Why It’s Great to Be a Media Buff in LA (Part Two)

The Velaslavasay Panorama — The 19th century Panoramas were astonishing mixtures of painting, music, sound effects, and spoken narration, important ancestors of the cinema and other immersive media of our century. This facility is dedicated to preserving the memory of these great spectacles. We saw a great re-enactment from the original script of a narrative about a journey from South America up the coast of California last summer and throughout the year, they have hosted periodic lectures on 19th century showmanship and popular art.

The Hollywood Museum – Inside the old Max Factor Factory, this collection of movie memorabilia is full of treasures. For example, it turns out that Pee-Wee’s bicycle is not in the basement of the Alamo as he suspects, but rather, here is the heart of old Hollywood. There are also the death masks which Forest Ackerman collected of Karloff, Lagosi, Chaney, Price, and other great horror actors alongside the set from Hannibal Lecter’s cell in Silence of the Lambs, costumes from Theda Bara, Mae West, Marilyn Monroe, W.C. Fields, and Lucille Ball, alongside materials from this year’s hot releases. The signage is pathetic, the display is more or less random except for a downstairs area organized by the hair color of leading ladies (so red for Lucile Ball and Rita Haywood, blond for Shirley Temple and Jean Harlow). This is less a museum than a romp through someone’s attic. Glance through a window into the storage area and you can see a Maltese Falcon, heaven only knows if it is real. This is truly the stuff that dreams are made of.

The Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theater – A LA tradition, this is an all purpose retrohouse with strong emphasis on camp and cult cinema during much of the week, but I love it for two great ongoing series. First, there’s The Silent Treatment the first Wednesday of every month, which is when the theater lives up to its name, and shares both classic and obscure silent films to a packed house of folks who love what they are seeing. They do Chaplin, Keaton, Griffith, and Eisenstein, to be sure, but they also do titles there I have never seen showing anywhere else. So, coming up this summer are W.C. Fields in So’s Your Old Man and Lilian Gish in The Scarlet Letter. My other favorite are the animation screenings currated and hosted by Jerry Beck. I was really happy to see a showcase of the works of Cartoon Modernist Gene Deitch, including an appearance of the great man himself.

Arclight Cinerama Dome: Arclight promises us a “state of the art” exhibition experience and it provides it, but what I am most interested in is the Cinerama Dome itself, one of the few surviving theaters with this configuration in the world. It’s wasted, for the most part, on contemporary movies which are not designed to exploit the screen’s surround-vision features, but I was lucky enough to catch part of a Cinerama Festival the theater hosted shortly after I arrived. I was awestruck to see How the West Was Won shown through three projectors simultaneously on a screen that completely engulfs your peripheral vision. I had seen the movie on television, but nothing prepared me for the actual Cinerama experience. I can only wish they would show more Cinerama movies there.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — I will admit that I have so far underutilized the remarkable lecture and screening series hosted by the Academy, but I hope to make up for it this summer. All summer long, the Academy is showing films from the 1920s, which won Photoplay’s Medal of Honor (a kind of People’s Choice award). The films include many which have fallen into relative obscurity, including Humoresque, Four Sons, The Covered Wagon, Seventh Heaven, and Beau Geste.

The Hollywood Heritage Museum — Across the street from the Hollywood Bowl, this ramshackled old facility would be easy to overlook. Built in 1913 by Jesse Laske and Cecil B. Demille to shoot The Squaw Man, this was the first major film studio in Hollywood. A few times a year, they open the facility and screen movies there. The screenings are technically poor but the sense of history of watching silent movies within these walls more than makes up for the periodic blackouts and the folding chair seating, making for a memorable occasion. My favorite experience here so far was a lecture and screening by a Three Stooges fan group which was trying to track down the locations where their silent comedies were shot.

The Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising: Only a few blocks from my apartment, the FIDM was host to the LA season of Project Runaway, but more immediately pertinent, it hosts an ongoing series of exhibits of costume designs, including annual showcases for the Acadamy Awards and Emmy Award nominees and showcases of specific projects (Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, being a personal fave) and designers.

California Artists Radio Theater — A recent discovery of mine, though a long-time Los Angeles institution, a group of veteran actors get together once a month and publically perform radio drama inside the Beverly Garland Holiday Inn’s conference room. We discovered it because they were doing one of Norman Corwin’s historical dramas in honor of my USC colleague’s 101st Birthday. Corwin was there amongst us, enjoying Birthday Cake, thank you very much, and his gifted friends shared an hour of high entertainment. Take a look at the list of actors who have performed here through the years, and you will see why I plan to come back as often as I can.

The Magic Castle — This is where all the magic geeks go to hang out. There are typically six or more different magicians performing each night in different showrooms embedded in this meandering Victorian mansion, and there are many more magicians, professional and amateur, in the audience, many of whom will also break out a deck of cards and show you a few tricks while you are awaiting the next performance, and the space is crammed with artifacts reflecting the history of prestidigitation, including stuff from Houdini and W.C. Fields.

And of course, the one truth about media in LA, above all others, is that no matter where you go to watch an old movie in this town, the odds are high that it is going to be introduced by Leonard Maltin. :-)

These are some of my favorite media experiences in Los Angeles. There are a few things I know about like the summer movie screenings inside the Hollywood Forever graveyard which I have yet to see and I am leaving off the big amusement parks, the research archives, university film screenings, and some of the live shootings for network television here. But what else am I missing? Share your favorite media experiences in Los Angeles with me via email at hjenkins@usc.edu

Why It’s Great to Be a Media Buff in LA (Part One)

I moved to Los Angeles two years ago July 1 and good and loyal readers, I am having a blast, exploring this phenomenal city and taking advantage of some of its many opportunities to watch old movies and hear front line perspectives from people in the entertainment industry.

I figured that I would share some of my favorite things about this city in hopes that I may flag something one of you has been missing out on and in hopes that you may know some things going on here that have so far missed my attention. If the later, write me at hjenkins@usc.edu and I will pass your tips along to my readers. Be sure to let me know whether your letter is for publication or not. These are listed in no particular order.

The Paley Center for Media: Beyond a rich archive of materials from across television history, the Paley Center hosts a broad array of public programs showcasing the best of what the media can do. Every Spring, they run the Paleyfest which includes screenings and conversations with the cast and crew of top contemporary series. This year, I was lucky enough to get tickets for evenings focused on True Blood, White Collar, The Walking Dead, and best of all, a reunion of the casts of Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared. They have also launched a Rewind festival which brings back the casts of classic television series and shows episodes from their archival collections. Highlights for me last summer were Room 222, My Three Sons, and the Rogers and Hammerstein Cinderella. I am eagerly awaiting news of what’s on tap for this July. And throughout the year, they have other special events, including a program on Bing Crosby’s specials, with members of his family and friends. The conversations at the Paley are much sharper than those with some of these same groups at Comic-Con: the audience is less likely to ask spoiler questions, more apt to ask about insights into the production process and the storytelling, since so many in the crowd are from the industry or would like to be in the industry.

