By Any Media Necessary (Part Two): Conversation Starters on Digital Voice (By Any Media)

This is the second in a series of posts showcasing the archive and resources we have assembled around our book project, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism, which is being released by the New York University Press. This book was funded by the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics Network and written by Henry Jenkins, Sangita Shresthova, Liana Gamber-Thompson, Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, and Arely Zimmerman.

resources curated by: Alexandra Margolin, Gabriel Peters-Lazaro, Sangita Shresthova

The “Conversation Starters on Digital Voice” collection aims to help you get a conversation on By Any Media Necessary started in communities, organizations and educational settings. The core theme shared by all the conversation starter short films in the series is that the nature of political participation is changing in an era of networked communication. More and more we rely on each other for news and information, more and more we work through issues and concerns in conversation with others within our social networks, and more and more we tap the affordances of new media in order to mobilize for change.

As we do so, then, there are practical and ethical challenges: Young people — indeed, all of us — need to take responsibility for the quality of information they circulate, they need to recognize the risks and opportunities of political engagement, they need to understand the copyright implications of their choices to remix and share media, and they need to respect the contributions of others within their community. We want to use these interstitials to help young people to better understand what is at stake in participatory politics and to ask core questions before they act online.

How were these films and materials created?
All the interstitial films were created through collaboration between MAPP, and Joseph Gordon Levitt’s HitRECord. Below is a little more information about each of the collaborators.

The collaboration started with HitRECord, a self-described “professional open collaborative production company” founded by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. According to Gordon-Levitt:

HITRECORD is different than your typical Hollywood production company. Anyone with the Internet can contribute to our collaborative projects & this website is where we come to make things together, like Short Films, Books, Music, Art, and our latest & greatest production – our television show: HITRECORD ON TV. You can contribute your Video, Image, Text, or Audio RECords to any of the collaborations we’re working on, or you can start your own collaboration on the site. And if your work gets used in a money-making production, we pay you for it. For their work in 2013, the community is receiving a grand total of $737,175.09.

HITRECORD ON TV airs on the television network which is a component of Participant Media.

Participant Media/

Participant Media is a media company that serves a double line “dedicated to entertainment that inspires and compels social change.” According to their website:

Founded in 2004 by Jeff Skoll, Participant combines the power of a good story well told with opportunities for viewers to get involved. Participant’s more than 65 films include Lincoln, Contagion, The Help, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Food, Inc., Waiting For “Superman,” CITIZENFOUR and An Inconvenient Truth. Participant has also launched more than a dozen original series, including “Please Like Me,” “Hit Record On TV with Joseph Gordon-Levitt,” and “Fortitude,” for its television network, Pivot. is Participant’s television network where Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s HitRECord is aired. In their own words:

We’re Pivot TV, a new TV network where what you watch does make a difference. We’ve got all the usual stuff like original shows, movies and docs, but we’ve also got a little something more. When you watch Pivot TV, you won’t just be entertained.  You can also take action on the issues raised in our content.  The chance to do something about it will be right there on the screen, or just inside the next commercial break. So go ahead and pivot. You just might be able to make a meaningful difference in the world. Pivot TV: It’s Your Turn.

Media, Activism and Participatory Politics (MAPP)
The Media, Activism and Participatory Politics (MAPP) research team is lead by Henry Jenkins and is based at the University of Southern California (USC). Over the past five years, MAPP conducted five case studies of diverse youth-driven communities that translate mechanisms of participatory culture into civic engagement and political participation.

Building on these findings, the MAPP team partnered with the Media Arts + Practice Division at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts to create resources, conversation starters and workshops that encourage participants to think critically about previous examples of civic media and act creatively as they draw on their own experiences and aspirations to translate these insights into their own media practice. These resources and workshops currently live in the “By Any Media Necessary” collection and can be accessed at

What does this collection contain?

This collection contains the following:

Films: Four short conversation-starter films created through a partnership between HitRecord, Pivot and the Media, Activism and Participatory Politics (MAPP) Project at USC. The films cover the following digital age topics: credibility, private vs. public, remix and shifting the agenda

Resource Packets: Four corresponding resource packets with sample questions, key points, key term definitions, and examples that will help you identify ways that these films may serve your community or students

Supplemental Resources: Additional article resources on related topics to help you further explore the topics covered.

Conversation Starter Topic: Credibility in the Digital Age


How do we assess the quality of information we encounter online? What accountability and responsibility should we have over the integrity of the social justice content we decide to circulate? And how prepared should we be to defend the claims we make to support our arguments around political issues? According to a recent survey conducted by the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics Network, 85 percent of high school aged youth want more help in learning to discern the credibility of the information they encounter online. For us, this issue is most powerfully raised by our case study of Invisible Children’s Kony2012campaign, but it is also one which almost every public awareness effort confronts sooner or later.

Conversation Starter Topic: Shifting the Agenda in the Digital Age

How might identity groups use media to react to, reshape, or even control the narrative being constructed about them in mainstream media? We are seeing many of the groups we study — but especially the DREAM activists and the American Muslim networks respond quickly to news stories or popular culture programming that they feel places them in a negative light. They are using their collective capacities to pull together information, critique representation, construct alternative narratives, and get them into circulation, often in ways that commands the attention of major news organizations. In part, these strategies work because of the ways they are able to quickly mobilize dispersed and decentralized networks that are invested in helping them spread content.

Conversation Starter Topic: Public vs. Private in the Digital Age

How might activists assess risks, especially those concerning privacy and security, as they share their stories online? In a widely shared critique of so-called “Twitter Revolutions,” The New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell argues that online activists do not face the same kinds of risks as previous generations faced in their struggles for civil rights. Yet, we are finding that there are high risks for, say, undocumented who post videos coming out via YouTube or American Muslim youth who use social media to think through their identities in the Post-9/11 era. Many of these risks emerge as these youth make choices about the bounds between publicity (“coming out,” “speaking out”) and privacy, which are similar to more mundane choices confronting all youth in the era of Twitter and Facebook.

Conversation Starter Topic: Remix in the Digital Age

How can appropriating and remixing content from popular culture lead to new kinds of political consciousness? And, how do activists who appropriate and remix  existing media in their campaigns resolve issues around copyright? These are the sorts of topics that prompted the Remix conversation starter video collaboration with HitRECord.

We are seeing examples of the merging of the identities of fans and citizens across a range of political movements — most spectacularly in our work through the Harry Potter Alliance and the Nerdfighters, but also in the use of remix for political expression via the Occupy Wall Street movement (like the Pepper Spray Cop memes), the protests against Gov. Walker in Wisconsin,  “Binders Full of Women” during the 2012 Presidential Campaign, and the use of the Guy Fawkes mask, most closely associated in the United States with V for Vendetta, by a range of activist groups, including Anonymous.

Remix promotes a mode of political speech that can be easy to understand, funny and powerful. It contrasts with the policy wonk language that often excludes youth from meaningful participation. Within this context, copyright can be seen as “private censorship” that silences a particular kind of expression. Creative activists need to understand the basic criteria of Fair Use and make informed choices as they quote and circulate pre-existing media. Diving into these complex issues with your organization, community or students can open up many opportunities for meaningful learning. In classroom contexts especially, remix practices may intersect with questions around plagiarism and present a productive context in which to develop best practices for citation and appropriate use of existing content for purposes of critique and transformative work. This video is meant to be a starting place and jumping off point. More context, resources, and topics to consider are provided below.

You can also download “Conversations on Digital Voice” resources and videos here.


Alexandra Margolin is the Project Manager for the Mellon Funded Digital Humanities Initiative at the Claremont Colleges. She comes from a background in Ethnic Studies, non-profit project management, and grassroots media production having spent the last 6 years working on non-profit and higher education grants. Prior to joining Claremont’s Digital Humanities team, Alex served as the Program Specialist for the Media Activism & Participatory Politics (MAPP) project at USC which examined participatory models of youth activism and was responsible for the project’s outward facing programming with activists and educators. She received her B.A. in history from Pitzer College and an M.A. in Asian American Studies from UCLA. Her research interests include: social constructions of multiraciality through foodways, social justice learning, and alternative modes of storytelling.

Gabriel Peters-Lazaro is an assistant professor of the practice of cinematic arts in the Division of Media Arts + Practice at the USC School of Cinematic Arts where he researches, designs and produces digital media for innovative learning. As a member of the Media, Activism and Participatory Politics (MAPP) project he works to develop participatory media resources and curricula to support new forms of civic education and engagement for young people. He helped create The Junior AV Club, a participatory action research project exploring mindful media making and sharing as powerful practices of early childhood learning. He teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on digital media tools and tactics, digital studies and new media for social change. He received his B.A. in Film Studies from UC Berkeley, completed his M.F.A in Film Directing and Production at UCLA and is a Ph.D. candidate in Media Arts + Practice.

Sangita Shresthova is the Director of the MacArthur funded Henry Jenkins’ Media, Activism & Participatory Politics (MAPP) project based at the University of Southern California. MAPP focuses on civic participation in the digital age and includes research, educator outreach, and partnerships with community groups and media organizations, and companies. Sangita’s own scholarly work focuses on the intersections among popular culture, performance, new media, politics, and globalization. She holds a Ph.D. from UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Cultures and MSc. degrees from MIT and LSE. Her book on Bollywood dance and globalization (Is It All About Hips?) was published by SAGE Publications in 2011. Drawing on her background in Indian dance and new media, she is also the founder of Bollynatyam’s Global Bollywood Dance Project. Her more recent research has focused on issues of storytelling and surveillance among American Muslim youth and the achievements and challenges faced by Invisible Children pre-and-post Kony2012. She is also one of the authors on By Any Media Necessary: The New Activism of Youth, a forthcoming book that will be published by NYU Press.

By Any Media Necessary (Part One): The Book Companion as Multimodal Scholarship


Later this month, New York University Press will release my newest book, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism. This book reflects seven plus years of field work which I have conducted with Sangita Shresthova, my research director, and our Media, Activism, and Participatory Politics research team. This work has been funded by the MacArthur Foundation as part of their ongoing support for Digital Media and Learning and in particular, as an outgrowth of the multi-disciplinary, multi-university research network on Youth and Participatory Politics (headed by Joseph Kahne, Mills College).  Our research team interviewed more than 200 young activists as well as monitored their media strategies, seeking to better understand the mechanisms by which these groups tapped the existing skills and interests of young people and helped them channel these resources and literacies towards civic ends.  Here’s the official description for the book:

There is a widespread perception that the foundations of American democracy are dysfunctional, public trust in core institutions is eroding, and little is likely to emerge from traditional politics that will shift those conditions. Youth are often seen as emblematic of this crisis—frequently represented as uninterested in political life, ill-informed about current-affairs, and unwilling to register and vote. By Any Media Necessary offers a profoundly different picture of contemporary American youth. Young men and women are tapping into the potential of new forms of communication such as social media platforms, spreadable videos and memes, remixing the language of popular culture, and seeking to bring about political change—by any media necessary. In a series of case studies covering a diverse range of organizations, networks, and movements involving young people in the political process—from the Harry Potter Alliance which fights for human rights in the name of the popular fantasy franchise to immigration rights advocates using superheroes to dramatize their struggles—By Any Media Necessary examines the civic imagination at work. Before the world can change, people need the ability to imagine what alternatives might look like and identify paths by which change can be achieved. Exploring new forms of political activities and identities emerging from the practice of participatory culture, By Any Media Necessary reveals how these shifts in communication have unleashed a new political dynamism in American youth.

