Capturing Cosplay: The Photographs of Brian Berman (Part Two)

Editor’s note: this is my last post for 2008. I will be back after the start of the new year.

Last time, I shared with you a series of photographs of Furry fans taken by Brian Berman and encouraged us to reflect a bit on what they show or fail to show us about this particular subcultural community. To me, these photographs speak to a core issue in fan studies: the question of how we position ourselves vis-a-vis the subjects of our research. Put in its broadest terms, we see different things and say different things if we are writing about a community which we are a member of than when we are dealing with that same community as an outsider.

Brian is very explicit in his artistic statement and in his bio that while he is fascinated by these fan communities, he looks at them as an outsider, a non-participant. This does not mean that his photographs are necessarily hostile to the communities being depicted, but they do, to some degree, hold these fans at a distance. This is the strength of the images in many ways, but it is also what may make them more than a little disturbing to some of us who claim a much closer set of social and emotional ties to fan communities.

By way of contrast, I thought we might look at some of the videos we’ve been producing about Cosplay for Project New Media Literacies’s learning library project. These videos, filmed at an anime convention in Ohio, reflect a perspective much more sympathetic to the fan experience. Indeed, many of the students who worked with us on these videos were themselves anime fans and some of them had a long history of cosplay. Our goal was precisely to escape the outsider perspective of many commercial documentaries about fans, to treat cosplay as a normal and valued mode of cultural expression, and to hopefully introduce these practices to young people who may not have found their way into the cosplay community before.

These photographs were taken by Brian Berman at Onnafest, Newark Gateway Hilton, Newark, NJ 2005.

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Anime Family

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Chris

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Mark and Holly

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Rebekah as Avian Firefly

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Patricia, Callie & Sonya

Brian Berman was born in New York City in 1971 and grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey. After graduating from both the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and the School of Visual Arts in NYC he started shooting professionally in New York in 1996. He shoots for, and has been featured in, publications such as the New York Times, Esquire, Ojo de Pez, and Capricious Magazine. He has also been featured in shows at the Houston Photo Festival and Wallspace Gallery. The project featured here is part of larger project about how people fulfill a basic human need to fit in by creating their own subcultures. He does not watch anime or own a fursuit.

Letting the Fur Fly: The Photographs of Brian Berman (Part One)

A month or so ago, I got e-mail from Brian Berman, a photographer who often works with fannish subjects. Here’s part of what Berman shared with me about the trajectory of his work:

Several years ago I was watching a television report about a group of men who get together once a year, show each other their vacuum cleaners, and then race the vacuums against each other to see who can pick up the most dirt. I was immediately riveted, for obvious reasons, and then rushed to contact the president of the club. I was convinced I had to photograph them. Two months later, while flying back from Los Angeles after having done the shoot, I knew I was on to something. Since then I have been to quite a few conventions/competitions (About fifteen or so). Some of the others include Taxidermy, Furry, Cosplay, Ventriloquism, Dog Disco etc. In the summer of 2007 I photographed at Anthrocon in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and the fall prior at Onnafest in Newark, N.J. These events are represented by the photos here. I really enjoyed these events and photographing the people that attend them.

The subculture that the participants created is extremely fascinating and something which I admire. It is as if it’s their second family. It is an environment where people can create a new visions of themselves and find a place to fit in. At home they live their normal lives, and maybe they aren’t happy with that, but at the furry convention they are a sexy tiger skunk or a vicious wolf. At a Cosplay convention they possess super hero powers. They can see through walls and leap over tall buildings. For the other 362 days of the year they exist anonymously on the periphery of their high school or at their jobs or within society in general. But, on that one weekend a year when the convention happens, they can be something completely different.

These photos act as a simple catalog of these unique events, the people that attend them and the worlds they have created.

Brian was willing to let me share these images with the readers of my blog.

I’ve struggled a lot with my own reactions to these images, which sometimes strike me as haunting, sometimes comic, sometimes highly sympathetic to the subjects and sometimes coldly distanced. I am very much reminded of the work of Diane Arbus, who similarly adopted an almost clinical gaze upon subjects who are often considered “freaks” or “outcasts.” Arbus’s work continues to evoke controversy because it is often hard to tell what she feels towards the people she photographs, but the very nature of being photographed by Arbus pushes these people from the fringes of society towards greater visibility. Arbus’s photographs invite us to take a second look and in some cases, to see ourselves in people who otherwise would not garner that attention.

My sense is that Berman’s photographs will spark debates among aca-fen and I see that debate as potentially very productive. Technically, these photographs are beautifully constructed and each one shows us a distinctive human personality underneath the costumes. Does the objective gaze of the camera necessarily leave us trapped outside or is it possible for us to see some of ourselves in these people? Do these images estrange us from these Furries (featured today) or Cosplayers (featured next time)? Or do they allow us to recognize the creativity and craftsmanship of their work, the ways that they draw together personal mythology to move beyond the more mundane aspects of their everyday lives? What do you see when you look at these images?

Today’s images were taken at Anthrocon 2006 in Pittsburgh Convention Center, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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Dehner and Tank

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Firehopper

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Fisk Black and Shane LaFleur

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Phoenix D

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Smash

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Zig Zag

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Lucy

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Lucky Dog

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Moonshadow Luna

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Silk Paws

Brian Berman was born in New York City in 1971 and grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey. After graduating from both the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and the School of Visual Arts in NYC he started shooting professionally in New York in 1996. He shoots for, and has been featured in, publications such as the New York Times, Esquire, Ojo de Pez, and Capricious Magazine. He has also been featured in shows at the Houston Photo Festival and Wallspace Gallery. The project featured here is part of larger project about how people fulfill a basic human need to fit in by creating their own subcultures. He does not watch anime or own a fursuit.

From Neil Gaiman to J. Michael Straczynski: News on the Julius Schwartz Lecture Series

Late last spring, we held the first in what we hope will be a continuing series of Julius Schwartz Memorial Lectures at MIT. Schwartz had been a founding figure in science fiction fandom and a influential editor at DC comics who was a key influence on the so-called Silver Age of American comics and on genre entertainment more generally. When he passed away, some of his friends put together seed money for us to start a series of public talks by key figures in the space of comics, science fiction, and genre entertainment.

Our first speaker, appropriately enough, was Neil Gaiman, whose work spans comics (The Sandman), fiction (American Gods), cinema (Mirrormask), television (Neverwhere), the blogosphere, and much much more. Gaiman gave a memorable opening lecture on the nature of genre and its influence on the creative process, which is best known for an extended rift on how pornography and musicals follow similar conventions. It was inspired by Linda Williams’ Hard Core, but Gaiman took it in his own idiosyncratic directions. As the evening continued, we had a great conversation, which ranged across his career, talked about some of the key themes in his work, and especially dug deep into his ideas about myth, storytelling, and popular entertainment. Anyone whose ever heard Gaiman knows he’s a charming and engaging speaker with lots of interesting insights into cultural history and media theory.

In this excerpt from the event, Gaiman talks about his “pulp roots” and his ongoing relationship to genre entertainment

And here, Gaiman talks about the “dark” qualities of his children’s fiction:

Gaiman was consistently this witty, engaging, and intelligent for the entire evening!

Too bad you weren’t there!

Well, the good news is that CMS and New England Comics are offering you the chance to order a DVD of the Neil Gaiman lecture and discussion with most of the proceeds going to help fund future events in the Julius Schwartz Lecture series. You can order your very own copy here for ONLY $19.99.

We are already making plans for the second lecture in the series to be held on May 22nd at 7pm in Kresge Auditorium. Tickets will go on sale early next year.

This year’s speaker is another transmedia creator – J. Michael Straczynski. Straczynski is best known for his role as the creator of the cult science fiction serial Babylon 5 and its various spin-off films and series. Straczynski wrote 92 out of the 110 Babylon 5 episodes, notably including an unbroken 59-episode run through all of the third and fourth seasons, and all but one episode of the fifth season. His television writing career spans from work on He-Man, She-Ra, and Real Ghostbusters through to The New Twilight Zone and Murder She Wrote. He followed up Babylon 5 with anothe really solid science fiction series, Jerimiah. In more recent years, he’s enjoyed success as a screenwriter, most recently writing the script for The Changling, Clint Eastwood’s period drama, and as a comic book writer, who both works on established superhero franchises, such as Spider-Man, Supreme Powers, Fantastic Four, and Thor, and creates his own original series, such as Rising Stars, Midnight Nation, The Twelve, The Book of Lost Souls, and Dream Police. He was one of the first television producers to actively engage his fan community online and has consistently explored the interface between digital media and other storytelling platforms.

This January, CMS will be hosting a screening series some key episodes from his television work, intended to revive awareness of the extraordinary contributions Straczynski has made to the evolution of American television.

