What Fan Media Makers Should Know About Transformative Use: A Conversation with Rebecca Tushnet (Part Two)

You make what some will find to be a provocative statement above: “The Star Trek works have also been published for a very long time, and have had many chances to earn a return already, which can favor a finding of fair use.” So, let’s be clear about what you are saying here. Are you saying that if an IP holder has made more than enough money, it suddenly starts to lose some of its copyright protections?

The courts’ reasoning here is not that the copyright owner has made “enough” money—in some of these cases (and subsequent cases relying on them), the works were previously very successful, in others not so much—but rather that the copyright owner has had a fair chance to economically exploit the work, and also that its wide availability is more likely to justify responses and reworkings. See, e.g., Seltzer v. Green Day, Inc., 725 F.3d 1170, 1178 (9th Cir. 2013) (“Scream Icon was widely disseminated, both on the internet and on the streets of Los Angeles before Green Day used it in their concerts. Accordingly, Seltzer controlled the ‘first public appearance’ of his work. This tends to weigh in favor of the fair use of that work.”) (citations omitted); Kelly v. Arriba Soft Corp., 336 F.3d 811, 820 (9th Cir. 2002) (“Published works are more likely to qualify as fair use because the first appearance of the artist’s expression has already occurred.”); Arica Inst. v. Palmer, 970 F.2d 1067, 1078 (2d Cir. 1992) (plaintiff’s work was “a published work available to the general public,” and the second factor thus favored the defendant); see also National Center for Jewish Film v. Riverside Films LLC, 2012 WL 4052111 (C.D. Cal. 2012) (finding that factor two “slightly” favored fair use because copied films were old and had been available for a long time).

 Yet, to play devil’s advocate here, some of those who have come out in support of the fan film guideline argue that some of the current fan productions, because of their substantial similarities with the original texts, because of their improved technical polish, do run the risk of confusing consumers and damaging the market for commercial produced films.

Confusion isn’t really part of the copyright infringement test; I definitely agree that fan films should be clearly unofficial, but technical polish in itself doesn’t signal official production, especially in this day and age. And fans are generally practiced in distinguishing fanworks from official works—if you label something an “unofficial fan film,” confusion is unlikely. As for damaging the market, that’s the explicit concern of the last factor of the fair use test. The key question for factor four is whether the accused work substitutes for part of the copyright owner’s legitimate market. See, e.g., Authors’ Guild, Inc. v. HathiTrust, 755 F.3d 87, 99 (2d Cir. 2014) (“any economic ‘harm’ caused by transformative uses does not count because such uses, by definition, do not serve as substitutes for the original work”) To weigh in favor of a copyright owner, the fourth factor requires a “meaningful or significant effect” on the market for the copyright owner’s work via substitution. Authors Guild v. Google, 804 F.3d 202, 224 (2d Cir. 2015).

Thus, though I do believe that fanworks help sustain the franchise, that isn’t even required for fair use—if a work is transformative and otherwise fair, it’s ok if it harms the market for the original (for example, by convincing people that the original is dumb), as long as that harm doesn’t come by means of substituting for the original.

Many of the cases which the Organization for Transformative Works has dealt with are self-consciously transformational: fan fiction or fan videos are produced in part with the goal of critiquing or rewriting aspects of the original to more fully satisfy the interests of those fans, who, as I’ve noted, are often surplus viewers in the minds of the producers, that is, outside what they initially imagined their market to be. Yet, many of the fan films are affirmational (in that they see themselves more closely aligned with the themes of the series) and aspirational (in that they are often produced with the goal of breaking into the media industry). The standards there often encourage more fidelity to the original story, characters, and worlds as a display of mastery over the program content. They also stress technical mastery as the producers seek to duplicate the original special effects, settings, costumes, and performances. The goal is often to produce something that would “pass” as a Star Trek episode. So, without judging what would or would not be protected, which as has been noted would ultimately be up to the courts to decide, is it worth asking what would constitute the minimum degree of transformation necessary to be protected? Does it matter whether or not the creator of the work meant for the film to be transformative? Does the effort to match the original ultimately undermine some claims to be transformative?

 You ask, “is it worth asking what would constitute the minimum degree of transformation necessary to be protected?” Now I have to give the annoying law professor answer: Definitely worth asking, but not easy to answer. The courts have looked for new meaning or message. That’s easier to find when the new meaning is in some way critical of the original, or even when it’s orthogonal to the original. For the latter, I’m thinking of the great Information Society song What’s On Your Mind and its McCoy/Spock quotes. It may not really comment on the original, but it’s also doing something so different that its meaning/message is very far from that of Star Trek. The very odd IRS training film might also fall into this category.

You ask, “Does it matter whether or not the creator of the work meant for the film to be transformative?” The influential Second Circuit Court of Appeals has said that the answer to this question is no. Richard Prince, provocateur/appropriation artist, copied some photographs and was sued; in his deposition, he denied any intent at all, much less transformative intent. Probably he considered his statements part of his art. The court of appeals said that his work was still transformative because of the way that people reacted to it.

Finally, you ask, “Does the effort to match the original ultimately undermine some claims to be transformative?” Yes, though it would depend very much on what exactly was going on—filming David Gerrold’s original script for Blood and Fire with its overt homosexuality (which was, not for nothing, more overt than the nod to Sulu’s family life in the reboot) to show the contrast between what was and wasn’t acceptable to network TV at the relevant time would probably still be transformative, even if it was otherwise highly faithful in terms of character, setting, etc. That faithfulness might well highlight just how different—or not different—a Star Trek that was more diverse would have been. I would say that transformativeness in plot/character is probably the most important thing. While lack of fidelity in costumes, sets, etc. could be an important signal that a production isn’t going to compete with the market for the original (the other highly important fair use factor), fidelity in those elements probably doesn’t matter nearly as much as transformativeness in what actually happens on the set.

We’ve already discussed the fact that courts do not always make clear distinctions between commercial competitors and fannish labors of love. Yet, there’s a street sense that companies should have the right to protect themselves from unlicensed commercial products that seek to profit from their intellectual properties. Again, to play devil’s advocate, one defense of the new fan guidelines is that they seek to provide insight into what distinctions Paramount and CBS are making between amateur and commercial productions. If the law does not make such distinctions, it would seem that in this case, Paramount and CBS are trying to map some of its own.

You talk about the fan guidelines as indicating what distinctions Paramount/CBS make, even if the courts aren’t clear on what constitutes commerciality. I agree that the guidelines are helpful on what they won’t object to in terms of finances. But they’re very vague on what you can actually have in terms of plot/character, which means that people who want to be sure they’re within the guidelines are likely to end up making pretty anodyne fan films. (The restrictions on involvement of people who’ve worked on official Star Trek seems to me to be needless, and also overreaching in terms of the deals struck with those people—if Paramount/CBS wanted them to refuse such involvement, there was plenty of opportunity to put a specific noncompetition clause in their contracts.)

If Paramount/CBS want to say they’re not objecting to fan films at a certain level of investment, that would make sense to me, but content guidelines beyond “be very clear that this isn’t official,” like rule #2, really limit the usefulness of the guidelines for people who want to experiment. Content must be “family friendly and suitable for public presentation,” and must not include “offensive, fraudulent, … disparaging [does disparaging Ferengi count, especially given the ethnic analogies some critics have made?], … threatening, hateful, or any other inappropriate content.” How certain could anyone be that their script didn’t have any of that in it, especially if it had an actual conflict in it? Is there a single ST:TOS episode that couldn’t be dinged for having some un-family friendly, offensive or inappropriate content by someone who just didn’t like it? I know that I have to explain a lot about sexual mores of the 1960s to my kids when we watch ST:TOS. And the ban on depictions of drugs and alcohol is, in some ways, as funny as it is sad. What are we going to do with McCoy and Scotty, and all those pleasure planets? Or maybe it’s just a way to keep fan films out of character …

Another easy improvement to the guidelines would be to do what the Creative Commons license does: the CC license allows various uses without further contact with the copyright owner, and then the license also makes clear that fair use exists and that the license does not try to limit what you can do under fair use. Clear recognition by Paramount/CBS that fair use exists and that they don’t want to crush it would be one key element of a fair balance.

Rebecca Tushnet is a professor of law at Georgetown. Her work focuses on copyright, trademark, and false advertising law.  She previously clerked for Associate Justice David Souter and worked in private practice.  Her publications include “Worth a Thousand Words: The Images of Copyright Law” (Harvard L. Rev.); “Running the Gamut from A to B: Federal Trademark and False Advertising Law” (U. Penn. L. Rev.); and “Copy This Essay: How Fair Use Doctrine Harms Free Speech and How Copying Serves It” (Yale L.J.).  She helped found the Organization for Transformative Works, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting and promoting fanworks.


What Fans Need to Know about Transformative Use: A Conversation with Rebecca Tushnet (Part One)

Seeking more insights into the legal implications of the Star Trek fan film guidelines, I sought out  Georgetown Law Professor Rebecca Tushnet, who has extensively studied the legal implications of fan culture. The following is edited down from a larger exchange.

I’m a professor of law at Georgetown and a fan of Star Trek since I first saw reruns in the late 1970s, as a child. My first experience of organized fandom came from reading Star Trek Lives! by Jacqueline Lichtenberg, Sondra Marshak and Joan Winston, and my first fan fiction was from a Star Trek zine. My fandom drove me, in law school, to start researching whether fan fiction was legal—diverting me from what I expected to be a career in reproductive rights to a very different kind of reproduction-with-a-difference. I helped found the Organization for Transformative Works, and still serve on its legal committee. You can read the OTW’s post about the new Star Trek fan film guidelines, which points out that Paramount/CBS don’t have the right to bar fair uses; I’m going to offer some more general thoughts about the current legal status of transformative works.

Under U.S. law, whether a fanwork is fair use depends on four factors—(1) the purpose of the use, (2) the nature of the original work, (3) the amount of the original work used, and (4) the effect of the use on the market for the original or its licensed derivatives. Factor (1), the purpose of the use, is often the most important. The more new meaning and message is in the new work, the more “transformative” it is likely to be, and fair use favors transformative uses. Factor (1) also considers whether the use is commercial. Unfortunately for fan filmmakers, courts have had very little occasion to consider what “commercial” means here. It really shouldn’t mean that the creators paid for the inputs to their works, such as the sets or actors; courts haven’t in the past found works commercial because creators paid for the paper on which they were printed or the computers on which they were composed. However, the status of things such as Kickstarter campaigns, or the idea that covering production costs but seeking no profit might be acceptable, are simply untested in the courts. Fan films are clearly not “commercial” in the sense of being ads for separate products, but copyright law has historically had a far more expansive idea of what’s “commercial” than just ads. Thus, where there are Kickstarter campaigns or the like, transformativeness is likely to play a vital role in determining fair use: the more “commercial” a fanwork is, the more transformative and even critical it is likely to need to be.


