Reflections on Cultural Politics: My Interview for Poli (Part One)

Earlier this fall, the French cultural theory magazine, Poli, ran an extensive interview with me conducted by Maxime Cervulle. The interview explored a range of topics surrounding the cultural politics of participatory culture and web 2.0, specifically addressing concerns raised by European intellectuals about some of the themes I explored in Convergence Culture. I saw it as an opportunity to identify points of contact as well as differences in how we thought about digital media and political/economic change. The readership of this interview was academic so the language deployed may be a bit more high-flying than I usually would run in this blog. But I felt it would be valuable to distribute an English language translation of the exchange. By prior arrangements with the magazine’s editors, I’ve waited several months since it’s appearance in France and am now sharing it with you. Many of the themes are ones which have surfaced on this blog before but some of the topics were new to me and opened up some interesting lines of thinking. The interview came back to my mind this past week because of a series of exchanges with USC students about the relationship between work in cultural studies, such as my own, which was influenced by the work of John Fiske, my graduate mentor, and work in political economy, which has tended to be far more critical of developments in digital media.

When you first published Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture in 1992, the active audience you analyzed through the figure of the fan seemed to be quite a marginal phenomenon. With the development of interactive cultures, participative audiences seem now to have taken center stage. How does this 20 years reconfiguration of media audiences change the way we think the relationship between culture and audience?

When I began my career, some cultural and media scholars were prepared to acknowledge an “active,” “resistant” or “participatory” audience as a theoretical possibility. When I first began to document fan practices, it was assumed that this was a “minority” practice, that fans were “exceptional” readers. Increasingly, in the era of YouTube and FaceBook, it becomes clearer that many more people than even I imagined might want to actively engage with media content, appropriating and reshaping it to better reflect their personal and shared interests.

Today, it is meaningless to write about the changing media scape without paying close attention to various forms of audience participation and the various business models which have emerged under the banner of “web 2.0″ to capitalize on the desire of consumers to play a more visible and active role in shaping the production and circulation of media content. It is inconceivable to study YouTube without understanding the behavior of media consumers in a way that previous generations of film scholars might have dealt with cinema exclusively through the analysis of auteurs.

It doesn’t mean that media creators and media industries don’t matter. Of course,

they do and they exert much more power than the more wide-eyed cyberenthusiasts might acknowledge. Contrary to what you may have heard, we do not yet and probably never will live in a world without gatekeepers. We need to be paying close attention to the mechanisms by which media industries frame some kinds of audience participation as acceptable and others as unacceptable, even as they claim to expand the power of consumers and diversify the contents of our culture. We need to be attentive to the limits of participation even as we are excited about the broadening franchise which consumers do enjoy in this new convergence culture.

The fans I described in Textual Poachers were in many ways the shock troops of

this cultural transformation: they lived in virtual communities decades before the rest of us; they knew how to tap collective intelligence long before the general population had ever heard of this context; they were remixing video and circulating it amongst themselves decades before Youtube; they were writing their own stories and sharing them with each other before anyone termed the phrase “user-generated content.”

And it is significant that much of this early fan practice was done by women who are increasingly being written out of the history of digital media. Fan women played an important role in helping their friends make the transition into the new media scape and they modeled what a more participatory culture might look like when it meant patching two vcrs together. We should not forget that history even as we are fascinating with the broadening of participation that is being enabled by the lowering costs and ease of use embodied in the latest digital platforms.

How can we move from consumer participation to citizen participation, from a participatory culture to a participatory democracy? Are the two connected?

I am just now launching a new project to explore this issue more closely, so I can only paint in broad outlines here. I am interested in better understanding the mechanisms within fan communities that enable and sustain participation and in particular, the ways fan communities educate their members in order to prepare them to take collective action. So, for example, I think there’s a lot we can learn about new forms of activism by understanding how fan communities launch letter-writing campaigns to keep their favorite programs on the air or

to defend their appropriations of intellectual property in the face of threats from studio lawyers.

From there, we might look at some recently launched organizations which self-consciously fuse together the identities of fan and citizen. I am thinking about groups like the HP Alliance, which has mobilized Harry Potter fans in the global human rights movement, or The

Organization for Transformative Works, which has brought together fan professionals to develop a

more rigorous defense of Fair Use, or Global Kids which is using Second Life as a platform for kids to educate each other about issues impacting youth around the world.

Such organizations tap the playful fantasies and popular metaphors and grassroots infrastructure of the fan community and turn it towards the goal of transforming the society. In some cases, they are relying on a politics of volunteerism, sometimes governmental advocacy, but in every case, they have lowered the threshold for participation and engagement with political change. I am interested in how popular culture may offer a different set of metaphors for thinking about the political processes. Those of us who are academics forget how exclusionary and specialized much of political discourse can be. You really can’t understand this policy wonk talk unless you are already initiated into the language of politics and governance.

So, these groups are modeling a new kind of political language. They are also sites where average people are acquiring core skills at social networking, media production, collaborative problem solving, which are being turned to political causes.

What do you think of the use by political leaders, such as Barrack Obama in the U.S, of the rhetoric of “citizen participation” and/or “citizen expertise”?

The Obama campaign is a powerful example of how politics might play out in convergence culture. For one thing, the Obama campaign understood the need to spread its message across every available media platform. They not only worked with established media — television networks, newspapers — but they also experimented with the use of games systems, mobile phones, social networks, and YouTube as vehicles through which they could reach out and connect with voters. They saw campaigning not as the one-time delivery of a pitch but the building of a long-term network which linked the voters to each other to form a community of support. They embraced popular appropriations and remixing of Obama’s image so that people felt a great sense of possession over this man and his message. They adopted a “we” language which was highly compatible with their supporters lived experiences of social networks and collective intelligence.

