Sites of Convergence: An Interview for Brazillian Academics (Part Three)

Conducted by Vinicius Navarro for Contracampo, a journal from Universidade Federal Fluminense (Brazil).

You have talked about the way media convergence upsets existing hierarchies between producers and consumers of popular culture. Historically, these hierarchies find parallels in the divide between countries that export culture and those that import it, or countries that export knowledge and those that import it. Can we apply some of your insights to the way culture and knowledge circulate across borders? How does the promise of participation manifest itself at a global level?

I am not someone who is going to argue that the world is flat. The economic dominance of Western countries, especially the United States, over the global imaginary continues to be a strong force, one that is difficult to resist. Yet we are also seeing increased fluidity as culture produced in other parts of the world is circulating more freely across national borders.

That circulation is being shaped, first and foremost, through processes of immigration, in which people use the web to maintain contact to mother countries they have left behind, and immigrants introduce new forms of cultural expression wherever they go. Yet this only partially explains the current moment of cultural circulation. I would also argue that young people around the world are increasingly cosmopolitan in their engagement with popular culture. They are seeking out greater diversity than they can find in their own often parochial local communities. We see this in young people in Iran who grew up trying to smuggle Michael Jackson posters, tapes, and videos past government censors and are now reaching out to a global public through Twitter. We see it in American young people who are seeking out compelling content from Asia (Manga now outsells American comics four to one in the U.S. market; Anime is now one of Japan's leading exports to the world; and there are signs that Korean and Chinese dramas are starting to have a similar impact as people are seeking them out online), from Latin America (a huge rise in interest in telenovelas), and so forth. As they do so, they are connecting with the fans of those media in their country of origin and this has the potential to expand global consciousness.

The public's interest in this international media content often far outstrips the ability or willingness of dominant media to provide it, but the grassroots channels are picking up some of the slack. So, it takes less than 24 hours for an episode of Prison Break to air in America and be translated via amateur subtitlers into a range of Asian languages, and then appear on torrents across the Pacific Rim. And it takes no more time for an animated series to appear on Japanese television and find its way into the home of American teens.

We recently saw a video of the winner of Ukraine's Got Talent get posted on YouTube and get seen more than 2 million times. As people discover interesting content, they pass it along to their friends and family. Most Americans had never seen Ukrainian television before, I dare to say, yet they were willing to give it a chance because it was freely available and widely circulating.

Now, that raises the larger challenge - are we concerned with cultural access (with the flow of ideas and expressions across national borders) or economic viability (the ability of other media producing countries to reap a profit from access to once closed American markets)? Both are likely changing right now, but there's no question that there's much greater fluidity on the level of culture than on the level of commerce. Artists everywhere in the world are losing control over the circulation of their content and, as they do so, they may also be losing the economic base that supports their production. Yet one can argue that, in many cases, this content is circulating into markets that would have been closed to them anyway. And they are more likely to find paying customers once the public has been exposed to and educated about their genres of cultural production.

Last year, you and David Bordwell engaged in a discussion on transmedia storytelling, which was posted on your blog. Narratives that start on a movie screen, for instance, can continue in a videogame and then make their way back to the film medium. The idea of transmedia storytelling, however, makes it hard for us to apply formal criteria to the analysis of a particular cultural experience, which is why Bordwell seems to favor more traditional forms of narrative. What are some of the aesthetic criteria that you use to analyze an experience that involves different media platforms?

I teach a course on transmedia entertainment at USC and the experience of closely examining texts and listening to media producers share their creative processes and their conception of the transmedia audiences has really sharpened my focus on these issues. I now believe that it is possible to map out some cornerstones of the aesthetics of transmedia. The first would be a shift from a focus on individual characters and their stories towards ever more complex forms of world building.

The second would be the expansion of traditional forms of seriality that disperse story information across multiple chunks of entertainment content. Traditional serial unfolded across a single medium, providing a means for orientating and engaging viewers, even as they provided gaps that motivated us to continue to engage with their unfolding story. The new serials will unfold across multiple media platforms, allowing us to connect multiple chunks, with a less linear flow of information, and creating a space where we can share what we've found with others who are equally invested in this shared entertainment experience.

Third, there is a focus on layered or multiple forms of subjectivity where, much as in a soap opera, we engage with the story through the perspective of multiple characters, who often reflect different values or social situations.

Think about what transmedia extensions do. They provide us with more information and a chance to more fully explore the fictional world; they allow us to engage with backstory or play out the long-term impact of story events; or they refocalize the story around the perspective of secondary or peripheral characters and thus return to the "mother ship" with a new frame of reference.

Right now, we are still simply mapping the territory, identifying formal devices and modes of storytelling that work in a transmedia environment, occasionally stumbling onto examples that pack real emotional power or cognitive complexity. Yet there are people out there monitoring the experiments, refining their craft - some of them are the artists who will push transmedia to the next level and some of them are the consumers who will be able to keep pace with those artists and help them to achieve their full potential.

When I read your discussion with David Bordwell, I thought about the repercussions of media convergence to traditional academic disciplines. In a sense, Bordwell's response to the notion of transmedia narrative suggests a concern with the status and autonomy of a particular discipline - film studies. It reveals a desire to look at cinema qua cinema. How do you see the role of traditional academic disciplines in the world of media convergence? What fate might they have apart from responding to the "demands" of new media?

Well, that description is more than a little unfair to David Bordwell, who really does seem engaged with the intellectual issues raised by transmedia stories and, if anything, was arguing that the Hollywood industry was too conservative in using the practices in relatively trivial ways having more to do with marketing than storytelling. He certainly would object to the push to turn all films into "mother ships" for transmedia franchise. So would I.

I think we need to study very closely to know when it is going to be aesthetically rewarding and when it is going to be a dead-end. I don't think we were that far apart in that exchange, and I really enjoyed the chance of sparring with someone at the top of his game. Behind that exchange was an enormous degree of mutual respect. Otherwise, why bother.

That said, your larger question about the impact on the disciplines is a very real one. I don't know that the particular configurations of knowledge that emerged in the late industrial age - our current set of disciplines - can or will necessarily last that long into the information age. We are already seeing a significant reconfiguration of fields of knowledge, we are seeing students coming to universities with intellectual pursuits that simply cannot be contained within individual disciplines, which require them to move across majors in the course of their educations, much as they will move across professions in the course of their working lives.

Our university curriculum tries desperately to "discipline" these learners, forcing them into categories, but I'd argue that it does so to the detriment of both the individuals involved and the society at large. We need to be exploring the interconnectedness of our fields of knowledge if we are going to exploit the full potentials of the new media landscape or combat the challenges of life in the 21st century. We need to free our minds, to absorb as many different methods of inquiry and bodies of knowledge as possible, so we can reconfigure knowledge as we learn to collaborate across professional and disciplinary borders. In short, we need to embrace a converged educational system so that we can navigate through a converged information environment.

Vinicius Navarro is assistant professor of film studies at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is the co-author (with Louise Spence) of Crafting Truth: Documentary Form and Meaning (Rutgers University Press, 2011). He is currently working on a book on performance, documentary, and new media.