I thought I would share her a passage from my forward to Kurt Lancaster’s 2001 book, Interacting with Babylon 5: Fan Performance in a Media Universe, which spells out some of the cultural and historical significance of Straczynski’s series:

Midway through Babylon 5‘s first season, in an episode called “And the Sky Full of Stars,” Security Chief Michael Garibaldi picks up a copy of the newspaper Universe Today and the camera quickly pans over the various headlines on the cover. Some of the headlines refer to narrative issues raised on previous episodes; others introduce issues and topics that will surface more directly in subsequent episodes. What initially might seem like a throwaway detail — a character reading a newspaper — becomes an important turning point when we return to it for a second viewing. Of course, these headlines are only fully decipherable if you freeze-frame the image for closer scrutiny, and their full importance was made clear only through the ongoing Net and Web discussions of the series.

For me, this moment is emblematic of why Babylon 5 was such a remarkable experiment in television storytelling. First, it reminds us of the elaborate narrative planning that went into the production of the series. J. Michael Straczynski understood television as a long-form storytelling medium, and he planned and developed the basic story arc for all five seasons before the first episode was produced. His careful calculations certainly left him room to respond to shifting conditions (ranging from the loss of cast members to the perpetual threat of premature cancellation) and offered space for one-shot episodes. Such long-range planning also enabled him to build into the series elaborate foreshadowing and references to its history episode by episode. Not many television producers could have built plot details for the second season into a mid-first season episode.

Second, this moment suggests the degree of self-consciousness about media that ran through Babylon 5. The series’ characters inhabit a world profoundly shaped by the flow of news and information across various channels of communication. They read about events that affect them in the newspaper or watch them unfold on television. They give interviews to reporters, and we watch as what they say is distorted to serve various agendas. They grumble over attempts to merchandise their identities as part of the ongoing propaganda and public relations warfare that shapes the complex intergalactic politics at the center of the series.

Third, the fact that these details are burried within the text, waiting to be discovered by the tacticla use of the VCR as an analytic tool and the collaborative efforts of Net discussion lists, points to the awareness and exploitation of fan competencies that transformed Babylon 5 into one of the most significant cult television programs since Star Trek. Like Star Trek‘s Gene Roddenberry, Straczynski understood the fans to be central to the program’s success from the outset. Straczynski saw his fans as a group of opinion leaders to be courted through prebroadcast publicity and convention appearances, as a group of niche marketers and activist whose support could keep the program on the air during the rough times, and as students in an ongoing classroom where he could share his views about the production process and the aesthetics of television storytelling. Straczynski’s relationship with fans was rocky. He was worshiped for his extraordinary productivity and personal vision and feared for his slashing flames in response to some fan comments. He at once sought to facilitate fan discussion and regulate fan speculations to avoid potential intellectual property issues. Yet whatever that relationship with his audience became, Straczynski sought to use digital media to directly and personally engage them, not just occasionally, but week in and week out.

Straczynski sought to validate the new styles of reading and interpretation that have been facilitated by the shifting media environment. The introduction of the videotape recorder and the Internet has significantly altered the informational economy surrounding American television. It is significant that Stephen Bochco’s Hill Street Blues (1981-1987) was the first major success story of the videotape era and that David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (1990-1991) was one fo the first new cult television series to develop an important Internet following. These series, with their ever-more-elaborate use of story arcs and program history, rewarded a viewer who carefully scrutinized the images using the freeze-frame function, who watched and rewatched the episodes on video tape, and who used the Internet as a vehicle for discussion with a larger interpretive community and the Web as a means of annotation. The succession of new media technologies since the late 1970s has encouraged the emergence of a culture based around the archiving, annotation, transformation and recirculation of media content.

Straczynski’s genius was in recognizing the shape and potential of that new culture and in producing a science fiction series that rewarded these participatory impulses. He trusted his audience to ferret out information craftily hidden within the text, awaiting our discovery; he trusted the audience to make meaningful connections from episode to episode and season to season; he trusted the fans to be invested enough in the series to watch his ambitious story unfold and flexible enough in their understanding to cope with the complex shifts in character allignment. He made demands on the audience almost unprecedented in American television history, and for those of us who stuck with him over the five year run of the series, our patience and commitment were fully rewarded!

For these reasons, it is vitally important that media and cultural scholars look closely at Babylon 5, which seems, in retrospect, as rich an embodiment of what television storytelling can do in an age of media convergence as Star Trek represented the full potential of television storytelling in the network era. If you didn’t watch Babylon 5, you missed something important.”

Hope to see many of you at the event in May!

Tourists and Collectors Enter the World of Tomorrow: An Interview with Angela Ndalianis (Part Two)

You suggest some connections between the birth of Superman and the 1939 World’s Fair with its theme, “A World of Tomorrow.” Explain.

The New York World Fair of 1938-9 reflected a mindset of the times that saw utopia as becoming an achievable reality in the not too distant future. The birth of Superman was also very much a product of a culture that nurtured this mindset; Superman was a character from a science fiction reality, and the product of a technologically advanced society as represented in his home planet of Krypton. His arrival on Earth was very much presented as the arrival of a god-like being who offered humanity its own utopian potential. In the real-world context of the late 1930s, visionary futures were considered realizable as a result of advances in scientific knowledge, technological development, and urban planning. As early back as the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, World Expositions and Fairs – especially in the U.S. – had explored the concern with creating idealized cities but it was the 1938-9 NY fair (and the Chicago Century of Progress Exposition of 1933-1934 that preceded it) that took the first important steps in forging a relationship between science and society. But more significantly, these concerns were integrated with the visions and consumer pleasures that were offered by science fiction and entertainment. The futuristic, technologically reliant cities found typically in science fiction examples like the Buck Rogers comic strips, sf novels of Edward Bellamy and H.G.Wells, and sf magazines like Amazing Stories collided with science at the New York World Fair. In particular, living up to the Fair’s motto “Designing the World of Tomorrow”, the industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes created his ‘Futurama’ exhibit – a City of the Future in 1960. Designed as a diorama, viewers sat high above this miniature city while a motorized belt moved them around the exhibit. Drawing heavily on the aesthetics of flight – both through the technological capabilities of aviation and the biological capacity of the Superman body – the omnipotent view point from above was further empowered by the sensation of flight. To cap it all off, on July 4, 1940 the fair hosted ‘Superman Day’ (with the actor Ray Middleton playing Superman) and a further association between Superman and the U.S. was sealed. Superman’s first appearance was in Action Comics #1, in 1938, and his own series began in 1939, but 1939 also saw the publication of New York World’s Fair Comics and the two issues that were released at the 1939-40 exposition featured both Superman and Batman visiting the New York Fair to solve crimes. The new figure of the superhero was clearly seen as playing an important role in envision a future, utopian America. In the 1980s, the All-Star Squadron comic book series would return to these origins by placing their superhero team in the 1940s with their headquarters based in the Trylon and Perisphere – the iconic buildings created for the fair.

To broaden outward, much of your work has centered around juxtapositions across media and across historical periods. For example, your book, Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment, combines consideration of Baroque painting and architecture with discussions of contemporary amusement parks and special effects. What do you gain by bringing old and new together in this fashion?

What I enjoy about adopting this approach is exploring and unraveling the dynamic process that is history, and trying to understand the connections that exist across diverse media that may, on the surface, appear to be radically different to one another, but which on closer inspection share a great deal in terms of perceptual, cognitive and sensory responses they may want to extract from their audiences, despite the temporal and cultural gaps. One of the things I’m primarily interested in my research is the history and development of entertainment media. How have certain experiences remained the same, and how and why have they altered. In my (almost finished!!) book on theme parks for example, I look at the parallels that exist between the aristocratic villa gardens of C16th-C18th and theme parks like Disneyland and Universal Studios. In addition to the layouts and design of the park spaces (which have much in common with the plans for villa gardens), I love comparing the minutiae – all the smaller gadgets and media toys that make these places generate delight and pleasure.

Take the trick fountain, for example: in the gardens of Versailles, Louis XIVth and his followers were entertained by the sudden spurts of water that would spray them as they walked by a statue or seat that were rigged as trick fountains. The Alice in Wonderland labyrinth in Disneyland Paris and Universal Studios’ Islands of Adventure have almost identical entertainment features that are similarly rigged to trigger gut, sensory reactions of laughter, surprise and joy from their recipients. I remember the fabulous little fountain in the Lost Continent section of the Islands of Adventure. The fountain didn’t pretend to be anything other than a fountain, but this one seduces you into its world by acknowledging your presence and by clearly being able to see your actions; just when you feel comfortable with it and engage it in conversation, a spurt of water erupts from one or two of the many barely visible holes that are on its surface and sprays you in the face or body. Hysterical! Crowds of people stand around waiting to see the next victim become part of this slapstick routine. What does this tell us? Well, humans are still entertained by similar toys but with one dramatic difference. The space that’s home to this fountain no longer belongs to royalty and to a select few who wield power over the masses. This is now a space that entertains the masses. But are the masses the new royalty, or is this now the role performed by the multinational corporations? Lots of questions that need untangling but which are not necessarily easy to find answers to; I think there’s more to be gained from opening up and presenting more questions that complicate these relationships between the past and the present, than providing black and white answers that simplistically draw conclusions (e.g. ‘the new royalty are they corporations who are the new oppressors of the people’ – it would be easy to conclude this, but I think it would offer a myopic understanding of the complex relationships and conclusions that can be extracted via, in this case, a comparison of trick fountains and their function in entertainment spaces past and present).