In many ways, the Obama campaign was less a political movement and more a fandom. And that’s why the McCain people so actively sought to pathologize the emotional investments which Obama’s supporters made in the candidate and the campaign. There were a number of commercials ridiculing the candidate as a “celebrity” and his supporters as “fans,” suggesting that they were spooked by the “enthusiasm gap” between the two candidates — justly so, as it turns out, because Obama was drawing record crowds at his campaign stops and this translated into an extraordinarily diverse and far-reaching base of support. I am certain we are going to see similar tactics emerge in countries all over the world, because the Obama campaign so perfectly tapped the affordances and “structure of feeling” of the new participatory culture.

Since you are speaking of the “fan base” of Obama, and of the way he was sometimes seen as a “celebrity”, I’d like to ask you how you understand the political and cultural meaning of celebrity culture ? Can “celebrities” still be understood as a “mode of displacement” – as Richard Dyer argued in Stars – displacing politics to the “private” sphere, and displacing collective issues to a singular experience ; or is there a new relationship to celebrity

emerging ?

Richard Dyer’s work on Stars was enormously important in opening up a whole new model for the analysis of motion pictures, one which recognized that stars were a central organizing principle of the Hollywood entertainment system and that the meanings of stars needed to be constructed intertextually — across a range of different texts and media. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from his work.

But it’s also worth keeping mind he is describing how stars functioned in a very particular information environment. He’s describing a time when the meanings of stars were largely if not entirely articulated top down through mainstream media — either through the studio’s publicity mechanisms or through the scandel sheets which existed in parallel and sometimes in opposition to the studios. The stars, themselves, were under contracts which severely restricted their ability to exert their own voices through the public sphere and which thus gave them very little say in how the public perceived them. And the public might construct alternative fantasies around these stars, as we now know through, for example, Dyer’s account of how the gay community took up Judy Garland, but those meanings could not be easily spread from local communities to a larger public.

All of this has changed. Today’s celebrities are, for better and for worse, free agents who have their own publicity machines which help to shape their images. Many of them follow older patterns with an emphasis on their private lives and much of the news media focuses on the same kinds of romantic, sexual, and substance abuse scandals that titilated readers decades ago. But other stars are speaking out about political issues, endorsing candidates, lobbying for legislation, and supporting activist efforts. We might, for example, cite the example of the Will.i.am video produced for Obama in response to his “Yes We Can” theme as work that emerged from celebrities working together and using their power of publicity to increase public awareness of civic concerns. Or we might point to the role which hip hop performers like Chuck D, Kanye West, or Russell Simmons have played in rallying opposition to the Bush administration. Even a celebrity who might seem totally apolitical and focused purely on the private sphere may be pulled into political debates, as occurred when Paris Hilton produced her own video responding to McCain’s comparison between her and Obama. The video was partially humorous but it also gave her a platform to speak out about global warming.

At the same time, the public has a much greater ability to appropriate, remix, transform, and recirculate celebrity images than ever before, mobilizing them towards alternative fantasies or politics. Because celebrities are widely known, appropriations of their images circulate more widely and swiftly than more conventional kinds of political messages. Because they are mythic, larger than life figures, their meaning is always up for grabs. This phenomenon is not unique to the United States: film stars in India often cross over from Bollywood into politics, carrying with them mythic associations from their best known film roles, while in Mexico, Lucha Libre wrestlers can become powerful spokespeople for the underclass.

Transmedia Tacos? You Bet!

I recently asked the students in my Transmedia Entertainment and Storytelling class to write short analytic papers on examples of transmedia extensions. I ended up with papers on amusement park attractions, mobisodes, web sites, comic books, computer games, and a range of other media which have been used to expand our experience of popular media franchises. I was impressed across the board with my students’s grasp of core transmedia concepts which have proven elusive in public discussion of the concept.

Of these papers, this one by Benjamin Burroughs caught me by surprise, since it is exploring the way that transmedia tactics are moving from the entertainment industry to other sectors – in this case, the food industry. Here, Burroughs describes the ways that a local LA vendor has become the source of fascination for highly wired local residents, creating a mystique and perhaps even a mythology around the migrations of a taco truck. Indeed, as this paper suggests, I started to hear rumors of this truck before I even moved to LA, suggesting that the spread of this information extends well beyond the local community.

I would be curious to know whether readers can point to other examples where transmedia strategies are being deployed to create or promote local brands.

Transmedia Tacos: Hybridity, New Media, and Storytelling

By Benjamin Burroughs

The first way I ever heard about the legend of Kogi begins with two ever-present facets of my life, hunger and late nights. While deliberating on where to possibly satiate this beastly hunger at such an hour a group started talking about food and re-telling experiences of recent adventures in dining. This is where I was told about the Kogi myth.

Uncle John (no relation, a local Hawaiian title for esteemed family friend) told my wife and me about his first trip in tracking down an elusive Kogi kimchi taco. He explained that the truck stops at different areas and, despite being hesitant, he agreed to go with his friend to get this taco he heard so much about. He said when his friend took him to the spot there was a really long line. He waited in the line for a half an hour and then an hour and just as he was going to get a taco they ran out.

