What Ever Happened to the Promise of Participatory Television?: An Interview with Adam Fish (Part One)

Adam  Fish certainly knows how to get people’s attention. While still a PhD student at UCLA, he fired a shot off my bow — a challenging blog post critiquing my discussion of critical utopianism and critical pessimism in the concluding chapter of Convergence Culture. It certainly got my attention — he was fearless, a bit merciless, but for the most part, right in his critiques, and I found myself responding through the blog in ways that forced me to rethink my own positions.

We’ve remained in touch off and on since, and I’ve had the pleasure to watch him develop into an important and distinctive voice at the intersection between critical studies, cultural studies, and media industry studies. When Nick Couldry and I pulled together a large-scale academic conversation around the participatory turn in cultural studies for the International Journal of Communication, Fish was one of the people we included, even though he was one of the most junior participants, because we knew he would have important things to say and he did not disappoint.

He has now released his first book, Technoliberalism and the End of Participatory Culture in the United States. As with his original blog post, the title got my attention and as you will see, it is one of the first things I asked him about in the interview which follows. We do have somewhat different understandings of the scope and limits of participatory culture — not surprisingly — but I really admire what he accomplishes in this book, which I suspect is going to be one which many of us will be engaging with in the years to come, whether because of its contributions to the debates around media policy, its nuanced interpretation of different modes of participation, its rich ethnography in the production studies tradition, or its historical analysis of the evolution of opportunities for grassroots contributions to American television as it undergoes technological change.

We need critical, skeptical voices within the context of debates around participatory culture, but what I value about Fish is that he does not throw the baby out with the bathwater. He does recognize what is worth fighting for in the struggles around participatory culture. He proposes more rigorous criteria in terms of what counts as meaningful participation; he demonstrates the forces we work against when we advocate for more grassroots participation in the production and circulation of media; he doesn’t mince words when something falls short, but at the end of the day, I walk away with a sense that we are both engage in the same struggles from different tactical and theoretical vantage points.

I threw some challenging questions his direction and he responded with the usual thoughtfulness and originality.  Enjoy!

While the book’s title describes the “end” of participatory culture in the United States, a more nuanced reading of the book suggests that your predictions are a bit less dire than that. After all, you begin with some discussion of the ways that videos of racialized police violence has fueled the #blacklivesmatter movement. So, is it more accurate to say that the book describes the struggle of some forms of participatory culture to survive or have an impact in a world of increasingly corporitized digital media? What do you see as the stake for those of us who advocate a more participatory media scape in the face of the trends you document and analyze throughout this account?

 

Hi Henry, thanks for inviting me to talk with you. I need to begin by speaking to this funny experience I just had with my 4 year old. It is a good segue into different concepts of participation. Her favorite thing to do is this YouTube kids yoga class called Cosmic Kids, wholesome stuff for a family of techno-hippies from California stuck in northwest England! When it ended she came to ask me to start another episode. When I said, “No, honey you can’t watch another,” she retorted with a consternated brow, “Daddy, I am not watchinganything, I am doing something, I am doing yoga!” This illustrates my graded categories of participation. In my opinion, watching is OK, doing is better, and making is the best. (I let her do another one because of this sophisticated answer.)

This hierarchy can be interpreted as elitist, I know, but it is based upon ethnographic work with amateurs and activists stretching their skills, pushing their technologies, and challenging themselves to make things usually only made by paid professionals: television.

Following the typology of Nico Carpentier there is a difference between interaction and participation, as there is between slacktivism and activism, as this spoof video recently parodied. As you and Nico correctly note in a recent discussion, it is a question of intensities, engagement, and ultimately effectiveness. I celebrate intense forms of participation, not interactive engagement, but robust maker culture. If the only option that exist for amateur and activist participation with television is the rare inclusion of the witty tweet or a few seconds of a witness video in a newscast, just to add a bit of cinema verite and social media marketing to a newscast—that to me isn’t participation but rather the circulation of affect or what Jodi Dean calls communicative capitalism. My book, Technoliberalism and the End of Participatory Culture, is about those exceptional and short-lived moments when television was opened up by new technologies for radical participation—citizen-produced documentaries designed to foment political action.

I’ve wanted to clarify the title of the book in particular to you because it does contain the phrase, “participatory culture,” which you have advanced in media studies. I’ll be the first to admit that “The End of Participatory” part is a bit hyperbolic and the result of some pressure from the publisher. The book does not hypothesize the end of the convergence of bottom-up and top-down collaborations you describe in your book Convergence Culture. Such a statement would be far too normative and universalizing—there is no single “participatory culture” to end or begin.

Furthermore, definitive beginnings, ends, causalities, and dualities seem increasingly unlikely—a theme I’ll take up later. A better title would be “the end of a participatory culture in cable and satellite television production”—doesn’t quite have the same ring, the editors thought. That more nuanced title gets a bit of the irony I hope would be apparent.

Readers of your book Textual Poachers and Sonia Livingstone and Peter Lundt’s earlier work understand that television did provide abbreviated apertures for audience interactivity. But many consider participatory culture to be something that began in earnest with social media. There were brief moments of amateur and activist involvement in television production that usually coordinated with the first few months of the development of a new platform—8mm film, portapak cameras, satellite, cable, camcorders, mobile phones etc. Much of this history in thebook is potted from the excellent historical research of Patricia Zimmerman, William Boddy, Lauri Ouellette, and Lisa Parks and the idealistic work of guerilla television producers such as Michael Shamberg.

So the book looks at the origins and ends of participatory culture in television production during those historical moments as well as the more recent amateur and activist involvements in television production facilitated by the internet. So while the video evidence of police brutality–Eric Garner being choked to death or Walter Scott shot in the back—might be featured as part of a nightly news segment, there does not exist an activist or amateur network where these videos and the public sphere and activism they inspire can develop into social movements.

Its old news now and probably a bit romantic, but this was something Al Gore’s user-generated network Current was at times and what Participant Media’s Pivot network could have done with Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s HitRecord on TV program. As you know, both Current and HitRecord are dead, Current in 2013 in HitRecord in 2016, and with them the idea that television production could and should be democratised.

The media democratisation thesis will emerge again but only in the early halcyonic days of a new transmission medium. One point of the book is that the opening of television provoked by the internet has ended and with it a robust form of participatory culture on television. This concern, however, has provoked me to look for the beginnings of new transmission/networking systems capable of creating that rupture where amateurs and activists can again gain entry into the hegemonic public sphere.

My new book, co-written with Ramesh Srinivasan, After the Internet poses the question: what comes after an internet that is thoroughly surveilled by the NSA, increasingly centralised into gated communities like Facebook, monopolised by corporate mergers like AT&T and Time Warner, unshackled from network neutrality regulations, and manipulated by Russian bots and hackers? We look at activists, indigenous people, politicians, and programmers who are attempting to re-make an internet that is more in-line with their cultural and political ideals and ontologies.

My new research funded by the Leverhulme Trust is looking at how new atmospheric information infrastructures—mesh networked drones, balloons, and the like—can be mobilised by formerly occluded communities to generate new possibilities in participatory networked communication. So I have always studied the more engaged forms of participation which requires higher forms of socio-technical expertise and understanding of policy. Elites, probably, but that is the tribe who create the platforms and affordances that structure communication.

The consequences during periods of participatory closure are that this level of inventiveness, experimentation, and playfulness will decline. As far as diverse content in the hegemonic public sphere is concerned, this will create a deficit of the type of voicefulness Nick Couldry describes. So I see a materialist, softly deterministic and dialectic relationship between the transmission hardware and the messages they transmit. Open systems create the opportunities for radical speech, it isn’t that controversial of a thesis for a student of open source software or a participant in Burning Man.

 

You describe in your introduction a shift from the internet delivering “community theater” to the internet delivering “Hollywood” entertainment. Is this necessarily a zero-sum game? Does one preclude the other? You describe here historically cycles between amateurism and professionalism in media production, but one could argue that there is still much more amateur media being produced and circulated today than ever before and that this grassroots media content is gaining a level of visibility and impact in the culture that would not be matched by earlier versions of this cycle. Without being naive about the ways corporate ownership of platforms and delivery channels potentially restricts what is taking place with amateur media makers, should we also acknowledge that some ground has been gained as a result of the struggles over media access and power your book documents?

 

This duality between “community theater” and “Hollywood” came from one of the unrecognized historians of media participation, the cybernetician JCR Licklider, who criticised television of the 1960s for not being participatory. Licklider understood that the affordances of television would create a path dependency leading not to greater participation, increasing diversification of voice, and a more robust democratic dialogue but less of each. Licklider was writing in the 1960s, and cable in the 1970s, satellites in the 1980s, camcorders in the 1990s, and the internet in the 2000 did, indeed, provide new openings for robust, generative participation online for active individuals and communities.

But as the once opened windows provided by those technologies closed, television returned to being a much more closed media ecology wherein professional ruled not only entrance into studios and networks but, more ominously, a professional logic also ruled the imagination.

 

Patricia Zimmerman in her history of the different marketing logics between 8MM film and 16MM film cameras showed how the camera manufacturers truncated the realm of possibility in order to sell more cameras. 8MM users were branded as incapable of producing film or television grade footage, while 16MM cameras, those were for the aspirational and would-be professional. Had this of been different there could have been the first citizen film journalists in the 1950s, instead we waited until the 1970s or more likely the 2000s for the idea of politically-motivated moving picture production democratization to occur.

There are always outliers but technological path dependencies and socio-cultural expectations cornering the imagination plays a large part in determining the possible future. Again, I admit this is elitist. I celebrate all forms of robust participation but I am also cynical about banality.

Take YouTube for instance, I don’t see “haul videos” and make-up tutorial vlogs as hallmarks of a renaissance of cultural creativity. I understand from reading Brooke Duffy that there is some important gender work going on in these videos but I am concerned that the convergence of bottom-up hype and top-down algorithmic promotion make it seem like this style of video is one of few options for would-be creative individuals. I know there is more than this on YouTubre, but I worry what this limiting of possibility does to the diversity of politicized voices in the public sphere.

YouTube now thinks itself ready to be a proper television network in five cities with branded, syndicated, commissioned, and sponsored content and it is ready to charge subscription fees like a regular cable network. As the book describes, YouTube got to this point of confidence not by empowering citizen video journalists, activists, community organisers, etc. but by patiently pairing simple content creators and advertisers and professionalizing the look of this content through multichannel networks, talent agencies, revenue sharing deals, and building small studios around the world.

The content for the most part is safe for sponsors—when it is not a backlash and public shaming occurs such as with PewDiePie. In this age of fake news, climate change denial, and economic nationalism I doubt this is the tenor of the public sphere the present needs. Unfortunately, this is the kind of content that emergent television networks—even those that come from the grassroots of participatory culture like video sharing sites like YouTube—are producing.

Adam Fish is cultural anthropologist, video producer, and senior lecturer in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University.He employs ethnographic and creative methods to investigate how media technology and political power interconnect. Using theories from political economy and new materialism, he examines digital industries and digital activists. His book Technoliberalism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) describes his ethnographic research on the politics of internet video in Hollywood and Silicon Valley. His co-authored book After the Internet (Polity, 2017) reimagines the internet from the perspective of grassroots activists and citizens on the margins of political and economic power. He is presently working on a book about hacktivist prosecution called Hacker States and a book and experimental video called System Earth Cable about “elemental media”–atmospheric and undersea information infrastructures in the United Kingdom, Denmark, Iceland, and Indonesia. This project deploys drones to map the undersea fibre optical cable system as seen here at Landeyjasandur, Iceland.

Framing Dreams and the Technological Uncanny (Part Two)

This is the second part of an essay written by Mina Kaneko for my PhD seminar on Medium Specificity.

Satoshi Kon’s Paprika

Still from Paprika, by Satoshi Kon.

Satoshi Kon’s 2006 anime Paprika takes a different approach to media and technology, primarily in that dreams are the subjects to be mediated, and notions of the “frame” or “virtual window” are used as tropes within the narrative. The story, based on the science-fiction novel of the same name by Yasutaka Tsutsui, is centered on a thin, glowing headset called the DC Mini, which allows a person to enter and record another person’s dreams. Intended for psychotherapy use, the DC Mini is not yet a perfected technology—and a knowing thief perverts its functions to invade and control the minds of the greater human population. As havoc is wreaked—at first gradually, then suddenly—a collective dream overtakes the city of Tokyo, which is overwhelmed by gigantic puppets and dolls, creatures and statues. It is up to a talented psychotherapist named Chiba and her alter ego Paprika to save the world from destruction.

The DC Mini is, more than anything, an immersive technology, the kind of “fanciful extrapolation of contemporary virtual reality” described by Bolter and Grusin in their essay “Remediation” (313). Bolter and Grusin describe what they call “the logic of immediacy” in a media experience like VR, which is “immersive” because of the perceived invisibility of the technology—it strives to “foster in the viewer a sense of presence: the viewer should forget that she is in fact wearing a computer interface and accept the graphic image that it offers as her own visual world” (314). An example of such a device is the subject of the film Strange Days, by Kathryn Bigelow (1995). “The wire” has brain sensors that enable the recording and delivery of direct sense experiences from one person to another. It’s appeal, Bolter and Grusin write, lies in the fact that it “bypasses all forms of mediation and transmits directly from one consciousness to another,” making it “the ultimate mediating technology, despite or indeed because the wire is designed to efface itself ” (311-312).

The DC Mini. In the opening scene, Paprika says, “It’s the scientific key that allows us to open the door to our dreams.”

Strikingly similar to the wire, the DC Mini is a wearable headpiece with sensors that pick up signals from a user’s brain while asleep—they are then transmitted to another user who is also wearing a headset. This allows the therapist using the device direct access to a patient’s dreams, in “real time,” as they are experiencing them. This is apparent in the opening scene, in which Paprika treats a new patient we later learn to be a detective named Konakawa. We are first shown a dream about a mysterious circus, in which Konakawa looks for someone who has betrayed him. Paprika, disguised as a clown, helps him try to identify who it is that he is looking for. As the dream becomes increasingly surreal—Konakawa is put into a birdcage, and a mob of people all resembling himself charge toward him—Paprika assumes different characters, adapting to each shifting moment (an acrobat to help him escape in one, a Jane figure to his Tarzan in the next).  Once Paprika puts on the DC Mini, she is in the direct presence of the contents of Konakawa’s dream—there exists no technology, interface, or frame demarcating a boundary to his consciousness. Like the wire in Strange Days, its appeal is that it “bypasses all forms of mediation and transmits directly from one consciousness to another.” While the experience itself is of course mediated by the DC Mini, the DC Mini is the “ultimate technology” because it “effaces itself” once worn. Furthermore, Paprika is not merely a passive observer, but an active participant, able to interact freely with the subjects that emerge within the dream space.

The DC Mini has another essential function, and that is to record dreams to be viewed while outside of the dream space. For example, shortly after Konakawa wakes from his circus dream, Paprika replays it for him on a computer-like device called the “psychotherapy machine,” to which DC Minis are connected. Using a program whose interface resembles a video editing software such as Final Cut or iMovie, she pauses specific moments to ask him for clues to the dream’s meaning. In a different scene later in the film, we also see Chiba and her colleagues watching the machines’ live dream recordings to look for clues about the dream hijacker. Thus the dream is an immersive space that can be entered, but it is also a bound and flattened space to be viewed within the confines of the frame.

The DC Mini’s recording function, as shown on a portable device.

The DC Mini’s recording function, as shown on a portable device.  In her essay “The Virtual Window,” Friedberg argues that the digital screen has come to serve the same functions once served by the window, which acted as “the membrane between inside and outside” (340). Cinematic and televisual screens in particular have “produced an ingrained virtuality of the senses, removing our experience of space, time and the real to the plane representation, but in form of delimited vision, in a frame” (Friedberg 344). The DC Mini’s cinematic function, with the ability to “embalm” dreamt time (as film theorist André Bazin said of photography and cinema), proves that dreams have a materiality or physicality that can be imprinted, flattened, and contained. The ability to record—to pause, rewind, play, and analyze—something as abstract, elusive, and deeply internal as dreams gives them an order and control, and the cinematic screen acts as a “membrane” with which to observe that psychical space.

These currents—of immediacy and the virtual window—continue to interact with one another in various ways, particularly as the hijacker finds a way to blur the boundaries between the dream life (or mediated object) and reality (the world of mediation). After the DC Minis are stolen, multiple people fall victim to a violent mind-control; a delusional dream takes over their consciousness, and they enter a hallucinatory state that leads each of them to jump out of a skyscraper window. When Chiba later nearly falls victim to the same fate, we see the kind of delusion those earlier victims had experienced. Moments before, Chiba had been investigating her colleague’s office; but a door leads her to a completely different environment of a surreal, abandoned fairgrounds, where the only live presence is a traditional Japanese doll. The doll lures her further into the environment, eventually inviting her to climb over a fence. As her colleague Osanai barely saves her from jumping over it, the environment of the fairground melts away, and we see she is actually hovering over a tall balcony railing (clip 1).

