Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Mark Deuze and Derek Johnson (Part II)

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Mark

One of the key stories behind Brexit may very well be the deplorable failure of (or frustration with) participatory politics. What happens when people can truly participate directly in the decision-making process of political institutions (and, alternatively, in the creative process of media institutions)? It opens up the process to all kinds of (more or less) sophisticated manipulation online, by actors not even necessarily involved nor physically co-present. In our lives as lived in media - which perspective is at the heart of my teaching and research (see Deuze, 2012) - we can participate anytime, anyplace, anywhere (based on the ‘Martini media’ principle, as once articulated by the BBC in its strategy for the 21st century). So can anyone else - and that makes us, as well as the process we participate in, extremely vulnerable. In other words: these processes need (long-term) care, monitoring, support, investment - something clearly absent from the Brexit process, as it tends to be lacking in many of the media industry’s attempts to harness the creativity and participation of its audiences.

A second issue affecting participatory politics is the distinction once made by Michael Schudson between informed and informational citizens. The age-old ideal of an informed citizenry that will rationally make up its mind once in the voting booth (or is rational and deliberate about all its participations in public life) has always been somewhat of a puzzling concept - as people are generally not particularly rational, and even if they are, their rationality is deeply emotional, biased, shaped by subjective experience. Schudson furthermore suggests that being informed is of little use if the citizen is not empowered to do something with that information - beyond voting once in a while. We may lament the cacophony of voices online, but at least people express themselves. And the conflict-ridden, highly antagonistic space that speech online occupies perhaps comes rather close to the ideal - voiced by Chantal Mouffe - of an agonistic public sphere, where consensus is not the ideal, but rather the truly plural exchange of difference is. To paraphrase Mouffe: the institutional process - democratic, political, industrial, or otherwise - should create the conditions for conflict to find its expression in agonistic terms, avoiding that it becomes antagonistic.

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Participatory politics is premised on this notion of an informational citizenry - people that do not become citizens when called on to do so by the system, but because they are compelled to do so through meaningful acts of participation (on the local, regional, national or even international level) - in and through media. Where I see this ideal fail, in the specific context of the Brexit example, is that the ‘media logic’ of journalism and institutional politics - amplified by the ‘platform logic’ of Google, Facebook and others with their algorithms and interfaces intent on the quantity, not quality of engagement - tends to reify antagonism (between the UK and the EU, between Leavers and Remainers), and does not invest in a plurality of voices. Both the UK government and the EU furthermore fail to create truly meaningful platforms for participation and engagement for citizens to express themselves about the process. Overall, all of this just seems such a waste of an opportunity.

Derek

I think your point about how the institutions of journalism reify antagonism is particular apt, and I see that same challenge in the work I do to understand the struggles over the reproduction of entertainment content.  At the end of the day, I am still most fundamentally interested in understanding industry and the institutions of (re)production. I am inspired and awed by work that my colleague Lori Kido Lopez does to make sense of activist communities, and while I hope to add to that in some small way, I think the real insights I have to offer contribute to a critical media industry studies that can make sense of how institutions respond to, manage, and even incorporate these activist voices.  

In that sense, the antagonism that I see in my work between the activist participation of communities invested in a politics of popular feminism versus that of men’s rights activists or fandoms informed by the discourses of popular misogyny is not quite a struggle that industry must face on two fronts.  Instead, it is grist for the mill of a franchise management logic built on multiplicity, where each opposing viewpoint in this antagonism might be served by parallel spin-off products. When Sony produced a female-led reboot of Ghostbusters, many detractors saw it as a “ruination” of a cherished past in which men sat at the privileged center of that story, engaging in all manner of participatory (but also sexist and racist) practice to make their objections heard.  Sony’s assurances that it would produce other male-focused Ghostbusters product in parallel and succession to that film demonstrate not so much the power of these would-be activists to effect change so much as their value in the existing frameworks of niche marketing and product extension upon which industry decisions are made.  The antagonism of participatory politics doesn’t have to produce real industry change if it is held in tension as a form of differentiated product marketing. This activism doesn’t produce change, it supports more product.

These terms of antagonism have always been useful to me.  One of the first things I ever published figured fan antagonism (“fantagonism”) not just as a conflict between competing communities of interest, but also as a site of institutional management.  

Mark

This is fascinating, Derek - and to me a clear sign that it is in best interest of the industry (as it generally operates) not to bring a plurality of voices into conversation with each other, nor to nurture any such encounter. Instead, profit is made out of market segmentation, pigeonholing people into to communities that can effectively be monetized. The same process works in politics. I am not advocating, nor expecting a politics or media industry policy of consensus, but simply find it regrettable that neither institution seems to be willing to embrace bringing people together with the risk that those people may truly be different and experience (each other’s) difference. I’d be interested in your work on how media professionals can really work together with and through different fan communities, and develop new creative practices, products and services in the process. Is there a ‘third way’, perhaps? One that could also inform the political process?

Derek

I share your ambivalence about appearing to endorse a model of consensus, but I still find Joseph Turow’s distinction between “society-making” and “segment-making” media to be a particularly useful way of thinking about the way that the institutions of politics and entertainment both have embraced a politics of division that sees the world as a series of distinct niches to be served through narrowcast appeals.  None of that should lead us to believe that broadcasting was ever “inclusive” or that we simply need to return to some nostalgic past when we all watched and read the same things. But it does remind us that these institutions don’t have to work this way--as “natural” as these market divisions may seem, they are historically and socially constructed, and we absolutely could imagine other ways for institutions to operate in ways that encourage dialogue, interaction, and resistance to boundaries.  

This is definitely a great opportunity to develop new practices, products, and services as you say, but unfortunately I think it is hard to find support for those new possibilities in institutions that embrace segmentation as commonsense.  There is most certainly a recognition of the economic value to be gained in nurturing a greater plurality of voices in the production of entertainment content. Just recent, CBS announced plans to create a Global Franchise Group for the Star Trek franchise, which seems to exist specifically to find new ways of building the brand and connecting with audiences (particularly for a franchise that’s typically struggled to find international success).  In his position at the helm of the franchise, Alex Kurtzman claimed that this initiative was aimed at “broadening ‘Star Trek’s’ brand reach by amplifying its core values globally: empowerment, inclusion, imagination, and above all, the exceptional storytelling that’s inspired generations of fans.”  This is all hype of the most hyperbolic sort, of course, but I think it’s notable that corporations like CBS look to broaden their appeals and see things like empowerment and inclusion as part of that mandate. But to deliver that empowerment and inclusion, it’s more likely than not that the spin-off strategies at the heart of franchise management will be used to create separate silos so that the same brand can appeal to different people in different ways.  Inclusion doesn’t necessarily mean sharing in the same things--it can operate by separate-but-equal principles.

The problem isn’t just a top down one of how industry marketing works; it’s also how some fans and other participatory consumers experience and feel those appeals and develop a sense of exclusive ownership over particular cultural experiences.  There’s a zero sum game effect in play, where if someone else is now being served or newly recognized by the entertainment industries, someone who was already in the privileged position of market visibility feels like they have now lost something.  It’s not just that the institutions struggle to see other ways of thinking, but also that everyday consumers have their own investments in ideas about who media entertainment is and is not “for,” using their power to participate in the policing of these boundaries.  

I feel like you asked a question inviting me to be more hopeful and I dropped a lot more pessimism on our plate.  I don’t mean to suggest that these institutions aren’t trying to find a third way: I want to give Disney/Lucasfilm some credit for decisions with Star Wars that seem committed (regardless of backlash) to foregrounding new voices and perspectives in the main, shared story of the franchise rather than creating spaces for “inclusivity” on the margins (in terms of characters and story, perhaps; behind-the-scenes is a whole other story).  But even under the same Disney corporate umbrella, Marvel Studios’ efforts at inclusivity frequently depend on a logic of bounded separation (where individual films service different kinds of diversity). So I think there’s a lot more thinking to be done here, and I wonder, then, if you see any clearer path to a “third way” than I do?  Or perhaps more broadly, what do you think is necessary to support real change in these institutional contexts?

Mark

What I particularly appreciate in these examples you share, is the insight that a true commitment to diversity (with its attendant conflicts) is not anathema to the inner workings of multinational corporations. At the same time, independent, small-scale, local or minority media and groups are not necessarily more inclusive or plural simply because their primary logic does not tend to be one of profit. The same goes for a national and local politics.

The most recent research project I have been working on with my dear friend and colleague Tamara Witschge (University of Groningen) is called ‘Beyond Journalism’: a series of case studies involving fieldwork among 20+ journalism startups in 11 countries (including Colombia, Italy, Uganda, and Canada, to name a few). A book documenting this project is published by Polity Press in November 2019. One thing we have learned from this, is not that that upstarts, newcomers, younglings, entrepreneurs, and innovators necessarily have better, more inclusive or democratic ideas of what (good) journalism is. In fact: most of these newsworkers talk about the profession in similar, quite traditional (and ideological) ways as their counterparts safely employed in the newsrooms of corporate titles like the New York Times or the BBC. However, what is quite clear is that all of them do something quite different with these values and ideas. What journalism is to them in terms of practice is incredibly diverse and multiperspectival - both in terms of content and regarding format, interface, audience relationship, and business design. This teaches me, once more, that the core values and idea(l)s of a company or political party - or indeed any institution do not necessarily lead to ‘one’ way of doing things. The challenge is to image other ways of doing journalism (and politics).

Tamara Witschge is documenting her ongoing work in this area - exploring the boundaries of journalism, embracing its true potential for diversity - among other places in the online network Journalism Elsewhere. We are also involved with the journalist initiative Multiple Journalism, mapping inspiring ways and places of journalism all over the world. Ultimately, I find that what a possible ‘third way’ of doing participatory politics and media work boils down to is: relationships, and more specifically: the ways in which we invest, nurture, explore, allow for, and embrace relationships. Between colleagues (often separated by employment status, freelance or contracted), between politicians and constituencies, between media professionals and amateurs, between makers and users, and so on. We read so much about the failure or lackluster appeal of interactivity in politics and journalism, but do not appreciate how a true ‘engagement’ (to use a term co-opted by marketers) generally only comes to fruition after significant investment (of a material, but also and perhaps primarily immaterial nature: time, energy, emotions, respect, so on and so forth).

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When I was working on the Media Work (Polity Press 2007), Managing Media Work (Sage, 2011) and more recently the Making Media (Amsterdam University Press, 2019) books, I was always inspired by the ways in which the digital games industry engaged with its fans and audiences. I would tell media professionals in other industries to take their cues from game studios who significantly invested in their communities of gamers. Some studios still do a stellar job in this respect (Amsterdam-based Guerilla Games, responsible for the breakaway hit Horizon Zero Dawn, is a good example). I remember Henry Jenkins talking about the show creators of Lost as another example of this. Do you see currency in this approach?

Derek

Absolutely.  I see that institutional commitment to supporting this feeling of shared engagement and community across professionals and fans in the work I have done to consider how The LEGO Group cultivates relationships with its fan--particularly adult fans who are surplus audiences in the strictest sense of the company’s core target market, but whom LEGO still hopes to engage in meaningful ways.  In fact, in exchange for some access I was granted, I had agreed to share my findings with LEGO before finalizing the manuscript for Transgenerational Media Industries, and I learned that some of the analytical frameworks I used had not adequately acknowledged their felt sense of commitment to building genuine relationships with their consumers.  Using a term that each of us has embraced in our work, I had written about the ways in which LEGO “manages” their adult consumers, and the company took issue with this on the basis that this term stood in opposition to the efforts being made to cultivate engagement with audiences, listening and collaboration more freely in ways the top-down language of management obscures.  As much as I think these relationships can be a form of management, I understood where they were coming from and tried to acknowledge these values a little more in my revisions, because that kind of corporate value certainly seems better than ones based in control or discipline.

That said, as much as we can see and encourage these attempts to communicate and build relationships with fans and consumers more broadly, I think it matters who is being listened to and what relations are being supported through these bridges of communication.  The alt-right groups that I have studied have loosely attempted to organize boycotts of film franchises and studios that they see as complicit in the rise of popular feminism, and I’m quite satisfied to see the media industries ignore them. But when some of the misogynist and racist discourses that circulate in these alt-right spaces diffuse into everyday forms of fandom, sometimes entertainment companies do listen and cite the resistance of “fans” and the potential for backlash as a reason not to pursue greater inclusivity.  So I’m not sure that the willingness of media industries to listen and build relationships is enough. What also seems necessary to me is the need for relationships to be built across different fandoms and consumer groups, too. On the one hand, this could generate conversations that lead to empathy and recognition of others. On the other, fans communicating with one another across the lines of market segmentation by which media industries imagine them seems to me like it would have a lot of potential to challenge and disrupt those very industry constructions, rather than playing into them.

In talking about the potential for building relationships across the lines of social division, I wonder if we can see the questions we’re asking about both entertainment and politics intersecting in the case of Chris Evans, whose next post-Captain America project seems to be creating a political website aimed at putting multiple political viewpoints in dialogue with one another.  I’ve been thinking a lot more generally about the ways Evans has used his association with that franchise to claim moral authority as a political actor/activist; but this project seems more broadly relevant to both our interests in that his stated aims are not to provide consensus, nor an echo-chamber for a single political niche, but instead a dialogue and relationship between multiple perspectives (potentially, our “third” path).  Of course, it’s all very disappointingly limited, too, in that the aims of this new platform, at least so far, are described in the binary terms of getting “both” sides of an issue heard, rather than imagining a more diverse network of political participants. But this example seems to encapsulate a lot of what we’re identifying across politics and entertainment both. I don’t expect that this one website will change much, but in its aims I do see some possibilities.  

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Mark Deuze is Professor of Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam’s (UvA) Faculty of Humanities. From 2004 to 2013 he worked at Indiana University’s Department of Telecommunications in Bloomington, United States. Publications of his work include "Media Life" (2012, Polity Press), and most recently “Making Media” (January 2019; co-edited with Mirjam Prenger, Amsterdam University Press), and “Beyond Journalism” (November 2019; co-authored with Tamara Witschge, Polity Press). Weblog: deuze.blogspot.com. Twitter: @markdeuze. E-mail: mdeuze@uva.nl. He is also the bass player and singer of post-grunge band Skinflower.

Derek Johnson is Associate Professor of Media and Cultural Studies in the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  He is the author of Transgenerational Media Industries: Adults, Children, and the Reproduction of Culture (Michigan, forthcoming 2019) and Media Franchising: Creative License and Collaboration in the Culture Industries (NYU, 2013).  His other books include the edited volume From Networks to Netflix: A Guide to Changing Channels (Routledge, 2018) as well as the co-edited works Point of Sale: Analyzing Media Retail (Rutgers, forthcoming 2019), Making Media Work: Cultures of Management in the Entertainment Industries (NYU, 2014), and A Companion to Media Authorship (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013).  









Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Mark Deuze and Derek Johnson (Part I)

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Mark

In 2018 I moved to the UK from the continent - apparently as one of the few - as most people seemed to be moving in the other direction. As I am still working in The Netherlands (at the University of Amsterdam), it is fascinating to witness the way the news media in both countries respond to the political crisis premised on a key form of participatory politics: Brexit based on a people’s referendum. Most attention is paid to the particulars of the political process (in a definitive horse race frame: who is winning, who is losing), supplemented with human interest stories about communities and families affected in particular ways. Dutch media uniformly adopt the EU stance, writing with mild disdain about the perceived dysfunction of the British parliamentary system, while the UK press - more diverse in the range of voices it represents - often stereotypes the EU for being a meddling bureaucracy governed by France and Germany (hardly mentioning any of the other countries represented).

In the UK, and particularly in the Northeast where I am located, people absolutely do not feel their participation has mattered at all - regardless whether they voted Leave or Remain. The Remainers feel cheated and watch in horror how their country’s economy is declining, how xenophobic sentiments seem to be legitimized through the Brexit vote, and lament how the British culture is turning inward. Leavers feel cheated by the political process and blame any politician - both in the British Parliament as well as in Brussels - for corrupting their vote. In the meantime, journalists and scholars fret over the role of data and micro-targeting voters online, the influence of social media, the consequences of filter bubbles and echo chambers, and so on.

Derek

This is surely one of the most important political crises in the contemporary moment, and I’m very interested in exploring how, as you say, the idea of participation proves central to political and cultural struggle, no matter what the position or the ideological perspective in question, where it be Remainders or Leavers.  I’m not an expert in electoral politics or journalism, however, so I approach these questions from a somewhat different angle, asking how the production--and just as crucially, reproduction--of entertainment content becomes a site of between amongst different communities and stakeholders who feel that their participation might shape the future course of culture.  In my first book, I developed a critical framework for trying to make sense of “media franchising” as a process of industrial struggle in which intellectual properties were extended over time and across the space of different production contexts defined by their own identities and claims to authority. My new book aims to dig into the temporalities of the ongoing production of entertainment content a little more, revealing how media industries develop “transgenerational” strategies to reproduce markets, labor, and consumer identities over time.  The projects I’m working on now try to match these questions about the future and reproduction back to media franchising, where the industrial promise of perpetual reproduction for major media franchises like Star Wars, Ghostbusters, and more attracts the attention of consumer activists who see this arc of reproduction as one that can be bent either toward change or the reproduction of the status quo.  