Factors (2) and (3) turn out to be unimportant in most cases of transformative use. Nature of the original work: Although the Star Trek works are fictional (rather than factual, like an encyclopedia) and thus get “thicker” copyright protection than highly factual works, transformative uses are usually about fictional works, so that isn’t usually important. The Star Trek works have also been published for a very long time, and have had many chances to earn a return already, which can favor a finding of fair use. Amount used: The more of the original is used, the more likely it is to be nontransformative; conversely, transformative uses are likely to need only parts of the original in order to launch their new meanings or messages. Again, courts don’t have a lot of experience figuring out how “much” of a fictional universe has been copied; they are likely to ask whether the amount taken in a fanwork is reasonable in light of the fanwork’s purpose.


Factor (4), the effect of the use on the market, has tricky interactions with factor (1). Courts have said that transformative uses are unlikely to affect markets in which the copyright owner has legitimate rights. (The copyright owner can’t create an effect on the market by saying “I am willing to license critical commentary, parodies, or other transformative uses as long as you pay me, and therefore your transformative use still harms me financially.”) So, in transformative use cases, the result on factor (4) often depends on the result in factor (1). But courts might also ask questions like: is this fanwork likely to substitute for purchases of authorized works? If this fanwork is more an extension of the Star Trek universe than a critical reflection on some component of it, such as IDIC or the portrayal of Klingons or sexuality (especially in ST:TOS), then is it enough like something that Paramount/CBS would authorize that copyright law should give them rights over this type of work?


A generation of experience shows that Star Trek fanworks promote the market for the original, and even sustained the franchise through many dry years and perhaps ill-advised versions. Thus, the “substitution” argument hasn’t been supported by actual experience. But the more normative question—is this just the kind of thing that the copyright owner should be able to control, even if it’s not costing the copyright owner money?—remains very much a live issue.

Even some fan filmmakers and fan advocates have argued that Axanar went too far both in terms of its use of original copyrighted materials and in terms of business practices, which raised massive amounts of money, without real evidence of accountability or signs of progress towards a completed production. Some of us worry that if the Axanar case had moved forward, it would have been a very bad test case for defining the limits of fair use protections of fan culture. Would some of the commercial dimensions of this project have undercut some of its claims to constitute transformative use of copyrighted materials? Many fan projects are clearly labors of love, with little or no chance of making any return on the energies and resources invested in their production. It is hard to describe Axanar in those terms, given that the producers clearly see the film as paving the way for new models of commercial film production, and this is why the case created such a crisis in terms of how the studios think about the amateur status of fan filmmaking.

 I should start by foregrounding something that law students often find quite frustrating: For many legal questions, the absolute best answer is, “It depends.” Many fair use questions are easy. Some are not. I haven’t reviewed the Axanar script; I have no opinions about how transformative it is. If it is highly transformative, it is likely to be a fair use no matter how commercial it is. Unsurprisingly, most of the litigated fair use cases—including many significant victories—involve for-profit uses, because those are the defendants who are more likely to be able to afford a defense. However, questions about commerciality are difficult, and the law doesn’t necessarily have the right categories for what people do today.

If people are paying for copies of/access to the challenged use, then I would expect any court to find the use to be commercial, regardless of whether the recipient started a new company with the income, put it in the bank, or set the cash on fire. One problem created by new forms of creator-audience interaction online is that, when we’re not talking about a money-for-copies transaction, binary labels don’t work as well. I personally think Kickstarter campaigns are on the commercial side of the commercial/noncommercial spectrum, but unfortunately very few fair use cases recognize that it is a spectrum.

By contrast, nonlegal discourse is much more able to accommodate the idea of being noncommercial-ish, enough to favor fairness.   Many people are likely to think that fan websites that run Google Ads to offset hosting costs are very different from Axanar, and I agree that there are important differences. But copyright plaintiffs don’t think so: they think that ad-supported sites are exactly as “commercial” for purposes of disfavoring fair use as direct sales of books. “Offseting hosting costs” does mean “getting money,” and that’s pretty much what most courts have interpreted “commercial” to mean—it certainly doesn’t require turning a profit. Even Creative Commons has faced this difficulty—it turns out that people who use its “noncommercial” license have a wide range of opinions on what counts as noncommercial, although this divergence has generated few actual disputes.

All this variation is part of why I generally say that noncommerciality heavily favors fair use, while commerciality means that other factors, like transformativeness, will be more important.   Compare Sony Corp. v. Universal City Studios, 464 U.S. 417, 449 (1984) (a presumption of fair use “is appropriate here … because the District Court’s findings plainly establish that time-shifting for private home use must be characterized as a noncommercial, nonprofit activity.”), with Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., 510 U.S. 569, 584 (1994) (“If, indeed, commerciality carried presumptive force against a finding of fairness, the presumption would swallow nearly all of the illustrative uses listed in the preamble paragraph of § 107, including news reporting, comment, criticism, teaching, scholarship, and research, since these activities ‘are generally conducted for profit in this country.’ Congress could not have intended such a rule ….’”) (citation omitted).

Rebecca Tushnet is a professor of law at Georgetown. Her work focuses on copyright, trademark, and false advertising law.  She previously clerked for Associate Justice David Souter and worked in private practice.  Her publications include “Worth a Thousand Words: The Images of Copyright Law” (Harvard L. Rev.); “Running the Gamut from A to B: Federal Trademark and False Advertising Law” (U. Penn. L. Rev.); and “Copy This Essay: How Fair Use Doctrine Harms Free Speech and How Copying Serves It” (Yale L.J.).  She helped found the Organization for Transformative Works, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting and promoting fanworks.


How the New Star Trek Fan Film Guidelines May Change Fandom

The following post was commissioned by a leading website in Star Trek fandom in July, but because it was never used, I’ve decided to pass it along to the readers of my blog to spark discussion around developments that have the potential to dramatically impact media fandom. My own post will be followed on subsequent days by a conversation with Rebecca Tushnet, a Georgetown law professor who has become one of the leading thinkers about fan cultural production and transformative use of copyrighted materials.


Thanks to Arija Liepkalnietis for producing a Latvian translation of this blog post.

This summer, just a few months before the science fiction series would celebrate its 50th anniversary of production, Paramount and CBS collectively issued a series of guidelines for Star Trek fan filmmakers, seeking to clarify where they might draw the line between fan creativity and copyright infringement and suggesting what distinctions they might make between amateur and professional work in the Star Trek universe. They begin their document by proclaiming themselves “big believers in reasonable fan fiction and fan creativity, and in particular, want amateur fan filmmakers to showcase their passion for Star Trek.”

The issuing of these guidelines for “avoiding objections” was motivated primarily by the corporations’ ongoing legal battles with the producers of one particular fan film — Star Trek: Axanar, which had been the subject of extensive coverage for months. Star Trek: Axanar represented the culmination of trends shaping the relations between fans and producers in recent years. Axanar brought to the breaking point trends that sooner or later would have resulted in backlash from commercial rights holders. Technical advances have placed greater production capacities in the hands of everyday people, including the ability to generate digital special effects approaching industry standards. Digital distribution brought all forms of fan productions greater public visibility. Crowdfunding has allowed fans to back productions that matter to them, but in this case, that resulted here in massive amounts of money entering the system and some questionable business practices that even many other fan filmmakers found exploitative.

Let’s stipulate that CBS and Paramount have legitimate reasons to protect a top media franchise from being appropriated for commercial purposes, and we can understand why the studios felt a need to clarify where they might draw the line. That said, the new guidelines for Star Trek fan films also over-reach, going beyond what was needed to resolve ambiguities, doing damage to the fan community’s good will, and potentially violating the public’s fair use rights. While the producers insist that these guidelines apply only to fan films, they could have a chilling effect on all forms of grassroots fan culture and are apt to be mimicked by other franchise producers.

Keep in mind that fan works emerge from a place of appreciation in two senses — they are created from a love of the original materials and they may actually increase their value in three distinct ways:

1, Fan films represent particularly active “engagement”. As I documented in Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, the media industry has learned to value fan engagment as a social currency at a moment of increased media options and declining consumer commitment. Fans are the most loyal audience segment, they are more likely to recognize and reward sponsors, they are most apt to watch regularly watch, they are most apt to search out new and additional content, and they are most likely to promote the series to their social network. One of the first series to embrace the value of audience engagement, Star Trek’s producers have rallied their fans at crucial points in the franchise’s history, as when Gene Roddenberry worked with fans to launch the first letter writing campaign to keep the series on the air. In that sense, Star Trek was ahead of the curve in thinking about the value of audience engagement.

2 Fan films can be understood as a site of innovation. USC’s Robert Kozinets has researched the Star Trek fan film community from a marketing perspective, drawing comparison to what MIT’s Eric Von Hippel has identified as the value of “lead users” in the manufacturing sector. Lead users are early adopters who also need to adapt the product to satisfy their own particular needs; lead users innovate in ways that are low risk for the original producer but may provide a wealth of insights about market demand. At a time when Star Trek has largely been out of production, fan films have been one of many ways to keep the franchise alive (even if they reach relatively small audiences). Allowing multiple low-cost and low-risk experiments, fan films modeled multiple strategies for how to make a Star Trek series in the 21st century. And fan filmmakers, much like other lead users, may be recruited by the company, bringing their insights about different genre strategies and audience interests with them. Historically, most professional science fiction writers, editors, artists, etc. got their start within fandom and both Doctor Who and Star Wars have raided fandom aggressively seeking new talent as they rebooted their franchises. These are among the reasons why CBS and Paramount have offered a high degree of latitude to fan filmmakers in recent years, including collaborations and cooperations between cast members, technical and writing staff, and amateur producers.