Each of the book’s co-authors — which include beyond myself and Shresthova, Liana Gamber-Thompson, Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, and Arely Zimmerman  — took ownership of one or more specific case study of youth activists at work. Our exemplars include Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 campaign, the Harry Potter Alliance and the Nerdfighters, The DREAMer movement, Students for Liberty, and a range of projects within the American Muslim community. But the overarching themes of the book emerged from many years of intense discussions amongst the writers, including the core theoretical frame I helped to provide in the opening and closing chapters. We’ve already received some great responses to the book:


“A far reaching book that explores the many different digital strategies and platforms young people use to have their voices heard and their political agendas advanced. The case studies at the heart of this book are powerful,  telling the story of how young people across demographic categories are using digital media to engage in a new form of politics—Participatory Politics—that is destined to significantly shape  civic life for years to come.”

—Cathy J. Cohen,  author of Democracy Remixed: Black Youth and the Future of American Politics

“Fantasy is not an escape from our world; it’s an invitation to go deeper into it. The most relevant book of our era, it will undoubtedly inspire you and those you love to join the millions of people who are transforming our world: by any media necessary.”

—Andrew Slack, creator/co-founder of the Harry Potter Alliance


“A much-needed narration of political agency that tackles its many contradictions head-on, without losing sight of nuance. The book’s case studies, rich in detail, are wonderful invitations to think more and better about the role of empathy, care, ethics, empowerment, and participation in our contemporary political realities.”

—Nico Carpentier, Uppsala University, Sweden

“Understanding the connections between practices of media consumption and enduring civic engagement is one of the most exciting challenges that cultural studies currently faces. For over a decade, Henry Jenkins has been exploring this issue, and now he and an excellent team of co-authors offer the most searching examination of this question for a US context that we have.  An inspiring and enlivening book, this is a definite must read!”

—Nick Couldry, London School of Economics and Political Science


As we’ve prepared the book for publication, we’ve also developed some additional online resources which educators and activists might use to foster discussions around its core themes of transmedia activism, the civic imagination, and digital citizenship. Over the next few installments of this blog, I will be sharing with you reports from members of our larger research team, describing how these resources were developed and how we have been working in partnership with several core educational networks — the National Writing Project and the National Association of Media Literacy Educators — to test these approaches with educators. I am hoping you will check out our online site,, and consider how you might make use of these materials in your own context.

The Book Companion as Multimodal Scholarship

by Yomna Elsayed

As a book about new forms of political activism that have emerged from the practices of participatory cultures in the past few decades, By Any Media Necessary approaches publishing in a way that addresses the multimodality of each case study, from web pages and social media to remixes and videos. The role of the online book companion is to extend the dimensionality of every chapter with a chapter summary and its accompanying audio-visual content. Hence, print chapters should be read concurrently with their companion chapter to get a more holistic understanding of the type of activist practices discussed and referenced in the case studies.


The hybrid design, with both digital and print components, and the choice of Scalar as a platform, is a reflection of the authors’ appreciation of the digital scholarship tradition lead by Tara McPherson and Steve Anderson. In the book companion, the multi-modal artefacts are given center stage while the summary text is used to provide the context of the audio-visual content. Multimodality, Tara McPherson notes, helps scholars “understand their arguments and their objects of study differently” by experiencing the argument “in a more immersive and sensory-rich space” (McPherson 2009).

While mostly amateurish, the value of showcasing digital artefacts, such as confessional videos, or campaign ads around which action was organized, is not to highlight the videos themselves as much as it is to highlight the practices they facilitate. These media objects also signal a shifting relationship between consumers and media products, and a networked mode of visual expression .


The book companion path is composed of seven pages. Each page revolves around one of the book chapters, providing a summary of key ideas and concepts as well as any referenced audio-visual content in the print version. It also connects with the groups/organizations path, media library and the glossary to provide readers with new pathways to follow the argument in a non-linear fashion. The intent of non-linearity is to explore new relationships and new research questions that “are not necessarily based on the structure of a linear argument” 1. The book companion can be accessed through the main menu at



McPherson, T. (2009). Media Studies and the Digital humanities. Cinema Journal 48 (2), pp. 119-123

Yomna Elsayed is a PhD student at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. She is a research assistant for the MAPP project. Her research interests include the cultural productions and manifestations surrounding social change in the Arab World and Egypt in specific. She is also interested in online technologies and how they are appropriated by youth to overcome cultural and political barriers, and to engage in a process of public will formation at a time of social conflict.

Reading Hellboy: An Interview with Scott Bukatman (Part Two)

You evocatively but fleetingly describe comics as “little utopias of disorder.” What do you mean by that phrase? I can see this phrase evoking a tradition of visually dense comics representations, running from Outcault to Kurtzman/Elder, and going back to Hogarth and other pre-comics graphic artists, even to the splash pages of Jack Kirby. But it relates oddly to Mignola, whose work seems so precise, so disciplined, and as you suggest later, so static. So walk us through the tensions you see at play in Hellboy stylistically.

Yes, I introduced that “little utopias” thing in my last book, The Poetics of Slumberland: Animated Spirits and the Animating Spirit, where I indeed deployed it with reference to early comics and the “chicken fat” of Will Elder’s work. It’s much more evident in that context. But I continue, in Hellboy’s World, to explore is the “subversive” power of images and what Walter Benjamin referred to as “riotous” colors.

Comic books have ever been far from true respectability, even in this age of graphic novels and superhero films. They presented (and present) avenues of escape for many kids, adolescents, and adults.

Mignola’s work has the precision that you describe, but Hellboy is still proudly a COMIC BOOK, with all the “BOOM” sound effects that that implies. It’s aimed at a sophisticated comics reader, but proudly retains more than enough of that original, primordial punch, that utopic, disruptive power.


This is why I emphasize what I call the “monstrousness” of comics — their marginality within our culture gives them a sneaky irresistibility that Jules Feiffer honored in his recent memoir, and that creators like Feiffer, Harvey Kurtzman and R. Crumb fully recognized.

I couldn’t resist bringing in the marginalia of medieval illuminated manuscripts, images that often commented ironically on the “official” text. My colleagues in art history were surprised that I was so interested in illuminated manuscripts, but really I was interested in the scholarship — Michael Camille and Martha Rust write about these objects in terms that speak very clearly to the ways that comics work. Camille’s writing on the “monstrous” helped me to recognize that Hellboy is a monster, but so is the Hellboy comic.

Your focus on world-building in Hellboy seems at once familiar given the wide-spread use of worlds as a concept in our field at the moment. But then it becomes clear that you are breaking with a concept of world that emerges from Tolkien’s focus on secondary creation to focus on one which emerges from Eric Hayor’s On Literary Worlds. What do you see as the key differences between these approaches and what do you see as the advantages of drawing on Hayot? In what ways do you need to go beyond Hayor’s notion of the literary to account for world-building in comics?

I’m indebted to Hillary Chute for steering me to Hayot’s work in her (then) anonymous reader’s report on the Hellboy’s World manuscript. It was a game-changer for me. I’d been focussed on what you call “secondary creation” in thinking about the world of Hellboy — the cast of characters, the cosmology, the look-and-feel of the comics, but Hayot’s emphasis on the necessary intersections of our world with a literary world, and the ways that those intersections are articulated helped open up new ways of understanding Hellboy.

Hayot emphasized internal cohesions, meanings that emerge within the network of the book’s language (an allusion here and another one there), the broader network that could encompass a book’s relation to its larger genre, or the world that emerges over the course of a series, or even to literature itself. Hayot also emphasizes the extent to which aspects of the world go unarticulated, and the ways that texts encourage or discourage questions about such “off-camera” elements.

To put it way more briefly, On Literary Worlds helped me to grapple with levels of “worldedness” that would have otherwise eluded me. I actually had little trouble applying his work to comics — other parts of his book were less relevant to me, but not because they were inappropriate to writing about comics.

You introduce here the concepts of Chromophobia and Chromophilia. Why do some people fear colors and others embrace them? Why do we lack a conceptual vocabulary for discussing the roles which color plays in popular art forms like comics, even as the potentials of comics as a medium have often been shaped by their expanding capacity to reproduce color with more and more nuance? To what degree is our ability to write meaningfully about color as scholars shaped by own printing processes and the fact that the press allowed you numerous color illustrations?

What great questions. Before turning to comics, we could note just how little writing there is on color in cinema studies. The canonical Film Art: An Introduction by Bordwell and Thompson lacks any dedicated exploration on color (and this is a book that places everything in some kind of taxonomy), and even the index entries are minimal. There are two areas where studies of film’s aesthetics and affect continually fall short: color and performance. And when they are taken up, it’s often through the lens of semiotics: the “meaning” of color in a symbolic system, for example, or the “star” as a signifying system.

I think we lack vocabularies for dealing with both of these with any precision, but it may be that they’re simply ineffable and resistant to quantification and even description. David Batchelor’s book Chromophobia does a wonderful job of detailing western culture’s and art history’s resistance to color, which is frequently aligned with the childish, the primitive, the Other. I wonder whether the suspect place of comics in American culture has something to do with all that color (“All in Color for a Dime”). Images are already suspect — add some saturated color and the sensory/sensual experience threatens to overwhelm rationality and control.


But I very much like your point about the dearth of color reproductions in books on film and comics —  you just cannot illustrate a discussion of Black Narcissus with a black and white image. And Mike Mignola is composing black and white art but with specific uses of color firmly in mind. I could not imagine writing anything significant about Hellboy’s aesthetic without foregrounding the work of Dave Stewart (one of the great colorists in comics, for the Mignola-verse and elsewhere).

I had a publisher interested in Hellboy’s World, but without any color images, so I had to look elsewhere. Mary Francis at University of California Press fully understood the need for vibrant (and accurate) color, but I was floored at the press’s willingness to give me 70 color images spread throughout the book rather than stuck in a separate section. Frankly, I think the physical object of Hellboy’s World raises the bar on what scholarship on comics should look like, and I’m hugely indebted to the designers.

