The Ancient Art of Falling Down: Vaudeville Cinema Between Hollywood and China

Last fall, I ran a three part interview here with Christopher Rea, an associate professor of Asian studies and director of the Centre for Chinese Research at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. (See Part One, Part Two, Part Three). Rea is the author of a recent book, The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China (California, 2015), which explores the emergence of new forms of popular humor in China in the early 20th century.

Rea had contacted me because he had drawn some inspiration for this project from one of my early books, What Made Pistachio Nuts?: Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic. I had traced the emergence of new styles of comic performance from the variety stage to Hollywood over the first three decades of the 20th century. This was work I had done almost 30 years ago, so while I was intrigued to learn more about what scholars were saying on this topic today, it was ancient memory for me.

When Rea was invited to come to USC, he asked me to come out and play. Together, we put together a cross-cultural conversation about slapstick comedy, which was hosted by the fine folks at the USC Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures. Rea shared with me some of the clips he wanted to discuss from Chinese slapstick cinema, and I pulled together some clips for American silent and early sound comedy that explored some of the same themes and motifs. We pooled slides into one massive power point presentation, but otherwise, what emerged was unscripted and unrehearsed.

We met for the first time in person just moments before we went onto stage together. But what emerged was pretty amazing, if I do say so myself. There are clearly unexplored connections between comedy in China and the United States during this period. Seeing clips side by side evokes all kinds of memories and associations, and a great discussion emerged around those connections. The result has left me wanting to dig back into my roots in comedy studies and explore this territory once again.

We are sharing the video of that session here for your amusement (some pretty funny material) and your reflection (We would love to hear from others who have researched slapstick comedy in either country and might have insights to share about the topics we discussed.)

By Any Media Necessary (Part Six): To Trump Trump’s Wall (and Hate)

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

To Trump Trump’s Wall (and Hate)

by Emilia Yang

Donald Trump, real estate magnate and reality television star (against all odds and many people’s disbelief) is still running and leading in the primary elections of the Republican Party. During his campaign Trump has made various statements regarding illegal immigration using derogatory and generalizing terms to refer to the Latino population and even proposing to ban people from “Muslim countries” from entering the country. At the same time, various white supremacists and neo-Nazis organizations have shown support for Trump. Sadly, Trump’s hateful rhetoric not only has had a political effect on his fellow candidates’ positions about immigration, but it has also materialized through violence toward various racial groups, growing exponentially since I first started researching this topic in September 2015 [1].


His proposal for “stopping” illegal immigration is to build a giant wall that would be called “The Great Wall Of Trump”[2]. It is evident that Trump and his supporters do not understand nor care about the humanitarian catastrophe that this would represent. Immigration and security experts warn that historically, US government border enforcement strategies have resulted in a massive increase in border crosser deaths [3]. As Gloria Anzaldúa writes in Borderlands, “The U.S.-Mexican border es una herida abierta [is an open wound] where the Third World grates against the First and bleeds” (1987).

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Source: Ian Cleary, “The great wall of Trump”, August 26th, 2015

In a parallel context, students at USC and many other Universities across the Nation are struggling to call attention and overcome structural racism. Even though Trump’s hate speech does not directly link to the discrimination lived by the students on campus, it is disproportionately present in the media discourse that we are exposed to. The recognition of these issues provides a context for discussions about the realities of ethnic minorities such as the Latino community.

In response, I created a media art project borrowing ideas from participatory co-creative media, agonistic design and installation and participatory art, which I called To Trump Trump’s Wall. The main objective of the project was to test different participatory frameworks (a workshop and an art installation) where a political issue is discussed, imagined, and represented in situ. A secondary objective was to find the difference in results between these two frameworks, and the third objective was to inspire fellow students, activists and academics to work with media making methodologies as communication alternatives that challenge both their perceptions of difference and their political engagement.