A new research project I’ve just started also adopts a media historical approach. I’m looking at emerging examples of artificially sentient beings, in particular, robots like QRIO, Asimo and Zeno and artificial intelligence programs used in computer games and film effects – in other words, examples from within an entertainment context. But I’m also researching their historical precedents, the intention being to place current robot and AI technologies within the context of the diverse media, trans-temporal and cross-cultural history that they belong; it’s through such an approach that a deeper awareness of the historical and cultural implications of humanity’s continued fascination with artificial life will emerge. The automaton, for example, is a mechanical predecessor of the robot and harks back to medieval times but reached its peak in popularity in the C18th and C19th in Europe and Japan. While the automaton was reliant on clockwork mechanics and lacked any form of sentience, it shared something crucial with the contemporary examples: a product of technological and scientific invention was presented as entertainment. Like Sony’s QRIO, entertainment was the vehicle that delivered the automaton’s performance as technological display of the possibilities of new science and technology. To date, no study has asked why? Why entertainment? I guess, I want to ask ‘why’?

You have written extensively through the years about the amusement park and location-based entertainment more generally, a topic which has received only limited scholarly attention given its cultural and economic importance. What do you think the study of amusement parks contributes to our understanding of media convergence?

The amusement park and, especially the theme park, is the example of media convergence par excellence. In some respects, it serves a similar role to the earlier World Expositions and Fairs. It’s in the theme parks that the latest in entertainment technology is trialed and first exposed to the public. The most cutting edge examples of film technology, for example, has first been experienced in the theme park – the Omnimax experience offered by the Back to the Future ride in the 1980s, or the 3D Imax extravaganzas of the Terminator 3D and Spiderman rides at Universal studios more recently. But these weren’t only film experiences. The theme park, and its ride technologies, bargain on engaging the audience on intense and immediate multiple sensory levels and the way this is most effectively achieved is through media convergence. Let’s take the Spiderman ride: it’s a truly multimedia experience that immerses the participant in cartoons on television, sculptured and architectural environments that reproduce the spaces of the Daily Bugle and New York, filmed environments in 3D on IMAX screens, and amusement park roller coaster technology that flies us seamlessly through all these different media. Add to this the fact that Spiderman originated in comics, then became a series of animated cartoons and tv shows as well as a series of highly successful blockbuster films and a phenomenal theme park attraction and you have the ultimate in media convergence. The thing with the theme parks, though, is that the convergence is more literal and in your face.

You are just about to start an extensive project focused on the impact of new media on collector culture. Can you give us a preview of some of the key themes you plan to explore there? How might comics collecting fit within the book’s core arguments?

Yes, I’m co-writing a book with Jim Collins from the University of Notre Dame, which is tentatively (and possibly permanently) titled Curatorial Culture. What we’re interested in is the radical transformations that have occurred in collecting culture in light of the central role that entertainment media conglomerates and digital technologies are playing in global culture. New delivery systems are redefining what going to a movie or watching TV means at the beginning of the C21st, just as they have also transformed the “display” of images at art museums throughout the world, and the accessibility and portability of digital information has given rise to a curatorial culture in which seemingly anyone can assemble their own music, film, television and art libraries. I know someone (who shall remain nameless) who owns every Superman comic book ever published – and it’s stored on his/her hard drive. I mean, that’s phenomenal! Do you know how much physical space you’d need to house (let alone actually find copies of) every Superman comic every written? Our book asks how the omnipresence of the personalized digital archive has altered our understanding of what acquiring culture means, whether it be in the form of an iPod playlist, a media home library, or a public art museum.

We’re looking at the relationship between private and public archives as a shifting continuum that depends increasingly on the convergence of media space and museum space, and we’re investigating this continuum by concentrating on five distinct sites of convergence-personal media technology, the private home, the public art museum, the retail store, and the urban landscape. So in addition to looking at ipod culture and p2p downloading and collecting, we’re also interested in the fluid exchange between high culture and pop culture aesthetics – what Jim calls High Pop. Retail centers like those owned by Nike, Apple, Sony and Prada hire ‘star’ architects like Koolhaas, Hadid, and Gehry who have designed destination museum sites to design their retail spaces as unique consumer experiences, while also displaying their consumer products as if they’re original artworks on display in a gallery. Or, to give you a couple of examples from the city of Las Vegas…. The new CityCenter residential-retail-entertainment complex being built on the Strip (and owned by MGM Mirage) will include a $40 million public Fine Art program that will distribute contemporary masterpieces throughout CityCenter’s public spaces – the gaming areas, hotel and residential towers, and the retail and entertainment districts will now all serve the role of public gallery. Las Vegas represents–in intensified form–the ways in which our urban environments and leisure experiences are transforming into a collecting and display culture that has collapsed traditional boundaries that demarcated spaces of art display and those of consumerism and mass pleasures. In very real ways, the city of Las Vegas does precisely this: it visualizes global, conglomerate culture at its most intense point and, in the process, transforms itself into a living museum. In the Bellagio Casino Hotel, for example, traditionally cultural opposites collide: a visitor can tempt fate by feeding slot machines, and then walk out of the gambling hall and into the Bellagio Fine Art Gallery that’s situated down the corridor to view the works of Picasso, Monet, Renoir and Van Gogh (who were on display when I visited). Even more bizarrely, in the Bellagio’s Picasso restaurant it’s possible to taste and smell the delights conjured by the “legendary” Spanish chef Julian Serrano, while being surrounded by the paintings and drawings of that other legendary Spaniard, which decorate the walls of the restaurant. Picasso’s name now serves a dual function: Picasso the artist who created masterpiece artworks, and Picasso the restaurant that now promises to feed its customers with masterpiece food creations. What Vegas is lacking is a Superheroes casino and entertainment complex. When that happens, I’ll be packing my bags and moving to the city of lights.

Angela Ndalianis is Head of Screen Studies at Melbourne University. Her research focuses on entertainment media and their histories, and she’s especially interested in the aesthetic and formal implications of media collisions between films, computer games, television, comic books and theme parks – an area she has published widely in. Some of her publications include Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment (2004), and the anthologies The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero (2008) and Super/Heroes: from Hercules to Superman (2007). She is currently completing the book Spectopolis: Theme Park Cultures, which looks at the historical and cultural influence of and on the theme park, and is co-authoring a book titled Curatorial Culture with Jim Collins.

She can be contacted on angelan@unimelb.edu.au

Defending the Bats: An Interview with Angela Ndalianis (Part One)

In the summer of 2005, I went to Melbourne to attend Men in Tights: A Superhero Conference, hosted by the School of Art History, Cinema, Classical Studies, and Archeology at the University of Melbourne. It was like a dream come true for this particular comics geek to be able to hang out in Australia with comics scholars from around the world. Well, now you get a chance to share some of the fun, because highlights from the conference are being published as The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero, a new book edited by one of the conference hosts Angela Ndalianis. (My own essay on superheroes, multiplicity, and genre theory appears in this book. I ran an earlier draft of this essay on my blog a while back.)

Since I like to use this blog to keep people up to date on new work in comics studies, along with fan studies, games studies, new media literacies, and a number of other topics, I wanted to flag this book for your attention and in doing so, direct your attention to its editor Angela Ndalianis. Angela’s work should be of interest to anyone who cares about comparative approaches to media: her first book, Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment, manages to cover Baroque art and architecture, special effects, science fiction, comics, and amusement parks — what’s not to like. She’s been teaching a course for several years which take Australian students to places like Disneyland and Vegas to study location-based entertainment and now this fieldwork is resulting in a forthcoming book on the history and theory of public amusements. And recently I learned that she’s collaborating with James Collins on a fascinating new project dealing with collector culture and digital media.

In this first part of a two part interview, I grill her about her work on superheroes. Next time, we catch up with some thoughts on amusement parks and collector culture.

Your introduction to The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero begins with some autobiographical reflections on your childhood experience of reading comics. As many have noted, the autobiographical turn has been central to alternative comics and to comics scholarship, though most often, the story told has a decisively male focus. What do you think your experiences as a female comics fan brings to this discussion?

I guess, primarily it undermines these gendered assumptions. It’s hard to say – especially when I was growing up in the 1960s and 70s – how much the association of comics and male readers was a socially generated pressure (of ‘correct’ tastes and interests becoming to little girls and little boys) , and how much was ‘naturally’ ingrained in our make-up as individuals. I actually lean towards thinking it’s a socially induced taste-behaviour – sort of like the early game arcades, only this attitude has persisted. If anything, having more female readers engaged with their comic book experiences may open it up, both in terms of giving expression to the voice of female readers, and opening up the way to new female readers.