 

Clip 1. The hijacker’s dream overtakes Chiba’s reality without the presence of the DC Mini.

Here we are presented with a state in which there is no separation, or mediation, with the objects to be mediated—the dream world has entered the world of reality on its own, without warning. It is a state in which “the objects of representation themselves are felt to be self-present,” and in which the technology has “effaced itself” entirely (she is not even wearing a DC Mini)—but it is not the “blissful state” Bolter and Grusin say we desire in our mediated life (355). It is dystopic, rather than a utopic, in which the absence of mediation and the superimposition of fantasy onto reality have violent, harmful consequences.

As the pervasiveness of this troubling immersion intensifies, the frame is increasingly presented as a “permeable interface” (Friedberg 340). Friedberg says that as the size of the windows in the 19th century grew, “its transparency enforced a two-way model of visuality: by framing a private view outward…and by framing a public view inward” (340). Similarly, Smith describes the presence of dual spaces in thinking about the framed painting as a kind of window; he notes that while frame was originally created to demarcate a specific area of the wall for artwork, thus highlighting the painting’s flatness, that the painting could also “present the image of objects in a created ‘space’ on the other side of the canvas” (222).

In one scene, Paprika attempts to save one of her colleagues who has become trapped in the collective dream. Paprika, who had been monitoring the psychotherapy machines and entering the dream space at will to search for the culprit, soon realizes the culprit is none other than the chairman of her company. When Chairman Inui and his accomplice Osanai see her appear in their nightmarish dream, they try to attack her; Paprika runs down a Victorian hallway, shutting herself in a room adorned with 19th century paintings (clip 2). She searches for a means of escape, and jumps into Gustave Moreau’s 1864 painting Oedipus and the Sphinx. In doing so, her body assumes the painted figure of the Sphinx—moments later, Osanai joins her within the frame, assuming that of Oedipus. The previously two-dimensional scene depicted in Moreau’s painting suddenly becomes a three-dimensional, inhabitable space—Paprika, in the Sphinx’s body, hovers above Osanai with her wings; Osanai throws a spear at her, and she tumbles down into the water below.

In another sequence, moments later, Konakawa has entered his own dream space, and walks into an arena of movie theaters. He chooses a theater playing a film called

 

Clip 2. Paprika escapes into Gustave Moreau’s Oedipus and the Sphinx.

“Paprika,” and upon entering, he sees on the screen Paprika tied to a table, Osanai violating her—a display of Paprika’s parallel, real-time experience in Chairman Inui’s dream, occurring at that moment. In a panic, Konakawa runs straight into the film screen to save her, eventually ripping through it and entering the chairman’s dream on the other side (clip 3). Just as the transparent window “enforced a two-way model of visuality,” Paprika frequently shows how spaces can be inhabited on both sides of the painting or cinematic screen. Beyond a frame that merely demarcates virtuality of “space, time and the real” to the “plane representation,” the screen is a “permeable interface” that allows the traversal of boundaries within as well as between dreams.

Clip 3. Detective Konakawa rips through the film screen at a movie theater in his own dream to cross over into the chairman’s dream.

The chairman’s nightmare, which spills into others’ dreams as well as onto reality, eventually becomes an overwhelming spectacle of the kind Angela Ndalianis describes in her essay, “Architectures of the Senses: Neo-Baroque Entertainment Spectacles.” Enlarged objects and characters (including everything from umbrellas, refrigerators, “maneki-neko” cat figurines, Russian dolls, statues of Mary and Buddha) march and dance into the streets, turning the city into a massive parade. As the chaos ensues, Paprika jumps increasingly in and out of frames—once into a TV screen announcing the news, then later into a billboard ad, assuming an equestrian’s body and riding away on a horse only to jump out of an ad on a semi-trailer truck by a boat on a canal. The chairman’s dream, however, has a “neo-baroque logic” to it, in that it “refuse[s] to respect the limits of the frame. Instead it ‘tend[s] to invade space in every direction, to perforate it, to become as one with all its possibilities” (Focillon qtd. in Ndalianis 360). While dreams had previously been a subject of observation and immersion within a controlled space, here they threaten the city by “invading the space in every direction…perforating it, becoming one” with the diegetic reality. The frames through which Paprika jumps still serve as entryways in and out of separate spaces, just as before—however, each traversal of a frame brings her only to another location within the expansive, destructive, parading dream, pointing to a collapse (or at least, ineffectiveness) of the frame against a neo-baroque logic that has imposed itself onto the city. Eventually, the infectious delusion is contained by a supernatural specter of Chiba and Paprika that consumes the chairman’s body. We are returned, in the end, to the previous reality in which dreams are entered upon will, and peace is restored.

Like Strange Days, Paprika presents a “world fascinated by the power and ubiquity of media technologies” (Bolter and Grusin 312). In the final delusional parade scene, we see a group of schoolgirls whose faces are mediated by their cell phone screens (clip 4); similarly, a group of business men’s heads are replaced by flip phones—all recite an incoherent, hysterical chant. They are bizarre, creepy moments that seem to caution against a technologically mediated world in which we are no longer ourselves, but replaced entirely by our devices. This scene is also set against the backdrop of a highly mediated cityscape—the city is unidentified, but it undoubtedly mirrors present-day Tokyo. There is nothing fictional about its rendition of the city itself. And yet we see Tokyo, like the Los Angeles of Strange Days, is “saturated with cellular phones, voice- and text-based telephone answering machines, radios, and billboard-sized television screens that constitute public media spaces” (Bolter and Grusin 312). Paprika itself is not opposed to media and technology—indeed, media (here represented by the dream world) has the power to inform and reform our reality (here through the act of psychoanalysis)—and yet, it offers us a narrative that suggests the achievement of true immersion, and the inability to distinguish our fantasies and innermost desires from reality, has the potential to be dangerous. Immersive media is powerful, but there remains a need for distinction, separation, frames, and borders—for the act of mediation itself.

 

Clip 4. The chairman’s dream becomes a spectacle that overtakes the city of Tokyo.

As in McCay’s comics, Paprika portrays an urban society abounding with the technological innovations of its period. The ubiquity of televisual screens is a familiar sight for anyone acquainted with Tokyo, presented as a place in which such types of technology have become habituated, or second nature. Like in Rarebit Fiend and Little Nemo, Paprika superimposes fantastical and surreal elements, facilitated by the dream and the unconscious, onto this normalized technological reality, showing a grotesquely transmogrified urban life and defamiliarizing what is familiar. With this wariness comes heightened self-awareness, as Paprika’s entrance and traversal of screens intensifies throughout the narrative. Calling attention to the thing we often take for granted, that is, the very boundary that marks the representation within it—we too are reminded that we are watching Paprika the anime, on a screen and within a frame.

In contrast to Rarebit Fiend and Little Nemo, however, Paprika appears to be more focused on the themes of novelty and reception of new technology rather than in the process of habituation. While the malfunctioning technology in McCay’s comics are existing technologies, the alluring and perilous technology of the DC Mini is a speculative, fictional one. It is enticing, ground-breaking, addicting, edgy—so new that it hasn’t yet been patented. Because it is also a novelty within the diegetic world and not just our own, the anxiety and amazement about it is ever-present in the narrative; neither we nor the characters in the film are accustomed to it. The narrative’s suspense rests on this precarious balance between fantasy and fear—from the utopic vision of its ability to alter our psychoanalytic practices (and share dreams from consciousness to consciousness) to the dystopic vision of a city ruined by greed and villainy. Paprika’s character embodies this utopia—light, charming, adored, feminine—while the chairman’s embodies the dystopia—dark, oppressive, masculine—and the two forces confront each other at the film’s climax.

What’s compelling about Paprika is that it tells such a story with the medium of anime, with an aesthetic that, like comics, relies on a “strongly stylized, hand-drawn quality,” one which does not try to simulate or replace our three-dimensional world. Unlike “immersive” technologies on which the DC Mini is based and which try to “come as close as possible to the visual world outside,” it presents us with a deliberately two-dimensional, flat world of solid colors (Bolter and Grusin 316). One could say Paprika thus offers a kind of counter-inscription to the kinds of computer-generated aesthetics available to us today and to technologies like VR, instead providing us with a more abstracted, symbolic representation.

At the same time, however, the film immerses us, perhaps even more than it distances us. Unlike McCay, overall Kon does not rupture the aesthetic with different drawing styles; using a consistent visual representation throughout the film, he creates an alternate iconic reality in which the dream materials and the diegetic reality are seamlessly merged. We may not confuse its flatness for our own reality, but the film, with its colorful, luscious drawings, invites us to imagine another one. The anime thus engages us in a different way than some high tech experiences might (something like VR, by operating on the presupposition that it is to assume our reality, often exposes schisms between what’s expected and what technology is capable of creating, whereas anime escapes this particular disappointment by speaking through a consciously symbolic representation).

Furthermore, Paprika draws us in by convincing us of the cinematic illusion that the drawn images move. In his book The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation, Thomas LaMarre refers to anime’s dialectical relationship with technology, saying it derives its novelty from its “ability to cross between ostensibly low-tech and high-tech situations, to the point that it becomes impossible to draw firm distinctions between low and high tech”—the low-tech being its hand-drawn aspect, and the high-tech being the technologically involved production of animation (xiv). He quotes Norman McClaren’s definition:

Animation is not the art of drawings that move but the art of movements that are drawn; what happens between each frame is much more important than what exists on each frame; animation is therefore the art of manipulating the invisible interstices that lie between frames. (qtd. in LaMarre xxiv)

While Paprika is reflexive in its metaphorical use of screens, it also seems to embrace its high-tech illusionism. With the exception of a few moments (as when Konakawa enters a movie titled “Paprika”) it rarely breaks the fourth wall, and the construction of anime as the layering of images is never made explicit; the “invisible interstices” that lie between frames remain invisible. Unlike McCay’s comics, Paprika never reveals its own process of production, allowing itself to trick us into the illusion that the hand-drawn images with which we are presented do indeed animate. Like the dialectical presence of caution and fascination presented in its narrative, Paprika simultaneously incites critical awareness with its reflexivity while immersing us in technological fantasy.

Framing Dreams and the Technological Uncanny

McCay’s Rarebit Fiend and Little Nemo and Kon’s Paprika are very different in their visual approaches and evocations of the technological uncanny. In McCay’s work, we see an overall wariness about technology and its impact on daily life, which he humorizes in comic form. McCay frequently implicates himself in his process of mediation and exposes the artist behind the fiction. Though he paints captivating dreamscapes in Little Nemo, he also often presents dreams about technology by contrasting the uniformity of the frame with chaotic contents, recalling the negotiation between fear and habituation described by Schivelbusch and Gunning. Paprika, on the other hand, reflects on the novelty of technology, and the utopic and dystopic visions they bring about, through a narrative of science-fiction. It both embraces and cautions against technological innovation, and it is simultaneously reflexive and immersive in its own storytelling.

From Little Nemo in Slumberland, by Winsor McCay.

One could say McCay satirizes anxieties of the “modern” era in which many urban practices were very new, while Paprika responds to a “post-modern” era in which, as Jean Baudrillard wrote, simulation threatens to replace the real—though, terms like “modern” and “postmodern” are most importantly discourses to help think about our present and exist alongside one another. I also agree with Tom Gunning that no matter the era, there is continuity in the emotional and psychical processes we undergo when we encounter new technologies and new media, processes which seem to recur time and time again, whether in response to the magical yet frightful experience of riding a train in the late 19th century, or entering the surreal, virtual portal of the digital screen in our present world.

In their introduction to Rethinking Media Change: The Aesthetics of Transition, David Thorburn and Henry Jenkins also point to the striking parallels between the Victorian age and the so-called Digital Revolution, saying that such moments of cultural transition seem to “generate visions of apocalyptic transformation” as well as those of “technological utopia” (1). There is euphoria and panic at the heart of immense change—but as they note, in reality, change is never so simple or so sudden; media practices shift gradually, in nuanced ways. Furthermore, they write:

The introduction of a new technology always seems to provoke thoughtfulness, reflection, and self-examination in the culture seeking to absorb it. Sometimes this self-awareness takes the form of a reassessment of established media forms, whose basic elements may now achieve a new visibility, may become a source of historical research and renewed theoretical speculation. 
(Thorburn and Jenkins 4)

Rarebit Fiend, Little Nemo and Paprika are examples of texts that provoke thoughtfulness, reflection, and self-examination about their contemporary moments—ones that “reassess established media forms” and give new visibility to the hand-drawn aesthetic. They present a visual mode of storytelling that departs from the emerging, more novel forms of mediation, be it photography and cinema at the turn of the century, or immersive digital media of the present day. Relying on a visual idiom that needs no referent or original to copy, they highlight a stylistic discursiveness, providing a kind of “counter-inscription” to the subject matter they depict. At the same time, the works show that they too are not without their own technological components, which is sometimes made explicit (eg., in McCay’s allusions to the printing presses) and sometimes implicit (eg., in the way Paprika keeps the invisible interstices invisible, but evokes “screen” and “cinema”).

Still from Paprika, by Satoshi Kon.

These counter-inscriptive aesthetics also seem to lend themselves well to the subject of dreams. There is a fluidity and versatility with drawing such sites of fantasy and imagination, not least because of its “low-tech” nature that can present an alternate reality as long as it can be drawn; it works without the constraints one might encounter when dependent on more high-tech mechanisms and escapes the expectation of a certain type of presupposed aesthetic. Dreams, in turn, are a rich space in which to explore the uncanny and technology—whether as a site where such anxieties and fears about technologies appear, or as something that seems to mirror new technology and media itself, a site of the unknown future. The frames that figure prominently in these texts—as a window into the fantasy of the unconscious or as an externalized grid or screen that can order and contain—seem themselves to play into the very notion of the psychic layering of the uncanny, in that they mark a metaphorical boundary that controls and habituates our fears, desires, and fantasies—boundaries that just as easily can be collapsed or crossed, letting our apocalyptic and euphoric fantasies slip through.

 

Mina Kaneko is an editor and scholar. She holds a BS in Media, Culture, and Communication from NYU and was formerly Covers Associate at The New Yorker and Editorial Associate at TOON Books. She is currently a PhD candidate in Comparative Media and Culture at USC, where she is a Provost’s fellow. Her research interests include contemporary Japanese and Anglophone literature, comics, and cinema, as well as theories of visuality, psychoanalytic theory, and intersections of race, gender, and sexuality.

 

 

Framing Dreams and the Technological Uncanny (Part One)

This is the third in a series of posts showcasing outstanding work of students who participated in my PhD seminar in the fall focused on theories and histories of the debates around medium specificity. Mina Kaneko is a PhD candidate in Comparative Media and Culture (in the Comparative Studies in Literature and Culture program) at USC. She works on contemporary Japanese and Anglophone comics, literature, and cinema.

Framing Dreams and the Technological Uncanny

by Mina Kaneko


From Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, by Winsor McCay.

In his essay “Re-newing Old Technologies,” Tom Gunning writes about the extreme pleasures and anxieties we feel when we encounter new technologies, which present us not only with “convenient devices,” but transform the ways we perceive and interact with the world (51). At the same time, inevitably, we grow used to them, adjusting our habits to accommodate them into our lives until they become everyday banalities. Gunning uses Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s analysis of the railway as an example of this interaction between novelty and habituation, describing how early train commuters were both consumed by “a gnawing fear of death through accident” and thrilled by the “novelty of traversing space at un-heard of speeds” (46). Such strong reactions seemed to subside when new cultural practices were introduced—reading on the train, for example—and train travel became second nature. However, Schivelbusch and Gunning suggest that those initial feelings of awe and fear were “camouflaged but not eliminated,” and buried deep into the unconscious (46). The moment the train breaks down, or any other such trigger, the “repressed material returns with a vengeance”—a phenomenon Gunning, evoking Freud, calls “the technological uncanny.”

Schivelbusch’s example may be about Western urbanization and industrialization at the turn of the twentieth century, but Gunning points out that it resonates today in our so-called Information Age, in which we’ve seen a similar proliferation of new technologies; he writes that “the two ends of the Twentieth Century hail each other like long lost twins” (51). With this in mind, I’ve decided to look at two bodies of work that allude in some way to the idea of the “technological uncanny”: the first being Winsor McCay’s comic strips Dream of the Rarebit Fiend (1904-1913) and Little Nemo in Slumberland (1905-1914), and the second Satoshi Kon’s anime Paprika (2006). Though each is distinctive, they seem to be in conversation with one another in interesting ways (many thanks to Henry for giving me the idea to compare the two side by side!)—if not as twins, then perhaps as cousins, from opposite ends of the century and from across the globe (U.S. and Japan, respectively).