I’m delighted, by the way, to see that Hillary Chute’s new book, Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form, is super-careful about reproduction, including color comics pages presented in color. Will books like these, and publishers willing to produce them, change comics scholarship? There’s still too much writing on comics that doesn’t effectively deal with images, so a full consideration of color might remain the province of a few aesthetes like myself. I hope not!

When we’re discussing the need for color images as well as plentiful images, I have to stress how lucky it was that the comic that most compelled me to write was a creator-owned property. From the start, when Mignola quickly granted permission to reprint a couple of images in my initial Critical Inquiry essay, to the book, where he not only raised no objection to my using ever more of his work (including on my book cover) but had the folks at Dark Horse Comics send me high-resolution files of every single one, his cooperation made the work of this book possible.

Had I been writing about a corporate-owned character, my image options would have been far more limited, and would have affected the direction of the book. This is a huge problem for comics studies and I unintentionally dodged a bullet there. I can say that, without question, this book wouldn’t have existed without my ability to illustrate it effectively. Oh, and Mignola sat down for lunch and conversation with me one afternoon, which didn’t hurt either.

You are attentive throughout the book to the materiality of comics as a printed and bound format, an issue that interests me very much also in my own current book project. To what degree is our awareness of the materiality of comics shifting as we move from the disposable form of the floppy towards a more durable format associated with today’s graphic novel? And to what degree has, say, the size and nature of the page, as a physical surface, shaped our experience of reading comics going back to the early newspaper strips you discussed in your Slumberland book? 

I was amazed at the dearth of literature that really dealt with the materiality of the book as an object. Phenomenologies of reading by people like Wolfgang Iser are really effective at exploring the ways that texts address and position their readers, but the actual object in one’s hands receives scant attention. Georges Poulet goes so far as to claim that the material book disappears once one begins to read it. Um, no.

And it seemed to me that comics have an emphatic materiality of their own through which the broader materiality of the book can be brought to light. Comics images have an indisputable presence on the page that printed words don’t. Different editions of A Tale of Two Cities will use different fonts, but this is considered a pretty immaterial difference — a difference without a distinction — whereas the comics page  bears, in addition to its symbolic signs, an iconic and even an indexical presence. We read comics, but we also look at them in ways that we don’t look at blocks of text.

It’s a big claim, but I think that consideration of the comic book (and the illustrated children’s book) can foreground aspects of the process of reading more broadly, even as they also have their own unique pleasures. And I do think that my awareness of this comes with the explosion of lustrous comics publications, from elaborate book-objects by Chris Ware to full-scale reprints of Little Nemo in Slumberland.

Comics have an undeniable material presence in my life and on my straining bookshelves, and much of my own engagement with comics is inseparable from my engagement with those particular books. The Hellboy bug bit me when I saw Mignola’s art in the Library Edition reprints from Dark Horse Comics. Final thought: I actually read a lot of comics on my iPad, and enjoy them just fine, but some things demand something more… physical.

Does the emergence of web comics render the idea of print an option rather than a feature of comics and thus invite contemporary graphic artists to really wallow in the pleasures of the printed object?

I really like this question, and I think there’s something to it, but I wouldn’t want to reduce this to a technologically determinist argument. I think Ware’s dedication to the book speaks to something more fundamental in him, though a lament for the “decline” of print might well be a part of his motivation by now.

 Scott Bukatman is a cultural theorist and Professor of Film and Media Studies at Stanford University. His work examines how popular forms (film, comics) and genres (science fiction, musicals, superhero narratives) mediate between new technologies and human perceptual and bodily experience, and explores phenomenologies of viewing and reading. His books include Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction, the British Film Institute monograph on Blade Runner; the essay collection Matters of Gravity: Special Effects and Supermen in the 20th CenturyThe Poetics of Slumberland: Animated Spirits and the Animating Spirit (University of California Press), and the forthcoming Hellboy’s World: Comics and Other Monsters on the Margins (University of California Press). His work has appeared in, among other places, Camera Obscura, October, and Critical Inquiry.

Reading Hellboy: An Interview with Scott Bukatman (Part One)


I’ve been watching Scott Bukatman grow as a scholar for several decades now — from his first writings about science fiction film, television, and literature (Terminal Identity) through his early writing about Superheroes and comics (Matters of Gravity) to his explorations of early comics and animation (The Poetics of Slumberland). I’ve long admired him as a scholar who can write about a broad range of media genres and practices, as an art historian who moves across high and low, as an original voice who brings a fresh and compelling perspective to everything he writes about, and as someone whose work is consistently witty and fun to read. So, I came into his newest book, Hellboy’s World: Comics and Other Monsters on the Margins, with high expectations, but page by page, he surpassed them.

We’ve long been traveling along parallel paths — representing different roots (he combines the formal with the phenomenological, I combine the formal with cultural studies, at least when we are both writing about the popular arts), but I learned something new on every page here, as he offers us a rich way into the comics of Mike Mignola, which among other things, thinks about the pleasures of reading words and pictures, the expressive use of color, the process of world-building, the relationship of comics to sculpture, and the expressive/emotive potential of color. All of which make this much more than a monograph about a single author and his work — Hellboy’s World is really a manifesto for a different kind of comics studies.

This two-part interview will give you only a taste of the riches that await you there.

Much as you describe yourself in the book’s opening, I am someone who has dabbled around the edges with Hellboy, reading some issues, but not figuring out how or why to dig deeper. You obviously like him well enough to write a book about Hellboy, so give me a rec. Why should we read him and why should we read a book about him?

Well, I had read some of the early stories, but never realized that a significant cosmology was unfolding in Hellboy and its later spin-off titles, BPRD in particular. I saw Hellboy as aesthetically lovely but narratively limited — I just couldn’t have been more wrong about that (I also hated Bowie when I was in high school. Unbelievable.)

The work is narratively complex, and in many ways it flies against the trends of the past few decades of superhero comics. Dialog is used sparingly so that the images and pages have room to breathe, characters’ backstories are presented briefly but affectingly, the Mignola-verse encompasses a satisfyingly coherent range of visual and narrative styles…

And as I dug into the beautiful, large-scale Library Editions of the Hellboy comics, I found more and more to think about and want to write about: Mignola’s aesthetic and approach to the page, the shared universe he and his collaborators were building, the intersection of Hellboy et al with other genres and worlds — all of these were compelling, but what really did the trick was looking at the Hellboy films and finding them so wanting. The Hellboy films helped me think about what comics were, and what were the specific pleasures about reading them. Mignola’s work came to epitomize comics for me.


You’ve been doing comic studies longer than most of us. How would you characterize the status of this field? What has it meant to you to be studying comics in the context of an art history department? Clearly it comes through when you write here about Rodin or Goya but…

I’m not so great at these “state of the field” questions, but I’m excited that comics studies has become an emergent field. There are still no comics studies jobs in the world, but more departments (like my own) are willing to entertain comics offerings with increasing regularity.

The field is still far too content-driven — many scholars come from lit departments, and all too often the words are taken to be the thing itself. I’m happier when folks remember that comics are words and images that exist in a complicated equilibrium. I also think there’s too much emphasis on identity politics, but that makes perfect sense when you look at graduate students and junior faculty who must demonstrate their seriousness of purpose while studying comics.

I often find a big disconnect between the ways younger scholars write about comics (critical distance!) and how they talk about them (fanboys/girls!) — I’d like to see that gap close, have scholars simply own their love of them comics.

As for working in an art department — I think I have become much more engaged with non-moving images after nearly two decades in an art department (I come from film studies), and enjoy engaging with them — it certainly allows me to privilege the aesthetic experiences that comics provide.

You begin the book by evoking Walter Benjamin and he hovers over your text as a key influence. So, what does Benjamin have to contribute to contemporary comics studies? To what degree does Benjamin inspire the persistent focus on the reader’s experience — what you call “the adventure of reading” — across your book?

Yes, my book begins with a long passage from Benjamin where he evokes the experience of a child reading, and it’s writing that just sings to me as a reader, a reader of comics, and a scholar. I’m forced to admit that, much as I love comics, it was cinema (which emerged at the same time that comics became a mass medium) that became the medium of the 20th century. Within a few decades of its invention, there was already an amazing literature exploring the implications of cinema’s particular mode of address, its place in the modern world, even its potential to epitomize the modern world.

Comics did not (and pretty much do not) generate the same kind of philosophical rumination. Cinema is more profound in its address to the body and to perception, its reshaping of our experience of space and time, and in its immersive hold.

So I decided to take another tack, to try to understand what special purchase reading comics could have upon us (or me, at least). We call people who engage with comics “readers,” and in this evolving transmedial landscape I’m really interested in what it is we do when we read comics. What makes it a unique experience? What was it about reading Hellboy that did not survive the transition to film?

And Benjamin’s early writings on book collecting, illustrated children’s books, color, and reading emerged for me as hugely relevant to the consuming pleasures of reading comics. Our engagement with comics constitutes a more intimate experience than with cinema, and it  foregrounds the ways that we read. In many ways, it returns us to, and builds upon, our childhood experience of picture books, and to our early experience of books as precious objects in our lives and our imaginations.

So, where Stan Brakhage tried to recapture what he called the “adventure of perception” in his filmmaking, I’m suggesting that comics offer up an “adventure of reading.” Not all comics do this, nor do all readers. But it’s there, and it’s significant.

Scott Bukatman is a cultural theorist and Professor of Film and Media Studies at Stanford University. His work examines how popular forms (film, comics) and genres (science fiction, musicals, superhero narratives) mediate between new technologies and human perceptual and bodily experience, and explores phenomenologies of viewing and reading. His books include Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction, the British Film Institute monograph on Blade Runner; the essay collection Matters of Gravity: Special Effects and Supermen in the 20th CenturyThe Poetics of Slumberland: Animated Spirits and the Animating Spirit (University of California Press), and the forthcoming Hellboy’s World: Comics and Other Monsters on the Margins (University of California Press). His work has appeared in, among other places, Camera Obscura, October, and Critical Inquiry.

Syllabi as Cultural Artifacts: MIT’s Introduction to Media Studies (Part Four)

What follows are Sasha Costanza-Chock’s reflections on teaching the most recent iteration of this class:

Sasha Costanza-Chock:

I feel honored to be part of this conversation! Reading everyone’s comments on the evolution of CMS100 provides such rich insight into the evolution of our field(s) as a whole; the unique institutional birth, struggles, and rise of CMS/W within MIT; broader transformations in our media system and in the paradigms that shape our understanding of media; and our own personal/political pathways as media scholars, makers, and activists. I taught the most recent instance of the course, in the fall of 2015; my syllabus is here (

This is my fifth year as a faculty member at MIT, but it was my first time teaching CMS.100. I really enjoyed reworking the syllabus and teaching the course, not least because it was the largest group of MIT undergrads I’ve had the chance to work with so far. They did amazing work last semester! Reflecting on my approach to the course in the context of this conversation about its history, I’ve organized my thoughts into continuities with the past, transformation in the present, and opportunities for the future.  