So I’m interested both in how popular feminism turns its attention to the franchising and merchandising of major entertain brands as a way of pursuing social change (often looking to Suzanne Scott for her incisive perspective here), but at the same time I consider how parallel forms of popular misogyny equally identify media franchising as a valuable battleground for protecting hegemonic white masculinity and other entrenched forms of cultural privilege.  This has included attention to men’s rights activists from the alt-right, but also everyday forms of fandom that work to intervene in the management of media franchises as a means of extending the past into the industrial future. What’s at stake in media franchising to make it a target for activism, in my opinion, is that it represents a set of industrial strategies in the present that orient cultural reproduction in the future toward either change or disruption of the past.  Media franchises by their very definition have a certain future, and these politics seek to direct the still uncertain political and cultural orientation of that future.

Both our approaches, then, refuse the idea of a utopian politics of participation that is purely progressive. I wonder, then, what you think Brexit tells us about the virtues or of participation?

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Mark Deuze is Professor of Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam’s (UvA) Faculty of Humanities. From 2004 to 2013 he worked at Indiana University’s Department of Telecommunications in Bloomington, United States. Publications of his work include "Media Life" (2012, Polity Press), and most recently “Making Media” (January 2019; co-edited with Mirjam Prenger, Amsterdam University Press), and “Beyond Journalism” (November 2019; co-authored with Tamara Witschge, Polity Press). Weblog: deuze.blogspot.com. Twitter: @markdeuze. E-mail: mdeuze@uva.nl. He is also the bass player and singer of post-grunge band Skinflower.

Derek Johnson is Associate Professor of Media and Cultural Studies in the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  He is the author of Transgenerational Media Industries: Adults, Children, and the Reproduction of Culture (Michigan, forthcoming 2019) and Media Franchising: Creative License and Collaboration in the Culture Industries (NYU, 2013).  His other books include the edited volume From Networks to Netflix: A Guide to Changing Channels (Routledge, 2018) as well as the co-edited works Point of Sale: Analyzing Media Retail (Rutgers, forthcoming 2019), Making Media Work: Cultures of Management in the Entertainment Industries (NYU, 2014), and A Companion to Media Authorship (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013).  


Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Mel Stanfill and Samantha Close (Part II)

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Mel

Your opening post definitely drives home for me how much context matters. It would never occur to me to talk about teaching in the context of participatory politics these days because of the particular configuration of my current job. But I definitely used to ask students to make digital resources they’d then release into the world to get the information about whatever their research topic was--a Tumblr with resources for LGBTQ+ youth, a YouTube video on body image, Wikipedia entries addressing LGBTQ+ people in rural areas--out into the public. But I can’t do anything like that anymore, in large part because I simply have too many students.

The impulse toward community-based, participatory types of projects is a good one, but (and maybe this is end-of-semester cynicism), I wonder about the trade-offs. My university is opening a new campus downtown next year, and one of the cheer-leading squad talking points is about engaging with the community. On one hand, the university will inevitably gentrify the nearby historically Black neighborhood out of existence in a very short time, so trying to give something back is the least that we can do, and it will absolutely benefit the students to have the chance to actually apply their web or game design knowledge for a real client. On the other hand, there’s the White Savior factor, plus I know that my students already work long hours at their (sometimes multiple) paid jobs just to be in school--asking them to do more unpaid labor to clean up the university’s mess feels very squicky to me.

So really, what this emphasizes to me is that participatory politics requires resources. It doesn’t require as many resources as the massive campaign donations required to make a difference in traditional politics, of course. But it does need time at the bare minimum and often technological skills and good quality internet on top of that. How can we think about its (very real) potentials while keeping in sight those (very real) limitations?

Sam

Context and the location of your perspective are both absolutely key here, and that’s something your opening statement brought home to me as well in emphasizing that the same text can be both simultaneously racist and anti-racist. The same teaching practice, in two different institutional contexts, could bring students, university, and community into closer partnership--or make a mockery of such partnership through ignoring the impact of privilege.

To me, the way to work with the real potential of participatory politics while not forgiving or forgetting its limitations is to confront these questions head on and to live in their contradictions. All of our faves are problematic. And even if they weren’t, the way we squee over them might well be. What teaching can do as a practice is to leverage that existing love to take our faves seriously enough to be critical of them, a kind of tough love for media. Historically, this has been a strength of fandom’s engagement with texts but as people have fetishized, or over-emphasized and blindly relied on, simply being fannish as a way to be “progressive,” that strength has fallen by the wayside. This is as true of uncritical affirmations of transformative fandom, the fic-writing, art-making creative folks, as it is of the critiques that transformative fans often throw at affirmational fans. This has been particularly and painfully clear in recent Star Wars fandom, where (mostly white) fans have harassed fans of color, like Zina Hutton or Rukmini Pande, who critique that fandom’s racist neglect of Finn and Poe.

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The problem that many of the necessary resources for participatory politics, particularly those based on capital like technological infrastructure, skill, and access, come from existing centers of privilege and power is very real. It’s also not new. The same issue can be seen looking back to countercultural US activism in the sixties, for instance, where most communes were supported by family money or friends and relations with “straight” jobs. Today, the awesome that is Black Twitter exists on, well, Twitter, with all of its associated problems of harassment and amplification of white nationalism. Once we acknowledge that, the only way I see forward is to direct our own and others’ participation to push our systems, our institutions, our communities, our fandoms into better versions of themselves.

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Mel

In the spirit of “all of our faves are problematic,” one thing I’m thinking about lately is “pleasure isn’t innocent” or “desire isn’t innocent.” Sure, maybe Finn and Poe don’t do it for you (or, the fight happening in my side of the internet lately, maybe trans women don’t do it for you), but that isn’t just a neutral fact that exists out in the world. It comes from somewhere. It is the product of a particular configuration of what we’ve learned to enjoy--or not. That doesn’t mean anyone is forced to enjoy the thing. It doesn’t speak to whether you’re “a bad person” for not liking the thing. But it does need to be understood as arising from and enmeshed in the systems of power conditioning how we think about the thing.

And that works both ways. It’s not that you can’t like CW DC Comics shows, say, just because they did a Nazi fanfic arc and some of their actors are bigots. It’s not like if you do like these shows you’re “a bad person”--whatever that might mean. But it is nevertheless true that supporting this media constellation isn’t just a neutral thing that exists in the world. It contributes to upholding these broader systems of power.

Mel

In the spirit of “all of our faves are problematic,” one thing I’m thinking about lately is “pleasure isn’t innocent” or “desire isn’t innocent.” Sure, maybe Finn and Poe don’t do it for you (or, the fight happening in my side of the internet lately, maybe trans women don’t do it for you), but that isn’t just a neutral fact that exists out in the world. It comes from somewhere. It is the product of a particular configuration of what we’ve learned to enjoy--or not. That doesn’t mean anyone is forced to enjoy the thing. It doesn’t speak to whether you’re “a bad person” for not liking the thing. But it does need to be understood as arising from and enmeshed in the systems of power conditioning how we think about the thing.

And that works both ways. It’s not that you can’t like CW DC Comics shows, say, just because they did a Nazi fanfic arc and some of their actors are bigots. It’s not like if you do like these shows you’re “a bad person”--whatever that might mean. But it is nevertheless true that supporting this media constellation isn’t just a neutral thing that exists in the world. It contributes to upholding these broader systems of power.

We can’t exempt ourselves from those systems in our fandom practices any more than we can opt out of white supremacy itself. You can sit with that reality, or you can work to change it, but it’s the place we’re standing either way. What we can do, as you point out, is push institutions and communities to be better.

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Mel Stanfill is an Assistant Professor with a joint appointment in the Texts & Technology Program and the Department of Games and Interactive Media at the University of Central Florida. Stanfill’s book, Exploiting Fandom: How the Media Industry Seeks to Manipulate Fans, is available from the University of Iowa Press.

Samantha Close is an Assistant Professor in Communication at DePaul University. Her documentary, I Am Handmade: Crafting in the Age of Computers, and her peer-reviewed research articles on topics such as graffiti knitting and fan masculinity are available online. You can find her on Twitter @ButNoCigar





















Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Mel Stanfill and Samantha Close (Part I)

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Mel

In the past year or so, something I’ve said often is that I keep trying to write a book called Fandom is Ugly. By this I mean that, though it’s not the project I’m supposed to be working on, I keep circling back to it. I’ve given talks about the harassment tactics fans used in response to the death of a queer character and the ways that fandom’s reputation as progressive may not be warranted; I’ve published about the role of whiteness in making fandom inhospitable to fans of color; among the work I have in preparation is a special issue organized around the concept “reactionary fandom.” So, when I think about participatory politics, it’s in that zone of how such politics are reactionary.

In her part of this series back in March, Ashley Hinck argued that “fans anchor their civic appeals in the ethical frameworks emerging from their fan object.” That usually runs one way: that Harry Potter fans, say, root their politics in opposition to Voldemortian genocidal policies. But texts can also support other belief systems. To keep going with the theme, this can be overt racist politics like memes about so-called “white genocide,” but it can also be the very same text that seems progressive from another angle: Rowling’s message may be ostensibly antiracist, but her representation of people of color is pretty marginalizing. Those are the cases that draw my attention--how does it change thinking about fandom as political when the object of fandom is racist (overtly or just centering whiteness), or sexist (overtly or just androcentric), or homophobic (overtly or just heterosexist)? How can we grapple with people’s passionate attachment, social media advocacy, and even more tangible activism being rooted in fandom of that?

Sam

Academia is a strange space to inhabit during a time of crisis. The university is simultaneously a non-profit, education-oriented institution where inhabitants have the time and freedom to analyze the world and an intense microcosm of the very truths, powers, and changes that we research. This is particularly clear to me as someone who both studies creativity, work, and digital society and works in a very creative, digitally-connected field, as I discussed when presenting my research on handmade craft entrepreneurship. It’s something I continue to reflect upon as the academic job season winds down and I see incredibly accomplished researchers and friends, people whose work I assign to my students, leaving a field that will fly them across the globe to give a 20 minute talk but won’t pay them enough to eat while they teach students in the regular week-to-week grind.

Completing my PhD at USC during Obama’s second term and beginning my first job as an Assistant Professor at DePaul during Trump’s first (only? Please let it be only.) term, I’ve tried to learn how to be an academic while waves of both highly progressive activism, like Occupy and Black Lives Matter, and highly regressive activism, like GamerGate and the resurgence of white nationalism, rocked both the wider nation and particular subcultural niches I inhabited. Throughout, I’ve vacillated between wondering whether my work analyzing popular culture (with its concomitant joys and pains) was utterly meaningless or incredibly essential. I empathized with a friend who described feeling like a robot when she was only able to reply “I’m focusing on my academic career right now” when a student making up material missed during a protest asked her “what are you doing for Occupy?” To have a hope of finding a sustainable place in academia, she (we) had to emphasize publications, research, teaching evaluations--but it’s an odd irony when what you’re researching are the very oppressions that activists outside your window are fighting against. I’ve also seen the lights go on in a student’s brain when they understood how the theories of power we deconstructed in the classroom live, breathe, and work in the world outside of it. One favorite moment was when my Gender and Popular Culture class visited the Ripped Bodice romance bookstore, an entrepreneurial enterprise by two sisters and romance fans to recognize and support women-centric literary culture, and they exclaimed “It’s just like in the reading!”

When I think about participatory politics now, my thoughts center around the kinds of politics that I participate in myself, particularly professionally. The most concentrated work I’ve done in this area is diving in to Community-Based Service Learning (CBSL), a teaching style that seeks to build partnerships between universities and the community organizations around them. CBSL courses aim for a balanced partnership where students, faculty, community organization workers, volunteers, and community members work together and learn from each other. For example, I teach an Introduction to Digital Skills class where students and I take a whirlwind tour through different arenas of digital media production skills. This year and last, we partnered with community organizations who had digital media-related projects that groups of students could work on throughout the quarter. The Benedictine Sisters of Chicago, for instance, had an incredible archive that they wanted to share with the community but weren’t sure how to go about it. One team of students went through the archive with archivist sister Virginia Jung, taking strong photographs and even videos of neat finds, and composing social media-aware copy to go with it.

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Another team went to performance-based anti-bullying events created by the Free Lunch Academy to document their work. They research the best hashtags and photograph styles to increase the spread of FLA’s message online.

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Beyond that, both groups created guides explaining how to produce more such content so that knowledge, not just objects created or time spent, could be shared between the privileged space of academia and the community. The students learned a great deal about working in the real world with actual communities—for instance, some of their very favorite ideas or material might conflict with what the organization was trying to do in their community and thus not work after all. That meant they had to let go of that idea and re-center their minds, setting aside their own viewpoints to understand why and how others might do things differently. We are in the midst of continuing these projects as I write these words, working this year with animal rescue organizations Tree House Humane Society and One Tail at a Time. Rather than just taking cute photographs of puppies and kittens, which can dramatically increase adoption numbers and website hits but ironically and cruelly contribute to the underlying problems of pet abandonment, the students are helping both organizations to sustain their work through focusing on processes like managing community cat colonies or fostering elderly and chronically ill dogs.

I’m lucky not only to have ended up in a position where I can teach like this but to actually be at an institution that, because of DePaul’s Vincentian mission for social justice, supports and recognizes it. And yet I often still find myself explaining the value of this work—sometimes to skeptical students or in official university contexts—using the terms and language of neoliberalism: partnering with a community becomes developing career skills. Learning to shift your viewpoint away from your own ego becomes learning how to meet client needs. This is painfully ironic because neoliberalism and a narrow focus on career and individual, rather than meaning and community, is responsible for many of the problems that both academia and our partners face. But it is also a recognizable central tenet of our academic, public, and private institutions, a language we often must speak in order to practically sustain ourselves. (these two points are not unrelated) Students certainly are developing job skills through my and other such classes--it is not an untruth--but it is a shifting of perspective that worries me. All of this is to say that I hope we can discuss how to live in a world that we know is broken, how to build a better future while still housing ourselves in the now.

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Mel Stanfill is an Assistant Professor with a joint appointment in the Texts & Technology Program and the Department of Games and Interactive Media at the University of Central Florida. Stanfill’s book, Exploiting Fandom: How the Media Industry Seeks to Manipulate Fans, is available from the University of Iowa Press.

Samantha Close is an Assistant Professor in Communication at DePaul University. Her documentary, I Am Handmade: Crafting in the Age of Computers, and her peer-reviewed research articles on topics such as graffiti knitting and fan masculinity are available online. You can find her on Twitter @ButNoCigar





Surviving R. Kelly, Fandom & Collective Memory: 5 Avenues for Discussing Sexual Violence

Surviving R. Kelly, Fandom & Collective Memory: 5 Avenues for Discussing Sexual Violence

by Caitlin Joy Dobson­­­­­

For decades nearly anyone with a pulse could relate to R. Kelly’s music. From the nineties to the early 2000s Robert Sylvester Kelly has been the mastermind behind so much of the soulful “baby-makin” music fans of R&B bump at house parties, high school dances, karaoke, driving in the car.

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My mind is telling me no

But my body, my body's telling me yes

Baby, I don't want to hurt nobody

But there is something that I must confess to you

Bump n’ Grind’ by R. Kelly (1993)

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Age ain’t nothing but a number

Throwin’ down ain’t nothing but a thing

This thing I have for you, it’ll never

‘Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number’ by Aaliyah (1994)

produced by Barry Hankerson & R. Kelly

Let's go to the mall, baby

I'll pick you up around noon, lady

Don't you worry ‘bout a thing

Cause' I got all the answers, girl

To the questions in your head

And I'm gonna be right there for you, baby

‘Honey Love’ by R. Kelly (1992)

It is high time we hit the pause button and contemplate how much of our enjoyment as fans throughout the years has been served at the expense of young Black girls and girls of color. By the time of this post I imagine most readers in the US and beyond have viewed, read or heard about the 6-part docuseries (plus bonus clips) Surviving R. Kelly, the exclusive CBS interview with Gayle King, and the follow up special with Soledad O’Brien called Surviving R. Kelly: The Impact. Meanwhile, through a 2-part series called Leaving Neverland and an exclusive interview with Oprah featuring personal survivor testimonies of at least 2 men, Michael Jackson’s alleged years of sexual abuse against multiple boys have been brought back into the spotlight.

CBS’ Gayle King: “The R. Kelly Interview”

CBS’ Gayle King: “The R. Kelly Interview”

The conversation surrounding both cases is nothing new. Thanks to years of advocacy and the power of testimony, through the work of dream hampton, Tamara Simmons, Joel Karlsberg, Jesse Daniels, and Brie Miranda Bryant, in January 2019 Surviving R. Kelly aired on Lifetime to 2.1 million viewers. Since airing, radio DJs, Kelly’s record label, former fans, and entire countries  are increasingly motivated to #MuteRKelly. Regardless of where people stand in their opinion, from TMZ to social media to op-eds spanning multiple publications and platforms, the volume on the whisper network has officially been turned all the way up with respect to Kelly’s history of abuse, the truth of his survivors, and more broadly, the topic of rape culture.

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No matter your current knowledge of or experience with sexual violence, there are numerous aspects of the series working to highlight some of the most important avenues for discussion we need to be having when addressing rape culture. Below I consider 5 important avenues in the context of fandom. By no means is this an exhaustive list. But it is vital to recognize the complexities of how fandom, public memory, and power dynamics influence and perpetuate the issue of sexual abuse, sexual assault, rape, and overall power-based harm. It is in this fashion we must keep the conversation going.