None of us want to return to the early days of the web when Hollywood threatened to sue their most dedicated fans. This earlier period was especially marked by over-reach as studios claimed much more extensive rights over any and all use of their materials than they were granted within current law and fans often felt powerless to confront corporate attorneys with many more resources than they had. Over time, the creative industry came to see fan productions (again not just fan films) as creating more value than doing damage.

3 Fan cultural productions represent transformative works. Without getting too deep into the legal weeds, U.S. copyright law balances the rights of authors to profit from their creative output and the rights of the public to benefit from their fair use of those materials in order to inspire other creative production. Despite the metaphor of intellectual property, culture can not be reduced to property nor exclusively controlled by a single group or individual. Rather, cultural producers always build upon what has come before. In a world where mass culture has such a dominant role, the public has a strong interest in being able to engage with, comment upon, reference, critique and reimagine commercially produced materials.

American University’s Peter Jaszi and Patricia Aufderheide worked with a team of the country’s top legal scholars to develop some guidelines which DIY media producers can use for determining whether their remixing practices might be legally protected. They concluded that many fan productions do fall under fair use because they are transformative—they do not substitute for the original market, or simply copy, or duplicate the original. , Rather, fan films take that original material and do something different with it, including “parody, satire, criticism, commentary, admiration, celebration, mourning, etc.” In the case of Star Trek fan films, critical commentary includes advocacy for alternative perspectives (such as Hidden Frontier’s strong focus on GLBT characters given the contentious history of Star Trek’s representations of sexuality, or, for that matter, the ways Michael Dorn and other cast-members worked with the producers of Renegades to advocate for a stronger role in the future of the franchise).

The Organization for Transformative Works, a fan advocacy group, made the case to the U.S. Copyright Office, which is asked to oversee copyright policy, that fan vids (which re-edit footage from the original set to music for the purposes of promoting their interpretations of the material) should be recognized as Transformative Use; they argued that fan vidders should be exempt, alongside, for example, documentary producers or media educators, from being charged with violating the law by removing DVD copy protection software in the pursuit of their work. And the U.S. Copyright office agreed, a decision that many think indicates how courts would be apt to rule in a similar case (though, to date, there is no case law which specifically addresses the legality of fan cultural production).

Fan Vids are an interesting test case, since on the one hand, they do edit and remix existing footage (unlike most Star Trek fan films) and on the other, they often make more overt critical commentary. The prevailing ethos amongst Star Trek fan filmmakers has been focused on fan mastery as demonstrated by improving technical qualities and strong fidelity to the source material, which brings these films closer to being “derivative works” subject to greater legal restrictions. In short, the more fan films are made as calling cards for the industry, the more they undercut the case for their amateur status. And the more fan films look like “continuing adventures” rather than alternative perspectives, the harder it may be to make the case for transformative use.

So, this brings us back, at long last, to the recently released guidelines for Star Trek fan films. As the Organization for Transformative Works has argued, “all the guidelines really signal is what Paramount and CBS would prefer from fan films—not what the law would allow.” They offer fan filmmakers no protection nor do they indicate how courts might rule on individual cases. Yet they do signal what fan practices CBS and Paramount are apt to tolerate. While the guidelines begin with statements sympathetic to fan culture, they systematically reign in all forms of fan filmmaking, not simply those projects like Axanar that arguably which bleed over into the commercial sphere. Thankfully CBS and Paramount are “grandfathering” in existing fan films, because almost none of them could have been produced under these guidelines.

Some of the guidelines seem reasonable, such as a call to be even more explicit in distinguishing fan films from the official property. Fan filmmakers have historically been conscientious in signaling their unauthorized status; fans often make strong distinctions between canon (official texts) and fanon (grassroots responses). Everyone will be well served by lowering the ambiguity about what the rights holders see as commercial uses of their materials. We can debate what is or is not a reasonable policy towards the crowdfunding of production costs.

But many other provisions are apt to have a chilling effect on all forms of fan production or will if fan artists read them as superseding fair use protections. For example, a provision against the use of clips seemingly targets fanvids and restrictions on the use of recreated costumes and props have implications for the maker culture and cosplay communities. The guidelines block the collaborations between professionals and amateurs that have been a hallmark of earlier Star Trek fan films, there are restrictions on how fan films can be distributed (streaming rather than DVD) that have implications for how these materials will be archived. There are new format restrictions that mean that fans can no longer produce continuing series. Constraints on the film’s content designed to keep Star Trek “family friendly” amount to censorship over many forms of critical commentary (slash for example) that would fall squarely under transformative use.

If copyright law rests on a balancing of interests, we can all agree that current factors are out of whack. From the perspective of the rights holders, we are dealing here with a crisis in copyright as it becomes hard to distinguish amateur and commercial productions. As amateur works are reaching wider and wider audiences and impact public perceptions of their franchises, the studios may perceive them as commercial competitors. From the perspective of the public, we are dealing with there is a crisis in fair use, since forms of cultural expression commonplace in the past are now endangered by a legal culture that puts many advantages in the hands of media corporations.   Under these circumstances, copyright enforcement can and does sometimes constitute a form of censorship. For a while, informal policies have created a space where Star Trek’s producers and fans could play and work together, producing films intended to pay tribute to the original, that are and valuable as forms of engagement, innovation, and transformative use. My fear is that the new guidelines back away from those collaborative practices and towards policies more antagonistic to fan participation and expression. As such, the guidelines can have a chilling effect on forms of cultural production that are a uniquely valuable aspect of contemporary culture.

To Learn More:

Henry Jenkins, “Fan Fiction as Critical Commentary” http://henryjenkins.org/2006/09/fan_fiction_as_critical_commen.html

Henry Jenkins, “Quentin Tarentino’s Star Wars?: Digital Cinema, Media Convergence, and Participatory Culture” http://web.mit.edu/21fms/People/henry3/starwars.html

Pat Aufderheide and Peter Jaszi, “Recut, Reframe, Recycle: Quoting Copyright Materials in User-Generated Video” http://archive.cmsimpact.org/sites/default/files/CSM_Recut_Reframe_Recycle_report.pdf

“OTW Secures DMCA Exemption from U.S. Copyright Office,” http://www.transformativeworks.org/otw-secures-dmca-exemption-us-copyright-office/

“OTW Legal on Paramount/CBS Fan Film ‘Guidelines’” http://www.transformativeworks.org/otw-legal-on-paramountcbs-fan-film-guidelines/

“Fan Fiction vs. Copyright — A Q & A with Rebecca Tushnet” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5g4c57qf_9Q

Kozinets, Robert V. (2007), “Inno-tribes: Star Trek as Wikimedia” in Consumer Tribes, Bernard Cova, Robert V. Kozinets, and Avi Shankar, eds., Oxford and Burlington, MA: Butterworth-Heinemann, 194-211.

Erin Riley, “Fan Favorites,” Strategy + Business, http://www.strategy-business.com/article/Fan-Favorites?gko=f977d

Paula Dupont, “Fanworks, Transformative Fandom, and Copyright,” https://medium.com/@heypaula/fanworks-transformative-fandom-and-copyright-9a78142020fd#.pswf3gkou

Connected Youth and Digital Futures: The Conversation Continues

As part of the launch of our new book, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism (which I co-authored with Sangita Shresthova, Liana Gamber-Thompson, Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, and Arely Zimmerman), I’ve found myself engaged in several conversations with Sonia Livingstone and Julian Sefton Green. They are both faculty at the London School of Economics and co-authors of a new book, The Class: Living and Learning in a Digital Age, which might be described as our sister project.

Both By Any Media Necessary and The Class are the launch titles of a new New York University Press book series, funded by the MacArthur Foundation, and focused around the ideas that emerged from their Connected Learning and Youth and Participatory Politics research networks. I ran an online exchange with Livingstone and Green on this blog in the spring (Part One; Part Two).

In June, I traveled to London to participate in a launch event for the series, moderated by Nick Couldry, and featuring myself, Livingstone, and Green, in conversation about our respective projects. I was especially pleased by some of the insights that emerged as we talk across the two books, looking at the ways that school culture does or does not encourage young people to find their voices as citizens and what alternative infrastructures surfaced in our interviews with more than 200 young activists.

Thanks to the technical support team at LSE for capturing and sharing with us a video of the event.

Thanks to all of the smart people who attended and asked questions, either in public or private, that helped push my own thinking.

And above all, thanks to Sonia, Julian, and Nick for their hospitality during my stay.

Asian-American Media Activism and Cultural Citizenship: An Interview with Lori Kido Lopez (Part Two)

Some have argued that Asian-Americans might gain greater clout in the industry through demonstrating their buying power and by focusing collective attention via social media on companies that seem eager to court their community. What does your research suggest about the value of such interventions?  Where does advocacy as radical critique end and where does such advocacy become simply a tool for consumer demand within an industry structured around neoliberal logics?


This is a really important point. I want to recognize the way that Asian American advertising agencies are participating in media activism by doing just this—demonstrating to media industries that Asian Americans have buying power, and that their communities should be courted. I think this work is absolutely vital in contributing to media change, for a number of reasons.

SNL – Asian-American Doll by disnmad

First, as you mention, we have to recognize the neoliberal logics that (unfortunately) govern media industries, and advertising agencies are in the perfect position to speak that language. Their job is to know their own audience intimately—researching their actual demographics, how they identify, their likes/dislikes, what motivates and inspires them. They have the financial support to conduct this kind of research only because corporations want to sell things, but the end result is that advertisers become very socially attuned content producers. When they produce images of Asian Americans, they’re not going to rely on tired stereotypes or guesses about what will seem authentic—they will create images and messages that push representation forward, because they are responsive to actual Asian American audiences. We can see the impact of these agencies every time we turn on the television, because if you look closely, you’ll see that there are a lot more Asian Americans featured in advertisements than other forms of media.


Of course this all seems a bit rosy—after all, commercials offer limited space for telling sophisticated stories, and are unabashedly market-driven rather than artistic. But I point this out because I think this kind of “good cop” activism (for instance, working alongside corporations) provides a necessary counterpart to the “bad cop” activism of traditional media advocacy organizations, who often speak loudest when they are criticizing and protesting. Rather than worrying about radical critique becoming totally subsumed by neoliberal logics, it’s important to recognize that varying and even contradictory activist strategies actually depend upon one another for overall success. Each activist strategy contributes a vital piece of the bigger puzzle—speaking to different audiences, accomplishing different tasks, understanding the problem in different ways. Given that the issues facing Asian Americans in the media world are complex and multifaceted, our strategies for engaging with them must be as well, even if that means taking up assimilationist or revisionist politics alongside more radical critiques.