I was not only puzzled but stunned that an engineer like Uncle John was going to wait that long for just a taco. He said they go to a place and serve until they are out of meat. I found it silly to a certain degree but promptly looked at my wife as if to say, ‘I got to get me one of those kim chi tacos’ (and I don’t even remotely like kim chi).

That began our first foray into searching out the ‘Kogi dragon’. I googled the thing, read the website, looked up its twitter feed, jumped in the car and literally tracked its movement to a place in Little Tokyo not far from our apartment. Uncle John would no longer be the only privileged purveyor of information. When we arrived I was awed, a huge crowd of people–a diverse cross section of Los Angelenos had converged on this taco stand at just after 11 pm at night. We waited in that line for what seemed like hours (because it was!) and I tasted the forbidden elusive fruit for the first time. I hate kim chi and cilantro but oddly enough I really like these tacos, especially the short rib tacos and kim chi quesadillas. Seriously, you should go try some.

So what could be remotely transmedia about a taco? How can a taco be conceptualized as an integral part of the transmedia storytelling process? It’s just a taco not a new medium, right?

We begin by diagramming some of the transmedia components that construct this particular transmedia franchise built around food before moving on to its theoretical justifications. What exactly is this Kogi I was hearing so much about? Kogi has not been around for very long. The company started with one truck last November and has since spawned what some have called a mobile eating revolution. Kogi has gone from one truck to many trucks, including a stationary sit-down restaurant. Awards have come pouring in, along with plenty of media coverage, as Kogi has been reported in every major newspaper from the Los Angeles Times to the New York Times, even being listed as one of Jonathan Gold’s 99 top LA eating experiences.

As we unpack the buzz surrounding this purported new media innovation, we hope to uncover through our own personal familiarity how this tiny truck stand is blazing a path for transmedia possibilities in food distribution and consumption. It is important to note that we are not looking at a mature transmedia franchise but are looking for where this my take us in an attempt to synchronize the transmedia model to more seamlessly sew together online and offline disjunctures as well as multiple media platforms.

Transmedia Mechanics

Kogi is first and foremost a truck and it is safe to understand the stand and its food content as the ‘mothership’. Trucks are one of the oldest modes of food distribution and taco trucks have a particularly rich tradition. With a truck you can constantly be advertising and the truck can construct a unique dialogue with the consumer saying–look, we are one of you, we drive around to the same places and serve you food in your own locales. We are not different, abstract entities or identities but part of the community.

However this form of appeal has seemed limited, trucks as the primary form of food distribution as a business model have largely been untenable, especially in terms of franchising and expanding a company beyond a particular locality. Kogi’s uses of new mediated technology and multiple platforms of this technology have attempted to bridge the gulf between the producer and consumer. No longer is the chef a distant ‘other’ in the back of a large restaurant but is now in close proximity and spatially there is the perception of closeness.

Taking the food to the streets takes on a form of renaissance–a return to a perhaps mythic, forgotten age when food was more interactive and participatory. The truck not only gives a sense of ‘street cred’ and raw authenticity associated particularly with Mexican taco stands (eating ‘real’ Mexican as opposed to Taco Bell, although Taco Bell has now gotten into the mobile taco stand game as well, mimicking the perceived success of these start-up franchises). Kogi also has a certain novelty about it because of its manipulation of new technology. Mobile food stands are not new to the cultural food landscape, but this recent re-articulation has been acclaimed as such because it is not just building a relationship with one community but enables a linkage to the cultural heartbeat of an entire city, even one as vast and diverse as Los Angeles.

If we understand transmedia as the reading of multiple texts that help to tell a larger story can we not see the truck as a text not only in its self promotion and banners but in its very form? The truck is speaking to an age of increased mobility, flexibility (flexible specialization), and fluidity in our culture. Can we not read the taco as a text that speaks to the hybridity of a culture and society where Korean kim chi and Latino tacos are representative of larger forces of cultural fusion?

Lastly, as we learned on the very first night of our taco pilgrimage, there is a sociality present in these long lines. These crowds identify and interact with each other, relating experiences with the food–what one should try, particular favorites, where else one could eat in a great blending and sense of communal participation inherent in any vibrant, lasting transmedia franchise. These sorts of informal media channels can and perhaps should be included to enlarge our understanding of transmedia. In our Kogi example this form of knowledge exchange and ‘encyclopedia capacity’ (Murray 1999) exists less in mediated spaces than other transmedia franchises but there is certainly potential for future transmedia food projects to explore more deeply how to connect consumers in the purely online context. Again, however, it seems important that we not de-value the informal gift exchanges of information that happen in specific communal contexts such as the public practice of waiting in line.

Tweets and Eats

This brings us to the next transmedia component: an online presence. So we have the taco and the stand and even the line as transmedia extensions but what ties these together is the utilization of new media technology. ‘

First you have the Kogibbq.com website run by the sister of one of the founding members, Aliiiice (this is how her screen name is presented on the blog). Interestingly enough, she lives in New York. She has her brother send her pictures of the food as she updates the community on what is going on with Kogi, portraying an interactive story of the growth and some of the inner workings of the company. She makes things very participatory, engaging the audience by allowing the community to help decide on the names of the new trucks, introducing the personalities of the staff, and explaining the stories behind new foods coming out. This is where Kogi adds a level of seriality (Haywood 1997).

Not only is seriality built into the food process, wanting to eat more after chowing down on a tasty morsel but Alliiice gives you the latest creation from chef Roy Choi so you have a reason to go back every week. People like what they have already eaten so when presented with a new concoction they are hooked into coming back. This is also the logic behind the majority of food advertising but such grand productions lack the intimacy and trust that Alliiice has massaged by being close to the community. She participates quite deeply with the readers of the blog, often commenting herself in the comments section of the blog in a very personal and ‘real’ manner.