As a scholar and researcher of gender studies and sexual violence, my intent is to help generate discussion, with nuance but also in working to build bridges between intellectuals and multiple publics. As M. Jacqui Alexander states in Pedagogies of Crossing: Mediations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, and the Sacred, “no matter our countries of origin, decolonization is a project for all” (Alexander, 2005, p. 272). By extension this inevitably includes sexual violence as a side effect, as something learned through colonization, the ramifications of which remain relevant today. Because of existing, historical, systemic forms of oppression already in place, we must understand that although power-based harm affects us all, it affects us all differently. We must bear in mind the complexities of power in order to better understand unique experiences. While “rape culture,” concerning the ways in which society normalizes and trivializes sexual violence, deserves a focused intersectional lens, the case of Surviving R. Kelly lends itself to doing just that.

Fandom and the Power of Public Memory: Critical Engagement with Perceptions of the Past, Present, and Future

In terms of personal memory, my own fan status might be better attributed in the more general sense to Hip Hop, Rap, and R&B music. As a pre-Internet child of the late 80s and early 90s I read any XXL or Source Magazine I could find. My childhood bedroom floral wallpaper backdropped magazine cutouts of Tupac and Notorious B.I.G., with the words “Can’t we all just get along?” Shamefully, I recall snipping the title of DMX’s single Get At Me Dog and taping it to my puppy calendar. Somewhat understandably, I was as much of an avidly interested “Hip Hop Head” and consumer of a genre as being raised within a predominately white small town in Michigan allowed me to be. Through my portable CD player, stereo, television, and magazines, including this 1998 XXL issue featuring R Kelly on the cover, I kept this music on repeat.

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This is not a proclamation of pride in my own personal fan status of Hip Hop, Rap, and R&B but rather an admission of fault. Very much a product of my environment, it is in this space and upbringing white kids like myself openly flirt with consumerism and the privilege of not having to endure much of the hardship and oppression, almost entirely at the hands of white supremacy, that influenced the creation of such art in the first place. It is to say white consumerism, which often self-identifies so personally yet ironically too often remains far removed from actual lived experience, makes white consumers even more complicit in the erasure of and perpetuated violence against Black women. 

In terms of public memory, for decades fans of R. Kelly have developed their own mediated memories through the consumption of his music. While these memories serve as a way for us to construct and inform individual identity, they also contribute to the formation of a collective, cultural identity (Van Dijck, 2004), which may not directly align with official histories. They function as an aid to making sense of the world around us, and in relation to one another, in the space where individual and culture meet. These “cultural acts and products of remembering” (Van Dijck, 2004, p. 262) span decades of R&B music as well as R. Kelly’s career.  

According to Houdek and Phillips (2017) public memory may be more “informal, diverse, and mutable” as opposed to more “formal, singular, and stable” official histories. In the case of R. Kelly, multiple narratives exist, often in contradiction with one another. For too long, established public memory revering R. Kelly as a musical icon has drown out discussions about the harm he has caused. A much deeper cultural and intersectional analysis is necessary (Crenshaw, 1990; Hancock Alfaro, 2016), in order to understand these complexities, with respect to both Kelly, as well as victims and survivors. In the docuseries Co-Founder Oronike Odeleye talks about the Black community’s reception of the #MuteRKelly movement.

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She alludes to a form of cultural polarization, which is to say the way forward is complicated. We cannot discuss R. Kelly as an alleged perpetrator or person who has caused harm to others without discussing the unique experiences with oppression he himself has endured. This is not to say R. Kelly’s race is responsible for the harm he has caused multiple young girls. It is to say R. Kelly’s positionality as a Black man and celebrity in the United States works to inform fandom, in a way that might make it easier or more difficult to hold him responsible for his actions.

I argue we can have both. We can (and must) simultaneously recognize the pain R. Kelly has endured, as both a victim of sexual abuse and Black man growing up in the US, as well as the pain he has caused to others, particularly to young Black girls. The answer may or may not be found in fans turning their backs on R. Kelly, nor in media demonizing him. In the same vein, excusing or refusing to believe a person has caused harm, despite evidence, victim and survivor testimonies, and because you love what their art has meant to you or even an entire community, is also not the answer.

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During my adolescence I do not recall being privy to R. Kelly’s alleged transgressions. What I am saying now, as an intersectional feminist scholar focused specifically on power-based sexual violence, is that regardless of our own gendered, racialized, classed experiences with fandom, we cannot let those personal memories disregard the individual and collective pain endured by Kelly’s alleged victims. While I was busy flipping through magazine pages to tear and tape, other young girls’ fan status led them toward coercion and mental abuse by a celebrity perpetrator. Aside from Kelly’s defense attorney, I have yet to encounter anyone capable of sitting through one episode of the docuseries and not believing the pain those women exude is real. In agreement with so much recent coverage this is all to say the same women deserve just as much collective rage as the affluent, white actresses who were victimized by Harvey Weinstein. The onus of making necessary changes in relation to rape culture falls on us, and it takes holding ourselves accountable. In this case this includes our own individual fan status. 

Fandom and the Power of Celebrity: Authenticity vs. Accountability in the Face of Adversity 

R. Kelly’s stardom is a peak example of what P. David Marshall describes in his book Celebrity and Power: Fame in Contemporary Culture, when authenticity converts into power. For decades R&B fans have been able to personally identify with the authentic, even explicitly sexual nature of R. Kelly’s music, and as Marshall states, “at the center of these debates concerning the authentic nature of the music is the popular music performer” (Marshall, 2014, p. 150). As one of the more enduring transformations in popular music, R. Kelly has been an artist who writes all of his own songs. Coupled with the mass distribution of his music, R. Kelly’s talent effectively infiltrated the hearts and minds of the masses.  

Broadly speaking, the effectiveness of Kelly’s ability to display this level of authenticity informs and upholds his celebrity power over a mass of fans, who for years have largely overlooked the fact that he was writing and singing about people he simultaneously victimized.  

R. Kelly remained untouchable, cloaked in his ability to produce hit after hit, to generate revenue for the music industry, and to invade dance floors and head phones. His way of surviving was to pass on the pain to undeserving young Black girls and girls of color, thereby desperately attempting to reclaim the power he (to this day) feels he never had. Meanwhile, I am aware of very few R&B fans from the 90’s and 2000’s who did not embrace his music to some extent.

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For a child who never learned to read or write, who has opened up in bits and pieces about his own history of sexual abuse at the hand of a family member, music was his outlet. Fast-forward to R. Kelly’s stardom, and it’s as if his musical genius has afforded him the ability to do no wrong. In this respect it becomes all the more necessary to ground discussions of rape and sexual assault in a conversation about power. Generally speaking, we know molestation, sexual abuse, sexual assault, rape, and sexual harassment have so much less to do with sex than with power. Power dynamics existing between a celebrity and their fans can easily lead to an abuse of such power.  

Throughout his career Kelly has referred to himself as the “Pied Piper of R&B,” a phrase which now, in the eyes of former fans and regardless of his own awareness of its historical meaning, only further postulates him as a perpetrator of child abuse.

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But that’s the thing about R. Kelly and the power of his celebrity. His self-identified Pied Piper persona is yet another example of the many ways in which R. Kelly hid his alleged offenses in plain sight. Operating as a form of camp, through which a predatorial, misogynistic “badge of identity” (Sontag, 1964) is embraced, it is in this fashion the power of celebrity works to inform public memory. Perceptions of authenticity incite selective memory. Behavior is attributed to style of music. Fans look the other way. 

Although memory may not be mutable, it is malleable. Attributing hampton’s documentary, Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement, and years of relentless dedication to #MuteRKelly, fans are more capable of collectively flipping the script on memories of R. Kelly. Learning the true meaning behind so many of those historically beloved songs helps to demystify. Applause for musical genius can be converted into holding a perpetrator accountable. Peeling back the layers of abuse in the public eye and openly discussing them in such a way that humanizes a person who has caused harm can also serve as a way of dismantling the facade of celebrity power. 

Fandom and the Power of Media: Traditional Journalism, Social Media, and Black Twitter

Media can cause a great deal of harm as well as good. As Manuel Castells argues in Communication, Power, and Counter-Power in the Network Society, mass media functions as a social space within which power is strategized, negotiated, and determined [MOU1] (Castells, 2007). It is through this framework we must consider the case of Surviving R. Kelly, through which narrative power is established and to some extent depends on the medium. The most obvious example is found through the docuseries itself, in which the multi-layered power of testimony shines light and counters longstanding dominant narratives. It is particularly interesting to juxtapose (rather than conflate) Surviving R. Kelly with discussions concerning Leaving Neverland, as well as many of Harvey Weinstein’s accusers. In this case, hearing directly from survivors in such an explicit way has had a substantial impact on public opinion, including fans.

The power of media inevitably includes traditional journalism, particularly decades of coverage of R. Kelly by Jim DeRogatis.

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For journalists it seems increasingly important to demonstrate responsibility through rhetoric. As a case in point, this calls for reconsidering the use of terms like “sex cult” and “sex slaves” when discussing R. Kelly’s treatment of women (I’m looking at you, Buzzfeed and TMZ). This is not to understate the gravity of R. Kelly’s alleged actions. It is one thing for Jonjelyn and Timothy as parents of Joycelyn Savage to refer to their daughter’s situation as such. It is another for Jim DeRogatis, Buzzfeed, and other mainstream news outlets to sensationalize a story at the expense of victims. It undermines the importance of mental coercion, influencing a victim to stay with their partner at their own “free” will. More often than not, clickbait terms like these do little to advocate for victims, nor are they necessarily effective in demonizing R. Kelly in the public eye. Instead, this type of misrepresentation trivializes the pain victims and survivors will continue to endure for the rest of their lives. And it erases the potential for understanding thus addressing the complexities of sexual violence. 

Beyond the scope of multiple op-ed pieces and news articles influencing public perception of the case, social media, the #MuteRKelly campaign, and particularly Black Twitter are spaces where power is negotiated daily. The power, influence, and mere presence of social media is unique from much of the history of allegations against R. Kelly. The immeasurable power of Black Twitter alone is notable, in that voices otherwise stifled by systemic racism in the US speak volumes. Social media exchanges, and often the virality of a particular perspective operate as a reflection of public opinion, and in this case, polarization. Not only do social media discussions, as a ground-up form of citizen journalism, steer some of the power away from traditional news outlets, it provides necessary nuance. It affords a topic like this a much-needed critical lens in real time, often disrupting the status quo thus more accurately reflecting public opinion. 

Fandom and the Power of Victim Blaming: The Psychology Behind Attitudes Toward Victims and Survivors 

Arguably the most important aspect in need of unpacking and dismantling is the role of victim blaming, through which Chicago Sun Times Journalist Mary Mitchell expresses frustration in her coverage of R. Kelly.

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The psychology behind victim blaming runs deep, and it is much more common than we think. Through the following #Decoded #MTV video, Franchesca Ramsey explains the Just World Hypothesis, and why people default to blaming victims in moments of crisis and helplessness.

Focusing on perpetrators of rape and sexual assault can not only serve as an antidote to victim blaming, but it can help us better understand perpetrators, thus more effectively working to prevent future occurrences. While recognizing the psychology behind victim blaming must remain a staple part of conversations about sexual violence, and while misogyny in Hip Hop, Rap, and R&B music is a complex, multi-layered conversation deserving of its own focused attention, both point to a broader discussion of culture and context. Considering the ways in which young Black girls and girls of color who are victims of sexual violence are not considered as important as victims of sexual violence who are white, brings us a step closer to standing up for all victims and survivors. In the same vein we must refrain from suggesting how people can avoid being raped, and instead focus on how people can stop committing sexual violence.

Fandom and the Power of Believing Victims: Intersectionality, #MeToo, and Why Black Girls Matter 

Critically contemplate the power dynamics between R. Kelly and young girls who are fans, and it becomes easier to understand how abuses of power can occur. Simultaneously, by way of empathy and placing ourselves in the shoes of victims, to the extent we are able, we might better understand their own feelings of powerlessness. Couple this with the experience of moving through a world where Black girls and girls of color are already systemically, institutionally, and socially shoved into the margins of society, and it becomes easier to understand the power of believing them. 

When it comes to attitudes toward victims and survivors, as well as perpetrators, again I suggest it does not have to be one or the other. The answer is not in slut shaming or victim blaming the women, girls, and parents of Azriel, Joycelyn, and Dominique. Nor is the answer in demonizing R. Kelly. Perhaps there are more answers to be found in remaining steadfast in genuine, authentic discussions about culture, about gender norms, about the devastating impact of mental abuse, about the very forms of toxic masculinity people of all genders embrace that perpetuate the cycle of violence.

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As numerous women throughout the series mentioned, they have involuntarily carried their trauma with them through life. Regardless of the amount of quality professional help received, quite often survivors must commit themselves to a lifetime of processing their trauma. Based on their survivor testimonies, it seems these women would leave the past in the past, if only they could. It also appears sharing their truth through this docuseries may be an act of freeing themselves, of reclaiming their autonomy and sense of agency. When the majority of instances of rape go unreported, when less than 2-10% of rape reports are false , when legal definitions and policies surrounding sexual violence are perpetually flawed, the least it seems victims and survivors are asking for is to be believed.

Lizzette Martinez, Survivor

Lizzette Martinez, Survivor

In mapping and continuing these important discussions, it is important to acknowledge the connection between R. Kelly fandom and aspects of public memory resulting in: a) society-wide failure to acknowledge the cyclical form of violence continuing to occur- from R. Kelly as a victim of child sexual abuse to an accused serial abuser himself, b) the ability of fans to excuse R. Kelly’s widely-known history of abuse against young Black girls in particular, as he has only recently been formally charged, and c) the audacity of fans to resist believing survivors, to victim blame and slut shame, and turn the other way rather than address the ways in which systemic racism erases Black women who are victims and survivors of sexual violence. When a celebrity, already oppressed in his own right, is implicated, it serves no one to dehumanize anyone. Quite the contrary, the solution is to be found in conversations about accountability, including our own role as fans in perpetuating societal harm. In times like these we must finally recognize fandom, selective public memory, and celebrity status were never an excuse.

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References

Alexander, M. J. (2005). Pedagogies of crossing: Meditations on feminism, sexual politics, memory, and the sacred. Duke University Press. 

Castells, M. (2007). Communication, power and counter-power in the network society. International journal of communication1(1), 29. 

Crenshaw, K. (1990). Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stan. L. Rev.43, 1241. 

Hancock, A. M. (2016). Intersectionality: An intellectual history. Oxford University Press. 

Houdek, M., & Phillips, K. R. (2017). Public memory. 

Marshall, P. D. (2014). Celebrity and power: Fame in contemporary culture. U of Minnesota Press. 

Sontag, S. (1964). Notes on camp. Camp: Queer aesthetics and the performing subject: A reader, 53-65. 

Van Dijck, J. (2004). Mediated memories: personal cultural memory as object of cultural analysis. Continuum, 18(2), 261-277.

__________

Caitlin Joy Dobson is a Ph.D. student at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Her current research focuses on intersectional feminism, gender and sexuality studies, and power-based sexual violence. She is specifically interested in the issue of multiple perpetrator rape on a global scale, through a comparative, transnational, decolonial, intersectional lens. Through an interdisciplinary lens Caitlin’s work focuses on issues of sexual violence which concern synergistic opportunities between communication, cultural studies, media studies, sociology, forensic psychology, global health, masculinity studies, and international human rights law and policy. Grounded in a wide range of international experience, a background in public diplomacy, a decade of professional experience working in travel, as well as the human rights nonprofit world, currently Caitlin works, volunteers, and conducts ethnographic research throughout multiple organizations, whose layers of expertise address domestic violence and sexual violence. Her current and future research call for a mixed methods approach, from participant observation and depth interviewing to survey, network analysis, and archival research. Her work has been shared through the International Communication Association conference, the International Intersectionality conference, and soon the National Women’s Studies Association conference. She is active in the creation of multiple collaborative endeavors on campus, working to connect the shared interests of peers, colleagues, students, faculty, staff, and community partners. The breadth of Caitlin’s intellectual interests includes critical theories of race and culture, media representation as it relates to rape culture, bridging divides between feminist theory and queer theory, critical whiteness studies as it pertains to popular feminism, white feminism, generational feminist divides, tokenism, cultural appropriation, and most importantly, theories of power. Please feel free to connect with Caitlin at cdobson@usc.edu or on Twitter @caitjoydobson.

 










 

Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Melissa Brough and David Nemer (Part II)

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Melissa

I completely agree with you that it is “magical thinking” that social media would bring more social equity. As I discuss in Youth Participation in Precarious Times (forthcoming, Duke) the Web 2.0 (and some digital media scholars’) version of “participatory media” was technologically deterministic, assuming that a platform that could be used for participation would necessarily promote meaningful participation. In other words, it anthropomorphized internet technology by ascribing a social behavior to it. While the unprecedented access, interactivity, networked distribution, and speed of internet, mobile, and Web 2.0 technologies have reduced barriers to communication and participation for many of us, the history of participatory communication -- e.g. community radio; community television; participatory theater; participatory art; etc --  around the world (including in Brazil) problematizes this attribution of participation and equity to social media.

I’m also drawn to your examples and analysis because they illustrate how grey the spaces between hegemony (like social exclusion / racism) and resistance can be -- often, the two are operating simultaneously and may even be intertwined. One person’s act of resistance may be another person’s reaffirmation of a social hegemony, and vice versa. Certainly, participatory politics is not only the playground of progressive social justice advocates.

Your examples underscore the need for greater emphasis on cultivating the skill of listening (and ‘moving over,’ to borrow from feminist critique). Western (especially U.S.) culture incessantly places emphasis on ‘voice’ in a way that often over-values the expression of individual voice at the expense of the equally -- if not more -- important need to deeply listen to the experiences of others. Mainstream social media culture has only exacerbated this. It’s primarily about “broadcasting yourself” (YouTube), with very little discussion of listening to other voices. Organizations and projects like Global Voices and Witness offer important exceptions to this.

