Wandering through the Labyrinth: An Interview with USC's Marsha Kinder (Part One)

In 1999, the University of Southern California hosted the Interactive Frictions conference, organized by Steve Anderson, Marsha Kinder and Tara McPherson, with participants including some of the leading digital theorists, artists,  and game designers of the period. Among those featured were: Edward Branigan, Justine Cassell, Anne-Marie Duguet,Katherine Hayles, Vilsoni Hereniko, Henry Jenkins (that's me!), Isaac Julien, Norman Klein, George Landow, Brenda Laurel, Erik Loyer, Peter Lunenfeld, Lev Manovich, Patricia Mellencamp, Pedro Meyer, Margaret Morse, Erika Muhammad, Janet Murray, Michael Nash, Marcos Novak, Randall Packer, Mark Pesce, Vivian Sobchack, Sandy Stone,  Yuri Tsivian and many others. I speak at many conferences each year, but this remains in my memory a defining event in terms of my own thinking about digital media and a conference where I met a whole bunch of folks who I have ended up working with over the past decade and a half.  For me, the conference brings back memories of the launch of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program, which I was able to discuss in my remarks at the event, and also represents the first of a series of interactions with the USC faculty that led ultimately to my decision to move here almost six years ago. Last year, Kinder and McPherson revisited this conference with a new book, Transmedia Frictions: The Digital, The Arts, and the Humanities, which brought together many of the original participants, who shared essays that built upon, but also artfully revisited, their original contributions at the event. The result is a great opportunity to reflect on the evolution of the digital arts and humanities across the intervening years,  allowing us to test our original impressions and to reformulate them in response to so much that has happened since.

A key signal about what has changed is reflected in the title of the book -- a movement from a focus on interactivity to an emphasis on transmedial relations. Here, Marsha Kinder is reclaiming a term she introduced in her 1993 book, Playing with Power in Movies, Television and Video Games: From Muppet Babies to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Asked to write a blurb for this collection, here's what I had to say: “As someone who attended and participated in the 1999 Interactive Fictions conference, which in many ways consolidated more than a decade of theorizing about and experimenting with digital media, I was uncertain what to expect from Transmedia Frictions. What I found was a rich collection that looks both backward to reconstruct the paths not taken in digital theory and forward to imagine alternative ways of framing issues of medium specificity, digital identities, embodiment, and space/place. This collection is sure to transform how we theorize—and teach—the next phases of our profound and prolonged moment of media transition.”

Few scholars are better situated to reflect on those shifts than Marsha Kinder, who was among the first in cinema studies to embrace digital tools for presenting her scholarship and who has overseen some remarkable collaborations with leading creative artists over the past decade through the Labyrinth project.  She has been a friend and mentor across these years, someone who was always leading the charge and inspiring younger scholars to think about new ways of doing and presenting scholarship, and someone who has bridged between theory and practice in bold new ways.  Our work has been complexly entangled through the years, given our shared interests in children's culture, transmedia, games, and digital humanities.  What began as an interview about her new book has turned into an amazing retrospective on her body of work in the digital humanities, which, true to her vision, is presented here in a multimedia fashion.

I will be following up this interview with Marsha with a second interview with her co-editor Tara McPherson, who has also been a friend and collaborator of mine over the past two decades.

Tell us about the 1999 Interactive Fictions conference. What were  its aims? What do you see now, looking backwards, as its historical  importance in the development of digital art and theory? How did it inform your own subsequent works in this area?

InteractiveFrictions:CatalogCover 

In 1997, I was asked by USC’s Annenberg Center to direct a research initiative that would explore the potentially productive relationship (rather than rivalry) between cinema and the then-emerging digital multimedia. I saw this transmedia focus as an opportunity to combine the immersive and emotive power of cinema with the interactive potential and database structure of new digital forms.

KinderFilmReels

Although I had already developed my concept of database narrative, I was just beginning to engage in production myself, making companion works for my two most recent books. For Blood Cinema, my book on Spanish cinema, I collaborated with my doctoral student Charles Tashiro on making the first scholarly interactive CD-ROM in English language film studies, which led to a bilingual series called Cine-Discs.

BloodCinemaDisc

And, for Playing with Power in Movies, Television, and Video Games, I collaborated with another grad student (Walter Morton) on a video documentary showing kids interacting with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

When I asked one of the kids in the arcade why they couldn’t play as April O’Neil, he said, “That’s the way the game is made!” Of course, he was right. And that made me want to make my own feminist game on gender.

The next step was making a prototype for an experimental electronic game called Runaways...

Runaways Cover

Runaways Interface

which I co-wrote, co-produced and co-directed with documentary filmmaker Mark Jonathan Harris and which you, Henry, kindly featured at your conference on Gender and Computer Games at MIT and in your anthology, From Barbie to Mortal Kombat.

content

Those projects enabled me to become the founding director of The Labyrinth Project, and to decide it would function both as a research initiative generating new theory and as an art collective making works that would advance the creative potential of the new digital media.

Labrinth Project

But to do this, I needed to quickly assess what had already been done and what was still emerging both in theory and practice. I also needed to find the most productive collaborators, and to discover which issues were driving the cultural debate and generating the most “friction.”

InteractiveFrictions:CatalogCover

Being an academic, I decided the best way to perform that quick assessment was to host an international conference. Calling it “Interactive Frictions,” I knew it had to be very inclusive—with filmmakers, photographers, installation artists, animators, game designers, programmers, theorists, critics, cultural historians, curators, media scholars, and entrepreneurs. And because its scope was to be so expansive, I definitely needed innovative collaborators to help run the events. So I asked my colleague Tara McPherson and our graduate student Alison Trope to be my co-hosts at the conference, Holly Willis to co-curate the exhibition, and Steve Anderson to write the program. To emphasize the creative energy emerging from these new combinations as well as from their historical precursors, the conference was intentionally structured like a three-ring circus, featuring not only keynote speeches, live performances, and scads of panels but also a group exhibition in the Fisher Gallery including work from a wide range of artists—some well-known like Bill Viola, George Legrady, Vibeke Sorensen, and Norman Yonemoto, and others--including some of our students—just getting into the game. Amidst this array, we also showed three works-in-progress from The Labyrinth Project—collaborations with gay chicano novelist John Rechy (aka The Sexual Outlaw) and independent filmmakers Nina Menkes and Pat O’Neill. Here’s how I described the exhibition in the opening paragraph of our catalogue:

 “Sparks. Heat. Conflict. This is what friction generates. Using friction as a catalyst, our exhibit features work produced at the pressure point between theory and practice. It brings together artists from different realms, at different stages of their careers, working both individually, and in collaboration in an array of different media: installations and assemblage art, independent film and video; traditional and computer animation; photography and graphic design; literature and music; computer science and interface design; websites, CD-ROMs, and other hybrid forms of multimedia. Coming from different domains, the pieces challenge and contradict each other. What unites them is the focus on interactive narrative.”

IF Exhibition

We received fabulous feedback on the conference, claiming it had energized all those who attended and broadened their conception of what digital multimedia could be. Despite this success, I decided not to make this conference a recurring event. Instead, I wanted to start producing experimental works in collaboration with others—works that could realize some of the possibilities that were discussed at the conference. So I put together a creative team of three media artists—Rosemary Comella, Kristy Kang, and Scott Mahoy-- and that’s what we’ve been doing for the past seventeen years.

Labrinth Team

But, now that so much time has passed, that conference represents a valuable snapshot of what the discourse was like in the 90s. For, some of the essays in our anthology are even more revealing now than they were then—especially those that were foundational for the field (like Katherine Hayles’s “Print is Flat, Code Is Deep: The Importance of Media-Specific Analysis”) and those that presented historical precursors (like the pieces by narrative theorist Edward Branigan and early cinema scholar Yuri Tsivian). And it’s important that, not just the artists and editors, but most of the contributors to our volume went on to produce multimedia projects. We hope our “Interactive Frictions” helped make them do it.

Marsha Kinder began her career in the 1960s as a scholar of eighteenth century English Literature before moving to the study of transmedial relations among narrative forms. In 1980 she joined USC’s School of Cinematic Arts where she continued to be an academic nomad, with narrative as her through-line. Having published over one hundred essays and ten books (both monographs and anthologies), she is best known for her work on Spanish film, specifically Blood Cinema (1993); children’s media, especially Playing with Power in Movies, Television and Video Games (1991); and digital culture (including her new anthology Transmedia Frictions: The Digital, The Arts and the Humanities (2014), co-edited with Tara McPherson. She was founding editor of innovative journals, such as Dreamworks (1980-87), winner of a Pushcart Award, USC’s Spectator (1982-present) and since 1977 served on the editorial board of Film Quarterly. In 1995 she received the USC Associates Award for Creativity in Scholarship, and in 2001 was named a University Professor for her innovative transdisciplinary research.

In 1997 she founded The Labyrinth Project, a USC research initiative on database narrative, producing award-winning database documentaries and new models of digital scholarship. In collaboration with media artists Rosemary Comella, Kristy Kang and Scott Mahoy, and with filmmakers, scientists and cultural institutions, Labyrinth produced 12 multimedia projects (DVD-ROMs, websites, installations and on-line courseware) that were featured at museums, film and new media festivals, and conferences worldwide. Kinder’s latest work, Interacting with Autism, is a video-based website produced in collaboration with Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Mark Jonathan Harris and Scott Mahoy. Since retiring from teaching in Summer 2013, Kinder is now writing a new book titled Narrative in the Era of Neuroscience: The Discreet Charms of Serial Autobiography.

How Diverse Publics Understand Climate Change: An Interview with Candis Callison (Part Three)

As you note, there has been a struggle throughout much of the 20th century between fundamentalist Christianity and science, particularly around the topic of evolution, but also around issues of sexuality and reproductive rights. How have some evangelical leaders been able to reconcile a concern for climate change with skepticism about what their members often see as the “ideological” nature of modern science? One of the groups I interviewed were the leaders behind Creation Care, which was a kind of sub-movement at the time of my research in the mid to late 2000s. These were the same people who had worked on “What would Jesus drive?” a highly successful campaign to turn transportation into “a moral issue” for Christian communities.

What one of these leaders told me explicitly is that who is speaking matters to a great extent in terms of establishing the credibility of climate change as a concern within evangelical communities. He called it “blessing the facts,” and told me that the right “messengers” were required in order for evangelicals to take climate change seriously as an issue of concern that required their involvement and action. Climate change for many evangelicals is caught up in politics, science, and environmentalism, and he argued that such messengers are required in order to steer through all of that and make it about “stewardship” and part of the moral and spiritual obligation of Christians.

In some cases, this means mobilizing evangelical leaders, but in other cases, it means bringing in scientists who are also Christians. For example, the head of Working Group 1 for the 2001 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports is an active and vocal evangelical and a leading scientist. The history of evangelicals with evolution debates and court cases in the U.S. still matter to many, but it isn’t a central issue in need of resolving for those working on climate change. Rather, those I spoke with sought to rearticulate concern for the environment from and within Biblical frameworks hence the term, Creation Care as an alternative to environmentalism.

This goes back to the earlier point I raised about vernaculars. Those who ‘bless the facts’ aren’t rubber-stamping the science; it’s a much different and more nuanced process based on the moral and ethical contours of climate change. The credibility of messengers, as adjudicators of truth and of what’s meaningful within a Christian context, enable them to articulate climate change as a real and science-based issue that needs to be taken seriously because of what the Bible says about taking care of the poor, caring for Creation, etc. So the scientific facts do matter, but they also come with historical and political baggage, and facts by themselves are not an exclusive route to establishing why climate change should be taken seriously.

Many discussions of the climate change debate posit corporate America primarily as villains, who promote skepticism about climate change claims as a means of protecting their own economic interests or defending their current practices. Yet you also point towards a number of corporate efforts to combat climate change. How effective have these efforts been? When and how do they move beyond what some have called “greenwashing”? How are they able to reconcile support for environmental reform with the profit motives which drive Wall Street?

In the book, I look closely at the work undertaken by Ceres, a Boston based corporate social responsibility organization. They aren’t the only group working on climate change and CSR, but they are one of the leading voices, having focused on this issue since the early 2000s.

Ceres was fascinating for me because it took me out of the world of religion, human and indigenous rights, journalism, science, and democratic obligations and into a radically different set of societal institutions where profit, risk, and investment are the key terms. What Ceres has worked to achieve is a transformation of concerns about climate change into investor concerns that may affect future profits and the stability of corporations. Climate change presents a risk to investors that must be accounted for and managed, and Ceres uses a range of mechanisms to help companies articulate these risks related to climate change as well as the actions they are taking to mitigate these risks.

This discursive shift from climate change to climate risk has produced a powerful response within financial frameworks. It’s not without some critique from those who think Ceres could require more from the range of companies they deal with – particularly those whose bottom line is predicated on contributing to carbon emissions. However, mobilizing a business vernacular in order to reframe climate change as a problem that companies must address is an innovative way of moving towards what Ceres hopes will be increasingly progressive corporate action.

There is a tendency to discuss science in terms of rationality and facts, yet throughout your book, you point to the importance of faith, ethics, morality, and other “softer” human values in shaping how and why people embrace or reject such arguments. How might we develop arguments that better bridge between science and faith, rationality and emotion, pragmatism and morality when thinking about these issues?

In considering climate change as only (or primarily) a science-based or science-laden issue, deeper ethical and moral discussions about our relationships to the natural world and to each other often get lost. This doesn’t mean that scientific findings aren’t vital to understanding climate change, but rather: for broad and diverse publics to come to care about the issue and care enough to take actions about it, climate change needs to become much more than a scientific concern.

In the book, I refer to this as the persistent "double bind" related to climate change – where in order for a rationale to act on the issue to emerge, we must maintain fidelity to scientific findings and move beyond them at the same time in order to explore moral and ethical contours related to the issue.

Recognizing the power of social affiliations and networks and accompanying moral and ethical concerns alongside evidence-based analyses and predictions does take us towards a potentially robust and even more rambunctious public discourse. We have yet to develop the kinds of digital and/or other mechanisms that would actively facilitate this discourse. We’re barely past the gate in terms of thinking beyond a broadcast model of news and information, and in terms of contending with differing epistemologies.

I do think there are glimmers of hope here and there as social movements like Occupy and Idle No More (a Canadian indigenous-led movement) demonstrate in various ways both in terms of their use of media and in bringing together varied groups. My hope is that this book contributes to broader thinking about the social and communal life of facts, and to contending with what it means to have shared goals without shared assumptions about how evidence has come to matter.

 

Candis Callison is an Assistant Professor at the University of British Columbia in the Graduate School of Journalism. She holds a Ph.D. in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology and Society and a Master of Science in Comparative Media Studies -- both from MIT. Her research and teaching are currently focused on changes to media practices and platforms, journalism ethics, the role of social movements in public discourse, and understanding how issues related to science and technology become meaningful for diverse publics. Her new book, How Climate Change Comes to Matter: The Communal Life of Facts (Duke University Press, 2014) uses ethnographic methods and a comparative lens to bring together the work of professional and social groups working to engage diverse publics in an American context. Building in part on this research, Candis has recently begun new research looking at Arctic-based journalism in an era of environmental change, digital media, and global audiences. She is also midway through two research projects that investigate how social networking technologies like Facebook and Twitter are being used both by indigenous communities and by the indigenous-led social movement, Idle No More in Canada. Prior to her academic life, Candis worked as a journalist in Canada and the U.S. for television, radio, and early incarnations of the Internet (think dialup and early broadband). She is a member of the Tahltan Nation located in Northwestern British Columbia.

How Diverse Publics Understand Climate Change: An Interview with Candis Callison (Part Two)

You argue that part of the problems is that scientists and journalists have conflicting professional ideologies, which prohibit both groups from being strong advocates for the importance of climate change and the values of any particular plan of action. Explain. What initially got me interested in thinking about climate change were the debates I had encountered between scientists and journalists about whose fault it was that the public didn’t care (enough) about climate change. Yet, when I began researching this problem, I encountered a lot more common ground between scientists and journalists than might be obvious at first glance, particularly in regards to observing and negotiating with professional expectations of objectivity, distance, and independence.

Encountering the findings of climate change – whether as a scientific researcher or journalists, produces a variety of responses for many that I talked to for this book. For some, there is an absolute obligation as a citizen or as an expert to do something about the predictions related to climate change. For others, there is an obligation to speak about the findings only. Some scientists reach out directly to the public or work through social groups, or even more simply, just endeavor to return the call of reporters.

I came up with the term “near-advocacy” as a way of discussing and acknowledging the wide spectrum of responses that emerge as a result of knowing the facts related to climate change (and often as well, knowing what isn’t known and the long tale of unlikely probabilities that create some of the gravest concerns). Advocacy is a still “a third-rail” for many high level professionals who work in science and journalism. Most don’t want to be associated with or slotted into left or right politics such that their credibility as science experts or journalists is compromised. And yet, these same professionals are often the ones most able to speak about the state of climate change findings and predictions. Navigating what has become a very tricky political and politicized terrain is definitely not for those who lack conviction about the role of science in society.

You note that journalists often struggle with the need to distinguish their role in informing the public with other potential functions such as educating the public about science or advocating for particular policy changes. Why have these functions proven so challenging to work through in relation to climate change? How does the climate change debate bring into sharper profile questions about how journalism functions in the contemporary media landscape?

One of the funniest metaphors I encountered that captures the challenges journalists face was from a journalist who described reporting on climate change as akin to “parking your car under a bunch of starlings.” Whenever I quote this in a talk, I always show a car covered in bird shit and get a good laugh.

It’s poignant on a bunch of different levels because it demonstrates the ways in which journalists enter into rambunctious, concerned, and diverse debates when they report on this issue. I argue that this not only speaks to the kind of issue climate change is, but also to the changing structures, norms, and practices facing journalists as a result of the rise of digital media.

Journalists are now not only expected to report on issues and put information out on a 24/7 basis, but they are increasingly expected to be verifiers and chief discussants. Journalistic methods and approaches as well as the facts they relay have never been more open to public scrutiny. In this sense, climate change is an exemplary issue with much at stake in terms of public engagement, policy, and the circulation of information.

Much of the concern about how climate change is reported on stems from the persistence of climate change denial and mis-information -- despite the widespread scientific consensus that climate change is a very real problem with a range of predictions and probabilities. For journalists, the spectre of denial is something they have to contend with constantly whether in response to stories or in the choice of experts. This past year at least one major science publication closed off its comment sections after stories, citing the response to climate change stories in particular.

Recent research has shown that this kind of debate does seem to affect public perception of whether there is scientific consensus, but I also think it’s vital to develop much better digital tools for dealing with these kinds of problems related to public debate and engagement. Shutting off comment sections doesn’t solve the issue, nor does it reflect the robust commitment to democratic discourse that many, including me, argue is required particularly on contentious and far-reaching issues like climate change.

You start your discussion with a consideration of the roles which indigenous peoples, especially those who live in the Arctic region, are playing in informing the climate change debate. What value do you think these forms of indigenous knowledge contribute ? In what ways have their voices been hi-jacked by other players and through what means have they learned to be more effective at speaking for their own interests?

When the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA) was released in the early 2000s, it received a lot of attention because of the kinds of predictions it made about how climate change would affect polar regions. It also represented one of the first major and comprehensive attempts to combine indigenous knowledge with scientific knowledge. Indigenous knowledge about the natural world comes out of a different system, tradition, and methodology so this kind of work – bringing scientific and indigenous knowledge together is not an insignificant challenge. In the book, I look at this challenge from varied perspectives, recognizing the diverse ways in which traditional knowledge offers important insights both historically and currently.

What initially got me interested in the Arctic was the human rights claim that was brought by Inuit leaders and elders before the Inter-American Human Rights Commission. The claim was intended not only to put indigenous experiences with climate change in the Arctic before a wide public, but also to confront U.S. policymakers regarding their inaction on the very real and ongoing effects related to climate change. As the ACIA had shown and as much of the testimony offered by Inuit hunters and leaders articulated very powerfully in the claim, their ways of life, their means to support their communities, and their culture were being drastically affected by changes to sea ice, permafrost, and other environmental changes.

I come from an indigenous family, and my father is a longtime hunter and outfitter in my First Nation in northern B.C. so these kinds of stories captured my attention immediately. But, when I began to speak to Inuit leaders, I also began to see that climate change, while being a huge issue, was also the latest in a long line of challenges that have required their communities to deal with scientific researchers, media, geopolitics, resource development, and multiple national interests. The book provides a glimpse into how Inuit leaders were navigating both the needs and conversations going on at the level of villages and regions as well as transnational networks and discourses in order to influence Arctic policies and decision-making.

Candis Callison is an Assistant Professor at the University of British Columbia in the Graduate School of Journalism. She holds a Ph.D. in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology and Society and a Master of Science in Comparative Media Studies -- both from MIT. Her research and teaching are currently focused on changes to media practices and platforms, journalism ethics, the role of social movements in public discourse, and understanding how issues related to science and technology become meaningful for diverse publics. Her new book, How Climate Change Comes to Matter: The Communal Life of Facts (Duke University Press, 2014) uses ethnographic methods and a comparative lens to bring together the work of professional and social groups working to engage diverse publics in an American context. Building in part on this research, Candis has recently begun new research looking at Arctic-based journalism in an era of environmental change, digital media, and global audiences. She is also midway through two research projects that investigate how social networking technologies like Facebook and Twitter are being used both by indigenous communities and by the indigenous-led social movement, Idle No More in Canada. Prior to her academic life, Candis worked as a journalist in Canada and the U.S. for television, radio, and early incarnations of the Internet (think dialup and early broadband). She is a member of the Tahltan Nation located in Northwestern British Columbia.