The first iteration of this project was in the 2015 West Coast Organizing Conference hosted by the Student Coalition Against Labor Exploitation (SCALE) in what I will call the workshop framework. At this conference, student leaders from across the West Coast reunited to teach, support, learn from and inspire each other in their fights for justice. This inspirational weekend featured panels, caucuses, and workshops including To Trump’s Trump wall workshop, as discussion spaces for transgender, women, queer, people of color, working class, and people with disabilities. The second iteration of this project was presented in in the lobby of the SCI Interactive Media Building in the School of Cinematic Arts at the “Against Method” Exhibition that presented five ongoing PhD. student projects in what I will call the installation framework.

During the organizing conference I was given a time frame of one hour to enable a discussion about undocumented issues with 20 participants. I was inspired by Think Critically – Act Creatively: Harnessing The Power Of Fiction For Social Good workshop [4] created by my colleagues Gabriel Peters-Lazaro and Sangita Shresthova, along with Karl Bauman, Ilse Escobar and Susu Attar in collaboration with community partners, artists, and activists and presented in the website By Any Media Necessary. This website provides resources that enhance and illustrate the forthcoming book By Any Media Necessary: Mapping Youth and Participatory Politics authored by Henry Jenkins and the Media, Activism & Participatory Politics (MAPP) group.

In this world building workshop model, facilitators use prompt cards and ask participants to produce a one-word response to their prompt. Then they ask participants to imagine a future world set in a specific year (i.e. 2044) where fantastical things are possible and to come up with a narrative of what happens in this world, relating it to one of the themes fleshed out in the brainstorm. At the end, participants have to come up with a way to perform the story back to the whole group. Similarly, in Trump Trump’s wall workshop, I asked participants to discuss issues of immigration prompted with cards, reflecting on the immigrant experience, and then craft a message that they would like to inscribe in Trump’s wall if it was built and they had it up front. These are some examples of the cards given to the participants:

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The participants of the workshop engaged in very interesting discussions in groups. Their message was first drafted, both in words and visually on a storyboard, and then created and projected in the form of stop-motions animations. This mechanic enabled participants to learn how to animate figures and understand the logic of stop-motion animations while doing them.

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The installation piece enabled an interactive experience of facing the wall, listening to a soundscape of the US/Mexico border. As in the workshop, participants where asked to create a character with a message that would face the wall with the materials and objects available.

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The results are a large amount of media creations that will have a longer life than both frameworks. The animations created by the participants were politically charged, thoughtful, with calls for action. Participants stated that this was an innovative way of discussing any subject and they were interested in doing similar activities in their organizations and sharing their creations online.

Despite being different frameworks of engagement, both enabled multiple discussions with diverse voices of students and faculty. These conversations generated media creations that address a relevant political theme with a playful approach. Overall, I believe that the collaborative and public creation of media activates new spaces for political debate and possibilities of expression within the participants, tapping into practices associated with participatory culture.

My proposal for critical participatory making is to recognize us in others and harness the power of imagination to think otherwise. I propose participation as the place where real, inclusive and contested communication can take place, without erasing difference. I hope for participants not only to empathize with a real situation like the immigrant experience, but also to imagine an alternative positioning where they feel that they can confront this reality creatively. In this sense, I align with Henry Jenkins’ call to stimulate the civic imagination. For him, change emerges from the possibility of imagining a different world, infusing this imagination with a sense that change is possible, and understanding ourselves as agents capable of helping to drive that change. Thus the duality between “this is our reality” and “how we would like it” are displayed not as two isolated and abstract events, but as a contested open space in the present that we can transform through the encounter between reality and desire.

 

In the case of Trump’s hate, racial discrimination and active calls for the enactment of violence, I believe we are entering into a completely different reality than the one I foresaw when developing the project, and we have to address this with multiple practices of civic imagination. The animal we are facing has mutated drastically. Lives are at risk and we have an ethical and moral responsibility to Trump Trump’s wall and hate by any media necessary.