These works use the subject of dreams as a space to explore fascinations and horrors about technologically advancing societies while also self-consciously reflecting on their own processes of mediation. In them, comics and anime seem to offer a symbolic language apt for representing fantastical, surreal worlds and helps provide critical distance by which to think about technological change. What’s particularly striking is that both McCay and Kon share a preoccupation with the “frame” (as in the comics frame, or the frame of the screen), which they frequently play with to call attention to mediation. First, I’ll take a look at McCay’s work, in which the frame is used to contain and order dreams in which anxieties about technology appear, and which he often deconstructs as a tool for reflexivity. Then, I’ll look at Kon’s Paprika, in which dreams are a kind of metaphor for media itself; the film uses ideas of “immediacy” and “the frame” as tropes to express ambivalence about a media-saturated world. While there are a number of subjects I’d like to explore further—such as the cultural contexts and time periods in which these texts are born—this is an early draft and the beginnings of a larger project I hope to develop. I’ll start primarily with a close-reading of the texts themselves to begin to speculate about some of the connections between dreams, comics, anime, and technology.

 

Winsor McCay’s Dream of the Rarebit Fiend & Little Nemo in Slumberland

Let’s start by looking at Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, which appears to allude directly to the idea of the technological uncanny described by Gunning. Rarebit Fiend was a weekly comic strip first published in 1904 in the New York Evening Telegram, a kind of evening counter-part to the New York Herald. After that, in 1911, McCay moved to media company Hearst, where he published an adaptation in the New York American before returning to the Herald in 1913, when Rarebit Fiend had a brief revival. While the subject of the strip changed from week to week, it had one recurring theme: someone eats a Welsh rarebit before bed, and consequently has an outrageous dream. Often, these dreams are terrifying and bizarre, reflecting the dreamer’s anxieties—in the last panel, the dreamer consistently awakes, blaming their indulgent bedtime snack for their fitful sleep.

Cover of the Dover edition of collected Rarebit Fiend comics, depicting a man trapped in cheese.

As several scholars have noted, many of the dreams in Rarebit Fiend reflect the stresses of an increasingly industrialized and overworked society. In Poetics of Slumberland: Animated Spirits and the Animating Spirit, Scott Bukatman says the strip is about a middle-class “queasiness about the modern world” (51). Similarly, Katherine Roeder, in her book Wide Awake in Slumberland: Fantasy, Mass Culture, and Modernism in the Art of Winsor McCay, writes that the strip “investigated the impact of modern life on the individual psyche,”focusing in particular “on the nervous strain caused by the intense stimulation of the metropolis,” and the “increasing threat of bodily peril caused by newer, faster, and more dangerous forms of transportation” (161-162). Indeed, while some strips are more whimsical and less direct in their concerns (in one, a woman is eaten by her alligator purse, which has turned into an actual alligator; in another, a woman ponders the mysterious ingredients of “hot dogs” and is subsequently chased by a pack of dogs) the “nervous strain” brought about by urban life and the “threat of bodily peril” by new modes of transportation figure prominently in the weekly strip. Automobiles and trains are frequently out of control, inciting death or at least, severing limbs; new medicines are excessively effective as to become ineffective, as is the case with a hair-growth elixir that causes a bald man to become a mass of fur and the subject of a public spectacle; bodies are rife with ailments both physical and emotional, as seemingly small injuries (a corn on the foot, uneven leg lengths) stretch and overwhelm to the point of incapacitation. As Bukatman notes, “for the rarebit dreamers…sleep offers no respite from the day’s demands; they can only struggle on” (57).

Muybridge’s The Horse in Motion, 1878
. Source: Library of Congress

In these comics, McCay often relies on a “fixed perspective” and a generally uniform frame size, which Bukatman says recalls chronophotography like that of Eadward Muybridge in the late 1800s (50). He also suggests that the ordered, repeated, sequential framing evokes the “mechanization of the Fordist assembly line”—a uniformity McCay “resists” by “replacing orderly process with a comedic progression toward chaos and/or death” (Bukatman 23). In other words, McCay uses the evenly spaced time intervals represented by the consistent boxes to map the sequential progress of chaos (or devolvement), something that is further accentuated by the static point of view—thus, we witness clearly “the change that occurs from one panel to the next, as objects and people variously grow and shrink, morph and transmogrify” (Bukatman 50).

For example, in one strip from June 28, 1905, a rarebit dreamer drives with friends, and discovers that all four car tires have deflated; seeking another friend’s help, they replace the tire rubber with cheesy rarebits (fig. 1).

Fig. 1. From Dream of the Rarebit Fiend by Winsor McCay.

As they journey onward, their car spins increasingly out of control, as the cheese in the tires lose their shape, frame by frame. The size of each panel is consistent, marking regular intervals of the cars progression towards breakdown, a “gradual, if accelerating, metamorphosis” (Bukatman 62). Furthermore, because we view the car from a fixed side-view, we witness the radically “transmogrifying” cheese, which becomes an amorphous and stringy mess that overtakes the penultimate panel; the commuters scream, “Help! Save us! Oh, save us! Help! Oh!” The juxtaposition of the ordered, “Fordist” nature of the frame and the surreal invasion of the cheese represents “orderly process” being replaced with “a comedic progression toward chaos.”

In a more gruesome encounter with transportation from October 26, 1904, an elderly man tries to cross Broadway (fig. 2).Fig. 2. From Dream of the Rarebit Fiend by Winsor McCay.

He is first run over by a horse-drawn carriage, losing his arm; then, he is run over by a water wagon, a trolley, and finally, an automobile, each time severing another part of his body. In the final panel, we see that this is an anxiety dream of the man’s wife, who says to her sleeping husband beside her, “Oh! There you are. I’m glad he’s home from New York. I’ll eat no more rabbits, Oh!” Like the previous strip above, this narrative utilizes the uniform grid to map a “progression towards death,” juxtaposing its chaos within the “orderly process” that confines it. Each frame captures a different moment of the man’s mutilation, which we view from the side of the road where he stands. At the same time, this comic maps a sequence of technological advancements in transportation: the horse-drawn carriage, the water wagon, the trolley, and the automobile, an order which Roeder says is intentional and serves as a kind of “mini-history” of urban transit (175). Thus, the frames also serve to show a historical progression, with each new mode of transportation contributing more and more to the demise of the dream’s poor protagonist.

The lack of movement in the frames seems to symbolize the way the dreams in Rarebit Fiend are grounded in the mundane, for the chaos that ensues takes place in everyday settings. As Bukatman notes, in contrast to Little Nemo, there is “no ‘consistent unreal world,’ no Slumberland on the other side of the journey, no place but the place of the quotidian, newly deformed” (Bukatman 60). Indeed, as we see in the strips above, many of the dreams occur in worlds that seem to mirror the dreamers’ reality, with the fantastical and surreal imposed onto the real. There is no “consistent unreal world” of marvelous characters and imaginative dreamscapes—and the comedic tragedies that occur, occur in the most mundane of moments, such as a drive in the city, or crossing Broadway.

Rarebit Fiend evokes the technological uncanny by contrasting these banalities of everyday life with the fantastical visions of peril that emerge only when the sleeper is dreaming. Using the dreaming state as a space in which fears manifest themselves, McCay seems to play with the Freudian concept that understanding dreams is the “royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind” (604). (It should be noted however, that whatever Freudian themes seem to be at play in McCay’s work, The Interpretation of Dreams was not translated into English until 1913, and The Uncanny still later, I believe in 1925; from what I know, McCay was likely not to have read or been aware of Freud’s work.)

It is in dreams that “gnawing fear[s] of death through accident” appear, “return[ing] with a vengeance” to the sleeping middle-class American worker, showing that such emotions have only been “camouflaged, but not eliminated” in waking life. The dreamers return to the normalcy of consciousness with relief, grateful for the reality in which such fears “lapse[d] into oblivion,” and instead bread and cheese are cause for blame (Schivelbusch qtd. in Gunning 46). The juxtaposition of a constant frame and “fixed perspective,” which signal the Fordist order and repetition, and the transmogrified embodiments of anxiety depicted within them, visually reinforce the negotiation between novelty (here, primarily terror) and habituation.

Cover of Little Nemo in Slumberland: So Many Splendid Sundays! Vol. 1 by Sunday Press Books.

A similar treatment of anxieties about technology and transportation can be seen in Little Nemo, though the dream world presented is an entirely different one. While initially inspired by Rarebit Fiend, Little Nemo is primarily a departure in that it was designed, in McCay’s words, “to please the little folk” (ix). It too appeared as a weekly comic strip in the New York Herald, but in its Sunday color supplement from 1905-1914, printed on a full-size newspaper sheet that measured approximately 16 by 21 inches (Like Rarebit Fiend, an adaptation was published in the New York American until 1913, and experienced a brief revival in the Herald, from 1924 until 1927). Little Nemo charts the dreams of a young boy as he finds himself in various adventures in enchanted lands; the strip is sometimes fearful, often delightful, and, like Rarebit Fiend, consistently ends with Little Nemo waking to reality.

Unlike the “mundane” spaces of each rarebit dreamer’s lives, Slumberland is presented as fictional realm outside of reality, or a “consistent unreal world,” with recurring characters and developing stories. In this way, Bukatman writes that Little Nemo offers “immersion” rather than “resistance,” in which “the malleability of space, world, and body dominates the strip, investing the solidity of objects with plasmatic possibility” (23). In Rarebit Fiend, elasticity marks the absurd—tires made of uncontrollable cheese, a corn in the foot growing larger than the body—and dramatizes situations of stress in an otherwise “realistic” setting. In Little Nemo, however, it is the dream world itself that is elastic—fluid shapes and vibrant colors create a magical world in which anything is possible, which we view through the eyes of a child. Furthermore, as bed legs stretch and grow (fig. 3), so often do the comic frames containing the image,

Fig. 3. From Little Nemo in Slumberland, by Winsor McCay

giving the impression that the boundaries that cordon off that other world are just as fluid as the land depicted, as though perhaps they could continue to grow large enough for us to step into. The frame that expands and transforms presents itself like a window through which to peer into the other side (a metaphor which articulated by many scholars and a theme that is also taken up in Paprika). Slumberland, like Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, is a place of enchantment and mystery, and McCay invites us to enter (see fig. 4).

Fig. 4. From Little Nemo in Slumberland, by Winsor McCay.

At the same time, however, there remain similar expressions of wariness about the industrial age as those we see in Rarebit Fiend, and they employ a remarkably similar use of the uniform frame as we see in the former. While they may not be cause for gruesome deaths, the automobiles and railways in Little Nemo similarly frequently malfunction or spin out of control. Take this strip from September 6, 1908, in which Nemo’s companion Flip calls upon him to a take a ride in his passenger train (see fig. 5). In the following panels, Flip manages to run through the picket fence lining Nemo’s family’s home, back up straight into a brick building, topple over a horse-drawn carriage, as well as a trolley, and ultimately crashes into a river. In the final panel, Nemo wakes up thrown from his bed onto the floor.

Fig. 5. From Little Nemo in Slumberland, by Winsor McCay.

In a strip from November 29, 1908, Flip causes another such ruckus when he takes Nemo for a ride in his new automobile. Here, Flip shows off his car’s tricks: first by driving up a staircase, then up the side of a tall building, eventually driving back down the building and plunging into a river, again careless of the various objects and monuments he runs over. As he does, Nemo pleads him to stop, saying, “Let’s go back home, Flip, come! This is too dangerous for me!” to which Flip merely brushes him off and encourages him to embrace the adventure. Interestingly, both strips employ the “chronophotographic” model of movement, mapping the progression of chaos by showing the incremental differences contained in the constant frame. It also uses a fixed perspective, consistently positioning the viewer to the side of the car or in front of the approaching train. This is a departure from the elastic windows that stretch and grow with the expanding berries or the moving chair — but rather, reflect the “fixity of the dreamer” and that same Fordist repetition (Bukatman 60). This preoccupation is expressed more explicitly in another strip, where Nemo, Flip, and Imp take “a bath” on Mars; after asking a Martian how one keeps clean on his planet, the three are fed through a “cleaning machine” in which they are flattened by large cleaning rollers that Tim Blackmore, in his essay “McCay’s McChanical Muse,” says resemble the cylinders of the printing press. Flip says, “It’s the first time I was ever dry cleaned like a carpet and the last!” while Nemo exclaims, “Oh! We’re being ironed out like a shirt front Oh! I’m mad now!!!” Nemo and Flip liken themselves to a mass-produced commodity created in a factory, through which they emerge flattened, and are subsequently hung and dried on a clothesline. McCay uses the fictional fantastical world of Nemo—and Mars—to introduce an alien (or alienating) and dehumanizing mechanical process, while visually alluding to the technological mechanism with which the comic itself is mass-produced.

Perhaps one of the most pleasurable, if not most significant, aspects of McCay’s comics lie in such instances of self-reflexivity. In both Rarebit Fiend and Little Nemo, characters will refer to their own existence as a comic strip, or otherwise to the author himself. For example, in one Rarebit Fiend comic, a man dreams he is a “pen and ink drawing,” calling attention to an ink splotch above his right knee—as the comic progresses, he becomes covered in more and more ink stains, and the man continues to comment on the way he is “not drawn carefully.” Similarly, in an episode of Little Nemo from 1909, Nemo and Flip walk through the countryside, which is drawn as a minimalist, black and white line drawing distinctive from the aesthetics of their own bodies—Nemo says, “I’m going home before I change into a bad drawing” (see fig.6). In these, McCay calls direct attention to the “strongly stylized, hand-drawn quality” that Silke Horstkotte says characterizes many cartoons in his essay “Zooming in and Out: Panels, Frames, Sequences.” By introducing different aesthetic styles and explicitly naming “incomplete”

Fig. 6. From Little Nemo in Slumberland, by Winsor McCay.

or “badly drawn” figures, McCay exposes the ways in which these figures are indeed drawn by the subjective hand of a specific artist.
Additionally, McCay often experiments with the collapse or breakdown of the frame as a way to direct attention to its own mediation. For example, in another Rarebit Fiend strip, a count attempts to court a young woman, only to be met with rejection; upon discovering she is in love with the cartoonist “Silas” (McCay’s penname for Rarebit Fiend), the man begins to rip apart the comic in which they exist as an act of defiance, until in the end, there is only a pile of “shredded comic” before the dreamer wakes (see fig. 7). Similarly, in a Little Nemo strip from November 8, 1908, Flip invites Nemo into his uncle’s bakery (see fig. 8). As Nemo, Flip, and Imp attempt to take some baked goods, the ink in each pastry begins to disappear, leaving behind the paper beneath it. Slowly, each pastry disappears one by one, until the background is merely the inkless paper; soon the floor disappears, and Flip and Imp fall out of the frame, until only Nemo is left—as Nemo tries to hold on, the frame around him beings to fold, collapsing around him in a heap. He exclaims, “Look what the artist has done to me oh!”

Fig. 7. From Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, by Winsor McCay.

 

Fig. 8. From Little Nemo in Slumberland, by Winsor McCay.

As Greg M. Smith points out in “Comics in the Intersecting Histories of the Window, the Frame, and the Panel,” the “frame” in comics is neither bound by a physical frame (in the case of the painting) or by a mechanical apparatus (as in the case of TV or cinema) –rather, it is a hand-drawn construction for organizing a story (231). McCay’s decision to deconstruct the frame further reminds us of his own subjectivity—that the dreams, characters, and objects we see are fictional constructions, where even the window through which we observe them can easily be removed or altered. Such self-reflexivity reminds us of the specific medium with which McCay is working and highlights the way comics themselves require no technological apparatus except pen and paper. In her book Disaster Drawn, Hillary Chute describes drawing and comics as a kind of “counter-inscription” to other highly technologically reliant forms of inscription or mediation, and I think the term particularly apt here. Rather than “emphasizing a story-level similar to the actual world,” as Horstkotte says, comics “serv[e] to highlight the discursive qualities of the narrative representation” (33). By collapsing the frame and erasing the characters on which we rely to read his images, we are forced to see the materiality behind that illusory, imaginative world for what it is: Nemo and our dreamers are but ink on paper. At the same time, McCay acknowledges that the newspaper comic strip itself was transformed by the new technology of the rotary presses in the late 1800s that allowed for mass production and distribution; by removing the ink from the Little Nemo strip above, for example, he makes visible the “direct, palpable relationship between the newly mechanized press and the art form of the comic strip” (Blackmore 17). In a time when cinema and photography were popularizing art forms with a certain sensational quality (such as films like the Lumière brothers’ 1985 Arrival of a Train that wow’ed viewers with its “closeness” to reality), McCay’s use of the medium can indeed be thought of as a kind of counter-inscription to photographic recording of physical, existing objects. While photographs and films are themselves merely representations, comics’ discursive qualities dismiss themselves of this evidentiary expectation to begin with. As much as McCay enchants and entices us in some moments, he also frequently deliberately distances us to reveal the construction of his own representations, a reflexivity and call for critical awareness that goes hand-in-hand with the cautionary, if humorous, wariness of technology depicted in his comics.