What is most compelling however, is not only the intimacy, but the descriptions of the food. I have on more than one occasion sought out the truck because of what I had read. Sometimes the food is a one day special, so you are literally compelled by the pictures and descriptions to not miss the food served only on that particular day. I am currently thinking about needing to go and get the ‘Ride or Die Sweet and Sour Chicken’ I just read about.

These are essentially food stories, narratives that shape our encounter with the product and add layers of meaning to that experience. Recently this story was put on the website about a Cuban pressed pork dish. Alliiice writes:

“Once upon a time, there was a bun of Pan BLanco. A piLLow-soft, innocent loaf of angeLs’ bread fresh from the warm confines of a simpLe baker’s oven.

::SLiiiiiiiiiiiCE!!::

It was a quick and siLent death. Witnesses caught but the quick fLash of a cook’s knife and two, snow-white ovaLettes faLLing away from the unforgiving bLade of the kitchen guiLLotine.

Two hands grabbed the symmetricaL, soft remains of Pan BLanco and shoved them face down on a redhot griLL. Fat sLices of juicy red summer tomatoes and spicy pork gathered ’round to mourn her death. But before they couLd pay their proper respects, the Hands of Death snatched her from her grave and sLathered her insides with fatty, unctuous gLobs of chiLi mayo.”

It is hard not to get hungry just reading that. But this is not the only level of storytelling that is going on. The use of Twitter has moved these stories from static places online to dramatic emotion laden episodes that one can act out as adventures.

A series of youtube videos sprung up around the beginning of Kogi as part of its marketing strategy but also spontaneously as active audiences filmed and put on the web their own personal treks to find the Kogi tacos.

One of the first to do this was a local area DJ named akaider, the title was called “Chasing the Dragon (The Kogi BBQ Adventure)”, who was later invited to start performing alongside some of the trucks stops in Little Tokyo in response to his video.

The twitter feeds make this very participatory. There is an emotional resonance when people are given a space to play and perform as audiences feel empowered to collect the information and connect the dots of where the truck will be at any given place and time. There is a certain degree of prestige in uncovering the buzz, but also great pleasure in sharing that gift in and through social exchanges.

This is mobile hypersocial technology (Ito 2008), as twitter allows for a conversation never before possible. Twitter feeds and tweets tell about the truck coming to an area, if it is stuck in traffic, if the cops made them move to a new area, or if they ran out of food for the day. People want to collect this information and have that ‘insider’ information on the next big eating thing. This knowledge is especially valued in eating circles as a form of status and coolness associated with the pooling of privileged information.

Transmedia Futures and Cosmopolitan Aesthetics

Food is compelling; it is an integral part of our lives. Although not being altogether obvious, it is not too far a stretch to contextualize the purchasing, eating, dining–the consumption practices of food as interwoven in the very fabric of our lives. Food is conducive to good stories. Food is universal and ubiquitous; we all eat (although economic and cultural stratification are prevalent and important processes beyond the scope of this paper). The consumption of food is often a highly public, commercial enterprise. Food consumption is a hypersocial activity.

Living in an age of convergence culture (Jenkins 2006) where consumers are the point of convergence, appropriators and re-mixers of form and meaning, how will this shape our relation to something as recurrent as eating? A convergence culture is participatory and demands for the reorganization of production.

Kogi is a small example of the new spectatorship that creative artists can maneuver to empower a deeper synergy between production and consumption (or future prosumption) as chefs and diners, food critics and passive consumers can all benefit from the increased connectivity and emotional resonance afforded through transmedia productions. What is going on is the sharing of privileged knowledge and information conveyed as a narrative construction.

Perhaps we really are what and how we eat. Kogi can be representative of larger shifts and cultural trends. It is a Korean and Latin fushion cooking driven by new mediated technologies and platforms that allow for increased sharing and participating. Transmedia has a certain cosmopolitan aesthetic and democratic participation that should be cultivated as we move further into the hybridity and diversity of a networked world.

Sources

Jennifer Haywood, ” Mutual Friends: The Development of the Mass Serial,” Consuming Pleasures: Active Audiences and Serial Fictions from Dickens to Soap Opera (University of Kentucky Press, 1997), pp. 21-51

Ito, Mizuko. 2008. “Networked Publics: Introduction.” Pp. 1-14 in Networked Publics, edited by K. Varnelis. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Henry Jenkins, “Searching for the Origami Unicorn: The Matrix and Transmeda Storytelling,” Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: New York University Press, 2006), pp. 93-130.

Janet Murray, “Digital Environments are Encyclopedic,” Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997), pp. 83-90.

Ben Burroughs is currently completing a double degree Masters program from the Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism and the London School of Economics and Political Science in Global Media and Communications. He has authored several publications including “Kissing Maccaca: Blogs, Narrative, and Political Discourse “(2007), and is hoping to pursue a PhD in the coming fall. His research interests include: civic transmedia, politics, emergent fandoms, and media anthropology. Ben is a former high school French teacher, who grew up on the North Shore of Oahu. He and his wife presently reside in Los Angeles.

Cordwainer Smith Imagined Convergence Culture (and Viral Media) in 1964

Science fiction writers do not so much invent the future as they inform it.