There may be shared gendered comic book experiences for male and female readers (like identifying with the empowered super-muscled male superheroes in the superhero comics; desiring the mega-bazooka female superheroes; rolling eyes in disbelief at those very same heroes but nevertheless becoming engrossed in their stories) but we need to also keep in mind that the reasons and ways we each consume our favourite comics carry with them their own personal reasons and associations. As I explain in the Introduction to the book, my father handed me my first comic as a 3-year old, and I was hooked from that point. All I remember about the comic was that it was a superhero comic – I don’t remember which superhero. And there was something about the entire ritual of ‘reading’ comics (at this stage in my life it only involved reading the images): the touching and flipping of pages, the texture of the paper and the colours and images that the pages contained, and the sense of intimate possession associated with holding these comics in my hands. This sense of comfort I felt through sensory possession is still one of my oldest and happiest memories. Then there was the way wonderful worlds opened up to me in each panel on the page, and the immersion and intense relationship I developed with the superheroes and their stories. (It was nearly always superheroes, although, I did occasionally become sidetracked by the adventures of the Archies, Disney characters, and Hollywood stars like Laurel and Hardy and Jerry Lewis). Comics and cartoon shows are the two popular culture objects that left an imprint on my early memories and I still associate both with a combination of fondness and a feeling of being at peace with the world. I’ve always been a television junky, but there was something about the ability to physically possess comics in a way I couldn’t possess my favourite tv shows that made them weave into the autobiographical and the personal more intensely – for me, at least.

And, from the perspective of female readership, I can say with certainty that, as a girl, I rarely felt short-changed or undermined by the fact that I was drawn to so many male superheroes. I cannot tell a lie, Batman was (and is) an object of desire for me. Somewhere in the fantasyscape of my brain, I still dream that there may be a reality in which he exists, and when I cross into that parallel universe, our future together will be guaranteed. Aside from my feelings for the Dark Knight, however, for me, Wonder Woman, Catwoman and Batgirl existed on the same level as Batman, Superman and Spider Man. It was their power, sense of their humanity and values, and ability to resolve crises that I associated with. I don’t want to turn all academic on you here, but, I think it’s Yuri Lotman who talks about hero roles not being gendered but associated with narrative action: it’s society that imposes the ‘norms’ that associate active characters with the male, and the more passive roles with the female. Maybe ‘society’ never got its ‘how to’ ideological claws in me as a little girl and, I must say, my parents never encouraged me to play passive or victim roles – far from it. I think children don’t start to fall prey to performing gendered roles till they approach their teen years, until then, they’re fluid. I look at my 3 nieces (who are 4, 6 and 10) and am overjoyed to see that they in no way feel hemmed in when it comes to their abilities. In their minds, they’re invincible. The difference is that they have more female superhero and hero roles to choose from – especially in animated cartoons – than I did as a kid, and that’s more liberating for them as girls.

What has your experiences running the original conference and editing this book told you about the current state of comics studies?

I couldn’t believe the amount of interest both during and after the ‘Men in Tights: a Superheroes Conference’. The conference was held in mid-2005, and to this day I receive emails about follow up events and conference publications, as well as queries about whether courses are offered in comics studies at my – or other – universities. I’ve also had an increase in the number of PhD students I have who are writing on comics and superheroes. In your essay in the anthology, you write about the tendency in public consciousness to collapse the superhero genre into the comic book medium and given that the superhero’s been such a driving and sustaining force behind the medium, it’s not surprising. There are a number of anthologies and books that have come out in recent years that have taken a more serious and academic approach to comics and, in particular, superheroes in comics. This anthology, and the one I co-edited (Super/Heroes: From Hercules to Superman) emerged from the conference in 2005. The current anthology The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero focuses more specifically on comics and superheroes, whereas the earlier book centred more on predecessors and mythic prototypes. In addition to scholars I know who are currently writing books or essays for future publication on the topic, the healthy growth of comics studies is also evident in books like Comics as Literature (Rocco Versaci), A Comics Studies Reader (edited by Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester), Superheroes! Capes and Crusaders in Comics and Films (Roz Kaveney), Film and Comic Books (edited by Ian Gordon, Mark Jancovich and Matthew McAllister), and Superhero: the Secret Life of a Genre (Peter Coogan). To add to this, there was the Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy exhibition and mini-conference that was held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in mid-2008. If anything, the exhibition revealed the extent to which the superhero – as representative of comic book culture – is woven deeply into the consciousness of so many people. Even if their first exposure to the superhero has been through film or television, most people know that it’s the comics that gave birth to them. I should also add that the Institute for Comics Studies was unofficially launched by its Director Peter Coogan at the Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy mini-conference event which was held at the MET in June 2008. The official launch will take place at ComicCon in 2009 and what’s exciting about this Institute is that it aims to address and support the thirst for knowledge that’s out there by providing scholars, professionals and fans with a contact point that can direct them to comics resources, courses being taught, conferences, as well as encouraging and organizing events with the industry. I’m really excited to be on the Board of Directors, which, in addition to including other academics such as yourself, also includes comics creators, distributors and producers.

One of the funniest outcomes of the Men in Tights conference had to do with my Batman obsession. In Melbourne, we have a problem with fruit bats. At the time of the conference they had over populated our botanical gardens and before the more logical solution of capturing the bats and migrating them to outer suburbs was achieved, a bunch of trigger happy stooges were going into the gardens and killing off bats by the hundreds. The organizer of an group called “Save the Bats” had attended the conference and heard me talk about my love of the Batman – and soon after the conference, I was contacted by this guy who asked me to become a Bat-Spokeswoman and to get the word out to students to attend protests and be more active in saving the bats of the Botanical Gardens. So how could I say no? My students thought it was hysterical – I still remember making an announcement about a save the bat protest (complete with the backstory) at the beginning of a lecture in my Genre Studies course and they cracked up in fits of laughter. In their eyes, the sequence of events made sense. Of course I’d become the spokeswoman for bats – I had, after all, shared my Batman fascination with them for years!! And this story did find sweet closure. When the Melbourne City Council eventually did move the bats out of the city, many came to settle in my suburb. So now, if I go out into the garden at night, I can sit on a bench with my cats Bats and Elektra, and look up at the giant pear tree in my back yard and listen to the very audible crunching sounds that are made by the giant fruit bats that visit my garden. Happy times!

Your introduction links the contemporary superhero to much older mythic traditions. What do we learn by searching for more “universal” themes underlying contemporary comics? What are the limits of this mythological approach to contemporary culture?

I’ve always been fascinated by myths and myth studies and, in particular, by the fact that heroic patterns of behaviour, hero types, and hero stories are repeated again and again throughout time and across different countries. I’ve always been a fan of ancient Greek and Old Norse myths and their heroes, and despite the fact that surface details may change there was so much that was similar – especially in the stories radiating around Asgard and Mount Olympus, with their shared epic tales of superheroic battle related to creation and apocalypse and everything in between. I guess it’s the idea that there may be a shared desire that crosses temporal and geographic boundaries and that’s fundamental to human nature (and to our understanding of the world around us) that I find so impelling. What really does my head in is trying to come to terms with ‘why’? Why these stories of grand heroic battles where humanity and the universe itself is under threat? Of fearsome heroes with superhuman strength who face dark, monstrous doubles that threaten the social balance? Why have basic narrative patterns of hero myths repeated themselves across time and across different cultures? What human needs, desires, or fears does this repetition fulfil?

Having said that, there are so many limitations to universal myth models. Once you locate the repeated themes and hero types, what then? What about all of the specifics? Sure Superman may have much in common with ancient characters like Hercules and Zeus; and Thor may be named after and serve similar actions to his Norse namesake, but there’s so much more to Superman and Thor as contemporary superheroes that speak to our own times. Both emerged within the specific context of C20th culture and that specificity has to count for something. Superman and Wonder Woman’s origins, for example, were nurtured by the realities of Nazism and Hitler’s ‘perfect man’. The creation of the Fantastic Four through exposure to cosmic rays while on a scientific mission in outer space can be place very firmly within the 1960s, the rise and faith in science and technology and the emerging Space Race. And as retcons and continuity rewrites have shown us, the identity of comic book superheroes don’t necessarily remain fixed across the decades: they’ve been revised, deleted from history, and rewritten into a new history. Beyond such socio-cultural reflections, newer superheroes like Animal Man, Hitman, Planetary, the Invisibles, the Authority – especially in the hands of ‘auteur’ artists and writers – tell us as much about the processes at work behind creating, reading, interpreting and refashioning comic book heroes across many decades of their production and consumption. If the fluidity of the superhero mythology shows us anything it’s that a universal model of interpretation fails to come even close to understanding the nature and rationale of such dynamic processes of production.

Why do you think the superhero has been such a persistent figure across the history of 20th century popular culture?

Let’s face it! On a basic level, they’re exploits, dramas, relationships, stories and fashion sense are just great fun and the comic books invite repeat performances on the part of the reader. On a more serious level, like the cowboys of the western superheroes have embodied ethical codes and moral structures that society needs to embrace in order to survive. Despite their excess and hyper-humanity, they’ve always represented the voice or, more precisely, the various voices of the people, reflecting the social dilemmas and belief systems of their time. Even when the superheroes became darker in the late 80s, propelled by writers like Frank Miller and Alan Moore, they still reflected abstract moral crises of their era. Significantly, individual superheroes have consistently reflected the changing times that they belong to, learning to adapt to each decade that passes and the cultural changes that come with the passing of time. The Spider-Man of the 1960s, for example, is not the same Spider-Man of the 2000s – they’re identities that are the product of different societies at different times that have reached different audiences. The superheroes who have survived across each shifting decade have been able to adapt their form, and connected to this is the superhero’s capacity to translate and cross over into other media. This has been a huge plus in extending and familiarising audiences with the superhero stories. The Flash, Superman, Wonder Woman, Catwoman, the Hulk, Elektra – while originating in the comic book format, have also migrated media to appear in radio, television, B-film serials, blockbuster films, novels and computer games.