 

 

Works Cited

“Oedipus and the Sphinx ” The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. N.p., n.d. Web.  http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/21.134.1/ Accessed 13 Nov. 2016.

Baudrillard, Jean, and Sheila Faria. Glaser. Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: U of
Michigan, 2014. Print.

Blackmore, Tim. “McCay’s McChanical Muse: Engineering Comic-Strip Dreams.” The
Journal of Popular Culture 32.1 (1998): 15-38.

Booker, Marvin Keith. Comics through Time: A History of Icons, Idols, and Ideas. Santa
Barbara, Calif.: Greenwood, 2014, pp 234.

Bolter, Jay David & Richard Grusin. “Remediation.” Configurations, vol. 4 no. 3, 1996,
pp. 311-358.

Bukatman, Scott. The Poetics of Slumberland: Animated Spirits and the Animating Spirit. Berkeley: U of California, 2012. Print.

Chute, Hillary L. Disaster Drawn Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form. Cambridge: Belknap-Harvard UP, 2016. Print.

Friedberg, Anne. “The Virtual Window.” Rethinking Media Change: The Aesthetics of
Transition, edited by David Thorburn and Henry Jenkins, MIT Press, 2003, pp. 337-354.

Freud, Sigmund, and James Strachey. The Interpretation of Dreams.
New York: Basic, 2010. Print.

Gunning, Tom. “The Art of Succession: Reading, Writing, and Watching Comics.” 
Comics & Media, edited by Hillary Chute and Patrick Jagoda, University of Chicago Press, 2014, pp. 36-51.
– – -. “Re-newing Old Technologies.” Rethinking Media Change: The
Aesthetics of Transition, edited by David Thorburn and Henry Jenkins, MIT Press, 2003, pp. 39-60.

Horstkotte, Silke. “Zooming In and Out: Panels, Frames, Sequences, and the Building Of  
Graphic Storyworlds.” From Comic Strips to Graphic Novels: Contributions to  
the Theory and History of Graphic Narrative, edited by Daniel Stein and Jan-Noel Thon, Walter de Gruyter, Berlin, 2013.
LaMarre, Thomas. The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation. Minneapolis, MN: U of Minnesota, 2009. Print.
McCay, Winsor. Dream of the Rarebit Fiend: The Saturdays. West Carrollton, OH: Checker Book Group, 2007. Print.
– – -. Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend. N.p.: Dover Publications, 1973. Print. Dover Humor.
– – -. Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland. Vol. 1. West Carrollton, OH: Checker Book Group, 2007. Print.
– – -. Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland. Vol. 2. West Carrollton, OH: Checker Book Group, 2007. Print.
Ndalianis, Angela. “Architectures of the Senses: Neo-Baroque Entertainment Spectacles.”
 Rethinking Media Change: The Aesthetics of Transition, edited by David Thorburn and Henry Jenkins, MIT Press, 2003, pp. 355-374.
Paprika. Dir. Satoshi Kon. By Satoshi Kon, Seishi Minakami, Brian Beacock, Doug Erholtz, and Michael Forest. Sony Pictures Classics, 2007.
Roeder, Katherine. Wide Awake in Slumberland: Fantasy, Mass Culture, and Modernism in the Art of Winsor McCay. 1st ed. Mississippi: U of Mississippi, 2014. Print. Great Comics Artists Ser.
Smith, Greg M. “Comics in the Intersecting Histories of the Window, the Frame, and the Panel.” From Comic Strips to Graphic Novels: Contributions to the Theory and History of Graphic Narrative, edited by Daniel Stein and Jan-Noel Thon. Walter de Gruyter, 2013, pp. 219-240.

Thorburn, David, and Henry Jenkins. “Introduction: Toward an Aesthetics of Transition.” Rethinking Media Change: The Aesthetics of Transition. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2003, pp. 1-16.

Mina Kaneko is an editor and scholar. She holds a BS in Media, Culture, and Communication from NYU and was formerly Covers Associate at The New Yorker and Editorial Associate at TOON Books. She is currently a PhD candidate in Comparative Media and Culture at USC, where she is a Provost’s fellow. Her research interests include contemporary Japanese and Anglophone literature, comics, and cinema, as well as theories of visuality, psychoanalytic theory, and intersections of race, gender, and sexuality.

Westworld Compressed: Rose is a Rose is a Rose is a Rose…

 

 

Today, I present a second project representing the work of  the spectacular students in the USC Media Arts and Practices Program. In this case, Noa P. Kaplan applied her media manipulation skills to do an imaginative critique/remix/compression of Westworld, last fall’s cult media phenomenon. Think of this as a contribution to the growing movement within media studies to produce video essays.

Rose is a Rose is a Rose is a Rose

by Noa P. Kaplan

In the first episode of Westworld, Dr. Ford attributes Peter Abernathy’s obscure and threatening language to “…Shakespeare, John Donne, Gertrude Stein. I admit the last one [Stein] is a bit of an anachronism, but I couldn’t resist.” Why not? Only vaguely familiar with Stein’s role as an art collector and tastemaker in early twentieth century Paris, and slightly less familiar with her hermetic writing practice, I took it upon myself to read up on the historical figure in parallel with the Westworld series. Each newly released episode seemed to play off of her literary tacticsreappropriation, repetition, the continuous present. Episode four, Dissonance Theory, underlines how central her discordant style is to the series: “Stein’s own compositional idiom is not different in principle from jazz polyrhythms, or two times going at once…Stein, of course, has long been associated with cognitive dissonance in literary circles…” If all of this was not enough to convince me that Stein is more than a fleeting reference, her professional and social rosters sealed my certainty.

 

Growing up in California, Stein was influenced by the Feminist thinker, Charlotte Perkins Gilman; at Radcliffe, she studied under William James. Stein received scathing reviews after she contributed artworks from her collection and accompanying criticism to the controversial 1913 Armory show in New York, but Teddy Roosevelt publicly defended the exhibition: “The exhibitors are quite right as to the need of showing to our people in this manner the art forces which of late have been at work in Europe, forces which cannot be ignored.” The editor, Ford Madox Ford, facilitated the serialization of Stein’s The Making of Americans for his publication, The Transatlantic Review: “Miss Stein’s work will better bear division than the story of Mr. Coppard and, fortunately, Miss Stein kindly allows us to divide her up, which is more than many authors will.” Four frequent attendees of her Parisian salon were Elsie de Wolfe, Thérèse Bonney, D.H. Lawrence, and Arnold Rönnebeck, a modernist sculptor, best known for his abstract figure, Grief. Finally, one of Stein’s dearest friends, Bernard Faÿ, was a Vichy official who offered her immunity during WWII so that she could live safely in France despite being Jewish and openly homosexual. Her mentors, publishers, interviewers and friends are the namesakes of other Westworld characters as well, with the exception of Dolores, Maeve, Clementine, and Armistice. I could not locate these four in Stein’s inner circle.

 

Why do the female cyborgs defy the pattern? To get a clearer picture of these four mysterious characters I began an obsessive process of de-interlacing their narratives. I captured and recut each character’s story arc so that I could watch each uninterrupted. But their names were still denied clear parentage, neither anchored in Stein’s biography nor explained within the science fiction series, just floating in a contextual void, as if arbitrary. All I had were their names, so I used them as starting points, queries to unearth their historical and cultural backstories.
The first installment focuses on Dolores. Of the ten hours that make up the first season, three are devoted to Dolores, more than any other character. In order to identify behavioral patterns and thematic trends, I sped up the aggregated footage, condensing it to ten minutes in length. Superimposed on this timelapse are my findings, two times going at once. The result is a polyrhythmic pseudo-cyborg perspective, evolved from the gunslinger’s reductive computer vision used in the original 1973 feature film. The resulting juxtapositions produce more explosive significance than I could possibly articulate in words.

Noa P. Kaplan is a visual artist based in Los Angeles, California. She received her BA from Yale University and her MFA from the Design Media Arts Department at UCLA. She is currently working towards a PhD in Media Arts + Practice at USC.  Kaplan’s artwork examines the impact of technology on production processes, material structure, and scale. She also has a deep interest in collaborative curation and fabrication. She has worked on visual and scholarly projects with several museums including Yale University Art Gallery,  MassMOCA, Getty Center, and the Hammer Museum.

Downtown Browns: Interactive Web Series, Intersectionality and Intimacy

Over the next few weeks, I am going to share several projects produced recently by my amazing USC students! Today, I am showcasing the work of Emilia Yang, who is a PhD candidate in the Media Arts = + Practice program in the USC Cinema School. Students in this program have to demonstrate cutting edge skills as media producers but also the capacity to think and write theoretically. My role in this program is to teach a course which combines media theory and history and is organized around issues of medium specificity. Yang chose to write her final paper exploring some of the issues raised by one of her own recent media projects, and I felt the paper was a great illustration of what is emerging from this innovative program. I was also interested, given last week’s conference at MIT revisiting the original From Barbie to Mortal Kombat event, that she was engaging so productively with Marsha Kinder’s Runaways and Brenda Laurel’s Purple Moon games, both of which featured heavily at that event.

 

 

Downtown Browns: Interactive Web Series, Intersectionality and Intimacy

By Emilia Yang

The context of this work is the United States of America. 2016, the year in which Donald Trump ran for the presidency of the United States under a white supremacist, nationalist, racist, xenophobic and misogynistic campaign, and won. White supremacy and patriarchy have always been around, displaying racism and gender specific violence in all aspects of the US society, but the main focus of this essay is media. We are aware that these attitudes have characterized Hollywood ideologies since DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915). Various scholars have described, named and deconstructed the portrayal of women in film and various form of stereotyping of minorities in films¹. Recently, this imminent ideology has been made visible  and contested in Internet popular culture under the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, calling attention to the lack of representation on screen and behind the camera as well as the quality of the stories represented². Other forms of media such as television and videogames also show a systematic over-representation of males, white and adults and a systematic under-representation of other groups (Williams et all 2009).

Even though there have been valuable efforts to diversify Hollywood and other forms of media, as an academic, media creator, advocate for social justice,  anti-discrimination and diversity (for lack of a better word), and latinx woman with an intersectional identity, I have tried to author media and media criticism about the things I want the most and experience the least, a type of media and analysis that centers marginalized minority groups and their experiences, questions dominant narratives through alternative voices, and sees the World with a historicized memory, informed by inequalities of power and knowledge.

For these reasons I allied with a team of radical women of color from various backgrounds and creative practices (game design, gaming, tactical media, documentary, social criticism) based in Los Angeles to produce an interactive series called Downtown Browns, winner of the “Diversity Challenge” organized by Tribeca Film Festival, Interlude and Games for Change. The three episodes series highlight the decisions faced by women of color in Los Angeles. Our themes were directly drawn from issues discussed during the presidential campaign. They are an homage to the families separated by deportations, to those vilified by islamophobia and to those who hit glass ceilings because of the color of the skin, highlighting their achievements (see section where we review some events that motivated each episode theme).  Each episode follows a different storyline, showcasing a bright woman of color making their way through a unique situation as presented in the log line:

“Interactive decisions, mini-games, and perspective shifts are utilized to build an intimate understanding of the complex dynamics at play in city life”.

We took care of casting and writing diverse characters, and perhaps more importantly, we also made an active decision to try and build an all-women-of-color-crew, knowing that our collective sensibilities and experiences would strengthen the diversity of perspectives represented in the series.

Fig.1

The main goal of the series was to produce a thoughtful interactive film experience that promotes intimacy and understanding with women of color. In this article I am interested in using the series as a way to discuss the potential of interactivity as a medium to accomplish this goal, and our thought process while crafting fictional representations of women of color. In order to accomplish that, I have set out in this paper to consider how to elaborate a critical analysis of interactive films that will simultaneously pay attention to what is represented in them, how they operate, and what they are intended to do. To develop this approach, I follow Gonzalo Frasca’s approach in Videogames of the Oppressed in which he states that simulation authors (game and toy designers) – and as I argue in this case interactive film makers – are ideologically responsible for the creation of three levels of evaluation. The ludus creator not only has to design the rules that make the simulation work (paidea rules), but also defines what is the ultimate goal of the game (ludus rules)³.

The first level is representational and Ludus incorporates two extra ideological levels. Level 1 – It is related to scripted actions, descriptions and settings and is shared with traditional storytellers.

Level 2 – It has to do with the rules of paidea, the rules that model the simulated system.

Level 3 – The third level is the ludus rule. It states what is the goal of the ludus and defines a winning, and therefore a desirable, condition (Frasca 2004:47).

Fig. 2

Frasca uses these categories as a framework to analyze The Sims. In order to elaborate a critical analysis of Downtown Browns, framed as an interactive film series that shares characteristics with videogames, I will divide my analysis in these three levels, considering what the project represents, simulates and is intended to do. The first section discusses the motivations and implications of the use of the identity marker of ‘Brown’ as an overarching identity of women of color. I ask: What does it mean to use interactive media to explore the lives of women of color? How do you represent this complex association in a responsible way?

The second section discusses the simulations enabled by the medium. Here, I will attend to classic debates in game studies between agency and structure, focusing on how limiting the agency in the player achieves a double function in our case: to do a spatial exploration of the characters’ environment and to build an argument about structural issues. The third section discusses the desired condition (our goal), framed as the fostering of intimacy to construct an alliance with women of color.  I articulate an argument on the role of ‘intimacy’, instead of the commonly deployed ‘empathy’ in media for social change, as a form of relationality that could foster consciousness raising with equal footing in the midst of antagonistic relations among races, classes, and genders. I sketch here a theory of intimacy as a form of proximity that requires identification, acknowledgment and allyship. Framed as a political gesture, I draw from political theorists to talk about this move. In a revised version of this essay, a fully historicized account of the emergence of the discourses of empathy around interactive media and intimacy in sociopolitical contexts discussed in the paper would be necessary. The purpose here is merely to outline what are potential fields of inquiry, and the potential benefits of thinking across them. Before I proceed, I will state the relationship between interactive film and videogames, as a justification for using video games theorizations to approach interactive film analysis.

Interactive film and games

Interactive media encompasses various forms of information display and storytelling, and usually refers to artifacts on digital systems that respond to users actions by presenting linked content such as text, moving image, animation, video, and audio. Interactive media has been theorized as a family of evolving forms of narrative media with previous mediums such as literature (Aarseth 1997) and theatre (Laurel 2014). Meadows defines interactive narrative as a time-based representation of character and action in which a reader can affect, choose or change the plot (Meadows 2002). Commonly known forms of interactive media are interactive narratives, websites, films, documentaries, video games, and virtual reality experiences.

Janet Murray in Hamlet on the Holodeck (1997) describes the computer as a medium that allows the expansion of storytelling towards new expressive possibilities. Her analysis covers video games along with other digital artifacts such as hypertext, web series and interactive chat characters. Even though many game critics are against the notion of lumping interactive films and games together (Adams 1995) since the hard rails of the plotting can overly constrain the ‘freedom, power, and self-expression’ associated with interactivity (Adams 1999 cited in Jenkins 2004) (Jenkins 2004), others state that the insistence on both similarities and differences between games and movies is growing shriller, in both popular press and cultural theory, as the convergence between these two forms increasingly appears inevitable (Kinder 2002:119).

The idea of interacting with media content, could be traced to the 1966’s Francois Truffo’s film version of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, in which Linda interacts with the Family Theater, a TV program. We see her invited to participate with the prompt “Would you come play with us?”. Her answers to the questions the characters on the screen pose to her become part of their conversation. Even though this interaction is staged, it proves how the idea of interacting with the content we watch was already taking place at the time.

https://youtu.be/T0bVqgBSZHk?t=837

Fahrenheit 451 (1966)

The increase in the availability and use of video online in recent years has made it easier for creators to develop interactive films. An example of this is Eko, the platform in which Downtown Browns was developed. The company website describes their labor as “pioneering a new medium where viewers shape the story as it unfolds. The result is streaming digital interactive video that allows our viewers to affect, control, and influence narrative live-action entertainment.” As the description of Eko’s platform evokes, interactive film, in a choose-your-own-adventure film style, claim to give the audience an active role in the construction of the plot. I will further discuss this notion, and our use of agency, in the section on simulation. In the following section, I discuss why and how we are centering women of color in the series.