I wonder, do you think the Brazilian cases of participatory politics have anything to teach those of us in the global North about cultivating cultures of listening?

David

I really appreciate the cases you bring to the discussion, Melissa, as they push us to think outside the Western norms of participatory politics and social media use. You hit the nail on the head when you claim: "what has made media participatory was how they were used and by whom, not the technologies themselves"- and that's exactly what I have noticed in the  favelas of Brazil, especially in the case of the Protests of 2013. Even though the marginalized were not able to actively participate in defining the agenda of these protests, they helped these demonstrations grow to something the country has never seen before. The protests were still sounding progressive, a bit inclusive and nonpartisan, where people were demanding from politicians better schools, health care, an end to violence and corruption. I have to confess that I did have some hopes for better days after my first experience following the protests. However, looking at what is currently happening in Brazil, given the election of Bolsonaro, the question that I have been exploring is: how did Brazil go from social demonstrations in 2013 that seemed progressive and nonpartisan, to today, with an impeached left-wing female president to a far-right white man as president? (I think the answer to this question connects very well to your question about what can be learned from participatory politics in Brazil).

In my understanding, many things happened, but one in particular caught my attention: as I was doing follow-up fieldwork in 2014 and 2015 when I observed the rise of extreme groups and leaderships that piggybacked on the enormous sense of change to skew the discourse of these protests. They brought rhetorical claims such as that the political class, or the establishment, didn’t represent them, that the common men were being crushed by political correctness and bureaucracies in order to get the protesters' sympathy. Extreme groups are somewhat known to do that, for example they have piggybacked on the Occupy Movement to promote the idea of the forgotten white common men, and we are currently seeing a very similar phenomenon with the yellow vests protests in France.

Paulo Freire (2018) once said that "certain members of the oppressor class join the oppressed in their struggle for liberation, thus moving from one pole of the contradiction to the other. Theirs is a fundamental role, and has been so throughout the history of this struggle." The oppressors or exploiters, in this case the far-right groups, as they join the people in protests, they bring their prejudices and their deformations, which include a lack of confidence in the people’s ability to think, to want, and to know, to take over the leadership of these movements in order to make the demands about what they (far-right groups) think is best for the country, or for themselves.

The interesting thing is that these extremist groups in Brazil, disguised as non-partisan, took advantage of their tech savviness to engagement with new media to recruit and convince new members, and kill any attempt to deconstruct their groups on social media. These groups, such as MBL (Movimento Brasil Livre), started on Facebook, with the spread of sensational short clips and memes. In 2016, with the decline of new users on the platform, they moved their channels of communication to YouTube, and then finally, in 2018, during Brazil’s elections, these groups moved to WhatsApp where they were able to join organically built WhatsApp discussion groups in order to pass on their ideology (see my article in the Guardian).

As we acknowledge these events, I'm left with many questions and very few answers: how do we protect progressive participatory politics and protect them from extreme groups? How can we promote digital literacy and skills for an empowering participatory media and not an oppressive one? Is "participatory" just an illustrative term where in fact we actually need some sort of higher level command to protect the participants from extreme forces? All I know is that, based on my research, the solution will not be found in technology, but in the voices and actions of people who still believe in a more inclusive future. However, to move forward, we have to understand the depths of the desperation that members of extreme groups have tapped into, and given voice to, in their own conceptualization of participatory politics.

Melissa

I’m so glad you brought up the need to “understand the depths of the desperation” experienced across all points on the political spectrum. At the end of the day, participatory politics is just another way in which individuals and groups are expressing their hopes, fears, pain, and desires. Perhaps one small way forward is for all of us to work on being better listeners, and on respecting and holding space for the individual and collective experiences of fear and pain that are currently polarizing societies worldwide, as we work to transform the underlying structural and cultural dynamics causing them. Thank you, David, for this conversation!

David

Absolutely agree, Melissa. Thank you for this enlightening conversation.

___________

Melissa Brough is Assistant Professor of Communication & Technology in the Department of Communication Studies. Her research focuses on the relationships between digital communication, civic/political engagement and social change. Much of her work considers the role of communication technology in the social, cultural, and political lives of youth from historically disenfranchised groups. Her research has been published in Mobile Media and Communication, the International Journal of Communication, and the Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media, among others. Her book Youth Participation in Precarious Times: The Power of Polycultural Civics is forthcoming from Duke University Press.  

David Nemer is an Assistant Professor of Media Studies at the University of Virginia. His research and teaching interests cover the intersection of Postcolonial Science and Technology Studies (STS), Information Anthropology, ICT for Development (ICT4D), and Human-Computer Interaction (HCI). Nemer is an ethnographer whose fieldworks include the Slums of Vitória, Brazil; Havana, Cuba; and Eastern Kentucky, Appalachia. Nemer is the author of Favela Digital: The other side of technology (Editora GSA, 2013). He holds a Ph.D. in Informatics (track Computing, Culture, and Society) from Indiana University and an M.Sc. in Computer Science from Saarland University. Nemer has written for The Guardian, El País, and The Tribune.





Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Melissa Brough and David Nemer (Part I)

Indigenous woman creating a participatory video with the Chiapas Media Project. (Photo courtesy of the Chiapas Media Project)

Indigenous woman creating a participatory video with the Chiapas Media Project. (Photo courtesy of the Chiapas Media Project)

Melissa

I came to participatory politics through Henry Jenkins’s Civic Paths research group at USC, but more historically from participatory media -- not the digitally-determined kind, but the kind of participatory media that has been practiced for decades in marginalized communities, using photography, radio, theater, video, etc. My first experience with participatory media was as an intern for the Chiapas Media Project in 2000, supporting Zapatista-affiliated indigenous communities to produce their own documentaries about human rights abuses, collective organic coffee farming, and the impacts of privatized eco-tourism on indigenous communities.

To me, the proliferation of discourses of participation that occurred with the marketing of Web 2.0 was both exciting and suspect; exciting, because participation, citizen journalism, and other forms of what Manuel Castells calls “mass self-communication” were becoming the new norm -- and this seemed promising for direct civic/political engagement. Suspect, because social media corporations were using the trope of participation to sell Web 2.0, and in doing so the term lost some definitional clarity and practical meaning -- particularly as a tool for social change and democratic practice. (For instance, Zuckerberg’s 2009 video address to Facebook users compared Facebook to a nation state that needed a “more open process” with users having “a voice in governance”. Uh-huh. Or for fun, check out this description of the “participatory marketing” campaign for Mountain Dew called “Dewmocracy”.)

“DEWmocracy” on Facebook. [Source:  https://www.facebook.com/DEWmocratic/ ]

“DEWmocracy” on Facebook. [Source: https://www.facebook.com/DEWmocratic/]

Historically, what has made media participatory was how they were used and by whom, not the technologies themselves. Similarly, if we construe participatory politics as a mostly new phenomenon, implying that digital technology is what makes participatory politics participatory, we overlook a longer history of participatory politics that have been forged in a variety of other contexts. These concerns -- along with the fact that much of the work on digital age participatory politics has been focused on the US and the global North -- prompted me to carry out my dissertation research in Latin America. I spent a year studying participatory communication, culture, and politics as they played out in Medellín, Colombia. While Medellín first became famous on the world stage for being the home of Pablo Escobar’s drug cartel in the 1980s-90s, in recent years (particularly 2004-2011) the city gained international recognition for its urban renaissance based largely on discourses and practices of participation. Decades of narcotrafficking, paramilitary violence, and the urbanization of Colombia’s civil war (including violent military operations carried out indiscriminately in some of the most densely populated parts of the city), had shredded the social, civic, and political fabric of Medellín. But the crisis also created a political opening and sparked a shift in civic engagement.

Sergio Fajardo and the Compromiso Ciudadano party (Citizens’ Commitment, an independent alliance of community leaders, academics, local business leaders, and activists) won the 2003 mayoral election. This administration brought an unprecedentedly diverse group of actors into city government, including academics and community activists, rather than the traditional elites who had governed the city. The new administration’s first strategic priority for stabilizing and developing the city was entitled “Medellín, governable and participatory”.  They launched a participatory budgeting process which allowed any citizen age 14 and up to participate in allocating a percentage of the city’s annual budget to priorities set by citizens at the local subdistrict level. Along with private sector and other partners, they also invested in public spaces such as the now famous Park Libraries (a series of strikingly designed libraries with public spaces intentionally located in some of the poorest parts of the city). And they invested significant resources in prosocial youth programs, including some youth-led colectivos (collectives).

Santo Domingo Library Park and metrocable, Medellín, Colombia. [Source:  http://www.nomads.usp.br ]

Santo Domingo Library Park and metrocable, Medellín, Colombia. [Source: http://www.nomads.usp.br]

So I spent most of a year studying how discourses and practices of participation were wielded by a wide variety of actors in Medellín during the two Compromiso Ciudadano administrations (2004-2011), from government officials to youth activists in the city’s poorest and most violent neighborhoods. I studied a range of cases, from the municipal government’s digital citizenship initiative and participatory budgeting, to citizen media and youth hip hop activist projects. What I learned is detailed in my forthcoming book, Youth Participation in Precarious Times: The Power of Polycultural Civics (Duke University Press).



As we have seen elsewhere, I observed instances where participatory politics were being enacted in an authentic and empowering manner, and instances where rhetoric of participation was co-opted to maintain a status quo that could not rightly be described as participatory. But the picture wasn’t that simple. What I found in Medellín (but is not exclusive to this city alone) was what I have come to describe as a civic polyculture. In agriculture, the term “polyculture” refers to the practice of cultivating distinct crops in the same place to enhance the ecosystem. I use the term to draw attention to the potentially productive relationships that can be cultivated between grassroots activist networks and institutions. While research has shown (and we commonly hear of) a significant disconnect between public institutions and today’s youth in most of the world, Medellín illustrated a highly participatory civic life in which many youth -- particularly low-income, marginalized youth -- were engaged in grassroots activism at the same time as they interfaced with government processes and institutions.

The result was a rich civic polyculture in which youth voices were having remarkable impacts on the city. For instance, one of the hip hop activist youth collectives I studied participated in the city’s participatory budgeting process. Each year they would work strategically to place their youth members as delegates who could vote on key sub-committees to advocate for funding for youth programs such as youth-led hip hop “schools” and other activities that were providing effective alternatives to gang membership for children and teens by creatively engaging them in public life. In 2010, through its participation in various participatory budgeting working groups, this youth collective helped channel nearly US$120,000 toward a hip hop festival promoting non-violence and prosocial youth engagement. In another instance, following the gang-related murder of a hip hop peace activist in their neighborhood, this and other youth collectives used Facebook and Twitter to call out and demand action from the municipal government. Within a couple of days, they organized a march and concert, with logistical resources provided by the municipal government.

Members of youth-led hip hop collectives in Comuna 13, Medellín, Colombia. [Source: author]

Members of youth-led hip hop collectives in Comuna 13, Medellín, Colombia. [Source: author]

To be clear, the relationships between grassroots youth collectives and the local government were both productive and conflictive; their perspectives were often times opposed or at least in tension. But the ecology of participation that was the result of the work of these and other actors was very rich -- and as a result, young people’s voices were having a much greater, prosocial influence on public life in the city than ever before. There was not always consensus between grassroots and institutional actors, but there was interconnection and a mutual interest in building a stronger civic ecosystem.

I’ve come to see polycultural civics as a lens through which to think about how relationships between different civic and political actors can exist in both symbiosis and tension. I am excited to join this blog series because I wonder if others in this conversation might see polycultural civics as a way to think through the (dis)connections that prompted this series. I see resonance with similar ideas that have already been expressed in this series, such as Andrew Schrock’s discussion of tech geeks acting as “tempered radicals” (borrowing from Debra Meyerson) to bring about change within public institutions. Or Eric Gordon’s discussion, drawing on Hannah Arendt, of the significance of trust in public institutions at a time when institutional uses of digital technology is undermining public trust. (And for more on the current Colombian context, check out Andres Lombana-Bermudez’s conversation with Arely Zimmerman.)

More recently I’ve been shifting away from thinking about participation as an expression of voice (as in Paulo Freire’s writing that participation is “an exercise in voice, in decision making at certain levels of power” (1999,p.88). Instead, it feels like it’s time to think about participation in its most potent form as a way to cultivate connection. Not surface-level connection, as in ‘social media connects people’; I mean participation that cultivates connection that feels meaningful to participants, and that enriches their lived experiences -- connection that both validates and challenges (or opens) participants’ perspectives and forges a deeper mutual respect for their differences and commonalities. Clearly these are not the current design goals of the social media platforms that are often referred to as “participatory media”. As several others in this series have pointed out, one of the most pressing questions of our time is how to connect across vastly different, and increasingly polarized, perspectives and ideologies. Doing a better job at designing and cultivating communication -- and civic -- ecologies conducive to these kinds of connections is the task at hand.

David

My first experience with participatory politics happened through the teachings and guidance of David Hakken. I remember our meetings, during my PhD program, where we used to discuss the “culture question in participatory design.” The question is a critique to the field of participatory design which tends to conceive of culture as a single, unified “thing” with ontological status. Hakken used to argue that cultural perspectives were produced via use of analytic constructs, and participatory design could develop culturally appropriate senses of both participation and design by learning to decompose totalizing notions of culture (see Hakken & Mate, 2014). Hakken’s claims stayed with me during my ethnography in the favelas (urban slums) of Vitoria, Brazil, as I was trying to understand the engagements of Favela residents with social media. I brought these same claims in order to critically examine the affordances of participatory media in the process of social inclusion and/or exclusion.

It was 2013, and the actors behind Web 2.0 platforms had proliferated the discourse of participation, as highlighted by Melissa. Even though scholars had already raised concerns about the promises of the Web 2.0, it still led the general public, especially the late adopters, such as Favela residents, to the notion that Web 2.0 platforms would bring some grand authoritative social change, in which they would promote democratic and inclusive discussions and activities. Although Web 2.0 platforms may afford a more democratic and decentralized process of producing, sharing, and consuming information, they don’t necessarily bring such emancipatory promises to those who face social and digital marginalization. In the following, I describe three cases of participatory media engagements that didn’t end so well for those who needed the most: favela residents.

During my fieldwork, I noticed that Facebook groups were popular especially with favela teenagers, as they perceived it as a way to freely communicate with friends and other teenagers from the same social class without fear judgment. Some teenagers went beyond the communicative aspect of groups and shared self-made digital content in order to become what was called famosinhos. Famosinhos were the most popular teenagers from the favelas. They dictated fashion trends among teens within the favelas, and actively cultivated their reputation by producing videos and content to promote ostentation. Such access to material good put them in a higher power position when compared to other teenagers, some of whom became fans. Famosinhos from the favelas organized meetings on Facebook so they could hang out with friends and meet their fans. These meetings were called rolézinhos (meaning “little strolls”) and later became a phenomenon throughout Brazil.

At first, the rolézinhos were taking place in public squares in the peripheries of the city, but they turned out to be popular enough that the famous teenagers dared to organize the strolls in local shopping malls, or just “shoppings” as they were called. In Brazil, shoppings functioned as a situated activity where the upper class demonstrated their purchasing power and social location. Based on my observations, favela residents perceived shoppings as a place to feel more included in society. These places allowed them the opportunity to show that they also had money (purchasing power) and access to expensive, trending goods, and not just cheap and old garments. The shoppings were located centrally in the cities and not in the favelas. Since this meant to cross social if not political boundaries, it was not well received, and the famosinhos and their fans were soon labeled as troublemakers, thieves, and rioters because they were in big groups and were targeted as favelados (favelado is a derogatory term to refer to favela residents. It implies that a favela resident is uneducated and uncivilized) (Nemer, 2016).

The rolézinho of November 2013 didn’t end well. What was supposed to be a fun stroll, ended up with the cops being called to arrest and repress the participants: poor and black bodies were tamed and humiliated as a statement that Brazil was a place that diversity was celebrated, but diverse bodies should stay in their designated space. Rolezinho was a phenomenon that helped me understand that favela residents were not only marginalized due to their social conditions, but they were also marginalized by place — both online and physical. In summary, this case highlights how favela residents were able to creatively and actively engage with social media in a way that made sense and was of value to them, however, it did not help them cross social boundaries through rolézinhos.

In June 2013, an avalanche of protests led more than one million people to take to the streets in over a hundred cities in Brazil. The wave of protests began in early June in the city of São Paulo and spread throughout the country. The protests were motivated by an eight percent increase (R$0.20) in fare for public transportation. The protests grew to include a much larger set of issues faced by Brazilian society. For instance, the protesters were dissatisfied with the government due to either a perceived or real increase in corruption and impunity. They were also frustrated by the cost of hosting the upcoming World Cup and Olympic games in light of this economic disparity and the lack of decent public services, such as health care, education, and security. In Vitória, the first protest took place on 17 June 2013. University students and members of the Brazilian middle class organized it; they used Facebook to form two popular groups: “Utilidade Publica — ES” (referred to as UP; translated as Public Utility — ES) and “Não é por 20 centavos” (referred to as N20; which translates as “It’s not just 20 cents”). The initial protest attracted 20,000 people, and the protestors started marching at the Federal University of Espírito Santo (UFES). They marched 11 kilometers, passing through the most important avenues in the city until reaching the official residence of the Espírito Santo’s governor, Renato Casagrande. I was not able to identify anyone from the favelas. The protesters were mostly white and wore clothes that resembled typical upper-class citizens. The following day I went back to the favelas and questioned some of the residents about the protests. Most of them knew little about the protest.