Much has been made in recent years of the fact that the top performers on YouTube are more racially diverse than the top stars on network television. How do you explain these developments? What do you see as their significance? How do these YouTube celebrities understand their relationship with the Asian-American community?


I think there are a couple of factors that led to Asian Americans becoming so successful on YouTube. First, many Asian Americans are already at the forefront of adopting digital technologies and using them to communicate with one another. I certainly remember the excitement of developing my own profile on the early social networking site AsianAvenue.com in 1997—years before Friendster or Facebook hit the scene. YouTube itself was created by an Asian American. When you couple that with an eagerness and passion for creating stories that couldn’t be found in the mainstream, it seems clear that this platform would appeal to minorities. Now we see that many of the most famous YouTubers are Asian American, such as Kevjumba, Nigahiga, and Michelle Phan.

Unfortunately this has not necessarily meant that any Asian American can flip on his or her webcam and instantly acquire the huge fan bases. On the contrary, it is still exceedingly difficult to become a top performer on YouTube. But I think it’s important to look at the ways that Asian American YouTubers are participating in media activism from their position as powerful celebrities—and it might not be in the ways we would assume! For instance, YouTube celebrities do not often use their platform to talk about their own Asian American identities, the problems facing Asian American communities, or intersectional oppression such as racism, sexism, or homophobia. In fact, many activists have criticized Asian American YouTubers for not participating enough in social change efforts.


But I think what YouTubers are doing that is politically important is coming together to create a powerful and durable network of celebrities who can create and mobilize audiences. Rather than looking at YouTube as separate from more traditional media industries, for Asian Americans, it’s important to consider the relationship YouTubers form with mainstream media and independent media celebrities and professionals. They very frequently collaborate on transmedia projects such as blogs, group YouTube channels, live performances, video competitions, and other new forms of storytelling. In linking popular YouTubers to this wider body of performers and media professionals, they are able to mobilize audiences to follow them across these differently mediated spaces and increase the visibility of even more Asian American media. This is a pretty important political accomplishment that stems from their YouTube popularity, but expands to impact the larger goals of Asian American media activism.


You end the book by exploring some of the contradictions surrounding fan activism and the “race-bending” movement. Race-bending now seems to have been extended to include a range of fan cultural production, from fan fiction to fan art to “fan casting”, which seeks to advocate for more diverse casting and storytelling within popular media.  What role do you think fan culture can play in re-imagining diversity in popular entertainment?


This question brings me back to our early days starting up the Civic Paths research group at USC, which I remember very fondly! We started from the question of how fans were playing a role in activism, and my interest in the activists protesting the racist casting of The Last Airbender provided one of our earliest case studies. It was a great example of fan activism because it showed the way that passionate engagement with a media franchise could transition into a complex and long-term activist undertaking. Fans of the original Last Airbender cartoon were frustrated when the live action movie cast white actors to play roles they had long believed to be Asian. They took it upon themselves to learn all about the racial politics of representation and casting, and then encouraged a boycott of the movie using a lot of the skills they had developed as fans—connecting with digital communities, participating in online debates, creating original artwork and videos, staying current through research and scouring the internet for information.

These specific skills translated well from fandom to activism, but I think that passionate engagement with media franchises is important in bolstering all forms of media activism, not only those surrounding a famously beloved text. All Asian American media activism starts from the foundational belief that media images matter deeply—they shape knowledge about the world, as well as how you see yourself, your community, your culture. Activism is difficult and fraught with failure, so it is only sustainable when it is built from the same kinds of deep passion and frustration that fans feel too.


As race continues to be inserted into conversations about media, I do think that passionate and engaged viewers will continue to lead the way in shaping those conversations. This can be dangerous too—we saw with misogynist fans of the Star Wars and Ghostbusters franchises that not all fannish love leads to social progress. As with fans of The Last Airbender, sometimes fandom can promote a kind of essentialism or conservatism that is antithetical to experimentation, reimagining, or transformation. But I’m an optimist—I think the more that Asian Americans get involved with media production, and the more that Asian American audiences are able to find new texts to love and connect with, we’ll eventually be able to shift our media landscape for the better.

Lori Kido Lopez is an Assistant Professor of Media and Cultural Studies in the Communication Arts Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she is also affiliate faculty in the Asian American Studies Program and the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.  She is the author of Asian American Media Activism: Fighting for Cultural Citizenship and a co-editor of the Routledge Companion to Asian American Media.

Asian-American Media Activism and Cultural Citizenship: An Interview with Lori Kido Lopez (Part One)

I recently announced the line-up of speakers for our Transforming Hollywood 7: Diversifying Entertainment conference to be held at USC on October 21 (You can still register here).

When we were putting together the conference, one of the first people who I considered was Lori Kido Lopez, a young faculty member in the Communication Arts Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a recent graduate from the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. Lopez had been an original member of my Civic Paths research group and her work on the race-bending movement which grew up in protest of the white-casting of the feature film based on The Last Airbender was a key influence on our work around fan activism. She entered that project through her interest in the collaboration between these fans and veteran Asian-American media activists who had for decades been struggling with issues of representational diversity and industry inclusion.

When I was asked to serve on her dissertation committee, I came to see her work on fan activism in a much larger context, which included everything from struggles over hateful stereotypes and racist jokes, to the efforts of Asian-Americans to use consumer power to put pressure on the advertising industry, to the emergence of YouTube as a space often more receptive to Asian-American performers. And earlier this year, she published her first book, Asian American Media Activism: Fighting for Cultural Citizenship, which is a first-rate contribution to our understanding of the current and historic struggles around diversity and inclusion in the media.

Unfortunately, Lopez can’t join us for the USC event, having commitments to speak at another conference on the East Coast that same weekend, so I reached out to see if she would be willing to provide me with an interview as part of the lead-up to our conference. We cover a lot of territory in the interview which follows, yet it gives us glimpses into only a few of the richly documented and carefully interpreted case studies that run throughout her book. It is essential reading for anyone who is trying to follow these issues, and there’s no question that the struggles over diversity and inclusion are one of the most powerful forces shaping the entertainment industry right now.

You begin the book with considerations of recent struggles over inclusion and representation within network television, focusing specifically on mixed responses from Asian-American audiences to Fresh Off the Boat and The Mindy Project.  Many in the television industry are watching responses to these programs, and others, such as Master of None, closely to see if they can figure out strategies for more diverse and inclusive programing that may nevertheless attract a “broader” audience. What insights would you like to see television executives take from the debates surrounding these and other recent programs?


Some of my biggest goals for this book are to broaden our view of what should be done to improve representation of Asian Americans in the media, and to explain what makes media activism challenging. At this point, Asian Americans are still lagging far behind other minorities in nearly every area. There are no hour-long shows focusing on Asian American communities, Asian Americans are never nominated for acting awards, and movies routinely whitewash Asian leading roles and leave Asian actors the sidekick roles. I watched the movie Pitch Perfect 2 recently and was not surprised at all to see that Asian cultures were the butt of far too many jokes, and the one Asian American character is a soft-spoken weirdo. But listing problems is the easy part—what’s harder is saying what we want the solution to be.

We are currently in a moment when we have more Asian American sitcoms than ever before, more Asian Americans in writers rooms and other production roles, more Asian American talent featured across alternative media platforms. Yet we still hear a lot of complaints and contradictory responses coming from Asian Americans. In this book I reveal the different stakeholders and participants engaged in the project of fixing these problems—including volunteer media activists, regulatory and advisory boards, advertisers, YouTubers, fans, and other online participants. Once we recognize who all is working for this cause, we can start to see why their responses end up differing. That’s a pretty diverse group of people, they’re not going to agree about every little detail!


After explicating all of the different forms of media activism currently being undertaken, I would hope that what emerges for television executives is a clarity and sense of urgency about how dire the problem is and how they should be doing all they can to hire more Asian Americans at every level. They should then feel at peace with the fact that all of the media activists identified here will continue to criticize and ask for more, because they are tapping into a vibrant, long-neglected, politically engaged core of viewers who know better than to be satisfied with any one role, episode, or movie focusing on them—the battle will always continue as long as representations continue to be made, because racism persists and is at the heart of media inequalities and injustices. So I would hope that television executives can be sensitive to how complicated this situation is, while certainly affirming that every step they make in advancing the representations of Asian Americans is vitally important and desperately needed.


You argue that differences between Asian-American media activists have to do with different models of cultural citizenship. Explain this concept and outline some of the underlying models of cultural citizenship which have shaped debates around these programs.


We usually think of citizenship in legal terms, focusing on who is legally recognized as a member of a nation. But the idea of who belongs is also deeply cultural, and “cultural citizenship” is the idea that we also feel more or less like we belong within a nation depending on how we are treated, and how our identities and cultural practices are recognized. Asian Americans often are searching for a sense of belonging in the U.S. because they are always seen as outsiders, even though they were born here or lived here most of their lives. I connect this to media activism, because I think that when we are arguing about what kinds of representations we want to see of Asian Americans, we are really saying that we want the media to play a stronger role in contributing to Asian Americans feeling like they are cultural citizens.


But the concept of Asian American cultural citizenship means different things to different communities, and that causes disagreements even among activists. Some think that if we are cultural citizens then we will be treated “just like everyone else,” not seen as different in any way. Others want to be recognized as a powerful group that deserves attention, particularly in terms of being able to wield economic and spending power. Others want to be able to control their own representations and make media on their own terms, no matter what that might look like. These different views on how cultural citizenship should be realized lead to different strategies when it comes to media activism.


You make the point in the introduction that a key difference between producers and activist is that activists see representation as a collective issue, whereas most of the mechanisms for thinking about media audiences within the entertainment industry stress individual consumer choices. Can these two perspectives be reconciled? Why or why not?


One way that the entertainment industry stresses individual consumer choices is through the idea that we have such a diverse range of media available, every individual can pick and choose a media diet that is particularly suited to their tastes. But at a very basic level, discourses of individualism are at odds with the fight for social justice. We have to be able to think beyond ourselves and our own desires in order to identify those who are being systematically disenfranchised, and do something to rectify that inequality at a broader level. This applies to Asian Americans media activists too—they recognize that there is a widespread problem when it comes to representations of Asian Americans, and that we will have to work together in order to combat it. This often comes in two forms: encouraging media industries to cast more Asian Americans, and encouraging audiences to support works that represent Asian Americans well. If this is all there is, then the focus on individuals could be deployed by convincing individual producers it’s in their best interest to shift their casting practices, and convincing individual viewers it’s in their best interest to support Asian American media.