I mean inform here in two ways – first, they give us the information we need to process issues in the present moment and to therefore anticipate some likely consequences of the choices we face as a society and second, having given a vivid picture of a possible future, they inspire scientists, policy makers, and others to reshape reality to conform to their depiction.

How many contemporary technological developments emerged from designers whose imagination was incited by some science fiction novel or television series? Without Star Trek, would we have flip phones? Without Snow Crash would we have had Second Life?

I have been pondering this relationship between science fiction and reality a lot this week having recent taught some short stories by Cordwainer Smith in my transmedia entertainment and storytelling class at USC.

If you just mumbled, “Cordwainer who?,” you are not alone. Smith’s works are rarely cited today. Smith wrote short stories rather than novels, scattered them across a range of publications, and published many of them after his death. Even hardcore science fiction fans may know him only for his first published story, “Scanners Live in Vane,” which is included in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame anthology which is often deployed in science fiction classes. The New England Science Fiction Association collected and republished his stories several years ago as The Rediscovery of Man. Maybe it’s time for the rediscovery of Cordwainer Smith.

When I first read “Scanners Live in Vain” some years ago, I was stunned. The writing is challenging and vaguely modernist, especially when compared to the hard edged realism and classicism of his 1950s era contemporaries like Robert Heinlein or Issac Asimov. He thrusts you into the world of the story without much preliminaries; he relished the strange and unfamiliar elements which are dealt with it ways that are at once defamiliarizing (in that they break from our world) and familiarizing (in that they treat these strange elements as if they were perfectly normal, even banal.) In many ways, the story’s focus on the fusion of man and machine, which gets depicted with ambivalence rather than dread, helped pave the way for similar representations in the early cyberpunk movement.

As I’ve read more of his work, I’ve become fascinated with the ways that he prefigured science fictions fascination with media change – digital media primarily in the case of the Cyberpunks but something very close to what I call Convergence Culture in the case of Cordwainer Smith. Consider, for example, this passage from “The Dead Woman of Clown Town” which seems to anticipate the concept of viral media:

“A bad idea can spread like a mutated germ. If it is at all interesting, it can leap from one mind to another halfway across the universe before it has a stop put to it. Look at the ruinous fads and foolish fashions which have nuisanced mankind even in the ages of the highest orderliness.”

Here, Smith tries to capture the perspective of a totalitarian regime which seeks to manipulate the flow of information in order to prevent a shift in public sentiment towards the underpeople, a permanent underculture which exists of half-human/half-animals. Smith warns after a particularly empassioned speech on human rights of the need to reframe what is being said lest it undermine the established order:

“The dog-girl was making points which had some verbal validity. If they were left in the form of mere words without proper context, they might affect heedless or impressionable minds.”

Published in 1964, “Dead Woman of Clown Town,” can be easily read as an allegory for the civil disobedience and nonviolent protest which shaped not only the then-contemporary protests of Martin Luther King, but also a range of protest movements across Asia during the struggle against colonialism. In the story, the human, Elaine, and the dog-girl, D’Joan, lead an army of underpeople on a march which brings them into the face of armed guards, who obligingly shoot them down or in D’Joan’s case, torches her alive, forcing them to confront the brutal consequences of their own discriminatory policies.

Smith’s depiction is particularly concerned with the psychological experience of subordination and oppression, using for example the figure of C’Mell, the cat-woman and professional “girly-girl” (escort) in “The Ballad of Lost C’Mell” to deal with the ways that the enslaved must develop much greater knowledge of the dominant group than the other way around:

“She had a womanliness which was truer than that of any hominid woman. She knew the value of her trained smile, her splendidly kept red hair with its unimaginably soft texture, her lithe young figure with firm breasts and persuasive hips. She knew down to the last millimeter the effect which her legs had on hominid men. True humans kept few secrets from her. The men betrayed themselves by their unfulfillable desires, the women by their irrepressible jealousies. But she knew people best of all by not being one herself. She had to learn by imitation, and imitation is conscious. A thousand little things which ordinary women took for granted, or thought about just once in a whole lifetime, were subjects of acute and intelligent study. She was a girl by profession; she was human by assimilation; she was an inquisitive cat in her genetic nature….Sometimes it made her laugh to look at human women with their pointed-up noses and their proud airs, and to realize that she knew more about the men who belonged to the human women than the human women themselves ever did.”

Key scenes occur at the moment when the human characters are forced to experience something of the subjective experience of the lower castes, as occurs when Elaine gets linked to D’Joan through telepathy, which is understood here as a kind of radicalization process, a shift in sympathy not unlike that experienced by many white liberals in the Civil Rights era who were motivated by the burning of black churches and the slaughter of black children to rethink a lifetime of segregationist practice.

Smith’s interest in the concept of information war-fare and media as a resource for political transformation can be explained by his own fascinating life story. Here’s some of the details as presented by Wikipedia:

Cordwainer Smith – pronounced CORDwainer[1] – was the pseudonym used by American author Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger (July 11, 1913-August 6, 1966) for his science fiction works. Linebarger was also a noted East Asia scholar and expert in psychological warfare…

Linebarger was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His father was Paul M. W. Linebarger, a lawyer and political activist with close ties to the leaders of the Chinese revolution of 1911. As a result of those connections, Linebarger’s godfather was Sun Yat-sen, considered the father of Chinese nationalism. As a child, Linebarger was blinded in his right eye; the vision in his remaining eye was impaired by infection. When he later pursued his father’s interest in China, Linebarger became a close confidant of Chiang Kai-shek. His father moved his family to France and then Germany while Sun Yat-sen was struggling against contentious warlords in China. As a result, Linebarger was familiar with six languages by adulthood.