Still hands-on. I worked hard to minimize lectures and incorporate hands-on learning activities and workshops throughout the semester. I really wanted students to explore key concepts through making.

Over the course of the term, they shared media objects with one another and created their own collaborative Media History Timeline; conducted a mini-autoethnography during a 24-hour media fast; analyzed front-page newspaper attention using PageOneX; explored web-based remix tools like NewsJack, deconstructed and remixed ads; and produced an open-format final project that included a written component, but for those who preferred, could also include a media-making activity.

The hands-on workshops aren’t stand-alone; they’re tied to readings and discussions of key texts and serve to reinforce the diverse methodologies that media scholars employ (historical research, qualitative and/or quantitative textual analysis, interviews and ethnography, political economy, critical theory, and so on).  

For example, early in the semester there’s a hands-on workshop where we use the PageOneX tool ( to explore front page newspaper attention to media events; after that students write short papers around an analysis they conduct using the tool. This is after reading about the history of systematic content analysis as a subfield of media studies, including Chomsky & Herman’s well known polemic but also tracing ‘column-inch’ metrics of newspaper attention back over a hundred years. Several of the students chose to create visualizations of news attention to recent social movements. Their short PageOneX papers are here, with an example visualization by a student (below) of how Ferguson coverage shifted over time from framings of ‘unrest’ to ‘police brutality’ to ‘racism’:



Front page newspaper coverage of Ferguson over time

“In the above graphs (data compiled by [a PageOneX user]), blue corresponds with discussion of the events in Ferguson directly, purple indicates columns about police brutality, and green is general discussion of racism.” — From A CMS100 student paper


Still comparative across methods, theoretical frameworks, platforms, time, geography, still no canon. This seems to have been consistent in all iterations of the course. Although we all come from somewhat different intellectual trajectories, happily it seems like none of us have tried to insist on a single canonical set of texts for orienting students to media studies. How could we?

Although it does seem that the course content drifts back and forth between versions of ‘media studies’ that are rooted in literature, then branch out steadily to encompass other platforms, and those that begin from an ‘always already’ heterodoxy of theory & methods mobilized into the shared study of media as texts, objects, platforms, infrastructure, and in all the other ways described in this thread.


A shift towards civic media. I’m biased, because this is my wheelhouse, but I do think there’s been recent increased attention (both scholarly and popular) to the relationship between media and social change. In part, I believe this is because of the recent global cycle of struggles that kicked off with the Arab Spring, inspired Occupy, and now percolates through the steady pressure of #BlackLivesMatter. Students’ experience of the media ecology now includes the regular eruption of social movements into networked consciousness, through hashtag activism, transmedia mobilization, and transformative media organizing.

My version of the course includes a sustained, semester-long conversation about these dynamics. This includes classic approaches like public sphere theory, Nancy Fraser’s critiques of Habermas, a unit on civil disobedience in the information age that moves from Thoreau through Critical Art Ensemble and to Gabriella Coleman on Anonymous, as well as a discussion of networked social movements that draws from the Occupy Research network study of movement media practices.

I’m not arguing that all media studies can, or should, focus on activism, but I do see (and advocate for) a shift to recenter questions of the relationship between media and movements, civic engagement, and social transformation as fundamental to our field. Students are inheriting a world in crisis, and as educators we do have a responsibility to connect them to the many threads in media theory & practice that they can use to find possible pathways forward.



Connection with MIT’s history. Rereading this conversation and thinking more about the history of contributions to media in both theory and practice that have emerged from MIT, the next time I teach this class I’ll work harder to incorporate those contributions. Shannon, Bush, Chomsky, Leacock, Turkle … although I did manage to bring in Jenkins during spring 2015, both in the readings on convergence and in the flesh 🙂

A full reframing through the lenses of race, gender and gender identity, class, sexual orientation, disability, intersectionality. Although some of this happened, I feel like my first version of CMS.100 still suffered from a bit of ‘let’s do race this week, gender next week, class the next’ and so on. Much as in other domains, there’s a generational sea change in the ways that folks think about, research, and organize around a truly liberatory transformation of the media system, and it has largely to do with intersectional praxis rooted in Black feminist thought.

I feel like media studies as field(s), and CMS.100 as an introduction, needs to be remixed through that lens. I’ve tried to move in that direction, and I’m not sure exactly what it will end up looking like. I imagine it won’t be a process with an end point, but rather a steady ongoing re-evaluation of the key texts, writers, and makers across multiple dimensions of media studies.
Department-level intentionality about the work this course will do. Finally, I took a quick peek at the Spring 2016 version of the course, as taught by John Picker; here’s the list of textbooks. At the moment the syllabus seems to swing around pretty wildly based on the instructor that semester. I’m not sure that’s been an intentional decision, it may be more of an artifact of the recent institutional shift where CMS has gone from ad-hoc program to CMS/W as a department, a series of faculty hires, a still-pending review of our undergraduate and graduate curriculum by the Curriculum Committee, and so on. However, there’s plenty to be said for this approach, it allows flexibility and autonomy and diverse interpretations of what an introduction to our ‘field’ might mean. And as we’ve seen through this brief archaeology of CMS.100, there are literally endless possibilities!

Sasha Costanza-Chock is a scholar and media maker who works in the interrelated areas of social movements and information and communication technologies; participatory technology design and community based participatory research; and the transnational movement for media justice and communication rights, including comunicación populár. He holds a Ph.D. from the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California, where he was a Postdoctoral Research Associate. He is also a Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. While living in Los Angeles, he worked on a variety of civic media projects with community-based organizations, including the award-winning platform. More information about Sasha’s work can be found at

Syllabi as Cultural Artifacts: MIT’s Introduction to Media Studies (Part Three)

We reached out to everyone who has taught MIT’s Introduction to Media Studies through the years and we received responses from a few, describing their versions of the class:

Fox Harrell

My version is based in initially challenging their preconceptions that media forms are a matter of continuous progress over time. I also challenge them to reconsider any hierarchies they have that places one media form above another. So, we challenge great divide theories between orality and literacy and technological determinism. They complete a quick one-week project, relating this theory to practice (and allowing me to assess their interests, theoretical engagement, and production abilities).

There are then three units. First unit: they engage in comparative study of different media forms (e.g., the still image, the moving image, remix culture, and so on). Second unit: the interplay of media production and media consumption (communities and technological literacies). Third unit: how we represent ourselves in media (social identity and media).

The class has them building systems as a means of theorizing, writing theory to understand why and how media systems are used and built, and relating all of the topics to their own interests. A central feature is student facilitations during each class where they relate readings to topics of their own interests. I do an immense amount of offline scaffolding in that process, with write-ups due well ahead of presentations and ample back and forth feedback to ensure that their interests are tightly integrated with the core concepts from the readings. The students like this a lot and it makes it lively. They always say the course is challenging and they find it one of their most valuable experiences.

I pioneered the course before coming to MIT and adapted it to an introductory rather than upper division experience. So, it has a different lineage with its own pedigree of iterative improvement, but I think a lot of synergies with the CMS ethos. The different notions of comparativity on the CMS site as of when you were here resonates with me. So, I’ll leave it to you to relate my take to any notion of evolution of the field, but rather emphasize here the notion of complimentary perspectives that I find with others who have taught it.

I just mean that my version is based on my own take on media studies, including my interdisciplinary academic background, approach to theory and practice, etc. I developed the syllabus from a course I designed and refined over the years when I was at another institution.

This is in contrast to the course that Flourish taught, for example, because she was trained as a CMS graduate student — that’s an example of what I consider the CMS lineage. Similarly, other versions may have built more upon prior iterations of the CMS.100 course.

Flourish Klink

To be honest to me the primary goal of this class was to teach freshmen how to get out of a literature focused analysis mode and think about other ways of engaging with texts. This stemmed from the fact that it was a “writing intensive class,” so there were a lot of requirements that had to be fulfilled through essays. To me, though, that’s the foundational premise of media studies—that texts can be approached in lots of ways, and that finding insights about them and about their audiences doesn’t necessarily proceed from literary analysis (or not solely from literary analysis).

In practice, a lot of the strides students made were in improving their writing skills. The class also served as a first introduction to lots of thinkers in media studies—almost a survey course. (I’m sure lots of them got left out.) The hope was that students would take CMS 100 and be excited about some of the concepts, then follow those later in more intensive classes also offered by CMS, or just read more by the authors they were assigned in class. Who knows if it worked..

Fox Harrell is a researcher exploring the relationship between imaginative cognition and computation. His research involves developing new forms of computational narrative, gaming, social media, and related digital media based in computer science, cognitive science, and digital media arts. The National Science Foundation has recognized Harrell with an NSF CAREER Award for his project “Computing for Advanced Identity Representation.” Harrell holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science and Cognitive Science from the University of California, San Diego. His other degrees include a Master’s degree in Interactive Telecommunication from New York University, and a B.F.A. in Art, B.S. in Logic and Computation (each with highest honors), and minor in Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University. He has worked as an interactive television producer and as a game designer. His recent book is Phantasmal Media: An Approach to Imagination, Computation, and Expression (MIT Press, 2013).

Flourish Klink was educated at Reed College (BA Religion ’08) and MIT (SM Comparative Media Studies ’10). As a teenager she co-founded and helped to run the first Harry Potter fan conference (as well as many others in the same conference series). Later, she was a partner in The Alchemists Transmedia Storytelling Co. and a producer on the hit HULU teen telenovela East Los High. Today, she is a partner in Chaotic Good Studios, a franchise planning company, and co-hosts the podcast Fansplaining. She also has taught classes at MIT, including Introduction to Media Studies and Fans & Fan Culture.

Syllabi as Cultural Artifacts: MIT’s Introduction to Media Studies (Part Two)

Martin Roberts:

 Some of what follows is quite anecdotal but you guys are just triggering too many synapses (“HASS-D courses” gave me a Proustian moment).

Henry, you do a great job here of sketching in the larger institutional context out of which the course emerged, the constraints it was working under, and how it set out to make a virtue out of necessity from them. In so doing, it did provide a great sampler of the interdisciplinary work on media going on at MIT at the time outside the Media Lab itself at the time, with only Glorianna Davenport’s lecture on the Interactive Cinema group originating from there.