 

 

How Diverse Publics Understand Climate Change: An Interview with Candis Callison (Part One)

The debate about climate change can often seem perplexing for those of us who take the foundations of modern science seriously.  We can become deeply cynical about why certain players refuse to accept "established truths" and become frustrated by the inability of governments to act decisively to curtail behaviors that are helping to create long-term "risks" for the future of humanity and the planet. Yet, we are never going to make progress in such debates, Candis Callison argues, unless we understand what she calls "the communal life of facts," unless we develop a deeper understanding of the different epistemological commitments held by diverse players in this argument. Candis Callison's recently released book, How Climate Change Comes to Matter: The Communal Life of Facts, is a spectacular example of how ethnographic work, especially work informed by the science, technology, and society perspective, might inform our ongoing debates around the environment.Here's what I said in a blurb for the book:

"A gifted storyteller who brings enormous empathy and nuance to each group she documents, Candis Callison depicts the current discursive struggles over climate change, as such diverse players as corporate responsibility advocates, evangelical Christians, and Inuit tribal leaders, not to mention scientists and journalists, seek to reconcile the need for dramatic change with their existing sets of professional norms and cultural values. This is essential reading for anyone who wants to better understand how science gets refracted across an increasingly diverse media landscape and for anyone who wants to understand how they might be more effective at changing entrenched beliefs and practices."

Callison's work ultimately raises core questions around the public communication of science, sharing insights around how advocates and activists might transform this debate. Before she gets there, she seeks first to understand in subtle and complicated ways why these various players believe what they take to be true about our relationships with the natural world. As she does so, she develops a robust account of different  "vernacular" models of climate change that have to be aligned before we can make progress in dealing with these concerns. We are speaking past each other because we see the world in such fundamentally different ways and we will never convince each other unless we understand the diverse languages through which this debate is being conducted. This books makes an important intervention into what remains one of the central controversies of our time.

I read this book with much personal satisfaction. I had been lucky enough to work with Candis Callison, when she was a masters student in the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program more than a decade ago, having come to us with an already established professional career as an award-winning journalist. She went on to complete her PhD in Science, Technology, and Society, also at MIT. She is now  an Assistant Professor at the University of British Columbia in the Graduate School of Journalism and How Climate Change Comes to Matter is her first book, based in part on her dissertation research. Callison was already an intellectual leader in her graduate cohort  in part because of the enormous respect the faculty and other students had for her deep ethical and political commitments, including her desire to use her scholarship in the service of the indigenous community where she grew up in Canada.  I am so proud of the kind of scholar she has become.

Your introduction suggests that you are seeking to better understand a range of vernacular accounts of climate change. How are you defining vernaculars and what do you see as the relationship between scientific expertise and these more popular modes of describing environmental issues?

First of all, thanks for reading my book and for the kind words you say about it. I’m deeply grateful I got to start my graduate life at MIT in Comparative Media Studies. CMS and your Media Theory class are what started me on a path to thinking more broadly about the many and diverse roles media play in, with, and around public engagement.

I started contemplating using the term, vernacular, because of what I experienced when I talked with people who were actively working to mobilize their concerns about climate change. The ways they were talking about climate change drew to a great extent on how they experienced the world, what mattered to them, and how they conceived of a future they wanted for themselves, their social group – and often, for society as well.

The way I’m using the term vernacular borrows from linguistics, philosophy, and anthropology in order to describe these processes I saw unfolding during my fieldwork. How climate change comes to be meaningful outside of a scientific context depends on how it gets talked about and reframed/reformatted/recontextualized within what people are already concerned about. So, for example, Inuit leaders who were at the forefront of global negotiations around climate change talked about it outside of their communities as a human rights issue in order to account for the fundamental changes that have already begun in the Arctic that will affect their ways of life, their cultural and social practices, and the location of their communities.

What was really interesting to think about is how very different concerns related to climate change sound in other contexts. For corporate social responsibility advocates working with Wall Street investors and corporate leaders, climate change concerns were rearticulated as “climate risk” in order to situate the issue within existing financial frameworks that require attention to fiduciary obligations and responsibilities and an accounting for risks that would harm an investment.

In a church setting, evangelicals talked about climate change as being part of Bible-based concerns and dictates to care for the poor and to be responsible stewards of creation.

You describe this debate as much in terms of questions about why the public should care about climate change as  about who or what they should believe. What are some examples of the reasons the groups you study offer for why their members should care about climate change?

Who and what is considered expert is related to a great extent to credibility, and yet how/where are our ideals of credibility formed? In our daily lives, many will trust the word of a New York Times reporter or a MIT-trained scientist – and we’re likely to assume everyone else does too. Our ideals about who and what is credible are inherently social and cultural, based on collective and historical experiences with institutions and a trust in the methods used to arrive at conclusions, analyses, and predictions. That’s the logic behind much of the work done by many environmental activists – they appeal to wide publics to act, based on evidence most will agree is credible.

Amongst those I interviewed and researched for this book, I encountered this straightforward route, but also, a range of alternative means of establishing credibility and expertise. So, my research became about trying to understand the many ways and means by which scientific evidence comes to matter, what kind of an issue climate change is in specific contexts, and how it is articulated as an issue of concern.

I often half-joke now that I would like epistemology to become a household or ‘headline’ word because how we know what we know -- and how facts get established -- are becoming increasingly open to scrutiny. Just look at the comments after an online story and you see this play out in various ways. But, and this is equally crucial then, the facts that we come to care about and why/how we decide to care about them -- the routes by which concern becomes established -- are equally important.

Candis Callison is an Assistant Professor at the University of British Columbia in the Graduate School of Journalism. She holds a Ph.D. in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology and Society and a Master of Science in Comparative Media Studies -- both from MIT. Her research and teaching are currently focused on changes to media practices and platforms, journalism ethics, the role of social movements in public discourse, and understanding how issues related to science and technology become meaningful for diverse publics. Her new book, How Climate Change Comes to Matter: The Communal Life of Facts (Duke University Press, 2014) uses ethnographic methods and a comparative lens to bring together the work of professional and social groups working to engage diverse publics in an American context. Building in part on this research, Candis has recently begun new research looking at Arctic-based journalism in an era of environmental change, digital media, and global audiences. She is also midway through two research projects that investigate how social networking technologies like Facebook and Twitter are being used both by indigenous communities and by the indigenous-led social movement, Idle No More in Canada. Prior to her academic life, Candis worked as a journalist in Canada and the U.S. for television, radio, and early incarnations of the Internet (think dialup and early broadband). She is a member of the Tahltan Nation located in Northwestern British Columbia.

In Defense of Moe: An Interview with Patrick W. Galbraith (Part Six)

Many of us have a strong sense that gender differences are enforced in Japanese culture. I had the experience of crossing to the wrong section of a manga shop in Akihabara and seeming to create some consternation amongst the other patrons. Yet, in many ways, moe itself involves various kinds of transgressions of gender barriers – men consuming texts created initially for a market of young girls. Can you share with us a bit more about the ways gender is reinforced or transgressed in the moe culture you are describing? What does moe masculinity look like? First of all, I don’t want to give the impression that moe is somehow limited to male fans of media featuring or originally targeting young girls. For one of my first major research projects in Japan, I spent a year with female fans of manga and anime, who referred to themselves as fujoshi, which means “rotten girls.” Why rotten? Well, because they enjoyed watching manga and anime featuring charismatic male characters, who they then would imagine sexual relationships between. They drew fanzines about these imagined romantic and sexual relationships, which they called “couplings,” and then sold these fanzines at conventions or published them online.

Their activities are not really that different from the writers of slash fiction that you wrote about in Textual Poachers, except that they typically were interested in characters from manga, anime and games rather than live-action TV shows and film. This is simply a reflection of the prevalence of manga and anime in Japan, which provides charismatic male characters. Also in line with the prevalence of manga and anime in Japan, these fujoshi tended to draw their fanzines instead of writing textual stories. But aside from growing up in manga and anime culture, fujoshi are not so different from slashers. Indeed, male-male romantic fan-fiction, which is called yaoi in Japan, got started in the late 1970s, which is around the same time that it did in North America and Europe.

The presence of these female fans in Japan in the 1970s is also interesting because they were there in the early days of “otaku culture,” when manga and anime were beginning to attract mature and intense fans. Too often we ignore the presence of these female fans, despite the fact that some of the earliest records of anime fan clubs date back to Umi no Toriton (Triton of the Sea), which was dominated by female fans, including Kotani Mari. The critic Sasakibara Gō goes so far as to say that it is women, not men, who first recognized, celebrated and shared their love of fictional characters. That is, and Sasakibara is quite clear on this, female fans responding to fictional male characters like Triton are the origin of moe culture.

It is perhaps not a surprise that women dominated early attendance of the Comic Market, a central gathering for fanzine buyers and sellers since its founding in 1975, or that women led the charge in drawing sexual parodies of manga and anime characters.

Men were always behind, late to party and responding to what women were already doing. Indeed, just as women consumed across gender/genre lines to find charismatic male characters to slash in their fan works, men then did the same, but in the other direction. The bishōjo or cute girl character, which is now so prevalent in manga and anime, is actually a hybrid of Tezuka Osamu’s manga and shōjo manga, and was developed as a result of women producing manga for boys and men and men producing their own manga in a style inspired by shōjo manga. This is why, in the late 1970s, even as women were pioneering sexual parody fanzines, adult men began to read Ribon, a manga magazine originally intended for young girls.

This gender/genre crossing goes both ways – male to female and female to male. Indeed, Weekly Shōnen Jump, a magazine ostensibly for boys, is not only read by adult men but also a significant number of women. Eventually, the lines blur to the extent that it’s hard to locate the gender/genre boundary. Take for example Sailor Moon, originally a manga for young girls written by a female artist and serialized in the magazine Nakayoshi. It is hard not to notice that Sailor Moon draws on cultural touchpoints that might be categorized as “boys’ culture,” for example a team of young people who transform into color-coded rangers to fight evil. Sailor Moon simply has young women transform into color-coded sailor soldiers to fight evil. It adds a strong dose of melodrama, but its not really so different. Once transformed, the young women wear modified school uniforms with shortened skirts. Is it any wonder that Sailor Moon attracted male fans when it was adapted into a TV anime in the 1990s?The crossing seems calculated at this point.

So, there is certainly a strong tendency to carve the manga and anime market up into target gender and age groups, but there is also a great deal of movement across the boundaries. This typically doesn’t bother anyone, expect perhaps the when adult men come into close proximity with young girls around a shared object of affection, which is to say bishōjo or cute girl characters. The presence of adult men at events surrounding the Sailor Moon anime, which is at least ostensibly for young girls, caused some commotion in the 1990s. Legend has it that when one child began to cry at such an event, one of the women who voices a character in the show defused the situation by referring to the adult males in the room as “big friends” (ōkii otomodachi). It’s a cute story, but my suspicion is that this scene probably makes many people uncomfortable.

Indeed, Mizuko Ito notes a similar discomfort when adults and children came together in the unsupervised environments that sprung up around the Yu-Gi-Oh! card game. There seems to be a general anxiety about adult men being near children, especially adult men interested in fictional girl characters. Even in Japan, when there is a violent crime involving a child, admittedly rare, it is not uncommon for commentators to point out that the perpetrator was a manga or anime fan. As if that explains anything. I have seen politicians in Japan do this, even pointing to cases where the police have not yet revealed if the media that the suspect consumed was in fact manga and anime or not. That is, these politicians have said to me, without a trace of irony, that they can assume the connection to manga and anime because the criminal in question was an adult male who harmed a girl child.

By this point, it’s a foredrawn conclusion – except that it’s tenuous at best and asinine in any case. These men, we are told, spend too much time with manga and anime and are socially isolated and sexually immature. They become warped and cannot tell the difference between fiction and reality. Their desire is suspect, as at any moment their benign perversion might transform into predatory sexuality. That is, by virtue of their interest in cute girl characters in manga and anime, these men become suspected sex criminals.

We are starting to see this all over the world, with arrests and prosecutions for the possession of pornographic (and sometimes not) manga and anime as “child abuse material” in Canada, Australia, the United States and beyond. Men with no record of ever consuming actual or even “pseudo” child pornography, let alone abusing a child, are arrested, convicted and jailed for possessing drawings of purely fictional characters. As these stories circulate in the news, Japan is set up as the perverse sexual “other” of the West, with manga and anime on the whole characterized as child abuse material and anyone who touches it suspected of harboring the darkest of desires.

With all of this negative press, conservative forces in Japan are emboldened to attack manga and anime and argue for stricter regulation. Sometimes the conservative agenda is obvious, as when a library was raked across the coals for making boys’ love manga, which is commercially published and widely available, accessible. The criticism was that young people would be sexually “confused” by this material, though this has not happened since such manga first appeared in Japan in the 1970s. The same logic seems to be at work in saying that manga and anime more generally will lead to “cognitive distortions” about children, though this has not happened in Japan, where manga and anime are widely available.

The conservative and criminalizing discourse about manga and anime is exactly why it’s important to remember the basic definition of moe as a positive response to fictional characters and representations of them. To return to the Sailor Moon scene that might have made us uncomfortable, the adult male fans in the room are not there for the children, but rather for the characters of Sailor Moon. Surrounded by children, they are there to see the drawings, hear the voices and get the merchandise. To conflate desire for the fictional characters with actual children is a gross misunderstanding of Sailor Moon fandom, which potentially makes innocent people suspected criminals. It also ignores that moe is a response in relation to fictional characters, which are kept intentionally separate from reality. Such a critique completely misses the point of the word moe.

What do you hope to achieve with this book?

I hope that the interviews will introduce people unfamiliar with manga and anime to the faces of the men and women, both real and fictional, who are so often talked about rather than talked to. This talking over and around Japan, Japanese fans and criticism in Japanese has led to a seriously biased view of otaku, especially Japanese men who are attracted to fictional girls.

There is a lot of room for more nuance. For example, Kotani Mari talks about “otaku” as those who feel alienated by hegemonic masculinity, as “strange men” who struggle for alternatives. We can certainly see that in people like Itō Kimio, though this male reader of shōjo manga is not among those identified or identifying as an “otaku.” But when it’s Honda Tōru talking about his love for fictional girls, for cute characters, this guru of moe seems like a walking otaku stereotype. We tend to point and laugh rather than listen to what he’s saying, which reveals his own deep discomfort with hegemonic masculinity. Until we actually begin to see the faces and hear the voices, it is difficult to even entertain Honda Tōru’s ideas about “moe men.”

At its worst, its most poisonous, the bias against male otaku in Japan makes it seem as if merely hearing them out and letting them speak is apologia for “perversion” and “pornography” that endangers real children. It’s a gothic narrative, and this iteration of otaku are the bad guys. If you don’t stand against the bad guys, then you stand against the good guys and are one of the bad guys.

There is no way to raise questions about moe in such an environment. It is in this impossible environment that I decided to focus my interviews on male otaku in Japan. It was a purely strategic decision meant as a response to and intervention into the most reactionary discourses that demonize and criminalize manga and anime fans.

In the future, I hope to do another book focusing on female fans, male characters and moe. Or, better yet, an expanded edition that is not segregated based on the sex/gender of fans and characters. As we can see from the fact that Itō Noizi, a female artist, is one of the most popular illustrators of these characters, bishōjo should not be reduced to “male fetishes” of “sex objects.” I tend to agree with Momoi Halko, who is incidentally also a female artist, when she describes interactions with manga and anime characters as potentially taking us beyond a bodily, binary understanding of male/female into imaginative dimensions of sex/gender.

Patrick W. Galbraith received a Ph.D. in Information Studies from the University of Tokyo, and is currently pursuing a second Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology at Duke University. He is the author of The Otaku Encyclopedia: An Insider’s Guide to the Subculture of Cool Japan (Kodansha International, 2009), Tokyo Realtime: Akihabara(White Rabbit Press, 2010), Otaku Spaces (Chin Music Press, 2012) and The Moe Manifesto: An Insider’s Look at the Worlds of Manga, Anime and Gaming (Tuttle, 2014), and the co-editor of Idols and Celebrity in Japanese Media Culture (Palgrave, 2012) and Debating Otaku in Contemporary Japan: Historical Perspectives and New Horizons (Bloomsbury, 2015).

 

There's Ain't No Moe!

In Defense of Moe: An Interview with Patrick W. Galbraith (Part Five)

You also give us a glimpse into the emergence of a generation of Japanese academics who regularly write about moe and otaku culture more generally. Most of this work remains in Japanese, though small samples are starting to get translated into English and have become part of conversations about the global dimensions of fandom. Who do you see as some of the most important thinkers to emerge from this strand of research and what arguments there do you think are pertinent to western researchers trying to address questions of fandom and media consumption more generally? There are many really fascinating thinkers who in some way or another intersect with otaku culture! Ōtsuka Eiji is one that immediately comes to mind. Parts of Ōtsuka’s work on media mix have been translated by Marc Steinberg, and his arguments about the origins of manga and anime under fascism have been translated by Thomas LaMarre. As both Steinberg and LaMarre point out, Ōtsuka changes our perspective on old questions. For example, his world-and-variation thesis, which was originally published in 1989, brings up the idea of the active and productive fan, which resonates with work coming out of cultural studies, but Ōtsuka is coming at this from the perspective of the corporation. He worked at Kadokawa and Dentsu, a publisher and ad agency, respectively.

This is a broader point that I probably shouldn’t get into here, but I like the way that there is not such an insistence on resistance to, or a critique of, capitalism in Japanese discussions of manga and anime “subculture,” which means something very different in Japan. In Fan Cultures, Matt Hills talks about the need to get beyond the binary approach to fans that can be crudely divided into Frankfurt and non-Frankfurt, production side and consumer side, passive and active, bad and good. I remember reading that and thinking, “Japanese critics are already inhabiting that contradiction!”

Among the results of this, at least in Ōtsuka’s work, is, on the one hand, a discussion of fans gaining access to the mode of production and producing culture by and for themselves. On the other hand, because of his position as a content provider for fans, Ōtsuka also argues that fan activities and productions can be integrated into a system of corporate ownership and profit, which is very interesting. The “world” that is owed by the corporation and provided to fans is expanded and invigorated by the variation that fans produce within it.

To me, this sounds like an immanent critique of immaterial labor. Fans are active and productive, sure, but for whom does their productive activity generate value? That is not a simple question. As Ōtsuka points out, fan labor – and let’s call it that, because many fans work hard at what they love – is very meaningful for fans, even transformative, but it also contributes to corporate profits. How do we work through these entanglements? I don’t know, but it is unlikely to be a heroic refusal of the corporation or capitalism. Dick Hebidge said a long time ago that “subcultures” depend on commodities, and this is even clearer for fan cultures, but I think that he might have overstated the resistance of these cultures, which he thought would eventually lose their edge and be naturalized and trivialized through their own commoditization as styles.

In contrast to Hebdige, Tiziana Terranova has long said that “free labor” is fundamental to capitalism, and it is not the case that someone is outside the system and then gets reintegrated into it. The same is true for subcultures that generate “styles” or fan cultures that generate “content.” This is not to say that there is no meaning to what fans do, because there is, but Ōtsuka seems to be encouraging us to consider how people work and live within consumer capitalist society, how they use media and commodities and how these activities are valued and valorized.

There are many other thinkers in Japan doing similarly interesting work. Okada Toshio, for example, has a lot to say about the differences between “subculture,” “counter culture” and “otaku culture.” He also provocatively suggests that for Japan, and perhaps many other nations, there is not such a clear distinction between “child” and “adult,” which complicates narratives of resistance to the “parent culture.” For me, Okada also raises questions about how we define “child” and “adult,” and what the “youth” in “youth culture” refers to.

While Okada can seem a little narrow and at times even sexist, he is not the only one writing about “subculture” in Japan. Indeed, Kotani Mari’s Tekuno goshikku (Techno Gothic) is a great example of some of the work being done on “feminine subculture,” and it addresses some of the blindspots on sex and gender in Okada and others.

Getting back to what’s exciting about Okada, though! From the position of a content producer, Okada seems to be arguing for education and literacy with the aim of people better understanding and more effectively engaging media. Okada’s discussion of how fans themselves can evaluate media and commodities sounds a lot like Stuart Hall’s “popular discrimination,” but I think a more generous read would be the suggestion of intervening into the contested terrain of culture and taking a position, which is a form of politics that resonates with the later Hall. Perhaps you might call this “culture jamming?”

On the topic of culture jamming, I think it would be helpful to translate Ōtsuka’s book on otaku, ‘Otaku’ no seishinshi (The Intellectual History of ‘Otaku’), and Okada’s Otakugaku nyūmon (Introduction to Otakuology), simply because they are so different in their approach from the ways that I typically see “otaku” talked about in English-language publications. I think that the introduction of these texts into English would really help to shake things up! Two chapters by Okada are included in Debating Otaku in Contemporary Japan, a volume I co-edited that will be out next year, but that is only the beginning.

Another way to push things forward would be to translate the very first book on “otaku,” aptly titled Otaku no hon (The Book of Otaku), which is a collection of short articles on “otaku” by the likes of Nakamori Akio, who created the label “otaku,” Yonezawa Yoshihiro, one of the founders of the Comic Market, Ueno Chizuko, a well-known feminist scholar, and more. The collection was published the same year as Ōtsuka’s world-and-variation thesis, 1989, and is just untimely enough to raise some interesting questions about what is meant by “otaku” and how a discussion of “otaku” might lead to insights for scholars beyond Japan.

A little outside of studies of “otaku,” I personally find Hamano Satoshi and Uno Tsunehiro to be exciting new thinkers, especially their work on digital media, networks and politics. To my mind, Hamano and Uno could very easily be brought into dialogue with thinkers from elsewhere in the world, for example on issues of nationalism and sexism online. One area that I think Japan really excels at is the study of manga, because comics are such a prevalent media form in Japan. Fujimoto Yukari and Ueno Chizuko’s work on shōjo manga offers some fascinating insights into girls reading comics and pornography. The specific genre of “boys’ love” manga has attracted much critical attention outside of Japan, and I think this scholarly discourse could benefit from translating the work of young scholars such as Kaneda Junko, Nagakubo Yōko and Azuma Sonoko. There is much to be said about the sexual politics of this kind of manga and what people do with it.

On that point, I personally have found Nagayama Kaoru’s Ero manga sutadīzu (Erotic Manga Studies) to be extremely helpful in laying out some of the most salient issues in an almost entirely self-regulated and relatively free creative market, which I think could break through some of the stumbling blocks to progress in discussions so far, for example the idea that pornography is made by and for men, harms or endangers women and children and has a generally negative impact on producers, consumers and society. Calling manga characters “male fetish objects” or assuming that otaku are socially and sexually immature men is based on an extremely shortsighted and biased view of manga, anime and games, which I think Nagayama, though concrete examples, challenges quite effectively.

