sounds of slide and super 8 projectors adds to the effect of a home movie, although in this case, the film is actually a composite of snap shots taken by a range of amateur photographers. It suggests the way remix allows us to bridge between personal and collective memory.

Many of the other videos in the competition are worth visiting as well. Each of the finalists has something to recommend them and taken as a whole, the videos give us a snap shot of the current state of remix culture. When I agreed to judge the competition, I had expected to see documentaries which explicitly addressed the politics and poetics of remix culture — and some of the finalists do that more or less — but in the end what impressed me about the top place videos was how they embodied the expressive potential of remix and suggested rather than stated the opportunities for collaborative production embodied in these practices.

Youth, New Media Literacies, and Civic Engagement

Editor’s note: I wrote this post originally for the Knight Foundation’s Idea Lab blog where it appeared earlier this week. It has generated enough interest there that I figure it would also be relevant to my regular readers here.

This fall, I am going to be teaching a course on New Media Literacies and Civic Engagement, which is designed to help facilitate conversations across two of the projects we run through the Comparative Media Studies program: the Center for Future Civic Media, funded by the Knight Foundation as a collaboration with the MIT Media Lab, and Project NML (New Media Literacies), which is funded by the MacArthur Foundation. My goal in the class is to systematically explore a rapidly expanding body of literature which deals with the ways that new forms of “participatory culture” are impacting how young people think about themselves as citizens and community members. Most of this material is available online and so I wanted to share with you some pointers in hopes that it may help spark larger conversations around these issues.

I plan to open the course with reflections on the current presidential campaign season, the role of both old and new media, and signs of increased voter registration and activity by young Americans. To set the stage, I am having my students read from several recent news stories on the campaign, including:

David von Drehle, “The Year of the Youth Vote,” Time , Jan. 31 2008.

David Talbot, “How Obama Really Did It,” Technology Review, September/October 2008,

Marc Ambinder, “HisSpace,” The Atlantic, June 2008

In the first class session, we will be looking at the images constructed around the two candidates through their advertising, websites, and official biography videos. The best online resource for these materials is realclearpolitics, a site which aggregates recent media coverage of the campaigns, including collecting current political advertising. I plan to discuss the roles which YouTube played early in the campaign season, a topic which I discuss in a new “afterward” to the recently released paperback edition of Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. And I plan to explore the ways that the McCain campaign is taking aim at Obama’s blurring of the lines between popular culture and politics, a topic I addressed in a recent post on my blog. We also will be placing these materials in a larger historical context by looking at earlier forms of political advertising. You can find such materials through the Living Room Candidate, an archive created by the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, NY, and through Project Look Sharp’s curricular materials on studying presidential campaigns.

From here, the course will progress across a range of related topics including:

  • New Media Literacies
  • Civic Engagement
  • Youth as Cybercitizens
  • Digital Ethics
  • Is There a Digital Generation?
  • Children’s Fiction and the Fiction of Childhood
  • Expression and Participation
  • Games and Virtual Worlds
  • Collective Intelligence and Social Networks
  • Identity and Community
  • The Digital Divide and the Participation Gap

The only full book we are reading is Cory Doctorow’s recent young adult novel, Little Brother, which deals with the politics of cyberactivism and homeland security. Check out my blog post on this important novel.

We will also be reading extensively from the recently published Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives, written by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser from Harvard’s Berkman Center.

We will also be drawing extensively from the new books, recently released by the MIT Press and the MacArthur Foundation, as part of their Digital Media and Learning Series — Civic Life Online;Digital Media, Youth and Credability; Digital Youth, Innovation, and the Unexpected; The Ecology of Games; Learning Race and Ethnicity; Youth, Identity and Digital Media. All of these books are available online for free access and they include work by many of the most important contemporary thinkers on youth and media literacy.

I also anticipate working with the report out from an extensive ethnographic study of young people’s online lives being conducted by Mimi Ito, Barrie Thorne, Michael Carter, and an army of graduate students from USC and Berkley; this document will be released later this term, but you can read about the research.

For a counter perspective on many of these issues, my students will also be reading from Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30).

And I will be having students look at parts of Ben Rigby’s Mobilizing Generation 2.0. I recently interviewed Rigby for my blog.

Throughout the course, we will be looking at a range of recent white papers which offer cutting edge perspectives on these issues, including:

And we will be eagerly awaiting the report soon to be issued by the Pew Center on the Internet & American Life which deals with the ways young people’s experiences as gamers might impact their lives as citizens.

Along the way, we will be exploring two significant PBS documentaries, both of which can now be accessed online — Growing Up Online and By the People: Citizenship in the 21st Century

The Center will also be hosting two public events through the MIT Communications Forum this fall focused around the Presidential Campaign and the role of media. You can find out more information about these events and hear podcast versions of previous Forum events here.

I hope to offer some more reports on the class and how it is informing our work at the Center for Future Civic Media in the weeks ahead. But I’m hoping the above may introduce you to some materials you might not know about otherwise.