Citations:

[1] Gabe Ortiz, “TIMELINE: Trump’s Racial Demagoguery Is Having Dangerous, Real-Life Consequences”, America’s Voice, September 16, 2015, http://americasvoice.org/blog/a-timeline-trumps-racial-demagoguery-is-having-dangerous-real-life-consquences/

Dara Lind, “What the hell is going on with violence at Trump rallies, explained”, March 14, 2016.

http://www.vox.com/2016/3/14/11219256/trump-violent

[2] “Trump on border: We’ll call it the great wall of Trump”, August 20, 2015, Real Clear Politics, http://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2015/08/20/trump_on_border_well_call_it_the_great_wall_of_trump.html

[3] Clare Floran, “Trump’s Immigration Wall May Have Lethal Consequences”, August 25, 205, National Journal, http://www.govexec.com/management/2015/08/trumps-immigration-wall-may-have-lethal-consequences/119371/

[4] Workshops: “Think Critically – Act Creatively: Harnessing The Power Of Fiction For Social Good workshop” http://byanymedia.org/works/mapp/activity-1?path=activities

References

Anzaldúa, G. (1987). Borderlands: la frontera. San Francisco, CA: Aunt Luke Book Company

Emilia Yang is an activist, artist, and militant researcher. Yang is currently a Ph.D. student in Media Arts + Practice in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. Her work has been interconnected with digital communications, performance, and public art. Her research focuses on participatory culture and its relationship to media, arts, and design. She is interested in transmedia storytelling framed through the question of how it can foster social change and civic engagement. Her art practice utilizes site-specific interactive installations, interactive documentaries, performance, and urban interventions, all of which explore social justice issues in participatory ways. Emilia completed an M.A in Communications at Penn State University. Her Master’s project researched the first social media protest to make it to the streets in her home country Nicaragua. She developed a participatory transmedia storytelling hub in a site called ocupainss.org with the objective to present the maximum number of stories and violations of human rights around this protest.

By Any Media Necessary (Part Five): By Any Infrastructure

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

By Any Infrastructure Necessary

by Samantha Close

What does a scholarly transmedia project look like?  We’ve become familiar with venturing into fictional worlds created by weaving together different mediums, different modes of engagement, and different narratives.  For the By Any Media Necessary project, there was already a book being written.  When your purpose is to analyze and explain rather than to create and entertain, what kind of digital structure makes sense?

At the start, it looked like a google doc and an excel spreadsheet—the time-honored academic method of listing out sources, citations, key notes, and organizing them into thematic clusters and columns.  One of the key affordances of digital media is its ability to extend, to archive more kinds of content in more ways and simply more volume than any one printed book ever could.  We used that capacity to accumulate a hefty pile of case studies and examples, interesting groups and fascinating moments, which at that stage of brute force listing and organization could have easily become another book or an article in a journal.

Books and articles are, in general, linear.  The argument is organized as a forward march and the existing content materials are marshalled accordingly.  What doesn’t fit gets moved around; what doesn’t contribute to the point gets cut.  With the digital structure, however, we didn’t have to.  Even more than the affordance of abundance, the ability to allow, and even privilege, the winding detour turned out to be key.  One argument and line of logic doesn’t need to satisfy all comers because they, like us, can follow and chart idiosyncratic paths through the assembled materials.

After several long meetings, it looked like an alien lifeform.  As research assistants, Raffi and I sketched out circles, lines, and arrows in multi-color marker on our meeting room whiteboard, accompanied by snippets of suitably cryptic text.

BAM Brainstorm Visual

Our scribblings were motivated by the desire to find a balance between railroading audiences through material without allowing for exploration and dropping them into the middle of a trackless archival heap. The navigational structure had to clarify, not confuse, but also to anticipate a wide range of perspectives. Speaking to different audiences coming from very different places meant that questions like “what items do you put on the main menu?” and “how do you explain that there are educational resources without using the words ‘curriculum’ or ‘education’?” assumed great importance. Using terminology that didn’t signal to the audience who could use the content, that led people to expect something that didn’t follow, or that encouraged people to artificially corral themselves in one small corner of the project could lead to teachers, activists, students, scholars, and other folk closing out and not coming back.

And then, it started to look like a website. A really ugly website. But we were getting there. We settled on a few key navigational principles that balanced separation and classification at the top with a web of dense interconnection once you dove in. Navigating into the archive, you’re asked to choose between learning about people doing things (groups, individuals, and networks) or about the things they were making to do them (different kinds of media). That allowed us to chart out analytical paths through each of these broad categories that highlighted particular properties of activities and texts, like the impact of media form or a focus on a specific issue.