The Cinecon Classic Film Festival — Held in The Egyptian Theater in the heart of Hollywood, Cinecon is the hardcore movie buff’s event of the year. My wife and I have gone for the past two years and it now has a permanent spot on our calendar for the fall. Basically, for four straight days, they show films that even I have never heard of — genre films primarily from the 1920s-1950s, often from minor studios. A key selection criteria is that the films can not have been released on DVD and are rarely if ever shown on television. These films come from archival vaults and especially from private collectors. Despite the grab bag like effect of moving between genres, studios, and periods, each film is selected with some wisdom — I have rarely seen a film here which is not without interest and most are really engaging examples that fill in the gaps for me in terms of understanding this period of film history. For example, my big discovery last year was the silent westerns of William S. Hart. I’d seen his picture in books for years and I had no idea how visually compelling and morally complex these early westerns could be. I also have seen several silent or early sound films from Frank Capra, one of my personal favorite directors, which I had never been able to catch before. Part of the pleasure is also eavesdropping on the conversations of aging movie collectors, who have an encyclopedic knowledge of whatever kind of film they are passionate about. And for the rest of the year, The Egyptian hosts the American Cinematique and the Art Deco Society often hosts screenings and lectures here.

TCM Classic Film Festival – Hosted by the television network, the festival is held primarily at the Grauman’s Chinese and its accompanying multiplex. TCM’s schedule is organized to sustain the interest of film buffs at all levels of sophistication: lots of “The Essentials” but also several screens showing much more obscure stuff, often stuff being restored by the country’s leading film archives. My experiences this year included seeing Kubrick’s Spartacus introduced by Kirk Douglas himself, seeing Whistle Down the Wind with Hayley Mills, watching Drew Barrymore introducing Night Mail, which featured Lionel and John Barrymore, laughing my way through Cary Grant’s delightful first film, This is the Night, enjoying Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman with a live orchestra, and seeing the last film of Clara Bow, Hoop-La. Despite the star power which TCM provides throughout the event,

I still tend to prefer the more intimate and more obscure Cinecon, but this is a great way to spend a weekend.

The Art Directors Guild Screenings: Of all of the Hollywood Guilds, the Art Directors are doing the best job of explaining to the general public what they do and why it matters to our experience of great movies. Organized by my friend, John Muto, the Guild shows roughly a film a month at either the Egyptian or the Aero theater, accompanyed by a panel discussion with veteran art directors, film scholars, and others who know about the craft of production design and shown with great clip reels which showcase the featured Art Director/Production Designer’s body of work. I was lucky enough to be asked to speak at a program focused around The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T, which is one of my very favorite movies, and have attended programs on everything from Bollywood epics to British science fiction classics.

The UCLA Film Archive — I have yet to make it to the UCLA Film Archive’s Festival of Preservation, which is where they share rare films which have been saved from decay and destruction and brought back to something akin to their pristine qualities. But I have enjoyed some great screenings through the past two years. I was flattered, for example, that earlier this year they did a series, Mixed Nuts: Vaudeville and Film, which, unbeknowst to me, was inspired by my dissertation book, What Made Pistachio Nuts?: Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic. It was great to see films that I had watched 20 plus years ago in archives being shown to a sparse but engaged audience at the Hammer Museum, in some cases on original Nitrate prints!

El Capitan — This vintage movie palace is the flagship theater for the Walt Disney Studios and shows only Disney releases, mostly contemporary but also periodically vintage animated titles. Everything is done with the showmanship and “magic” one associates with a Disney production, including exhibitions of props and costumes from the films, live stage presentations (a lazer light show for the new Tron movie, a live animal show for African Cats, etc.). My wife and I took a day off recently to watch all four of the Jack Sparrow Pirates of the Carribbean movies shown back to back, complete with performances of classic Disney songs on the Wurlitzer Organ, appearances by minor cast members, pirate bands, jugglers, and stiltwalkers to entertain us while waiting in line, and a spectacular pre-show for the most recent installment. I confess that I have fallen hard into Disney fandom since moving to LA, revisiting childhood favorites, and taking advantage of an annual visitor’s past to Disneyland.

Last Remaining Seats<: We are lucky enough to live on Broadway in the heart of what was Los Angeles’s Theater District during Hollywood’s golden years. I can see the neon of the Orpheum theater out my window and all along the street there are what remains of some great movie palaces (not to mention the often filmed Bradbury Building). Every summer, the Los Angeles Conservancy organizes a screening series, which shows classic films in some of these great old facilities. So last year, I was introduced to Mexican melodramas of the 1940s at the Million Dollar Theater and saw the silent version of Peter Pan at the Orpheum. This year’s series includes Sunset Boulevard, King Kong, Captain Blood, and Safety Last. We have season tickets so look forward to seeing some of you there. Throughout the year, there are other amazing one-off events, such as a screening of an obscure Colleen Moore film last year, and of course, the Orpheum is the host of tryouts for American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance, and other reality shows. And the Conservancy does walking tours of the theater district, of the Art Deco buildings (including Eastern Columbia, where I live), and other downtown landmarks.

Learning from Hollywood: Voices from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center Conference

I spent the first part of the week participating in a conference, hosted by the USC Cinema School and organized by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, “Learning from Hollywood: Can Entertainment Media Ignite an Education Revolution?” This was the kind of event that warms my radically undisciplined heart and mind — a gathering of people from many different backgrounds (educators and academics, media industry people from both the commercial and public media worlds, activists and nonprofits, foundations, librarians and curators) to talk about the potential intersection between education and entertainment. In the course of the two days, we heard a lot about the value of stories and storytelling to incite the imagination, to provoke curiosity, to convey our collective memories and wisdom, and to inspire more acts of creativity.

This was perhaps best brought alive for me through a performance by The Story Pirates — a group of actors, improv comedians, and otherwise kooky and creative people, who go into schools around the country, help young people construct their own stories, and then incorporate them into their performances. In this case, they brought a class of Latino/a elementary schools with them, both performing one young man’s previously written stories, and soliciting elements from the kids for a story performed live on the spot.

My own remarks at the conference centered on what the practices and logics of participatory culture might bring to the paradigm of “entertainment education” which I have been learning a lot about since coming to USC. Under the classic version of this model, experts consult with script writers to get information about health or social concerns integrated into the fictional programs and sometimes to get tags or bumpers which help link viewers to the groups working on these issues. I really respect the commitment behind such work and know that it does make a difference for many people. But increasingly, I’ve wondered what would happen if these same projects got taken up by the fan communities around the show, if the messages were not simply embedded in the program but designed to be acted upon in more creative and public ways. I used the example of what’s happened around Harry Potter to describe a movement from inspiring reading to inspiring writing to inspiring activism, remarks which build upon the work my Civicpaths research group has been doing for the MacArthur and Spencer Foundations.