But one of the things that I work to reveal in the book is that there are a lot more ways we can impact change than just those two things, and there are a lot more people involved in media activism than just media producers and media consumers. For instance, we also need to consider the policies that are encouraging or discouraging media industries to shift their practices, the advertising agencies who work with corporations to identify consumer audiences and their needs, the wide array of producer-consumers who participate in the online arena. Once we expand our view of media activism to include these other sites, it becomes even clearer that media activism needs to take place at the level of the collective, rather than the individual. If we focus too much on the individual, we lose sight of the collective politics that have always animated antiracism on the part of Asian Americans.


What are some of the factors that led to the earliest forms of Asian-American media advocacy? How do these campaigns relate to the larger history of politics around race and representation in American media, going back to The Birth of a Nation, if not before? To what degree are the issues today the same as they were in the 1970s? What has shifted in terms of the models of change activists deploy to lobby for their cause? What has shifted in the industry’s responses to such campaigns?


The history of Asian American media advocacy aligns with the rise of the Asian American identity itself. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, different Asian ethnic communities started coming together to protest the routine discrimination they collectively faced. In an act of self-determination, they called themselves “Asian American” (marking “Oriental” as pejorative) and fought racism alongside Black, Chicano, and Native American activists. Issues of representation were always foundational to the Asian American Movement, in relation to both media and theater. In the 1970s we saw the birth of Asian American cinema, with independent filmmakers collectively documenting stories in Asian American communities and screening them at the very first Asian American film festivals. This was also the time when Asian American actors came together to fight against “yellow face” and gain more roles in plays and movies, to resist harmful stereotypes, and to remove the use of slurs like “chink.”

So we can see that as long as there have been “Asian Americans,” there has been activism surrounding representations and media images. But if we look at the activist strategies deployed in these early days, we can trace a precedent all the way back to the African Americans who protested the racism of Birth of a Nation in 1915. And as you allude to, the general shape of media activism has remained the same since then: activists target the image’s creators, funders, or audiences. Sometimes they can push for legal repercussions. These are the same things that activists do today, largely because the same issues still exist, such as whitewashing, stereotypes, harmful depictions, a failure to hire minorities. But hopefully my book shows the way that even though this exact same form of activism is still around—and plays a vital role in shaping media industries—there are also other forms of media activism available, and we need to recognize those as well.


Lori Kido Lopez is an Assistant Professor of Media and Cultural Studies in the Communication Arts Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she is also affiliate faculty in the Asian American Studies Program and the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.  She is the author of Asian American Media Activism: Fighting for Cultural Citizenship and a co-editor of the Routledge Companion to Asian American Media.


In a World Without Star Trek…?

In case you’ve been living under a rock, yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the debut of Star Trek on American television, and as fans used to say back in the day, “Star Trek Lives!” A few weeks ago, I got contacted by Charlie Jane Anders from Wired, who asked me to contribute my thoughts for an article she was writing that asked the question, “What if Star Trek Had Never Existed?” I thought of it as a chance to do some speculative fiction about the alternative history of speculative fiction. Since her article has now appeared, I thought it would be interesting to share my full response with my readers. One always says more to reporters than ends up in the article, but in this case, I got more than a little carried away in true Trekker fashion.

First, I may be one of the few people who has seen multiple episodes of The Lieutenant, the television series which Gene Roddenberry made prior to Star Trek, and this series gives us some clue of what would have happened in his career if he did not produce Star Trek. Roddenberry always claimed that Star Trek was a way to inject serious ideas into network television and reflected his frustrations with what he couldn’t do in a more realistic format. But in fact, The Lieutenant dealt consistently with the social issues of the time in the context of a serviceman drama in a more direct, less allegorical fashion. Roddenberry first worked with several members of the Star Trek cast on this series.Nichelle  Nichols, for example, was the guest star on an episode which dealt with racial discrimination and black frustration, getting more lines in that one episode than she got in Star Trek as a whole, and developing a much more complex character than Uhura.

So, we can imagine a cop series by Roddenberry as continuing along that same line, dealing with some of the controversial topics of his times, in much the same way that slightly later series such as Police Story and The Bold Ones did. I see Roddenberry as someone who took the “ideas” focused television drama of the 1950s anthology series (represented by someone like Rod Serling) and integrated them into genre television formulas at a time when the episodic series was becoming the dominant format on the medium. To me, this suggests that he might have been a significant television author even in the absence of Star Trek, where-as Roddenberry spent the rest of his career trying out other science fiction formats, trying to reinvent Star Trek. As much as I love Trek, it would have been interesting to see what Roddenberry was able to do in other genres.

Think about the state of science fiction as a genre in the 1960s. You are right that the Space Race was intensifying across this period, and there was a growing interest in science and technology, which would have been expressed via popular culture one way or another. Without Trek, these impulses were entering television in three ways. First, through the fantastic sitcoms — ranging from the justly obscure It’s About Time to the ever-rerun I Dream of Jeannie (both of which have astronaut protagonists) and extending out to things like The Munsters, The Adams Family, My Mother the Car, My Favorite Martian, etc. Second, through the Irwin Allen series — which were also campy and spectacle-focused rather than ideas-focused: Lost in Space but also Land of the Giants, Time Tunnel, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. And third, through anthology based series, such as Outer Limits and later Night Gallery, both of which are off-shoots of the ground-breaking Twilight Zone. None of these take us where Star Trek took science fiction on television — adventures involving recurring characters which take us to new worlds that become vehicles for asking core questions about the nature of humanity.

We might also think about what science fiction in literature was during this period. Painting with broad strokes, the decade saw the emergence of social science fiction as a dominant subgenre (moving away from hard SF’s focus on technological change) and with this shift, we are seeing a large number of works by feminist science fiction writers like Joanna Russ and Ursula LeGuin. More women are pouring into Science Fiction fandom which is why Star Trek fandom drew so many women in its foundational years (more on this in a moment). Part of what drew them was the social focus of many of the best Star Trek episodes, including recurring interests in accepting difference and some half-hearted representations of women in professional roles.

A second major trend in science fiction is represented by Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions anthology — a generation of writers experimenting with the language of science fiction in highly reflexive ways, pushing for more literary respectability, and often exploring themes of alien sexuality. If we look at the science fiction writers Gene Roddenberry drew upon to write Star Trek, many of them come from this second group, including Ellison himself (“City on the Edge of Forever”) but also Theodore Sturgeon (“Amok Time,” “Shore Leave”) and Norman Spinrad (“The Doomsday Machine “). So part of what Trek did was bring these developments in SF literature onto television and it is not clear which other producer of that period would have been able to bridge between these realms. Part of what made this work, though, was Roddenberry was also keeping the peace with older SF conventions — especially a kind of technological utopianism, where improvements in communication, transportation, and manufacturing technologies have helped to resolve many of Earth’s current problems. We can think about the communicator, the transporter, and the Replicator as magic devices which embody the possibility of technological enhancement as overcoming scarcity.

The 1960s is a more fertile period for science fiction in the cinema than many people recall, suggesting that we would have gotten to Star Wars and the improvements of special effects one way or another. But the trend there was towards a darker vision of the future, one which sees Earth’s problems as deepening rather than being resolved through technological change. Some touchpoints here would include Panic in Year Zero, The Last Man on Earth, Crack in the World, Fairenheit 451, Fantastic Voyage, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Marooned, and especially The Planet of the Apes franchise. Extend this list just a few more years into the 1970s and you get The Adromeda Strain, A Clockwork Orange, The Omega Man, THX 1138, Silent Running, Soylent Green, and West World. Of these, Planet of the Apes was the most commercially successful and one that has only recently been relaunched to some critical or commercial success.

So, what if Planet of the Apes would have been the template for future SF rather than Star Trek? It would have been a bit goofy and larger-than-life though much less campy than Lost in Space at its worst Carrot people moments; it would still have dealt with core social issues, including racism and nuclear war, in an allegorical manner; it would have been a darker vision of what humans had become (including apocalyptic destruction) rather than the promise of a better world that Star Trek offered us. It seems a bit more far fetched but what if 2001: A Space Odyssey had become the template — we might have ended up with something closer to Space: 1999, which was television’s attempt to duplicate Kubrick’s critical success without his artistic vision. It is cold, lifeless, and ponderous.

A final line of thought. Star Trek proved to be a watershed event in the development of modern fandom. Star Trek was the first media property to get a critical mass of fans, and thus, became the platform around which fan fiction and fan vidding developed. Star Trek drew in significant number of female fans who developed a distinctively different relationship to the genre than could be found in male-centered literary SF fandom. A particular set of ideas about gender and sexuality emerge there which were shaped both by feminist SF and Roddenberry’s particular mix of genre elements and social causes. Roddenberry worked closely with those fans from the start — previewing the pilot at World-Con and collaborating with them to develop the letter writing campaign that helped promote the visibility of the series and keep it on the air. In many ways, we can see this as the very start of the media industry’s current fascination with “fan engagement.” So, for both fans and producers, Star Trek shaped what fandom looks like. The other series which generate this intense fan following during the late 1960s was Man From UNCLE. What would San Diego Comic-Con look like today if it had been organized around spies, cops, and detectives, as opposed to space operas and super-heroes? That really would have been an alternative universe.

Would most of these trends have developed one way or another? Sure, I don’t think one series determines the evolution of popular media, but we would have a branching effect. Science fiction emerges as a popular genre, but perhaps with a different mix of genre elements, perhaps with a more pessimistic world view or a more campy tone, perhaps with a less active and creative fan community.

Science Fiction World Building in a Capitalist Society: An Interview with Dan Hassler-Forest (Part Three)

HJ: You write in your chapter on Battlestar Galactica and Game of Thrones: “Fantastical capitalism instead expresses a worldview in which there is no outside, no future, no alternative. Its storyworlds aren’t utopian, because they lack the ability to imagine a future that is fundamentally different, let alone better. But they also aren’t traditionally dystopian, because their dark worlds aren’t warnings of what is yet to come. Instead, they constantly reiterate what is considered a basic truth of neoliberal capitalism: it’s a harsh world, in which nice guys finish last.” Can you explain a bit more how and where this philosophy surfaces in these two series? In what ways might the focus on world-building and transmedia extension serve this function of closing off alternatives rather than simply expanding the scope of the story?