Once audiences drilled down to a particular case, though, they had easy routes out to follow whatever piqued their interest—not necessarily what brought them there in the first place. One could start looking at civic networks, find the Class War Kittehs case and see the way actors within this network join cute (and grumpy) animal memes with strong statements about labor rights and economic policies that they share on social media. Now curious about the use of such memes in activism, it’s easy to move from a focused look at the Class War Kitteh Grumpy Cat (who is still waiting for it to trickle down) to analysis of how single, still images can and are being used to promote social justice. From one of those images, a teacher could move to the Conversation Starter video on remix and authorship, which translates the analysis of how civic networks use images into a classroom-ready prompt for student discussion. An activist passionate about economic issues might move instead from these images to the collection of other organizations tackling these topics with different methods and from multiple points of view.

 

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Writing this now with the advantage of hindsight, the structure seems almost painfully obvious. Of course that’s what we would want! The process of getting here, though, was far from straightforward. It pushed us to conceptualize our material in new ways and to collaborate with both a graphic designer and an interactive media team. For my part, I am almost as excited to see how people engage with the infrastructure as with the content, to the extent that the two even can be separated. Like the activists this project analyzes, we’ve tried to find the best media to get our message across. Come help us figure out where it will go from here!

Samantha Close is a doctoral candidate in Communication at the University of Southern California.  Her research interests include digital media, theory-practice, political economy, fan studies, gender, and race. She focuses particularly on labor and transforming models of creative industries and capitalism.  Her documentary “I Am Handmade: Crafting in the Age of Computers,” based on her on-going dissertation work into the economic culture of crafting, is hosted online by Vice Media’s Motherboard channel.  Her writing appears in the academic journalsFeminist Media Studies, Transformative Works and Cultures, and Anthropology Now as well as in more informal online spaces.  You can find her on Twitter @butnocigar.

By Any Media Necessary (Part Four): The NAMLE/MAPP Educator Collaboration

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

The NAMLE/MAPP Educator Collaboration

by Michelle Ciulla Lipkin

The exploration of the topics of credibility, remix, agenda shifting and privacy are of utmost importance for media literacy educators. I was thrilled when the organization I lead, The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE), was asked to develop and implement a strategy to distribute videos and curriculum related to these topics to educators. These Conversation Starter Videos featured as part of the MAPP Project were created through collaboration between MAPP, Participant Media and Joseph Gordon Levitt’s HitRecord. Supporting materials were also developed for the videos to be used in high school and higher education classrooms.

The goal for this particular project was to conduct professional development sessions with the videos and accompanying materials for high school teachers and college professors. NAMLE conducted a series of workshops with the Conversation Starter Videos in various locations around the U.S.A. from July, 2015 – November, 2015. I had the opportunity to coordinate and lead these workshops. I attended NCTE’s WLU Literacies for All Summer Institute in Atlanta, Georgia and the University of Rhode Island’s Summer Institute in Digital Literacy in Providence. I coordinated a professional development session in collaboration with the Jacob Burns Film Center in White Plains, NY and the Newseum in Washington, D.C. I also had the chance to conduct a workshop for Rhode Island librarians as part of the statewide Media Smart Libraries Initiative.

NAMLE Workshop

You’d think that in my role as Executive Director of a national education organization that I would have lots of the opportunities to talk directly to teachers. I certainly do my best to create those opportunities but I often find that my time is spent doing lots of other things in support of teachers but not necessarily with them. This project was unbelievably appealing to me because it gave me an opportunity to be face to face with teachers to talk about topics integral to media literacy. The conversations did not disappoint.

Overall, the videos and materials were very well received. Teachers felt the videos were engaging and thoughtful. There were certain themes that resonated throughout the workshops. Teachers are hungry for easily accessible resources to use in their classrooms. They greatly appreciate free resources. It allows all teachers to have access. They want contemporary content that speaks to their students and echoes the type of media their students are consuming and creating. Teachers want the opportunity to decide how they want to use resources in their classroom rather than being told how to use them in a prescriptive way.