Angela Ndalianis is Head of Screen Studies at Melbourne University. Her research focuses on entertainment media and their histories, and she’s especially interested in the aesthetic and formal implications of media collisions between films, computer games, television, comic books and theme parks – an area she has published widely in. Some of her publications include Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment (2004), and the anthologies The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero (2008) and Super/Heroes: from Hercules to Superman (2007). She is currently completing the book Spectopolis: Theme Park Cultures, which looks at the historical and cultural influence of and on the theme park, and is co-authoring a book titled Curatorial Culture with Jim Collins. She can be contacted on angelan@unimelb.edu.au

The Delights of “Herding Cats”

There’s been far too much loose talk in recent years about the challenges of herding cats. I know I’ve used the expression a few times myself, especially in regard to the difficulties of getting more than one faculty member moving in the same direction at the same time. It turns out we’ve been maligning our fine feline friends for all these many years. You may not be able to teach an old dog new tricks — actually you can!– but cats are capable of being trained as performers, as is illustrated by this remarkable video about the Moscow Cat Circus. Watch and enjoy this film for three minutes of delight! My hope is that it will lighten your burdens as so many of us go through the hell of finals week.

True enough, most of these cats aren’t being herded: they are doing their own tricks, but they are, in many cases, being coordinated, which is not any easier to do with faculty colleagues.

I stumbled onto this video on a recently discovered site, SnagFilms, which is still in its Beta test phase. The site features literally hundreds of documentaries — from very short subjects to full length movies — including some which have generated lots of buzz (Super Size Me!, What Would Jesus Buy?), some which have been featured on this blog before (Confessions of a Superhero) and some which I’ve never heard of but which look interesting (Manga Mad Tokyo). The topics range from nature to popular culture to politics to human tragedy. Think Hulu for documentaries — everything is free but with a few commercials embedded. For many of us, the advertisements are a small price to pay for getting access to films which would never otherwise be available. And, as you can see, the films are spreadable to any other social space where you might want to reference them.

Interestingly, less than 24 hours earlier, one of my CMS graduate students Ana Domb introduced me to The Auteurs, another site in Beta which was inspired in part by Hulu, which offers access to classic and contemporary international films, including many still playing on the global film festival circuit. Domb explains:

The Auteurs now streams over 70 movies. This is looking very promising. The films aren’t embeddable yet, but the service is in beta and one must have hope. The quality of the videos is spectacular, exactly what you would expect from Criterion, defending the cinematic quality at all costs, while shifting the exhibition platforms to make films available to a wider audience. You “pay” for the stream by watching one commercial. Thus far, I’ve only “paid” by seeing trailers for movies that I might want to watch later on.

In some cases, there is a $5 fee to watch the movies, especially those drawn from the Criterion collection, but many more of them are free to access. There’s a very active discussion community around the films with people who really care about cinema.

All I can say is: Enjoy the cats now, go back and explore these sites when your papers and/or grading is done. But, man, it’s a great time to be a film buff!

Fan Vidding: A Labor Of Love (Part Two)

In many ways, the emergence of these videos represents the culmination of a several year long process through which some in the fan vidding world have decided to come out out of their bedrooms and hotel suites and share what they are producing with the world. I wrote about part of this story in a forthcoming essay for Joshua Green and Jean Burgess’s book on Youtube:

When a recent news story traced fan videos back to “the dawn of YouTube,” many female fans expressed outrage. For more than two decades, a community, composed mostly of women, had been producing such videos, using two vcrs and patch cords, struggling with roll back and rainbow lines, when it seemed an act of sysiphian patience. Francesca Coppa (2007) traces the history of this form back to 1975 when a woman named Kandy Fong first put together slide show presentations set to popular songs for Star Trek conventions. Over the years, these fan vidders developed more sophisticated techniques as they embraced and mastered digital editing tools, constructed their own distribution channels, and defined and refined multiple aesthetic traditions.

Yet, even as other “remix” communities found a supportive home on YouTube, the community struggled with how public they wanted to make their practices. When I wrote Textual Poachers in 1992, the vidders were reluctant to talk and most asked not to be named. Fans were nervous that their works were vulnerable to prosecution for copyright violation from film studios, networks, and recording studios alike. They were also anxious that their videos would not be understood outside of the interpretive context fandom provided. For example, when a Kirk/Spock vid, set to Nine Inch Nails’s “Closer,” leaked onto Youtube without its creator’s permission, its queer reading of the Star Trek characters as lovers was widely read as comic, even though this particular work was seen as disturbing within the slash fan community because of its vivid depiction of sexual violence.

Some vidders circulated their works through less visible channels, such as IMeem, often friend-locked so that they could only be accessed within their own close-knit community. Debates broke out on LiveJournal and at fan conventions as veteran vidders were torn between a fear of being written out of the history of mashup culture and an anxiety about what would happen if the Powers That Be (producers and networks) learned what they were doing. In Fall 2007, New York magazine (Hill) ran a profile of Luminosity, a leader in the viding movement, while fan vids were showcased, alongside the work of other subcultural communities, at a DIY Media conference hosted by University of Southern California.

As Laura Shapiro (2006), a contributor to the USC event, explained in a Live Journal post:

“However legitimate a vidder’s fears may be, the fact is that the vids are already out there. The minute we put our vids online, we expose ourselves to the world…We can’t stop people from sharing our vids without our consent or even our knowledge. We can’t control the distribution of our own work in a viral medium….We also can’t control other people’s attitudes. New vidders arrive on the scene every day, without any historical context or legal fears, and plunk their vids onto YouTube without a second thought. They post publicly and promote themselves enthusiastically, and why not? That’s what everybody does on the Internet, from the AMV creators to machinima-makers to Brokeback Mountain parodists to political remixers.”

Shapiro’s post to the Live Journal viding community suggests the complex creative, personal, institutional, ideological, and legal motivations which might draw such a historically sheltered subculture towards greater public outreach:

  • recognition of our history and traditions, academically and socially (new vidders learn, older vidders are venerated).
  • the opportunity to provide context and normalize our fannish work the way traditionally male fannish work is becoming normalized
  • the potential for vidders to connect fannish work with professional work, working professionally in the entertainment industry if they want to
  • more widespread appreciation and recognition of great vids and great vidders
  • the potential to generate widespread support for us in any legal battles we may encounter (joining forces with other DIY video communities, representation of the Electronic Frontiers Foundation, creation of legal defense funds, etc.)
  • the potential for cross-pollination or even unification of disparate vidding communities and the chance to connect isolated vidders with those communities
  • the chance to influence Big Media to create more of the kinds of TV shows and movies we value
  • the potential to influence the wider viewing world with themes and portrayals of sexual and gender equality, homosexuality, etc.”

Shapiro’s comments help to explain why the fan community has become increasingly public in promoting its agenda in recent years, including the emergence of the Organization for Transformative Works, which has taken on a range of projects, ranging from legal and public advocacy to the development of an online journal and participation in our efforts to promote New Media Literacies. These documentaries on vidding suggest one of the ways that fans can deploy new media platforms to help expand public awareness and understanding of the transformative potentials displaed in their remix practices.

Those of us at Project New Media Literacies were delighted to see what Coppa, Shapiro, and the others working on this project were able to accomplish. The filmmakers manage to represent a broad range of different source material, to showcase fans of different generations, to display a range of techniques, and to convey something of the spirit of the vidding community. It is great to be able to share a fan’s eye view of this phenomenon without any of the exoticism that often surrounds dominant representations of fans. I love the way that the films move through many different voices rather than focusing on a small number of individuals. This is very consistent with our own interests in collaboration, collective intelligence, and community.

Teachers often complain that they lack aesthetic criteria for talking about what constitutes good or bad work in regards to new media production practices. In particular, as we’ve begun to integrate materials from participatory culture into the classroom, we find that teachers and students clash over the relative value of the examples selected and such clashes can often break down opportunities for discussion and learning. As Pierre Bourdieu notes, tastes are most often defended through the expression of distastes. We deflect criticism of our own tastes by launching into an attack on some one else’s cultural preferences. Fans have long gotten bogged down in what I’ve described as the politics of cultural preferences. From without, fans are often isolated by a public which doesn’t understand their tastes or how they choose to express them. From within, fans are often isolated from each other through clashes of tastes — even among people who share a favorite book or television series, they may disagree over “ships” (that is, preferred relationships). For that reason, we were particularly eager to have a segment exploring how fans determine what constitutes a good or bad vid. Here, we get some understanding of the aesthetic judgments shaping vidding and in the process, we may learn to be better viewers and more informed critics of vids.