The main thing that seems lacking in retrospect, allowing for the context at the time, was a unit on digital activism and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which as you know in the ensuing decades has developed into a major field around all the work on Creative Commons – Siva Vaidhyanathan, Lawrence Lessig, et al. I recall that at the time Mike Fischer was teaching a course in STS called Ethics and Law on the Electronic Frontier, but am not sure why we didn’t invite him – perhaps because of the need to recruit Humanities/Literature faculty to the media cause, and the fact that Napster hadn’t happened yet and the piracy/intellectual property debate was still limited to the culture-jamming domain (Negativland). Little did we know then that only a few years later mp3 would make us all pirates…

Among several memories from my own lectures, one of the most interesting was the Culture Jamming one, during which a smart-ass student at the back of the class who’d plugged his laptop into an Ethernet port (no wifi then) started sending me live Zephyr messages (MIT’s instant messaging system) which kept popping up on the computer screen projected behind me—both a witty illustration both of culture-jamming itself and what we can now recognize as a primitive form of Live Tweeting.

Chris, I was part of the “dissident” group you mention for a few years, which was my main conduit to the Lab. For reasons I never quite understood, it was called the Narrative Intelligence group, and I believe was started by Amy Bruckman when she was working on her educational project MOOse Crossing. It also included some of the more interdisciplinary grad students at the lab who were interested in more humanistic approaches to media, whether in terms of narrative or “theory”: it was there that I met, in addition to Amy, Dave Tamés, Warren Sack, and Flavia Sparacino among others.

As you point out, the ML at the time behaved like it owned the term “media”, and the seminar was also attended by some who subscribed to the view of the upper echelons – I remember one student dismissing Chris Marker’s La Jetée that I’d just screened as “a slideshow”. Overall, though, the seminar was in retrospect one of the key interfaces between the ML and Humanities and was a great way to hear about upcoming events – I got to see Toshio Iwai presenting his new electronic instrument the Tenori-on there in the mid-90s, for example.  The other main interface, as you’ll recall, was the Communications Forum, where I invited Julian Dibbell and Randy Farmer (of Habitat) to a panel to discuss virtual communities and governance after Julian’s piece on LambdaMOO in the Village Voice.

CK: Remarkably for a class at MIT—we didn’t touch on hacking or the MIT subcultures of hacking at all. . . . Nonetheless the fact that Adbusters, the EFF, plunderphonics, EBN and negativland were part of the class at the time is a kind of triumph.

Yes in retrospect that was kind of amazing. This points to one of the major cultural shifts between 97 and today, which is the transformation of the figure of the hacker from the “Revenge of the Nerds” stereotype into almost a folk-hero figure. We did touch on it with the culture-jammers but could never have anticipated that hacking would turn into a lifestyle on the one hand (the lifehacker movement) and political activism on the other (Anonymous). In any contemporary iteration of the course, it would be interesting to trace that genealogy from 80s/90s-era hacker culture (zines like 2600, Processed World) to its contemporary mutations. Hacker Mutations. I like that.

CK: the german media theory/media history schools have become much more de rigeur than they were in 1997.  When we were teaching that class, reading Kittler felt like discovering a gold mine. Now it’s either old hat or canonical, but the Germans themselves have gone from Mediengeschicte and Medienwissenschaft to Kulturtechnik and Media Archaeology to hybridizing ANT and media theory (Akteur-Medien-Theorie) to god knows what else…  I teach some of this stuff but I don’t think most people (in the US) see it as central.

I remember us being quite dismissive of Kittler at the time, particularly his writings about code and software. I haven’t really followed his work since, but the concept of discourse networks still seems useful. Media Archaeology I think should be part of any contemporary curriculum. I still don’t know enough about Actor-Network Theory to know where/whether it would fit in – what do you think and what would be essential readings there?

CK: in anthropology and STS the undisputed keyword for this is “infrastructure”—which in ’97 was something I remember talking about with people but which there was no literature about.  Now I can’t imagine teaching the class without it being focused on platforms/infrastructure.

Definitely. I think Lisa Parks has been in the forefront of the media infrastructures movement since her book on satellites – the new anthology she co-edited with Nicole Starosielski, Signal Traffic, is a good place to start. I’m reading Nicole Starosielski’s book The Undersea Network right now, which is pretty interesting. It would be easy to see the infrastructures approach, perhaps, as a new form of technological determinism, but as I understand it the reverse is true: the point is that all media/communication technologies are themselves embedded within and shaped by geopolitical, social, economic, cultural, and discursive forces and conditions at particular historical moments – look at the relation of satellites and the first transatlantic broadcasts to the cold war and the Arab-Israeli conflict in ’67.

CK: Lastly there was a lot of Tamagotchi that year. There was also a lot of Bill Mitchell.

Bill was a wonderful man and I still miss him. His subtitle to E-Topia – “Urban Life, Jim—But Not As We Know It” remains one of my favorite subtitles and ST pop-culture refs of all time. I still have my old Tamagotchi somewhere: in 1997 I was showing TV clips about it in my intro to French culture class. Now of course we have this, aka Sherry Turkle’s worst nightmare (skip the ad):

Henry Jenkins:

I was certainly surprised that we did not make more of the MIT context — whether understood in terms of the hacking culture or in terms of the larger debates surrounding new media at MIT in those years. Such topics would become increasingly central to the work of the Comparative Media Studies Program through the years, and so retrospectively, I tend to read them onto this earlier period.

We faced so many questions about why a media studies program belonged at MIT that we ended up incorporating a larger history of media research at MIT into our introductory subjects. Keep in mind that one of the major meeting spaces at MIT is named after Vannevar Bush (whose essay, “As We May Think,” is now widely credited as a key influence on the early development of the web) and that the top faculty prize is named after Doc Edgerton (who is today best known for his work on strobe photography). There was the rich legacy of Building 20 which was built as a temporary base for radar research during WWII and subsequently became the building where the MIT Model Railroad Club developed “Spacewars”, one of the first computer games; the place where much cybernetics research took place; the long-time office for Noam Chomsky and Janet Murray, etc. And this is not to speak to the long history of artistic experimentation in photography and filmmaking (Ricky Leacock, for example) which has been part of the MIT environment. Many of these strands eventually got integrated into our teaching, though I have no idea how they filtered down into the Introduction to Media Studies class.

As for the narrative intelligence reading group, I was part of the founding group there. It was created by Marc Davis and Mike Travers though Amy Bruckman was one of the founding members and eventually took over the group The name reflected the interests in narrative theory and artificial intelligence, though rarely did we talk about the meeting point between the two.  It met once a week in the basement of the Media Lab, where students and faculty read through emerging digital theory together, shared reports on new media developments, and otherwise talked through the intersections between humanistic research and technological development.

The group of people who participated in those discussions was extraordinary. It had a huge impact on my own thinking, since I had just got an email account at the time I started going to those meetings. Gradually, as time demands on an assistant professor increased, I stopped coming, so I had no idea that Martin had participated in the group at a later stage.  In many ways, they were a model for what Comparative Media Studies became.

When we launched our first graduate class, we did not yet have any students of our own so all of the participants came from the Media Lab or STS. But the Lab leadership never valued such exchanges, and subsequent generations of MAS students were less interested in this kind of theory, less interested in grounding their work in actual communities, etc., and I became more and more disenchanted with what the Lab had become, which may be why there was so little crossover by the time we launched that class. Mike and Marc published an account of the group’s history which I found online — There have now been several books published on the topic of narrativ intelligence, which is starting to be recognized as its own subfield.

One of the things that amused me looking at the syllabus was that Martin gave a lecture about “reality television,” which at the time really was focused on programs like Cops. This was prior to the debuts of Survivor or Big Brother, which set today’s reality television phenomenon into motion. It was at the time a way of introducing some themes about surveillance as entertainment, but juxtaposed here with a lecture about propaganda, it was a way of asking questions about media power.

The lecture I most recall giving in the class was the one on the history of radio as a medium. Radio is still a medium that rarely gets discussed by media scholars (despite the impact of Michele Hilmes and the students she trained), but can be enormously informative in terms of its evolution over time. So, the lecture began with the early technological experiments, discussed the participatory buzz around early radio and the ways FCC policies helped to direct it towards more commercial networks, explored the aesthetics of radio drama and comedy and the ways they informed the early history of television, considered how the introduction of FM impacted the history of Rock’N’Roll and the ways this was tied to the shift from shellac to vinyl records, the people’s radio movement of the 1960s and its legacies in talk radio, and finally, the emergence of web-based radio (not yet podcasting). Today, I still draw on chunks of this lecture in my own introductory class, especially the ways that radio initially promised to be a much more participatory platform than it has ended up being and yet there remain various traces of that earlier history — including HAM radio, Podcasting, low-rez radio, and to some degree, talk radio.

Chris Kelty:

A few further thoughts on 21L015 1997 edition, looking back over well-preserved emails and the mostly scorched landscape that is my memory.

I was trying to remember how familiar/unfamiliar the class seemed to me at the time.  I had come out of UC Santa Cruz as an undergrad, with a literature degree (and a lot of Math and some History of Consciousness, go figure), so the literary/cultural studies focus dominated my horizon in a certain way.  So I think the class felt familiar, maybe a departure, but certainly something that seemed like a natural evolution out of and away from the way media was being treated in literary studies and its departments.  I had no real contact with communications in its classical form prior to this class, so that part, ironically seemed like the new part to me (McLuhan! Media Reform!).  Which is just a way of saying that I think the class was as much an expression of the evolution of literary/cultural studies in the 1990s as it was a foundational media studies class.

 I didn’t really experience it as programmatic in the way I’m sure Henry did, which was my prerogative as a PhD student from a different department.  But it was certainly, for me, far cooler and more intellectually satisfying than most of what I had to take in STS (the core courses there still emphasized a pretty boring Plato to Nato history of science, and I believe I was reading “Steamships on Western Rivers” and TAing a course on Darwin the year before).  So from the STS department at the time, Henry’s class seemed much more like what I wanted STS to become.  If I were 15 years younger I would undoubtedly have applied to CMS instead of STS.

But really, it was the design of the course, with it’s labs and movies and exercises of all sorts was amazing for me. I don’t think I’d experienced much beyond the standard readings + essays + discussion mode before Henry’s class. So now, like being bitten by a werewolf, every full moon I create a new course inspired by 21L015 that is much more ambitous than I have the capacity for, and tries to use all manner of games, technologies, creative assignments, etc.  I fail a lot, but I think it was 21L015 that showed me how much fun teaching a class can be.

We took so much grief from the undergrads at MIT for the website.  One student, after detailing all its flaws said “Overall, the web site makes a poor substitution for a well organized course information handout.” (a sentiment I increasingly think represents the future, not the past).  But not all the students were iike that—many were as unfamilair with the technology as we were and/or enthusiastic about its possibilities.  I imagine that hasn’t changed all that much at MIT.