Scott Traylor from 360KID, who I knew from back at MIT, was nice enough to capture my remarks and those of several other speakers via his cellphone camera and has given me permission to share some of these segments with you through this blog. Thanks, Scott. So, this first bit is my talk on Harry Potter and the potential of a more participatory model of entertainment education.

Scott also captured some of the highlights from a panel on Monday night on “Storytelling and the Art of Engagement,” hosted by Betty Cohen, the former President of the Cartoon Network and the Lifetime Network, and including film producers Don Hahn (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King) and Doug Wick (Gladiator, Memoirs of a Gesha) and television producer Marcy Carsey (The Cosby Show, Roseanne, Third Rock from the Sun), sharing their insights on Hollywood’s craft and speaking about their desire to see the work that they do more fully incorporated into both formal and informal education. Getting these kinds of glimpses into the behind the scenes production processes is one of the great joys of living so close to Hollywood.

Here are two highlights Scott captured — showing Carsey talking about the need to “respect the audience”…

And Wick talking about how he draws inspiration from the work of Bruno Bettelheim:

The event was also a place for demonstrations by some top digital designers and developers, including this segment on Sifteos by a Media Lab alum Jeevan Kalanithi.

On Tuesday morning, we heard from Linda Burch from Common Sense Media and Frank Gilliam, Dean of the UCLA School of Public Affairs, talking about the challenges of overcoming existing frames parents and teachers have for thinking about the relations between digital media and schooling. Scott captured Gilliam’s remarks, which offer some real insights into how and why some of the messaging around digital media and learning may be falling on deaf ears.

Unfortunately, Scott had to fly back to Boston so we do not have some of the other highpoints of the conference, such as a presentation by Participant Media’s John Schreiber on their Waiting for Superman documentary;

an interview with Kari Byron, the charming host of Mythbusters, about their new Headrush initiative, to help inspire girls to think about STEM; and closing remarks by media mogul Peter Gruber.

All told, my head is exploding from new insights and beyond that, new connections, many of which I hope to build upon through this blog in the weeks ahead.

Special thanks to Cooney Center Director Michael Levine who has helped pull together this phenomenal event.

Shall We Play? (Part Two)

Because of the importance we place on play, we call the professional development program Project New Media Liteacies is developing PLAY (which in this case stands for Participatory Learning and YOU!) (We usually accompany this definition by pointing our finger at the person we are talking to, itself a playful ritual which surrounds our collective discussion of this work.) You can read more about the core concepts underlying our PLAY approach through a series of blog posts being developed by Vanessa Vartabedian at the Project NML blog.

For the moment, I will simply offer this one paragraph explanation of our general approach:

Participatory learning is characterized by:

  • Heightened motivation and new forms of engagement through meaningful play and experimentation;
  • Learning that feels relevant to students’ identities and interests;
  • Opportunities for creating using a variety media, tools and practices;
  • Co-configured expertise where educators and students pool their skills and knowledge and share in the tasks of teaching and learning;
  • An integrated system of learning where connections between home, school, community and world are enabled and encouraged.

While there is no one-to-one mapping between the 6 Ps of Play and these principles of participatory learning, I hope it is clear that these two frameworks have informed each other in significant ways. What we are describing as participatory learning can and often is linked to new media tools and platforms but it does not have to be. We stress the value of low-tech and no-tech versions of these processes, even if we also try to model ways that state-of-the-art tools can be integrated into this kind of learning environment. The principles of participatory learning emerge from our close examination of what I call participatory culture, a topic which surfaces often here on the blog.

Blake Anderson, a student in my New Media Literacies class made this video to explain the concept, which I had to share. This graduate student was motivated by a series of YouTube videos to make a puppet for the first time, as he sought ways to translate my conceptual model for a new audience. As you will see, the protagonist of the video is The Professor who bears an uncanny resemblance to the actual instructor of his class but was also a tribute to a childhood spent in the company of Muppets. This deflation of academic authority was received with great pleasure by all involved, especially by me.

What does participatory learning look like in practice? Well, one example might be the workshops in interactive design which I ran for many years at MIT in collaboration with the late Sande Scoredos from Sony Imageworks. We formed teams of students with many different educational backgrounds and interests. Each team was to chose an existing media property and began to develop a plan for how to expand it into interactive media — most often, how to translate it into the vocabulary of contemporary video games. Students in this intensive class broke their time between hearing lectures on aspects of interactive design by faculty and industry people and working in teams, brainstorming, refining their ideas, and working towards a presentation. By the end of the week, the students “pitch” their game ideas to a panel of people from different parts of the entertainment industry, pretending to be a start up company trying to get a contract, and they got feedback on both their ideas and their presentation styles.

The result was always memorable — a rich array of imaginative ideas which showed a deep understanding of the core concepts and information running through the class. Students listened with the idea that they would be applying what they learned in this creative and playful process. I plan to adapt this approach for the Transmedia Entertainment and Storytelling class I am offering through the Cinema School in the fall.

Participatory learning might also look like what we have been doing through an after school program which we launched at the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools this semester, a program focused around themes of digital citizenship. The RFK schools (six altogether, each with different focuses and philosophies) launched this fall and they are still trying to work through their identity and norms as a community. We sought ways to get students focused on the process of defining who they were as a community through play and creative activities. Vanessa Vartabedian ran the program, with strong support from Erin Reilly and Laurel Felt, and in the end, it involved all of the current Project NML students and staff, as well as students from my New Media Literacies graduate seminar.

One activity had the students taking photographs of “invisible borders or boundaries” which shaped their social interactions, whether borders based on gender, class, or the line between student and teacher or the line between the different schools using the shared facility. This focus on norms of inclusion or exclusion was enhanced by the challenge of using photography, normally a medium for capturing the visible, as a means of representing things which are understood but often not explicit, often not seen or observed.

Another activity, developed by the Rossier Schools’ Stefani Relles sought to get students to construct an anthem for their school, using very open ended modes of visual orchestration, and then, using simple instruments, trying to produce meaningful noise together. The goal was not only to get students to articulate what their schools meant to them but also to experience music-making as a creative process, one which was structured to free them from anxieties about performance.