The potential benefits of translation go the other way, too. Manga studies can be a little insular, for example not even building bridging with comic studies elsewhere in the world, let alone impacting disciplinary discussions on consumption, media and fans. We could say the same thing about otaku studies and fan studies, though there has been progress. In addition to translating more Japanese thinkers, we might want to try to get a dialogue going whereby critical traditions that are widely accepted in the North American and European academy might invigorate scholarly work in Japan.

 

Patrick W. Galbraith received a Ph.D. in Information Studies from the University of Tokyo, and is currently pursuing a second Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology at Duke University. He is the author of The Otaku Encyclopedia: An Insider’s Guide to the Subculture of Cool Japan (Kodansha International, 2009), Tokyo Realtime: Akihabara(White Rabbit Press, 2010), Otaku Spaces (Chin Music Press, 2012) and The Moe Manifesto: An Insider’s Look at the Worlds of Manga, Anime and Gaming (Tuttle, 2014), and the co-editor of Idols and Celebrity in Japanese Media Culture (Palgrave, 2012) and Debating Otaku in Contemporary Japan: Historical Perspectives and New Horizons (Bloomsbury, 2015).

In Defense of Moe: An Interview with Patrick W. Galbraith (Part Four)

Your interviewees suggest that initially, at least, manga and anime producers had little awareness of the adult consumers of their property and that when they discovered moe enthusiasts, they still sought to ignore them for the most part to focus on their targets – children. Is there a point at which this changes? Is there now content produced specifically for this niche, or does it remain a kind of “surplus” audience? It’s a bit complicated, but manga “grew up” in the 1960s, when gekiga striving for realism and social commentary drew in adolescent and then young adult audiences. Tatsumi Yoshihiro’s works read like a critique of capitalism and the “economic miracle” in Japan that left marginalized people behind in the gutter. Shirato Sanpei’s stories about ninja who fight for the people against corrupt officials electrified a generation of young radicals, even as Tsuge Yoshiharu’s psychological explorations of dreams earned him artistic credibility. By the time Chiba Tetsuya’s Tomorrow’s Joe came out in Weekly Shōnen Magazine (from 1968-1973), it was possible for members of the student movement to say things like, “In our left hand we have Weekly Shōnen Magazine,” and for members of the Red Army, a far-left terrorist group, to claim, “We are Tomorrow’s Joe.”

Given that gekiga was incorporated into the mainstream, and even Tezuka Osamu had adapted to its challenge, it wasn’t really a surprise that adults were reading manga. In the 1970s, shōjo manga underwent a renaissance, the Comic Market was founded in 1975 male fans of shōjo manga and, by the end of the decade, there were news stories about students at the University of Tokyo, Japan’s most prestigious institution of higher learning, reading manga magazines intended for little girls.

The gap between the audience and the content might have been a surprise, but by this point it was clear that manga was not something just for children. In the case of anime, in the 1960s, it was still really for kids, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that it “grew up.” Some point to Umi no Toriton (Triton of the Sea, 1972) as a benchmark, in that it in the end undermines the hero’s righteous fight against “evil,” attracted adolescent viewers and inspired the formation of fan clubs. It is likely that Space Battleship Yamato (1974-1975) attracted more mature viewers, but it wasn’t until the TV show was reedited into a film in 1977 that the full extent of the fandom was understood. In June 1977, Gekkan Out ran a special issue on Space Battleship Yamato, which quickly sold out, thus demonstrating the existence of the mature or fan audience. This in turn led to the founding of numerous specialty magazines for manga and anime fans.

By the time Tomino Yoshiyuki, who directed Umi no Toriton, released his Mobile Suit Gundam (1979-1980), it was clear that anime fans were here to stay. Famously, the series was far too dark and complex for children, who were alienated from the show and did not buy the toys released by its sponsor, which then pulled the plug on the series. However, the realistic depictions of politics, war and psychological suffering earned Gundam devoted adult fans, who turned out in droves to buy scaled model kits of the robots featured in the story.

This fan activity revived the franchise, which was then released theatrically as three films. At the release of one of these films in February 1981, Tomino gave a speech to 15,000 fans about the “new age of anime.” There is no question that there was wide awareness of adult fans of anime at this time, and indeed groups of anime fans began to produce anime for other anime fans, for example Gainax’ Daicon films (1981 and 1983) and Studio Nue’s Super Dimensional Fortress Macross (1982-1983).

This “otaku market” has steadily grown in Japan, even as the number of children has decreased. With piracy and illegal digital distribution eating into DVD sales overseas, many say that anime is becoming more and more insular, as otaku produce for otaku, who will buy DVDs, merchandise, attend events and so on. So, adult fans are no longer really a surplus market.

What is clear in the history of moe, however, is that male fans responding to cute girl characters in anime was not an entirely expected or welcome development. Miyazaki Hayao’s debut film as an anime director, Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979), was not really a commercial success, but it earned him a lot of adult fans. It seems that Miyazaki was a bit taken aback, and perhaps even angry, when these fans began to produce fanzines about Clarisse, the princess who is saved by Lupin, the master thief. Indeed, when this character, and by extension Miyazaki, was linked to what was being called a “Lolita complex boom” (lolicon būmu) in the early 1980s, Miyazaki responded that, while he, too, had once fallen in love with a fictional character, he nevertheless “hates” (kirai) those who dare to utter the word “Lolita complex.” This actually sounds a lot like contemporary critiques of moe!

Over the years, Miyazaki has distanced himself more and more from otaku, which Saitō Tamaki claims is a reflection of a struggle with his own legacy and contribution to moe culture. Unlike Miyazaki, others, for example the female artist Takahashi Rumiko, were obviously aiming at the market of adolescent men with works like Urusei Yatsura, a smash-hit manga (1978-1987) adapted into an anime (1981-1986), which features Lum, an alien bombshell in a tigerskin bikini who is impossibly in love with a young male loser.

But fans were also attracted to series that were not intended for them, for example Magical Princess Minky Momo (1982-1983), which was supposed to be an extended TV commercial for toys sold to young girls. The producer of that show, Satō Toshihiko, admitted to me that he was shocked, even a little weirded out, by adult men who approached him to form a fan club. In contrast to this, Nunokawa Yūji, who worked at Pierrot, the company the animated Urusei Yatsura, was surprised, but not as upset, by the presence of adult male fans at events for Creamy Mami, the Magic Angel (1983-1984). Given that Minky Momo and Creamy Mami are similar series with similar target demographics, this shift in perception seems significant. After all, as Nunokawa states, more people supporting the show means greater sales, which is certainly a welcome development.

A decade later, in the early 1990s, it seemed like the crossover viewership of young girls and adult men in Sailor Moon (1992-1997) was entirely intentional. These days, shows ostensibly for young girls such as Pretty Cure (2004-present) and Aikatsu! (2012-present) predictably attract an adult male audience with their charismatic female characters, and magical girl shows like Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha (2004-2005, 2007) and Puella Magi Madoka Magica (2011) are produced by and for men! This again has to do with shifting demographics and market concerns in Japan, but what’s striking is that the magical girl, originally intended for young girls, is now a moe character for male otaku.

The magical girl is almost a piece of nostalgia, idiosyncratically kept alive, animated, by the investments of male fans. Itō Noizi, a female artist with a fascinating perspective on male fans of magical girls, pointed this out to me in an interview. Anyway, while some would say that the prevalence of the magical girl is a sign of the closed or insular otaku market dedicated to the reproduction of moe, which they say is killing new ideas and alienating newcomers, I would simply point out that Madoka is to magical girls what Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-1996) is to giant robots – an extremely creative commentary on the genre that took us to a place that animation had not gone before. It would be a shame to miss such innovative anime by dismissing it for being a “magical girl” series focusing on “cute girl characters.”

What impact has “moe” had on the genres of production and consumption that operate in the contemporary manga and anime industries? What relationship might we posit between moe consumption practices and the emergence of media mix strategies?

Many people are talking about the role of the character in media mix strategies. Ian Condry, for example, suggests that affection for characters, the response called moe, is crucial for the spread of media. That is, for Condry, it is the human social interactions with anime that give it its “soul.” You have said that if media does not spread, then it is dead, and it seems to me that Condry is suggesting that media spreads and is alive because of human social interactions with it. I think that it’s fair to say that interaction begins with a response to media.

A response to what? Well, for many, to fictional characters, which takes us into the realm of moe. Azuma Hiroki and others have pointed out that characters are constructed and placed into stories with the express purpose of triggering an affective response, or moe. This leads to the construction of moe characters, which have been collectively articulated from affective elements as an assemblage that is likely to get a response from viewers.

While I think that Azuma at times drifts into a sort of naïve behavioralism to posit a trained response, I think that he is pointing to something very important in fictional characters that are meant to attract, hold attention and affect. To put it somewhat simply, earlier I discussed the manga/anime aesthetic as “cute,” and the Chinese characters making up the word for cute in Japanese, kawaii, care “potential” (ka) and “love” (ai). Characters that are cute can be loved – they are constructed to be loved. This is the secret of moe characters.

In our interview, Honda Tōru said that nowhere in the world are their cuter characters in greater numbers than in Japan, which he attributes to growing collective interest in manga and anime in the postwar period. Growing up in such an environment, as Saitō Tamaki points out, it is not only possible, but in fact likely that you will fall in love with fictional characters.

This point is very much related to the media mix. If you will indulge me, following Honda Tōru, I will mention Tezuka Osamu once again. Now, as I’ve said, Tezuka did much to establish the manga/anime style in the postwar period. He also, incidentally, produced the first weekly serialized anime series, Astro Boy (from 1963-1966). Famously, Tezuka drastically undersold the series to a TV station in order to get it on the air, essentially ensuring that he would be losing money by producing the anime series. However, Tezuka was not only thinking about the anime, but also how this would invigorate sales of his already popular Astro Boy manga, which provided the characters and world for the anime. Further, there would be Astro Boy toys and merchandise to profit from, and Tezuka actively pursued overseas distribution.

As Marc Steinberg points out, what Tezuka established with Astro Boy was nothing if not a media mix strategy. He was forging cross-media alliances to spread the media, enlist fans and invigorate the franchise. Fans were making connections across media forms, which resonated with one another to intensify consumption. Steinberg insightfully points out how Tezuka tied the anime to a sponsor, Meiji Seika, which then gave away Astro Boy stickers with proof of purchase of Marble Chocolates. Millions of requests came in for these stickers. As Steinberg sees it, children were sticking these stickers on their school supplies and so on to create “merchandise,” which grounded and expanded their points of access into the Astro Boy world. In all of these ways, Astro Boy became ubiquitous – the manga was already popular, 30 percent of households watched the weekly broadcast, children stickered everyday objects, toys and merchandise appeared – and children interacted with media, commodities and one another in an Astro Boy environment. The character of Astro Boy is what crossed over into different media forms, and it is Astro Boy that attracted, held attention and affected. The Astro Boy media mix depended, at least in part, on an affective relationship with the character that encouraged connections to be made across media forms. In this way, as Steinberg notes, it was not just that the Astro Boy media mix spread to externally “colonize” space, but it also spread internally to capture the hearts and minds of children. Children were made productive by cultivating them to do the cognitive labor necessary to follow and make connections across media. What holds the media mix together is the same thing that attracts, holds and affects the child – the character.

Even as the media mix strategy spread beyond manga/anime and children to include games/novels and fans, it was still based on the idea of capturing hearts and minds and making people productive through the character, which Steinberg provocatively calls a “regulatory mechanism.” We could further apply Steinberg’s insights to Condry, who points out that the existing fan base of manga is a sort of “surplus” that can be capitalized on by anime adaptations. To me, it sounds like existing fan attachments and interest are part of the social energy or “soul” of anime, and, to borrow a turn of phrase from Bifo Berardi, that soul is put to work!

This all sounds very dystopian, but it is not necessarily so. As Condry points out, anime fans are often the one’s who evaluate their own activities and contributions, which are not always productive for corporations. The response to the character, moe, cannot fully be captured, and the ongoing personal and collective benefits of interacting with characters should not be reduced to a simple narrative of exploitation. The media mix multiplies the points of entry into the world and media and material forms of interaction with the fictional character, which is what fans want. Likewise, creators such as Maeda Jun see their job as not only providing characters and stories that encourage people to fall in love with them, but also as supporting life, which is a collective project.

 

Patrick W. Galbraith received a Ph.D. in Information Studies from the University of Tokyo, and is currently pursuing a second Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology at Duke University. He is the author of The Otaku Encyclopedia: An Insider’s Guide to the Subculture of Cool Japan (Kodansha International, 2009), Tokyo Realtime: Akihabara(White Rabbit Press, 2010), Otaku Spaces (Chin Music Press, 2012) and The Moe Manifesto: An Insider’s Look at the Worlds of Manga, Anime and Gaming (Tuttle, 2014), and the co-editor of Idols and Celebrity in Japanese Media Culture (Palgrave, 2012) and Debating Otaku in Contemporary Japan: Historical Perspectives and New Horizons (Bloomsbury, 2015).

In Defense of Moe: An Interview With Patrick W. Galbraith (Part Three)

To what degree is moe a collective as opposed to a personal experience? That’s a great question! Responding to fictional characters seems like a very personal thing. Insofar as one is describing what he or she responds to as moe, everyone has his or her own definition. However, I would say that it is more collective than we might at first appreciate.

Characters come from somewhere, right? Someone has to first imagine the character, which might be in textual or visual form. So, for example, a storywriter comes up with a character, or an artist sketches a design. Then, if it’s animation, someone voices the character. A voice actress described her job to me as “imaging” (imēji suru) the character and “matching” (macchingu suru) the image of others involved in the project, which is quite telling. I think that this imaging and matching is actually quite common throughout the creative industries of manga, anime and games, as well as figurines, merchandise and so on.

Ian Condry’s book, The Soul of Anime, describes something like this. People are collaboratively creating the character, which both moves and is moved by those interacting with it. It’s a kind of shared imaginary, maybe. We could take this further and consider how people draw on existing characters when imagining a new character. It is not a coincidence that many manga and anime characters look alike, because they are assemblages of affective elements – I’m thinking of Azuma Hiroki, who is interviewed in the book – which both precede and exceed the work in question. What creators respond to, and design others to respond to, that is, “moe characters,” are not really contained in any one form or possessed by any one person.

The response is similarly collective. Writing about otaku, Thomas LaMarre refers to a “collective force of desire,” which could be taken to mean the shared movements around moe characters, which are then “otaku” (movement). What LaMarre refers to as otaku movement resonates with moe, or that which moves, collectively. More simply, it is said that affect is contagious, so the movement of one quickly becomes the movement of many. I’d say that even fan activities that appear to be the most personal, for example writing fanzines about a favorite character or costuming as him or her, are also about sharing the character’s movements.

What is cosplay if not imaging the character and matching that image to those of others? In this way, cosplay resonates with what the voice actress I mentioned earlier says that she does. In a similar way, fanzine authors work with characters and worlds provided by manga and anime, which, as Ian Condry points out, is not so different from what professionals do when creating anime episodes using characters in a world developed by others. It maters that the characters used in fanzines are known to others, because they are then shared objects of affection, making personal imaging of them part of a collective articulation.

The question is does the image match or not, which means that another image must already exist in the minds of those responding to the fanzine. As Condry points out, there is a “dark energy” or “intensely inward-focused energy” of anime, which fuels its spread, because fans wish to share their moe with others and have it recognized. The shared production of moe characters contributes to shared expressions of affection for them.

Along the way, you give us some glimpses into the role which moe plays in shaping the Japanese creative industries. We’ve seen in recent years an emphasis by the national government and others on the concept of “Cool Japan” as a source of “soft power.” How comfortable are these government groups to some of the more intense forms of “moe” culture you describe in the book?

This is something that I’m looking into as part of a new research project in Akihabara, but what I can say now is that some people in the government are very concerned about certain forms of manga, anime and games circulating abroad and coloring perceptions of Japan. They are fine with celebrating Tezuka Osamu as the father of contemporary manga and anime, or the critically acclaimed and almost universally loved films of Miyazaki Hayao, but they are less excited about the prospect of being associated with fanzines centering on sexual parodies of Tezuka or Miyazaki characters or computer games that simulate relationships and even sex with cute girl characters.

I have heard this expressed in many ways, but one of the most memorable was when members of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) organized a symposium in Akihabara in March 2012. A local business owner, who I probably shouldn’t name, asked representatives of METI straight out what their intensions were in using Akihabara to promote Cool Japan. To this middle-aged gentleman, who runs an electronics store with a storied history, Akihabara needed to be cleaned up or tourists flocking to the area would leave not with fond memoires of Cool Japan, but rather stories about “Porno Japan.” Those are his words, not mine! Very provocative stuff, but I think it touches on serious tension.

The dynamic is as follows: The increasing visibility of otaku brings to light things that are generally considered to be niche. Axiomatically: The normalization of otaku proceeds with the discovery of new abnormality. We all know a story or two – or fifty – about “weird Japan,” or that story that makes us stake our heads and say, “Only in Japan!” In fact, the recurring story about the male Japanese otaku who marries his fictional girlfriend, is in a committed relationship with a body pillow, is building a sex robot or doll in the likeness of an anime characters – all of these could be lumped together into sensationalist reporting that contributes to an image of Japan, male otaku and moe as perverse. This one man’s charge to METI that the government is promoting “Porno Japan” reminds us that not all forms of manga, anime and games are considered “cool” in Japan, and not all of them necessarily reflect “Japan,” and certainly not in the ways that some people wish.

Even one does not have a problem with hoards of men and women, young and old, reading One Piece or watching Ghibli films – such an interest is normal, after all – there are always things that will shock and challenge. For better or worse, many of these things are on display in stores in Akihabara. So when the government comes into this neighborhood and starts talking about manga, anime and even otaku as components of a branded national culture, as representative of “Japan,” that is when the subcultural and countercultural elements are going to generate some friction.

It was really interesting for me to see in summer 2014, right around the time when The Moe Manifesto was published, how Akihabara figured into international news reports that Japan was not cracking down on manga, anime and games as “child abuse materials.” CNN, for example, went to a shop in Akihabara specializing in fanzines and filed a video charging that this material is “fueling the darkest desires of criminals.” Hyperbole and questionable claims aside, this report does not just accuse Japan and otaku of being weird or perverted, which can still lead to some laughs, but rather Japan as a empire of child porn and the people in Akihabara, the “Mecca of Otaku” (otaku no seichi), as straight out sex criminals.

What is the evidence for this claim? Drawings. The reporter takes a manga book in his hand and condemns those who draw and are drawn to it as “criminals” harboring the “darkest [of] desires.” This then feeds back into reactionary and conservative discourses in Japan, where there are calls to regulate manga and anime more strictly to avoid “unhealthy” thoughts and desires. One such Diet member, a proper bureaucrat, appeared on an episode of TV Takkuru in September 2014, where he was told that Japan is being treated like an “empire of child porn.” When asked, “Should violence and underage sex in manga and anime be regulated,” his answer was, predictably, “Yes.” The show then sent a reporter to follow a group of otaku around Akihabara. While the tone of this “reporting” is significantly lighter than CNN, it shares the impulse to look at otaku in Akihabara and their relationships with fictional characters and ask whether or not regulation is necessary. This tension within the discourse between “Cool Japan” and “weird Japan,” between “good” and “bad” manga, anime and otaku, will not be resolved anytime soon. Rather, as we approach the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, it seems likely that the debate will heat up around Akihabara, moe and global norms versus community standards.

 

Patrick W. Galbraith received a Ph.D. in Information Studies from the University of Tokyo, and is currently pursuing a second Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology at Duke University. He is the author of The Otaku Encyclopedia: An Insider’s Guide to the Subculture of Cool Japan (Kodansha International, 2009), Tokyo Realtime: Akihabara(White Rabbit Press, 2010), Otaku Spaces (Chin Music Press, 2012) and The Moe Manifesto: An Insider’s Look at the Worlds of Manga, Anime and Gaming (Tuttle, 2014), and the co-editor of Idols and Celebrity in Japanese Media Culture (Palgrave, 2012) and Debating Otaku in Contemporary Japan: Historical Perspectives and New Horizons (Bloomsbury, 2015).

In Defense of Moe: An Interview with Patrick W. Galbraith (Part Two)

The youthfulness of the manga and anime characters is something that struck me in the images you included in the book. Is that a cause for concern? If you take a character like Usagi, she’s a girl, which is a difference from Wonder Woman, but I don’t think that we need to be concerned about it. In his work, which is foundational to manga and anime, Tezuka did not insist on his characters being adults. Tezuka was writing for children, and often had children play major roles in his work. And even though he was writing for children, Tezuka was introducing ideas from film, theater and literature into his manga. So, he didn’t speak down to children as an audience, but rather respected them enough to believe that they do not need to be sheltered from life, from stories about a range of human experiences.

This approach contributed to the formation of manga and anime as forms of entertainment where the age of characters depicted and the age of the target audience does not limit the type of story that can be told. This not only contributes to children getting more deeply involved with stories that challenge them and expose them to new ideas, but also what Matt Hills calls “double-coding,” where the same work can be enjoyed by both children and adults, and which sustains long-term engagement with works that change as audiences mature into new understandings. This is one of the keys to the formation of fan cultures, right?

There is no question that Tezuka’s works piqued the interest of a generation of young people, who then went on to produce their own manga and anime, which took things even further down the path that Tezuka had charted. While there have been rashes of panic about manga and anime in Japan, up to and including deeming Tezuka’s works to be “harmful” to children, there wasn’t really a response to manga in Japan that led to anything like the Comics Code in the United States, which in the 1950s effectively killed forms of comics containing “unwholesome” expressions, which were thought to contribute to juvenile delinquency. There was a movement against “harmful manga” in Japan in the 1990s, but people did not widely support it.

The industry imposed limits on itself, but they were nowhere near as reactionary as the United States in the 1950s. For example, rather than agreeing to not allow certain types of content, publishers marked some manga as “adult” and placed them into “adult” sections of stores. In Japan, in theory, you can draw and publish whatever you want, so long as the material is not obscene and access to it is controlled.