DHF: The reason I picked those two storyworlds as illustrations of “fantastical capitalism,” which is my term for the kind of “post-ideological” storytelling we seem to be seeing so much of in the age of global capitalism, is that they both function as contemporary transformations of Tolkien and Star Trek. The ways in which they both foreground a kind of gritty visual realism, and feature plots full of abrupt narrative U-turns and surprise deaths, gives them what Raymond Williams would call a structure of feeling that resonates with the cultural logic of global capitalism.

On the one hand, we recognize and respond to the residual characteristics of the genres’ iconography and narrative patterns; but on the other, they have also attracted massive new audiences because of the uncanny ways in which they seem to reflect the social and political dynamics of our own increasingly precarious and unstable world. I think those elements are very obvious in both those franchises, and they seemed to me helpful lenses through which one might approach some of the ways in which fantastic fiction has come to absorb and reflect the cultural logic of global capitalism.

While there are of course big differences of tone, style, and genre between Game of Thrones and BSG, they both have a similar dynamic, at least in the sense that their popularity seemed to derive on the one hand from having richly drawn and appealing characters in a fantastic but very “realistic” storyworld, and on the other from their thrilling ability to constantly upset audience expectations. Ned Stark’s beheading at the end of the first book/season of Game of Thrones served a very similar function as Adama being shot in the chest at the end of BSG’s first season: it radically undermines the sense of safety and stability that is so often grounded in patriarchal power as a signifier of continuity. Therefore, as fantastic transmedia storyworlds, I think they resonate so strongly with post-9/11 global capitalism because they reflect a social and economic context that is similarly unpredictable, crisis-prone, and precarious.

In terms of closing off alternatives, I think BSG is a very illuminating example of the paradoxical way in which transmedia world-building both opens up expansive imaginary empires while simultaneously diminishing fans’ meaningful participation: first, showrunner Ronald D. Moore ended up producing such an onslaught of supplemental material for the franchise that precious little time or space was left for fans to create their own expansions. (Suzanne Scott has very cleverly described this as fan culture’s transformation from “Do It Yourself” to “Download It Yourself.”) And then of course they ended the series’ narrative with a finale that, again, seemed designed to seal off the storyworld from further expansion and interference. And thirdly, the show also appeared in a context of what Matt Hills has called “just-in-time fandom,” where release and broadcasting schedules, the creation of transmedia supplements, and the constant tsunami of media news imposes severe limits on our ability to participate meaningfully, because we have to work so hard to keep up with everything.

HJ: In some ways this closing down of alternatives is ironically part of what allows people to describe such genre programs as “quality television”: that is, it gets expressed through the moral ambiguities, fatalistic plots, and ensemble casts that often are what gets added to the mix to appeal to elite audiences. You provocatively describe this process as a kind of “gentrification.” Do other possibilities open up if we look at more “low-brow” or even “trashy” programs? Your example here is Spartacus.

DHF: I do think so – or at least I really hope they do. After nearly two decades of ubiquitous “quality TV,” I certainly find myself growing increasingly skeptical and disenchanted with broadcasters’ transparent attempts to appeal very directly to the most privileged viewers. So whenever I hear someone saying that we live in a Golden Age of television, I hear in this the structural privileging of elitist notions of style, narrative forms, and media hierarchies. So in the same way that some of the most radical and subversive genre fiction was either produced outside of the cultural mainstream or appropriated by subcultural communities, I wanted to explore what a radical political perspective on less “tasteful” genre fiction might yield.

I then became fascinated by the Spartacus TV show in the first place because it rejects the usual ways in which boutique cable dramas now give us sex and violence couched within an atmosphere of cultural and artistic legitimacy. So on The Sopranos or Deadwood or Game of Thrones, you’re guaranteed to get lots of boobs and blood, but it’s never presented as gratuitous.

Spartacus takes the opposite approach and really revels in elaborate images of sex and violence, but also always stages this in ways that comment on how the show shamelessly sells this back to you as entertainment. It really works in the same way as the best kind of pulp fiction: providing visceral and “trashy” thrills, while at the same time being very smart and political about it. So even though Spartacus clearly wasn’t made as a political text, its low-brow cultural status gives it a lot more opportunities for subversion because it’s sort of flying under the radar.

But then I also realized that this is also a limitation when you start looking at how fantastic fiction and popular culture can translate to political participation and anticapitalist activism. When you look at what’s going on within organized Spartacus fandom, it’s really all about those superficial elements of the show: the big fights, the romance, the costumes, etc. So while it’s a very interesting example of a certain kind of radical politics at work in a TV show, it’s also not something that’s being picked up outside of a certain very small circle.

HJ: You write, “The storyworlds inhabited by zombies and cyborgs are post-historical in the sense that they lie not only beyond capitalism, but beyond traditional conceptions of human agency.” So, can we imagine a politics without agency? Are these stories too abstracted from our current reality to enable us to imagine viable alternatives to them? Why do the human characters so often revert back to older, more patriarchal or tribal forms of social structure in response to the threat posed by these nonhuman agents?

DHF: I didn’t mean to suggest with this sentence that we can have political thought or action without agency, though I can see how it can be understood in this way. What I emphasize in this chapter on radical posthumanism is that the models of human identity and agency that we’re most familiar with tend to be embedded in the traditions of liberal humanism. Posthuman theory seeks to break away from those humanist traditions because of the oppressive binary structures they entail. In the book’s last chapter, I use the zombie and the cyborg not so much as actual alternatives to our social reality, but as fantastic ways of understanding and negotiating the posthuman turn.

Both those tropes offer very different but complementary perspectives on the concept of the posthuman. The zombie gives us the contradictory figure of the undead: animated flesh devoid of reason, and organized as a threatening horde that also represents a paranoid fear of (proletarian) collectives. Capitalist culture has a long history of vilifying and demonizing collective social forms and celebrating the individual, from Robinson Crusoe to Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Walking Dead.

As a vital form of anticapitalist theory, posthumanism breaks away from the Cartesian subject and capitalism’s entrepreneurial individualism, and explores forms of agency and subjectivity that are multiple, diverse, contradictory, and collective. So the zombie presents both our anxiety about a posthuman future, as we see human survivors clinging desperately to older forms of social relations, while also sometimes exploring new alternatives and “zombie consciousness.”

Still, I would say the zombie isn’t a very attractive role model if we want to think through the more positive implications of radical posthumanism. The cyborg, as an “impure” hybrid of the organic and the mechanical, the “authentic” and the “artificial,” the human and the Other, is therefore probably a more relatable trope. Of course the cyborg is a familiar figure in queer and feminist theory, thanks mainly to Donna Haraway’s groundbreaking work.

But I also found it a particularly helpful example of radical political theory in the context of fantastic world-building, and drew in this chapter on Janelle Monáe’s series of sf concept albums, in which she is constantly in an in-between state, both as a human artist and performer and as her alter ego, a time-traveling android from the twenty-eighth century. In her work, you don’t see the constant retreat into older, more comfortable or even “primitive” human forms, but an embrace of technology, otherness, and posthuman multiplicity that I find very helpful and tremendously inspiring.

HJ: You correctly note that much writing on transmedia world-building — including my own earliest definitions — stress “continuity” or system building. But you end the book with appeals to hetroglossia and multiplicity as providing better models for realizing the potentials you identify in these series for social change. So, what models do we have for opening up more space for exploring alternatives? You talked about the “muddled” nature of many of these series, which some fans would argue comes about from the lack of attention to continuity and coherence. So, does the “muddle” make the contradictions visible? Do various forms of appropriation and remixing offer ways to more fully realize and engage with those alternatives?

DHF: That’s a great question – and a very difficult one! The process of writing this book actually began with an article that I wrote about Janelle Monáe and the Bakhtinian “heteroglossia” of her Afrofuturist storyworld. So one of my starting points was the idea that there is something fundamentally political about the creation of mappable, “rationally” organized, complex storyworlds with their various canons, narratives, characters, etc.

What I found so appealing about Monáe’s work was that all of it is profoundly multiple, always frustrating our desire to see order, structure, and reason. Studying her work, the cultural legacy of Afrofuturism, and alternative approaches to world-building helped me understand the political and ideological aspects of fantastic storyworlds a lot better, and provide a provocative and endlessly enjoyable puzzle without a solution.

But I also don’t’ want to suggest that this more radical type of world-building, which I relate back to Philip K. Dick’s famous essay about worlds that are constantly falling apart, is the only model for exploring alternatives. Some of my favorite sf authors, like for instance Octavia Butler, China Miéville, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Nnedi Okorafor, have created elaborate fantastic storyworlds that are politically radical in many ways, without necessarily becoming muddled or totally “centrifugal.” And as I try to make clear in the other chapters, most (if not all!) fantastic fiction is ultimately driven by a creative and imaginative desire to imagine social and political alternatives, which is hugely important cultural work irrespective of any individual storyworld’s politics.

So even though I think there’s something very interesting about those “muddled” storyworlds that refuse to make sense, either because authors like Dick or Monáe have designed them that way, or because of fandom’s uncontrollable participation, I don’t think that other forms therefore lack that kind of political potential.

What I’ve tried to do with the different case studies in the book is to show how these storyworlds are grounded in contradictions, and that our interaction with them creates a dialectical movement that can be enormously productive. And even though I do think that fan culture currently seems to heading in a direction that is more collaborative than resistant, it is still up to us to correct that movement and find new ways to break free from Empire’s gravity. Like Hardt and Negri’s work on global capitalism, my book is also intended not so much as a critique, but as a call to arms – and I hope it will be read and interpreted in that way.

Dan Hassler-Forest works as Assistant Professor at Utrecht University’s department of Media and Cultural Studies. He has published books and articles on superhero movies, comics, transmedia storytelling, adaptation studies, critical theory, Afrofuturism, and zombies. He co-edits the journal Science Fiction Film and Television with Sherryl Vint and Gerry Canavan, and the book series Transmedia: Participatory Culture and Media Convergence with Matt Hills. His most recent book, Science Fiction, Fantasy and Politics: Transmedia World-building Beyond Capitalism, will be published in August 2016. Dan loves to play the ukulele and still dreams of someday mastering the banjo.