Another activity, developed by Meryl Alper, got them to focus on the history of the school, which had, among other things, been the site of the Coconut Grove nightclub, which has been partially preserved as a drama facility, and was also the site of the Ambassador Hotel, where Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. In fact, the media lab where the after school program meets is the kitchen where RFK died, something which students had not fully understood until Alper explained it. Alper shared with them a photograph of the Latino bus boy who prayed with and comforted RFK in his final moments, and asked them to think about their own place in the history of the school. Using an app which pastiched a range of different film stocks, she asked them to go out and stage images which conveyed something of the history of the school, and again, they were invited to creatively explore and document their physical surroundings. These are simply a few of the forms of participatory learning activities we’ve incorporated into our work at the RFK schools. Most of these activities are playful and creative, but they are not in and of themselves games.

So, let me close with the invitation to all of the educators who read (or hear) this talk: Shall we play?

Shall We Play? (Part One)

A few weeks ago, I delivered one of the two keynote addresses at the USC Teaching with Technologies conference. This year’s theme was “The Connected Mind.” I chose to spend my time talking about the value of play, a theme which has surfaced several times in my recent talks, so I wanted to share the core ideas from this presentation with you here.

SHALL WE PLAY?

In many ways, I am speaking to you today under false pretenses. This talk is not primarily about teaching with technology. After spending two decades of my life at MIT, I have almost reflexively become that guy who challenges claims about technological determinism and who stresses the importance of the culture which informs the design and deployment of tools.

These themes are explored more fully in the white paper which I wrote for the MacArthur Foundation on Learning in a Participatory Culture. New media tools and platforms have affordances which support new kinds of learning, but those forms of learning are also very strongly informed by participatory practices, many of which have a history far older than the web. Today, in focusing on play, I am going to be drawing heavily on ideas that emerged prior to the introduction of digital games, but which continue to be relevant in rethinking our pedagogical practices. If we embrace the values of play, we may find ourselves toying with new technologies and insofar as these participatory practices are closely associated with some of the new platforms of the Web 2.0 era, we may also find that in working with these tools, we are drawn towards a reappraisal of the value of play in our teaching.

This is also not a talk about games-based learning. Through the work I did almost a decade ago at MIT with Kurt Squire, Philip Tan, Eric Klopfer, Alex Chisholm and others on the Games to Teach Project, I have been an early and frequent advocate of games-based learning. I both share James Paul Gee’s belief that good game design is also good pedagogical design and have worked to model what games for education might look like. But in talking always about games, we may under-estimate the value of more open-ended forms of play and of play as a general disposition in the educational environment. These are the themes I want to explore more fully today.

This is also not a talk about gamification, a term which is being used far too often today, as if it could adequately sum up the larger movement towards games for change. To me, gamification as a concept grossly simplifies what research on games-based learning has shown us over the past decade or so. When the Games to Teach team worked with content experts, we sought ways to embed information from the curriculum, knowledge from the text book, into activities in the games. We asked each expert what knowing this allowed people to do and then we sought to capture those activities through the game design and mechanics so that they provided deep motivation for the learner to master these concepts.

At the heart of this model was intrinsic motivation. The power of games is in part that they provide such clarity in defining the roles and goals, that they helped us to know what to do and how to do it, and as such, they motivate deeper forms of learning. Gamification, at its worst, rejects a theory of intrinsic motivation in favor of one based on extrinsic motivation. That is to say, it attempts to motivate “proper” or “desired” behavoirs through attaching points to otherwise mundane and uninteresting activities. For example, Foursquare represents a gamification of consumer loyalty programs.

One might argue that this version of gamification does not in any significant way break with current educational practices which may be why it has been easier for schools to embrace than the more challenging kinds of learning games which were proposed in the past. Our students learn NOW in schools not because they value what they are learning but because they have been taught to value grades. And where their grades are not strong, they plead for extra credit points, which represents another way of adding points as rewards or incentives to behaviors valued by their teachers. I do believe we can learn much from games but I sure hope that what we take away from them goes deeper than most current models of gamification.

But, for the moment, I want to push games aside and talk about play. The distinction I am making here comes from an essay by the child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim. Here’s what Bettelheim tells us:

‘Generally speaking, play refers to the young child’s activities characterized by freedom from all but personally imposed rules (which are changed at will), by free-wheeling fantasy involvement, and by the absence of any goals outside the activities itself…’

Bettelheim thus links play to freedom, experimentation, personal investment, and process, all values to which I will return later in this talk.

“Games, however, are usually competitive and are characterised by agreed-upon, often externally imposed, rules, by a requirement to use the implements of the activity in the manner for which they were intended and not as fancy suggests, and frequently by a goal or purpose outside the activity, such as winning the game.”

We might think about the game, Candyland, as an ideal transitional device — a game which teaches young players the basic mechanics of board games, one which often plays a key role in socializing us into the world of games. For Betteiheim, learning to play games represents an important step in the socialization process — learning to accept outside and sometimes arbitrary constraints on one’s behavior for the purposes of social reciprocity and delayed gratification.

“Children recognize early on that play is an opportunity for pure enjoyment, whereas games may involve considerable stress.”

So, while learning to play games is a step forward, it also is accompanied by some kinds of losses — in terms of personal expression and immediate pleasure. People cheat at games, for example, as a way of coping with the anxiety of competition in ways that they do not generally find it necessary to cheat at play. Indeed, it is not clear what cheating at play would look like given the lack of social constraint on individual expression it entails.

By that same token, institutions find it much easier to incorporate games, which preserves the notion of rule-driven activity, rather than play, which is often understood as a kind of anarchic freedom from any and all constraints. So, schools often treat most forms of play as minimally a distraction, more often a disruption, of school practices, hence the concept of “class clown” which runs through educational literature. In other cultures, the clown is an educator who invites us to re-examine existing hierarchies and structures, taking the world apart and putting it back together again, where-as the clown in our schooling is seen as an unwelcome rival for the classes attention, a challenge to discipline and a disturbance of learning.

In part, this is because our puritan culture maintains a world view in which play is the opposite of work. We have decided that schooling should be about work rather than play, and as such, we are driving down the creative impulses of our students. No wonder that many are seeing a crisis of creativity in contemporary America!

Interestingly, though, when we work with teachers in professional development programs focused on learning and teaching the new media literacies, they consistently gravitate to play out of the 12 social skills and cultural competencies we’ve identified through our work. Here’s how our white paper defines play as a literacy: “the capacity to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of problem solving.” Today, we are pushing beyond play as a skill to think about play as a disposition — a way of seeing oneself and the world through new creative lens which depend on suspending real world consequences and encouraging a process of innovation and creativity.

Educators are sometimes drawn to play for the wrong reasons — because they seek to entertain their students. I sometimes hear various lay theories of “stealth learning,” the idea that we can smuggle in learning disguised as play into schools and students will have so much fun that they will overcome their resistance to the schooling process. In many ways, I see this as like that moment in Tom Sawyer where Twain’s protagonist sells others in his cohort into helping him white wash the fence by convincing him that doing so is great fun. This is perhaps the same kind of trap that we fall into when we talk about gamification — a confusion between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. Play is not disguised learning; play IS learning.