Of course, anime is televised, requires a larger budget and has sponsors, which is more constricting, but consider that Neon Genesis Evangelion – a story about “angels” attacking earth, giant robots engaging them in brutal hand-to-hand combat and the psychological damage caused to the children forced to pilot these robots – aired at 6:30pm on Wednesday nights. We aren’t talking about cable here, but rather basic television that everyone can access, and 6:30pm is a time when general audiences, including children, might be watching. Cowboy Bebop – a story about bounty hunters that encounter terrorism, crime, cults, suicide, murder, human experimentation, drug use and more – was aired at 6:00pm, a timeslot previously occupied by an anime based on a story serialized in a shōjo manga magazine.

As these examples show, there is not as much of a compartmentalization of content in Japan, or a notion that children should not see or be involved in stories about the adult world, or that any exposure to depictions of violence or sexuality will irreparably scar them. The truly “adult” content is labeled and zoned properly. While not “adult” in the sense of pornographic, many of the TV shows associated with the moe boom in the late 1990s and early 2000s were shown late at night, when children would not be watching. This hands-off approach to regulation has contributed to manga and anime becoming some of the most interesting media in the world.

In turn, it makes sense that people growing up with manga and anime never “grow out of it,” because it isn’t something just for kids or somehow below real literature, film or TV. If you grow up surrounded by and relating to the fictional characters of manga and anime, it makes sense that you might be attracted to them. They are part of life, or growing up and everyday routines.

To my eyes, moe can be very meaningful to and good for people. In fact, over the course of researching and compiling this book, many people told me that manga and anime had saved their lives by giving them something to hold onto in difficult times. Take a look at the interviews with Honda Tōru, Maeda Jun and Sōda Mitsuru. Unless the response to fictional characters is harming others living creatures, unless the response is violence, I do not think that we should be at all concerned with moe, beyond curiosity about other human beings, their interests and ways of life.

Worse still would be to say that “moe media,” whatever that means, should be regulated. To ask Japan to more strictly regulate manga and anime, when there is no one harmed in the production of such media and no evidence of a statistical link to crime of any kind, is to say that there need be no demonstrable harm, because your thoughts and feelings in relation to fictional characters are “perverse” and therefore should not be allowed. If moe means a positive response to fictional characters or representations of them, then the reaction against it is a negative response to the response to those fictional characters. “It’s gross, I don’t like it.” So what? What that person responds to as moe may not be your thing, but regulating based on taste is as absurd as it is untenable.

You write in your introduction about a march involving the Revolutionary Moe Alliance in 2007. Why is such an alliance necessary and in what sense, real or playful, can we see moe as a revolutionary force in contemporary culture?

There were many groups like the Revolutionary Moe Alliance marching in Tokyo in the mid-to-late 2000s. Most were inspired by or shared the thesis of Honda Tōru, who argues that there is a system of “love capitalism” (ren’ai shihonshugi) that engenders unreasonable expectations for men.

Depending on the group, they come at the perceived problem from a variety of directions. For example, some argue that the stereotypical middleclass family ideal posits a gainfully employed company man, who supports and is supported by a stay-at-home wife, who will also raise their children. Given the dissolution of fulltime, longterm employment at large companies since the 1990s, the model of (re)productive maturity, the so-called “salaryman,” is increasingly unachievable for men, who appear immature or as failures. The man without “regular” employment, the “irregular” man, is thought to have less of a chance of attracting women. Such men are among those called himote, which means unpopular with the opposite sex. There are certainly other reasons to be in that category, including physical appearance, communication skills, hobbies and so on. The himote is a man who fails in the marketplace of love, and thus protests “love capitalism.” For himote, there is an unbridgeable “love gap” (ren’ai kakusa) between “winners” (kachigumi) and “losers” (makegumi), they are on the wrong side and their numbers are swelling.

In some particularly pedantic and indeed sexist veins, women’s motives for dating and marriage are reduced to economic ones, and one’s lack of appeal to others is blamed on an unfair system, a line of argumentation that makes those indulging in it seem like altogether unappealing human beings. The rhetoric is somewhat familiar from men’s rights movements in the United States, but the barely concealed violence of the American counterpart seems absent from himote in Japan.

Most of their marches are comprised of a small number of men enjoying one another’s company and making a spectacle of themselves. They almost seem to relish being “failures,” but not quite, because they still seem to maintain goals for success, namely getting paid and laid, that are recognizable to hegemonic masculinity. These men want things on their terms, which can come off as somewhat entitled.

A distinct break from this comes in the form of otaku, who also march against expectations of men, but celebrate being dropouts of love capitalism. For these men, and Honda Tōru states it most clearly, a system of commoditized romance that forces people onto expensive dates to fashionable places is not only out of reach for most men, but also entirely unappealing. This love capitalism, or love on the terms of a capitalist imaginary, does not seem “real” to them, but more like a fantasy sold through trendy TV dramas, which combine romance and consumption. Men like Honda Tōru argue that otaku dropped out of love capitalism and instead pursue their interests and hobbies. So, these men are interested in manga and anime instead of going on dates and “getting the girl,” but this is not a failure so much as an alternative, though which they, too, can live happily ever after.

This refusal of love capitalism makes otaku appear to be socially and sexually immature, but in this they have found alternatives ways of living and loving in the world. I was personally quite touched reading Honda Tōru’s response to a young man who, feeling like a failure without friends or romantic prospects, decided to murder seven people on the streets of Akihabara. It was a horrific event, but Honda’s message was one of empathy. Honda Tōru acknowledged that they were both very similar in terms of personal history, but he had something to hold onto that this young man did not: anime. To Honda Tōru’s eyes, this was a young man who felt pressured to become a “regular” man, with all the attendant responsibilities, rights and respect that come with achieving that middleclass ideal, but he could not do so, felt like a failure and lashed out at the world. Honda writes that he wished he could have told this young man to take it easy, hold on a little longer and wait for things to improve. Honda, who struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts as a young man, suggests that anyone who is considering doing violence to themselves or others instead withdraw from society and its pressures for a time. He advocates not seeking revenge for perceived wrongs, or ending life through violence, but rather seeking something to hold onto, for example hobbies and people to share them with, and living life with a different set of values that don’t make you feel like a loser or failure.

This otaku position is a politics of survival for those who have somehow failed or have been made to feel like failures, which is a shared condition. In addition to himote and otaku, the last group that was marching in Akihabara is associated with moe. These are people who actively seek alternatives to expectations of men, which is to say assigned sex/gender roles, in relationships with fictional characters. This can take the form of “marriage” to a fictional character, belonging to a community of shared interest around a character, and so on. Manga, anime and games do not necessarily get us out of hegemonic sex/gender roles, as we have seen from Gamer Gate, but some certainly see that potential. Again, there is Honda Tōru, who argues for a “moe masculinity” that embraces both the masculine and feminine sides of one’s self, which can be nurtured and accessed in interactions with fictional characters outside of the expectations of society.

Moe men can at least imagine sex/gender differently, which then might impact the ways that they understand themselves and interact with others. This is very much the message that Momoi Halko, a female idol, voice actress and producer gave in her interview for the book, where she describes moe as contributing to a space of a “third gender/sex” (daisan no sei). Statements like this one are surprisingly common, and actually have been made even by feminist thinkers such as Ueno Chizuko as early as 1989. It is interesting that many female critics and creators note this of moe, which seems to suggest that they see something different in “moe men,” who actually are not so recognizable as “men” anymore.

This potential for change in sex/gender roles through thought experiments involving fictional characters and in interactions with fictional characters is some of the most exciting revolutionary potential in contemporary Japan, and while it is very much playful and parodic, that does not mean that it is not real.

A word of caution in all of this: Potential for change in sex/gender does not mean that moe is not without its sexism. In all three broad and overlapping groupings – himote, otaku and moe men – there is a shared danger of not only reproducing and reinforcing sex/gender stereotypes – Honda Tōru, a man, is married to a fictional girl character, which sounds all too familiar – but also rejecting women to create a space of autonomous sexuality. To take an easy example, Honda Tōru’s book is titled Moe Man (Moeru otoko), which has “man” right in the title. To the extent that one must reject women to reform one’s self as a man, this is a sexist position.

In response to the success of Densha otoko, a live-action film and TV drama about an otaku who falls in love with a real woman and reforms himself to earn her love, which Honda Tōru has rightly criticized as a didactic message, I remember seeing signs in Akihabara reading, “Real otaku are not aroused by three-dimensional women.” The real or three-dimensional woman has to be rejected by the “real” otaku, who is implicitly male.

Falling into this reactionary stance is certainly a danger, but what really struck me about the march that the Revolutionary Moe Alliance participated in was that it was not only “men.” The march, which was titled Akihabara Liberation Demonstration (Akihabara kaihō demo), took place in Akihabara in June 2007, and there were men, women, women costuming as male characters, men costuming as female characters – all these people together on the street.

Akihabara is an area usually associated with male otaku, which colored perceptions of the moe boom centered on media reports about Akihabara, but what I saw on the street was not exclusively or even necessarily “male.” Rather, the liberation of Akihabara, where affection for fictional characters is shown without shame, was more about flexible, shifting and relational sex/gender roles, which could be disrupted or shifted by interacting with fictional characters and costuming as them, by performing sex/gender differently. That is why the image of the Akihabara march remains so vivid in my mind. It seemed to me that Akihabara and moe were offering a platform for the articulation and expression of sex/gender politics beginning not with autonomy from women, but rather from the “regular” or “normal.” Indeed, the direct impetus for the march was a sort of creeping conservatism in policing otaku performances on the streets of Akihabara, as well as plans to clean up the “public sex culture” – with respect to Michael Warner and Lauren Berlant – there.

In the 2000s, Akihabara was being reimagined as a showcase for what the government was calling “Cool Japan,” which focuses on promoting wholesome manga and anime, which was somewhat at odds with the openly sexual content – erotic simulation games, pornographic fanzines, sexually posed figurines of cute girl characters, maid cafés – on open display in the area. The demonstration to liberate Akihabara seemed, to me at least, to be about keeping the space open and unsanitized so that people could freely explore and share relationships, even sexual ones, which fictional characters.

Patrick W. Galbraith received a Ph.D. in Information Studies from the University of Tokyo, and is currently pursuing a second Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology at Duke University. He is the author of The Otaku Encyclopedia: An Insider’s Guide to the Subculture of Cool Japan (Kodansha International, 2009), Tokyo Realtime: Akihabara(White Rabbit Press, 2010), Otaku Spaces (Chin Music Press, 2012) and The Moe Manifesto: An Insider’s Look at the Worlds of Manga, Anime and Gaming (Tuttle, 2014), and the co-editor of Idols and Celebrity in Japanese Media Culture (Palgrave, 2012) and Debating Otaku in Contemporary Japan: Historical Perspectives and New Horizons (Bloomsbury, 2015).

 

In Defense of Moe: An Interview with Patrick W. Galbraith (Part One)

Japan has one of the most vibrant and generative popular culture in the world with Japanese media being one of that country's major national exports and with the forms of fan culture that emerge in the streets of Tokyo exerting an influence on participatory culture world-wide. There is also not surprisingly a growing number of scholars in Japan who are producing insightful research on these phenomena, only a small selection of which has been translated and made available to readers in the west. We are seeing some important work emerge that seeks to bridge between Japanese and American researchers working on topics such as "media mix"/transmedia or "Otaku"/fandom, including books showcased here in the past by Mimi Ito, Ian Condry, and Marc Steinberg, as well as the recently launched summer workshop program on "media mix" which Sternberg and Condry run along with Otsuka Eiji and other colleagues there. When I encountered Patrick W. Galbraith's The Moe Manifesto: An Insider's Look at the Worlds of Manga, Anime, and Gaming, I immediately recognized its value in providing a similar glimpse into both Japanese popular culture and the scholarship that has grown up around it. Using the concept of Moe (a particular kind of relationship between fans and fictional characters) as his point of entry, Galbraith interviews creative artists, fans, and scholars, offering an accessible but theoretically provocative glimpse into contemporary developments, with a strong focus on notions of spectatorship and fandom. The book is intended for a general reader -- heavy on brightly colored illustrations of both commercial and fan art -- yet as a consequence, it offers perhaps the most readable and teachable introduction to these themes and concepts. As someone who is certainly not a specialist on Japanese popular media but who maintains active interest in this space, I read it with enormous interest.

And I am very happy to be presenting an extended six-part interview with the book's editor, Galbraith, who was very generous and patient in explaining some of the underlying ideas that animated this project. Across this exchange, Galbraith offers insights into the gender and sexual politics of contemporary Otaku culture, including detailed accounts of what draws both male and female fans to these works; he speaks in depth about the ways that Moe fans have challenged conventional notions of masculinity and he discusses some of the backlash against these materials and the fan activities being discussed, especially as Japan wants to lay claim to a "cool Japan" framing of its cultural productions, while avoiding alternative labels that might stress the oddity or perversity of some Japanese media. He also shares with us some of the critical debates in Japan, which he feels sheds light on key concerns in western scholarship, including those surrounding subcultural identities and fan labor. Even if you are not especially interested in anime or manga, there's much here which can help shake up some of the core debates in our field.

 

A central theme of the book is to push us beyond any surface level understanding of the concept, but we still need a starting point for this discussion, so can you share with me how you would define the concept of moe and what do you see as its relationship to the concept of otaku, which may perhaps be somewhat better known in American culture?

 

To get us started, moe is the noun form of a verb, moeru, which means “to burst into bud” or “to sprout.” This is the actual definition, but, in contemporary Japan, moe is slang and has little to do with bursting into bud or sprouting. The meaning is closer to a homonymous verb, moeru, which means “to burn.” The story goes that among manga, anime and game fans, sometimes called otaku, in online discussions of fictional characters, people were accidentally typing “to burst into bud” when they meant “to burn,” or when they were saying, “I’m so into this or that character,” “I’m fired up.” In this way, moe became slang for what gets the motor running, tugs at the heartstrings or enflames the passions.

At a very basic level, there are three important things to keep in mind. First, moe is a verb, something that occurs, not something that is. Second, what occurs is a response, which is located in a human being. Third, the response is to fictional characters or representations of them. This last part is crucial, because it indicates what makes the word moe distinct and hints at why it’s worth talking about at all. The term moe comes out of growing awareness in Japan of human affection for and attachment to fictional characters.

Why Japan? Simply because manga and anime are such a huge part of growing up; the quality, quantity and diversity of content is such that one does not have to graduate out of these interests; and some, building on basic exposure to and widely available media and material, take interests further, exploring and expanding the worlds of otaku. Because manga and anime are such a massive part of popular culture in Japan – and there is a notable manga/anime aesthetic in certain types of games and novels, too – there is a general appreciation of the fictional character as an object of affection.

Moe gives a name to this, and the people using it are very much aware of their own affection for fictional characters, which trigger a response in them. Such fans are almost the stereotypical otaku, who loves manga and anime, specifically fictional characters, more than is “normal,” even in Japan. Otaku activities – for example the massive Comic Market, an event that attracts 500,000 people, many of whom come to buy and sell fanzines featuring their favorite manga and anime characters – draw attention. Manga and anime fans can hardly be ignored in Japan, which has led to a cottage industry of writing about otaku, as well as the emergence of otaku critics, theories of otaku (otaku ron) and even a pseudo-academic discipline of otaku-ology (otakugaku).

In this robust body of literature, at least since the turn of the new millennium, moe appears as a concept to be discussed and debated in various ways. What attracted me to the concept of moe was not only the recognition of the human response to fictional characters, but also how this then led to questions about society, the economy and politics. So, for example, some fans advocate “marrying” fictional characters, a sort of performance of affection and gambit for social recognition of a relationship that is very real; others take that as a starting point for social critiques of sex/gender, and propose alternatives ways of being in the world in relation to fictional characters and others. Such statements about moe are as provocative as they are political, and I wanted to try to understand where they were coming from.

I’m a fan of manga and anime myself, and have been getting tattoos of my favorite characters since middle school, so moe didn’t seem like such a strange concept to me, but I had not considered it in any serious way. In Japan, among otaku, I was presented with an opportunity for sustained thinking about human relationships with fictional characters, which, let me be clear, are a very real part of life for many people, and not just in Japan.

However, all too often it seems that people are content to point and laugh at the “moe phenomenon,” which is taken to be one of those “only in Japan” or “weird Japan” things. Closing down the dialogue in this way is a real shame, and I wanted to stage an intervention, frankly. By reading and translating Japanese texts, conducting fieldwork and, most importantly, identifying and introducing Japanese thinkers in English, I thought it possible to begin to bridge the gap between the discourse on moe inside and outside Japan. Focusing on interviews allowed me to present a diverse range of un-synthesized perspectives, while also focusing on the face and voice of a given Japanese thinker, who, thus personalized, is harder to brush off. So, definition! Moe is a positive response to fictional characters or representations of them.

 

A key element of moe seems to have to do with notions of “cuteness” or “innocence” and yet there is also a widespread perception that moe constitutes a form of perversity. Why do you think moe generates such strong reactions? Are there forms of moe which should be cause for concern? 

 

A small caveat, first. Moe is a response located in a human being interacting with a fictional character. What a person responds to and in what way differs based on the person, so any general claim that this type of character is “moe” – which is a description of an object, not a human response – often serves to obscure more than it reveals. That said, moe is coming out of discussions of manga and anime characters, as well as game and novel characters drawn in the manga/anime style, so there can appear to be something of a shared aesthetic.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll focus on female characters, because they are the ones that most often get people up in arms about moe. One rarely hears that it’s “perverse” for girls and women to be fans of male characters, or that the designs of those male characters are somehow “perverse.” At the heart of the concern about moe is male fans and female characters, and the relationship between them, so let’s consider the manga/anime style in response to that concern.

The manga/anime style, as popularized by Tezuka Osamu, the “God of Manga,” after WWII, is notable for being “cute.” You see a lot of round shapes and simplified features. In shōjo (for girls) manga, you also see soft lines and large eyes. The styles seen in manga originally intended for children and girls became much more popular in the 1970s and 1980s, when even adult men were consuming these works and developing bishōjo (cute girl) manga and anime in dialogue with female artists.

To give a specific example, Usagi, the main character of Sailor Moon, is a bishōjo character, originally drawn by a female artist for a manga targeting young girls, who became popular with a diverse audience, including adult men, when adapted into anime. Now, compare Sailor Moon to Wonder Woman. The “cute” or manga/anime aesthetic is clear.

What is the significance of this distinction? Historically, it’s seems to be a break with “realism.” After Tezuka’s initial manga revolution in the late 1940s and early 1950s, a style emerged in contradistinction to his work. Called gekiga, these works were something like graphic novels, and focused on a “realistic” style of drawing to capture realistic people and settings and comment on real social issues. Gekiga typically featured more “mature” characters and stories and was intended for a more “mature” audience. These works became extremely popular as part of the counterculture movement in the 1960s, when students and protesters rallied around stories of outcasts and working-class folk rising up against the system. However, after losing steam with the failure of the student movement and the incorporation of artists into the mainstream industry, the gekiga movement died down. After a period of relative obscurity, Tezuka roared back onto the scene, telling mature stories for mature readers, but using his manga/anime style of cute characters.

Further, shōjo manga was undergoing a major renaissance in terms of quality content, which attracted even adult male readers. This is the creative ferment from which the bishōjo emerged in the mid-to-late 1970s and into the 1980s.

Bringing mature content and readers to styles originally intended for children and girls, the result is the manga/anime style we know today. It lasted because both men and women were producing this hybrid style, which appealed to children and adults, men and women. While it may appear strange or, dare I say it, “perverse” to some outside of Japan to express mature themes and stories, which include sex and violence, using cute characters, few in Japan would think of the majority of manga and anime that way. Even pornographic variants, produced by both men and women working in genres for men and women, are not necessarily “perverse.” They are cute, drawn in a familiar style.

We might consider perversity at the level of content, or what characters are depicted as doing to and with one another, but there is such a wide range of content in manga and anime. Perhaps someone thinks it perverse, but for others it’s totally normal. Consider that during the renaissance of shōjo manga in the 1970s, stories of male-male romance, which included sex scenes, where quite popular. As Fujimoto Yukari points out, such “boys’ love” manga, produced primarily by and for women, is by now a taken-for-granted part of the landscape of shōjo manga. The thought of tweens and adolescent girls reading comics about male homosexuality might seem totally perverse in the United States, but it has become a norm in Japan. Indeed, some see in Japanese manga and anime culture an incredible tolerance for diverse content and fantasies, which should be celebrated.

Fiction makes possible and allowable all sorts of diverse characters, interactions and interactions with characters. Indeed, the instance on fiction seems very important to understanding moe. If the gekiga aesthetic was known for realism, then the return to the manga/anime aesthetic implies an embrace of “unrealism,” or the patently fictional, as we can see in the bishōjo character, whose face does not resemble a human one, but takes on its own internal realism within manga/anime. Moe is the recognition and response to the fictional real.

Saitō Tamaki, who is interviewed in the book, goes as far as to talk about an orientation of desire toward fiction. This doesn’t have to go as far as a sexual orientation, though for some it does, but realizing that interactions with fictional characters do not necessarily reflect desired interactions with other human beings is one of the greatest insights of manga/anime culture in Japan. Moe is a word that refers precisely to the response to fictional characters, which is why it is valuable.

Once we begin to say that this fictional character, fictional interaction or interaction with a fictional character is perverse and therefore should not be allowed, we quickly devolve into thought policing, which manga and anime creators, critics and fans actively fight against in Japan. So, for example, I can totally understand why someone might find it perverse that an adult male says Usagi from Sailor Moon is moe. In the story, she begins as a 14-year-old girl, very cute and innocent, though intersecting past and future lives mean that she is also a princess and queen, a wife and mother, and an ass-kicking superhero.

So, if we are calling this perverse, what exactly do we mean? In many cases, I think that we just assume that this adult male somehow harbors sexual desires for middle-school girls, which is a conflation of Usagi as a fictional character with actual girls, a reduction of this fictional character to a simplified category – why is her age more important than her being a transforming superhero? – and a completely unfair snap judgment about ulterior motives for responding to this fictional character, which not only pathologizes a human being, but also sets the justification for criminal treatment, for treating someone as a criminal.

We really have no idea what the qualitative response of this person is to Usagi, and we should not be speculating about it. I could just as easily speculate that he wants to be Usagi, right? We cannot prove what someone is thinking when he or she responds to a fictional character or utters the word moe, and we really ought not be concerned with it. It is enough to know that our theoretical man is responding to Usagi, a fictional character, which hurts no one and brings joy to his life.