In the context of the NML Learning Library, these videos will become resources for classroom teachers, after school programs, and home schoolers. They will be explored through the framework provided by our new media literacies skills including in this case, appropriation, collective intelligence, and networking. When the learning library rolls out in the spring, we will include more than 30 challenges (clusters of resources and activities organized around the skills) and more than 80 videos produced either by our NML team or by outside collaborators like the Organization for Transformative Works or American University’s Center for Social Media. These materials will provide raw materials for teachers and students alike to develop their own challenges and share them with the larger NML community.

Many of our videos center around fannish topics including vidding, cosplay, and animation. I’m hoping that fan communities may want to take on the responsibility to develop their own challenges which help introduce their innovative production practices to a larger public.

Thanks to Francesca Coppa, Laura Shapiro, and the others on their team for offering such a rich model for the value of this kind of collaboration between fandom and academia.

Fan Vidding: A Labor Of Love (Part One)

Project New Media Literacies has been collaborating with the Organization for Transformative Works to develop a series of short documentaries, designed for inclusion in our Learning Library, which explain the phenomenon of fan vidding. These videos have been produced by Francesca Coppa and Laura Shapiro, both long time contributors to vidding culture. Their stated goal is to introduce vidding to a larger public, whether in support of the classroom and after-school deployment of our resources for promoting the new media literacies or as a tool within fandom for passing along the craft and poetics of vidding to future generations or for that matter, as resources for teaching about participatory culture in undergraduate and graduate classes.

We’ve been delighted by the level of enthusiastic support this project has received from the vidding community — some of whom shared time with the production team via fan conventions and others sent in footage of themselves working in their homes. Over the next two installments, I am going to be sharing these videos with my readers. The videos are designed to be relatively self-contained, though in the context of our learning library, we hope they will eventually be linked with creative activities designed to encourage participants to try their hand at appropriating and remixing media content.

Here’s some of Francesca Coppa’s thoughts about the process of producing these videos:

We made these videos–well, like vidders; collaboratively. The OTW put together a project and together we brainstormed what questions to ask. I shot some footage, but we also sent cameras around (vidders are, after all, visually smart people.) Other people used their own cameras and interviewed their friends, and still others used webcams. Laura all did the hard work of editing; she’s totally the rock at the center of this project. AbsoluteDestiny is a superhero; he did the audio-postproduction. We got our drafts betaed by our friends who are vidders.

We premiered all six segments in a show at Vividcon, 2008, and everyone seemed to like them. OTW is developing a vidding project page on the OTW site, and we hope to have them streaming there as well in the near future.

While these videos do not explicitly address the issue of gender and fandom, it should be clear from watching them what a high percentage of the people who produce and consume fan vids are female (women of all ages, professional backgrounds, and races), who work individually and collectively to sustain this particular set of remix practices. Francesca Coppa comments::

We were happy to showcase the female-domination of vidding (so rare and different from fan–and regular–filmmaking; still male dominated) and I think we do a pretty good job of showing some of the key ways vidders intervene in popular culture. I will say, too, that more and more, when I think about vidding, I shorthand it as “It’s the network, stupid.” I think the network of vidders–who are mostly women willing to teach other women the technical ins and outs, to share practical information and expertise–is really inspiring. I think women really need to see other women as filmmakers and artists. I know I would never have dared to think about making these OTW/NML videos if I hadn’t had someone sit me down in front of a computer a few years ago and say, “No, really, it’s not that hard. I’ll show you how.”

I hope middle and high school girls will see these videos and think–I want to do that! That looks like fun. *g*

Race in Digital Space (Revisited): An Interview with Sarah N. Gatson (Part Two)

Your work on Buffy Fandom, specifically the Bronze, explores the ways that online communities empower some participants at the expense of others. What lessons might we take from this research which would help us to better understand the ways that racial exclusion operates in fandom?

Last week I was reading the N’Gai Croal commentary on the Resident Evil 5 trailer – I read both his interview with MTV and the online discussion that followed, and I think that the interchange is a good representative of the ways in which a fandom community (or in this particular case, a fandom public sphere or audience) exposes its multiple boundaries The dominant themes therein were 1) that talking about race is racist, 2) that Croal and anyone else that saw anything racist about the trailer were, in addition to racist, unhealthily focused upon race and/or crazy, and 3) that if the trailer did contain disturbing racial imagery, it was not the intent of the designers, and thus those who did see such imagery should either ignore it, or forgive, forget, and move on, since the fault of seeing it was their own problem. While Croal kept making the point that he was talking about the trailer, not the game (which no one had seen or played), and that he was talking about it in its larger cultural context, the general exhortation to “move on” from race was repeated quite a bit.

This audience response contains several classic narrative points in what we might call the post-civil rights or indeed post-racial era, discussed in #1 above, that critical race scholars have identified. 1) Rearticulation of race and racism (Omi & Winant; Feagin; Bonilla-Silva; Moore); 2) Innocence/Intent (Moore) (usually of whites, but in the commentary responding to Croal it is extended to the Japanese game designers, as if Japan has no history of its own racial and ethnic constructions); and 3) Rearticulation of objectivity. Critical race scholars argue that the frame that only racists see race functions to turn the legal notion that race is a suspect class on its head by decontextualizing it from its historical and legal intent.

This whole framework can be seen in this statement from one of the responses to Croal: “Well, how about you flip that around and consider the possibility that you are trying to make something out of nothing. Maybe these gamers don’t see the racism because they aren’t racist and they don’t see it as an issue of color. If you want to know what is keeping racism alive in America, then I suggest you start by looking in the mirror and build from there.”

Croal and a few members of the audience/fandom address this framing of the issue several times in the course of the discussion, although the dominant narrative likely remains the take-away message, as the bulk of the comments remain in the post-racial frame. The discussion is itself an example of a great deal of discussions about race in the U.S. – people mostly talking past each other with a distinct lack of empathy – I saw the exact same narratives played out during the recent election, particularly in comments responding to Obama’s speech on race that appeared online at the New York Times, with one of the most mind-boggling (to me, a biracial person whose family members don’t seem to be all that angst-ridden about having discussions about race and racism) being a comment that Obama was a horrible, horrible person for talking about his grandmother’s having told him about her own fears of black men. That outing her in this way was disrespectful.

That this is a framework reflective of available cultural narratives, and not something which naturally resides in people based on their group memberships per se is reflected in that comments in the critical race frame are made by whites, and comments in the dominant racial frame are made by non-whites,

Michelle says:

July 22nd, 2008 at 2:07 am

Hello,

Im black…I’ve seen the trailer… It is a video game; if you dont like it don’t watch it or play it! Maybe you, instead of writing about a video game trailer, you should be discussing something important like the AIDS problem in Africa or anything else of importance in the world. Games are for fun; an escape. Nothing else.

Sucka.

This comment also reflects the frame I noted above that entertainment media, being non-serious, does not matter. Anything goes because it’s “for fun,” and to “escape” the real world where serious and “important” problems occur. This frame is addressed by some in the discussion, as they argue that media is art, and games involve artistic expression, and thus have cultural meaning, which is as appropriate an arena for serious discussion and deconstruction as anything else.

It is well established at this point that the highest rated television shows among African-Americans are often the lowest rated shows among white Americans and vice-versa. (A notable exception are reality television programs, such as Survivor and American Idol). What are the implications of this data for the future of fandom? Are there things that fan communities might do to become more racially diverse? And is this even the best response to this configuration of tastes and interests?

I’m reminded how integration is defined by whites (10% black) and by blacks (50% black) (see Larry Bobo’s work on residential integration). I’m also reminded of Herbert Gans’s argument that people are entitled to the culture they want. That we value different media because we have different taste cultures shouldn’t be either surprising or problematic per se. I think it becomes a problem when, in part because we’re mainly talking about commercial products, taste cultures reflective of smaller and/or less powerful parts of the overall potential audience don’t actually get to reach the audiences that are entitled (in Gans’s terms) to access those media. The Tyler Perry empire is an interesting phenomenon – his media is extremely popular in the African-American community, and within that market segment, he dominates stage, TV, and film; he’s a mogul, and in “mainstream” venues like Entertainment Weekly, his success has come as quite the shock, although his stage work has a deep connection to the historical “chitlin’ circuit.” Obviously, his success reflects not just an existent market for black multimedia, but a change in the buying power of those who make up that market – this segment can support not just media, but multiple forms of media, and increasingly expensive media. It’s one thing to have your market segment and “mainstream” audiences buy your work (see hip hop); it’s another to gross $5,000,000 on one play in 5 months in one city when the vast majority – if not all – of the audience comes from one group. These are market concerns that producers are certainly paying attention to. As I suggested above, I don’t think audiences are necessarily as segmented as we are when we are talking about things like residence – media flows more freely than does real estate. Perhaps the most a particular fandom community might do in terms of diversity is recognize that freer flow, and not police their boundaries quite so vehemently when it comes to discussions of race, gender, sexuality, class, etc. vis-à-vis their favorite media products.

You’ve written an essay explaining the ways you draw on your own autobiography to inform your pedagogy about race across a range of academic subjects. How would you mobilize your autobiography to talk about race in a course on fan studies?