The course reader cost $112.50. We encouraged students to make their own copy since it cost less to do so than to buy it.  I only mention this since I have spent the intervening 15 years fighting an open access copyright battle that I was only dimly aware of at the time (James Boyles Shamans, Software and Spleens was published that year, or the year before)…  At the time, there really were no “pdfs” or digital versions of reading, everything was photocoopied or books to buy, and the absurd cost was a function of the copyright clearances.   

These days if I can’t find a legal or illegal copy to give the students in my classes, I often skip the reading (although this is driven mostly by my sense of justice at a large public university where students are already being gouged by the textbook industry) unless I think its really important.  Even more generally, I find that giving students access to various media that they might manipulate (such as remixing youtube videos or even just playing a bit of music in class) requires me to break some law or find some illicit technological solution—or encourage students to do the same.  Pedagogy has obviously changed in good and bad ways since 1997.

One of my favorite emails:


From: Henry Jenkins

Subject: Some terms for exam


“The Medium is the Message”

Larry Flynt

Commodity Aesthetic

Amateur Radio


Consensus Narrative

Cultural Imperialism

“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”

Digital Photography

Oedipus as Detective

Leni Refienstahl (check spelling?)

Propaganda vs. Survalence

Manuscript Culture

Plato’s Arguments Against Theatre

Acting Vs. Performance

“Cinema of Attractions”

The Encyclopedic and Procedural Properties

The Freed Unit

Warner Communications Inc.

Culture Jamming



Bonus points for people who immediately know what the Freed Unit is (I had to look it up, obviously my 1950s musical cred just went out the window).  I also like the “check spelling” note… and I’m not sure what “survalence” is, but I think my next book will be about it 🙂

All teasing aside, the list is a good indicator not just of what the class was about but what we thought were good examples of culture to work with in order to communicate the theory to the kids.  I think it’s hard to overestimate the pleasure we all got out of blurring the high/low culture line at that time… Martin and Henry were both, in different ways, impishly excited about confronting the students with the unfamiliar.

I’d be interested to hear from others who taught the class how self-evident a list like this looks for media studies today, vs. how odd (or old) it feels.  Incidentally, There’s also a great note in which Henry talks about how to use a cereal box to explain Adorno’s commodity aesthetic. 🙂

Henry Jenkins:

Yes, today, we have much better spell-checkers on our computers, though I still have a hard time spelling that word for some reason. :-


Christopher M. Kelty is an associate professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment at ISG and in the department of Information Studies. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering.  He is the author of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

Martin Roberts studies the relationship between subcultures, globalization, and digital media, and has taught courses on global subcultures at The New School and NYU. His publications include articles on global documentary film, world music, and the J-pop genre Shibuya-kei. His current research focuses on subcultures organized around digital gaming and electronic music, including 8-bit or chipmusic, iOS music, and the revival of modular synthesizers. His article on the black MIDI subculture and Japanese dankmaku (bullet-hell) games will be published by G|A|M|E journal in 2016. He currently teaches digital media and culture at Emerson College and Dartmouth College.


Syllabi as Cultural Artifacts: MIT’s Introduction to Media Studies (Part One)

Last fall, I spent a portion of my academic leave in Cambridge, MA. I was a visiting scholar at Microsoft Research New England’s Social Media Lab, where I was able to spend time with Mary Gray, Nancy Baym, Tartleton Gillespie, Nick Seaver, Lana Swartz,  Kevin Driscoll, Sarah Brayne, Andrea Alarcon, and many other amazing thinkers (all of whom I miss as I am writing this). I want to be clear that I was not back at MIT, but the Microsoft offices are right across the street from the outer edge of the MIT campus, and I had a great view of Senior House, the Media Lab, and Building 14 (where my office was for 20 years) out the window. I thought of myself either working with my back to MIT or looking down on the Institute, but either way, it gave me a certain pleasure.

But it also meant that I spent time hanging out with various old friends and colleagues affiliated with MIT and even, gasp, Harvard. At a cocktail party hosted by William Uricchio, I got into a conversation about teaching with Sasha Costanza-Chock about an undergraduate course he was teaching, which turned out to be Introduction to Media Studies. I had helped to develop this class with Martin Roberts in 1997, and it had been one of the first steps we made towards developing the framework for the Comparative Media Studies program.

Later that same week, I had lunch with Martin Roberts, who happened to be passing through town, and we had so much fun recalling our experiences together developing and teaching the class, including memories of Chris Kelty, now a distinguished faculty member at UCLA, who was our first TA for Intro. From these conversations, we came up with the idea of publishing through this blog some reflections on how this core class, central to the undergraduate experience of Comparative Media Studies at MIT, evolved over time.

As media scholars, we often explore other kinds of texts in relations to the times in which they originated, in response to various institutional imperatives and constraints, and especially how they evolve over time in response to new audiences and their demands. But we rarely look at our own teaching practices through this same lens — why do we make the choices we do, what agendas do courses serve, what do we miss even as we are trying to capture the key aspects of a phenomenon. MIT’s Introduction to Media Studies offers us a rich text to consider in this way — given its location and given its ambitions — but I would encourage others to trace through the archeologies of the key courses at their institutions.

In this segment, I am sharing a conversation between Chris Kelty, Martin Roberts, and myself. Later, I will share some reflections by the current instructor, Sasha Costanza-Chock, and along the way, I will share a few thoughts from a few of the folks who have taught the class in the intervening years.

Here are a few links to help you follow the discussion (assembled and with commentary from Martin Roberts)

The original syllabus, faithfully preserved for future media archaeologists (i.e. us) in digital amber:

Minimalist late-90s hand-coded HTML design by yours truly – thank you very much.

My lecture page is here:

Even the BBS is still intact:

Here is Sasha’s most recent version of the syllabus

So, let the conversation begin. (By the way, we would love to hear thoughts and reflections from any of the students who took the class or from others who have taught it through the years. If I receive any, I will republish them here along with these other materials).

Martin Roberts

The first thing that strikes me is how the very language that we use to talk about digital and network technologies has shifted: consider, for example, how laughably antiquated anything with the prefix cyber- now sounds, even though at the time terms like cyberspace, cyberpunk, or cyberculture made you sound like the academic equivalent of William Gibson.

Much the same is true of interactive and, to a lesser extent perhaps, virtual: does anyone still use the term virtual communities anymore? Why would that be? Given that the term historically applies to text-based (MUD/MOO) communities rather than graphics-based ones from Second Life to WOW etc., it’s worth considering why the term seems to have dropped out of use, or at least been displaced by the unpronounceable MMORPG (as in, you can’t actually say it as you can “MUD”).

Other terms  like Web 2.0 have come and gone in the meantime. Today, of course we live in the world of  the cloud, platforms, and participatory culture, but if the earlier examples are anything to go by, this world seems destined in its turn to have faded into the past by the time we hit the singularity (I believe the current ETA is 2029).

From Hypertext to Transmedia

One interesting example of the shift I was talking about is in the domain of narrative. In the ‘97 course, as I recall, the discussion of narrative in digital environments was still pretty rudimentary, and largely monopolized by the George Landau school of hypertext and lots of refs to Borges’ garden of forking paths and postmodernist fiction trickery (Cortázar, Calvino et al.). Now the word on everyone’s lips is transmedia – referring to narratives that extend across multiple platforms, in turn producing new kinds of guided “user flow”- again very different from Raymond Williams’ sequential (and I would argue, largely obsolete) early-70s concept.

From Text to Object?

One last point: other than narrative, I would suggest that today the very concept of the media “text” has become problematic in ways that it didn’t seem so in ‘97. Yet we continue to work with the notion that media studies’ basic unit of study is the media “text”, even though the boundaries of that text have become increasingly difficult to define. Here’s an example I used in a class last year: try defining The Lord of the Rings as a “media text”. Of course, we have the original novels themselves as the ur-text (although even then the idea of a clearly-bounded text became problematic, with all the appendices, sequels/prequels etc.). Now, consider this LOTR-themed Air New Zealand flight-safety video:


Is this part of the Lord of the Rings as a “media text”? I would say absolutely, but as you can see, that text has now expanded to include the entire cinematic cycle of Peter Jackson movies and, even more improbably, the nation of New Zealand itself. And this is just the tip of the iceberg – it’s easy to see that LOTR today is a “transmedia” narrative, but it is so in many more ways than may be apparent. Let’s not even mention Doctor Who… ^_^

So the question then would be, if the very concept of the media “text” as the unit of analysis is increasingly problematic today, in terms of identifying where it begins and ends, then what is to replace it? My answer would be that text is now being displaced by object as a central analytical unit – I’m thinking of the platform studies series, 3D action figures of Guy Debord, Lego adaptations of Minecraft, Minecraft adaptations of everything. I also wonder whether the concept of transcoding might be a useful counterpart to transmedia to refer to the increasingly porous boundaries between digital and material objects.

The arguably obsolescence of the “text” paradigm in media theory can be radicalized further by extending it to the viability/utility of the very term medium itself today as an analytical category, in contrast to the increasingly ubiquitous platform (it’s revealing, if depressing, that my students typically use the two terms interchangeably). This question is of course an even larger one than the one about the status of the media text.

With hindsight, I would say that one of the problems with the course in 1997 was that its analytical horizons were still very much defined by literary theory – notably, of course, the ubiquitous notion of the “text” – even at a time when literary theory had for some time been in the process of debunking it. (It’s a little like the earlier irony of the Cahiers du Cinéma critics coming up with the theory of the auteur at pretty much the time Roland Barthes was declaring the “death” of the auteur.)

The Afterlife of Virtual

One key term I’ve mentioned but haven’t discussed is the notion of the “virtual” – again, big in the mid-90s, today not so much. But still we have the latest generation of VR technologies starting with the Oculus Rift, which is slowly inching closer to the fantasy of the early 90s. As you know, the term “augmented reality” was big a couple of years back but my sense is that this is also already sounding dated.

Anyway, hope these thoughts help to start the ball rolling; I’ll doubtless have more to say later when I’ve looked through the ’97 syllabus in more details. Chris? Any thoughts on commodified dissent, recursive publics, or actor-network theory (ANT)? What would be indispensable in any contemporary iteration of the ’97 course?

Chris Kelty

The first thing to say is that the ’97 class was the first in which I gave a lecture I wrote myself— I don’t know if I ever properly thanked Henry and Martin for letting me do that, but my cup runneth over: so thanks to both of you!

I have no idea why I chose the media concentration stuff—or whether you guys encouraged it, but it certainly led me down a very interesting path.  I wonder how I would do that lecture today? I think the “transmedia” stuff that Henry is on to represents a major change in the industry… and the debates about race in Hollywood are so much more present today… but really much of what I said in ’97 probably could still be said today, sadly.