 

Patrick W. Galbraith received a Ph.D. in Information Studies from the University of Tokyo, and is currently pursuing a second Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology at Duke University. He is the author of The Otaku Encyclopedia: An Insider’s Guide to the Subculture of Cool Japan (Kodansha International, 2009), Tokyo Realtime: Akihabara(White Rabbit Press, 2010), Otaku Spaces (Chin Music Press, 2012) and The Moe Manifesto: An Insider’s Look at the Worlds of Manga, Anime and Gaming (Tuttle, 2014), and the co-editor of Idols and Celebrity in Japanese Media Culture (Palgrave, 2012) and Debating Otaku in Contemporary Japan: Historical Perspectives and New Horizons (Bloomsbury, 2015).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Affective Publics and Social Media: An Interview with Zizi Papacharissi (Part One)

  Qd_WLSDk93c6LUWe_LyFwB4SsaiXye7lV7F5KNdtU5Y

"image by Daydream V.2 by Nonotak Studio"  

Have you ever finished writing a book and then discovered a new work which you wish you had read at the very beginning of the process? A work which makes a bold and original contribution to the field and thus shakes up some of the core of your analysis? A book which opens up new paths forward for you and for many other researchers working in this space?

For me, with Convergence Culture, that book was Yochai Benkler's The Wealth of Networks, and my response to that work informed several years of my subsequent writing. With Spreadable Media, that book was Nico Carpentier's Media and Participation, which has in turn shaped the thinking behind my current book project, By Any Media Necessary: Mapping Youth and Participatory Politics. As my co-authors and I were putting the finishing touches on By Any Media Necessary, I was asked to review and blurb Zizi Papacharissi's new book, Affective Publics: Sentiment, Technology, and Politics, which is now officially the book I wish I had read before I wrote this book. I immediately reached out to her both to do an interview for this blog and to come to USC to speak with our research group, which she is scheduled to do later this term.

My blurb for the book conveys some of the reasons for my enthusiasm: "I HEART #affectivepublics! Zizi Papacharissi brings enormous insight and much needed clarity to current debates about the role of social media in political life. Rejecting binaries which ascribe social movements to Twitter or Facebook or that dismiss all forms of online participation as 'Slacktivism,' she instead acknowledges the ways that social media has provided opportunities for new forms of expression and affiliation, new 'structures of feeling' that can in the right circumstances help to inspire and expand political movements. Her approach mixes theoretical sophistication with empirical rigor as it forces us to rethink what we thought we knew about the Egyptian Revolution and the Occupy movement."

You will get a taste for this remarkable book in the interview that follows, which touches on key themes, including a serious reconsideration of the nature of "media events" in an age of social media, the relationship between reason and passion in promoting social change, a fresh new way of thinking about the roles social media does or can play in the process of social change, and the tension between elites and the people, publicity and privacy, within democratic societies.

As I've watched events unfold since, especially the various examples of hashtag activism that have emerged in response to recent cases of radicalized police violence, I have found her perspectives enormously helpful in making sense of how such efforts do or do not make a difference in American racial politics. As she notes here, change in any form takes time, whether the kinds of street-based protests so powerfully depicted in Selma or the online movements that have dominated the news in recent months. Rather than being impatient or dismissive towards these more recent efforts, we need to understand how these acts of circulation both generate and sustain popular sentiment in ways that makes social change possible. Here's where the book intersects key strands of my own current writing around participatory politics -- we conclude that cultural and social factors, often operating outside the realm of institutional politics, may empower our participation, may give us a sense of solidarity and collectivity, and may thus represent important first steps towards other kinds of political change.

 

You write early in the book, “We feel for the Egyptian protesters fighting for and then celebrating the downfall of Mubarak first, and then Morsi later. We imagine their feelings of excitement first, and disillusionment later, but we do not always know enough about background, context, or history to have a full appreciation of their circumstances. Still we respond affectively, we invest our emotion to these stories, and we contribute to developing narratives that emerge through our own affectively charged and digitally expressed endorsement, rejection, or views.” So, can you break this passage down for us. What are the consequences of our ability to “feel” but not fully “understand” the political struggles of others? What differences does it make when we become contributors to these narratives rather than simply consumers?

 

There are events, and there are stories that are told about events. Most events we are not able to experience directly, so we have always relied on the storytelling oralities and technologies of an era to learn about them. What happens when we become contributors to these narratives, or stories, rather than simple consumers, is that we become involved in the developing story about an event; how it is presented, how it is framed, how it is internalized, and how it is potentially historicized. But do we become part of the event if we were not physically present to experience it first hand? That is what I am referring to when I say that we imagine what it feels like, but cannot know.

The obvious question that follows then, is, what does it mean to know? Doesn't the story told about an event also constitute its own event? I believe it does.  So we may think of different events, each sustained by the mediality each storytelling medium affords. For #egypt, there were the events on the streets, the events as they were told and experienced through Twitter and other social media, and the events as remediated through television and print media, and of course these events overlap, because the realities of the storytelling practices and hierarchies of these platforms converge and further re-energize spreadable storytelling structures, as you have been explaining and writing about for some time now.

The point I want to make with the book is that the mediality of each storytelling structure affords a different texture to each story; a unique way for feeling one's way into the event and thus becoming involved in it, a part of it. In my previous work I have used the term supersurfaces to describe the lightness, the evanescence of planes of civic engagement sustained by several social media platforms. Some have also described the form of engagement that these media invite as being of a rather thin or light nature, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. I wrote about this in A Private Sphere, and Ethan Zuckerman writes extensively about the civic merit behind thin acts of civic engagement.

And so for #egypt, as I found in my own research and wrote about in Affective Publics, Twitter permitted several diasporic and interconnected publics to chime in and produce, through the storytelling conventions of repetition (retweeting) and reinforcement, a collective chant of a revolution in the making, well before the movement itself had resulted in regime reversal (and some would argue that the movement still has not produced the comprehensive regime reversal they were hoping for). These forms of affective involvement can be key in connecting energies and helping reflexively drive movements forward. But they can also entangle publics in ongoing loops of engaged passivity.

 

As you note, there has been classically a tendency to separate out affect and reason and to be suspicious of politics that is motivated by emotion. Yet, even in the heart of the “Age of Reason,” it was possible to write about “the pursuit of happiness” as part of the rationale for democratic governance. So, can we ever fully separate out affect and reason when discussing political movements?

Never. But for some reason we really want to separate affect from reason, perhaps because we think they may be easier to control that way.

There is the tendency to want to separate the two, especially in terms of how we speak about emotion and logic in our everyday lives. But, in reading about affect and reason as I was working on this book, I can't say that any of the great philosophers who have looked at affect and reason intended for this separation to occur. We may focus on each term separately so as to define it properly, but really, so much philosophical work is consumed with explaining how the two modes of affect and reason connect and are meant to work together and inform each other, especially in attaining inner balance – what we may come to interpret as a state of happiness.

Affect and reason : One cannot exist without the other, and one cannot be defined in the absence of the other. So like we frequently do in such cases, we assume there is a binary distinction of some sort between the modes that renders them opposite forces. We make the same mistake in defining public vs. private, placing them on opposite ends of a continuum, and then falsely assume that to have more of one means giving up some of the other, when that is really not the case.

My hope is to reunite the two in terms of how we use social media to tell stories about ourselves and listen to stories that others share, thus developing emotionally informed literacies that help us understand and connect with the world surrounding us.

Zizi Papacharissi  is professor and head of the Communication Department at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Her work focuses on the social and political consequences of online media. Her books include A Private Sphere: Democracy in a Digital Age (Polity Press, 2010),  A Networked Self: Identity, Community, and Culture on Social Network Sites (Routledge, 2010),  and Journalism and Citizenship: New Agendas (Taylor & Francis, 2009). She has also authored over 40 journal articles, book chapters or reviews, and serves on the editorial board of eleven journals, including the Journal of Communication, Human Communication Research, and New Media and Society. Zizi is the editor of the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, and the new open access and available for free Sage journal Social Media and Society. Her fourth book, titled Affective Publics: Sentiment, Technology and Politics is out in November 2014 by Oxford University Press.

Why Star Trek Still Matters: An Interview with Roberta Pearson and Maire Messenger Davies (Part Five)

I was struck by a lacuna on p.128 where you start to distinguish your concept of world-building from transmedia storytelling. I wanted to see if I could get you to spell out more fully your distinction here, since you stop rather short in the text. Throughout, you place a strong emphasis on Trek as a television series, even as you discuss the feature films in relation to the television franchise. Yet we might also point at various moments in its history to key roles played by the novels, comics, games, and other extensions of Star Trek, suggesting that while there is a distinction between world-building and transmedia extension, in this case, the Trek world was built up across multiple media. Thoughts? First, let’s say that, given our focus on Star Trek as television we decided that we simply could not deal with the whole franchise because that would have precluded us from dealing with television Star Trek in the depth that we wanted to. Showing yet again that there’s always more to say about Star Trek, there’s still a book to be written about the franchise and transmedia storytelling (although Derek Johnson does have many interesting thinks to say about this in his book on franchises).

Second, it’s important to recognize that while we tend to associate world building with multiple texts, any fiction, even a short story, has to engage in world building. To draw again on narrative theory, a fiction has to establish its relationship to the ‘real’ world – its proximity to or distance from an historical ‘reality’. It then has to construct a credible world based on this proximity or distance. So for example, in a novel about the Napoleonic wars, like War and Peace, Tolstoi can inject fictional characters into a real historical setting and the presumption is, that with the exception of those characters, everything else will match the ‘historical reality’.

Fantasy fiction, precisely because it’s more distant from the ‘real’ world, has to work harder at world building, establishing the key differences between its world and the world we know. Star Trek began building its distinctive future world in its very first episode, introducing audiences to the military organization of the Enterprise, future technologies and the like. Even had the series ended there a corner of the Star Trek world, albeit a very small one, would nonetheless have been constructed. But in Star Trek’s case the world building continued over more than seven hundred television episodes and over other media.

We’d want to make a basic distinction between world building, which can occur in a single medium, either in a short story or over 700 plus episodes of a television show, and transmedia storytelling, which we would argue by definition has to involve two or more media. Maybe if all the worldbuilding is done within one medium we need a new term – we used ‘extended seriality’ to refer to the Star Trek television shows’ worldbuilding.

This is the kind of one-medium world building that takes place in comic books; so, for example, the Batman world has been undergoing construction and refurbishment and some degree of demolishment since 1939. Even though various comics titles contribute to this world building it still takes place in one medium. Anthony Smith has a very good chapter on the Bat-world’s continuity strategies in the reboot of The Many Lives of the Batman, Many More Lives of the Batman, which Roberta co-edited with William Uricchio and Will Brooker (it will be out next year with BFI Publishing). Picking up on Bobby Allen’s analysis of soaps, he argues that the writers construct both syntagmatic and paradigmatic seriality as they seek to satisfy dedicated readers and keep casual ones happy, introducing a subtle continuity that the latter will recognize but which won’t baffle the latter.

Transmedia storytelling raises problems of coordination and integration and consumer behaviour that single-medium, and sometimes single-authored, world building doesn’t. One of Roberta’s doctoral student’s, Matthew Freeman, is just finishing a terrific dissertation on the pre-convergence history of trans-media storytelling. He argues that world building is one of the factors, together with characters and authors, that hold transmedia worlds together to a greater or lesser extent. So we would see world building as a necessary condition for, but not coterminous with, trans-media storytelling. But, as Sherlock Holmes would say, ‘these are deep waters, Watson’ and we can either stop here or engage in a protracted discussion of media industries and of narrative theory. So we’ll go on to the next question.

Your focus on the future of Star Trek in the conclusion focuses almost entirely on official television production, yet you could argue that Trek does exist in a Post-Network era in the form of various fan-produced web-series on the one hand and the J.J. Abrams produced feature films on the other. How might we extend your arguments if we incorporated these two forms of textual production into the mix?

Yes, once again those are topics that we couldn’t really address within the scope of the book, although they are of course important, since at the moment its only in the Abrams and fan films that Star Trek exists on the screen (other than the endless reruns of the various series all over the channel spectrum that is –and of course in games which should also be given some consideration). Looking at these texts raises very interesting questions about who and what is Star Trek.

Considering the Abrams films and the fan films would require addressing in more detail than we did in the book issues of authorship and branding. It would also require considering issues of canonicity, which we didn’t touch on in the book except somewhat indirectly in terms of Roddenberry’s conception of the Star Trek world. In terms of the feature films, you’d have to think about whether or not these are seen as part of the ‘official’ canon because of the change in perceived authorship. We make an argument in the book concerning the importance of the Roddenberry brand to Star Trek television even years after his death. But has this continued now that Star Trek no longer exists as television?

Roberta’s doctoral student, Leora Hadas, has a forthcoming piece in Cinema Journal ("A New Vision: J. J Abrams, Star Trek and Promotional Authorship") in which she analyses the tensions between the Roddenberry and Abrams brands in the publicity for the Star Trek films. Her conclusion, as we remember it, is that relatively little attention was paid to Roddenberry and for the most part only in sources specifically directed at the fan base.

The whole point of the reboot was to bring in new viewers, who might not even know about Roddenberry and Paramount doesn’t seem to have had much concern for the core fan base in that regard (even though Roddenberry’s name features prominently on the posters for the first film and in the credits for both). And, if we may be permitted a personal observation, we think that Abrams has gone so far off-brand that he’s turned Star Trek into Star Wars, just another space-opera, spectacle-filled blockbuster. We’d be interested to know whether this is a perception shared by the fans.

Must admit that we’ve only watched snatches of the fan films, but we would suspect that they are much more ‘faithful’ to the established television canon than the Abrams films, as indicated by their efforts to incorporate writers from the original series. So it seems that further commercial exploitation of Star Trek has to be predicated on drawing in new viewers, which means downplaying authorship and canonicity, while the fans have much more of an attachment to the canon. In that sense, it may be the fan films in which for some of us the ‘real’ Star Trek lives on.

Roberta Pearson is Professor of Film and Television Studies at the University of Nottingham in the UK.  Much of her career has been devoted to studying major cultural phenomenon or icons, such as Star Trek, Batman, Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes.  She was the co-editor of The Many Lives of the Batman, now being rebooted as Many More Lives of the Batman, co-edited with William Uricchio and Will Brooker (coming out with the BFI next year).  She's also written several essays on Shakespeare's cultural status and has recently been involved in a collaborative project on digital Shakespeare.  Her next project is on Sherlock Holmes for a book tentatively titled I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere: Transatlantic Sherlock Holmes. The book will deal with issues of authorship/canonicity, intellectual property, cultural distinctions, media franchises and lots of other topics currently at the forefront of debates in the field. For a preview see 'A Case of Identity: Sherlock, Elementary and their National Broadcasting Systems' in Roberta Pearson and Anthony N. Smith, editors, Storytelling in the Media Convergence Age: Exploring Screen Narratives (London: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2015) as well as ‘Sherlock Holmes, a De Facto Franchise?’in Lincoln Geraghty, ed., Popular Media Cultures: Writing in the Margins and Reading Between the Lines (London: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2015.She's been a Star Trek fan (in terms of watching and enjoying the tv programmes) since the original series' first run so writing the book was indeed a labour of love. But she was a Sherlock Holmes fan even before that, so her academic career seems to be progressing backwards, like Benjamin Button.

Máire Messenger Davies is Professor of Media Studies and Director of the Centre for Media Research at the University of Ulster. Her first degree was in English, from Trinity College Dublin – hence an interest in storytelling. She's a former media professional - she worked as a journalist in local newspapers, magazines and radio for many years – hence her insistence on the importance of hearing the producers' points of view. After having four children, she did her PhD in psychology as a mature student researching how people learn from television – hence her interest in audiences, particularly young audiences. Her own young audience shared many happy hours watching Star Trek TOS in the UK. On moving to work at Boston University in the US, from 1990-1994, the family were there at the height of TNG's greatest era and became firm fans. Using Star Trek as a case study to teach about TV, Culture and Society seemed an obvious way to freshen up a rather hackneyed core module at Cardiff University, alongside Professor Pearson, and this led – eventually – to Star Trek and American Television. Her other books include Television is Good for Your Kids (Hilary Shipman, London  1989, 2001); Fake, Fact and Fantasy (Mahwah NJ: Laurence Erlbaum, 1997);  Dear BBC: Children, television storytelling and the public sphere (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Children, Media and Culture, (Open University Press, 2010).

 

SEE YA NEXT YEAR!

Why Star Trek Still Matters: An Interview with Roberta Pearson and Maire Messenger Davies (Part Four)

A key tension on any television series is that directors come and go but actors tend to develop a stronger ownership of their characters over time. To what degree have Star Trek actors been able to shape the characters they play? In the book we point to this key tension as one of the primary determinants of the actors’ agency. Over the course of a long-running show they tend to take ownership of their characters, partly because no one else, including the writers, really does.

Part of this comes from the natural tendency that actors have toward wanting more screen time, so if they are powerful enough they can lobby for this. But it also comes from professional standards, which gets back to the question about a good script. The actors believe in consistent characterization, having their characters engage in actions and speak dialogue that they believe flows naturally from previous representations of the character.

In the book, we have a long quote from Patrick Stewart about his input in to the last TNG film, Nemesis, in which he says that he changed the script to make it more consistent with his vision of the character. But he also pointed out that not all actors can do that. As we argue, there’s a hierarchy of agency within any ensemble cast with the stars usually having more control over their characters than secondary cast members. And in Star Trek, the captain had more control than anyone which leads on to your next question.

While fans have often been drawn to secondary characters, there are strong television logics which work to insure the centrality of the Captains to our experience of the series. What are some of the ways that these television production logics re-assert themselves?

Herman Zimmerman, production designer on all the post-TOS series told us when we interviewed him that originally the TNG bridge was oval, with “a big oval conference table.” But that didn’t work, because “it didn’t give the captain precedence. And one of the things that Gene was really regretting, but then he realized that he had no other choice, the star of the series had to be the captain. He wanted every one of the crew members to be the star . . . but always the captain has to have the last word, and the captain has to have the bulk of the action or the audience is confused.”

Even in shows with large ensemble casts, like TNG, it seems that, to become a bit theoretical, there has to be a focus of narrative alignment, a character whose perspective guides viewers through the narrative or with whom they can ‘identify’. That’s tricky because, although both Murray Smith and Jason Mittell write about narrative alignment, they do so from a somewhat formalist and cognitive perspective. There’s no empirical audience research that we know of to back up the claim.

However, it certainly seems that television writers believe that there has to be a dominant focus of narrative alignment. One of the beauties of a long running series is that it does have the space to focus occasionally on secondary characters. But we would hypothesise that in any long running show from TNG to ER to Lost to Madmen, many episodes will be ‘star-centric’ with the remaining spread among the secondary characters. The only real exception that we can think of to this rule is The Wire which initially set up McNulty in a way that made it seem he would be the central character and then strayed away from him in the second season. In The Wire Baltimore was the main character in a way but this is the exception that proves the rule and we can’t think of another example of this strategy.

And of course not just the logics of television but the long-established logics of Hollywood centre around the star system, that gives some actors higher billing and more money than others. As we detail in the book, this became a point of contention between William Shatner, who because he was the Captain thought he was the star, and Leonard Nimoy, who very quickly became an audience favourite.

I generally respect your decision to bracket off the study of Star Trek fans from the study of the production process. I was struck, though, reading your chapter on character that this was somewhat problematic, and pleased that you added a brief, but important, discussion here about the ways character operates somewhat differently in fan fiction from on the aired episodes. That said, while it is true that we do not yet have a very conceptually rich way of talking about television characters, much work on Star Trek fandom has argued that it is very much a character-centered approach to understanding the series, hence the charge sometimes made against fan fiction that it is moving from space opera to soap opera. What might we learn if we brought together your production studies approach to how the creative team thought about the Star Trek characters with a more audience-centered approach on how fans conceived of these same characters?

That was another of those pragmatic decisions intended to keep the book from becoming a multi-volume series. Certainly no disrespect was intended to the fans who are such an important part of the Star Trek phenomenon, but you and others have devoted many pages to them and Trekkers are undoubtedly the most studied of all fandoms. And we ourselves talk about how the fans of the original series may have helped to push the networks towards a more nuanced understanding of their audiences.

As we’ve already said, the writers we interviewed very much stressed that they had a character-centred approach to their writing so in that sense they are to some degree aligned with fan fic writers. There are of course fans who take other pleasures from the Star Trek world, enjoying the technologies or the space battles for example, but for the most part they don’t seem to write fan fic although they might produce blueprints of the starships.

We think it would be, in Spock’s word, ‘fascinating’ to do a systematic study of the television writers’ approach to the characters versus fan fic writers. As you say, one of the key distinctions is genre, particularly when it comes to shipping in all its marvelous variations. Television soaps, which are fundamentally about relationships, can spend endless amounts of time on characters’ romantic entanglements, but other genres can’t do this. When Deep Space Nine started to have lots of romantic pairings, some referred to it rather scornfully as DS90210. Shifting genres can alienate audiences, as we saw many years ago when Twin Peaks began as a murder mystery but became supernatural in its second and final season in a shift that seems to have driven viewers away.

Also extensive exploration of characters and their relationships can, as we say in the book in the bit that you’re referring to, potentially undermine the stability of the series format. The example we give is that of the TNG episode ‘Chain of Command’ in which Picard is captured and tortured by the Cardassians. The second episode’s conclusion very quickly deals with Picard’s post-traumatic stress because he has to be back in command of the Enterprise in the next episode. But numerous fan fics deal with his recovery, particularly in terms of his relationship with the doctor, Beverly Crusher. But the television show can’t divert from its basic format of space exploration for several episodes of psychological and romantic drama that removes the Captain from the bridge. The Captain has a narrative function that he must continue to fulfill.

The different treatment of characters in the shows and in fan fic also relates to the point that we made above about an ensemble cast in which secondary characters have always to remain somewhat secondary in terms of their screen time.

