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 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.


  1. says:

    The proprietary appropriation of an archive of the evolution of a revolutionary campaign is nothing less than interesting:

    Premiers tonight. I wish we all had access.