Science Fiction World Building in a Capitalist Society: An Interview with Dan Hassler-Forest (Part Two)


HJ: Can you say something about the role that genre plays in your work, given you are writing here about texts that might variously be described as fantasy, science fiction, and horror? Do different genres raise different possibilities for thinking about these ideological concerns? You, for example, talk about pre-capitalism in terms of The Lord of the Rings, postcapitalism in the case of Star Trek, and even post-humanism in the case of The Walking Dead.          


DHF: I’m fascinated by the different and sometimes contradictory roles that genre plays in our current media landscape. On the one hand, you might say our popular media have become very “post-genre,” at least in the sense that media producers tend to assume a very high degree of media literacy among the audience, and mix up often highly diverse genre elements into a franchise or even a single text. And on the other hand, genre fiction of the kind that has been described as “popular fantasy” seems more visible and more dominant than ever.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a good example of both those aspects: we think of it as a superhero franchise, which is certainly perceived as a specific kind of genre with its own register, audience, industrial practices, et cetera. But at the same time, we see very clearly that the producers go out of their way to diversify the brand and include a wide variety of genre elements and registers. So if you compare Captain America: The First Avenger to the Netflix series Daredevil, we see huge tonal, aesthetic, and structural differences that we associate with very different genre traditions. Therefore, even though all these texts take place within a single storyworld and share a single brand identity, the franchise now incorporates elements from war films, film noir, martial arts movies, romantic comedy, action-adventure, conspiracy thrillers, and many more.

In this context it doesn’t make much sense to me to foreground the differences between traditional fantastic genres too much. Within Marxist criticism, which is largely the tradition I’m working from, there has been a tendency to privilege some popular genres over others because of certain assumptions about their respective political and ideological implications. So for instance, sf is still generally favored over fantasy because sf has been associated with reason and progress, while fantasy has suggested magic and conservatism.

While I can see where those distinctions come from, I’ve never felt comfortable with them, and I think that the ease with which both media creators and audiences mix and match elements from across genres now makes it irrelevant, at least as a basic formal distinction. Therefore, I’ve tried to show in the book that there are similar tensions that inform those different genre traditions across fantastic world-building.

When it comes to using terms like precapitalism, postcapitalism, and posthumanism, I can certainly see how we can intuitively associate them, respectively, with sf, fantasy, and horror in a sort of superficial way. But I also think it tends to break down once you start looking beyond the most obvious and easy examples. And even then, you have to ignore a lot of detail to hold on to that reading.

I do make that generalization in the book, associating Tolkien with a precapitalist fantasy and Star Trek with postcapitalism, just to get that ball rolling and establish what seems like an obvious relationship between these fantastic storyworlds and capitalism as a set of social relations.

But if you think about it, Star Trek is also obsessed with exploring “primitive,” precapitalist societies and comparing their possible developmental paths to their own, so it’s really much more layered and diverse than some might assume. And figures like Data and the Borg are obvious and complex ways of opening up discussions about posthumanism and organic-technological hybrids.

So I prefer to treat those assumptions about the political potential of specific genres as expectations that have accumulated over time, and therefore as flexible and contingent rather than as stable, transhistorical definitions. I therefore try throughout the book to approach fantastic world-building as something like a fuzzy set, with a variety of (sometimes overlapping) ways in which various genres, franchises, and brands deal with political and ideological questions.

HJ: You write early in the book: “The triumph of geek culture and its “everything is awesome” mantra has in recent years created the seductive illusion that fans have graduated from consumerism to full participation in media production. But their actual degree of agency all too often resembles the quite limited movements available to a single player within a videogame: while experiencing the sensation of directing an avatar freely through an immersive and richly detailed environment, the player’s control is in fact limited by the design of the game to encourage and reward certain forms of behavior, while discouraging and even actively precluding others.” Can you break this down for us? What roles are fans invited to play? What factors do you see as limiting and discouraging forms of viewer participation? What possibilities do you see as “precluded” altogether? You certainly describe the way San Diego Comic-Con has become, in effect, an extension of the entertainment industry rather than a grassroots alternative to it, and I would agree, but you also point to examples of fan activism that have built upon the political themes of, for example, The Hunger Games as the basis for political mobilization and there are still many examples out there of fans writing counter-cultural alternatives to the mainstream depiction of gender, sexuality, and race.


DHF: I wanted to establish early on that I was approaching fandom from a critical perspective that presents them in the first place as participants in a political economy. It’s certainly a very polarizing way of introducing the nature of fandom, and probably one that will piss off a lot of readers!

It’s also obviously not the most nuanced way to describe fan culture, but I thought it was important to make this the starting point, and then try to weave back in more elements that still illustrate fandom’s remaining political potential. My main reason for taking this approach is that so much work within fan studies still seems to be about documenting and celebrating fan culture as a transformative and ideologically subversive set of practices. This is an idea that was of course established in your early work, especially in Textual Poachers but also to a large degree in Convergence Culture, and I can still see its attraction.

But as you have noted yourself in some of your more recent books, we are also becoming increasingly aware of the limitations of fandom and fan culture as a kind of model for social, civic, or democratic participation. In the twentieth century, genre fans had an outsider status that seemed to inspire a lot of creative and collaborative activity. These were so often provocative and subversive because they were reacting against a media industry that was much more monolithic and non-inclusive than our own.

Now that a lot of different factors have contributed to huge changes in media production and distribution, I no longer see those kinds of activities as having the same kind of political and ideological power. Instead, a lot of it seems to boil down to debates over representation and identity politics, which I certainly don’t want to disqualify, but which also align themselves rather easily with the cultural logic of neoliberalism. In other words: while debates about gender, race, and sexual identity in media are important discussions to have, they aren’t necessarily the most vital issues from an anticapitalist point of view – at least not unless you also explicitly see racism, sexism, and homophobia as interconnected aspects of capitalist exploitation.

If you look at what’s going on the big franchises, we see that the producers are only too happy to be more sensitive about questions of representation, and develop more roles for characters who aren’t necessarily white, straight, and male. But as happy as I am to see this happen, and in spite of the fact that there clearly still is a lot of work to be done, I found myself wondering about the endgame: supposing we win this culture war and we get wonderfully diverse casts in these franchises, and maybe even stories that move beyond our Eurocentric and teleological traditions – what then?

We’d be consumers of even better, and ideologically impeccable commodities, but we’d still mainly be consumers, stuck within capitalism’s unsustainable engine of endless accumulation.

This dynamic is also reflected in the digital infrastructure of Web 2.0: I think it’s safe to say that a lot more people are now creating and sharing fannish material about genre fiction than ever before. But it no longer functions as the kind of gift economy that used to typify fan culture. Instead, we’re creating free content for corporate media platforms that profit from our efforts.

So every time I share a meme or an animated GIF or a few snarky lines about the latest episode of The Walking Dead on Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr, I am creating value for a corporation for which my material attracts other users, while they can also use my data to track my preferences and behavioral patters in order to monetize my online profile. This, I think, is a very scary change that entails not only the commodification of this type of “sharing,” but that also imposes huge limits on the kinds of material that are being produced. The design of these platforms very strongly privileges material that is short, funny, and –to use your own term– highly spreadable.

Finally, one more thing I would mention is the sheer amount of material being produced, and the way in which fans are drawn into the media producers’ news cycle. Details about casting, plot, locations, sequels and franchising plans, reboots, and the strategic release of teasers, trailers, and leaked scenes now totally dominate film blogs and social media. There seems to be such a perfect alignment between media conglomerates’ increasingly canny release schedules and publicity plans and fans’ hunger for new information that it becomes a constant deluge of news that we’re all too eager to share.

So again, I think this really pushes the nature of participation away from creativity, subversion, and collaboration, and makes us willing and absolutely vital collaborators in the media industries’ publicity strategy.

HJ: I was interested in how you characterize your own role as a critic in terms of something close to a form of textual poaching. You write at one point, “I am purposefully seeking out those Tolkienian elements that are worth salvaging from an anticapitalist perspective, while also identifying and critiquing the factors that impede or even contradict such a reading.” Where fan fiction might go further into poaching is that they might construct alternative narratives which show us what might happen if we took the possibilities implicit in these texts further.  For example, you write, “Given Star Trek’s political potential, it is remarkable how rarely it has explored the social, economic, and cultural implications of a world beyond capitalism.’ Yet, there are examples quite early on in ST fan fiction — for example, Leslie Fish’s The Weight, which I discussed in Textual Poachers or Jane Land’s Demeter which I discuss in Science Fiction Audiences — which do explore what alternatives to capitalism and patriarchy might look like. What might the academic equivalent of fan fiction contribute?                        


DHF: My two great passions are fantastic fiction and radical critical theory. And a large part of my inspiration for this book comes from the passionate and joyful ways in which fandom has engaged with and transformed fantastic storyworlds, which is something I’ve known personally my entire life, and have always loved about your work.

But I’ve also always been skeptical about the question whether fan culture really is changing the world for the better: I just can’t help but wonder whether at least some of those staggering amounts of energy, imagination, and creative ability couldn’t be put to better use. I suspect the development of my other great passion besides fantastic fiction derives in part at least from that feeling: what I love so much about radical critical theory is how it is fundamentally a project in which we try to see past the surface and better understand a deeper reality, while at the same time trying to imagine what another, hopefully better world would look like.

Although I therefore think that academic studies of fantastic fiction (and its fandom) has a lot in common with critical theory, they do often seem to run in opposite directions. Radical philosophers and political theorists for instance either ignore fantastic fiction, or only use it rather irresponsibly to illustrate a theoretical point they’re trying to make (as Slavoj Žižek so often does). By the same token, scholars working on fan culture or sf studies are often so invested in the specifics of their objects that they sometimes lose the bigger picture, or simply get carried away by their own enthusiasm for their research.

I also feel that those working in critical theory feel pressured to be critical about everything, using clever readings and complex theory to elevate themselves above the things they’re talking about; while a lot of those in fan studies, for instance, seem to feel the opposite pressure to come up with examples of productive transformation, subversion, and resistance, thus legitimizing both their research objects and their personal and professional interests. And as someone who feels like he’s got one leg in each of those worlds, I could really feel that tension as this project first took shape.