At the age of 23, he received a Ph.D. in Political Science from Johns Hopkins University. From 1937 to 1946, Linebarger held a faculty appointment at Duke University, where he began producing highly regarded works on Far Eastern affairs. While retaining his professorship at Duke after the beginning of World War II, he began serving as a second lieutenant of the United States Army, where he was involved in the creation of the Office of War Information and the Operation Planning and Intelligence Board. He also helped organize the Army’s first psychological warfare section. In 1943, he was sent to China to coordinate military intelligence operations. By the end of the war, he had risen to the rank of major….

In 1947, Linebarger moved to the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, where he served as Professor of Asiatic Studies. He used his experiences in the war to write the book Psychological Warfare (1948), which is regarded by many in the field as a classic text. He eventually rose to the rank of colonel in the reserves. He was recalled to advise the British forces in the Malayan Emergency and the U.S. Eighth Army in the Korean War. While he was known to call himself a “visitor to small wars”, he refrained from becoming involved in Vietnam, but is known to have done undocumented work for the Central Intelligence Agency. He traveled extensively and became a member of the Foreign Policy Association, and was called upon to advise then-U.S. President John F. Kennedy.

In short, Smith was the consummate political insider both to global politics and to the emergence of what Eisenhower called “the military-industry complex.” He brought to science fiction complex theories of communication, psychology, and political change and at the same time, grafted them onto story traditions he had absorbed from classical Chinese literature and he had learned through his global travels. Underlying his almost surreal stories, then, is a deeper understanding of the nature of power and how governments seek to shape the subjective experience of their populations.

Smith’s relevance for a transmedia class is two-fold. First, Smith was a consummate world builder. All of his 32 short stories and his novel, Norstrilia, take place within a single timeline which spans more than 16000 years of future history and play out across the interconnected history of many different worlds. He depicts a future which emerges from Earth’s past as our cultural traditions are revived, reproduced, forgotten, and reperformed until they have lost much of their meaning, becoming mere formalisms. In this world, he shows an acute understanding of how cultural change impacts the ways we treat each other and how we structure labor and governance. Here, for example, is a vivid passage from “The Story of Lost C’Mell,” another key work in his depiction of the undermen:

“Ever since mankind had gone through the Rediscovery of Man, bringing back governments, money, newspapers, national languages, sickness and occassional death, there had been the problem of the underpeople — people who were not human but merely humanly shaped from the stock of Earth animals. They could speak, sing, read, write, work, love and die; but they were not covered by human law, which simply defined them as ‘homunculi’ and gave them a legal status close to animals or robots. Real people from off-world were always called ‘hominads.’ Most of the underpeople did their jobs and accepted their half-slave status without question…. Human beings and hominids had lived so long in an affluent society that they did not know what it meant to be poor. But the lords of the Instrumentality had decreed that underpeople — derived from animal stock — should live under the economics of the Ancient World; they had to have their own kind of money to pay for their rooms, their food, their posessions and the education of their children. If they became bankrupt, they went to the poorhouse, where they were killed painlessly by means of gas. It was evident that humanity, having settled all of its own basic problems, was not quite ready to let Earth animals, no matter how much they might be changed, assume a full equality with man.”

As this opening passage suggests, Smith treats his readers not as outsiders to whom such worlds must be explained but rather as insiders for whom these worlds are already well known. Consider the opening paragraph of “Dead Woman” which refers not only to some of Smith’s other tales but also seeks to debunk existing representations of the events depicted in (yet fabricated for) his story:

“You already know the end — the immense drama of the Lord Jestocost, seventh of his line, and how the cat-girl C’Mell initiated the vast conspiracy. But you do not know the beginning, how the first Lord Jestocost got his name, because of the terror and inspiration which his mother, Lady Goroke, obtained from the famous real-life drama of the dog-girl D’Joan. It is even less likely that you know the other story — the one behind D’Joan. This story is sometimes mentioned, as the matter of the ‘nameless witch,’ which is absurd, because she really had a name. The name was ‘Elaine,’ an ancient and forbidden one.”

Throughout the story, Smith offers many passages which refer outward from the current narration to discuss how the same story was told across many years, across many different media. Here are just a few examples:

“Much later, when people made songs about the strange case of the dog-girl D’Joan, the minstrels and singers had tried to imagine what Elaine felt like, and they had made up The Song of Elaine for her. It is not authentic, but it shows how Elaine looked at her own life before the strange case of D’Joan began to flow from Elaine’s own actions.”

“There are many famous painting of that scene. Most of the paintings show Elaine in rags with the distorted, suffering face of a witch. This is strictly unhistorical. She was wearing her everyday culottes, blouse and twin over-the-shoulder purses when she went in the other end of Clown Town. This was the usual dress on Fomalhaut III at that time….”

“On the actual stage the actors cannot do much with the scene of the interlude, where Joan was cooked in a single night from the size of a child five years old to the tallness of a miss fifteen or sixteen. The biological machine did work well, though at the risk of her life. It made her into a vital, robust yung person, without changing her mind at all. This is hard for any actress to portray. The storyboxes have the advantage. They can show the machine with all sorts of improvements — flashing lights, bits of lightning, mysterious rays. Actually, it looked like a bathtub full of boiling brown jelly, completely covering Joan.”

“This is the scene which we all remember, the first authentic picture tape of the entire incident.”