Due to a large number of participants on June 17, the protest organizers gained interest and attention from channels of mainstream media, and they announced the new protest for June 20. Since the information about the new protest was available through less exclusive and mass channels, favela residents became interested and organized their own group on Facebook. The protests of June 20th made history by gathering more than 100,000 protesters in the streets of Vitória. This formed the largest public demonstration ever registered in the state of Espírito Santo. I also joined these protests with 21 favela residents. They demanded better living conditions in the favelas, more respect as citizens, and they called for an end to the drug war in their communities.

The protests of June 2013 were a good example of social segregation. The organizers of the first protests belonged to an upper class that did not overlap with lower classes, online and offline, and thus the marginalized joined in late to the streets and their voices and requests were not as privileged as the ones shouted by the rich- who already had the protest agenda set since June 17. In Vitória, when the favela residents joined the protests, they joined a group that already had demands stipulated by members from upper classes, who were the first adopters of the protests. Also, besides the lack of social ties between people from different social classes, the social conditions in which the poor lived also influenced their political engagement.

As these two cases illustrate, participatory politics empowered the marginalized to organize to protest and cross social boundaries, but when this happened, they faced something much stronger — a social exclusion marked by police brutality against blacks and the poor, and limited civic engagement. Which leads me to believe that, although “participatory media” seem to be a more democratic approach to engaging with media, it will not fix these social problems because it did not cause them. These problems are rooted in deeper issues that go beyond the domain of media.

References

Freire, P. (1999). Education and community involvement. In M. Castells, R. Flecha, P. Freire, H. Giroux, D. Macedo, and P. Willis, eds. Critical education in the new information age (pp83-92). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield

D., & Maté, P. (2014, October). The culture question in participatory design. In Proceedings of the 13th Participatory Design Conference: Short Papers, Industry Cases, Workshop Descriptions, Doctoral Consortium papers, and Keynote abstracts-Volume 2 (pp. 87-91). ACM.

Nemer, D. (2016). Rethinking social change: The promises of Web 2.0 for the marginalized. First Monday, 21(6). doi:https://doi.org/10.5210/fm.v21i6.6786

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Melissa Brough is Assistant Professor of Communication & Technology in the Department of Communication Studies. Her research focuses on the relationships between digital communication, civic/political engagement and social change. Much of her work considers the role of communication technology in the social, cultural, and political lives of youth from historically disenfranchised groups. Her research has been published in Mobile Media and Communication, the International Journal of Communication, and the Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media, among others. Her book Youth Participation in Precarious Times: The Power of Polycultural Civics is forthcoming from Duke University Press.  

David Nemer is an Assistant Professor of Media Studies at the University of Virginia. His research and teaching interests cover the intersection of Postcolonial Science and Technology Studies (STS), Information Anthropology, ICT for Development (ICT4D), and Human-Computer Interaction (HCI). Nemer is an ethnographer whose fieldworks include the Slums of Vitória, Brazil; Havana, Cuba; and Eastern Kentucky, Appalachia. Nemer is the author of Favela Digital: The other side of technology (Editora GSA, 2013). He holds a Ph.D. in Informatics (track Computing, Culture, and Society) from Indiana University and an M.Sc. in Computer Science from Saarland University. Nemer has written for The Guardian, El País, and The Tribune.















Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Jonathan Gray and Paul Mihailidis (Part II)

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Jonathan

I’m intrigued by your last line there. Could you elaborate and give an example?

Paul

Happy to kick us off with an elaboration and example. A lot of times, in my work with community groups, people interested in using media to engage in efforts to advocate for healthier school lunches, or for workers rights, or environmental awareness, want to start with creating media content and messaging, i.e. let’s get our FB page, YouTube page, Snapchat account, and start a campaign. For me, this is the result of people with great intentions but jumping quickly into the skills/solutions track, or the “how.” One good and popular example of this is the Standing Rock protests against the pipeline by the One Mind Youth group. At first, they went to the site of contestation, and set up social media accounts, and started to advocate, gaining some recognition, and a few thousand followers. People were supportive, but they also weren’t leveraging these technologies beyond the articulation of concern. This also opened space for the online dislike that you write about in your opening essay. To scale, One Mind Youth need to think about how to scale their activism with something that communities could relate to beyond what they were posting on line. So they staged a 500-mile run to the the Army Corp of Engineers, where they would pass through reservation towns and be able to engage other tribal communities around the issue of water, and show them the persistent efforts they were making on this behalf. As the rest of the story goes, that 500-mile run gained strong support, and turned into a 2000 mile run to the US Capitol Building, and support and presence for their activism that wasn’t reached before. Of course, this story is complex, with many different angles from which we can judge impact. But to me, this is a great example of a group helping to show a caring ethic that is relational, i.e. care for, beyond what they can share online, i.e. caring about. The media activism supports their run, and not the other way around. I think this is the value proposition that can move beyond the useful but often times shallow and contextless online spaces where people spend much of their time.

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Jonathan

Thanks. Yeah, I guess I’m interested, too, in more work that explores how we get to the point of being activists making a difference. That’s what directed me towards satire earlier in my career, as I was really unhappy with the framing of satire being useless if its audience didn’t turn off the show and immediately march on Washington (heck, even when they did march on Washington, for the Stewart-Colbert thing, the journalists still judged that insufficient!), instead wanting to think about how a political mind grows, is fed and nourished, and works at the moments when it’s not in the streets demanding that X happens. My project about dislike is similarly interested in how these little moments work “before” (or after, or in addition to) activism. But I love that this work you’re discussing seems also to open up space to discuss “best practices” and strategy. It makes me think about “best practices” and strategy for dislike. How “should” one dislike, it’s making me wonder?

Paul

I’m really interested in thinking about how you activate “dislike.” We almost vilify the notion of dislike in our analysis of platform communications. That’s basically how people justify the bad depths of the internet: everything descends into some polarized dislike and expression of hatred. But it seems as if there can be value in that if channeled in an interesting way. Maybe that’s what your project is getting at? The other point you refer to that i’m interested in is how a political mind grows, is fed and nourished. For me this is key to thinking about how we use media in political or civic ways. And where values come into play. Political minds aren’t born from just going to march one day from out of nowhere. I think popular culture, formative life experiences, and media habits contribute more to our media activism than anything else. I’d like to put your question to the test, are there strategies for dislike, or civic pathways that direct dislike towards agentive action taking in the world (not the traditional marching kind, but the kind that is embedded in our current digital culture?

Jonathan

I’m laughing at the idea of a book that such an examination might generate, called something like How Best to Hate, or Disliking for Dummies. Joking aside, though, I’m also interested in ensuring that we’re very open-minded when it comes to thinking about the strategies or utility of dislike. Otherwise, we risk falling back into tone-policing. A proper mapping of how political minds grow and work, though, would show the many ways that dislike (or like, or love, for that matter) starts or contributes to all sorts of chain-reactions that lead to the sorts of actions that in and of themselves change things.

If I could shift focus a bit, though, how is this done? So much of the work on “political minds” and how they develop is quantitative and effects-based, in ways that privilege only the last few chains in a chain reaction. And/or they’re based on self-reporting, wherein we’re perhaps all more likely to privilege those last few chains. But the only way to back up and get a better sense of how this works would seem to require not just qualitative work, but longitudinal ethnography. So let me ask you, how do you do what you do? And/or is there a methodological golden fleece you’re envisioning that would do it even better?

Paul

Okay, I’ll take the slight shift of focus, and move away from the enticing option of a Dislike for Dummies TOC - preface: why I hate. Chapter 1: dislike in the womb, 2…... I’m in complete agreement that quantitative methods predominate in this work, and they certainly have value. My work in this space has been qualitative through interviews, critical ethnography, and deep case study analysis. Case studies have helped I think to look at the ecosystems of how people persist and commit to support and create/use media to advocate for causes. I’ve often looked at cases through the lens of what resources -- human, technological, and social -- that young people use when building or support civic action taking with and through media. In looking at impactful cases, like 9 year old Martha Payne and her quest to reform school lunch in Scotland, or the more popular Pimp my Carroça initiative in Brazil, one can see the intersection of media skills and civic values that guide this work. Obviously there are limitations to this inquiry, but it helps to build emerging ideas and narratives, and to also provide a counterbalance to quantitative approaches that often rely on self-reporting attitudes and behaviors.  My golden fleece, I think we need more anthropological approaches to this work. Deep embedded with activist communities, to not only see how they organize but also who they are, their backgrounds, identities, etc. I’m sure this has been done, but it would help greatly in our field. I’d like to pose that question back to you. How do we get to more interesting spaces through methods? Or do we just go to that Dislike for Dummies book idea…..

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Jonathan

For me, it’s about broadening what we ask about. That’s at heart why anthropological-ethnographic accounts can be great, because the researcher has an abundance of context from which to draw when trying to make sense of what they’re seeing. Now, “true” anthropological-ethnographic approaches may be impractical or downright impossible for many of us, but all of us could start asking about more things. Let me offer two examples from this project of mine, one planned, one accidental:

The planned one: I didn’t want my interviews simply to talk about dislike and to start there. Rather, I wanted to hear first and in addition how people talked about and with their fandoms, too, so that I had better context to understand the terms they were using to discuss their dislikes. And that reaped rich rewards, as I was regularly hearing people shift registers and employ a wholly new vocabulary and way of speaking about their dislikes, while also hearing them bounce their dislikes off their earlier-stated fandoms. Sometimes they became aware of contradictions they’d offered in doing so, and needed to work them through. Or because we’d talked about fandoms, they felt a need to connect the dots and look for patterns themselves. The point is that my data is so very much richer, and I have a much better sense of their dislikes’ pasts, presents, and futures because I didn’t just ask about dislike.

The unplanned one: most of my interviews were conducted by one of several awesome research assistants. But I wanted to ensure they all got something out of the project, too, so I encouraged them to twin the project with any of their own interests, mixing my questions with theirs. What I didn’t predict, though, is that by doing so, they’d each -- and especially in tandem -- end of providing a much richer account of dislike, precisely because each of them was situating it differently, approaching it from a different angle, providing different contexts.

Admittedly, asking for more than you think you need involves a nightmare on the transcription end. But for me that’s where the “interesting spaces” lie: through asking about way more. Maybe we can’t all do full-on ethnography, but we can all start asking about more, “going off-topic” for a while, and letting the discussion wander a bit. All good therapists must learn the art of letting their patients wander a bit, and our qualitative interviews should do the same. I’m a real fan of Nina Eliasoph’s Avoiding Politics: How Americans Produce Apathy in Everyday Life, which is based on bona fide ethnography, but many of its key offerings about how we discuss politics could have been replicated by interviewers who allowed their subjects to wander a bit. If we want to understand the political, and where media fits in it, we too need a bit more wandering in our interviews.

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Paul

I’m really taken by the wandering context for qualitative research, and finding creative and unique ways to approach the research questions we’re trying to answer. I think participatory design offers a similar approach to this, where through co-design with communities of research, and the iteration process, we can come to some interesting insights without just sitting and asking people about their attitudes towards a certain idea. In the same way, we should also acknowledge how our discussion of methods necessarily includes questions of power and resources, and how those also impact the realities of the subjects in our inquiry. A recent project I’m involved in is working with Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests as a mechanism to build community engaged local journalism projects. It’s been super interesting to use FOIA to bring journalists and communities together, and to learn about communities’ dispositions towards local issues (in our case gun procurements in the state of Massachusetts) but also journalism. We’re able to explore our research questions through participation in and documentation of our community workshops, and the dialog that emerges from those sessions.

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Thinking about fandom, like, dislike and activism through methods is really important. Perhaps we can build on this by offer some closing thoughts on where we think work is/should be heading in the space of media studies about fandom, young engagement and activism in digital culture. What are the big questions, or methods, that we should be exploring, that we haven’t? Where do we go from here???

Jonathan

I like where things are going, so I don’t have too many big demands. Instead, I’ll be more specific about what I like, and why that work might help discussions of the political in general. I like that we’re talking about the warts and wars within fandom -- maybe that could help us to better understand the warts and wars within the Democratic Party and its base(s), for instance? I like that fan studies is talking more and more (if still not enough) about race and about transcultural, transnational fandoms: if the democratic subject has long been imagined (across many disciplines) in white Western terms, any meaningful attempt to look at fandom, affect, activism, and politics will need to consider citizenship that isn’t just white and American, white and English, or white and Australian. And I like that a lot of people are now talking about dislike, anti-fandoms, and such.

But asking me that question is a bit boring, since I’ve had two intros in two edited collections of Fandom to answer it already (and have benefited immeasurably from having Cornel Sandvoss and C. Lee Harrington offering smarter answers than mine as I do so!). So how about you? What do you want to see more of? What’s next? If someone needs a dissertation topic, what should it be?

Paul

I think we’re emerged from a wave of studies that have been looking at the impact of social media on how people engage in civic life. I’ve been involved in media literacy work, and in there I’ve felt somewhat constrained by the work that produces similar results about young people and the need to better prepare them to critical consume and create media. I think that’s important but it’s not captured the potential of media to harness human stories and their potential for positive social change. I just read Mimi Ito’s new book, Affinity Online, and I think there’s some really interesting space there to harness for future work. What do our personal stories, interests and ideologies do to impact our media use and engagement in daily life. Instead of looking at the impacts of the technology or expression within, I think there’s a host of research that can explore more of the ways that affinity networks impact civic engagement, and what types of values drive these networks.

I also am captured by the concept of Care. There’s more attention needed to take the work of Nell Noddings and Joan Tronto on Ethics of Care and Caring Democracy that could be applied to digital culture. I think caring is such an important part of our approaches to online participation, and we haven’t done enough on that front.

Lastly, along with my colleagues Christopher Harris and Moses Shumow, I’m working on a book now about the concept of Persistence, which focuses on how pedagogies can contribute to persistent media engagement for social impact in a culture of transaction, which is prioritized by our digital environments and increasingly our institutions of higher education.

I’d love some dissertations on this work! Would be helpful to me at the very least...

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Jonathan Gray is Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is author of Television Studies (with Amanada D. Lotz), Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media ParatextsTelevision Entertainment; and Watching with The Simpsons: Television, Parody, and Intertextuality (Routledge, 2006; and co-editor of books including Keywords for Media StudiesA Companion to Media AuthorshipSatire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era, and Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World. He also co-edits NYU Press’ Critical Cultural Communication series, and is Chief Editor of International Journal of Cultural Studies.

Paul Mihailidis is an associate professor of civic media and journalism in the school of communication at Emerson College in Boston, MA. He is founding program director of the MA in Media Design, Senior Fellow of the Emerson Engagement Lab, and faculty chair and director of the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change. His research focuses on the nexus of media, education, and civic voices. His work has been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Slate Magazine, the Nieman Foundation, USA Today, CNN, and others. Mihailidis holds visiting professorships at Bournemouth University in England and the Catholic Univesity of Argentian in Buenos Aires. He co-edits the Journal of Media Literacy Education, and sits on the advisory board for iCivics. He earned his PhD from the Phillip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park.







Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Jonathan Gray and Paul Mihailidis (Part I)

Opening Statements

Jonathan

For a while now, I’ve been working on a book project about dislike and media. Media, communication, audience, and fan studies have asked a lot of questions about how and why people like or love the media they do, and what this can tell us. But we’ve asked comparatively much fewer questions about how and why they have impassioned dislikes, and what those tell us. So that’s what this new project is about. And that’s also therefore from whence I’m coming in this discussion.

I’ve been excited to see, over the last decade, not only more fan studies work on politics, but it’s also cool to see more political communication and/or journalism scholars also realizing the degree to which questions about affect in politics may profitably be answered by studying how affect works in the realm of fandom. Thus, even though my book project is less explicitly political per se, a guiding force has been a desire to nuance and improve media and communication studies’ understanding of how negative affect works, in the hopes that this too may establish structures of meaning that we can apply to questions about dislike, anger, alienation, disavowal, and annoyance in the political realm. On one hand, there’s a whole lot of hate and bile out there in the political realm, such that we might be tempted to retreat all the more decisively to more “positive” expressions of political purpose. But respectability politics have long been used to bludgeon society’s most marginalized and to shut them up. It’s too easy to devalue the experiences of the oppressed by asking them to please state their objections in a calmer, “more rational,” more positive, upbeat tone, preferably while smiling. Anger, dislike, and disgust can make us uncomfortable to the point of not engaging with what’s being said, or to concentrating entirely on tone over substance. And thus as much as, yes, the world is worryingly filled with outright hate spew, we need also to be willing to listen to what’s being said through other forms of dislike, even (especially?) when its tone is disruptive, its speaker isn’t calm, or it’s not being voiced in what we might deem an “appropriate” venue.

Fandom and discussions of popular culture are a great place to go looking for such expressions, some individualized, some very much participatory and group-based. And whereas I’ve used the term “anti-fan” in the past, I’m gravitating away from that word, given the risk that it suggests a diametric opposite to the fan, when in fact fandom is full of expressions of dislike, disappointment, and alienation. By mining those, and by moving beyond what has become a media and cultural studies Pavlovian response of applying Bourdieu to any and all statements of dislike (seeing all dislike as snobbery), I hope to contribute to a larger project of appreciating the many ways in which dislike can be a wonderfully generative space for creating political action, political ethics and objectives, and group identity that isn’t just about Othering and hate. I really do mean “contribute,” since it’s cool to see how many people are engaging such work now (see Melissa Click’s superb edited collection, Anti-Fandom: Dislike and Hate in the Digital Age, for example).