Level 1: Representing an intersectional approach of Brown articulation

Downtown Browns is part of a recent movement of media made by women of color of intersectional identities that have emerged in United States’ popular culture as diverse creators have had more access to tools and audiences. As Viola Davis stated, “the only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity” (Viola Davis, 2015). An inspiration to Downtown Browns and a common reference is The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl and Insecure, comedy web series created by and starring Issa Rae as J. Another similar series is Brown Girls, a web-series centered on the friendship between two women of color. In order to consider what it means to explore the lives of women of color through an interactive film, this section discusses what women of color theorists have said about the particularities of a shared subjectivity. It also considers the complexity and challenges we faced when trying to represent that subjectivity, highlighting bell hooks’ problematization of racial representations, a concern of being dressed up and dumbed down for mainstream consumption.

The articulation of a women of color subjectivity traces back the response to essentialism in white feminism, articulated by various of feminists of color delineated by Chela Sandoval, in her landmark essay “Third World Feminism in the US” (1991). Even though I believe most our team would call ourselves postcolonial feminists, in our current context we identify as women of color because the “peculiar brand of U.S. racism” (Alexander and Mohanty 1997) that characterizes our experience in this country. Sandoval sees women of color as embodying a type of ‘differential consciousness’ that engages other oppositional ideologies selectively and weaves “between and among them” in a tactical way (Sandoval 1991). Anzaldua identified this coalition as one of women who do not have the same culture, language, race or ideology, but are capable of having a collective struggle. She argued that the recognition, visibilization and mobilization of this tactical subjectivity, through writing and media creation, is a form of political work that inverts cultural norms.

Acting in similar fashion of both weaving, presenting and mediating the women of color subjectivity, the series presents itself as a collection of multiple intersectional consciousness: women, queer, Latinx, Middle Eastern and Black. This process is represented in the multi-diverse composition of our crew and through the development of our characters, Miranda, Fati and Yetunde as you get to know each character, their motivations in life, and their relationship with others and their cultural differences. Miranda, the  protagonist of the first episode, is a smart Chicana who is accomplished in school. While exploring Miranda’s world you see many traces of latinx, and specifically Mexican-American (Xicana) culture. She talks about her economic struggle, her side job, her “quinces dreams and the role of her family.

Fig. 3

Fati is the protagonist of the second episode and she is a Middle Eastern Muslim nurse student who wears a headscarf, speaks Farsi, and loves music.  Both of them speak in other languages sporadically, which we decided to use to place the viewer in a discomforting position.

Fig. 4

Yetunde, our third protagonist,  is a pop culture enthusiast, certified nerd, and young black queer woman who advocates for a social media safe space for WOC. Yetunde’s project is Queen.ly an app made specifically for women of color that both Miranda and Fati use in Episode 1 and 2.

Fig. 5

This intersectionality allowed us to represent multiple levels of oppressions: state, cultural, professional and social (discriminatory encounters interactions between white and brown characters, and brown and brown characters across both genders). For example, Fati in episode two encounters a recent feminist (Trish) who is discerning how to help her because she considers she is “oppressed” by wearing her headscarf. We hear Trish comment: “I would love to talk to her about feminism, but where?” (See Fig. 6) Hearing Trish assume Fati is not a feminist, and has no choice but to follow traditions that are against her interests as a woman, demonstrates how an intersectional representation of women of color is required, since not all violence comes from men, but also from white women.

Fig.6

Furthermore, the series does not negate the violence that also exists within interactions between women of color, since Fati encounters another women of color, Tay, and Tay judges her (Fig 7).  Anzaldúa has discussed solidarity within Xicana culture “To be close to other chicana is like looking on the mirror” (1987), as well as Audre Lorde in Sister Outsider in which she expresses that “the harshness and cruelty that may be present in black female interaction so that we can regard one another differently, an expression of that regard would be recognition, without hatred or envy” (1984).

Fig. 7

In episode three, we also show how complicated relationships can be among people of color of different genders. When Yetunde talks to Darren, the other black person in the office, he thinks Yetunde “blames everything on being black,” which we characterize as “Mansplaining” 4 (See Fig. 8).

Fig. 8

The representations of the three characters shows the nuances and the experiences that divide them from each other according to their own culture and gender specific intersectional identities; examining the incidents of intolerance, prejudice and denial of differences. We also expand and recognize their shared experience as social and systemic, trying to reframe experiences that are often perceived as isolated and individual. By doing this type of media, we are trying to bridge between the spaces we inhabit, while centering women of color, similar to the move made by this bridge we call home radical vision of transformation, in which Anzaldúa and Keating (2002) envision new forms of communities and practices inviting both women of color and white people to discuss their collective visions.

Remarkedly, we highlight  bell hooks’ questioning the move to represent difference in mass culture. She states that if the desire for contact with the other -which she sees as rooted in the longing for pleasure from white culture- can act as a critical intervention that challenges and subverts racist domination is still an unrealised political possibility:

I talked to folks from various locations about whether they thought the focus on race, otherness, and difference in mass culture was challenging racism. There was an overall agreement that the message that acknowledgement and exploration of racial difference can be pleasurable represents a breakthrough, a challenge to white supremacy, to various systems of domination. The overriding fear is that cultural, ethnic, and racial differences will be continually commodified and offered up as new dishes to enhance the white palate- that the other will be eaten, consumed, and forgotten (1992).

hooks states that we cannot take these representations uncritically and I agree with her. We further attempt to address this by limiting the degree of agency we enable the users to have, which I will discuss in the next section.

Level 2: Simulating agency and structure

“A long time ago there were no toys and everyone was bored. Then they had TV, but they were bored again. They wanted control. So they invented video games”

(Kinder 2000).

It is a common misstatement that videogames are about user control. Janet Murray, talks about the agency granted by interactive media as the capacity of the medium to allow the user to perform actions that affect the represented characters, “the satisfying power to take meaningful action and see the results of our decisions and choices” (1997:24). For her, one of the main pleasures of digital artifacts is discovering the possibilities of the system through manipulation. Similarly,  Laurel has stated that computers’ “interesting potential lay not in its ability to perform calculations but in its capacity to represent action in which the humans could participate” (Laurel 1993).  Frasca (2004:38) cites Aarseth (1997) explaining that the manipulation of the system is not trivial since it requires that the player get engaged into a process of decision-making that will affect her experience of the system. For Frasca the process of manipulation is what renders possible the interpretation of the multiple facets of a simulation. The participative gamey aspect of the series, the rules of paideia allows for the user to simulate of agency via emotional choices,  explore intersubjectivity through perspective switches, and the exploration of the main characters’ environments as spatialized storytelling. As I will develop in this section, it is only to demonstrate how little choice WOC have in most situations.

Simulating agency

A common reference for our series, with similar interactive decisions, were Brenda Laurel’s Purple Moon games, built based on gender difference and self-construction. These charming experiences were part of the Games for Girls Movement that started more than 20 years ago and brought to the game studies discussions by Jenkins in From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: gender and computer games (2000). Tonia, our uniting force and co-creator, mentioned them in an interview as an inspiration and her first “girl game”. Purple Moon games portrayed a suburban white junior high girl’s experience that allowed players to choose the emotional states that Rockett, the main character would make in order to relate with others, framed as a friendship adventure (See Fig 9).

Fig.9

Similar to Purple Moon, episodes one and three of our series invite people who might not be familiar with the realities of women of color to participate in helping the character decide the emotional reactions they will have in the face of adversity as well as more mundane situations as they move through the day. In this sense, the series is pedagogical in that it was designed to be inviting for non women of color to approach our perspective and experiences. However, we are sensitive to how women of color are often expected to act as bridges and translators, bearing the responsibility of educating white America about systemic racism, misogyny and other forms of oppression. The series gives protagonists the choice to refuse bearing this burden at all times. As Donna Kate Rushin’s Bridge poem eloquently states “I’m sick of seeing and touching. Both sides of things. Sick of being the damn bridge for everybody” (1981). In episode three, Yetunde must decide at times whether to let things slide or to correct or confront people and their micro-agressions. At times, refusing to explain why something might be racist is the only way she can sustain her energy and focus on her goals.

Intersubjective experiences

Marsha Kinder’s Runaways project is another relevant example, since it gave users the ability to select the identity of its avatar, which determined how other characters respond to it based on ethnic difference. The developers of this experience saw it as an opportunity to deal with the social consequences of these choices and the issue of stereotypes and gender play. The game placed you in the uncomfortable role of being treated as a stereotype and having other characters make all sorts of false assumptions about you (Kinder 2000) (See Fig. 10).

Fig. 10

Downtown Browns does not allow user to customize their avatar, since for us an accurate representation of women of color is eminently needed, as represented in level one of this analysis, but we make use of switch of parallel perspectives in episode two (See Fig. 11) in order for people to understand how stereotyping weighs into discrimination in daily life. In this episode the user gets to hear what others are thinking of Fati, while they can also hear what Fati is thinking about them. There is almost no dialogue in Episode 2, but the internal dialogues show how some of the bystanders exotify, some sympathize, and others fear Fati, while she is missing her family or documenting her experience. Users choose which perspective prevails by curating their own personal experience of the film.

Fig. 11

Spatialized storytelling

The series is also meant to be pleasurable experience for people of color who play them. Some of the interactive decisions allow POC to identify aspects of life as a women of color by exploring their space with things we find interesting, cool, necessary and aspirational (See Fig. 12). The interactive decisions in which the user gets to explore content in a spatialized way are a form of “environmental storytelling”, as described by Jenkins, “game designers don’t simply tell stories; they design worlds and sculpt spaces… and they fit within a much older tradition of spatial stories, which have often taken the form of hero’s odysseys, quest myths, or travel narratives” (2004). In this case the sheroes are women of color and you explore their closest intimate environments and you are able to identify specific things of their culture. Ian Bogost refers to this as “emotional vignettes” that characterize an experience and is often used to inspire empathy rather than advancing the narrative (2011). Later in the essay I will take issue with empathy.

Fig. 12

Adding to the interactive decisions, the narrative branching structure offers multiple endings in each episode, but Downtown Browns refuses to offer happy endings in which characters singlehandedly make their own destinies. Instead, we are confronted with how, despite character’s reactions and decisions, the things that happen to them are mostly beyond their control as they respond to broader systemic problems in our society. This tackles issues like blaming WOC for their impossibility of advancing, “she is not working hard enough” or “why didn’t she just do this?” and focuses on understanding both their underlying motivations of WOC, the constant quickness needed to react in the different systems of discrimination that take place and whose role is it to call out racism.

Sherry Turkle, as cited by Frasca (2004), identifies three attitudes towards simulations: “simulation denial” which is a rejection of simulations because they offer a simplified view of the source system and “simulation resignation”, that accepts them because the system does not allow to modify them. However, Turkle imagines another possible kind of relationship, “it would take as its goal the development of simulations that actually help players challenge the model’s built-in assumptions. This new criticism would try to use simulation as a means of consciousness-raising. (Turkle 1995). Even though one is left with a feeling of impotence, by acknowledging that the system is unfair to each one of the characters we use simulation as a means of consciousness-raising. We tried to show the system whose core assumptions are not visible if you do not experience them as a WOC. Turkle states that understanding the assumptions that underlie simulation is a key element of political power.  When simulations are sufficiently transparent, they open a space for questioning their assumptions.

Level 3: Desiring intimacy against empathy

“Flush yrself down the toilet if you think you’ve ‘learned empathy for trans women’ by playing dys4ia.”

Ann Anthropy on Twitter

Since our goal was to promote intimacy and understanding with women of color as a means of conscious rising (ludus rule), through accurate and positive representations as well as simulation by showing the system of oppression, I will make an argument for the reasoning behind our use of intimacy instead of empathy. First, I will define empathy and trace some of its philosophical underpinnings, then I will present how it has been used in games and how intersectional creators have challenged this notion. Finally, I will discuss how intimacy, as a process of feeling-with rather than feeling-for, serves as the purpose of conscious raising and bridging of cultures that we entail to do in the series.

Commonly understood, empathy “refers to the process of experiencing the world as others do, or at least as you think they do. To empathize with someone is to put yourself in her shoes, to feel her pain” (Bloom 2014).  Empathy as part of identification traces back to Adam’s Smith and David Hume’s (1896) use of sympathy as a necessary mode of identification between people, predicated upon our ‘natural’ ability to read the signs of the other’s affect, in which they base many of their ideas of liberal governance. Others have elaborated in it’s role in the construction of various forms of power-relations, as a “technology of race and gender,” and its role in new evangelical social movements such as abolitionism and missionizing (Rai 2002). Some researchers see it as a physiological endeavour, ‘seeing like others’, others see it as an emotional one, ‘feeling like others’, and others see it as cognitive process, that entails ‘thinking like others’. Michael Bloom states that most of the discussion of the moral implications of empathy focuses on its emotional side. He also states that empathy it is not the only force that motivates kindness, and people naturally have less or more empathetic abilities, and that does not conflict with their sense of justice. He makes an argument for rational thinking instead of empathy since for him empathy is narrowed, biased and individual.

In the gaming world, the term “empathy game” refers to a speedily expanding genre of games “designed to inspire empathy in players” (D’Anastasio 2015), which in turn are part of a broader genre identified as “serious games” or “games for change”. News outlets and game conferences have covered their arrival on the market with enthusiasm and optimism (D’Anastasio 2015). This new category of games ranges different forms of interactive experiences, and supposedly are intended to make allies out of gamers, since they mostly focus on developers’ personal experiences, placing the player through the developers’ more difficult life milestones. D’Anastasio cites as examples of this are dys4ia an 8-bit flash game that Ann Anthropy made to evoke her experience with hormone therapy, and other such as Depression Quest. Anthropy, as stated in her tweet and blog posts, is now challenging the idea that a digital game can confer an understanding of her lived experience, marginalization, and personal struggle. She states that being an ally takes long work. Other game developers, such as Colleen Macklin, have discussed the perils of trying to convey empathy through games; because some games have shown through their mechanic that agency is all is needed for people to change their circumstances (Parkin 2016). Ian Bogost in How to do things with videogames devotes a chapter to empathy stating “one of the unique properties of videogames is their ability to put us in someone else’s shoes” (2011).

Bringing back hooks’ fear of “eating the other;” Downtown Browns seeks to promote another way of relating with us women of color, which requires the work of both groups’ people of color and white people, not just emotional tourism or empathetic arousal, nor calling again for centering the white dominant. Samia Nehrez (1991) as cited by hooks (1992) talks about how decolonization can only be complete when it is understood as a complex process that involves both the colonizer and the colonized. This reframing requires another type of labor, one that is not constituted in further displacement, and one that does not remove the body and consciousness of women of color of the frame, but bridges between our experience and others’ while acknowledging this bridging needs both sides.  

Creating Downtown Browns allowed us to think, what would be a good form of encounter?  We required to frame it as another form of identification and recognition that entails a more equal grounds. Empathy gives priority to the viewer, assuming that the other is in disadvantage. Even though in the series we share vulnerable situations and emotions, we do it with the acknowledgement that is under our own terms. Multiple times we have heard after people play the series, that they want to know what happens to the characters. Lauren Berlant states that intimacy “involves an aspiration for a narrative about something shared, a story about both oneself and others that will turn out in a particular way” (1998).  In an intimate environment I am acknowledging you and allowing you to know me, but you have to do an active decision to value me, not talking for me, not try to think you have solutions for me. Only in those instances we can negotiate a shared space and shared life. Even though we are aware this might not always be the case.

As outlined in the introduction, I focused this essay on the potentials of interactive film as a critical medium and to craft an analysis that simultaneously pays attention to what is represented, simulated and hopefully accomplished. I trace historical references of brown articulation from radical women of color in the United States that inspired us, as well as historical uses of computer simulation for demonstrating experiences of others crafted by female creators as highlighted by De Laurel’s and Kinder’s work. Going back to the graphic I presented earlier of Frasca’s model, I map the relationship the series represent between form and content, simulation and experience, as well as the implicit theories about ideology, representation, identification, and interactivity that shaped the choices we made as creators.

Fig. 13

Reading the graph the other way around from right to left, intimacy is fostered via the simulation of decisions women of color make, that allows others into our space and shows them how the system operates in relationship to our specific race, gender and sexualities, by conceiving a thoughtful representation of women of color’s multiple subjectivities. By opening these experiences and showing these spaces to other groups of people we hope we foster and intimate understanding, a shared story, an initial conversation about the negative and positive things we experience in U.S society. I leave the arrows as a continuum, since I must include the conversations and discourse (such as this) the series have allow us to have as part of its’ work. As Jeff Watson, theorist, maker and friend told me one day, “games and media are just a pretext for context”.