Jean Piaget captures this sense of the value of play when he tells us that “play is the work of childhood.” He rejects any simple opposition between play and work, suggesting that play is the most important work children perform, because it is through play they acquire basic knowledge and skills fundamental to their culture. A kitten plays at stalking. In a hunting society, children play with bows and arrows. And in an information society, people play with information and interfaces.

We can rehearse and acquire core skills and knowledge through play because play lowers the stakes of failure. One of the activities we’ve developed through Project NML for thinking about play is called “Fail and Fail Often,” and it uses the casual game, Bloons, to get people to reflect on the strategies of experimentation and calibration they apply in solving problems in games. This is a totally addictive game in part because it is so simple and the way you move forward through the game is to try different strategies, most of which will not work. Through this process, we learn basic things about the physics of the game and how different materials respond to us. We can compare this with the role failure plays in schools: children are afraid to fail and teachers are afraid to tell their students that they are failing. As a result, students do not take risks which might push their performance forward and they do not get the feedback they might need to better calibrate their efforts.

Lately, as I’ve talked about the value of play for learning, I have started to identify a series of properties which help us to better understand the core principles of play. I call them the Six P’s of Play (though this remains a work in progress and may end up with fewer or more Ps before all is said and done).

1. Permission. Before we can play, as adults, as students, we have to give ourselves permission to do so. This is of course different for many children who play often and only stop playing when they are prohibited from doing so. The concept of permission is closely linked to what game theorists call the “magic circle,” that is, a mental bracket which we put around our activities which changes their affect, their meaning, and most of all, their consequences. Within that magic circle, we lower the consequences of risks; we agree to engage with each other with good humor; we try hard but do not take the outcome as seriously as we would if we performing the same activities outside of a play context. I love the example of the little girl who is sweeping the floor — we would understand her activity differently if she were doing chores or playing house, even though the actions would be the same. In a school culture, where there is a long history of prohibiting play, we must work very hard to give signals when play is an acceptable mode of engaging with the activities and we have to build up trust with our students that we are not going to retrospectively count their play against them.

2. Process – Play values process as much or more than product. Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salens make the point that the most efficient and effective way to play golf is to walk right up to the hole and plop the ball into it. But we would not see that as a very fun way of playing golf. Instead, we create as many obstacles as possible — we use strange implements, we move far away from the hole, we create sand and water obstacles, we slope the landscape to give us less effective control over the outcome. In an education system now focused so heavily on how students perform on standardized testing, performance based on product completely displaces performance assessed based on process, yet play’s value is focusing our attention on the experience itself, in the moment, in the process. It asks us to be aware of how we do things as much as on what we do. This is why play can be helpful in supporting the acquisition of basic skills which can be rehearsed and valued on their own without regard to the finished product.

3. Passion –The Gates Foundation has found that an increasing number of young people are dropping out of school not because they are incapable of performing what’s expected of them but because they are bored. Work in the Digital Media and Learning Field tells us that we need to recognize the rewards of passion-based learning, of students pursuing those topics which they care about most deeply and using these interests to motivate and sustain other kinds of learning. Mary Louise Pratt has a great story she tells about her son’s baseball card collection and how talking with him about it pushed him to learn more about history (as a backdrop to the key games in baseball history), geography (as a context for where the teams come from), architecture (as a way of discussing different stadiums), and math (as a way of playing around with batting averages.) This brings us back to Bettelheim’s notion of play as open-ended, free-flowing, self-determined, and thus as something which is experienced as a site of freedom and passion.

4. Productivity — Play is highly generative, despite or perhaps even because of its focus on process rather than product. I am very fond of the photographs which Martha Cooper took in the 1960s and 1970s of children’s street play in New York City. These images show the imaginative ways that children transform their geographic environments through their play, claiming space even in relatively inhospitable environments where they are free to explore and interact; these images also show them taking up everyday materials around them as raw materials for their own play, transforming them from their mundane functions through a clever recognition of their underlying properties and affordances. And of course, they do the same thing with their bodies and with their social relations, performing new roles, trying out new structures, redefining old situations. This is the sense in which play can be linked to creativity. While in the spirit of play, old rules and structures are suspended, allowing us to look at the world in new ways, and allowing us to transform and transcend our environments.

5. Participation — Play occurs in a social context which invites us to enter into the fun. We do sometimes watch others play, to be sure, and this represents what educational theorists call “legitimate peripheral participation.” We watch with the anticipation of future participation. We watch to observe how others perform, to learn new skills, to appraise our own performance, or simply because we do not yet feel in the right spirit to play. But watching in this case is also a form of learning and is of a very different kind than watching which occurs when we know we will never be able to participate, when we feel that our participation is not welcome, when we anticipate not being able to do what’s expected of us. As we sit in classrooms where no one offers up answers and no one is engaging with the learning process, we could learn a lot by going back to the ways that young people are introduced to a new kind of play and the ways that ideally they are encouraged to participate. (Of course, I don’t want to romanticize this. As someone who often was not picked for teams in school, I know that the promise of participation can become cutting if we experience exclusion rather than engagement.)

6. Pleasure — Pleasure is the byproduct of play. The search for pleasure is often what motivates play. This takes us back to Bettelheim’s point about the stress around winning a game versus the relative freedom of participating through play. The game remains an operationalization of play, it represents a stress on the outcome that undercuts play’s focus on process. And thus, a game may offer pleasure to some but with no guarantees and often a strong threat of displeasure if we lose the game. Thus, while it is very valuable to bring games into school, it is also important to provide contexts for more free and open-ended forms of play, which can offer pleasure to all who participate, rather than offering rewards to those who win.

(MORE TO COME)

“Critical Pessimism” Revisted: An Open Letter to Adam Fish

A few weeks ago, Adam Fish called me out through his blog, Savage Minds, for what he saw as a harsh and unfair representation of the Media Reform movement in the final paragraphs of my book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. He did so for the most part by simply reprinting my own words to frame a story he wrote about the recent Media Reform conference.

I was a bit surprised to find myself singled out as an enemy of the Media Reform movement. If I am the biggest obstacle to your success, you are much closer to victory than I had previously imagined. :-)

The experience was uncomfortable for me, but in a very constructive way, in that it has forced me to revisit my own words and reflect on how much my thinking has changed since I wrote them. It also hit at the end of the term so I am only now able to share some of these reflections with you.

Much of this change has been provoked through conversations with Eric Klinenberg, who I have gotten to know through several summers together at the Aspen Policy Institute, and through my participation in the Verklin Media Policy and Ethics Conference at the University of Virginia shortly before I left MIT. I have since written in my blog about some of these shifts in my thinking, making the argument that there is such urgency in the need for media reform right now that there is no longer any room for the usual infighting between critical and cultural studies perspectives.