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There’s admittedly a very fine line to walk here. I don’t want to sound like I’m pleading for us to really, really listen to the angry privileged old white dude. That dude is President, so he has his listeners already. But when we hear expressions of intense dislike, they’re not all from him and his frat brothers; a lot are from marginalized viewers, and a lot are from people who might not otherwise be speaking in the language of fandom, love, and like. Even fans aren’t “only” and always-only fans. We all speak in a variety of modes, and some of those modes are more readily available to some of us – as gestured to by fan studies’ binary of affirmational and transformative fandoms that regularly sees a similar binary of privilege and under-privileged mapped onto it – and as much as I highly value the work of fan scholars who’ve explored how affect and love map onto the political, I want us to add to that picture an awareness of how affect and dislike/disappointment map onto the political. And before we get to the more politically volatile topics of why people dislike Trump, Hillary, or Nigel Farage, maybe there’d be a lot to learn by asking what’s going on when people share impassioned screeds of dislike about popular television, film, celebrities, and so on.

Paul

In my recently published book Civic Media Literacies, I spent considerable time exploring the conditions that motivate young people to actively engage in their communities, and the media-environments that are needed to support their engagement. In the process of discovery and research for this book, I uncovered what I call agency gaps between people’s willingness to share concern and how they envision their capacity to act. These agency gaps are fueled by two phenomenon of digital culture. The first is spectacle. The concept of spectacle, introduced by critical philosopher Guy DeBord, and central to the situationist movement, uncovers the role of representation and imagery in the space of human dialog and social structures. Spectacle today drives much of young people’s daily information and communication routines on platforms. This is largely because the platforms themselves are designed to prioritize that which is most shareable and spreadable, which is oftentimes that which is spectacular.

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Alongside the re-emergence of spectacle has been an increasing distrust in public institutions, and in particular media institutions. Distrust, we found, emerges largely because young people are increasingly distanced in their connection to media institutions, and trust in peers has long outweighed trust in institutions. Platforms that prioritize homophilous peer group engagement render institutions less core to one’s daily information and communication routines. Those things that we are less reliant on or familiar with, we trust.

How do these phenomena support agency gaps. Agency gaps have emerged in a digital culture that promotes sharing of things the inspire, disgust, or agitate. This is particularly the case with issues of political and social significance. The platforms themselves, thus, promote caring about, which is to signal affiliation with a topic of concern. What the platforms don’t promote is caring for, which is the relational work that one must do to move beyond the expression of disgust. The dichotomy of caring ethics was made popular by education scholar Nel Noddings, and seems to fit nicely with the reality of many of our disaffected youth today.

In the conclusion to this work, and in follow up research, I’ve been exploring the concept of civic intentionality. As a scholar exploring media literacy over the past decade, civic intentionality is something I think about more and more in light of what Arthur Brooks calls our culture of contempt.[1] In my work I’ve noticed that a focus on skills and competencies to prepare people to better critique and create media, has served to polarize our society as much as help to reform it. Civic Intentionality can shift the focus from media to what our goals are with media use to what values we want to prioritize in media use for civic purposes. Of course I’m not speaking about all media use, but media uses for the purposes of civic and political engagement.

With regards to participatory culture and fandom, I think there’s a lot to learn about the ways in which people engage with and support popular culture, and how that relates to how they choose to engage with local issues that matter. I’ve seen again and again that those who use media to advocate or participate meaningfully in civic life do so from personal identity and affinity with the issue. And popular culture is a strong way to find pathways of connection. Henry and his colleagues have shown this in their work over the last decade. Media literacies need to be more connected to the motivations and values that guide people’s media use and intentionality. Without that, we may be continuing to provide skills for critical engagement with media, but without the context to situate these skills into a strong civic frameworks. Perhaps we’ve been focusing on the how and not the why for too long. Maybe it’s time for us to think about what values guide people’s media preferences and uses, and not just about smart and responsible consumption of media.

Endnotes

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/02/opinion/sunday/political-polarization.html

Jonathan Gray is Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is author of Television Studies (with Amanada D. Lotz), Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media ParatextsTelevision Entertainment; and Watching with The Simpsons: Television, Parody, and Intertextuality (Routledge, 2006; and co-editor of books including Keywords for Media StudiesA Companion to Media AuthorshipSatire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era, and Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World. He also co-edits NYU Press’ Critical Cultural Communication series, and is Chief Editor of International Journal of Cultural Studies.

Paul Mihailidis is an associate professor of civic media and journalism in the school of communication at Emerson College in Boston, MA. He is founding program director of the MA in Media Design, Senior Fellow of the Emerson Engagement Lab, and faculty chair and director of the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change. His research focuses on the nexus of media, education, and civic voices. His work has been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Slate Magazine, the Nieman Foundation, USA Today, CNN, and others. Mihailidis holds visiting professorships at Bournemouth University in England and the Catholic Univesity of Argentian in Buenos Aires. He co-edits the Journal of Media Literacy Education, and sits on the advisory board for iCivics. He earned his PhD from the Phillip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park.




A Conversation with Terry Marshall (Intelligent Mischief, Wakanda Dream Lab)

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A Conversation with Terry Marshall

Intelligent Mischief, Wakanda Dream Lab)

Terry Marshall has been involved in social justice movements for over 20 years and founded Intelligent Mischief in 2013. Terry's work has spanned a range of intersecting creative and social justice endeavors including cultural organizing, creative production, curation, writing, cultural research, dance, event production, design, and political strategy.  Terry is interested in traveling and developing an international network of creatives that share a vision of transforming the world through communications and making their beliefs real.  Prior to Intelligent Mischief, he founded Streets is Watching and the Hip Hop Media Lab. He is an affiliate trainer and consultant for the Center for Story-based Strategy (CSS), a Beautiful Trouble trainer, co-founder of The BlackOut Collective and sits on the board for the Center for Artistic Activism.

Paromita

Hi Terry. Thank you so much for doing this with me.

Terry 

No problem. Thank you as well.

Paromita                 

Let me begin by introducing myself. I’m a fourth year PhD student at the University of Southern California, and a member of the Civic Paths Research Group run by Henry Jenkins. This spring, the Civic Paths group is trying to run a series on participatory politics, reaching out to activists and practitioners who work with new media, and trying to start a dialogue between the people who are actually doing this kind of work on the ground and those of us studying your methods. On a more personal front, I’m writing my dissertation on humor and political discourse, trying to understand how people use humor and laughter to talk about serious political issues. Last spring, I was writing a paper on the use of humor in Black Lives Matter, and I came across the “Black Body Survival Guide” on Intelligent Mischief, which became a great resource for my paper. Later that same year, I signed up for the Fan Activist Town Hall on Google Hangouts where I found out about the Wakanda Dream Lab, and I realized that your name was coming up over and over again in all of these organizations and endeavors that I was so interested in, and I knew that I wanted to reach out to you and talk more.

Terry 

Cool. Yes, thank you.

Paromita

To start, could you tell me a little bit about your background as an activist, and the idea behind an organization like Intelligent Mischief.

Terry

The origin story! I’ve been doing organizing stuff since I was about 17. I was fortunate enough to go to a private Muslim school called Sister Clara Muhammad School in Boston, and they instilled a lot of social justice sensibility in me. We used to watch the Eyes on the Prize civil rights documentary every year, and a lot of Black pride as well as school social justice. From ’95 I got involved with youth organizing, community organizing and labor organizing. Then about 2013, I started what became Intelligent Mischief. I always involved arts and culture in the traditional organizing stuff that I did, no matter where I did it. I was talking to other cultural activists/organizers, and we realized that every time we had off-the-beaten-path ideas and creative projects that involved arts, pop culture and local culture, they would always get shot down by supervisors above them who couldn’t understand their ideas. So I decided that I need to create a space that allows for experimentation and movement building involving arts and culture. And that was the inception of Intelligent Mischief, which we describe as a creative lab for injecting creativity and arts and culture, and realigning action logic among movement organizations. Over the years, due to some activations and experiments, we’ve been moving more, but we still keep ourselves as a lab – a room for experimentation. But we’re moving more to a directly producing culture ourselves, and create an overall culture shift through multimedia interventions.

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Paromita

You use satire and humor in Intelligent Mischief as a way to talk about serious issues like police violence, and you tap into the Black Panther fandom in the Wakanda Dream Lab to describe a vision of social change. Could you describe your approach to media in these organizations? Do you see media amplifying or helping your own political vision?

Terry                        

It’s funny because it just feels so intuitive to me. I come from a particular generation that’s really been steeped in media, we’ve been bombarded with media since we were born, and it seems like that’s the language, that’s the way. If we want to reach a massive number of people, particularly in the US, but also all over the world, you have to use different forms of media in some shape or fashion. That’s the main tool of change. A friend of mine used to say, “We’re not going to door knock our way to the revolution.” Community organizations are where you are doing that door knocking work…one workshop at a time, one talk at a time. Those are key to building relationships. You don’t eliminate those things, but living in a country that has 305 million people, we can see that we need to reach the scale quickly, and we need to involve the new media tools that are around. I think that’s something that’s implicit in activist strategies. Media and pop culture are essential to achieve culture shift right now.

Paromita

I’m particularly fascinated by the “Black Body Survival Guide” created by Intelligent Mischief, where you crowdsourced tips and created a satirical guide for an African-American person to survive this political climate of police brutality. The one that resonated with me the most showed people of color always having their hands up no matter what they were doing. It’s so funny, but also not funny, because you realize what absurd extents people have to go to just to survive. Why do you think humor is an appropriate vehicle to talk about these serious issues?

Terry

It felt like it was the only way to actually truly break through, completely break through. I think humor relaxes people’s defenses. Across the board, no matter what end of the political spectrum you are, humor always relentlessly brings people’s walls down. That’s number one. I think humor is also a way where we could use character archetypes like the jester. And a jester is the only one that could tell the truth to the king, because he’s using humor. The point of humor is to lift the veil, to get to the core of things, right? And that’s the reason why humor and jokes connect with people. A joke to be successful has to connect with the audience; it can’t only connect with the person telling the joke. So humor automatically has to deal with some type of truth, or something that everyone can relate to, in order for people to get the joke. We started the “Black Body Survival Guide” because of the murder of Trayvon Martin. Watching the trial, and then seeing George Zimmerman get off…what is humorous is that when black people are killed – even when they’re unarmed – they’ll find any little thing to discredit this human being who’s done nothing wrong against a paramilitary force. Trayvon tragically is almost the perfect victim. Even when we’re presented with someone who’s so innocent, you could discredit them. There’s no other way to go but to be absurdist. The reality that we’re living in is absurdist when it comes to Black people’s lives. When reality gets absurd, it’s time to get surreal. And we just turned to Afro-Surrealism – which is just really redundant, because Surrealism is just African – to combat this.

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Paromita

Afro-futurism and The Black Imagination seem like such strong influences on your political vision

Terry

Yes, the imagination. Trayvon was killed largely because of what we call imagination battle. The White Imagination of someone like George Zimmerman tends to imagine innocent black people just having deadly bodies. That’s a threat to whiteness, a threat to property, and Trayvon is killed because of this man’s imagination. Based on all evidence, it’s simply his imagination. To combat the White Imagination, we rewrite the narrative of the deadly black body in the “Black Body Survival Guide”, using surrealism and humor to rewrite the narrative of black bodies being dangerous. The pop culture reference we went with was the “Zombie Survival Guide”, and we equated that with Trayvon. We were like, “What are the bodies so dangerous that you would kill whether it was actually doing something to you or not?” Zombies could be minding their business, and you have to kill the zombie because it’s a zombie. If you listen to Zimmerman’s defense arguments, they’re literally saying, “Trayvon didn’t do anything, but there was the possibility.” So he’s just collateral damage. If reality is this absurd when it comes to black people’s lives, there’s no other way to combat it but with absurdism and surrealism, which we had turned into humor. That’s when we started coming with the idea of there being rules, a guide that black people need to follow. Just follow the logic of what the police say: it’s always the innocent black person’s fault no matter what. So we thought it would be helpful to place some rules so people don’t get shot and killed anymore. And obviously satirical.

Paromita

And you said that this was a multimedia project? You’re trying to use media in a variety of ways to get your message across to people?

Terry

Yes the first thing we did was a pop-up art exhibit at Boston University, where we created a store where we could buy the tools from the book. On the other side of the store, we created this secret agency with a whole backstory of how agents from a free black nation actually wrote the book, and sent agents to free black people in other countries. They were supposed to have set up an office behind the store, and it had maps and everything, and books they were reading. We created cards, videos, we created tools and things to be come real. Right now, we’re talking about creating a clothing line that has the messages from the book. So it’s a far-reaching multimedia project,

Paromita

That sounds like a completely immersive imaginative experience! I love the idea of a clothing line, because hoodies have become so closely associated with police violence against black bodies ever since Trayvon Martin’s death. I remember watching the Key and Peele episode titled “Hoodie” where a black man is walking down the street wearing a hoodie, and a white police officer pulls up next to him, looking suspicious. So as a protective measure, he flips up the hood, and there is a white face painted on the side. And the police officer immediately relaxes and smiles and drives away.  That episode resonates so strongly with what you said about the absurdity of these lived experiences. Less than a year ago, Stephon Clark was shot for using an iPhone in his grandmother’s backyard, and the police officers that shot him got away with it. So in this political climate, what strikes you as being some of the biggest challenges to the kind of work that you’re doing.

Terry                        

It’s actually gotten more surreal with the election of Donald Trump. Trump used so many similar tactics to get elected – using media, using humor, using satire. But I also think the media itself has significantly changed. There’s more independent media outlets and different social media tools that people have been using to help get messages across. A lot of the Movement for Black Lives could not have spread as quickly as it did without the use of social media. There are some more overtly liberal media channels like MSNBC, independent channels like The Young Turks who show more in-depth interviews with movement leaders than networks like NBC or CBS. Our use of media as a tool includes looking at different ways of what we consider media: considering clothing as media messages, developing our online videos. We’re dwelling more into developing our own thought pieces as well. I think we’re really expanding our understanding of what multimedia can do for activism.

Paromita

Just to add to that…how do you see fandom and popular culture affect the changing nature of activism? You run the Wakanda Dream Lab, which uses the affective connections that fans have with Black Panther, and uses the narrative to segue into Black Lives Matter. I remember the WakandaCon poster featuring Shuri using the Wakanda salute to create a shield that provides protection from bullets and police violence. It reminded me of Luke Cage in a way, because the Netflix version of Luke Cage came out right in the middle of Black Lives Matter. It was so fitting but also ironic that a black superhero’s most useful superpower was the ability to deflect bullets. At Civic Paths, we have researched fan activism around other pop culture texts, like Harry Potter and Superman, and we try to understand how fans take themes and concepts from the texts themselves, and apply them to real-world social and political issues. Do you see pop culture as being a helpful resource in the imagination battle.

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Terry                          

With the release of Black Panther, Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us, and Atlanta, Insecure – these kinds of black representations have greatly helped with addressing social justice issues and developing fanbases of people who, at the core, are attracted to social justice issues. I mean, everything you said is perfect, is what we saw in it. When we developed the backstory for the “Black Body Survival Guide”, that was our beginning into storytelling and world building, which is the core of fandom. When we first started getting involved in the early days, we didn’t know that there were whole fields of study around this. We were looking at Afropunk and festivals and seeing the fandom of Afropunk was so intertwined with social justice. Afropunk tipped us off to know all the possibility with Black Panther and other pop culture fandom that could lead to civic action. No one could have predicted the hype around the Black Panther movie, but as soon as I saw that Marvel was making a Black Panther movie, I thought, “People are going to lose their minds if they could see this on the screen”. A futuristic African nation and a black superhero with that. We actually get to a place where people could imagine beyond surviving and thriving and living. And we saw, particularly Afro-futurism, there was hope in that. Black Panther coming out was really like a gift. After the “Black Body Survival Guide” we were already looking for a way to go beyond just survival, and into renaissance and thriving and the future. And we saw Black Panther and we said, “This is perfect.” We created a Facebook group to help people self-organize all-black movie goings and gatherings, and we created a movie guide to help people connect some issues in the movies to social justice issues. We produced an anthology with different activists and fans. We’re taking the issue of immigration and applying that to Wakanda and having people imagine stories just to envision, “Hey, well, we did have a nation without borders. What would that look like?” And use Wakanda as the example. We put out a second anthology with the same premise, using Wakanda as the world, but talking about transgender women. We’re planning to do an immersive Wakanda-con in Oakland at the end of this year. People are really fans of the world of Wakanda. And people keep going to the movies because they want to live in that world, and right now, that’s the only way they can do that. And so now, we’re using the project of Wakanda Dream Lab to recreate experiences for folks to live in Wakanda, but also to make Wakanda real, by going to the experiences, and what does that mean to make Wakanda real? What issues do we have to address? What solutions do we have to come up with?

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Paromita                   

It is so amazing to hear you say that, because it aligns so closely with what Henry calls the “civic imagination”. It’s basically the idea that before we can go out and change the world, we need to collectively imagine what a better world looks like. In your case, if you could imagine yourself and this group 20 years from now, what are some of the things that you would have liked to accomplish? How would you imagine a better world?

Terry

We would like to see how social justice movements operate reimagined, and operating in liberatory spaces, using all our resources for imaginations. And not holding back on anything, making anything possible. I think we would like to see people saying they came together at Wakanda-con and came up with solutions to various problems, through their fandom. It’s almost like I can imagine people asking, “How are we going to really defend our communities and completely shut down police violence towards those communities?” Or how can we have self-governance? How can we reimagine the government? How can we reimagine the government that actually loves Black and indigenous people? Can we see this in the worlds we’ve built? In the world of Wakanda, we see that. In the worlds that we imagine and the stories that we build and follow, we see those things. Then if we could imagine it, we could make it real. So yes, being able to shift culture, shift policies and government structures and work structures in daily practice. Uniting imagination and reality in a way that makes people think: if I can imagine this, I can also do this. I don’t know if that sounds too vague.