But while my original perspective was completely critical and quite negative about the current state of fandom, I soon realized that I didn’t want to write a book that would amount to little more than a grumpy Marxist’s critique of transmedia world-building as a purely political economy. Besides, I also felt I had already done something like that in my first book Capitalist Superheroes, which performs that kind of ideology critique in what I now tend to think is a fairly one-dimensional way.

So I thought this next book might benefit from a little more contradiction, imagination, and (dare I say it?) optimism. These were all things that I recognized and responded to strongly not only in Hardt and Negri’s work, but also in other huge influences like Jeremy Gilbert, David McNally, Jodi Dean, Steven Shaviro, and Mark Fisher.

In the end I realized that what I liked so much about all of their writing was that it not only helped me understand the world better, but also gave me a real sense of possibility for the future. So even though a book’s critical focus is on explaining some of the biggest problems facing us today, their energy is at the same time directed towards creating a sense of hope, even of infinite possibilities. I tried to let that sense guide my own thinking on this book: not wanting to pull any punches on the one hand, but also finding ways to resist the purely critical mode that feels like the main trap of radical critical theory.

Trying to find the right balance between the two was the hardest thing for me, and I have no idea to what extent I succeeded. But ideally, the book would reflect that wonderful Antonio Gramsci quotation: “I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.”

Dan Hassler-Forest works as Assistant Professor at Utrecht University’s department of Media and Cultural Studies. He has published books and articles on superhero movies, comics, transmedia storytelling, adaptation studies, critical theory, Afrofuturism, and zombies. He co-edits the journal Science Fiction Film and Television with Sherryl Vint and Gerry Canavan, and the book series Transmedia: Participatory Culture and Media Convergence with Matt Hills. His most recent book, Science Fiction, Fantasy and Politics: Transmedia World-building Beyond Capitalism, will be published in August 2016. Dan loves to play the ukulele and still dreams of someday mastering the banjo.


Science Fiction World Building in a Capitalist Society: An Interview with Dan Hassler-Forest (Part One)

Most work on transmedia storytelling and world-building to date has come from a formalist perspective, asking how these techniques transform our traditional understanding of how classical Hollywood told stories. Or it comes from an ethnographic direction — how do these techniques reflect the new interplay between media producers and consumers, with these relations often understood through the lens of a Fandom Studies approach. Or they are written from a production perspective — how might a media-maker apply these techniques to his or her own work or how did a particular production evolve new approaches to serve the particulars of its content and market. All of these are important questions to ask about transmedia and all are approaches I’ve featured on my blog in the past.

A few months back, though, I was delighted to get a chance to read an advance copy of a recently released book, Science Fiction, Fantasy and Politics: Transmedia World-Building Beyond Capitalism, which adopts a more ideological perspective. Here’s what I wrote as a blurb for the book:

Science Fiction, Fantasy and Politics explores the intersection between world-building as practiced in speculative fiction and the desire to imagine (or constrain) alternatives to contemporary capitalism. He writes knowingly, affectionately, yet critically, about franchises as diverse as Battlestar Galactica, Game of Thrones, Hunger Games, and The Walking Dead, mapping the ways each embodies contradictions at the heart of neoliberal capitalism — contradictions that surface in terms of their formal properties as transmedia franchises, their commercial contexts, and the consumer practices they inspire.”

I will be honest that this was not always an easy read for me — the book’s author, Dan Hassler-Forest challenges many of the core assumptions that have governed my own work on these topics. I emerged from the experience a tad bruised, perhaps, but also recharged, full of new thoughts and perspectives I would have encountered nowhere else.

As my blurb suggests, this guy knows his stuff: he isn’t sniping from a high altitude above the text, tossing theory in coke bottle down to the masses below, and he isn’t cherry-picking awkward moments to skewer, and he isn’t dealing with sweeping generalizations. He brings his critical apparatus to bear here but he also comes in as someone who has a fan’s care for the nuances and particulars and a deep respect for the core building blocks of the genres he discusses. He knows his stuff and that’s what makes his ideological critiques hard to ignore.

In the interview that follows, you will see us wrestling a bit with some of the core premises of the book. I push back where I feel I must, but in the spirit of trying to pull out his core assumptions. We cover a lot of ground here — intellectually and culturally — and there’s sure to be something in all of this that will provoke you to reconsider some of your own cherished assumptions about  transmedia and world-building.

HJ: Most work in transmedia studies to date has approached world-building from a formal or production studies perspective, whereas your approach might best be described as ideological analysis. What do you see as the value of concepts such as transmedia, franchises, and worlds for understanding contemporary struggles over capitalism?

DHF: I think these concepts are enormously important for understanding both the economic and cultural logic of global capitalism. First, we’ve seen how transmedia franchising and world-building has really surged over the past two decades, to the point where fantastic fiction seems to dominate the media industries and our cultural landscape more and more. For fans of these genres, it’s great in a way, because there is such a wealth of material being developed and produced in popular fantasy, and most of it caters directly to fans’ sensibilities and desires. At the same time, I also think this is ultimately bad for fan culture, because all this stuff is being produced by media conglomerates working in a very competitive environment, and the sheer amount of material seems to impact fans’ ability to participate creatively in any meaningful way.

I think this also illustrates the larger dynamic of global capitalism, where those who can afford it have access to cool technology and a wide variety of awesome entertainment, while we surrender control over these storyworlds to the corporations who claim ownership over properties that should be considered a form of cultural commons.

Second, I see in fantastic world-building a fundamental desire to imagine alternatives to the social and material realities of modernity, and therefore of capitalism. We do this by imagining and expanding complex and immersive fantasies about worlds that are pre-capitalist (as we see in a lot of fantasy) or post-capitalist (which defines a lot of sf), which gives world-building a very fundamental political direction. Even if we’re not necessarily aware of it, engaging in fantastic world-building helps us reflect on so many aspects of our world and how we understand it, and that’s an especially important cultural activity in our current context, where capitalism has become the only game in town. And since fantastic world-building developed historically as a highly participatory and collaborative cultural activity, it has a lot of political potential.

HJ: The central frame running through your book draws on Hardt and Negri’s notion of Empire and the Multitude. Can you explain these concepts for the reader? What is the underlying model of social and political change you are drawing upon across the book?

DHF:The major benefit of Hardt and Negri’s work on globalization and capitalism is that it provides a fairly straightforward and easy-to-understand set of terms for understanding the basic notion of fully global capitalism. Since I’m trying to bridge a gap between radical critical theory on the one hand, and fan studies, science-fiction scholarship, and transmedia storytelling on the other, I thought their work would make a nice fit.

Because even though their major works provide a lacerating critique of global capitalism –which they call “Empire”– they are ultimately also optimists who have great faith in the creative, democratic, and collaborative potential of the people, for which they use the word “multitude.” This term is so much more appropriate to our current era because it isn’t reductive and homogenizing in the way that more traditional Marxist terms like “proletariat” can be. Instead, they emphasize that the multitude is fundamentally plural and radically diverse, both in the larger sense (allowing for an unlimited diversity of identities) and at the individual level (meaning that the individual subject isn’t singular but plural).

For anticapitalist theory and activism, this plurality is obviously both an obstacle and an opportunity: if we all see ourselves as unique snowflakes, preoccupied with our own special interests, it’s that much harder to develop empathy, solidarity, and the kind of collective action that would be necessary to overcome Empire’s hold over us, and develop postcapitalist alternatives.

But at the same time, the cultural, social, and technological changes that have facilitated the rise of global capitalism can’t be controlled by Capital itself: above all, Hardt and Negri see the multitude overcoming Empire not by retreating from digital culture and immaterial labor, but by reclaiming it for its own ends. So again, I see a lot of provocative parallels with transformative fan culture and the way it developed as a set of social and cultural practices that were also about embracing, appropriating, and transforming the products of powerful media corporations.

HJ: You are interested in identifying ways that popular narratives confront the contradictions at the heart of global capitalism, sometimes even introducing what you describe as “anticapitalist elements that can contribute to the important cultural work of imagining viable political alternatives.” How are you identifying what counts as an “anticapitalist element” and how do we think about the paradox of “anticapitalist” elements circulating within texts like The Hunger Games that are themselves generating profits for multinational media conglomerates?

DHF: This is one of the weirdest and most bewildering contradictions of mass media and commodified popular culture. Can culture be anticapitalist if it is produced, distributed, and consumed as a commodity within a capitalist system? Is there such a thing as anticapitalist culture, and, as Jeremy Gilbert asks in his terrific book Anticapitalism and Culture, would we even recognize it if we saw it?

In the twentieth century, before capitalism became truly global, we came to experience mass media as pretty homogenous and formulaic, and Marxist criticism saw in them the constant reproduction of a “dominant ideology.” So in that context, commercial culture was seen by many as a type of propaganda, where subversion and resistance was only really possible in “underground” productions, and of course in fans’ transformative appropriation of these properties.
But in the twenty-first century, we’re seeing a much more diverse media landscape that has fewer restrictions in terms of its ideological contents. Things like Hunger Games and the TV show Mr. Robot are both good examples of popular texts that tap into a certain anticapitalist energy, even if there is also a lot of ambivalence and even contradiction within the texts themselves – as well as a wide range of readings in terms of their reception.


What I was very interested in exploring and ultimately foregrounding was the way in which some pop-cultural icons can suddenly cross over into political activism, like the “Frodo Lives!” slogan used by protestors during the Vietnam War, the Anonymous mask from V for Vendetta, or anti-government activists in Thailand making the three-finger salute from Hunger Games. I think they show that these commercial franchises can also become part of a common cultural vocabulary, not because the texts themselves are necessarily anticapitalist or even entirely political, but because certain communities interpret them that way, and use the iconography in a context that makes those gestures and the texts they come meaningful as political symbols.

Dan Hassler-Forest works as Assistant Professor at Utrecht University’s department of Media and Cultural Studies. He has published books and articles on superhero movies, comics, transmedia storytelling, adaptation studies, critical theory, Afrofuturism, and zombies. He co-edits the journal Science Fiction Film and Television with Sherryl Vint and Gerry Canavan, and the book series Transmedia: Participatory Culture and Media Convergence with Matt Hills. His most recent book, Science Fiction, Fantasy and Politics: Transmedia World-building Beyond Capitalism, will be published in August 2016. Dan loves to play the ukulele and still dreams of someday mastering the banjo.