“You all know about the trial, so there is no need to linger over it. There is another picture of San Shigonanda, the one from his conventional period, which shows it very plainly….This is all clear from the painting, and from the wonderful way that San Shigonanda has of forming them in informal ranks and letting the calm blue light of day shine down on their handsome, hopeless features. With the underpeople, the artist performs real wonders.”

“And you have the real view-tapes, too, if you want to go to a museum. The reality is not as dramatic as the famous painting, but it has value of its own. The voice of Joan, dead these many centuries, is still strangely moving….The words of the trial, they too have survived. Many of them have became famous, all across the worlds.”

“We know what the Lords Femtiosex and Limanono thought they were doing. They were maintaining established order and they were putting it on tape. The minds of men can live together only if the basic ideas are communicated. Nobody has, even now, found a way of recording telepathy directly into an instrument. We get pieces and snatches and wild jumbles, but we never get a satisfactory record of what one of the great ones was transmitting to another. The two male chiefs were trying to put on record all those things about the episode which would teahc careless people not to play with the lives of the underpeople. They were trying to make underpeople understand the rules and designs by virtue of which they had been transformed from animals into the highest servants of man. This would have been hard to do, given the bewildering events of the last few hours, even from one chief of the Instrumentality to another; for the general public, it was almost impossible.”

Smith, thus, depicts a world where the most important stories flow across all available media franchises, get retold many times for many different audiences, with some details being encoded through cultural conventions and others distorted over time. Consider, for example, this description of a gesture which has become more cyptic as it has moved from real-world events to multiple media representations:

“The records show his appearance. He comes in at the right side of the scene, bows respectfully to the four Chiefs and lifts his right hand in the traditional sign for ‘beg to interrupt,’ an odd twist of the elevated hand which the actors had found it very difficult to copy when they tried to put the whole story of Joan and Elaine into a single drama. (In fact, he had no more idea that future ages would be studying his casual appearance than did the others. The whole episode was characterized by haste and precipitateness, in light of what we now know.)”

Smith’s version, then, becomes not the point of origin for the story but rather a debunking of conventional versions.

Not only does he imagine the event as retold many times after they occur, Smith also depicts the events as predetermined because the figures have already become encrusted in mythology. A human intelligence embedded in a computer has run a range of simulations to try to determine how the underpeople can escape their brutal fate at the hands of the human, how they might avoid death. Out of all of the possibilities, she has discovered one which leads to the best possible outcome and she has sought to prepare her followers for that eventuality. Generations have named their children “D’Joan” and have rehearsed the particulars of their mythology so they can play the roles that are required of them. When Elaine, the witch, wonders into their warren by accident, she must be instructed in her expected role and actions, and must be continually reminded her function within the prescripted narrative whenever she seeks to exert free will. Like many of the other scenarios, this script results in the death of its key participants, yet it has the chance of forcing the issue upon the oppressors and forcing them to experience powerful emotions – the pangs of conscience and consciousness – which might lead ultimately to political change.

As we enter the climax of his story, Smith describes not only what happens but how it gets transmitted to subsequent generations, discussing what events were captured by cameras (and in some cases, from what angles) and describing which are preserved in archives, which have been subject to competing interpretations, and which have been restaged and commerated through paintings, video dramas, stage plays, songs, and prose. Such descriptions look forward to our own time when something isn’t real until it has been transmitted through all available media channels:

“Fisi, in the pictures, stands back, his face sullen. In that particular frame of scenes, one can see some of the spectators going away. It was time for lunch and they had become hungry; they had no idea that they were going to miss the greatest atrocity in history, about which a thousand and more grand operas would be written.”

Smith’s writings, thus, anticipate our present transmedia moment and at the same time, offer a critical perspective on how stories flow across media. His own background as an expert on psychological warfare and as an adviser to the intelligence community allows him to anticipate how the spread of information can be manipulated by governments or shaped by dissent movements. In that sense, his references to alternative media presentation of his fictional events represents not simply a formal acknowlegement of the intertextual connections across all of his works but also as a critique of convergence, one written almost fifty years ago.

We might read Smith’s fiction as a letter sent from his generation to ours. Too bad so few of us are reading his remarkable stories. Check them out.

To learn more about this remarkable writer, read Karen L. Helleckson’s The Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith.

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He’s BA-A-A-ACK!

My blog, begun at MIT some years ago, has now successfully relocated onto USC servers. And so I am now going to return to my normal blogging activities.

As I do so, I wanted to use this first post to play catch up on a number of recent developments around projects that I am involved with, so today will feel like a series of announcements (many of which you already know if you are following me on Twitter).

New Media Literacies Conference

Project New Media Literacies is collaborating once again with the fine folks at Home Inc. to put together a conference, back at MIT, on new media literacy as a “21st century skill” on Oct. 24 2009. The key note speaker will be Alan November.

Here’s his bio:

November is an international leader in education technology. He began his career as an oceanography teacher and dorm counselor at an island reform school for boys in Boston Harbor. He has been director of an alternative high school, computer coordinator, technology consultant, and university lecturer. He has helped schools, governments and industry leaders improve the quality of education through technology and was named one of the nation’s fifteen most influential thinkers of the decade by Classroom Computer Learning Magazine. In 2001, he was listed as one of eight educators to provide leadership into the future by the Eisenhower National Clearinghouse. In 2007 he was selected to speak at the Cisco Public Services Summit during the Nobel Prize Festivities in Stockholm, Sweden. His writing includes numerous articles and best-selling book, “Empowering Students with Technology”. Alan was co-founder of the Stanford Institute for Educational Leadership Through Technology and is most proud of being selected as one of the original five national Christa McAuliffe Educators.