As I stated above, intersectional creators cannot promise and should not be interested in people inhabiting their subjectivities, nor should they try for dominant groups just to empathize, and neither should they take the burden all by themselves. Instead we should try to engage meaningfully with each other’s lives, invite other people of color and white people to walk with us, to be next to us, to be real allies. It is by listening, by working together to change the type of socializations imposed by media, by building solidarity and respecting difference that we will accomplish any progress or social change. I extend special thanks to Henry Jenkins’ thoughtful and constructive comments and to my Downtown Browns squad that with multiple conversations around these topics have challenged my thinking and approach to socio-political and cultural issues.  

About the author

Emilia Yang is an activist, artist, and militant researcher. Her work has been interconnected with digital communications, performance, and public art. Her research focuses on participatory culture and its relationship to media, arts, and design. Yang is currently pursuing a PhD in Media Arts + Practice at the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. She is interested in how transmedia storytelling and postcolonial new media practices can foster social change and civic engagement. Her art practice utilizes site-specific interactive installations, documentaries, fictions, games, performances, and urban interventions to engage participants in political action and discussion. She is a HASTAC 2015-2016 Scholar and member of Civic Paths at USC.

Footnotes

  1. (Mulvey, 1989; Hall 1997; hooks 1992, 1996, Kareithi, 2001; Wilson and Gutierrez 1985, Roman, 2000; Chavez, 2013, West, 1990 – the list is extensive).
  2. A 2016 University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) study found minorities remain underrepresented in Hollywood on every front (nearly 3 to 1 among film leads and directors) and that audiences are seeking diverse film and television content. McNary, Dave “Hollywood’s Diversity Problem Potentially Costs Industry Billions (Study)”.
  3. As cited by Frasca (2004:6), Caillois (1967) uses the term ludus, the Latin word for game, to describe games which rules are more complex. Paidea and ludus could be associated with the English terms “play” and “game”, respectively.
  4. Mansplaining is a portmanteau of the words man and explaining, defined as “to explain something to someone, typically a man to woman, in a manner regarded as condescending or patronizing”.

References

Aarseth, Espen J. 1997. Cybertext: perspectives on ergodic literature. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Adams, Ernest. 1999. “Three Problems For Interactive Storytellers.” Gamasutra, December 29, 1999.

——————-1995. “The Challenge of the Interactive Movie.” Lecture at Computer Game Developers’ Conference. Designer Notebook Website. Retrieved December 12, 2016. http://www.designersnotebook.com/Lectures/Challenge/challenge.htm

Alarcon, Norma. 1981. ed. The Third Women. Bloomington: Third Women Press.

Alexander, M. Jacqui, and Chandra Talpade Mohanty. 2013. Feminist genealogies, colonial legacies, democratic futures. London: Routledge.

Rai, Amit. 2002. Rule of sympathy: Sentiment, race, and power, 1750-1850. New York: Palgrave.

Anzaldúa, Gloria. 1987. Borderlands: la frontera. California: Aunt Luke Book Company.

Anzaldúa, Gloria and Ana Louise Keating. 2002. eds. this bridge we call home: radical visions for transformation. New York: Routledge.

Berlant, Lauren. 1998. “Intimacy: A special issue.” Critical Inquiry 24.2: 281-288. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bloom. 2014. Against Empathy. Boston Review. Retrieved December 12, 2016. http://bostonreview.net/forum/paul-bloom-against-empathy

Bogost, Ian. 2011. How to do things with videogames. Minnesota: U of Minnesota Press.

—————2007. Persuasive games: The expressive power of videogames. Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Burke, Yoshiko. 2004. “From the Silver Screen to Cybercinema: Conceptions of Space in Interactive Narrative Design.” Proceedings from FutureHistory: AIGA Design Education Conference. Retrieved from http://futurehistory.aiga.org/

Caillois, Roger. 1967. Les jeux et les hommes. Le masque et le vertige. Gallimard, Cher.

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Whose Global Village?: An Interview with Ramesh Srinivasan (Part Two)

You return to some core concepts, such as appropriation and participation, which have been foundational to contemporary cultural studies work on new media communities and practices, but which get redefined and reimagined through your collaborations with more diverse communities. Can you say something of what you see as the limits of western conceptions of these concepts? How did you modify your understandings of these processes as a result of your engagements with people in the Middle East, in India, or in Native American communities in the American west?

Work on appropriation, subversion, and participation is very important in media and cultural studies and certainly relevant to the many stories I share within the book from across the world. That said, we need not think of the technology user as inherently detached from the systems and tools that are provided to them. I make the argument in the book that we can start to re-think the very ‘codes’ of how technology is designed and developed to start with the voices, values, and knowledge practices, or ontologies, of grassroots users. Thus, the book tells stories of how grassroots digital storytelling can shape development and mobilization in Southern India (chapter 2), and how social network and cultural heritage systems can be directly designed by diverse indigenous and user communities (chapters 3-5).

As native Americans and First Nation people in Canada work to build digital archives which preserve and protect their own cultural heritage,  what new approaches are they embracing? What assumptions are they questioning? Do these different assumptions about knowledge, pedagogy, cultural authority, tradition, etc., these different ontologies and epistemologies, mean that there can not be shared archives between people with different cultural backgrounds or do we need to design archives that reflect multiple ways of knowing and help us to think about compromises that might allow diverse communities to coexist in an ever more interconnected world?

There is fantastic work underway, described both in my book and across scholarly and activist research, whereby indigenous technology users have begun to assemble their own technology networks and systems in line with the values and beliefs they hold. I describe many examples of this in the book and am currently working with the wonderful Rhizomatica project located in the Oaxaca, Mexico region where indigenous communities have begun to develop, design, and own their own cell-phone networks. These networks and systems are designed with a different type of logic, one that at times may be at tension with Western frameworks. For example, the Oaxacan case is powerful because it empowers the sharing of knowledge orally through indigenous languages that have rarely if at all been written. I also describe in chapter 4 the power of a system that is not a container of knowledge but instead a catalyst for traditional, non-digital ways of coming together to share, reflect, and learn.

There is a deep loss in our world of linguistic and cultural diversity, with nearly half of the world’s 7000 languages to vanish within the next century. I am interested in how we think of connectivity while acknowledging and supporting the very different ontologies that are fundamental to diversity. There are powerful times when we need to come together around global issues such as climate change or human rights. But we cannot govern, collect, or connect diversity through systems that are written according the voices of the few.

You note that researchers and designers partnering with groups outside their own cultural background can justly expect to encounter deep distrust about their motives and how they may be profiting from such cross-cultural encounters. You offer some brutally honest accounts here of how you confronted and worked through some of this distrust. As you moved into the field, what are some of the ways that you found your own preconceptions tested, questioned, challenged by the communities you worked with?What advice might you have for other designers who want to do work across cultures and in particular with groups around the world whose cultural contributions have often been marginalized or dismissed by other westerners?

Perhaps the most powerful lesson I have learned over the course of the partnerships and projects this book describes is the importance of thinking about design as a process of listening, learning, and giving up power. I describe the importance of collaborating with a spirit of losing one’s ego as a ‘master designer and instead seeing our efforts in line with the ethic of praxis. Part of that has involved putting the timelines that I had around research deadlines to the side and instead following an intuitive path that trusted those with whom I worked to teach me how to best develop our initiative together. It is so important for me also to only work with communities where I am directly invited for collaboration and also to have the academic and public outputs of our project to be shared in authorship, if of interest to my partners. It also recognizes that what we create together will hopefully long outlive the limited time-scale of a funded research ‘project’, and that understanding the meaning of our collaborations may only come over time.

The book underscores the power of starting collaboration by acknowledging our differences rather than flattening them via shallow participation into existing systems. In the respect of difference can come an opportunity for a shared space to emerge, one where what is created is greater than the sum of its parts. Instead of simply accepting Internet technologies that opaquely monetize our data, we can remember that online communities from Facebook to the WELL started as just that: communities. It is time to get back to that understanding now.

 

Ramesh Srinivasan studies the relationship between technology, politics and societies across the world. He has been a faculty member at UCLA since 2005 in the Information Studies and Design|Media Arts departments. He is the founder of the UC-wide Digital Cultures Lab, exploring the meaning of technology worldwide as it spreads to the far reaches of our world. He is also the author of the book “Whose Global Village? Rethinking How Technology Impacts Our World” with NYU Press.

Srinivasan earned his Ph.D. in design studies at Harvard; his master’s degree in media arts and science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and his bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering at Stanford. He has served fellowships in MIT’s Media Laboratory in Cambridge and the MIT Media Lab Asia. He has also been a teaching fellow at the Graduate School of Design and Department of Visual and Environmental Design at Harvard.

Whose Global Village?: An Interview with Ramesh Srinivasan (Part One)

Whose Global Village?: Rethinking How Technology Shapes Our World, an important new book, raises fundamental questions about the ethics and politics of digital design and implementation. Its author,  Ramesh Srinivasan, brings more than 15 years of experience in developing collaborative media design project with indigenous peoples of the American Southwest, Latin America, the Middle East, India and Eurasia, among other locations. I was lucky enough to know the author when he was a master student at the MIT Media Lab and it has been a great pleasure to watch him develop into an essential thinker about media and globalization.

In this book, he shares what is learned across these many years of practice and uses these experiences, sometimes painful, sometimes rewarding, to reflect on what goes wrong when Western technologist import culturally-specific paradigms and technologies into other people’s  worlds. In this highly reflective book, he questions much of the established wisdom about so-called global villages, insisting that local particularity needs to guide and govern such  projects. Digital archives require different interfaces depending on the degree of protectiveness that local communities feel is necessary as they guard their traditional practices and knowledge from outside interference. What could be seen as democratization or participatory culture in the West may disrupt important hierarchical distinctions that enable these cultures to survive in the face of genocide and disruption. Cross-cultural collaborations offer powerful opportunities to question established wisdom and ill considered thinking but only if the participants are modest enough to actively listen to each other and respond in an ethically thoughtful manner.

I was asked provide a blurb for the book at the time of its release. Here’s what I have to say:

Whose Global Village? invites us to question some of the sacred narratives that have grown up around digital and networked technologies in the west—first among them, the idea that digital technologies follow some universal path of development. This book is a powerful corrective to various forms of cyberutopianism, even as it reimagines core concepts—from agency and voice to participation and appropriation.”

This interview will provide some glimpse into his thinking process as he represents a soft-spoken and insistent conscience for the digital design realm.

For those of you who would like to meet him, come to the upcoming Transforming Hollywood Conference, which will be held at UCLA on May 5. For more details, see this blog post.

Your book begins with a provocative sentence, “The new technology revolution is neither global nor cross-cultural.” Here, you are challenging several decades of writers who saw new media as perhaps transcending old geographic divides, from the concept of the “global village” a la McCluhan to the more recent argument that the “world is flat.”  What did these earlier writers misunderstand about the ways that digital media and networked communications might relate to core inequalities in the distribution of wealth and power?

There is some robust research out there that shows that mere access to the tools and systems of Silicon Valley does little to combat the inequalities we face within our nation and across the world. This is because the wealthier and more powerful are better equipped to exploit these systems given their already existing resources. It is also because the building-blocks of technology, from interfaces to algorithms, often reflect the opaque perspectives of a corporation rather than the multiplicity of publics that may use their systems. Expanding naive access to technologies produced by Western corporations merely expands their user bases, adding powerful information that they can monetize. For us to start to confront the profound inequalities we face we must start by first thinking about the concerns, voices, and agendas of grassroots user communities and then consider how to design, adapt, or innovate with technology. My book is full of examples where we attempt to do exactly that.

You write, “My goal is to reimagine the concept of “global village” so that technologies can support a range of practices, visions, priorities, and belief systems of indigenous and non-Western cultures across the world.” So drill down into that “global village” metaphor — what are its limitations and why has it been such a persistent part of the ways we imagine media change?  What does it mean to move from an abstract concept of a global village back to a focus on particular villages, the people who live there, their traditional ways of life? Can we hold onto this metaphor’s emphasis on interconnectivity across dispersed peoples while still respecting local knowledge and traditions and seeing the potential conflict zones between diverse “villages” all over the planet?

It’s easy to give into the myth of digital universality, the mistaken sense that our experiences and interactions with the Internet and new technologies in the West are mirrored by people across the world. What we don’t take for granted however is first, that access to technology is hardly uniform or straightforward, and second that what whose systems, networks and platforms we use may reflect the perspectives of a far more limited number of voices than its global users. So in that sense, not only is the notion of the global village epistemologically problematic, in that is presumes that the world wishes to be a village connected via the tools of the West, but it blocks us from an alternative way of thinking about technology, as created for and by diverse peoples and communities to support their visions, belief systems, and knowledge traditions. We can do better – we can think about how platforms and systems can be authored, owned, and designed by local communities and cultures otherwise left marginalized by top-down digital-divide projects.

 

Much of this book draws on your own personal experiences doing collaborations around the development and deployment of new information technologies in a range of different local contexts. Can you share with us some of your personal journey across these projects? What has led you to this focus on indigenous communities? How do you situate yourself as a media designer and scholar in relation to these distinctive communities where you have worked?

 

I learned the hard way while in graduate school that innovation does not occur in our laboratories when we have seemingly infinite resources, but instead when people and communities face conditions of constraint. Viewing the incredibly different perspectives on how a designer in a laboratory sees a system versus a user in a rural or indigenous community forced me to reckon with the reality that there is great distance between most places and institutions of privilege where Internet technologies are developed versus the realities faced by many of its users across the world. In that process, I also became concerned with the presumptions, values, and ethics that went into the design of technology.

We know that technologies reflect the world-views of their creators. Yet when these technologies are designed with particular assumptions around how data is collected or information is retrieved, they may come into tension with the cultural values of their diverse users. This really comes to a head with indigenous communities, with which whom I have collaborated for over 15 years. Many of our assumptions around what information is made available to whom and in what manners are at tension with how these communities operate. For example we have a myth that ‘information wants to be free’ that comes out of Western liberal circles yet may be at tension with the perspectives of people whose stories I share who believe in guarding access to information to not only preserve their traditions but also spread blessings to the world.

As a scholar and designer, I am committed to a digital world that respects and supports the multiplicity of its diverse user communities rather than the opposite. With the well-founded concerns we have today around the black-boxes of technology, from echo chambers to filter bubbles, it is time for the cultures of the world to exert more power and voice over how technologies are developed and deployed.

 

Ramesh Srinivasan studies the relationship between technology, politics and societies across the world. He has been a faculty member at UCLA since 2005 in the Information Studies and Design|Media Arts departments. He is the founder of the UC-wide Digital Cultures Lab, exploring the meaning of technology worldwide as it spreads to the far reaches of our world. He is also the author of the book “Whose Global Village? Rethinking How Technology Impacts Our World” with NYU Press.

Srinivasan earned his Ph.D. in design studies at Harvard; his master’s degree in media arts and science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and his bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering at Stanford. He has served fellowships in MIT’s Media Laboratory in Cambridge and the MIT Media Lab Asia. He has also been a teaching fellow at the Graduate School of Design and Department of Visual and Environmental Design at Harvard.

Reflections on My Involvement with Game Studies

I am reaching a point in my career when people seem to want to start giving me some life time achievement awards. My usual response is to put on my best Monty Python impersonation and proclaim, “not dead yet.” But, where game studies is concerned, I have started to accept the premise that, at least for now, I’ve made the contributions to this field that I am going to make and that the legacy of what we accomplished in the early days of this field is worth preserving. So, I was much honored when I learned that the Comparative Media Studies and Women’s Studies Programs at MIT were hosting a conference, Diversifying Barbie and Mortal Kombat, which acknowledges the continued relevance of the book — and conference — I co-organized with Justine Cassells about gender and computer games. Kishonna Gray, the organizer of this event, asked if I would do an interview for the conference website reflecting back on my contributions to the establishment of games studies as a field, and we thought the resulting interview would be of interest to the regular readers of this blog, so I am cross-posting it here. It’s an unusual situation for me to be interviewed by someone else on my blog, but I hope I will be forgiven this indulgence.

 

Kishonna: Thanks Henry for agreeing to chat with me. As you know, it’s been almost 20 years since that seminal text was released, From Barbie to Mortal Kombat. But before we started researching games most of us played games. Looking back, what got you into gaming?
Henry: I was a first generation gamer, having owned one of the original Pong machines for home consumption, and having played Atari games while hanging out with my then girlfriend (now wife) during our undergraduate years. I paid very little attention to the games during my graduate school days but they reentered my life when my son asked us to buy him a super Nintendo system for Christmas. I remember turning on Super Mario Brothers for the first time and I was blown away by how dramatic the progress is been over the past decade. What had seemed like a novelty had grown into a medium while my back was turned.

 

Kishonna: I bet games now just blow your mind! They are sooo real life! LOL. Well how did you get into studying and researching games?