There’s a good episode of Voyager called "Timeless" set fifteen years ahead of the present time line. Chakotay and Harry Kim managed to escape Voyager’s destruction and have spent the intervening years trying to find a way to undo the past. In those fifteen years Chakotay has acquired a girlfriend who helps them in their quest. Although we’ve not checked, we’d bet dollars to donuts that there are lots of fan fics filling in that narrative ellipsis and detailing the romance. But the television writers couldn’t devote time to that story not only because Chakotay is a secondary character, albeit an important one, but also because they would have had to stop telling stories about Voyager’s quest to get back to the Alpha quadrant in order to deal with events in a hypothetical future timeline.

Roberta Pearson is Professor of Film and Television Studies at the University of Nottingham in the UK.  Much of her career has been devoted to studying major cultural phenomenon or icons, such as Star Trek, Batman, Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes.  She was the co-editor of The Many Lives of the Batman, now being rebooted as Many More Lives of the Batman, co-edited with William Uricchio and Will Brooker (coming out with the BFI next year).  She's also written several essays on Shakespeare's cultural status and has recently been involved in a collaborative project on digital Shakespeare.  Her next project is on Sherlock Holmes for a book tentatively titled I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere: Transatlantic Sherlock Holmes. The book will deal with issues of authorship/canonicity, intellectual property, cultural distinctions, media franchises and lots of other topics currently at the forefront of debates in the field. For a preview see 'A Case of Identity: Sherlock, Elementary and their National Broadcasting Systems' in Roberta Pearson and Anthony N. Smith, editors, Storytelling in the Media Convergence Age: Exploring Screen Narratives (London: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2015) as well as ‘Sherlock Holmes, a De Facto Franchise?’in Lincoln Geraghty, ed., Popular Media Cultures: Writing in the Margins and Reading Between the Lines (London: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2015.She's been a Star Trek fan (in terms of watching and enjoying the tv programmes) since the original series' first run so writing the book was indeed a labour of love. But she was a Sherlock Holmes fan even before that, so her academic career seems to be progressing backwards, like Benjamin Button.

Máire Messenger Davies is Professor of Media Studies and Director of the Centre for Media Research at the University of Ulster. Her first degree was in English, from Trinity College Dublin – hence an interest in storytelling. She's a former media professional - she worked as a journalist in local newspapers, magazines and radio for many years – hence her insistence on the importance of hearing the producers' points of view. After having four children, she did her PhD in psychology as a mature student researching how people learn from television – hence her interest in audiences, particularly young audiences. Her own young audience shared many happy hours watching Star Trek TOS in the UK. On moving to work at Boston University in the US, from 1990-1994, the family were there at the height of TNG's greatest era and became firm fans. Using Star Trek as a case study to teach about TV, Culture and Society seemed an obvious way to freshen up a rather hackneyed core module at Cardiff University, alongside Professor Pearson, and this led – eventually – to Star Trek and American Television. Her other books include Television is Good for Your Kids (Hilary Shipman, London  1989, 2001); Fake, Fact and Fantasy (Mahwah NJ: Laurence Erlbaum, 1997);  Dear BBC: Children, television storytelling and the public sphere (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Children, Media and Culture, (Open University Press, 2010).

Why Star Trek Still Matters: An Interview with Roberta Pearson and Marie Messenger Davies (Part Three)

You raise some important points about the stability of Star Trek as an ongoing franchise over more than 18 years of production. How did this stability and predictability impact the creative process behind the show -- for better or for worse?

Star Trek was very atypical in its 18 year run particularly with regard to the fact that many of the same people, like executive producer Rick Berman, stayed with the show throughout those years. As you imply this stability had its upsides and its downsides.

With regard to the first, one of the most significant upsides was that it gave the producers the chance to create one of the most extended and complex fictional universes of all time, on a scale that, with perhaps the exception of Doctor Who, no other television program has achieved. And, as we discuss in chapters five and six, this led to some very ingenious world building, with producers, many of whom had been fans of the original series, harking back not only to TOS and TNG but in the post-TNG shows to all the previous series. This results in a degree of what’s come to be called fan service that can only be achieved within a vast canon. The creative process was stimulated by this and resulted in some very memorable and for fans emotionally satisfying episodes like TNG’s "Relics" which brings back the beloved Scotty.

But as Ron Moore pointed out to us when we interviewed him, the producers also had to be careful not to cater to fans too much and not to give in completely to their own fannish instincts. Had they done so they would have been writing fan fiction and not a television show aimed at millions of viewers.

Indeed, Stephen Moffat has been criticized for too much fan service in the most recent series of Sherlock, so it can negatively impact a show’s reception and perhaps exclude new viewers. We don’t think this happened with Star Trek, but it did become increasingly difficult for new viewers to enter such a complex universe.

Enterprise was meant to reboot the franchise by being less connected to the complicated backstory, but ironically, it became the most self-referential of all the series. The successful Star Trek reboot, the one that did attract new viewers, took place in cinema not on television and without the involvement of anyone who had made the television series. By contrast Doctor Who has successfully rebooted on television both honouring the backstory and managing to draw in new viewers. But maybe that’s because it did so precisely by drawing on new voices like Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat. You didn’t ask us about Doctor Who, but one of the reasons that there is always more to say about Star Trek is that as a case study it raises issues that are ongoing in terms of current productions.

Stability also had an upside with regard to the production process, one that we document in the book using interviews with many of the practitioners working on the show. As they constantly told us, the Star Trek production team was a ‘family’ that had worked together so long that they communicated by way of a creative shorthand. This both facilitated the smoothness of the production process and undoubtedly led to some very good episodes.

But that ‘family’ depended on having people at the top who were good managers. Michael Piller, now sadly deceased, joined TNG in its third season, after two seasons of upheaval, turmoil and some pretty bad episodes. He drew together the current writing staff and brought in new voices. But Brannon Braga seemed to be unable to do the same thing for Enterprise, one of the factors that we speculate could have contributed to its failure.

Reflecting in retrospect on the book, we perhaps should have made more of the downside. The producers told us that one of the problems with the failed Enterprise was that they couldn’t find writers who knew how to write Star Trek. But maybe what they meant was that they couldn’t find writers who knew how to write the long-established version of Star Trek that they themselves had helped to form.

Many fans and some academics have critised Berman and his fellow executive producer Brannon Braga for exploiting Star Trek simply for profit and not caring about Roddenberry’s vision. Our interviews did not lead us to this conclusion and we strongly refute this opinion in the book. However, in hindsight, perhaps it was not only Braga’s less than excellent management skills but the failure to incorporate new voices and new ideas that made Enterprise for the most part an inferior retread of the previous series.

You write about “Roddenberry’s Box” and the ways that founding concepts about what constitutes a Star Trek story have both enabled and constrained future creative contributions. What are some of the ways creative talent has negotiated in and around that Box through the years?

As we discuss in the introduction of the book, and at a number of points throughout, Roddenberry has become a ‘brand’ – the only name associated with television Trek to be given a credit in the new movie franchise. As such he represents both commercial value, but also something more intangible – what Kerry McCluggage referred to as a ‘vision’, and what writers sometimes referred to, using the more restrictive metatphor of a ‘box’. McCluggage told us:

“You do try to factor that [the Roddenberry vision] in, because that’s part of the appeal of Star Trek. He had an optimistic view of the future. He had a whole notion of how the Federation would evolve, and the Prime Directive, and things that are key elements in the show and values that are inherent in the show. In exploiting this property on a commercial basis, you really do find yourself going back to that, thinking, How does this fit in with the original vision of the show?”

Which is all very well, for the CEO, but for a writer the ‘vision’ and its strict rules could raise practical problems of narrative structure, not to mention a tendency for the ‘vision’, paradoxically, to generate conflict among the production team.

The two writers who specifically referred to the Roddenberry Box were Michael Piller, and Ronald D. Moore and they gave us specific examples of how they worked both within it, and around it. Piller described Roddenberry’s strict insistence that in the 23rd century (the period of TOS), “there wasn’t a lot of conflict between the characters because with the disappearance of want, poverty, disease, people were out pursuing a better quality of life;” this caused arguments among his writing team, who felt that conflict was necessary in a drama.

He described how he got round these strict rules in TNG’s ‘The Bonding’ [3:5] by using Gene’s insistence that in this advanced era of humanity nobody grieved when someone died, as a hook to develop a more interesting story. “The freakiest thing you’ve ever seen . . . a kid that doesn’t cry when his mother dies” enabled Piller and his team to bring forward an underdeveloped character, Counsellor Troi, to “strip down” to the underlying emotions of the bereft child. This was a good example of writers’ resourcefulness in being able to kill different birds with the same stone – giving Marina Sirtis a more satisfying role, which she had wanted, as well as solving a narrative problem arising from the restrictions of the ‘vision.’

Piller described how the Roddenberry Box suited him, and it became, to some extent, “ the Piller box”. Ron Moore, the author of "The Bonding", also described arguments over the fight between the Picard brothers in a TNG episode he wrote – a two parter called “Family” [4:1 and 4:2]. On this occasion, Piller and Berman were able to prevail over Roddenberry and to leave the fight in – despite the fact that Roddenberry didn’t want it. These discussions are described more fully in Chapter 2 of the book, ‘Art, Commerce and Creative Autonomy’ and also in a chapter by Máire: “Quality and Creativity in TV: The Work of Television Storytellers,” in Quality Television: American Contemporary Television and Beyond, ed. Janet McCabe and Kim Akass (London: I. B. Tauris, 2007), 171–84.

You describe how the creative talent on the series tends to stress the importance of “good scripts” in triggering the production process. What are some of the traits they associated with a “good” Star Trek script?

First, let’s address this question from a more general perspective. Judgments as to good and bad have been largely dodged by people within media and cultural studies, because of the influence of theories of cultural relativism. As we told you, we did try to come to grips with questions of quality in a chapter that didn’t make it into the book, both because the book was getting too big and because we didn’t manage to resolve the debate to our own satisfaction. But since producers, critics and audiences all continue to make value judgments it’s important that academics address this issue. And in doing so, it’s vital to listen to what practitioners have to say about their own value judgments, even though they might believe in them implicitly and find them hard to articulate.

That being said, in terms of Star Trek, perhaps surprisingly in light of its genre, the writers and others’ evaluation of scripts depended on criteria that were established with 19th century literary and dramatic realism. Perhaps primary among these is what you might call fully developed, rounded or psychologically motivated characters whose motivations contribute to story development. Several of our interviewees, especially Michael Piller, emphasized the importance of character above all.

So a good script might be one that advanced a character’s arc through giving him a dilemma to grapple with and resolve. Piller told us that the fan favourite "Best of Both Worlds" two-parter in which Picard gets assimilated by the Borg is really more about first officer Riker’s decision to take his own command or stay with the Enterprise.

A good script could also explore the ongoing relationship between two characters. Good characterization, consistent with the previous establishment of the character, we think, was the overarching criterion determining whether a script was good or bad. Scripts would also have to be like the proverbial ‘well-made’ play or for that matter, classical Hollywood film, setting up and resolving enigmas and wrapping up everything neatly at the end.

Roberta Pearson is Professor of Film and Television Studies at the University of Nottingham in the UK.  Much of her career has been devoted to studying major cultural phenomenon or icons, such as Star Trek, Batman, Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes.  She was the co-editor of The Many Lives of the Batman, now being rebooted as Many More Lives of the Batman, co-edited with William Uricchio and Will Brooker (coming out with the BFI next year).  She's also written several essays on Shakespeare's cultural status and has recently been involved in a collaborative project on digital Shakespeare.  Her next project is on Sherlock Holmes for a book tentatively titled I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere: Transatlantic Sherlock Holmes. The book will deal with issues of authorship/canonicity, intellectual property, cultural distinctions, media franchises and lots of other topics currently at the forefront of debates in the field. For a preview see 'A Case of Identity: Sherlock, Elementary and their National Broadcasting Systems' in Roberta Pearson and Anthony N. Smith, editors, Storytelling in the Media Convergence Age: Exploring Screen Narratives (London: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2015) as well as ‘Sherlock Holmes, a De Facto Franchise?’in Lincoln Geraghty, ed., Popular Media Cultures: Writing in the Margins and Reading Between the Lines (London: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2015.She's been a Star Trek fan (in terms of watching and enjoying the tv programmes) since the original series' first run so writing the book was indeed a labour of love. But she was a Sherlock Holmes fan even before that, so her academic career seems to be progressing backwards, like Benjamin Button.

Máire Messenger Davies is Professor of Media Studies and Director of the Centre for Media Research at the University of Ulster. Her first degree was in English, from Trinity College Dublin – hence an interest in storytelling. She's a former media professional - she worked as a journalist in local newspapers, magazines and radio for many years – hence her insistence on the importance of hearing the producers' points of view. After having four children, she did her PhD in psychology as a mature student researching how people learn from television – hence her interest in audiences, particularly young audiences. Her own young audience shared many happy hours watching Star Trek TOS in the UK. On moving to work at Boston University in the US, from 1990-1994, the family were there at the height of TNG's greatest era and became firm fans. Using Star Trek as a case study to teach about TV, Culture and Society seemed an obvious way to freshen up a rather hackneyed core module at Cardiff University, alongside Professor Pearson, and this led – eventually – to Star Trek and American Television. Her other books include Television is Good for Your Kids (Hilary Shipman, London  1989, 2001); Fake, Fact and Fantasy (Mahwah NJ: Laurence Erlbaum, 1997);  Dear BBC: Children, television storytelling and the public sphere (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Children, Media and Culture, (Open University Press, 2010).

Why Star Trek Still Matters: An Interview with Roberta Pearson and Maire Messenger (Part Two)

You discuss Star Trek as in some ways a transitional text between the models of the mass audience and the least objectionable programming which shaped the early network era and the model of the niche or segmented audience which would inform the multi-network or post-network era. This seems closely connected to your idea that the series is both representative and exceptional to the television practices of its time. So, what was it about Star Trek which encouraged networks and producers to think differently about television audiences? In our chapter 1, on Star Trek and television history, hopefully we make it clear that during the network era, the networks and producers didn’t really ‘think differently’ about TV audiences, even though there’s obviously evidence that audiences were already ‘niche-ing’ themselves by becoming active fans. Star Trek fans certainly did this, although they didn’t affect the network’s decision to cancel the show. In terms of the industry’s attitudes, it’s only with hindsight that we (and other writers on Star Trek) have been able to see that what saved the show/franchise during this era was the beginnings of a ‘niche’ audience when it was sold to Kaiser Broadcasting for syndication.

In 1967 Kaiser syndicated it at 6 pm against the news on other channels, calculating that this would attract ‘young males.’ We describe the ‘faint signals’ of the future of specialized audience targets on pp 45- 46. Star Trek fans were the elusive 18-25 age group and they were even prepared to ‘march in the street’ to try to save their show. But NBC at that stage cancelled it because success was still primarily measured in mass numbers. To some extent it continued to be and still is – Enterprise failed in 2005 because it didn’t get high ratings, other shows still fail for the same reason.

But as we point out, ‘eras’ don’t neatly stop and give way to the next one; there’s always overlap and even in the fragmentary downloading world of today, the ‘mass’ audience has continued alongside ‘niches’, who are of course, components of the ‘mass’.

We collected a lot of information about audience behavior in 2002; Mike Mellon, the head of audience research at Paramount gave us masses of material, wonderful breakdowns of demographics within the Neilsen ratings, and Paramount’s own qualitative research. But this kind of information tends to be ephemeral and because our book was written over such an extended period of time, anything we said about particular audience figures would have been outdated.

We also had some audience research of our own - questionnaire and interview data collected at different cultural venues, and we’ve referred to some of it in other writings (see references in the bibliography), but again, we decided it didn't quite fit the shape of the book in its final version. But we certainly do think that audiences are important and interesting, and Star Trek audiences especially so.

You write at the end of the book, “Without Roddenberry, there may have been no Joss Whedon, J.J. Abrams, Chris Carter, or whoever else may follow in their footsteps.” So, what role did Roddenberry’s self-promotion as a producer/author contribute to the contemporary concept of the show runner?

It’s always hard to make historical connections across time, so not sure that we’d want to argue for direct causality here. What’s needed is an historical study on the rise of the showrunner in US television from about the 1970s onwards, including key figures like Norman Lear and Aaron Spelling. That book would have to account for all the other changes that were going on during those decades, particularly the shift from the classical network era to the multi-channel era that began to put the emphasis on named producers as a way of distinguishing content in a much more competitive environment.

That being said, you’re really asking two different questions here, one about the role of the showrunner within the industry and one about the role of the showrunner as a publicity mechanism.

With regard to the first, that’s something that the book waiting to be written would need to engage with. While Roddenberry functioned like a modern showrunner in that he was both producer and writer (although he actually wrote relatively few of the Star Trek scripts), how many of his peers did the same? And while he seems to have exercised the same degree of overall control and oversight that his successors now have, did his contemporaries have that same degree of control and oversight? In other words, were there producers in the classical network era whom we would want retrospectively to dub showrunners aside from Roddenberry (and probably Rod Serling)?

And we shouldn’t forget of course, that a lot of the people with whom Roddenberry worked, particularly Herb Solow, resent the extent to which Roddenberry attempted to co-opt all the credit for Star Trek. One of the most important arguments in our book is that a good television show requires the input of a lot of talented people. Roddenberry presented himself as Star Trek’s sole auteur but there would have been no Star Trek without Solow, associate producer Robert Justman, and all the others who worked on the show. But, today at least, it also seems to require a named individual to serve Foucault’s author function – to market the show.

We think it’s easier to make an argument for Roddenberry having served to some extent as a template for subsequent showrunners with regard to their publicizing themselves and their shows as opposed to the specific production tasks he undertook. In the classical network era, this self-publicity was most unusual, not really necessary and probably resented to some extent by NBC.

In that era, it was assumed that most shows, let alone their producers, would not really stand out much from the pack. That’s because the three networks were content to divide the mass audience between them, airing ‘least objectionable programming’ the goal of which was to keep people tuned into the same network throughout the evening. Shows were associated with networks, rather than with named individuals, except for their star actors of course.

But Roddenberry showed that it was possible to engage in a discourse of artistry and authorship that distinguished him and his show from the pack. And as you say somewhere, viewers, fans particularly, are culturally inclined toward a belief in auteurism, a single guiding voice that creates meaning throughout a programme’s episodes.

In Roddenberry’s case, as we discuss, that guiding voice became elevated to ‘Roddenberry’s vision’, a utopic notion of the future associated with him and with Star Trek. In that regard, we can’t really think of a single one of today’s showrunners who have had quite the same cultural impact, probably because the field is much more crowded; there’s much more content and many more people producing it. And of course, in the tele-fantasy genre Roddenberry got there first.

Fans may refer to the ‘Whedon-verse’ and critics may characterize aspects of Whedon-produced or directed texts as ‘Whedon-esque’ but that refers to a certain style and tone rather than a complete world, which is what Roddenberry is associated with. The more we think about it, the more we think it might be the case that being in a sense a man out of time, a post-network showrunner in the classical network era, Roddenberry was actually a one-off. But that’s a hypothesis that needs to be tested with empirical research.

One could also argue that Star Trek’s appeal to its intellectual pedigree -- from the science fiction writers like Harlan Ellison, Norman Spinrad, or Theodore Sturgeon, who wrote for the series, to its ongoing references to Rocket Scientists and Harvard/MIT students in describing its audience, helps to establish the contemporary concept of “quality television.” What qualities were ascribed to Star Trek in its heyday and to what degree do these anticipate or contrast with the “complex narratives” and “novelistic characters” associated with today’s quality dramas?

That’s a whole book in itself. In one of our earlier drafts there was a whole chapter called ‘Is it any good? The quality of Star Trek.’ Looking at this discarded ‘quality’ chapter again, I see we offer a number of definitions of ‘quality’ and address the question of ‘is it any good’? in a number of ways. We look at academic definitions of ‘good’ e.g. Charlotte Brunsdon’s: ‘[it’s good] in terms of its closeness to already-‘legitimate’ cultural forms, such as theatre or literature. Secondly, it is seen to be good because ‘it poses a privileged relation to ‘the real’’. In our discarded chapter we argue that Star Trek meets both of these criteria. We also discuss ideological interpretations of ‘good’ – is it sensitive to minorities, and to the representation of race, gender and general ‘otherness’? - the subjects of a very great deal of writing on Trek. And we particularly quote our production interviewees on their definitions of ‘quality,’ such as Michael Westmore comparing his work on alien makeup with that of Star Wars, which he described as ‘a real cheap job.’

We also discuss a couple of individual episodes that we thought were ‘good.’ Much of this material got lifted and dispersed to other chapters in the final version of the book: the craftworkers and writers’ views on ‘good’ appear in Chapter 2,’ ‘Art, Commerce and Creative Autonomy’ and Chapter 3, ‘The Craft Workshop Mode of Production’. Textual aspects of quality are woven into the textual chapters at the end of the book on worldbuilding and character, where the ideology question is also addressed – here, mainly by arguing for Trek’s ‘heteroglossic’ characteristics. The best of Trek, such as the TNG episode, ‘The High Ground’, offers ambiguity not clarity, enabling diverse interpretation, which again, is a traditional literary criterion of quality.

Because Star Trek has been such an enduring show, it ought to be possible to make comparisons between it and other ‘high quality’ TV shows contemporary with it over the years, for example at Emmy awards. But, as several of the writers pointed out, Trek has never been honoured by its peers in this way. Berman was indignant that Patrick Stewart never got an Emmy for his performance as Captain Picard. Ron Moore told us how he suppressed his Trek work in his resume because he thought it wouldn't be taken seriously and Patrick Stewart had similar reservations about foregrounding his Trek work, proud as he was of it.

The craft workers, on the other hand, have received multiple awards over the years, thus highlighting the division between ‘above the line’ and ‘below the line’ positions in the creative hierarchy – a division which we argue, in our book, is somewhat artificial in terms of how the final product gets produced. Everyone has to pull together: the line producers Merri Howard and Peter Lauritson, who had to make sure everything ‘gelled’, and came in within budget, were particularly enlightening on this aspect of ‘quality.’