Paromita

It sounds really incisive, actually. A social movement is always working towards something, but your work is premised on being able to imagine something that you’re working towards. I would also argue that it’s always better to start out from vague, because you can always add details as you move along. Making it vague makes it easier for other people to tweak things to suit their own social justice issues, and makes these ideas so much more accessible to wider communities.

Terry                         

Totally agree.

Paromita                   

Thank you so much for your thoughts on this, Terry. This is really useful for my research, because I’m coming at it from such a theoretical perspective, but I’m not a practitioner, I’m not an activist. I’m not the person on the streets who’s actually campaigning to make this happen. It’s so great to actually be able to talk to someone who has that knowledge and experience. I would love to stay updated as you move forward with this project, and talk more at a later date.

Terry                          

Thank you. Thanks for doing this work. We’ll keep you updated.

Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Yomna Elsayed & Katie Davis (Part II)

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Yomna

Katie, I find your work on distributed mentoring quite fascinating in not only identifying the process by which distributed mentoring takes place, but also in highlighting the value of such spaces as a means for protracted change. A persistent theme stood out to me from this conversation and the ones that preceded it, and that is the value of exploring collective spaces, previously annexed as “merely cultural” or apolitical, as instrumental to the organization of political and social movements. Practicing “real politics” has become increasingly difficult, if not due to authoritarianism or exclusionism, then due to political burnout or political polarization. In such circumstances, the existence of a seemingly non-politicized object of interest, and a space of experience can be essential in revitalizing political life in the ongoing dialog between expressive and instrumental politics.

In authoritarian settings, the cultural and artistic labels work as both a protector and facilitator: protector from political surveillance, and facilitator to all the actions that precede political action, such as subversion, identity development, and consciousness-raising. In polarized settings, spaces of art, music and humor work to build alternative bridges away from the highly contentious ones. Finding a common interest or sharing a laugh over a common fallibility all work to humanize participants and build a new community of affinity beyond the overstrained spaces of politics.  In the sarcastic Facebook pages of Egyptian youth—and despite the persistent state surveillance, and political polarization— political, religious and cultural figures are consistently subverted and ridiculed, and cultural norms and traditions are often questioned amicably over a joke.

Through the trend parties, I could see many intersections with the 7 A’s of distributed mentoring, yet playfully performed. One of the main gains of the 2011 uprisings, was the Egyptian and Arab populations’ realization that they were not alone in their rejection of authoritarianism, an impression dictatorships work hard to foster among their citizens. Social media were key in connecting people previously thought isolated. Trend parties, worked the same way. They represented an aggregation of memes and parodies around a particular object or subject of ridicule. The discussion around these memes and parodies, and the comments using other memes that add to or modify the original meme, all worked to accelerate and enrich the trend with other aspects of criticism or ridicule. The product, which was sometimes saved as an album of memes and remix videos on Facebook, represented a repository, an abundance of ideas to fall back to and a shared memory of not only their playful act, but also their triumph over political and parental authority (in the form of their past and present cultural productions). While such an act may seem more entertaining than instrumental, and more ephemeral than long lasting, it nevertheless, constituted part of their collective history, that was available to draw from in their future trend parties and even comments on friends’ posts. The partying was a ‘real event’ drawing on imaginative worlds, however, ones that had real consequences on their makeup and actions as citizens. It also worked to develop affective connections between participants who bonded over an inside-joke: a common imperfection in their shared childhood experiences. This relationship is also a relationship of mutual trust, whereby all participants shared the laugh but tacitly understood that they should not over-explain it to the peering eyes of parents or authority.

Most importantly, however, were the potential of these spaces to foster critical thinking and media literacy skills. The logical loop holes and technical flaws in past media productions were a rich source for exercising these skills, all while sharing a laugh not only at the expense of these texts but at their past-gullible-selves as well. They were now able to question the decisions that went into writing and producing those texts and relate them to the wider networks of political and cultural power. Through a process of metacognition, they were able to develop new layers of engagement with the old texts they grew up with. In other words, part of their changing relationship to childhood texts was their own personal growth and their developing media literacy skills, these spaces worked to accelerate this process of maturation.

At this point, it is very hard to tell what will come out of those spaces; but, at the very least, they were a sign of life in a time of increased oppression and polarization. They represented a continuation, however playful, of Arab Spring agency, and a chance to reconnect and re-establish a common identity, one not only united by an end-goal such as that of toppling the regime, but also the self-made history, language and commitment to participatory practices. To me, this was far more valuable and long-lasting than a short-lived spectacular revolution. 

Katie

Yomna, I’m so glad that Henry paired us together! Both of our lines of research show in a powerful way the agency that young people can express in the context of their creative and playful pursuits online. And you’re absolutely right: the fact that this agency is being expressed in (seemingly) nonpolitical settings is significant. As you observe, these spaces allow for subversion, identity development, and consciousness-raising, all important to political action. As we know, cultural and artistic expressions often precede—and pave the way for—political change. We had Black presidents of the United States on television and in film before Barak Obama was elected president in 2008, as well as several female U.S. presidents before…well, hopefully we’ll get there soon! Art offers a trial ground to imagine future possibilities.

This aspect of our conversation reminds me of Andrew Slack’s concept of “imagine better.” I assume that many readers of Henry’s blog are familiar with the founder of the Harry Potter Alliance and the Imagine Better Network (and perhaps Andrew is even reading this conversation!). I love the mission statement on the Imagine Better Facebook page: “We are at the precipice of a movement where fans of all television shows, books, and movies are no longer just happy discussing those stories. People around the world are making those mythologies real and using the lessons they have learned from their favorite stories to shape the real world for real good.”

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I think this statement ties in perfectly with our respective lines of research and with this discussion. Deep engagement with the various forms of artistic expression in our culture allows us to imagine new, better futures. This engagement can even provide direction for how to transform the current world into a better, more just world. I think of this connection between cultural engagement and political action as a continuum. Your work and mine seem to fall on different points along this continuum, with yours somewhat closer to political action than mine. But, they both show the possibilities associated with young people’s engagement with participatory culture to “imagine better.”

Moreover, we have each documented how personal this process can be. Whether on Fanfiction.net or through trend parties, youth come together around shared knowledge, interests, and experiences. Through the communities they form, they find support for developing and expressing their voices. Your work in particular shows how this process can serve as a very personal entry point to political engagement. At the same time, you grapple with something that Cecilia and I don’t in this regard. The flip side of the community generated from shared knowledge and interests is that it invariably leaves some people out. What are the implications of this exclusion for the political engagement that results?

I appreciate the connections that you’ve made between your work and the 7 A’s of distributed mentoring. In fact, I wish our book were not already in production; this would make a great reflection for the final chapter, where we consider where else distributed mentoring might be found beyond the fanfiction communities that were the focus of our research. I’m glad, too, that you drew connections to the skills of critical thinking and media literacy skills that young people apply as they develop new layers of engagement with the old texts they are critiquing. As with subversion, identity development, and consciousness-raising, these skills are important for political action.

The practice of “Tahfeel” is reminiscent of distributed mentoring in the way it involves people building on each other’s commentary in a cumulative fashion. It’s important that people can see each other’s expressions in a persistent way and build on those expressions publicly – a great example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. One area of difference I noted between your work and mine relates to the tone of anti-fandom. Although we certainly documented some negative interactions on the fanfiction sites we studied, the overwhelming tone of these communities was positive and supportive. It seems you’ve documented somewhat more “biting” forms of cultural critique through the concept of anti-fandom. Yet, this cultural critique ultimately contributes to positive affect among participants, who form bonds around their shared perspectives. (But here, too, I wonder about the implications for political engagement if those who lack the necessary background knowledge are excluded from participation. Might this dynamic contribute to political polarization?)  

I was particularly intrigued by the connection you drew to acceleration. You note that the trend parties from your research acted as spaces where young people’s personal growth and maturation were accelerated as they re-engaged in a critical way with the texts from their childhood. In our research, Cecilia and I had originally conceived of acceleration in the context of accelerating feedback, guidance, and mentorship around a particular fanfiction work, but it can absolutely apply more broadly to individuals’ personal growth. In fact, we do reflect in the book on how the experience of distributed mentoring contributes to young people’s growth as writers; through their development as writers, they engage in important identity development work. So, I definitely appreciate the connection you’ve made between distributed mentoring and personal growth in the context of Egyptian online trend parties. It makes me wonder: Could distributed mentoring help to accelerate the transformation of young people’s cultural engagement into political change?

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Yomna Elsayed is a Lecturer of Communication at the University of Southern California online communication management program. She earned a PhD in communication from the Annenberg School for Communication at USC. Her research examines the role of popular culture and technology in advancing cultural and social change in the US and the MENA region.

Katie Davis is an Associate Professor at the University of Washington Information School, Adjunct Associate Professor in the UW College of Education, and a founding member and Co-Director of the UW Digital Youth Lab. Her research explores the role of new media technologies in young people’s personal, social, and academic lives, with a particular focus on the intersection between technology and identity development during adolescence and emerging adulthood.

Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Yomna Elsayed & Katie Davis (Part I)

Yomna Elsayed

It’s 2019, eight years following the events that changed the course of my life and that of many Egyptians. To international spectators, the Arab Spring uprising may have been this passing phenomenon that fascinated the world for a span of 18 days (in the case of Egypt). Nevertheless, eyes were soon drawn to other spectacles, such as those of the Occupy movements in the US and around the world. But the memory of the Arab Spring never left many Egyptians, particularly the 80s and 90s generations who have witnessed and possibly participated in the protests. Since then, public forms of dissent have been progressively outlawed, in an attempt to possibly close all the system’s loopholes that may have contributed to their eruption in the first place. But, to someone who has witnessed the before and after of the uprisings, a dismissal of the uprisings as an anachronistic anomaly, and rebranding them as the Arab winter or Fall were simply not convincing enough.

To my mind, the energy fueling the Arab Spring must have transformed, but never dissipated. So, in my book manuscript, Cultural Agency in post-Arab Spring Egypt: Afterlife of a movement, I set out to trace the Arab Spring agency through the narrow lanes of the Egyptian cultural scene of online youth post-Arab Spring. I followed Egyptian youth as they experimented with humor on YouTube, channeled their anger through RAP, and developed new languages, and identities through the participatory practices of satirical memes and remixes. By looking at the politically ambiguous online spaces of arts and humor, I could discern a vibrant cultural movement in the making.

Since 2011, there has been an explosion in the number of Facebook pages dedicated to satirical memes and remix videos. The topics of these memes and videos ranged from sports, global and local popular culture, to social and political commentary. The pages though different in their scope or niche, all used satire and popular culture to pass social or political critique of youth’ lived realities. The common frames of reference, the shared language, and the participatory practices on these pages were all pointing to a form of fandom, yet one, not clustered around the love of a text, but rather the rejection of many of what this generation grew up watching. Unlike fans who cluster around a text of interest, members of these pages gathered around the ridicule of state-produced childhood texts, which made them more anti-fans than fans, where anti-fandom is the “active or vocal dislike or hate of a given text, personality, or genre”[1].

With persistent state surveillance, youth often chose to direct their anti-fandom at the low hanging fruit of a failed system that promotes mediocrity and is threatened by mobilizing art. Hence, previously revered childhood texts became an arena for struggle between a generation that saw a rekindling of hope with the Arab Spring, and another that viewed the protests as a threat to their well-established views on politics and society. Previously revered religious figures such as Amr Khaled, and the once admired stage and TV actor Mohammed Sobhy, have over time become targets of ridicule. The optimistic upbeat tone of Amr Khaled, which was refreshing at a time of political and social stagnancy before the uprisings, sounded ludicrous and out of touch post Arab Spring, and under the draconian political situation brought about by military rule. This discrepancy in particular, has turned many of his fans into anti-fans that not only share a distaste for him, but also use his widely circulated videos as material for their own remixes and parodies.

Mohammed Sobhy, as well, once assumed to be anti-establishment, has repeatedly bashed at the “revolutionary youth” following the uprisings, describing them as anarchists and referring to Egypt’s crisis as one of morality. His superficial overemphasis on morality lead to a social media trend, whereby participants in sarcastic pages, spent days creating and sharing memes about Sobhy and his self-righteous rhetoric. One of the memes read, “Do you take morality in the vein or muscle?”, and another, “Mmmm… custard with Morality”. Such memes alluded to his injection of morality-based arguments in every talk show or statement and youth’ rejection of his moralism.

Figure 1: Mohammed Sobhy depicted as a Morality Police in a sarcastic meme

Figure 1: Mohammed Sobhy depicted as a Morality Police in a sarcastic meme

Jokes around widely-known figures such as Sobhy, were quite generative as they built on common knowledge and experiences among the Arab Spring generation who have consumed the same cultural products growing up. Before Satellite TV and the Internet were prevalent, the 80s and 90s generations in particular, had a limited but homogenous set of entertainment options to choose from. State-produced/sanctioned TV shows, movies and plays were the least common denominator among them. Hence, once a joke resonated with followers, they would start to add upon it and modify it, until it became a trend, a participatory practice they playfully referred to as “Tahfeel (or Partying)”. 

Figure 2: TV Promo of "Diary of Wanees"

Figure 2: TV Promo of "Diary of Wanees"

Youth’s negative response to Sobhy was surprising given how widely liked the childhood TV series, “Diary of Wanees”, was among this generation. It depicted an average Egyptian family with a mother and father determined on “raising their kids righteously” (see Figure 2). His Juvenile fans used to call Mohammed Sobhy “Baba Wanees”, as they saw in him a father figure and a role model. Perhaps their negative response-as adults-was proportional to their level of disappointment in him. But it was also a reflection of the shifting cultural and social values whereby there was no longer a central autocratic father figure as the one depicted in Figure 2.

Despite the ephemerality of these pages’ content, it constituted a common memory and language in the collective consciousness of its participants, thus laying the bedrocks for developing a new digital identity, nevertheless, one based in play. Through their immersion in the culture of these pages and its practices, its followers developed a ‘tacit capacity’ or ‘implicit knowledge’[2] enabling them to exchange and enjoy ‘inside jokes’. These inside jokes can be way of strengthening group cohesion, but they can also be a way of “widening the gap between those within and those outside the circle of laughter”[3].

The study of anti-fandom, uncovers the various levels of engagement that audience can form with a text, but the study of anti-fandom in authoritarian contexts can be revealing of the complexity of such engagement, when these texts are the product of an oppressive (everyday) context. Looking at the relationship between online youth and state-produced media (in contemporary political speeches or childhood texts of the past) as a case of anti-fandom revealed to me how someone’s relationship with a text can be a reflection of their developing self-understanding of the meaning of citizenship, especially when a text exemplifies the tropes of power. In such contexts, anti-fandom takes on the role of clandestine protracted subversion, consciousness-raising, and identity development. These functions are the basic ingredients for slow social change, one that may be less spectacular than the Arab Spring uprising, but whose effects are longer lasting.

Katie Davis

In the spring of 2013, I serendipitously sat down next to Cecilia Aragon at a gathering of human-computer interaction researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle, WA. Around the midpoint of my first year as a faculty member at the UW Information School, I was still very much feeling my way around my new life as a faculty member, with all its accompanying pressures to raise money for research, publish in top-tier venues, and prepare engaging course content for students. No doubt these pressures were swirling around my head as Cecilia and I introduced ourselves and started to chat.

Cecilia is a computer scientist with research interests in data science and online collaboration. My research focuses on the intersection between human development, learning, and networked technologies. Despite our different areas of focus, we soon discovered a shared interest in the topic of fanfiction. In particular, we were both fascinated by an apparent discrepancy between the passion, skill, and commitment among young fanfiction writers that we had each witnessed—both personally and, in my case, through prior research—and the current (2013) public hand-ringing about young people’s deteriorating abilities at the hands of emojis, Wikipedia, and Google search.

We continued our conversation in the days following and soon found ourselves planning a study focused on the nature of young people’s participation in online fanfiction communities. What began as a lunchtime conversation ultimately turned into a five-year study involving several graduate students and a variety of research methods, from a nine-month ethnography of three fanfiction communities (Harry Potter, Doctor Who, and My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic), to a broad-scale analysis of the (then) nearly 7 million stories on the popular fanfiction site, Fanfiction.net.

We examined how community members sought and received support for their writing, as well as the qualities of networked publics that shaped their exchanges in specific ways. Drawing on concepts that are likely familiar to readers of this blog—such as participatory culture and new media literacies (Henry Jenkins), affinity spaces (James Paul Gee), and connected learning (Mimi Ito and colleagues)—we developed the concept of distributed mentoring to describe the distinct forms of peer support that we were seeing in our research. Grounded in Edwin Hutchins’ concept of distributed cognition[1], distributed mentoring represents a new form of mentoring that is uniquely supported by the affordances of networked technologies.

Going into the study, we (admittedly naively) expected to see fairly traditional forms of peer support, where more experienced writers provided guidance to less experienced—typically younger—writers. Although we certainly saw these types of traditional mentoring relationships, they were by no means the dominant form of peer support in the fanfiction communities we studied. Instead, we documented a far more complex, distributed web of support that included a variety of channels (private messaging, public reader reviews, forum responses), delivery mechanisms (one-to-one, one-to-many, and many-to-many), and participant roles (a single writer might provide mentoring around plot development while seeking input on canon knowledge).