As far as the video topics are concerned, there are two points that really stuck out for me. First, the topic of credibility is of tremendous concern to educators. In the workshops that I conducted, teachers were asked to break out into small groups and develop activities using one of the videos. By far, credibility was the one people chose to discuss. There is an evident desire to explore the ways to teach credibility. Teachers feel that the issue of credibility continues to grow more and more complex with the increase of digital technologies that allow access to more and more information. It was apparent that teachers are struggling with how to teach their students the skills they need to assess credible information in a media saturated world.

Second, teachers had the most questions about the remix video, having difficulty understanding the basic concept of remix and how to teach it. It was tough to delve deeply into substantial conversation after the remix video because of the focus on clarifying the topic itself. The divide between the generations was evident here. While youth embrace the remix culture, adults are somewhat confused by it. It is apparent that more tools need to be developed to help teachers comprehend remix and its relevance in their classrooms.

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One of the highlights of the project came during the one student workshop we conducted with the Student Leadership Committee of the National Speech and Debate Association. The National Speech and Debate Association is the largest speech and debate organization serving middle school, high school, and college students in the United States. 153 students from 38 states actively participated in our online chat and were very engaged by the material. The video format, music, and style were very appealing to the students. They had a lot of thoughts on the topics, were eager to share their answers with the questions posed in the videos, and were willing to debate points with each other. It was clear these videos sparked conversation for the students.

After conducting these workshops, I conclude the videos and accompanying materials are valuable resources for teachers interested in exploring issues with credibility, remix, agenda shifting, and privacy. Their energetic style with a celebrity host only adds to the appeal for students. It is important to note the videos really do act simply as conversation starters. While they pose important questions and provide discussion prompts, they do not provide answers or practical action steps. Teachers consistently said that they would have appreciated more concrete answers to the questions posed. The use of accompanying materials and additional resources are needed to truly explore the topics.

I was incredibly glad to be able to share media content with teachers for free that could lend itself to important conversation. Watching teachers discuss and debate credibility, remix, agenda shifting and privacy made it apparent how essential media literacy professional development is to the success of a 21st century classroom. Teachers are eager to discuss these topics and enthusiastic about bringing them into the classroom.

As an organization, NAMLE is committed to ensuring that everyone is taught to be a critical thinker, effective communicator and an active citizen. It is no surprise that we are inspired and encouraged by the work of Henry Jenkins and the MAPP project. We were so honored to be part of this project and look forward to seeing how these resources are used in classrooms across the country.

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Michelle Ciulla Lipkin has been the Executive Director of NAMLE since September 2012. After graduating from NYU’s Film School in 1994, Michelle began her career in children’s television production, working for Nickelodeon from 1995 – 2000. Michelle returned to NYU to earn her graduate degree at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study.

Michelle focused her grad work on children and television while also continuing to do freelance television production. Since earning her graduate degree, Michelle has been lecturing and doing workshops for parents and children on media use and digital citizenship. Michelle also worked as a facilitator for The LAMP (Learning about Multimedia Project) from 2010 – 2013 teaching media literacy and production classes from Pre-Kindergarten to 5th grade.

For the last 7 years, Michelle has been an active parent in the NYC public school system. Michelle served as Chair of the Chancellor’s Parent Advisory Council, President of the District 3 President’s Council, and President of the P.S. 199 P.T.A. Michelle currently serves on the Parent Association Board and School Leadership Team of M.S. 245, The Computer School. Michelle lives in New York City with her husband, son and daughter.

By Any Media Necessary (Part Three): Educator Collaborations with the National Writing Project

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

Educator Collaborations with the National Writing Project

by Diana Lee (with materials created by Liana Gamber Thompson, Gabriel Peters-Lazaro, Alexandra Margolin and Sangita Shresthova)

Are you interested in how teachers are using the By Any Media resource to plan lessons? The educators section of byanymedia.org offers an in-depth look at how educators and activists have helped us build on and improve this resource for use in learning spaces by sharing their  lesson planning processes.