Roberta Pearson is Professor of Film and Television Studies at the University of Nottingham in the UK.  Much of her career has been devoted to studying major cultural phenomenon or icons, such as Star Trek, Batman, Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes.  She was the co-editor of The Many Lives of the Batman, now being rebooted as Many More Lives of the Batman, co-edited with William Uricchio and Will Brooker (coming out with the BFI next year).  She's also written several essays on Shakespeare's cultural status and has recently been involved in a collaborative project on digital Shakespeare.  Her next project is on Sherlock Holmes for a book tentatively titled I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere: Transatlantic Sherlock Holmes. The book will deal with issues of authorship/canonicity, intellectual property, cultural distinctions, media franchises and lots of other topics currently at the forefront of debates in the field. For a preview see 'A Case of Identity: Sherlock, Elementary and their National Broadcasting Systems' in Roberta Pearson and Anthony N. Smith, editors, Storytelling in the Media Convergence Age: Exploring Screen Narratives (London: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2015) as well as ‘Sherlock Holmes, a De Facto Franchise?’in Lincoln Geraghty, ed., Popular Media Cultures: Writing in the Margins and Reading Between the Lines (London: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2015.She's been a Star Trek fan (in terms of watching and enjoying the tv programmes) since the original series' first run so writing the book was indeed a labour of love. But she was a Sherlock Holmes fan even before that, so her academic career seems to be progressing backwards, like Benjamin Button.

Máire Messenger Davies is Professor of Media Studies and Director of the Centre for Media Research at the University of Ulster. Her first degree was in English, from Trinity College Dublin – hence an interest in storytelling. She's a former media professional - she worked as a journalist in local newspapers, magazines and radio for many years – hence her insistence on the importance of hearing the producers' points of view. After having four children, she did her PhD in psychology as a mature student researching how people learn from television – hence her interest in audiences, particularly young audiences. Her own young audience shared many happy hours watching Star Trek TOS in the UK. On moving to work at Boston University in the US, from 1990-1994, the family were there at the height of TNG's greatest era and became firm fans. Using Star Trek as a case study to teach about TV, Culture and Society seemed an obvious way to freshen up a rather hackneyed core module at Cardiff University, alongside Professor Pearson, and this led – eventually – to Star Trek and American Television. Her other books include Television is Good for Your Kids (Hilary Shipman, London  1989, 2001); Fake, Fact and Fantasy (Mahwah NJ: Laurence Erlbaum, 1997);  Dear BBC: Children, television storytelling and the public sphere (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Children, Media and Culture, (Open University Press, 2010).

Why Star Trek Still Matters: An Interview with Roberta Pearson and Máire Messenger Davies (Part One)

The book recently published by Roberta Pearson and Máire Messenger Davies might well have been titled The Making of Star Trek, but that title was already taken, by none other than Gene Roddenberry, who published the book as part of his campaign to promote and protect the series in the 1960s. Instead, they called their book, Star Trek and American Television. As far as I can tell, no other academic has had the degree of access to the "above the line" and "below the line" workers who helped to create Star Trek as these two did. And, as a result, we have never before had such a rich account of its production process and of the ways that Star Trek fits within larger trends within the television industry. They do not set out to demystify Roddenberry's original book, precisely, but the effect is to shift the focus away from the notion of Roddenberry's authorship onto the collaborative process by which television is produced. Roddenberry certainly has a central role here, as will be clear from the frequency with which his name surfaces in the following interview, but they also direct attention onto the many collaborators who helped to shape that original "vision" and onto the many who have carried forward Star Trek's legacy to the current day.

Anyone who knows me knows how central Star Trek has been to my life on so many levels. I have myself written two books in which Star Trek plays a key role. But in recent years, I have declined many invitations to say or write more about Star Trek because I was skeptical that there was much more that could be said.

Pearson and Davies proved me wrong: there are new insights and new historical details on every page of this book. Star Trek and American Television is the kind of book that could only be written now -- now that we have some historical perspective on the ways that this iconic series fit within the evolution of television as a medium, looking forward in some ways to developments in terms of ideas about franchising, world-building, and audiences, that are only being fully realized today.

As an interviewer, I am bit rude to these authors (both old friends), pushing them to speak about topics that are just on the margins of the book, getting them to revisit the decisions they made about what to include or develop in depth. My bet is that as a reader, you will appreciate some of the insights I got them to scoop up off the cutting room floor here. But at the end of the day, I agree with most of their editorial decisions. This book works because they focus on Star Trek as a television series, not as a cult phenomenon, not as a fandom, not as a transmedia franchise. Dealing with Star Trek as a television series encourages us to look upon it in a new way and at the same time, to use its history to shed light on the possibilities of television as a medium.

This five part interview will constitute my last posts for this blog in 2014. I need some time to refresh myself, to get more interview questions out to authors, to focus on finishing up some of my own writing projects. But, I think you will agree that this exchange ends the year on a highpoint.

I've known Pearson for most of my academic career. Our overlapping interests has led to us working together in many ways through the years. And I have a great appreciation for what she has contributed to our understanding of popular heroes (including The Batman and Sherlock Holmes) and cult media. Through her, I've also gotten to know her co-author, Davies, who has produced a great deal of important work on children's television and the notion of quality as it relates to popular media. So, I am delighted to share with you their reflections here on "the Making of Star Trek" and so much more.

Many readers may be skeptical --as I was initially -- that the world needs another book on the Star Trek franchise. So, let’s tackle that right away. What are people going to learn from this book that they do not already know?

As we explain in the introduction and opening chapters, of all the myriad books that have been published on Star Trek, we believe that none of them has effectively dealt with its core status as ‘a television show’ (William Shatner’s description of it, to us, in our interview with him.) On p. 9 of our book, we discuss the Star Trek entry in Oxford Bibliographies by Dan Bernardi and Michael Green, which lists the following categories of academic literature on the subject of Star Trek: ‘reference works and bibliographies; anthologies; fandom; popular culture; critical race studies; gender studies; sexuality studies; religion; technoculture; and nationalism and geopolitics’. It doesn’t list television studies.

In this book we are writing as television scholars, not fan scholars, nor sci-fi scholars, nor national geopolitics scholars, and we are admirers of the television show but we’re not – (and we’re really sorry about this word, I don’t know how it happened, after all our careful proof reading) – ‘Trekkies’ in the sense of being the kinds of fans who attend conventions, write fanfic and the like.

So, as our research proceeded, our question became: why didn’t anyone write about Star Trek as television because the programme is a really terrific case for examining the history of American television.

The project started life as core material for a teaching module on ‘Television, Culture and Society’ on the undergraduate course TV, Film and Journalism at Cardiff University. Because we were both keen on the show, and wanted to teach about it, we decided to adapt the TV, culture & society module to enable us to use Star Trek as a case study about television: the course included lectures on television production; TV history; TV economics; American /British contrasts; aesthetic and narrative aspects; TV audiences. The book went through various incarnations since we began the project in 1999, losing some cherished aspects of our original module on the way (including a big chunk about audiences – not just fans, but audiences, Nielsen data etc.) But we never lost sight of the fact that we wanted to talk about Star Trek as television, and that was our selling point to UC Press back in 2000.

The other unique aspect of it, we believe, is the interview material. We were lucky to be helped by Patrick Stewart to gain access to so many Paramount workers, from executive producers to make-up artists to actors to set builders to writers to craft workers, during our visit to Hollywood in 2002, funded by a grant from the British Academy. We think that the insights these interviewees gave us don’t appear to the same extent in other literature on Star Trek, partly because our research questions focused very specifically on televisual aspects. In particular, because we talked to people who were working together as we met them (on the TV Enterprise and the film Nemesis at the same time), there were constant references to, and plentiful evidence of, their interdependence as a working team. Collaboration and co-operation emerged as key components of how a TV production is put together, which was one of the main questions we were pursuing.

We were privileged to meet these people at work, and it was as industrial workers (very hardworking workers) that they came across, not as showbiz luminaries. This was one of the most illuminating and paradoxical revelations of the Star Trek phenomenon as we observed it. It has been such a valuable financial property within a huge global, capitalistic corporation but what we saw was its socialistic way of working.

One of our most revealing interviewees on this aspect was construction co-ordinator, Tom Arp, head of his Local trade union, who’d been working on the show for 14 years, and told us ‘the people on this show pretty much work together as a family’. (All the Star Trek workers we spoke to were unionized). In one of our discarded passages, we wrote about how interdependence and collaboration, rather than conflict and individual heroism, are essential narrative tropes, particularly in the female-dominated Voyager (see e.g. the episode, ‘One’). If the whole team doesn’t pull together, the ship is doomed – the experiences of the working production team often seemed to be reflected in these kinds of ‘socialistic’ storylines, which we suggest, is one of the enduring aspects of the Roddenberry Utopian ‘vision’ (see more comment about the ‘vision’ below). Interdependence between different levels of above and below the line workers is discussed more fully in our chapter on ‘The Craft Workshop Mode of Production.’

Roberta Pearson is Professor of Film and Television Studies at the University of Nottingham in the UK.  Much of her career has been devoted to studying major cultural phenomenon or icons, such as Star Trek, Batman, Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes.  She was the co-editor of The Many Lives of the Batman, now being rebooted as Many More Lives of the Batman, co-edited with William Uricchio and Will Brooker (coming out with the BFI next year).  She's also written several essays on Shakespeare's cultural status and has recently been involved in a collaborative project on digital Shakespeare.  Her next project is on Sherlock Holmes for a book tentatively titled I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere: Transatlantic Sherlock Holmes. The book will deal with issues of authorship/canonicity, intellectual property, cultural distinctions, media franchises and lots of other topics currently at the forefront of debates in the field. For a preview see 'A Case of Identity: Sherlock, Elementary and their National Broadcasting Systems' in Roberta Pearson and Anthony N. Smith, editors, Storytelling in the Media Convergence Age: Exploring Screen Narratives (London: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2015) as well as ‘Sherlock Holmes, a De Facto Franchise?’in Lincoln Geraghty, ed., Popular Media Cultures: Writing in the Margins and Reading Between the Lines (London: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2015.She's been a Star Trek fan (in terms of watching and enjoying the tv programmes) since the original series' first run so writing the book was indeed a labour of love. But she was a Sherlock Holmes fan even before that, so her academic career seems to be progressing backwards, like Benjamin Button.

Máire Messenger Davies is Professor of Media Studies and Director of the Centre for Media Research at the University of Ulster. Her first degree was in English, from Trinity College Dublin – hence an interest in storytelling. She's a former media professional - she worked as a journalist in local newspapers, magazines and radio for many years – hence her insistence on the importance of hearing the producers' points of view. After having four children, she did her PhD in psychology as a mature student researching how people learn from television – hence her interest in audiences, particularly young audiences. Her own young audience shared many happy hours watching Star Trek TOS in the UK. On moving to work at Boston University in the US, from 1990-1994, the family were there at the height of TNG's greatest era and became firm fans. Using Star Trek as a case study to teach about TV, Culture and Society seemed an obvious way to freshen up a rather hackneyed core module at Cardiff University, alongside Professor Pearson, and this led – eventually – to Star Trek and American Television. Her other books include Television is Good for Your Kids (Hilary Shipman, London  1989, 2001); Fake, Fact and Fantasy (Mahwah NJ: Laurence Erlbaum, 1997);  Dear BBC: Children, television storytelling and the public sphere (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Children, Media and Culture, (Open University Press, 2010).

Media Literacy in Action: An Interview with Belinha S. De Abreu and Paul Mihailidis (Part Three)

Paul, you make a case in the book for curation as a “media literacy imperative” in an age of participatory culture. How are you defining curation and what has made it such an urgent skill? And again, how can we think about curation in relation to the ideas of teaching about media and teaching through media you discussed above? Paul: In a paper I recently published titled, Exploring Curation as a Core Competency in Digital and Media Literacy Education, I contextualized curation as:

The word curate derives from the Latin root Curare, or 'to cure.' To curate, historically, has meant to take charge of or organize, to pull together, sift through, select for presentation, to heal and to preserve. Traditionally reserved for those who worked with physical materials in museum or library settings, curation today has evolved to apply to what we are all doing online. The preservation and organization of content online is now largely the responsibility of the individual in highly personalized information spaces. This has created a need to understand how individuals choose to pull together, sift through, organize, and present information within these spaces.

I think there is an urgency to curation, at least now with some semblance of free choice online, largely because young people can design their own engagement with information with more choices and diversity than they ever have in the past. At least in terms of strict content and platform. In an age of filter bubbles, search algorithms, sponsored content, and endless aggregators trying to personal and define our information needs, I think it’s an imperative that we teach ability to organize, sift, sort and continuously recreate the type of content diets that we want and need.

As a result, I think curation becomes a core competency in media education today. From issues of access, values, identity, assessment, sharing and express, we must continue to ask how these are situated in the context of engagement with me, but also use of media. These involve social and informal information sharing and consumption, but also in civic spaces. Curation has been decentralized from the few to the many. Knowing how to effectively navigate, use and create strong media is, I argue, an essential skill for all citizens in digital culture.

Your book offers a survey of the ways media literacy is practiced in a number of distinctive countries and regions. What do you see as the most significant continuities across these various contexts? Where do you see the most significant differences emerging?

Paul: Of course the unique approaches to media literacy pedagogy and practice emerge from different educational, political, cultural and social properties of a specific society. In our book, we tried to find a nice balance of media literacy scholarship and practice to highlight. We sought voices from the Middle East, Asia, Europe, and the Americas, so we could show what’s similar and what’s unique. The similarities all rest on the aim to engage young people in competencies to critically analyze media. The more traditional model of media literacy approaches, if you will. That’s to a large degree because in places like Lebanon and Hong Kong, media literacy is still emerging as a pedagogical concept. As a result, they are still finding their footing in terms of how to implement and build media literacy as a skill set for their youth. Luckily, they have a wealth of information, content, and experience to choose from, so they’ll be scaling up rather quickly.

Most importantly, I think the differences that emerge in this space are embedded in socio-cultural practices that reflect media systems and government control. In places that have arguably less “free” media systems, media literacy is not so much about expression and voice as it is nuanced consumption. In places where political dissent is vibrant, media literacy is embedded in more narratives around corruption, propaganda, and civic inquiry. Interestingly, most forms of media literacy practice and pedagogy around the world are embedded in formal communication practices, and not many about information or participatory spaces. By that I mean that most media literacy approaches from emerging parts of the world focus on more traditional media literacy content (news, political speeches, ads) and less in newer cultural spaces (fan clubs, social networks, and so on).

I think, overall, the trends will continue to move to a more similar place, because a lot of research, pedagogy and practice are now being shared. And more media literacy scholars from around the world are meeting at conferences, publishing together, and doing more work alongside each other in general.

Many ideas about “21st Century Learning” stress the kinds of skills needed for performing well in the classroom and the workplace. Where do notions of civic or citizen-related skills fit into these models? In what ways might media literacy be understood as an effort to bring about social change?

Paul: This is a great question, and one close to my heart. I’ve just published a new book titled Media Literacy & the Emerging Citizen, that explores the role of media literacy in civic life. This is more about social change than formal pedagogy. I would argue, however, that pedagogy is at the center of long term civic engagement and social change, it’s just not explicitly made known. I think media literacy has a lot of growing to do in the social and civic change space, and that’s an area where we need to grow the field. Our book takes this topic on briefly with a chapter on citizenship by Frank Gallagher of Cable in the Classroom, but most of the work is pedagogically centered. I’d personally like to see media literacy be the civic education of the future.

Perhaps that’s the next book :-)

Some have been skeptical of the need for media literacy education in schools because so many youth are “digital natives” who grew up with the technology and are more adept online than most of the adults around them. The Harvard Good Play project has found that most youth lack mentors who can talk with them about the choices they make as participants in online communities. And, of course, access to technologies and to meaningful experiences online are unevenly distributed across the culture. What roles might formal media literacy education play in addressing the digital divide and the participation gap?

Belinha: As I stated previously, I think the term “digital natives” is loosely used to correlate with “digital savviness,” and that’s a concern because most of the time it isn’t true. Just because we have a generation of students who have grown up with technology does not make them adept at being online. Most students I see in schools working online tend to not go past the first page of any search results, and then turn around to the teacher and say they can’t find anything on their given topic. Just because a teen can find their way through their social network does not mean that they can search for viable, truthful, or accurate information. In fact, that is evenly distributed across the line when we are looking at how youth engage with each other online and they make some major social gaffes. What I mean is that we are looking at two different problems. There is the technology component which drives how students interact with each other. There is also the adolescent maturation point where that part hasn’t caught up with the part of themselves which is engaged in an online community. They need social skills that transcend face-to-face to online. The digital divide isn’t just about technology, it is about interrelations and lack thereof. We have a generation of students who have not learned how to interact as people. They have allowed the computer to be their voice without actually having a history or a background to that voice. The mentorship that they need is in bridging their knowledge of themselves with the knowledge of how they want to be represented. Media literacy education provides them with opportunity to understand representation and what that means on a worldwide scale. It helps them to consider multiple viewpoints and not the singularity of one --themselves.

Given the lack of formal media literacy education in many American schools, media literacy creeps in around the edges, through, for example, the work of librarians or museums and institutions or churches. What roles can these organizations play in ensuring wide access to core media literacy skills?

Belinha: I think these places offer opportunity- creative opportunity for engagement which is not offered in schools as much. Besides being places which are considering the innovators and the creators of educators, museum and libraries are providing resources that would not be accessible elsewhere. They are offering classes and opportunities with new technologies because they are reaching a very public platform. Libraries in particular tend to have an open-door policy when it comes to engaging with students or other patrons. They hold up the ideas that censorship is not acceptable. They provide patrons with books, databases, and the most current materials which may oftentimes not be available in schools. They have become the house for children whose parents can’t afford certain technologies including the basics of infrastructure such as Wifi. They already offer production classes. Why not infuse those classes with media literacy? Asking key questions as students work to get them to think more deeply is important. Helping students to problem solve, consider multiple points of view, or even understanding real-world questions related to money and power. It doesn’t have to formal, but sure put it up on a sign that teaching and learning in the structure of a museum or library is done with through the guide of media literacy education.

Belinha S. De Abreu, Ph.D., is a Media Literacy Educator and Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Technology at Fairfield University. Her research interests include media literacy education, new media, visual and information literacy, global perspectives, critical thinking, young adults, and teacher training. Dr. De Abreu’s work has been featured in Cable in the Classroom and The Journal of Media Literacy. She is the author of Media Literacy, Social Networking and the Web 2.0 World for the K–12 Educator (Peter Lang Publishers, 2011) and the co-editor and author of Media Literacy in Action: Theoretical and Pedagogical Perspectives (Routledge 2014). She currently serves as the Vice President for the National Telemedia Council.

Paul Mihailidis is an assistant professor in the school of communication at Emerson College in Boston, MA, where he teaches media literacy and interactive media. He is also the Associate Director of the Engagement Lab at Emerson College, and Director of the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change. His research focuses on the nexus of media, education, and civic voices. His new book, Media Literacy and the Emerging Citizen (2014, Peter Lang), outline effective practices for participatory citizenship and engagement in digital culture. Under his direction, the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change, a global media literacy incubator program, annually gathers 70 students and a dozen faculty to build networks for media innovation, civic voices and global change. Mihailidis sits on the board of directors for the National Association of Media Literacy Education. He has authored numerous books and papers exploring media education and citizenship, and traveled to around the world speaking about media literacy and engagement in digital culture. He earned his PhD from the Phillip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Media Literacy in Action: An Interview with Belinha S. De Abreu and Paul Mihailidis (Part Two)

Many of our earliest understandings of media literacy took place around the particular properties of broadcast media, especially television, but in some cases, before that with radio. How did those assumptions inform prevailing models of media literacy? How are those ideas being rethought as we deal with the very different properties and processes associated with networked computing?

Paul - I think media literacy has long been concerned with the the skills and dispositions needed to effectively engage with information in daily life. The outcomes around access, evaluation, comprehension and production--in essence critical thinking and critical expression--have long been applied across traditional platforms and integrated into new digital spaces. Back when film, radio and television first emerged as mass mediums, media education typically treated their pedagogy as teaching about the way that these mediums work more than deconstructing the content that they delivered. As the mediums grew more diverse and complex, there was a need for media literacy to become more critical. This coincides I think with the increasing centrality of commercial culture in media and the need to actively respond with educational initiatives.

Media literacy is still largely emerging from the “mass media” era, and I think the traditional protectionist model of media literacy is prevalent in some of the work being done, particularly in the health and advertising spaces.

The emergence of connective technologies and networked computing has led to a re-imagination of how we understand media literacy in terms of identity, community, engagement, and agency. While we still need to have foundations in media literacy education around critical analysis of media texts, it’s become equally if not more vital to apply new competencies around curation, appropriation, remix, collaboration, spreadability and production that the web now affords. Media literacy needs to leverage the connective capacity of the web for civic value, and I think that’s at the core of where media literacy is headed. Not abandoning the past, but simply using our foundations for more applied and responsive participation.

Why do you think there has been such resistance in the American educational system to fully incorporating media literacy skills into the curriculum when there has been much more widespread take up in other parts of the world? What can/should we be done to shape public policies so that they reflect the needs of students and the realities of educators in a world where more and more of our core practices are conducted through networked communications?

Belinha: At the policy level, they don’t know us. We don’t have a large body of research to support our ideas. Policymakers tend to like the research and the numbers. Yet, if we actually talk to them about what we say is the value in media literacy education, they most definitely get it. Part of what drove this book was that idea that there are a number of us who talk about it at different levels--academic, schools, libraries, advocacy organizations, non-profits, etc; each group speaking of the value of media literacy, but not necessarily with each other. Moreover, there are a number of organizations who work with policymakers who continue to promote media literacy education throughout their work such as the Aspen Institute, the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI), and the Cable Impacts Foundation. In particular, every year for the last five years I have attended the FOSI conference which is a two day event in Washington DC where many people who work in government appear and listen to the conversations on digital safety. Each year, I hear people discuss or bring up media literacy and the need for media literacy education and then the conversation appears to end. There are meetings by invitation only to the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SEDTA), but I don’t know how many people are represented there who focus on media literacy education other than perhaps the Cable Impacts Foundation.

Media literacy education as a dialogue comes very close to policymakers, but then stops before entering the door. The conversation at the government level has deemed to fall into digital literacy which is more about digital technologies and the need for schools to be equipped with more of it. Yet, the discussion of literacy as a critical approach to teaching about digital technology, not heard much. In the book, I addressed the opening that the Common Core State Standards provided schools with its not clearly defined look at media literacy. I offered it up for discussion as an opportunity versus a problem because I believe when we break something down too much we limit the capacity for instruction. That being said, media literacy education still needs to be discussed in the policy documents, but where is it?