Through these experiences, I have had a chance to get to know some of the young leaders who are pushing the Media Reform movement in significant new directions, including a deeper embrace of the potentials of digital media and networked communication and a willingness to partner with fan activist groups in ways which moves them away from a history of dismissing popular culture and scolding those of us who are engaged by it. When I wrote the passages for Convergence Culture which critiqued some aspects of the media reform movement, I was speaking about a very different generation of leaders and a very different set of rhetorics and practices. Even so, my caricature was inadequate and inaccurate, but perhaps even more so now.

Given these shifts in my thinking, I had very much hoped to attend and participate at the media reform conference this year, but was unable to do so because of a personal commitment. When I read Fish’s post, I felt a need to speak out less my absence be misinterpreted. It still remains to be seen to what degree someone who comes with my theoretical and political commitments will be welcomed into the ranks of the media reform movement, all the more so because I am clearly going to be forced to eat my words. But I remain eager to revise even more my picture of the reform movement.

There remain, as there have been, very real differences in emphasis and perspective. Many of those academics featured at the Media Reform conference come from critical studies and political economies backgrounds which have often dismissed the cultural studies traditions that inform my work. These traditions bring different things to the table, to be sure, and look at the world through very different lens, but what the world needs now is an approach to media reform which combines critical studies’ focus on structural inequality and cultural studies’ focus on agency and empowerment. We need to embrace the potentials of participatory culture even as we critique the exploitative practices of web 2.0. We need to understand the ways that digital media does and does not transform the terrain upon which debates about media policy are occurring.

At the heart of Fish’s account of Free Press’s gathering was a question which has haunted my own recent work as well: “Is the open, decentralized, accessible and diverse internet – by which media production, citizen journalism and community collaboration have been recently democratized – becoming closed, centralized and homogenous as it begins to look and feel more like the elite-controlled cable television system?” And there is in this piece a celebration for “ancient movement of ordinary people taking back power from entrenched elites,” which for him is embodied through the work of Free Speech TV. For the record, this “open, decentralized, accessible and diverse internet — by which media production, citizen journalism and community collaboration have been recently democratized” is what I mean by participatory culture and Free Speech TV is participatory culture.

We share common goals in providing the American public with the resources needed to sustain democratic citizenship, with a commitment to insuring diversity of perspectives, with a desire to expand the ranges of voices which can be heard, with a push to put the potential for media production in the hands of those who have historically been excluded and marginalized.

My own way forwards towards these goals has been to promote what I call participatory culture, to expand opportunities for people of all backgrounds to produce and share media with each other. I work to promote media reform through advancing the cause of media literacy and defending opportunities to participate through new media channels. My initial frustration with the media reform movement stemmed in part from my disappointment that some of its leadership have historically dismissed media literacy and new media practices as meaningful contributions to the media reform movement, which is why shifts in the movement rhetoric starting with the “Save Our Internet” campaign and the struggles over Net Neutrality represented a significant improvement from my point of view over earlier media reform formulations.

For many in the media reform movement, their strategy starts with a focus on concentration of media ownership. I certainly care about concentration issues, but see them as part of a much larger context of struggles over the nature of our communication and information capacities. The decline in journalism can only partially be understood as a byproduct of media concentration and has to also be understood as a product of other economic and technological shifts. I would, in any case, be as concerned if media was concentrated in the hands of governments, nonprofits, educational institutions, or the media reform movement itself as I am with the fact that it is corporately controlled. The goal should be to insure a world where media power is spread as widely across the culture as possible.

The defense of participatory culture and the critique of media ownership are two sides of the same coin — two flanks in a battle to democratize and diversify media in this country. One starts with a focus on agency (participatory culture), the other with a focus on structure (media concentration); one starts with an emphasis on the new world we are trying to build, while the other focuses on the system we are trying to dismantle; one is focused on what we are fighting for and the other what we are fighting against.

These are the differences I was trying to get at in making a distinction between critical utopianism and critical pessimism. “Critical pessimism” is at least as accurate a description of what I see as the limits of the critical studies perspective as phrases like “cultural populism” and “techno-utopianism” have been at describing the limits of a cultural studies perspective. Neither set of terms is totally fair, yet they also have descriptive value in helping us to understand where our approaches, taken to their logical extremes, may lead us.

For me, the term, “critical pessimism,” captures the distinction between cynicism and skepticism. My hope is that a viable media reform movement will embrace skepticism, asking hard questions of government policy, corporate actions, and, yes, its own assumptions and beliefs. We are not served, though, when skepticism becomes cynicism, when the rhetoric forecloses any meaningful change, when all corporate action, say, is treated as equally repressive and reprehensible. And we are not served, on the other side, by rhetoric which sees digital media as inevitably democratizing and thus does not feel the need to struggle for social justice and media reform, which sees grassroots media as somehow adequate in taking on the concentrated power of mass media. A naive celebration of contemporary digital culture denies the need for struggle and a cynical perspective on grassroots change denies the value of struggle. These are the blind spots which we need to work together to overcome in our work.

So, critical pessimism is not a bad term to describe certain forms of critical studies and political economy work at its worst, but I was wrong to imply that this is the only thing going on here, to conflate critical studies and the media reform movement, to simplify the media reform movement to a small number of highly visible figures, or to suggest we can dismiss the importance of the media reform efforts as a result of our disagreements in disposition and tactics. I have been struggling in some of my own recent work, much of it still not published, to try to work through a critique of Web 2.0 which combines the concerns for structural inequalities and the exploitation of free labor which comes from the critical studies camp with a defense of participatory culture (perhaps the best basis for such critiques) which reflects work from the cultural studies tradition.

I hope we can find ways to bring these two camps together through political activism as well, and my own current work is focused on understanding how the mechanisms of participatory culture can be deployed to foster greater political participation and civic engagement, work partially inspired by watching how the “Save Our Internet” movement was able to bridge between different sites of participatory culture and use grassroots media as the basis for critiquing corporately-controlled media.

Where my comments in Convergence Culture went too far was in my hyperbolic description of certain kinds of media reform advocates as seeking to “opt out of media altogether and live in the woods, eating acorns and lizards and reading only books published on recycled paper by small alternative presses”. This was frankly sophomoric and beneath the standards I set for myself. Fish writes, “This is a false exaggeration of a movement that is providing a necessary check on corporate power and mindfully working for greater civic, community, and citizen involvement in media production.” I agree.

So, let me now publicly apologize for stooping to this kind of stereotype. It was a really dumb thing to say. I am, I’m afraid, still a work in progress on these issues.

At the time I wrote this passage, I was frustrated by the recurring descriptions of popular culture as “weapons of mass distraction,” as “bread and circuses,” etc. I see popular culture as a much more complex terrain and respect those who would mobilize it for their own ends — whether in the form of fan culture or Free Speech TV. I have been delighted to see many images now emerging from the Media Reform movement which are not anti-media or anti-popular culture, but rather raise legitimate concerns about the distribution of media power and in particular the decline in substantive journalism, issues very close to my own heart.