Starting in Summer 2014, we began piloting the By Any Media Necessary (BAM) online resource with groups of K-12 educators affiliated with the National Writing Project. This was done in an effort to see how teachers can utilize the resource in their classrooms. Sessions brought together small groups of teachers to informally explore the BAM resource, provide feedback on the utility of the scalar platform and usability of the interface, test drive some of the available materials such as the MAPP workshops anddigital media toolkit, and engage with the sizable archive of media on BAM. For example, high school Economics teacher Albert spoke from experience as a teacher who already incorporates creative use of digital media and technology into his classroom. He described how different aspects of the BAM resource could help him scaffold and build lessons that deepen students’ critical engagement with social issues and how working with these practices and tools could help students learn to express their knowledge and opinions through creative and maker practices that they are passionate about.


Through our conversations, we also sought to understand some of the structural obstacles preventing teachers from working with digital media and technology in their classrooms. For example, high school Language Arts teacher Kate talked with us about administrative and systemic barriers to working with cellphones and other kinds of digital media and technology at her school, and discussed ways that she and other teachers could legitimize this kind of work and navigate around these barriers.

While the MAPP team hopes that BAM is a resource for teachers, we understand that we ourselves are not teachers and therefore the development of lesson and unit plans is not our expertise. Rather than outline how we feel BAM can be used in the classroom, we would like to highlight how actual teachers are using the resource. We hope to continue to partner with teachers who are using BAM in their classrooms in the months ahead.

Also see:

  1. Lesson Plans: Teachers from Locke High School in South LA
  2. Teaching Teachers: Nicole
  3. Conversations with Activists and Educators

Diana Lee is a doctoral candidate at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism who researches the creation and circulation of mediated counter-narratives in response to racial microaggressions. Through multimedia visual culture and storytelling resistance practices, she explores how these networked participatory cultures aim to collectively process, speak back to, or educate about racial microaggressions and their layered, cumulative effects. She is particularly interested in the potential healing and empowering impact of participating in these resistance practices for those who frequently navigate microaggressions in their everyday lives, and how these kinds of engagement can be utilized and fostered for education in other contexts of learning. Before doctoral studies, Diana worked in education research and evaluation, afterschool programming and development, and on several mixed-methods research projects in education, psychology, mental health, immigration, youth culture, media literacy, and communication. Diana holds a B.A. in Sociology from UC Berkeley, an Ed.M. in Learning and Teaching from Harvard Graduate School of Education, and a M.A. in Media, Culture, and Communication from NYU.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Participant Media/Pivot.tv

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

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

Pivot.tv is Participant’s television network where Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s HitRECord is aired. In their own words:

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

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

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

What does this collection contain?

This collection contains the following:

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

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

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

Conversation Starter Topic: Credibility in the Digital Age

 

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

Conversation Starter Topic: Shifting the Agenda in the Digital Age

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

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

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

Conversation Starter Topic: Remix in the Digital Age

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

—Nico Carpentier, Uppsala University, Sweden

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

—Nick Couldry, London School of Economics and Political Science

 

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

The Book Companion as Multimodal Scholarship

by Yomna Elsayed

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sasha Costanza-Chock:

I feel honored to be part of this conversation! Reading everyone’s comments on the evolution of CMS100 provides such rich insight into the evolution of our field(s) as a whole; the unique institutional birth, struggles, and rise of CMS/W within MIT; broader transformations in our media system and in the paradigms that shape our understanding of media; and our own personal/political pathways as media scholars, makers, and activists. I taught the most recent instance of the course, in the fall of 2015; my syllabus is here (http://bit.ly/cms100-2015).

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

Continuities

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

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

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

For example, early in the semester there’s a hands-on workshop where we use the PageOneX tool (http://bit.ly/pageonex-draft-2015) to explore front page newspaper attention to media events; after that students write short papers around an analysis they conduct using the tool. This is after reading about the history of systematic content analysis as a subfield of media studies, including Chomsky & Herman’s well known polemic but also tracing ‘column-inch’ metrics of newspaper attention back over a hundred years. Several of the students chose to create visualizations of news attention to recent social movements. Their short PageOneX papers are here, with an example visualization by a student (below) of how Ferguson coverage shifted over time from framings of ‘unrest’ to ‘police brutality’ to ‘racism’:

 

ferguson-screenshot

Front page newspaper coverage of Ferguson over time

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

 

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

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

Transformation

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

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

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

 

Opportunities

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

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

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

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