Internationally, I think there has been a better acceptance of it at the policy level because it was introduced with the concerns with television and such. For years, I would have said that the Europeans, and the Canadians were ahead of us with media literacy education, and then the Internet hit us all simultaneously and that generated another conversation regarding media literacy education which was inclusive of all these new technologies. Yet, here again there is the worry as expressed best by David Buckingham in the UK that the rhetoric of today may actually be problematic for media literacy education. That it has become so saturated with the discussion of digital technology, digital footprints, and digital infrastructure that the capacity for understanding and learning has been set adrift by good intentions. However, at least in the UK and in the EU, policymakers talk about it and welcome the idea of growing this type of literacy. And, they demonstrate this further positive appeal by providing government resources to develop curriculum and ideas.

Several of your contributors make the case that media literacy means teaching about media and not simply teaching through media and that the goal should be to incorporate “critical production” rather than simply a focus on production practices. I agree, but the distinctions being made here between doing and thinking may not be fully adequate to a culture of participation, where many are arguing that “making” or “tinkering” or visualization or simulation or games each represent distinctive modes of thought and not simply tools and practices. Would you agree? If so, has there been a shift in what it might mean to teach about and through media?

Belinha: I think I allude to what you are suggesting here earlier. Sometimes ‘critical production’ is very individualized. I do believe that when students are “tinkering” and “making” that they are processing and making some key decisions as to what is useful to them and what is not. Does that mean that they have gone far enough? This is where there tends to be some push back. Watching someone craft together a presentation at any grade level there is a certain amount of thought going into that product. Is this the right picture? Does this mean what I want it to say? Depending on the level of the learner and the maturity of the producer, you can see a growth in thinking when they disengage with themselves and consider the audience. Many times that isn’t a step that is complete at for example the middle school years, but that is a step that can be seen later. Not for all, but for some. When I see this type of work happening in schools, I am mostly surprised by the people who are either overly surprised and pleased by very simplistic pieces of work by students or stumped that their students aren’t as media-savvy as they expected them to be.

When I work with future teachers, I always remind them that just because students are engaged in their technology doesn’t meant that they are critically thinking. Or for that matter, that they even know how to produce or create? There is an overall assumption because this generation has the most technology that they are in fact technology literate. Neither is true. Many students know what they know, but not much else. For example, they know how to play an online game or participate in social networks, but that doesn’t mean that they can work within some basic platform tools such as word documents or presentation tools. Yet, they can move quickly through various programs once they have been taught and they can create given the time. They just don’t tend to have many opportunities to do so at school because of the regimented curriculums. Outside of school, they may have more opportunity, but once again they tend to stick to what they know and are most comfortable.

Belinha S. De Abreu, Ph.D., is a Media Literacy Educator and Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Technology at Fairfield University. Her research interests include media literacy education, new media, visual and information literacy, global perspectives, critical thinking, young adults, and teacher training. Dr. De Abreu’s work has been featured in Cable in the Classroom and The Journal of Media Literacy. She is the author of Media Literacy, Social Networking and the Web 2.0 World for the K–12 Educator (Peter Lang Publishers, 2011) and the co-editor and author of Media Literacy in Action: Theoretical and Pedagogical Perspectives (Routledge 2014). She currently serves as the Vice President for the National Telemedia Council.

Paul Mihailidis is an assistant professor in the school of communication at Emerson College in Boston, MA, where he teaches media literacy and interactive media. He is also the Associate Director of the Engagement Lab at Emerson College, and Director of the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change. His research focuses on the nexus of media, education, and civic voices. His new book, Media Literacy and the Emerging Citizen (2014, Peter Lang), outline effective practices for participatory citizenship and engagement in digital culture. Under his direction, the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change, a global media literacy incubator program, annually gathers 70 students and a dozen faculty to build networks for media innovation, civic voices and global change. Mihailidis sits on the board of directors for the National Association of Media Literacy Education. He has authored numerous books and papers exploring media education and citizenship, and traveled to around the world speaking about media literacy and engagement in digital culture. He earned his PhD from the Phillip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Media Literacy in Action: An Interview with Belinha De Abreu and Paul Mihailidis (Part One)

Earlier this term, I ran a lengthy conversation with Tessa Jolls, the the President and CEO of the Center for Media Literacy. We discussed some of the core, underlying concepts behind the Media Literacy movement and considered their potential relationship to the work being done by the MacArthur Foundation's Digital Media and Learning initiative. Today, I am happy to be sharing with you some reflections on many of those same issues from two of the Next Generation leaders of the Media Literacy Movement. Belinha S. De Abreu, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Technology at Fairfield University, currently serves as the Vice President for the National Telemedia Council. Paul Mihailidis, an assistant professor in the school of communication at Emerson College, is the Associate Director of the Engagement Lab at Emerson College, and Director of the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change. Mihailidis sits on the board of directors for the National Association of Media Literacy Education. Together, they have edited an important new anthology, Media Literacy Education in Action: Theoretical and Pedagogical Approaches, which offers us a snap shot of Today's media literacy movement.

The table of content reads like a who's who of the most important doers and thinkers around the world, including Julian McDougall, Tessa Jolls, Neil Anderson, David Buckingham, Erin Reilly, Eric Gordon, Sonia Livingstone, Frank Gallagher, David M. Considine, and many others. The book shares cutting edge research and words of wisdom from founding figures, offering us insights into the struggle to get media literacy in the curriculum and what happens when we do.

I am just getting to know Abreu and Mihailidis, but what I've seen so far impresses me greatly, including the thoughtful and substantive responses they offered to my interview questions here. Enjoy.

In his opening chapter, Julian McDougall describes media literacy as an “unfinished project,” while David Buckingham’s foreword suggests that “we are unlikely ever to arrive at a point where we can all sign up to a single definition and prescription for media literacy education.” What are some of the reasons why media literacy as a field seems so unsettled and unresolved -- is it simply that the media landscape itself has changed so rapidly over the past few decades? Is it that media literacy advocates see the movement as addressing very different problems that stem from their own rather different perceptions of the role which media plays in our lives?

Paul: I think there are a confluence of reasons for the continued struggle of media literacy to find a cohesive foundation and concrete direction. Firstly, media literacy education has cast a wide net, perhaps intentionally but also because the movement and it’s core principles advocate for outcomes like critical thinking and critical engagement. These mirror outcomes for a lot of pedagogy. And while useful, they often lack direction or application. So we see spaces like digital media and learning, news literacy, civic literacy, science literacy, information literacy, and more, all find more coherent and concrete homes, funding, and support. At the same time, media literacy tries to claim a part of all these spaces. I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing. But rather it makes it difficult to grow in a cohesive way. I think of it as: If media literacy tries to be everything related to literacies, it will at the same time be nothing.

Stemming from this, I do see media literacy advocates, scholars, and educators using the term to advocate for their projects and approaches to how they understand media’s role in daily life. Many apply the term to their work in discipline-specific areas, while at the same time, others come into media literacy with their own perceptions of what it should do, and because media literacy has such a broad purview, there isn’t a conceptual grounding from which such uses of the term can be sorted, sifted, and understood.

Perhaps, however, what McDougal and Buckingham are alluding to is something that they may think of as positive. That media literacy can be an agile and adaptable movement provides greater space to engage in pedagogical and scholarly dialog where it is meaningful and related.

I think personally media literacy will continue to struggle as a cohesive disciplinary space without more conceptual agreement, directional engagement, and scholarly recognition.

In the late 1990s, Bob McCannon, a teacher at Albuquerque Academy in New Mexico and leader of the New Mexico Media Literacy Project, noted that "Whenever media literacy educators get together, they always circle the wagons-- and shoot in!" Is this still the case? Have we found better ways to work through differences between competing visions of media literacy?

Belinha: I don’t think we are circling the wagon any longer, but I do think we still suffer from a bit of a complex regarding who we are in the field. We are still somewhat confused about the term that we use to describe ourselves ---Certainly there continues to be a discussion about whether we are a field or a movement, but frankly does it matter? What it comes down to is that we are talking and we are talking to each other. More and more, I see conversations that push the limit of what we do and question approaches. You had one of those such conversations in your blog recently with Tessa Jolls which really tried to go through the layers of conversations from the DML perspective and the media literacy perspective. I appreciated the line that you used about “people talking past each other.” Your blog and other conversations, I believe brings about more dialog as long as we can keep egos out of the way. They happen at conferences all the time -- all over the world. The best conversations seems to happen at the most unexpected times with people who you didn’t think you had a common language when in fact it is there. Media literacy is an active engagement of thinking and if it happens from various groups then it is growing the dialogue.

My one concern which actually takes us a step back from Bob McCannon’s statement is that those who lay claim to media literacy as a body of work tend to not have a history of what that means. They don’t seem to know the Len Masterman’s, David Considine’s, and even David Buckingham’s who have generated some of the best thinking and most in depth work in the field whether it is through their research or through their development of future educators at the school or academic level. Even to the wider audience of people who have been in media literacy whether through their different organizations such as the Alliance for Media Literacy in Canada or Cary Bazelgette out of the UK, these people and organizations have had longevity in the field, yet they tend to go unnoticed at times.

Renee Hobbs’ “Seven Great Debates in the Media Literacy Movement” sought to map some of the core fault lines in the field. You are coming in more than a decade later to similarly lay out some of the core strands in the media literacy movement. Which of Renee’s debates are still active? Which if any have been resolved?

Belinha: Fault lines is a very good depiction of some of the cracks in the media literacy movement. Perhaps, we could even say that those cracks have been broken into factions although this may be where the argument starts to go adrift. My point is that if we keep bringing up the same issues or problems over and over again, we tend to not generate any movement past these ideas. The debates of the past could still be held up and do. People who are protectionists in the movement are still there, but there are just as many who are saying that teaching and learning are more important. Banning and censorship don’t seem to resolve what worries parents or other protectionists groups which is how to make the media less important in children’s lives.

Our mediated worlds have shifted drastically since the time that Renee Hobbs wrote that piece. Producing media which was conceptually thought to be a part of media literacy education has shifted with the fact that many students are already media-makers because technology has made it accessible. Is that media literacy? Are children/teens being critical, conscious producers of media? In most cases, the answers would be “no.” Does that mean that they fall away from the ideals of media literacy? I would say they miss the mark in some points especially when it comes to evaluation or discernment. However, they may argue that they did evaluate and did discern. We just don’t like their conclusions. What I value most in the debated questions that Hobbs proposes is the commentary that “all points of view are heard, respected, and accommodated.” I think here is where we are starting to see some headway. As a group of individuals who are interested in media literacy we do disagree, we do challenge, but we also like the engagement. Whether one method is better than the other will always be its own debate, but we can still find a middle ground to work together which makes those fault lines just a bit smoother.

Belinha S. De Abreu, Ph.D., is a Media Literacy Educator and Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Technology at Fairfield University. Her research interests include media literacy education, new media, visual and information literacy, global perspectives, critical thinking, young adults, and teacher training. Dr. De Abreu’s work has been featured in Cable in the Classroom and The Journal of Media Literacy. She is the author of Media Literacy, Social Networking and the Web 2.0 World for the K–12 Educator (Peter Lang Publishers, 2011) and the co-editor and author of Media Literacy in Action: Theoretical and Pedagogical Perspectives (Routledge 2014). She currently serves as the Vice President for the National Telemedia Council.

Paul Mihailidis is an assistant professor in the school of communication at Emerson College in Boston, MA, where he teaches media literacy and interactive media. He is also the Associate Director of the Engagement Lab at Emerson College, and Director of the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change. His research focuses on the nexus of media, education, and civic voices. His new book, Media Literacy and the Emerging Citizen (2014, Peter Lang), outline effective practices for participatory citizenship and engagement in digital culture. Under his direction, the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change, a global media literacy incubator program, annually gathers 70 students and a dozen faculty to build networks for media innovation, civic voices and global change. Mihailidis sits on the board of directors for the National Association of Media Literacy Education. He has authored numerous books and papers exploring media education and citizenship, and traveled to around the world speaking about media literacy and engagement in digital culture. He earned his PhD from the Phillip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Introducing the Critical Media Project: An Interview with USC's Alison Trope

 

As always, this blog is deeply committed to media literacy education -- in all of its many formats and approaches. I started the fall with my exchange with Tessa Jolls about the ways networked communication has or has not changed how we understand media literacy. Next week, I am going to share an interview with Belinha De Abreau and Paul Mihailidis, the editors of  Media Literacy Education in Action: Theoretical and Pedogogical Perspectives. This week, I want to share with you a vital new resource for critical media literacy instruction, a data base of several hundred segments from all kinds of media, which can be used in teaching critical perspectives on race, gender, sexuality, and identity.

The Critical Media Project has been developed by Alison Trope, a cherished colleague in the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, working with a team of our graduate and undergraduate students. There's more about the process by which the project emerged in the interview which follows. As Trope explained recently in another interview with Diana Lee for the USC News Office, "“If we can understand how our own race, gender, sexuality and class are being represented in the media, it can help us understand how these messages feed into how we live our lives and how we interact with each other. If we can learn to decode the messages, we can be better equipped to dismiss them or challenge what we’re being fed. The more active we are as consumers of media, the better.”

The archive's selection of materials is diverse -- ranging from commercials to comedy segments to news reports to clips from reality television programs. To illustrate the wealth of the collection, I am going to scatter some segments across the interview, most of which come up under the heading, "Mixed Race" or in honor of Obama's decision last week, reflect the politics of immigration.  I have thoroughly enjoyed browsing through the collection in pulling together this post: they are well curated, carefully selected  by people who are deeply informed about issues of identity construction within contemporary culture and who has an eye towards what kinds of clips might constitute "teachable moments" in the classroom. If you go to the site itself, Her team's commentary is designed to spark but not exhaust critical discussion around these media elements.

In the interview which follows, Trope takes us behind the scenes, sharing how the project emerged, what she seeks to achieve, and how you and your students might get involved.

 

What motivated you to create the Critical Media Project? How do you see it as contributing to the larger movement towards media literacy in American education?

 

I’ve been interested in media literacy since I was in graduate school. I primarily studied cinema and television, but was particularly drawn to the ways media studies could productively intersect with museum studies—specifically how media was and could be exhibited in the context of museums. I wrote a book (Stardust Monuments: The Saving and Selling of Hollywood) that examines the way Hollywood (via films, characters, studios, stars, etc.) has been imagined and put on display in a range of exhibition contexts, including museums, theme parks, DVD box sets and Internet sites. In my teaching, I want my students to understand the relationship of the text to the context, whether that be exhibition context, industrial context, or socio-cultural context. We can look at media or any cultural object on its own, but the broader context provides relevant meaning and resonance.

The Critical Media Project was loosely inspired by my regular use of media as a subject and object of teaching. It was more directly inspired by an invited talk I gave on mixed messages about gender, sexuality and representations of women in the media. After the talk, which was attended largely by parents and supporters of a local Planned Parenthood chapter, a few attendees asked whether the type of instruction I offered was available in high schools. It was not only the content they were interested in; it was the presentation—media rich and full of examples that were imbricated in everyday popular culture. At the time, I suggested it was likely up to the individual instructor, and surmised it might be difficult for many instructors to spend the time to find and scaffold media-rich lessons, given the curricular structure and testing standards most high school teachers must adhere to.

The question nagged at me. What kind of barriers did teachers face with regard to implementing media and media literacy in the classroom, and what kind of resources could help them? The presentation I gave that day could easily fit into a social studies class discussion of feminism and women’s rights, or a human development class on gender norms and expectations. The Critical Media Project was inspired by those questions. I wanted to create a site that didn’t simply “school” teachers in how to “do” media literacy. Rather, I wanted to provide them with the texts and resources—the actual media—that could be put in the context of their own curriculum and further framed by discussion questions designed to elicit critical analysis among their students.

This site differs from many other media literacy sites in two key ways. First, it is media-rich—with over 250 media artifacts embedded into the site and ready for teachers to use. Second, the site tackles a specific topic—identity—and asks us to think about the way all facets of identity (for example, race and ethnicity, gender, sexuality, socio-economic class) are shaped by the media. Rather than taking media representation at face value and accepting what has been internalized or normalized through media conventions, the site asks us, through each media artifact, to question those representations and their broader social, cultural and political implications.

Such questioning is particularly important in the media saturated environment in which we all live. Students are coming into classrooms having engaged for years in exhaustive and casual media practices. They consume traditional and digital media across a multitude of platforms, and produce content using a variety of media production tools. It’s worth noting that much of the content they consume and produce is about identity. It’s about figuring out who they are, who their friends are, what they like to do, what their tastes are, etc. For young people, in particular, a critical perspective on identity is crucial during key developmental stages when they are gaining new life experiences and learning to define, navigate, and negotiate their online and offline identities.

What criteria did you use for the selection of materials for the archive?

 

Much of the material comes from my own “library”—media I’ve collected over several years of teaching. Other media comes from USC Annenberg PhD students, who suggested media as well as contributed annotations to the site. (I’m lucky to have such generous students, who follow a variety of blogs and sites, and regularly send me new things to look at and incorporate into my classes). The other contributors were undergraduate students in a 2012 class I used as a lab space to brainstorm and develop the site. The class was divided into different identity groups and tasked with gathering media and developing skeleton curriculum for each assigned category.

As my project manager, Garrett Broad, and I narrowed the selections for the site, we had a few criteria in mind. We strove to choose media that could stand on its own (without a lot of contextualizing). We also wanted to use media that clearly said something about at least one of the identity categories featured on the site, thereby facilitating its incorporation into a broader curricular context. (An offhand or oblique comment by a character or a judge on a reality show might not make the cut).

We did not shy away from media that was challenging or might be uncomfortable for users/viewers. In fact, we embraced nuanced and complicated texts, knowing that we provide scaffolding through the brief annotated descriptions. In some cases, we also provide “critiques” of media examples.

The critiques are used to call attention to social or political issues that might have been left out of the actual media example, but are nonetheless relevant to its interpretation. For example, a clip from America’s Next Top Model features a photo shoot in a Hawaiian sugar cane field in which the contestants are asked to transform themselves to embody two distinct racial groups. The critique for this clip comments on the way that Tyra and Jay gloss over Hawaii’s history of colonialism and cultural domination and the way in which the racial transformations via hair and makeup could be read as blackface. The critiques are designed, therefore, to highlight the complicated ways in which a media example can be interpreted, and to provoke further discussion about broader issues it may invoke.

Your central project here seems to be to focus on the roles which media play in shaping our -- collective and personal -- sense of identity. What theoretical models have informed your perspective on identity?

Much of my own background in film and television studies was informed by cultural studies. To that end, the work of Raymond Williams, and the notion that “culture is ordinary,” frame much of my teaching and is the foundation of the Critical Media Project. I urge my own students to consider the value and resonance of everyday popular culture, particularly media. And, I hope the Critical Media Project, through its very existence, highlights the value of such texts in the context of broader identity issues.

The site’s focus on identity and identity politics is also firmly rooted in a cultural studies perspective, which asks us to not only consider the social and cultural construction of identities, but also how those constructions are imbricated in ideologies and structures of power. Our gender, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation and class can play a critical role in determining the kind of social, political and economic power we have, how we attain that power, and how we use it. In the context of media, much power comes from visibility and agency (in the media product as well as behind-the-scenes). Such analyses of power lead to productive discussions of inequity and prejudice, ultimately raising important social justice issues.

Do you have a particular pedagogical model in mind as you think about how these materials might be used in the classroom?

The site’s approach draws theoretically from critical pedagogy (and its connections to cultural studies), which works to frame critical thinking, and the learning that comes out of it, in the context of social change. The primary goal is to change students’ perspective on media and its role in shaping their own identities as well as the meanings they ascribe to identities more broadly. Following the lead of writers such as Henry Giroux and Douglas Kellner, the site focuses on critical media literacy—interpretation as well as production and dissemination of content that can challenge dominant ideologies and play a pivotal role in fostering a multicultural, democratic society. The Critical Media Project’s focus on identity and the politics of identity speaks to social justice issues and the larger historical, sociological and political context revolving around them. The site is further designed to spark discussion and to engage students in critical praxis, thereby underscoring the participatory and communal ways in which meanings are made and, further, can make change in the classroom and beyond.

We often hear of the rigid nature of much public school curriculum and the difficulty teachers have introducing innovative materials while adhering to standards. The Critical Media Project is designed to work in the context of pre-existing curriculum and the general principles set forth by the Common Core as they broadly relate to applied critical thinking. The media on this site can be viewed as texts—akin to, if not worthy of comparison with, traditional texts read in an English Language Arts curriculum. It can be used to illustrate a lesson in social studies or history tied to civil rights, or to highlight and make sense of the racialized narratives or sexual politics tied to a particular current event. It can be used in the context of health and human development classes to foster discussion around lines between sex, gender, and transgender identification. Ultimately, the site is designed to be flexible and to work with teacher and student interest and curricular requirements.

 

How might readers who want to contribute to the project get involved? 

The site is a work in progress and we’d like to continue to build and expand on the catalogued media, in large part by crowdsourcing from potential contributors. We aim to regularly post current and relevant examples on Facebook and Twitter (@critmedpro), where we have recently included media tied to the events in Ferguson, MO as well as this summer’s viral “#Like a Girl” campaign distributed by the feminine hygiene brand, Always.

 

Potential contributors can email media to criticalmediaproject@gmail.com. We also welcome full annotated contributions, following the format on the website (with description and discussion questions). In the “class activities” section of The Critical Media Project, there is an assignment that educators can use to solicit contributions from their students. We also would be interested in piloting the site in a classroom or school, working with individual or groups of teachers, their curriculum, and students to facilitate using The Critical Media Project.

We are always looking for current and fresh examples! Please share this resource with others and send feedback.

Alison Trope, Clinical Professor in the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, teaches a range of classes on media, popular and visual culture and is the author of Stardust Monuments: The Saving and Selling of Hollywood. She directs The Critical Media Project (www.criticalmediaproject.org), a web resource that facilitates the teaching and understanding of identity in the media.