I am sometimes struck that many critical studies writers are far more idealistic than critical utopianists insofar as their embrace of the ideal often does not allow them to recognize partial victories or contradictory advances. My own work talks often of “negotiations” between different forms of cultural power, of gains and losses, of progress made even if bigger battles remain to be fought, and for me, the recognition of the good, even when we can still imagine something better, is a necessarily fuel for media reform. To describe oneself as a “utopianist” is often to be accused of imagining that this is the “best of all possible worlds”, but in fact, as Stephen Duncombe has been reminding us in some of his recent writing, the construction of utopias has historically been a vital form of social critique, one which can both focus attention on the ways current conditions fall far short of ideal and allowing us to imagine alternative structures that might better meet human needs.

I have often heard critical studies writers accuse us of “not being at all critical,” and I agree that this is a charge worth examining, but I want to challenge critical studies writers to be equally concerned with the charge that they are “not at all celebratory.” There is something important at stake in our struggles to defend the Internet and if you can not recognize progress made, how can you realize what’s at risk? Again, it comes back to the idea that any reform movement needs to be as concerned with what it is fighting for as what it is fighting against. But either way, we should not be fighting with each other, whether in the form of my original critique or Fish’s more recent provocation.

So, let me end by celebrating the strong ongoing tradition of media reform in this country as represented by the recent conference and let me urge all of us to work across artificial divides which may get in the way of us working together towards shared goals.

What can Journalists Learn from The Daily Show: An Interview with Amber Day (Part Two)

What do these news comedy programs add to our understanding of contemporary life which may be missing from mainstream news?

What these programs excel at is deconstructing the scripted quality of the contemporary political conversation. Though we may be aware that politicians and corporate spokespeople are all carefully groomed and staged, and that their PR people are experts at getting the talking points on television, the news media rarely actually point this out, nor do they do the work of moving the conversation beyond the talking points. Satire, then, offers a way of satisfyingly breaking through the existing script. Stewart and Colbert (as well as their counterparts in other countries) have built a reputation on their repeated attempts to demonstrate the ways in which the public political conversation is being manipulated, and to gesture to some of the very real issues that are being obscured.

Is there anything journalists could learn from and emulate from these forms of political humor which would not compromise their self-construction as neutral and objective voices?

Journalists likely shouldn’t start copying the fart jokes or sexual innuendo, but they could certainly learn how to hold public figures and pundits more accountable, how to push interviewees beyond the sound-bites, and – oddly- how to do more investigative reporting. When a politician suddenly does an about-face on an issue due to political expediency, Stewart and Colbert seize the opportunity to point it out by juxtaposing particularly revealing clips. Journalists should definitely not aim to ridicule public figures, but they should hold them accountable to their own statements and attempt to ask them hard questions.

How has the shift from broadcast to narrowcast impacted the nature of political humor on television? What do you see as the potential shifts that are occuring with the rise of online content in this site?

Narrowcasting has allowed for the development of much edgier, more critical satire. In the broadcast era, there were very few examples of true satire on television. Programs that did veer toward that territory typically attracted a great deal of controversy and did not last long, as producers were wary of alienating any of the viewing public.

Longer-running programs like Saturday Night Live have had moments of incisive critique (particularly in the beginning), but have stayed far more firmly in the realm of personality-focused political humor discussed above. In the age of narrowcasting, however, there has been an explosion of niche programming (including a great deal of satiric programs) designed to appeal to select audiences without as much worry about potentially offending viewers.

The rise of online content seems to be further fueling the changes brought about by narrowcasting in that it has become easier for content to find receptive fans and for fans to come together around particular material.

Your account of comedy news stresses the careful balance that needs to be achieved between being the clown and being the preacher. Your book ends before Colbert and Stewart staged their march for sanity on Washington. What do you think this event did to the public’s perception of them?

That is an interesting question, and I think the answer depends on who you are. The press did not know what to make of the event. For the most part, they interpreted it as silly comedy with no larger message whatsoever. The preacher part of the equation totally went over their heads.

On the flip side, partisans on the political right interpreted it as narrowly political, either assuming that it was somehow meant to be in support of Obama and the Democrats, or that it was aimed solely at poking fun of Glen Beck.

Partisans on the political left were hoping that Stewart and Colbert would step forward as political leaders or activists and were ultimately disappointed.

However, most of the long-time fans I spoke with on the mall that day seemed ecstatic to be there. For fans, the rally was perfectly consistent with both the comedy and the critique they were familiar with from the programs. It highlighted the extreme polarization of political debate in this country and lambasted cable news for playing to the extremes, failing to investigate the facts, and wallowing in sensationalism. This critique was made in playful form throughout the variety acts and then by Stewart in a heartfelt plea at the end. The palpable excitement in the crowd that day was over being able to publicly perform support for that critique.

As far as the performers themselves are concerned, in interviews before and after the event, they were careful to continue maintaining the balance between political truth-teller and clown, and they have continued to do so since then. The subtle change, though, seems to have been the realization that they have earned the space to occasionally indulge in moments of heartfelt expression of their views, regardless of whether it makes for uproarious comedy. Stewart, for instance, dedicated several lengthy segments and then an entire episode to drawing attention toward political foot-dragging on passing the Zadroga act (for compensating sick 9/11 first responders), and crafted a dead-serious episode on his response to the Gabrielle Giffords’ shooting.

What do you see as the strengths and limitations of satire as a form of political activism?

The limitation of satire as a form of activism is that it can exacerbate polarization and feed a form of in-group elitism. That being said, what irony and satire are good at is creating a feeling of community, which I would argue is a crucial component of political organizing. Ironic activism works to hail people who already might have similar beliefs or sensibilities and remind them that there are others who share their feelings, fueling the sense of community in opposition.

Many would dismiss that as merely “preaching to the converted,” but I argue that the so-called “converted” are often discouraged or apathetic, or are simply not focusing on that particular belief at that moment in time. This sort of activism, then, fulfills the integral function of providing affirmation and reinforcement. Ironic activists challenge their audiences to not only get the joke and fill in the unsaid ironic meaning, but to actively identify with the issues as their own.

Additionally, ironic activism works to push issues that may be peripheral to the wider public debate into the dominant public sphere, ideally helping to incrementally shift or reframe that debate. What the genre is good at is engaging an audience, attracting attention, and rallying support.

Does satire necessarily express an oppositional position or are there ways that satire can be a vehicle of the utopian imagination?

I think it absolutely can do both. Certainly most satire is created in reaction to a situation deemed in need of critique. However, I think it does possess the capability of presenting alternatives or even painting a picture of a utopian future.