 

Henry: I looked around the usual academic circles to see who was paying attention to this and found very little scholarship on games, especially given how central the medium had become in people’s everyday lives, how large the industry has grown and the spectacular performances it offered for creative expression. I ended up writing a review of Marsha Kinders’ Playing with Power which was one of the few books at the time which adopted a sympathetic humanistic perspective on the place of computer games in people’s lives. My graduate mentor John Fiske was another early writer on the game arcade, though he read them through the lens of moral panic and struggles over time and resources. Finally, I was lucky enough to have regular contact with Brenda Laurel who would be one of the leaders of the girls game movement of the early and mid-1990s.  I ended up flying to San Francisco to consult with Purple Moon, especially focusing on how to build up the fan following and transmedia strategies.

 

Kishonna: Many of us see the text, “From Barbie to Mortal Kombat” that you edited with Justine Cassell as the seminal text in gaming. How did that text come about?

 

Henry: The MIT Women’s Studies program at the time was running a series of gender in cyberspace programs intended to acknowledge what was widely perceived as a gap in women’s participation in digital spaces. I consulted with the women’s studies program on this lecture series, bringing a range of speakers at MIT in the process drawing me toward a stronger focus on gender and technology issues. Justin Cassell and I met through some women’s studies functions and decided that gender and computer games would make a timely and original focus on MIT-based conference. We billed “From Barbie to Mortal Kombat” as the first women’s studies conference “with demos” but this is almost certainly not the case.

 

Responses to the conference were so enthusiastic that we immediately began discussing with the MIT Press the possibility of turning some of the conference papers into e-book anthology. But the demos presented their own kind of challenge, since seeing cutting-edge work in computer games have been the primary appeal of the original conference. We discussed the prospect of adding some kind of computer disc, which would feature demo versions of the games themselves, but we were well ahead of the technological curve for this proposal. So we dispatched our graduate students – – Shari Goldin and Jennifer Glos – – to go out and interview some of the leading designers and entrepreneurs within the girls game movement. Along the way, Goldin called our attention to the girl gamer movement, which was offering some highly pointed critiques of what girls games meant within the industry discourse, and featuring some of their writings became the last feature we added to the collection.

 

Justine Cassell and I had flown to San Jose to promote the book and ended up having dinner with Brenda Laurel the very sad night that she had learned that Mattel was acquiring and scuttling Purple Moon.

 

Kishonna: Oh ok! I don’t think I realized the conference led to the anthology. Well after the anthology, what direction did you go into? What path did your research and academic career take?

 

Henry: As a very early example of game studies, the book insured that I was on the list of scholars the press called on when they wanted perspectives on the medium. As a consequence of invitations, I found myself exploring games from range of different vantage points.

 

One strand of my early research was focused on formal aspects of games, in particular the idea that games might be read as spatial stories or narrative architecture. My interest in space based storytelling drew me into an emerging conflict between American scholars, sometimes labeled naratologists, and European-based scholars, primarily based in Scandinavia, who preferred to be defined as ludologists. This debate has been mythologized as it has helped to shape the first generation of overviews of game studies as a field, but from the start, I was perplexed by being used as the fall guy in an effort to institutionalize and fund a particular version of game studies within the European universities. We really were speaking past each other much of the time. Ironically, I would’ve argued that my interest in space within games would’ve aligned me more closely with scholars like Espen Aardseth and Jesper Juuls, if they were not so invested in pushing back against any encroachment of narrative theory and media studies into this new and emerging domain. By the time I had a public conversation with Aardseth, neither of us had any clue about what our points of disagreement were.  I saw little value in creating a new field by throwing out the baby with the bathwater, attempting to understand what lessons can be learned for the emerging field of game studies through comparison with earlier forms of expression, especially those that might seem to be in the peripheral of dominant forms of media studies. What would it mean to create a narrative/performance experience through features of space rather than through events that unfolded within time? In some ways, this work anticipates our current fascination with world building as an aesthetic and industrial practice across multiple media platforms. I remain interested in how details, often in the background of mise-en-scene, can be made meaningful in entertainment experiences, and I’ve been lucky since moving to Los Angeles to have a chance to learn more about production design and Imagineering through contacts I’ve made in the Hollywood industry.

 

Kishonna: Your work hasn’t just been rooted in classrooms and lecture halls. Talk about the impact that you’ve had on the industry and other non-academic spaces?

 

Henry: Around the same time, I was invited to participate in a workshop that the Electronic Software Association was hosting to introduce game scholars to each other and provide us with some background with current industry structures and practices. There I fostered a relationship, which would ultimately lead to us co-hosting another such conference at MIT, focusing on the creativity displayed in contemporary game design. My keynote address at that event centered on games as a new lively art and would eventually evolve into my essay that playfully considered what Gilbert Seldes would have to say about games nearly 21st century. My willingness to define games as an emerging art form drew me into conversations with leading art critics, many of whom had been slow to recognize games as an expressive medium, and from there, to consult with the museum curators who would develop the first exhibitions around games as art at places like the Barbicon and the Smithsonian.

 

An invitation to testify before the Senate commerce committee in the wake of the Columbine shootings pushed my interest in games in yet another direction. I had been frustrated by my experiences in Washington and wrote an email to my students describing the experience, which went viral overnight and was reprinted in Harpers and a range of local newspapers. My testimony itself ended up being published in several magazines aimed at educators, while my voice was remixed into a techno song critiquing the hearings as “goth control.”  It was becoming clear that moral panic around games violence could threaten the development of games as an expressive medium. I felt those of us who knew and cared about games needed to speak up. So I found myself going through the literature on games violence, trying to explain what a counter perspective grounded in cultural studies and anthropology might look like.

Some of this work led me to try to define what might make representations of violence in games more meaningful and thus more defensible in the realm of public policy. I became interested in mapping the ethical potentials of computer games: this work was more targeted to game designers than at games critics. This work led to me speaking at a range of different public policy events, including the law schools at Harvard and the University of Chicago and getting involved with a range of free-speech advocacy organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union. My efforts to explain these nuances to the general public was much more hit or miss, resulting in a public drubbing by Phil Donahue which I parlayed into a satirical piece for Salon. (You can read that piece here: http://www.salon.com/2002/08/20/jenkins_on_donahue/)

 

Kishonna: Well, you have to admit that any exposure and publicity is good, right? I mean it led to the creation of CMS?

 

Henry: My increased visibility as a game advocate coincided with the birth of the comparative media studies graduate program at MIT. William Uricchio and I bore the burden of launching an ambitious research agenda, which we could use to help fund graduate students. Games research ran across many of our core projects. I was one of the early participants in the MacArthur Foundation’s digital media and learning initiative, which brought me into contact with games based learning experts such as James Paul Gee. Games were thus part of our work on new media literacies, though I was more interested by this point in questions of play and participation rather than interactivity which tended to dominate the game studies realm.

 

Kishonna: I became very familiar with James Gee’s work while completing my PhD at Arizona State. What other kinds of ‘games for learning’ initiatives were you a part of?

 

Henry: Microsoft Research visited MIT in hopes of finding people who could make the case for designing video games to support learning. Alex Chisholm, the program’s development officer, had been a key person pushing us to do more within this space and has continued to be a pioneer in thinking about games for learning and training. We ended up putting together a successful proposal, hiring Kurt Squire who was then ABD at Indiana to become our research director, and putting together a team of graduate students who would do thought experiments exploring different genres and models for what an educational game might look like. Those conversations led us to Eric Klopfer who was doing work on augmented reality games. When Squire left MIT to be hired by UW Madison, he was replaced by Scott Osterweill, a professional game designer; he brought a much more applied focus to the project. (Kurt and I ended up writing the “Applied Game Theory” column together for Computer Games magazine for several years). Our conceptual prototypes had been so vivid that we received many requests from educators who wanted to use them right away in their classes. By the end of the first year, Microsoft research was pushing us to move into the design and implementation phase on some of our concepts. As this happened, the original Games to Teach project morphed into The Education Arcade.

 

Kishonna: Ahhhh gotcha. And in comes Philip and the creation of the Games Lab!

 

Henry: Yes, Philip Tan had been one of the graduate students on the games to teach team and he stayed on as part of the staff from the Education Arcade. Tan brought with him a rich understanding of games and all of their various forms, including having done his masters thesis on the MIT Assassins Guild. He had overseen a project to model colonial Williamsburg as a mod for Neverwinter Nights. When the Singapore government approached MIT about building a partnership, Uricchio and I were successful in getting funds to launch the MIT Singapore GAMBIT Games Lab. Each summer, students from all of Singapore’s universities and polytechnics came to MIT to work with our students to prototype innovative games and the lab served as an incubator space, launching entrepreneurial projects that fed the creative industry back in Asia. GAMBIT achieved what was for me an ideal blend of theory and practice, hosting critical conversations with game theorists and designers to critique and inform the prototypes, even as the students were working as teams under tight deadlines to explore the creative potentials of the games medium.

 

By this point, my own interest in games and game studies, however, had started to wane. I saw my role as a senior scholar as helping to pave the way for game studies as a field, laying down some broad foundation for what the study of the medium might look like and lending institutional support to get it off on solid footing. I’d spent the better part of a decade speaking at games related events and hosting games conferences both at MIT and at E3. But I was never very good as a gamer and I spent less and less time playing games. I looked around me and saw generation of younger scholars, many of them my former students, who had grown up with games and knew this medium inside and out. They could discuss countless titles in the ways that I could talk about film, television, or comics, but I never felt at home in games in that same way. Moreover, I was feeling increasingly burnt by being caught in the crossfire both between the narratology and ludology crowds and within the debates about games violence.

 

Kishonna: Many in the field feel that when you left MIT, you left game studies. Is that a fair assessment?

 

Henry: Yes. When I left MIT, I left games and game studies behind. I certainly maintain social relations with game studies faculty at USC and I’ve ended up helping a few graduate students along the way. My own focus has shifted much more onto comics as a medium at a time comic studies is emerging as a field, onto Transmedia entertainment which sometimes does include games in its remit, and on to the role of media in activist campaigns, increasingly focused on the civic imagination as a way of understanding the blurring lines between politics and entertainment.

 

Kishonna: You mentioned your relationship with the industry earlier. Talk a little more about that. What kinds of relationships were developed between MIT and the gaming industry?

 

Henry: As we were beginning to explore what game studies might look like in the MIT context, we had a unique opportunity to foster dialogue between the Academy and the games industry. Thanks to the vision of Bing Gordon, Electronic Arts, then as now a major player in the games industry, agreed to sponsor a creative leaders program, which would bring some of their most ambitious designers together periodically to explore some key aspect of games aesthetics. On my side, I was bringing core faculty and graduate students, some who had never encountered games before to share what they knew from the study of film, television, literature, and the fine arts with these game designers. Sometimes the dialogue was highly generative. I recall a particular session where dance scholar and choreographer Tommy DeFrantz was teaching a room full of slightly pudgy game designers how to move their bodies and in the process helping them to think about the physicality of character design games. Other sessions explored what the vocabulary of melodrama might contribute to developing “games that make us cry” or what games might learn from the visual storytelling of silent slapstick. Sometimes the group spoke past each other with the MIT faculty having difficulty letting go of cultural hierarchies in order to explore common ground with the game designers. Sometimes what we proposed was too far out and generated some immediate backlash from EA folks as having little or no applicability in their industry. But from this process of working through differences, I sharpened my understanding of how game designers thought and different models of the creative process within the industry.  I know that my own writing about games gained much greater specificity as a result of these exchanges.

Another key development in those days was a series of workshops we ran through MIT’s Independent Activities Period focused on translating existing media texts into games — a workshop we ran for many years with the support of the late and much missed Sande Scordos and her colleagues from Sony Imageworks. The week long intense workshop was organized around a pitch competition, with students working in teams to develop transmedia and interactive strategies which might expand the potentials of films, television shows, books, comic books, and other media texts. Local games industry people gave guest talks, our graduate students served as teaching assistants, our faculty developed ideas about narrative, character, world building, etc., and on the last day, students shared their creative visions and got feedback. Often, our students anticipated major shifts in the games industry several years before they occurred because of their ability to extrapolate key trends. Many students who participated in the workshop have gone on to play major roles in the games industry. I have adopted aspects of the workshop into my teaching at USC and I know it also informed the development of game studies classes at MIT.

 

Kishonna: You’ve accomplished a great deal. You have enabled many to accomplish even more. Reflect a bit on all that. You and others created this field for us! But in your own words, talk about what you feel are your direct contributions to media studies?

 

Henry: I am very proud of what I accomplished in the early days of game studies. My work helps to map a number of important debates within the field, including the relationship of space and narrative, gender and computer games, the aesthetic status of games, games ethics, the impact of media violence, and games based learning.

 

Kishonna: What do you think of game studies today? Do you think we’re still having the same conversations now as y’all did then?

 

Henry: As my own interests have shifted elsewhere, I have paid less and less attention to what game studies looks like today. So I don’t feel qualified to critique the current state of research. My hope is that game studies continues to foster dialogue between academics, industry insiders and fans. From the start, game designers have theorized their own practice and engaged openly with academics attempting to do the same. Maintaining such conversations ensures the groundedness and accessibility of academic research.

 

My other hope is the game studies remains committed to promoting diversity and inclusiveness, experimentation and innovation, as games continue to take shape as an emerging and evolving medium. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than the idea that the work we did on games and gender has been taken up now by several generations of younger researchers as a rallying flag for more inclusive games culture. Such research is even more important today that it was early on, especially in the face of the # Gamergate thugs and bullies. And it seems all the more important to me today that such research should extend to factor in other kinds of identity, including issues of racial and ethnic diversity, queer and transgender perspectives, and the like.

 

Kishonna: We now have entire programs dedicated to studying video games. Is that crazy to you? Did you anticipate we’d be here? And are we doing enough?
Henry: Courses in game studies and design have taken root on many college campuses, including at MIT and USC, so it is hard for me to escape awareness of the institutionalization of this field and the growth of students taking such courses in hopes of breaking into a global games industry. Our focus should never be simply preparing people to work in the industry and complying with established norms and expectations about what games are and what they can do. As academics, we should always be pushing forward, advocating for groups who were left out of the existing market, insisting on experimentation with genres and affordances that have not yet found their killer app. We need to keep pushing the limits of industry thinking on all fronts and prepare students who will be forces of change whether as game designers, consumers, or critics.

 

Kishonna: Looking back, what has been some of your highlights? Any regrets? Do overs?

 

Henry: I am happy that some of my early essays remain part of the canon in the field. I was fascinated to get to know so many of the creative artists who shaped games as a medium – – from Will Wright to Brenda Laurel, from Peter Molyneux to American McGee. I was fascinated to watch some of these artists play through levels of their games and describe to me the creative decisions which shape them. If I have a regret, it is that we did not do a better job of documenting such processes. Imagine if we had records of DW Griffith and Edward S Porter discussing the decisions that shape the early films. At the time we had an acute sense that we were watching a key moment in media history emerge around us. We wrote as fast as we could as we tried to document the core debates and discuss pivotal titles as they emerged. Heaven only knows what anyone will make of our scribblings several decades from now.

 

Kishonna: I tell you, those scribblings got me to MIT! So many of us are doing plenty with them, Dr. Jenkins. Trust me.

 

For more information on the “20 years later celebration”, visit www.equityingaming.com/dbmk.

 

Bibliography: My Selected Writings on Computer and Video Games

 

This list does not include columns for Technology Review and Computer Games magazine.

 

“Foreword: Play, Play, Play,” in Pilar Lacasa, Learning in Real and Virtual Worlds: Commercial Video Games as Educational Tools (New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2013).

“Considering the Situation,” in Karen Schrier and David Gibson (eds.) Ethics and Game Design: Teaching Values Through Play (New York: Information Science Reference, 2010).

With Matthew Weise, “Short Controlled Bursts’: Affect and Aliens,” Cinema Journal 48(3), Spring 2009.

With Brett Camper, Alex Chisholm, Neal Grigsby, Eric Klopfer, Scot Osterweill, Judy Perry, Philip Tan, Matthew Weise, and Teo Chor Guan, “From Serious Games to Serious Gaming,” in Ute Ritterfeld, Michael Cody and Peter Vorderer (eds.) Serious Games: Mechanisms and Effects (New York: Routledge, 2009).

With Clara Fernandez-Vara, Neal Grigsby, Eitan Glinert, Philip Tan, “Between Theory and Practice: The GAMBIT Experience,” Bernard Perron and Mark Wolf(eds.), The Video Game Reader 2 ( New York: Routledge, 2008).

 

With Justine Cassell, “From Quake Grrls to Desperate Housewives: A Decade of Gender and Computer Games,” in Yasmin B. Kafai, Carrie Heeter, Jill Denner, and Jennifer Y. Sun (eds.) Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008). 