Okay, here I guess I should provide an autobiographic brief, so here are some possibly relevant facts about me: I am a 39-year-old, heterosexual, biracial African American woman, nominal Unitarian, sociologist who is 8 1/2 weeks post-partum with my first child, and married to a white man. I was born and raised in Kansas City, MO, attended college in Iowa, and graduate school in Illinois. I now live in Texas. I’m about as Midwestern (and I’d like to deconstruct that identity with you when you have the time) as you can get, although I am also fairly well-traveled and not particularly “small-town,” and due to my advanced degrees, part of a statistical elite. I was raised, by both my parents, as a feminist, and self-labeled as such before the age of eight. I’m a geek, and get my original fan cred mostly from Trek and comics. This is what you get when you’re raised by Linc and Julie in their real world sci fi/comic fan, history/political science major, social worker incarnations. Or something.

Anyway, this is the answer in which I get more ranty, and less academic. A while ago, I was reading an article about the Sabbath in Israel, and I was struck by the following, “Who talks of ‘public culture’ anymore? Everybody talks about popular culture, but ours is the era of segmented markets, when hip-hop fans share no common ground with, say, OC addicts. Communitarians talk of civil society, but the voluntarism and community activity they demand is (and ought to be) local, not national; there’s no obvious way to bring all those Knights of Columbus councils and bowling teams in contact with each other.”

This part in particular is what chapped my hide: when hip-hop fans share no common ground with, say, OC addicts.

Because. You know. I think that’s a creation of marketing and market research which, I think, is like a lot of survey research – people are more likely to be forced into boxes, and those boxes are more likely to be reified into mutually exclusive categories, when you only have boxes to check, and when your analysis is driven by a methodology (e.g. regression analysis) that forces you towards parsimony. It’s not that there aren’t patterns and segments, but I think a lot of that may be overdrawn… I mean, if I have to read one more article about fanboys that ignores the documented history of the myriad of ways in which women have participated in the fan-culture of the supposedly male bastion of science fiction, I may have to hit someone with my shoe. I think this Slate author is ignorant of fandom in general, and did the thing that many do – looked at the surface of hip-hop and The O.C., and decided he knew who the actual audience is for each, and that never the twain shall meet (and he also ignored the already widely documented potential of the Internet to bring together Knights of Columbus bowlers). That’s easy to do when the face of the product is fairly homogeneous, but from this example alone, it seems to me that he never talked at length with any hip-hop or O.C. fan – just on my LJ flist alone I can name five people who like both of these things. I myself have been known to put Missy Elliot, the Dixie Chicks, Bob Marley, and The Clash in the CD player (yeah, I don’t have an iPod) while I read back issues of X-men. It’s possible that I am just weird, and that I just hang around with weird people, but as a researcher, I prefer to think we should at least investigate audiences before pronouncing who likes what and who doesn’t talk to whom…

I suppose, then, I would mobilize my autobiography and the autoethnographic technique – in the same way I already do – to question the clear-cut boxes of market segments and fandom identities. Both of these ways of seeing the audience are focused upon a concern with boundaries – on the one hand, the audience is defined by outsiders (the market researcher) and on the other the audience is being defended from outsiders by those on the inside (the fans), race is ultimately about group boundaries as well. Examining how these three concepts interact and overlap would, I think, be useful in a course on fandom.

I am seeing more and more stories out there discussing Barack Obama’s

background as a fan (someone who cites Star Trek in casual conversations, who reads comics, who enjoys Harry Potter, etc.). What kind of role model might Obama represent as we rethink the relationship between race and fandom? How does this geek image connect to historical constructions of black identity in the United States?

Hmmmm. I think the relationship between race, media and fandom, like that between gender, media and fandom, is very interesting – again, media constructions of media geeks tend to be dominated by images of white heterosexual men, and my personal favorite media-geek-media (is that a word???) are those that acknowledge that reality, and comment upon it. Free Enterprise‘s Eric when he says, “Robert. Dude. Great party but… where are all your friends of color?” The same film’s Claire, who takes down Robert in the comic book store for assuming she’s buying a comic for her boyfriend. Chasing Amy’s Hooper X, the gay black comic artist who must front a particular black identity to be taken seriously. Currently, I’m sort of in love with The Big Bang Theory, as it’s peopled with academics who are media geeks, even if it mostly does replicate the fanboy stereotype… I have conversations like those guys do, that start in my professional jargon and end in letting everyone know that Ho-ho’s are a vital part of my cognitive process. In a subculture that is into dressing up as our favorite characters, Black geeks usually have Uhura on one end, and Urkel on the other – liking geeky pop culture is different than getting any kind of cred by actually being a geek. But really, Wu-Tang Clan is pretty damn geeky if you ask me, especially The Rza. I mean. Wu-Tang Clan. Let’s announce our geekstyle love of subcultual fandom in a more blatant way!

Geek and Black are not normalized co-identities, but really, if geeks’ specialized knowledge is more or less impenetrable to outsiders, who’s geekier than Samuel R. Delany?

Have we ever had a geek president? The intellectual aspects of geekitude (geekness? geekosity?) have certainly always (okay, mostly) been present in the oval office. But there’s a certain aspect of pop culture savvy to being a geek, however much we might be marginalized by the, um, extremity of our fandom love. If Barack Obama’s election says something about deconstructing aspects of political power as white, it says just as much about deconstructing elite intellects as bastions of whiteness, and deconstructing the geek as a white’s only identity…

Sarah N. Gatson is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Texas A&M University-College Station. She earned her B.A. at Cornell College in 1991, and her M.A. (1992) and Ph.D. at Northwestern Univserity (1999). In addition to her work on Internet community (Interpersonal Culture on the Internet – Television, the Internet, and the Making of a Community, with Amanda Zweerink, The Edwin Mellen Press, 2004), she collaborated on a NIH/NIDA-funded project looking at Computer-Mediated Communication as it intertwines with Rave and Drug-using subcultures, which has just been released as a book: Real Drugs in a Virtual World: Drug Discourse and Community Online, edited by Edward Murguia, Melissa Tackett-Gibson, and Ann Lessem (Lexington Books). Her research interests are centered on how people organize themselves in terms of community and citizenship. Her graduate work focused upon gender and race as they intersect with these processes, their significance as cultural systems, and as ideologies that permeate all our lives. Her work has moved back and forth from a focus on policy and law, and thus the more formal process of citizenship, to a more generalized focus on the micro- to macro-level processes of identity, community, and citizenship, and the connections between these processes. Some of her work has been published in Contemporary Sociology, Law & Social Inquiry, Research in Community Sociology, Qualitative Inquiry, Qualitative Research, and Feminist Media Studies. Currently, she is a collaborator on a project whose focus is the development of scientific learning and professional communities and future scientists, particularly focusing on access to education, mentors, and scientific networks for underserved segments of the population. Innovation in both offline and online methods to increase access are being explored. This project currently has NSF funding as a Research Experiences for Undergraduates site, a Research Experiences for Teachers site, and a Bioengineering and Bioinformatics Summer Institute site, and NIH funding as an R25 site to increase diversity in research personnel, and is housed at the TAMU College of Veterinary Medicine, Department of Physiology & Pharmacology. Her teaching interests include the sociology of law, race and ethnicity, popular culture, qualitative methodology, marriage and family, and the introduction to sociology; all her course are framed with attention to intersections of race, gender, class, & sexuality.

Race in Digital Space (Revisited): An Interview with Sarah N. Gatson (Part One)

“In Cyberspace, nobody knows your race unless you tell them. Do you tell?” Several years ago, I put this slogan on a poster advertising an MIT-hosted public forum about race and digital space. The resulting controversy was an eyeopener.

Like many white liberals, I had viewed the absence of explicit racial markers in cyberspace with some optimism-seeing the emerging “virtual communities” as perhaps our best hope ever of achieving a truly color-blind society.

But many of the forum’s minority participants-both panelists and audience members-didn’t experience cyberspace as a place where nobody cared about race. Often, they’d found that people simply assumed all participants in an online discussion were white unless they identified themselves otherwise. One Asian American talked of having a white online acquaintance e-mail him a racist joke, which he would never have sent if he had known the recipient’s race. Perhaps covering up for his own embarrassment, the white acquaintance had accused the Asian-American man of “trying to pass as white.” Even when more than one minority was present in a chat room, the forum participants said, they didn’t recognize each other as such, leaving each feeling stranded in a segregated neighborhood. If they sought to correct ignorant misperceptions in online discussions, they were accused of “bringing race into the conversation.” Such missteps were usually not the product of overt racism. Rather, they reflected the white participants’ obliviousness about operating in a multiracial context.

Perhaps when early white Netizens were arguing that cyberspace was “color-blind,” what they really meant was that they desperately wanted a place where they didn’t have to think about, look at or talk about racial differences. Unfortunately, none of us knows how to live in a race-free society. As Harvard University law professor Lani Guinier explains, “We don’t live next door to each other. We don’t go to school together. We don’t even watch the same television shows.” Computers may break down some of the hold of traditional geography on patterns of communication, but we won’t overcome that history of segregation by simply wishing it away.