November will be speaking about “Digital Nation – Education in Transition to 21st Century Learning.” Other participants will include Erin Reilly, the Research Director for Project New Media Literacies; Jenna McWilliams, formerly the curriculum development specialist on our team, now at Indiana University’s Learning Sciences Program; Chris Sperry from Project Look Sharp; Home Inc’s Alan Michel; Wheelock College’s Susan Owusu and Bill Densmore from the Media Giraffe Project. I wish I was going to be there, since I’ve very much enjoyed participating in other events in this series, but I am committed elsewhere over those dates. Here’s where you can go to register.

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Futures of Entertainment 4 Conference

The Convergence Culture Consortium is really kicking into high gear as it is getting ready for our Fourth Futures of Entertainment Conference, which is going to be held at MIT on November 20-21 2009. I am going to be the opening speaker of the first day which centers on issues of transmedia entertainment. Speakers already booked include:

* DAVID BAUSOLA – Co-founder of Ag8

* NANCY BAYM- University of Kansas

* BRIAN CLARK – Partner and CEO, GMD Studios

* STEPEHN DUNCOMBE – NYU

* DAN GOLDMAN – Illustrator of Shooting War (Grand Central Publishing [US] and Weidenfeld & Nicolson [UK])

* NOESSA HIGA – Visionaire Media

* JENNIFER HOLT – UC Santa Barbara

* VICTORIA JAYE – Acting Head of Fiction & Entertainment Multiplatform Commissioning, BBC

* HENRY JENKINS-USC

* DEREK JOHNSON – University of North Texas

* BRIAN LARKIN – Milbank Barnard College

* JUYOUNG LEE – Co-Founder & Chief Scientist, ACE Metrix

* TRAPPER MARKELZ- VP Products, GamerDNA

* JASON MITTELL- Middlebury College

* AVNER RONEN – CEO & Co-founder, Boxee

* FRANK ROSE – Contributing Editor,Wired

* LORRAINE SAMMY – Racebending

* ANDREW SLACK – The Harry Potter Alliance

* DAVID SPITZ -Director of Business Development, WPP

* LOUISA STEIN – San Diego State University

* JORDAN WEISMAN – CEO and Founder, Smith & Tinker

* MARK ZAGORSKI- Chief Revenue Officer, eXelate Media

I am particularly excited about moderating a session on Transmedia Activism, which grows out of some current work I am doing on the ways we might bridge between participatory culture and public/civic participation. I hope to write more about this session and its underlying framework as we get closer to the event.

If you have come to our events in the past, you know how exciting Futures of Entertainment can be. If you have not, all of our previous sessions are now available as webcasts. Here, for example, is a conversation I had at FOE 3 with Yochai Benkler, author of The Wealth of Networks.

We see the conference as a vital meeting ground between people working in the media industry and academics, both of whom are doing cutting edge thinking about current trends impacting the realms of entertainment. So, register now and help us spread the word.

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Diversifying Participation

I am also working with the MacArthur Foundation to help organize the “Diversifying Participation” conference which will be held Feb. 18-20 2010 at the University of California, San Diego. We’ve just announced our keynote speakers, both of whom will be well known to regular readers of this blog — Sonia Livingstone (London School of Economics), author of Children and the Internet: Great Expectations and Challenging Realities, and S. Craig Watkins (University of Texas-Austin), author of The Young and the Digital: What the Migration to Social Network Sites, Games, and Anytime, Anywhere Media Means for Our Future. You can read my interview with Livingstone here and my interview with Watkins here. The conference is accepting proposals for panels (in all kinds of formats) through October 30 here.

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GAMBIT “Game of the Week”

GAMBIT, the MIT-Singapore Games Lab, is continuing to run a series of blog posts, showcasing the games which were produced during their summer program this summer. Each week, they showcase one game, including artwork, design materials, and comments from team members. If you have not had a chance to play this year’s titles, you really should check them out. Several of them have already started to generate buzz across the games blogosphere and like previous titles, are certain to be competitive where-ever independent games are being shown. I had a chance to sit down with the Gambit team during a recent visit back to MIT and was as always impressed by their output, which is consistently breaking the mold in terms of the design of play mechanics, visuals, and sound. Their mandate is to stretch the limits of our understanding of what games can do. Each game serves a larger research question, but Philip Tan, the Lab’s director, makes sure that the most important thing created on his watch is FUN!

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Understanding Superheroes

I will be speaking this coming Saturday (Oct. 24) at the University of Oregon as part of a conference and art exhibition they have organized around “Understanding Superheroes.” It sounds funny to say that I am keynoting a superheroes conference — like Aquaman couldn’t make it! My topic will be “‘Man Without Fear': David Mack and the Formal Limits of the Superhero Comic.” While I have been writing and speaking about comics for a while, this will be the first time I’ve really dug deep into the formal conventions of superhero comics. My primary focus will be, as the title suggests, the work which Mack has done within the mainstream continuity of Marvel’s Daredevil Franchise though more generally I will be exploring what happens when experimental and mainstream comics intersect each other. Other speakers at the conference include creative artists such as Danny Fingeroth, Kurt Busiek, Matt Fraction, and Gail Simone as well as scholars and critics such as Douglas Wolk, Charles Hatfield, Corey Creekmur, Jonathon Grey, and Matt Yockey. The conference was organized and the exhibit curated by Ben Saunders. I will be sharing my impressions of this event on my blog next week.