With Kurt Squire. “’Applied Game Theory’: Innovation, Diversity, Experimentation in Contemporary Game Design,” in Andreas Jahn-Sudmann and Ralf Stockman (eds.) Computer Games as a Subcultural Phenomenon:Games Without Frontiers, War Without Tears (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008).

“Games, the New Lively Art,” in Jeffrey Goldstein (ed.) Handbook for Video Game Studies (Cambridge: MIT Press).

“The War Between Effects and Meanings,” in David Buckingham and Rebkah Willet (eds.), Digital Generations: Children, Young People, and New Media (London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2006)

‘The MIT Games Literacy Workshop,” Telemedium: The Journal of Media Literacy, Spring 2005.

In Conversation with Will Wright, “Buy These Problems Because They’re Fun to Solve,” Telemedium: The Journal of Media Literacy, Spring 2005.

“Game Design as Narrative Architecture,” in Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan (eds.) First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, Game (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004).

With Kurt Squire and Walter Holland, “Theory by Design,” in Bernard Perron and Mark Wolf (Eds.), Video Game Theory (New York: Routledge, 2003).

With Kurt Squire and Philip Tan, “You Can’t Bring That Game to School!: Designing Supercharged!” in Brenda Laurel (ed.) Design Research: Methods and Perspectives (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003).

“Enter the Education Arcade,” co-authored with Eric Klopfer, Kurt Squire and Philip Tan, Computers in Entertainment, October 2003.

With Kurt Squire, “The Art of Contested Spaces,” in Lucian King and Conrad Bain (Eds.) Game On (London: Barbican, 2002.)

“Lessons from Littleton: What Congress Doesn’t Want to Hear About Youth and Media,” Independent School, Winter 2000.

“The Uses and Abuses of Popular Culture: Raising Children in the Digital Age,” The College Board Review, January 2000.

“Professor Jenkins Goes to Washington,” Harper’s Magazine, July 1999.

With Janet Murray, “Before the Holodeck: Tracing Star Trek through Digital Media,” in Greg Smith (ed.) On a Sliver Platter: CD-ROMS and The Promises of a New Technology (New York: New York University Press, 1999).

With Justine Cassell, “Chess for Girls?: Gender and Computer Games,” From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998).

“’Complete Freedom of Movement’: Video Games as Gendered Play Spaces,” From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998).

“Voices from the Combat Zone: Game Grrlz Talk Back,” From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998).
“x Logic: Placing Nintendo in Children’s Lives,” Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 14, 4, (August 1993): 53-70.

 

Kishonna L. Gray is currently the MLK Scholar and Visiting Professor in Comparative Media Studies and Women & Gender Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She is also serving as a Fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard and as a Faculty visitor at Microsoft Research in Cambridge.

Her 2014 book, Race, Gender & Deviance in Xbox Live: Theoretical Perspectives from Virtual Margins, has been referred to as a groundbreaking text by gaming and internet scholars. She has published in a variety of outlets and her work has been featured in public outlets such as NYTimes, LATimes, and BET.

Follow her on twitter @KishonnaGray.

Remediating Comics for Cinema: An Interview with Drew Morton (Part Four)

You quote a critic of Zack Snyder’s work who suggests, “he cared more about the appeasement of fanboys” than about narrative coherence. To what degree is stylistic remediation in comic book films a form of fan service? To what degree is it shaped by the stereotypes nonfans have of what a comic book looks like and how it tells stories?

 

I think it’s both a manifestation of fan service and filmmaker interest in comic art and/or rethinking film language. When you read interviews with Ang Lee during the production of Hulk or with Warren Beatty and his team while making Dick Tracy, they seem legitimately taken in by the work they’re adapting. Ang Lee, I think, has long been interested in utilizing new technology in the service of furthering film language. Life of Pi has some of the best 3D compositions that we’ve seen and his latest film – Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk – uses high frame rates in a way that makes reality alienating (I’ve not seen it, given how few theaters have the technology – so I’m going off of what I’ve read). When he sat down to do Hulk, he stated that he wanted to make a film that undermined how films direct our attention. In one interview he says that young children are now faced a multimodal environment in which they’re always multitasking and that, to him, reminded him of that unique quality of comics that Scott McCloud discusses – “you choose what to see,” Lee says.

 

The irony, of course, is that while Ang Lee and Zack Snyder often make films that “look” like comic books, their stylistic embellishments often do not quite function in the same way that they do in comics – so I also think your latter point about the stereotypes one makes of a medium’s style is also true, particularly when these filmmakers have to create a remediation that compromises the languages of both media. Let’s look at Hulk for a moment. Lee wanted to use split-screens to produce film compositions that function the same way multiple panels on a comic book page do. Lee says this is what he wanted to achieve, his track record of experimentation makes it unlikely that he’s blowing hot air or just providing lip service to Marvel fans. But how do those split screens function when compared with comic book panels? In comic books, panels are linear in time. We read one panel at a time, left to right, top to bottom, and make certain leaps in comprehension. Split screens in film – as in Hulk – are often simultaneous in time. The moment David Banner starts the reactor in Lee’s film, we see compositions that portray multiple views concurrently – he’s making a De Palma film, not remediating a comic. Even his design team gets this fundamental aspect of comics wrong. Garson Yu, one of the visual designers, noted that Lee “wanted to develop a concept that incorporated how we normally read comic strips. He wanted to present the film in one giant comic page” but that it was “difficult to show multiple events simultaneously.”

 

So while there may be an appreciation of comics art in many of these directors and a willingness to sincerely try to replicate it, I’m not sure they completely understand the grammar of the medium they’re paying homage to. Hell, I’m still surprised by how many of my friends – who have read far more comics than I have and can tell you far more about the intricacies of the Marvel and DC Universes than I can – who have yet to read McCloud’s Understanding Comics. So I’m not even sure if those aesthetic stereotypes you mention are limited to nonfans.

 

Many critics of the television series, Gotham, have complained that it does not feel like a Batman story. Does this suggest that media makers can push too far in abandoning the process of stylistic remediation, creating works that are distracting because they do not seem to belong within the same narrative universe as the source material?

 

I must confess that I haven’t watched Gotham yet, partially because I’ve heard that it isn’t particularly rewarding as a Batman narrative. That said, and again I can only go by what I’ve read and been told, I’m not sure that has to do with stylistic remediation as much as it does with some of the narrative conceits and how they challenge canon.

 

But to return to your question, can a work be distracting or alienating because of its remediations do not seem to take place in the same narrative universe? Absolutely. I think we can see that if we turn back to Joel Schumacher’s Batman films, which of course did draw from the universe of the comics, just not the era that most fans wanted to acknowledge or cared for. Again, Will Brooker’s work on this has been extremely helpful for putting the scapegoating of “campy” Batman into a larger context. Or Miller’s adaptation of The Spirit, which produced some extremely puzzled and often angry reactions amongst fans of Will Eisner’s book.

 

The recent Deadpool movie came out too late to be included among your books case studies. Does it teach us anything new about the forms stylistic remediation might take in comic book movies?

 

What I find the most fascinating about Deadpool is it’s success where so many other self-conscious and post-modern superhero movies have failed. On one hand, Deadpool is – from a narrative standpoint – a deconstruction of what superheroes are. He isn’t a “good” guy, he’s a sociopath in a costume. How does this differ from Watchmen and why was Deadpool successful while Watchmen was not? Both films are rated R, so it’s not as if a predominantly adult audience changed the equation. Both films are extremely violent and feature stylistic remediation to a strong degree (the opening of Deadpool really captures the subjective temporality of reading a comic). Obviously, one is a ninety minute comedy and the other three hour dramatic tone poem, so that’s undoubtedly a factor. But I’d also hypothesize that some of Deadpool’s success stems from timing.

 

Let’s think back to the history of American comics for a minute. Like most genres, the superhero comic evolved towards a state of baroque self-consciousness and it took about forty years to get there. You can only really understand Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns and Grant Morrison within that historical continuum. Without a baseline knowledge of the different ages of Batman, you would be relatively lost reading “Batman R.I.P.” Now, let’s look at when films like Watchmen, Kick-Ass, and V for Vendetta come out – from 2006 to 2010. Think about that for a moment. The Raimi Spider-Man films, the Singer X-Men films, and Nolan’s Batman films are all coming out at roughly the same time. In terms of genre and time, that’s like reading golden age comics simultaneously with the works that critique them. The critiques require context and a bit of an education – a history that the audience unfamiliar with comics but well-versed in their screen adaptations didn’t really have five to ten years ago.

I make a similar argument about stylistic remediation in the book. It has appeared (look back at Batman 66 and Dick Tracy), disappeared in the late 1990s, reappeared in the early 2000s (think Sin City, 300), and largely disappeared again after the financial implosion of Scott Pilgrim and Kick-Ass in the 2010s, washed away by the inoffensive house-styles of the DCU and MCU. Might films that remediate comic book style – like Deadpool – be more successful now that audiences have more of a familiarity with the form and its genres? Well, they have a familiarity with the genre because of films, and contemporary films do not often remediate the style of comics anymore. And that audience isn’t reading comic books. And many comic book properties are largely controlled by conglomerates that aren’t terribly thrilled about dailies that – to quote former Paramount executive Peter Bart – “look like a series of comicstrips.” So I’m not terribly optimistic that the success of Deadpool and the evolution of the genre will make stylistic remediation a mainstream form of filmmaking practice. But it may foreshadow that the practice might make a limited resurgence like it did in the 2000s. If the Marvel films are getting more visually ambitious, I think that’s a fair possibility. At least, I certainly hope so.

 

Dr. Drew Morton is an Assistant Professor of Mass Communication at Texas A&M University-Texarkana and the co-editor of [in]Transition, the first peer-reviewed journal focused on videographic criticism.  He is also the author of the  book Panel to the Frame: Style, American Comics, and Blockbuster Film.

Remediating Comics for Cinema: An Interview with Drew Morton (Part Three)

You use Bolter and Grusin’s concept of remediation but have less to say about their distinction between immediacy and hypermediacy, terms they use to describe both the rhetorical choices and spectator response of different media practices. Might this terms be useful to describe what happens when fans and for that matter, nonfans encounter one of these texts which have become highly stylized as they seek to remediate their sources in comics?

 

That’s a great question and something I wish I had thought more about when I was writing the book. In many ways, I think the relationship between immediacy and hypermediacy in Bolter and Grusin is perhaps the most difficult concept to grasp (at least that seems to be the case whenever I teach it). The idea that new media layers on additional remediations of old media (hypermediacy) in order to “disappear” before the viewer’s eyes (immediacy) is, as the authors say, paradoxical. The film that ended up helping me grasp the concept was Wall-E. Specifically, there’s a section in that film where he’s in a grocery store and is outrunning some runaway shopping carts. There’s a moment where the camera bobbles, zooms into the distance, goes out of focus, and then rack focuses back into view. Think about that for a moment – this is all computer animation. It is a medium based on being formally precise. Yet, we’ve seen in films like The Last Starfighter that the lack of photography’s imperfections – motion blur for instance – alienate the viewer. So in order to appear “there” for the viewer, computer generated imagery has to remediate the artifacts of the photographic apparatus.

So how does this relate to my topic? I’d hypothesize that a viewer well-versed in comic book visual vocabulary would be less aware of stylistic remediation and the experience of watching a film like Hulk or American Splendor or Dick Tracy would veer towards the immediate end of the spectrum. That viewer knows what a comic book looks like and might assume that a comic book movie can or should look similarly. The uninitiated viewer of 300 – on the other hand – might register the remediations as being self-conscious or foreign. Not necessarily in a negative way, just that they’re more aware of it because they may not have that expectation or visual primer going in. Of course, a lot of this depends on what media these folks are consuming in general and I’d hesitate to make any definitive claims about it without doing further research.

 

What might we learn about stylistic remediation by discussing, in parallel, the careers of Alan Moore, who has long argued that his comics should not be adapted for the screen, and Frank Miller, who has repeatedly sought to shape cinematic adaptations of his works?

 

Very broadly, I think the disjunction between Moore and Miller has to do with how we view the relationship between formal vocabularies of two visual media. A lot of filmmakers, executives, journalists – hell, a lot of people in general – view film and comics as being one in the same. “Well, aren’t comic books just storyboards?” Sure, both film and comics are visual media that have certain stylistic norms that – in some ways – overlap and were born from one the same family trees – the graphic arts. But cinema owes a lot to theater (staging in depth, the cinema of attractions) and comics owe a lot to literature. Moore, I think, was always troubled by the equation between the two and the role comics play in “feeding” the more culturally valued medium of cinema. Moore values the comic’s ties to literature and tends to equate cinema to Hollywood and commercialism, which he views as limiting the types of stories he can tell. Miller, on the other hand, often strives to make his comics cinematic and expects his films to reflect that intermingling. From embracing noir visual tropes to a “widescreen” aspect ratio in 300, he does not hesitate in trying to test the limits of those aesthetic points of contact.

But, and I’ll get at this later, that does not mean that the comic panel functions in the same way the filmic frame does. As Scott McCloud says, films are narratives told through time and comics are narratives told through space. One medium is based on subjectivity and caricature, while the other is based upon the photographic apparatus that Andre Bazin saw as being separated from human intervention. So I think if the philosophical difference between Miller and Moore tells us anything, it’s that the formal connective tissue between the two media is relatively superficial and there are some pretty heavy compromises one has to make in order to make a film look like a comic book or a comic book look like a film. Fittingly, as Rorschach once said, “Never compromise. Not even in the face of armageddon.” That seems to be his creator’s artistic credo as well.

 

You write, “To produce a comic book film without dealing with its unique formal devices is like adapting a musical and neglecting to include the music; it may work but it also fails to realize what is fully unique about the original form.” Can you elaborate on this, especially given your claim elsewhere that comic book adaptations have tended to be more successful when they abandon comic book style for a more cinematic approach?

 

This gets back to the question of what audience we’re talking about. I think comic book readers – myself included – appreciate the visual imagination of a film adaptation that remediates the style of the comics. Comic art can be beautiful and thrilling – Jack Kirby’s work should be in the collections of most modern art museums (look at those Fantastic Four photocollages!) – and the style of most contemporary action films, especially the house-style of the first couple phases of the Marvel films, is so generic and forgettable. So for fans and readers, I think there is something unique about seeing those remediations on screen.

 

Yet, as I noted earlier, readers are dwarfed in number by non-readers, so Hollywood is faced with a bit of a quagmire. How do they keep the fans on board without going over budget on comic book transitions and/or alienating a wide audience? There is no doubt that the Marvel films and the Nolan Batman films, adaptations that do not remediate comics, have been extremely successful both financially and with critics. But stylistic remediation is not necessarily an albatross to bear if the costs are kept in perspective – Sin City, 300, and Deadpool – have all shown that it isn’t a kiss of death. Hell, Ang Lee’s baroque Hulk film cost and made almost the same amount as its rather generic followup The Incredible Hulk.

 

You discuss throughout the ways that transmedia style is shaped by “the perpetual motion machine of synergistic properties.” So, can you be more precise about the marketability of stylistic remediation?

 

When we look at examples like Scott Pilgrim and The Matrix, we can see how prevalent their respective styles played in the “high concept” marketing of the films and how they took on their own meaning. In the case of The Matrix, bullet time became a cultural commodity of its own. Movies like Scary Movie and Shrek parodied it. Video game franchises like Max Payne – unaffiliated with The Matrix – attempted to co-opt it as a core game mechanic. Commercial directors cribbed from it. Players of Enter the Matrix wanted to experience bullet time for themselves.

 

In the case of Scott Pilgrim, Universal attempted to use Bryan Lee O’Malley’s aesthetic gumbo of video games, manga, and music to make its tie-in content seem more organic. The best example of this is how Edgar Wright utilized the 8-bit rendering of the main character that Scott Pilgrim game designer Paul Robertson produced in the film (8-bit Scott appears as the one-up icon during the climax and makes a second appearance in a post-credits tag). This design work was the basis for the tie-in game, which notably does not take its aesthetic cues from the film but the comic and the games the inspired it. Then, it came back around when Oni Press repackaged the comics as a box set – complete with a beautiful 8-bit sleeve designed by Robertson. Essentially, that style spread across the different platforms as a visual hook that solidified their branding. I make a similar case for how Warner Bros. used the unique design of Heath Ledger’s Joker – specifically his “Glasgow grin” – as featured iconography in DC Comics leading up and following the success of The Dark Knight.

Dr. Drew Morton is an Assistant Professor of Mass Communication at Texas A&M University-Texarkana and the co-editor of [in]Transition, the first peer-reviewed journal focused on videographic criticism.  He is also the author of the  book Panel to the Frame: Style, American Comics, and Blockbuster Film.