– the ’97 class had a classic Walter Ong/Jack Goody feel to it in some ways: from Cave Painting to Photography to Radio-TV-Film to Internet.   I wonder whether that is a still a standard starting point?

For me, the work of folks like Lisa Gitelman (When Old Media Were New) has become the de facto way of introducing the historical component of my class, and nothing like the grand historical narratives of Goody or Ong.  

Indeed, thinking internationally, the German media theory/media history schools have become much more de rigueur than they were in 1997.  When we were teaching that class, reading Kittler felt like discovering a gold mine. Now it’s either old hat or canonical, but the Germans themselves have gone from Mediengeschicte and Medienwissenschaft to Kulturtechnik and Media Archaeology to hybridizing ANT and media theory (Akteur-Medien-Theorie) to god knows what else…  I teach some of this stuff but I don’t think most people (in the US) see it as central.

Predictably my classes derived from the ‘97 experience (which I tend to call “intro to software and networks” or “intro to the internet,” instead of media) focus on intellectual property, the politics of software, standards and hacking, and the rise of new social movements.  I was particularly enthused to revisit the ‘culture-jamming’ and intellectual property aspects of the ’97 class—I probably owe a much larger debt to Martin for clueing me into this stuff than I ever realized <tips hat again>.  At Rice I ended up teaching a class with a classicist (Scott McGill) that was called “Piracy across the Ages” which was full of much of the same material, complemented by ancient mashups (Centos) and accusations of plagiary by Seneca and Virgil.  Scott went on to write a whole book about plagiarism in the ancient world.

Remarkably for a class at MIT—we didn’t touch on hacking or the MIT subcultures of hacking at all.  I think I was only just discovering them at that point, so it’s not shameful or anything, but nonetheless, Stewart Brand and Stephen Levy were all over it 15 years earlier—but it was not something that media studies or STS took as central.  The only person in our orbit who would have really cared about it was Sherry Turkle, and she was on to other things.  Nonetheless the fact that Adbusters, the EFF, plunderphonics, EBN and Negativland were part of the class at the time is a kind of triumph.

A propos of Martin’s message, platforms have since become key to be sure, both in the Montfort/Bogost sense but also in terms of the actual political economy (e.g. Tarleton Gillespie’s diagnosis) of things like YouTube/Facebook as “platforms” instead of sites, media or texts—in anthropology and STS the undisputed keyword for this is “infrastructure”—which in ’97 was something I remember talking about with people but which there was no literature about.  Now I can’t imagine teaching the class without it being focused on platforms/infrastructure.

An obvious addendum here is the rise of “digital humanities” and its discontents, which I find totally baffling, since it feels on the one hand like substandard technological skills, and on the other substandard theoretical sophistication (not high praise, I realise, but I’m not attacking it, I just don’t understand where its momentum came from).  I don’t teach this stuff, and wonder how much of it has crept into the CMS curriculum, or Annenberg, or elsewhere— but I am “officially” a digital humanities faculty member at UCLA.

Lastly there was a lot of Tamagotchi that year. There was also a lot of Bill Mitchell.   I’m just saying.

Henry Jenkins

I want to step back and reflect a bit about the institutional context that this course came out of. Keep in mind that this was the first step, curricular-wise, in terms of paving the way for the launch of the Comparative Media Studies Program just a few years later.

That program took shape in the particular context of humanities at MIT: the reality of the situation was that we were trying to create a master’s program which would tap the knowledge and expertise of a range of faculty who came from traditional humanities fields, with little to no chance of hiring people who were specifically trained in media studies. So, we needed a definition of media studies that was humanistic to its core and expansive in its understanding of what constituted media.

In many ways, the design of that syllabus was rhetorical — addressed as much to the faculty who were going to be guest speakers as it was to the students being introduced to the field of media studies for the first time. They needed to grasp the role they could play in something bigger and they had to understand what the stakes for them were in contributing to the growth of that field. We had already been involved in a series of multidisciplinary conversations designed to identify common ground and common themes that might bring the faculty together. This class was designed to embody some of those common themes in practice. This is why it is so reliant on guest speakers and why it is perhaps as text-heavy as it is.

For this to work, we needed to enlarge the canvas, which is why there’s some reliance on “grand narratives,” such as orality and literacy or cave paintings. We were staking out a claim for an approach to media that would be comparative across a range of axis — across different media systems, across different historical periods, across disciplines, across theory and practice, and across academia and the larger public sphere.

So, first, what I see when I look at this syllabus is the goal of expanding the period covered by media studies. Cinema Studies at the time was barely reaching back prior to 1895 (and even those first few decades were still being contested, as notions of “pre-cinema” or “primitive cinema” were giving way to “cinema of attractions” and a bit later, “media archeology.”) So, going back to earlier moments, such as the emergence of written language or the introduction of the printing press, to think about the processes of media change would have been innovative. I recall experimenting with bringing in Pauline Maier, a historian of the American Revolution, to think about committees of correspondence as early examples of networked communications — a move not fully understood by anyone involved but part of an exploration of how we might engage with a broader historical scope.  

You are almost certainly right that Gitelman’s approach would probably be how we would approach some of these same topics now, but there are losses as well as gains in shifting towards that model.  I drew on Gitelman in my introduction to Convergence Culture, which I ended up writing just a few years later.

More recent versions of introduction to media studies class often narrow their scope to focus too much on the current moment of digital media and do not pay enough attention to how we got here, to forms of communication that shaped human history on a broader scale. I would argue that the best way to combat digital exceptionalist or technological deterministic arguments is precisely to read the “digital revolution” in relation to earlier moments when the communication infrastructure underwent profound change.

There would have been a push for each of those speakers to bring these older moments into conversation with contemporary media practices: so I recall incorporating Spaulding Grey’s Swimming to Cambodia into our consideration of the shift from orality to literacy, so we could see how some of the same rhetorical structures and performance practices persisted in the work of contemporary storytellers.

This broader conception of media becomes all the more important if we are thinking now in terms of “transmedia” or “convergence”-based models of the contemporary media landscape. As we do so, we need to be able to think about print culture (including comics, missing here to my regret), theater and other forms of live performance (including bardic orality), and of course, cinema and television, alongside digital media. The cave painting — as a multimodal experience, which combined visual images, live performance, and new evidence suggests, a strong awareness of the sonic — seems like an ideal place to start thinking about what it means to tell a story through a range of different media and their affordances. This gets lost when we focus too precisely on the digital moment, which means that we rarely go much before World War II.

The focus on the literary and thus, texts here also emerges from another institutional factor. The first time this class was taught, it was a subject in the Literature Section, and the faculty there were somewhat reluctant to see us add an introductory level subject, which pulled so far away from what they saw as the core of their field. We did not yet have any academic unit which would allow this class to be identified as a media studies class: so, one of the defining traits of the newer syllabi for me is that it is now CMS 100 and that CMS is now part of its own academic unit at MIT.

This version of the class was so successful at redefining people’s understandings of media studies that there was a certain amount of trauma at extracting it from the Literature curriculum when the time came for us to do so, in part because they still wanted those high enrollment numbers, even though some of the same people had balked at creating the class in the first place. And Literature at MIT has since embraced a much more inclusive definition of the literary that starts to sound rather a lot like what this course tried to achieve:


Literature at MIT embraces an expansive vision of literary study. We are linked by a common interest in problems of narrative, aesthetics, genre, and media, but our curriculum explores a broad array of written, oral, and visual forms, ranging from the ancient world to the 21st century. We teach poetry, drama, and prose fiction, and also film, television, comics, memoirs, and folk music. We represent a variety of methodologies but share a common dedication to close reading and historical reflection. We are interested in both the established masterpieces and the most recent cultural productions of the digital age.

The class was also seeking to position itself as a HASS-D subject — that is, as part of the distribution of courses in the core Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences curriculum, as something that students could take to meet the General Education requirements of MIT, and this also pushed us to make our peace with a broader, more humanistic tradition.

So, some of what seems conservative to Martin and Chris today have to do with the politics of how you introduce a new subject into the curriculum, but I also want to caution people from assuming that an approach too grounded in the present, too focused on the digital, too dismissive of the role of history or of these older frames for thinking about media and communication, are necessarily the right way to go.

A final observation about the context from which the class originated: being at MIT, we wanted to create a subject that would have a strong hands-on component, that would give students a chance to make media, or at least, experience different kinds of media. So, this is why you see some of the assignments here that are a bit more applied, and I am happy to see that tradition of applications and experiential learning continues down to the present incarnation of the class.

All of this is to say that as faculty, we can rarely push further in our teaching than our institutions will allow us, that all of our class designs reflect the contexts within which we work, and that these negotiations were especially strongly felt in this case because of the institutional weight being placed on creating the first true media studies class in the humanities at MIT (as opposed to medium specific subjects).

Chris Kelty

Just a small additional context thought:  at the time the presence of the Media Lab had a major confounding effect on what we could claim was “media studies” and also on what it meant to have a hands-on feel.  There was no humanities there, but they nonetheless dominated the concept…

I vaguely remember there being a “dissident” group of media lab people focused on narratology that met under cover of night to discuss “humanistic” things…but the nascent CMS class was really trying to stake out ground in relation to that fact as well as the claims of the humanities. I think that continues today. I’d be interested in what the more recent issues at MIT are, to be sure, but the proliferation of the “media lab” model around the world has set up a force field of confusion that affects media studies everywhere I think…

Christopher M. Kelty is an associate professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment at ISG and in the department of Information Studies. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering.  He is the author of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

 Martin Roberts studies the relationship between subcultures, globalization, and digital media, and has taught courses on global subcultures at The New School and NYU. His publications include articles on global documentary film, world music, and the J-pop genre Shibuya-kei. His current research focuses on subcultures organized around digital gaming and electronic music, including 8-bit or chipmusic, iOS music, and the revival of modular synthesizers. His article on the black MIDI subculture and Japanese dankmaku (bullet-hell) games will be published by G|A|M|E journal in 2016. He currently teaches digital media and culture at Emerson College and Dartmouth College.


Unpacking the traveler: Authority and expertise in Lonely Planet and Parts Unknown

The following is the third of a series of blog posts written by the PhD students currently enrolled in my seminar, Public Intellectuals: Theory and Practice.

Unpacking the Traveler: Authority and Expertise in Lonely Planet and Parts Unknown

by Stefanie Z. Demetriades

For many of us, the first recourse when we travel for pleasure is the tourist guidebook. Equipped with a comprehensive guide, we can meticulously plan out a “perfect trip” from start to finish – where to go when and how, what to see, what to eat, and what to avoid – before we ever set foot on foreign ground. Look, for instance, at the best-selling and ubiquitous Lonely Planet destination guides and we find an emphasis on “accurate, practical information” curated by experts that promises that ability to smoothly navigate through a space of difference with maximum autonomy and minimal discomfort or anxiety.