This passage comes from an essay I published in Technology Review in 2002. (The article still periodically generates whole class sets of angry letters when it gets taught at various universities. Almost no one wants to accept that the taken-as-given “color-blindedness” of cyberspace could be anything other than the realization of Martin Luther King’s Dream.) The forum the article describes was held four or five years before that and was intended to foreground the relative lack of research on race and cyberspace.

Yet, I fear that the same conversation could be held today (though I am less likely to make the same mistake in my framing of the event) and despite some ground breaking work on race in digital spaces by writers like Anna Everett and Lisa Nakamura, among many others, there is still far less scholarship about race in digital theory than there is about gender, generation, or sexuality. You should certainly check out Anna Everett’s edited collection, Learning Race and Ethnicity, which is part of the MacArthur Digital Media and Learning book series and can be read for free online.

This gap between gender studies and critical race studies looms especially large in research on fan and geek culture, as was suggested again and again in the conversations we held here last year about “Gender and Fan Culture.” I’ve been struggling ever since to try to figure out the most productive way to open this blog to conversations around this topic. All suggestions welcome.

Knowing of this interest, Robin Reid, a participant in those discussions, recently introduced me to a colleague of hers, Sarah Gatson, whose work straddles fan studies, digital theory, and critical race studies, who is currently organizing a conference on race and digital media, and who is co-editing with Reid a forthcoming special issue of the Transformative Works and Culture which tackles this topic.

Here’s the call for papers for Gatson’s forthcoming conference:

Race, Ethnicity, and (New) Media April 30-May 2, 2009

The Race & Ethnic Studies Institute at Texas A&M University convenes a symposium every other year, and the proposed theme for the 2008-2009 year is Shifting Terrains: Inequalities in the 21st Century, and the symposium itself is to focus on Race, Ethnicity, and (New) Media. The explosion of work on New Media (including the Internet, mobile devices, Web 2.0) and the juxtaposition and overlap between ‘old’ media (radio, television, film, and mass-print media) and New Media is a rich field of cultural production and scholarly research in which scholars of race and ethnicity have not been particularly well-represented. However, there are cutting edge scholars who do indeed explore various aspects of race/ethnicity and (New) Media (including audience/fan studies, representations of racial and ethnic identities in a variety of media, identity-focused online communities, etc.). We invite such scholars to submit papers with the intention of presenting work that deals with these topics during a 2 1/2 day interdisciplinary symposium, with several keynote speakers, including Dr. Lisa Nakamura and Dr. Henry Bial. We intend that a number of these papers will be compiled into an edited volume intended for publication, and that all papers and participants will have the opportunity to upload their papers on our developing interactive website for scholarly exchange on working papers.

500 word abstracts or full papers of no more than 8000 words (including notes and references) should be submitted to: gatson@tamu.edu and resi@tamu.edu by December 31, 2008. Submissions will be reviewed by an organizing committee, and authors will be notified of acceptance/rejection by March 15, 2009.

In the following interview, Gatson spoke with me about the current state of research on race and new media, about what critical race studies could contribute to our understanding of fan culture, and about how Barack Obama is transforming our understanding of the “black geek.”

You are currently organizing a conference on “Race, Ethnicity, and (New) Media.” Almost a decade ago, I was part of a group at MIT, UCSB, and USC which organized a series of similar events on “Race in Digital Space.” There has been a massive amount of research and reflection on digital media over that decade. Why do you think there has been relatively little reflection on the place of race in the new mediascape?

A recurring myth is that the online world is essentially color-blind. As the classic cartoon explains, “in cyberspace, nobody knows you are a dog.” What is wrong with this argument? Why do you think it carries such persistent force?

I think this second question is the beginning of an answer to the first. Since I think that discursive and narrative frames have some influence on how people understand things – especially new things with which they may actually have very little direct experience – the insertion of the color-blind (or post-racial) discourse into the online context is important. On the one hand, color-blind discourse has as one of its often implicit foundations the idea that racial identity in particular is or should be invisible. This idea is obviously rooted in the discourse of the civil rights movement itself, but its use after the last successes of this movement in 1968 has arguably (as pointed out in the now classic work of Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States) been turned on its head (or, rearticulated in Omi and Winant’s terms). Instead of focusing on race and what it does (what we make it do, what it does to us) in the real world, we are told not to focus on race because in an ideal world, it does not (should not) matter. Cyberspace, as in some ways it is the ideal “ideal world” (this is arguably one of the two dominant narratives about cyberspace), fits very well with this post-racial/civil rights discourse. I think that sometimes we don’t want the problems of the “old world” invading our shiny new cyberspace, especially when so much of what many of us ordinarily do online involves leisure and entertainment.

Most often considerations of race and new media get subsumed into discussions of the digital divide. What do you see as the limitations of this framing of the issues?

Obviously issues of access to media are important, especially when we are talking about access to the creation and dissemination networks involved in the processes of media production. While it is understood generally that new media technology – being both expensive and powerful – is pervasive, its relative lack of penetration into and use by racial minority communities, some of the most prominent research on the digital divide however (e.g. Van Dijk’s most recent book) is fundamentally disconnected from the vast literature on race and ethnicity. The digital divide framework in one sense replicates one strand of race/ethnicity theory (I think it tends to be more grounded in assimilation theory), but does not engage with more contemporary theories.

When I hosted the “Gender and Fan Culture” conversations last summer, there was a persistent agreement that the field of fan studies needed to address issues of race, though we could find few examples of scholarship which did so in any systematic way. What do you think critical race studies would contribute to our understanding of fandom? And conversely, what do you think an understanding of fandom would contribute to our understanding of the way racial identities operate in the online world?

I think the starting point for a fruitful discussion between these two research agendas would be first and foremost understanding fandoms as bounded groups (with more or less permeable boundaries). A crucial component of critical race theory (which is influenced by black feminist theory) explicitly examines the interplay between salient identities, how they interact, and how they are prioritized in macro and micro situations, by both those who hold the identities, and everyone else. Like any other group-identity, one’s membership in a fandom may have more or less salience given a particular situation. While one might assume that a fandom identity takes the ultimately salient position in a fandom space, what exactly might that fandom identity entail, and who is to say what is the “appropriate” salience a fan’s other identities should take in that fan-expressive space? Not talking about race, gender, class, sexuality – or being pressured not to do so – in a fandom space ends up offering a “generic” or “normalized” fan. If that fan is generic, what has typically been the go-to generic fan identity? The fanboy, who also has a presumed race, class, and sexuality, right? We’re being disingenuous if we pretend that this isn’t so.

Going online, we have to make decisions about self-presentation and identity in more purposeful ways than in offline situations. At least initially, we control a great deal more information about ourselves when we decide to go online – we may even present ourselves in anonymous ways not available to us offline (while letter-writing and graffiti are in many ways analogous to anonymous posting, the opportunities for near-thorough anonymous synchronous discussion are unique to cyberspace). However, those self-presentations still involve our offline identities, both those aspects we have more control over, and those we have less control over. Assuming either that these selves are or should be shed before entering into online space, or fandom space, or indeed online fandom space, is highly problematic.

Sarah N. Gatson is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Texas A&M University-College Station. She earned her B.A. at Cornell College in 1991, and her M.A. (1992) and Ph.D. at Northwestern Univserity (1999). In addition to her work on Internet community (Interpersonal Culture on the Internet – Television, the Internet, and the Making of a Community, with Amanda Zweerink, The Edwin Mellen Press, 2004), she collaborated on a NIH/NIDA-funded project looking at Computer-Mediated Communication as it intertwines with Rave and Drug-using subcultures, which has just been released as a book: Real Drugs in a Virtual World: Drug Discourse and Community Online, edited by Edward Murguia, Melissa Tackett-Gibson, and Ann Lessem (Lexington Books). Her research interests are centered on how people organize themselves in terms of community and citizenship. Her graduate work focused upon gender and race as they intersect with these processes, their significance as cultural systems, and as ideologies that permeate all our lives. Her work has moved back and forth from a focus on policy and law, and thus the more formal process of citizenship, to a more generalized focus on the micro- to macro-level processes of identity, community, and citizenship, and the connections between these processes. Some of her work has been published in Contemporary Sociology, Law & Social Inquiry, Research in Community Sociology, Qualitative Inquiry, Qualitative Research, and Feminist Media Studies. Currently, she is a collaborator on a project whose focus is the development of scientific learning and professional communities and future scientists, particularly focusing on access to education, mentors, and scientific networks for underserved segments of the population. Innovation in both offline and online methods to increase access are being explored. This project currently has NSF funding as a Research Experiences for Undergraduates site, a Research Experiences for Teachers site, and a Bioengineering and Bioinformatics Summer Institute site, and NIH funding as an R25 site to increase diversity in research personnel, and is housed at the TAMU College of Veterinary Medicine, Department of Physiology & Pharmacology. Her teaching interests include the sociology of law, race and ethnicity, popular culture, qualitative methodology, marriage and family, and the introduction to sociology; all her course are framed with attention to intersections of race, gender, class, & sexuality.