That is why I end the book with a discussion of the fake New York Times stunt engineered by The Yes Men (in cooperation with a number of other activist groups) in late 2008. About a week after Obama was elected they printed and distributed thousands of copies of a parody version of the New York Times, but rather than critique the state of the news media or spoof a particular story, the activists created a vision of the world they hoped to see in the not too distant future.

The physical object was a very convincing Times look-alike but the lead headline proclaimed the war in Iraq over, while the rest of the stories covered topics like Congress passing a “maximum wage law” and the creation of a national health care bill. The end result was a wide-ranging utopian vision for what they believed the new Obama era should look like. The overall message was that some of it could be possible if everyone got involved and pushed to make it happen. It was designed precisely to spark the collective utopian imagination.

Amber Day is Assistant Professor of Performance Studies in the English and Cultural Studies Department at Bryant University. She is the author of the book Satire and Dissent: Interventions in Contemporary Political Debate.

Your comments are, as always, most welcome. Unfortunately, the comments feature here has had to be disabled due to persistent spam. In the meantime, if you want me to post your comments, send them to me at hjenkins@usc.edu, and signal your desire to have them posted.

What can Journalists Learn from The Daily Show: An Interview with Amber Day (Part One)

In case anyone was wondering, I’m not dead…yet. I seem to have spent the past few weeks AWOL on this blog, having gotten my rhythm thrown off over a particular intense period of activity on my part. Every day, I’ve been deluding myself into thinking I’d jump back into the swing of things, and I’ve been busy planning some really cool stuff for the summer which I will be announcing soon, but I’ve been silent. Sorry, guys.

This week, I want to share with you an interview with Amber Day, the author of a fascinating new book, Satire and Dissent: Interventions in Contemporary Political Debate. Day writes here about Colbert, Stewart, Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock, the Yes Men, not to mention a range of international satirists (mostly British and Canadian) who are at the bleeding edge between comedy and documentary. She challenges those who think news-comedy is trivializing or cynical; she makes a compelling case for why these kinds of expression encourage healthy skepticism and earnest participation in the political process, helping to foster media literacy skills which can allow us to critically engage with political rhetoric (the so-called talking points) and the frames which the mainstream media constructs around current events. She certainly speaks to the controversies which surround such texts and as such, it is a helpful guide to contemporary debates about the relations between news, popular culture, and civic engagement, but she also offers cogent challenges to anyone who finds it quick and easy to dismiss the importance of what’s happening here. This book is in dialogue with other contemporary writers on the theme of news-comedy including Stephen Duncombe, Meghan Boler, Jonathon Gray, among others, so I figured it would be of interest to many of my readers. Enjoy this interview with the writer, which will give you a taste of what’s in the book.

Your book, Satire and Dissent, discusses comedy news casts (such as The Daily Show), satirical documentaries (such as those of Michael Moore), parodic activists (such as the Yes Men), and to a smaller degree, parodies on YouTube. What do you see as the major similarities and differences in these forms of political humor?

The impetus for beginning this research was the feeling that there was a sort of renaissance taking place in political satire and parody, one made up of strikingly earnest, deeply political forms of satire. So it was definitely the similarities that piqued my interest.

All of the different case studies I focus on have developed out of previous genres, but the contemporary incarnations differ from many of the previous forms in that there is a more complicated inter-penetration of the real and the satiric. Rather than relying on impersonations or fictional scenarios and one-liners about political figures, they are trespassing deeper into the realm of traditional political debate. Michael Moore, for instance, accosts real officials, forcing them to play themselves in the satiric script he has set up. Similarly, when Jon Stewart plays clips of a politician directly contradicting himself, it becomes evidence in the real political debate, while the Yes Men attempt to speak on behalf of real corporations as a way of hijacking the public conversation. All tend to be interested in actively intervening in the debate rather than just commenting on it.

The differences between them are primarily traceable to the different media forms, as there is a fairly wide distance between the aims of a television program and those of an activist group. However, it was the fact that there were so many striking similarities that made me want to investigate why these forms were all exploding at this moment.

As you note, many have assumed that the rise of comedy news programs may foster cynicism about political participant. Yet, throughout the book, you want to challenge these assertions. What evidence do we have that the skepticism fostered by political humor may encourage rather than discourage political participation?

I think it very much depends on the type of political humor. Most of the traditional late-night comedians like Leno and Letterman do traffic in a more cynical form of political humor. The jokes are primarily aimed at the personal foibles of particular public figures, sending the overall message that all politicians are corrupt/lazy/stupid, etc. and that there is not much we can do about it except feel superior. That type of political humor arguably does foster a cynical distrust of politics.

However, I think the satirists surveyed in the book are doing something far different. For starters, both the humor and the critique tend to be aimed at policy as opposed to just personalities. While someone like Jon Stewart, for instance, does not necessarily pass up all opportunities to take pot shots at particular people, his primary focus is more often on a particular bill, an ideological fight, or the way in which a substantive issue is being framed by the news media.

This type of humor is not ultimately about how useless it is to care about political issues; rather it is premised on the feeling that there are political issues out there that we should care deeply about. Indeed, Stewart’s interview segments often then demonstrate an attempt to find solutions to problems through earnest debate with his guests.

Further, in the case of the documentarians and activists I examine, their work is aimed almost exclusively at getting people engaged, often imploring their audiences to take action, which is the antithesis of cynical withdrawal. Finally, the fan communities coalescing around these forms overwhelmingly demonstrate an avid engagement with the larger political debate.

As you note, many writers have assumed that parody and satire represent conservative forces on society, where-as many have seen the artists you are exploring as essentially progressive. How do you explain the disjuncture in how we evaluate political humor?

I don’t think satire is inherently progressive or conservative. Rather, it can be mobilized in many different ways. There has been a tendency, particularly when examining classical literary satire, to assume that it functions conservatively because it has often been used (as discussed above) to criticize personalities rather than larger political systems or to disparage unconventional behavior, all while the satirists remain safely on the sidelines.

However, as I’ve said, these satirists are clearly not as removed from the political realm (often even using their own bodies as primary components of the stunts). They are also interested in pointing to alternatives and often in entreating viewers to take action.

Further, these forms of satire tend to be mobilized in a fairly populist register, as the satirists position themselves as stand-ins for the everyman citizen frustrated at the dissembling of public figures and the irresponsibility of the press corps.

I would definitely describe these examples of contemporary political satire as progressive. This certainly does not apply to all types of satire across all media in all periods of time, but it does demonstrate that satire has become a particularly attractive mode of intervening in the larger political debate at this moment.

Amber Day is Assistant Professor of Performance Studies in the English and Cultural Studies Department at Bryant University. She is the author of the book Satire and Dissent: Interventions in Contemporary Political Debate.