But what are the assumed common-sense standards that such an expert resource is built on? And what are the implications of such an expertise for how we construct a role for ourselves as travelers and how we relate to the places, people, and cultures we encounter?

Lonely Planet guides promise clarity and certainty for maximum autonomy and minimum discomfort.

Lonely Planet guides promise clarity and certainty for maximum autonomy and minimum discomfort

For the most part, the expert authors of these guidebooks are authorities by virtue of their own non-native position. That is to say that, like the reader/hopeful tourist, the authors generally tend to be foreigners, travelers themselves. But they are travelers-plus, more experienced, made expert by virtue of their more frequent and/or more extended stays. As readers we trust them because of this parallel position to us, and we will quite literally follow in their footsteps through sites and sights they have vetted ahead. In this sense, the authority of Lonely Planet is very much the authority of the formalized, outside expert, and the narrative voice of the guide is the voice of this expert – a single guide book may have seven or eight contributing writers, but they are undifferentiated and blended into a single voice, which appears unified and objective.

From this vantage point, the experience of travel is parsed into lists and grids of expert reviews that map out the worth of sites and sights. In a pragmatic calculation of cost (financial and logistic) versus benefit, value is heavily weighted to the exceptional, in the literal sense of the out-of-the-ordinary: festivals and monuments are celebrated destinations in themselves, while everyday experiences are to be passingly enjoyed en route to the primary attractions.

A faceless representation of traditional dress in Lonely Planet Thailand

A faceless representation of traditional dress in Lonely Planet Thailand

The “authentic” is the ultimate prize, and is bound up most closely with history as a largely self-contained, static past. The guides may include reviews of nightclubs, resorts, art galleries, and five-star restaurants – but the stamp of “authentic” is reserved primarily for the pastoral, the “simple,” the “old,” and the “forgotten:” In this pragmatic quest we gain clarity and certainty, but the overall effect is to construct an eerily uninhabited, museum-like space of appraisal where personal agency and dynamic interaction haven’t quite made it to the page.

Do we accept this as inevitable product of the genre, or as a necessary compromise of form and function? Or are there possibilities of alternative visions of the tourist in the travel genre?

Enter Anthony Bourdain and Parts Unknown. With its tagline of “Get Hungry. Get Lost.” the CNN travel show hosted by the notoriously grouchy chef, author, and TV personality immediately turns the premise of the travel guide paradigm inside out, promising to embrace everything the guidebooks are designed to guard against.

Unlike the “everything you need to know” thoroughness of the guides, Parts Unknown makes no attempt at offering a comprehensive study of the subject destination, and covering ground certainly does not seem to be a goal in its own right. (Most of the Thailand episode, for instance, takes place in a single night of barhopping in Chiang Mai). A major draw for the show has been its episodes in politically tense and notoriously risky destinations (Iran, Myanmar, Congo), but the show also covers popular getaway destinations and unsettles the exotic, “off-the-map” narrative with destinations familiar to the American audience (Massachusetts, Detroit, New Jersey).

Here Bourdain is not the autonomous guide but the very much dependent traveler, and his local hosts are clearly positioned as the primary sources of authority. “I arrive in this country spectacularly ignorant,” he says in the South Africa episode, “I will leave spectacularly ignorant.” Where popular guidebooks in the vein of Lonely Planet turn on an authority branded as studied expertise, authority in Parts Unknown is personal and subjective. The language of the show is that of the first person – the voices of the local hosts and Bourdain’s own self-reflexive monologues, which serve as the voiceover narration in each episode and are very much personal reflection rather than assured description.

Bourdain’s first-person voiceovers and candidly political personal conversations are characteristic of Parts Unknown

The effect is to anchor knowledge and authority in an individualized context, so that even when generalized statements are made about, for instance, national character, it is not a disembodied, assumed fact but a personal perspective consciously laden with bias and baggage. As Bourdain himself notes in a 2015 interview:

I should be trusted and mistrusted as much as anyone. I’m a guy with a point of view who goes to a place, looks around, comes back and tries to give as honest an account of my experience as I can, but it is my experience.

Bourdain appears – at least in the visible narrative that makes it to the screen – to happily concede autonomy to his local hosts, who whisk him between their personal favorite sights, sounds, and tastes. Occasionally the point will be driven home by the risk of a particular situation – often culinary (a potentially poisonous blowfish dish), sometimes situational (a growing crowd angered by the presence of the cameras). In these cases risk is managed not by independence but rather by increased dependence. “You have to relax. Nothing will happen to you,” says his South African host as Bourdain follows him down the street. “I invited you to have this dish. We are not going to die,” says his Brazilian host, and with a winking nod to a bottle of beer, “that will protect you from the poison.” And Bourdain? “I am confident in this cook I don’t know, and in this man, my host and aficionado of this dish.”

Perhaps as direct result of this emphasis on the authority of lived experience the metrics of value and authenticity are shifted in Parts Unknown. Here the exceptional recedes to becomes a backdrop for the everyday. Monuments and festivals might be glimpsed as part of an edited montage, but faces and conversations get far more airtime. Meaning becomes something that is created and grounded in the practices and experiences of ordinary life rather than abstracted and held apart. Bourdain is explicit in this conscious orientation towards the personal:

Ideally I’m looking to learn what it’s like to live in that country, what people who’ve lived there their whole lives like, what gives them pleasure at 2 o’clock in the morning after they’ve had a few drinks. The details. The typical things. Not the sites, not necessarily the most important things … I go in, I try to talk to people about ordinary thing, and in doing that, they often say extraordinary things back to me.

And if it doesn’t entirely abolish the notion of the authentic, Parts Unknown certainly takes a much more expansive approach to it. The word “authentic” itself is rarely heard, and indeed if it is mentioned it tends to be in a context challenging its relevance, as in the Morocco episode:

You can well imagine the American guy who’s lived in Tangier for 30 years. OK? He comes in and there’s a flat screen TV on the wall, he’s like, what the … You’ve ruined the authenticity and the integrity, but the Moroccan guy at the next table is like, wait a minute, wait a minute, asshole, do you have a flat screen TV at home? I want one, too. What’s wrong with that?

Authenticity is prised away from the tradition/modernity dichotomy that dominates much of the travel genre. History and context are still important, and Bourdain speaks with respectful awe of dishes and traditions that have been passed down for centuries, but history here is integrated into dynamic formations of the present, not a static relic of abstract purity. And so a trip to Libya includes a meal at Uncle Kentucky’s Fried Chicken as well a traditional coffee house and a family barbeque, and meals in South Africa include Iftar with a Muslim family as they break their Ramadan fast as well as an array of dishes from across the African diaspora. Intertwined with tradition, pleasure, and everyday practice, authenticity is not a binary state but an ongoing and creative performance.

So does Parts Unknown truly represent a different logic, or underneath the new packaging do we find the same fundamental assumptions as our travel guides?

Bourdain’s reflexivity does not immunize Parts Unknown from much-needed critique

Bourdain’s reflexivity does not immunize Parts Unknown from much-needed critique

Parts Unknown is hardly an empty vessel, free of agenda or control. A long preproduction process plots out the logistics of the trips as well as the narrative theme for each episode. Local hosts are carefully selected to match. There is little question that Parts Unknown is no less curated an experience than the “create your perfect trip” promised by Lonely Planet. Likewise, local knowledge and voices are granted more play, but at the center of the show is still a white male in a privileged position who shapes the narrative and presentation. Echoes of exoticism and Orientalism persist – “Once you experience some of the sensory pleasures of the East, your previous life just isn’t adequate anymore,” Bourdain reflects in Chiang Mai. His hosts are predominantly (though not always) male, and “other Others” remain largely invisible, or else a source of half-joking anxiety, as with the ladyboys of Thailand:

So, I woke up in a state of confusion and deep concern after making out with Ernest Borgnine last night. I have spiraled into some identity crisis. Inadvertently making out with Ernest Borgnine, I would like to say. It was very dramatic. I need to go to a strip club and watch a football game, mow the lawn and barbecue all at the same time.

Power asymmetries are also still very much at play, with Bourdain’s privilege of access and resources often thrown into relief as Bourdain is framed as guest rather than client: for all his meals at restaurants and food stalls he is rarely seen paying for anything, and when sharing meals in homes and villages there is a definite discomfort in knowing that, even if there is some kind of compensation, Bourdain as privileged guest is sharing food that is not always in boundless supply for his hosts.

There is plenty of reason to be cautious, therefore, about an uncritical celebration of Parts Unknown as a complete break away from many of the problematic tendencies of the travel genre. But with all that in mind, what is striking about the program is its insistently reflexive subjectivity, so different from the studied objectivity of Lonely Planet. Bourdain consistently expresses a self-awareness and ambivalence of his own position and role as host and traveler, and in conversations with his guides and in his monologue voiceovers he acknowledges both the uncertainty and the genuine discovery of travel, and both the genuine joy and the intense discomfort that can entail.

The very form and style of the show also emphasize subjectivity: editing and directorial styles vary from episode to episode, so that the form and aesthetic choices never quite feel assumed or matter-of-course. The show often adopts a personal point-of-view perspective in the composition and editing of a scene: the picture wavers and distorts as Bourdain gets increasingly inebriated through an all-night bender in Chiang Mai, for instance. So when the lens camera lingers on scantily clad bodies in Brazil as Bourdain comments that “the colors of the city are amazing…the colors of the people are amazing, and the way they move,” this charged representation is so inextricably linked with Bourdain’s own gaze that it nevertheless works to challenge notions of the objective, dispassionate expert observer, reinforcing instead the emotional and subjective position of Bourdain as author-observer-participant.

Is it patently unfair to compare a text-based guidebook and a visual entertainment program? Perhaps. After all, they perform different functions through different mediums; their usefulness, accessibility, and appeal are measured by different metrics. Nor are Lonely Planet and Parts Unknown mutually exclusive competitors – no doubt there is a significant overlap in audience. Nevertheless, to consider these two representations together is to look critically at the assumptions of authority and value that underpin how we imagine and construct ourselves as travelers.

Is Parts Unknown entirely unproblematic from a critical perspective? Of course not. But the show seems to at least begin to unsettle some of the assumptions and commonsense standards of the travel genre with greater attention to local voices and knowledge, and, crucially, with greater recognition of how powerfully and inherently subjective the form really is. If there’s a cautious hope we can eke out of watching the show it’s that the travel genre is not inevitably fated to an endless cycle of reproducing the same patterns and ruts, that there are alternative frames, visions, and logics through which we can imagine ourselves as tourists.


Stefanie Demetriades is a doctoral student at the University of Southern California studying media and communication.