Distributed mentoring is characterized by seven, interrelated attributes: aggregation, accretion, acceleration, abundance, availability, asynchronicity, and affect. Each of these attributes is supported by the affordances of networked technologies and draws on many of the new media literacies described by Jenkins and colleagues. For instance, aggregation represents the ability of authors to seek and receive guidance on their writing from many different sources. Using skills such as collective intelligence and transmedia navigation, fanfiction authors collect and compile many different types of feedback in various forms, from story reviews to discussion forum posts to private messaging. Through the process of aggregating these disparate types of feedback, an overarching direction for the work emerges that is more useful and profound than any one mentoring exchange on its own. The other six attributes work in much the same way; here, I will simply describe the defining characteristics of each.

Accretion of advice occurs as reviewers interact with each other through comments on individual stories and in forum discussions, referring to and building on earlier reviews.

Acceleration: The rich discussions generated around disagreements among reviewers about the direction of a particular story often serve to accelerate the process of learning through active discussion.

Abundance describes the sheer volume of feedback accessible to the author.

Availability relates to the persistent and public nature of reviews, which facilitates sustained exchanges and relationships among community members.

Asynchronous communication in fanfiction communities means that authors and reviewers can interact with each other across time and geographic boundaries, enabling collaboration in instances when synchronous interaction would be impossible.

Affect: Authors enjoy emotional support and encouragement from the many positive comments and interactions they experience in fanfiction communities.

You may be thinking: Interesting stuff, but what does distributed mentoring have to do with participatory politics?

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Henry Jenkins has described the potential for participatory culture to serve as a gateway to political participation. A prime example—and particularly fitting for this blog post—is the humanitarian work carried out by members of the Harry Potter Alliance, such as their assistance to the victims of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake. In their book By Any Media Necessary, Henry and his co-authors document other instances of participatory culture interweaving with and supporting political participation.

What role might distributed mentoring play in participatory politics?

In the final chapter of our forthcoming book, Writers in the Secret Garden: Fanfiction, Youth, and New Forms of Mentoring (Aragon & Davis, MIT Press, 2019), Cecilia and I consider whether and how distributed mentoring might manifest in other types of communities online. We consider other interest-driven communities, such as DeviantArt, a community dedicated to sharing original artwork, photography, and videography, and Ravelry, an online community of knitting enthusiasts. This blog series has given me an excellent reason to think more deeply about how distributed mentoring might show up and support the work done in communities focused on civic engagement.  

The Youth and Participatory Politics Research Network (YPPRN) has identified four types of activities through which young people actively engage in democratic processes: Investigation & Research, Dialogue & Feedback, Mobilizing for Change, and Production & Circulation. YPPRN researchers have described how networked technologies have expanded these practices in significant ways. For instance, social media and the internet have dramatically changed the way Investigation & Research happens. Especially among younger generations, broadcast media and newspapers are no longer looked to as the main outlets for news on civic and political issues. Platforms like Twitter and Facebook are used to circulate information, and Wikipedia serves as a prime example of how crowdsourced information can be co-created easily and shared among many people. The other three types of activities are similarly affected in profound ways by networked technologies.

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Using my lens of distributed mentoring, I see the 7 A’s at work here. Let’s suppose, for example, that a young person were concerned about climate change. This example comes readily to mind right now as I spend my sabbatical year in Berlin and read about young people across Europe and other parts of the world demonstrating against climate change and their government’s response (or lack of response) to it.  

Aggregation: Networked platforms allow this young person to identify and compile information quickly and easily from a variety of different sources. A focused search session can yield rich information on the causes and consequences of climate change, how governments across the world have attempted to address (or dismiss/ignore) the problem, as well as the role of other stakeholders, from global corporations to individual citizens.

Accretion: By sharing evidence and viewpoints with other interested people—including those with whom one may disagree–knowledge about and insight into the phenomenon of climate change accumulates over time (provided the evidence is sound, which is a topic I won’t venture into here!).

Acceleration: Disagreements are inevitable when engaging in conversations around issues, like climate change, that generate passionate views. From the perspective of distributed mentoring, these disagreements can serve to accelerate the generation of insights and actions through active discussion.

Abundance: Two people agreeing on a strategy for curbing climate change is one thing. Many thousands of people voicing their support is quite another and may be particularly useful for motivating action and drawing attention to the issue. This seems to be exactly what we’re seeing right now with the student climate change protests, which began with a single student in Sweden and has now grown to a global movement involving millions of youth.  

Availability: The persistent and public nature of text-based online communication can provide a useful record of evolving ideas and plans for coordinated action. For instance, The Guardian reported that on Friday, March 15, 2019, over 1.4 million young people walked out of schools in 2,233 cities and towns in 128 countries. It’s hard to imagine how this level of global coordination could happen without networked technologies.

Asynchronous communication may speed up the pace of this action due to the fact that the exchange of ideas can take place across time and geographic boundaries.

Affect: After a period of participating in online forums on the topic, it’s likely that our young person has developed connections to others who are similarly interested in addressing the problem of climate change. These relationships can provide the emotional support and encouragement necessary to spur and sustain action aimed at reversing climate degradation. 

It is my hope that these connections between distributed mentoring and participatory politics can do more than represent a fun thought experiment. For me, the lens of distributed mentoring helps underscore the participatory nature of participatory politics; the distinct ways that networked technologies shape and sustain participation; and the awesome agency and influence that young people can generate when they come together around a shared interest and contribute what they can, when they can.

The challenges we face today are big, with high stakes attached. As a single person—and, I would argue, especially a single young person—it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the prospect of effecting real change. Through the process of documenting and describing the concept of distributed mentoring, my colleagues and I have referred often to a well-known phrase—the whole is greater than the sum of its parts—to understand the processes by which many disparate acts of engagement—even very small ones—can generate meaningful insight and action when placed in dialogue with each other.

Endnotes

[1] Hutchins, E. (1995). Cognition in the wild. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

[1] Gray, J. (2005). Anti-fandom and the moral text: Television without pity and textual dislike. American Behavioral Scientist48(7), 847.

2] Moustakas, C. E. (1990). Heuristic research: Design, methodology, and applications. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

[3] Levine, L. W. (1978). Black culture and black consciousness: Afro-American folk thought from slavery to freedom. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

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Yomna Elsayed is a Lecturer of Communication at the University of Southern California online communication management program. She earned a PhD in communication from the Annenberg School for Communication at USC. Her research examines the role of popular culture and technology in advancing cultural and social change in the US and the MENA region.

Katie Davis is an Associate Professor at the University of Washington Information School, Adjunct Associate Professor in the UW College of Education, and a founding member and Co-Director of the UW Digital Youth Lab. Her research explores the role of new media technologies in young people’s personal, social, and academic lives, with a particular focus on the intersection between technology and identity development during adolescence and emerging adulthood.

 


 

 

 

 

Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Suzanne Scott & Camilo Diaz Pino (Part II)

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Camilo

Hello Suzanne! Your work sounds fascinating, and to my mind part of a very productive and necessary set of debates in fan/audience studies going on at the moment -- particularly with regard to the shifting position of fandom itself as a point of identity and community, and the ways in which fandom has grown to be treated (both academically and by the lay community) as an analogue for other kinds of identity politics. I believe the potential overly-reverential pitfalls of fan studies will always be something the field has to contend with to some extent, given both the general trivialization of the subject, as well as the fact that we naturally tend to want to study things we see as “worthy” of analysis, and therefore often also vindication.

There is also the issue that, while sometimes denigrated, pop culture scholarship can lend itself sometimes too easily to an acceptance of (and integration within) market logics, and a revelling in our own aca-fandom. During SCMS this year I indeed remember several presentations that too easily set aside more critical engagements with market logics in favour of concentrating solely on the vindicatory possibilities of fan activity. The problem to my mind with such analyses is that they only look at half the process, ignoring the structural in the face of anecdotal novelty or promise. A lot of this could be shaped by the standard conference format of course.

Taking into account my own interests in fandom of Asian media in Latin America as a site of articulation for ongoing popular political activism, I’m interested in your take. To what extent can we contextualize contemporary fannish (and other popular) activity within a political and structural field that seems at once fully consolidated within a neoliberal ideoscape, but which likewise manifests such radical fractures as that of the growing tide of neo-fascism and the Green New Deal?

Suzanne

I understand the impulse to want to focus on moments of activism, or the potentialities of what Henry calls “cultural acupuncture,” and the politically progressive promise of fandom more generally right now. However, we are in firm agreement that these sorts of studies need to remain mindful of how market logics can limit or ultimately strive to incorporate these efforts. If anything, I think both fans and fan scholars have historically been fairly critical of these trends, particularly in recent years within growing bodies of literature on fan labor and self-branding. Neoliberalism and commodity activism seems to be a recurring theme in the conversations in this series thus far, and your turn of phrase “popular political activism,” certainly evokes Sarah Banet-Weiser’s recent theorization of popular feminism and misogyny for me.

With that said, one enduring facet of fandom and fan studies is an emphasis on community, so there are also foundational ties to collective action that might be productively (re)activated in our conversations about the potentialities of fandom as a space for political activism.  Fandom is also full of its own forms of “radical fractures,” admittedly with much lower sociopolitical stakes. Abigail De Kosnik gave an amazing keynote at the Fan Studies Network Conference in 2018 that brilliantly explored this idea via an extended metaphor that framed the current political climate as a “fan war,” with the “show” at the center of this conflict being the United States of America. While it would be glib to say we can wholly understand the “radical fractures” of the far right and left you’re identifying just because we’ve lived through a particularly vicious Harry Potter shipping war, I definitely think De Kosnik is onto something about how we might wield the tactical lessons learned within fan culture to more explicitly political ends. So, I might flip your closing question on its head, to suggest we consider how we might contextualize our contemporary political moment or movements within our experiences from fan culture as well.

Our personal narratives inevitably inform the work that we do and our motivations for doing it, and unquestionably my own lived identity and fan identity inform my research. I tend to focus on Western fans and media objects, which I recognize is limiting in that it conceptually avoids addressing the transcultural nature of fan culture and objects as well as global political trends. As your example about Palestinian activists advising BLM protesters powerfully suggests, I think it’s increasingly difficult to talk about these things in isolationist terms. So, I’d love to hear about the “continuity” or corollaries you envision between the transcultural fan networks you study and the transnational political activism you discussed in your opening remarks. How do we, as academics, ensure that the activist dimension of our work (whether as memory keepers or critical historiographers) has the most impact?

Camilo

The inversion of my last question you suggest is very interesting! In considering it, I think it offers some very fertile ground for both general cultural analysis, as well as a means through which we can (and should) interrogate our own social role as social scholars. Perhaps the most visible structural impact of fandom as a social phenomenon is the way in which it interjects into Roland Barthes’ notions of social myth-making. And while cultural products that penetrate widely (or deeply) in the popular consciousness can of course have a significant impact in our collective understanding of social structures, it is in the analysis of their popular circulation (and re-formation) that we see their true impact in and interaction with ongoing social processes. I believe the collective stage of social meaning making often typified in fannish activity is exciting to us precisely because of how “messy” it often is. And while so much of what is happening in those negotiations does reflect dominant power dynamics, just as much evidences a variety of exploitable schisms.

Like you, I am very interested in the often subtle ways in which the policing and challenging of social conventions is allegorized and deferred through objects of fandom. Indeed, what’s most fascinating to me with regard to the linkages between fan cultures, communal identity and the quotidian is precisely the ways in which things can seem like low stakes endeavors until they aren’t. That is to say, the ways in which seemingly innocuous debates and obsessions both speak to fundamental underlying social structures, as well as the ways in which they can be suddenly, deliberately, and intricately woven into contingent social debates and movements — mostly by popular subjects and collectives.

One of the phenomena I’ve encountered in my own studies of Asian media’s integration into Latin American popular cultures is in the less overtly “fannish” ways that affective relationships with media and cultural objects feed into popular imaginaries. My most recent publication on the subject involved the use of complex plot details from the anime Dragon Ball Z being used as the basis for a group of coordinated national protests by Chilean student groups seeking the abolition of for-profit  education. What most surprised me about this protest was not the use of an anime show as a fulcrum for such activity in and of itself, but rather the fact that this use of its plot, characters and tone was so legible to the Chilean public at large, both as a reference and as a means of connecting the shows archetypal heroic narrative with the values and critiques of the anti-neoliberal movement. In this instance, this grassroots movement made often very detailed references that in other contexts are clearly understood as “fannish” communication and jargon. Nonetheless, the ways in which these references were being used to hail and mobilize the wider public wasn’t through the kind of devotional or subcultural fandom Asian media is read with in the Anglo-American cultural landscape. It indeed suggested a much more casual, quotidian treatment of these texts — less as devotional object than simply an element of established and assumed folk culture. In such examples, the fan object was there, but the more concrete fannish identities associated with it were so diffused as to be indistinguishable from the broader popular collective. It was fannish recognition without concrete fan identity. Such phenomena are interesting to me for the ways in which they suggest that we might need a broader base through which to conceptualize the “fan” in the wake of a global cultural field with interacting but diverse histories of community-formation and identification with (and through) popular cultural texts.

I am aware for instance that some scholars would argue that without conscious, self-identified fan-based communities, we can’t really think of the activities or identities involved in engagement with loved media objects as comprising fan behavior. I personally think that position is rather brittle. It hinges on reifying the most visible (and frankly, the most privileged) modes of pop culture engagement, often overlooking other processes which are no less significant. It makes sense to categorize as a means of  achieving a coherent perspective of the field, but we should be careful not to set our analytical boundaries in ways that make us overlook what is actually going on in our efforts to make phenomena fit into prescribed definitions.

While personally I don’t think that focusing on Western media texts and popular phenomena is by any means a limiting factor to a broader or more integral perspective of how these function within wider social structures, I do think that there is a general problem of solipsism in the US cultural landscape that extends into our academic debates. It is in this same limitation that I see a blindness towards modes of popular engagement with media that fall outside the bounds of fandom at its most visible or mobilized — particularly from Western vantage points.

In my own very partisan opinion as a twice transplanted Chilean/New Zealander, one of the primary things we can do in order to be more effective scholars and advocates within a field that has grown increasingly aware of its own messy global dimension is to track the ways in which our own objects of study relate to ongoing phenomena elsewhere in the world. Those of us who examine media cultures outside the US and Europe have to maintain a perspective that integrates the ways in which our sites of study are affected by thes global powers. In contrast, Scholars focused in the US for the most part do not reciprocate. While this makes sense in many cases, it does tend to create blind spots if we want to develop a functional big-picture perspective  — especially when we consider that US media forms are now being affected themselves by such formats as Japanese anime, Latin American telenovelas, and a bevy of Afro-Caribbean musical styles. In considering such processes, I see my role as that of advancing investigation into such linkages, and spreading awareness of them in the communities I integrate.

I’ve written for far too long here Suzanne, but to close out my side of things, I’d love to get your perspective of how you see the current field from your vantage point with respect to the broader pendulum of academic debate and our positioning as both scholars and instructors of media. How do you position yourself and your role as a scholar of popular interaction with and through media?

Suzanne

I love that you’re hitting on a lot of key points that have been at the center of productive shifts in fan studies in recent years (e.g. Lori Morimoto and Bertha Chin’s explorations of transcultural fandom, Rhiannon Bury’s call for us to conceptualize a “participatory continuum” rather than always focus on the most active or visible fans, etc.). These efforts are also expanding and complicating understandings of fandom as a “politicized” space, which is great and necessary. Somewhat ironically, my own positioning tends to line up with “older” (or, if we are being charitable, “enduring”) lines of critical inquiry and formulations of fan culture as a potential space for progressive political intervention. I’ve been predominantly focused on how both industry and small pockets of privileged fans pushback on or attempt to contain those interventions, but increasingly I’m wondering about a tendency to presume there is a connection between fan activism as “participatory politics” and activism proper. Per my opening remarks about white female fans, the same people participating in a social media fan campaign to queer Elsa in Frozen, or cast John Cho as a leading man, may or may not be actively involved in broader activist efforts focused on LGBT human rights or supporting broader diversity initiatives beyond #representationmatters.

They may sincerely participate in various “fan activist” efforts and also experience fan fragility and lash out when they are justly called out for comments or fan practices that are racist or heterosexist by fans of color or queer fans. As you note above, it’s messy.

So, when you ask about my “vantage point,” I can’t help but answer that perhaps the best we can do is actively recognize and reflect on the ways in which our intellectual (or, indeed, political) field of vision might be limited in various ways, and to interrogate how those limitations inform our research and teaching. Admittedly, for many of the reasons you outline here, white Western scholars haven’t been expected/forced to engage their peripheral vision as actively, precisely because their work is perpetually centered, which is an ongoing problem. If this is indeed an “age of crisis,” academics need to be mindful of how we historicize, document, contextualize, and theorize it. But we also need to actively position ourselves within this crisis, assert our own politics of participation within it, even when that means identifying and owning the roles we might (unwittingly) play in perpetuating it.

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Suzanne Scott is an Assistant Professor in the Radio-Television-Film department at the University of Texas at Austin.  She is the author of Fake Geek Girls: Fandom, Gender, and the Convergence Culture Industry (NYU Press, 2019) and the co-editor of the Routledge Companion to Media Fandom (2018).

Camilo Diaz Pino holds a Ph.D. in Communication Arts with a focus on Media and Cultural Studies from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. His research concentrates on global media circulation, cultures of media production and re-mediation, and dynamics of intercultural cultural transformation across global peripheries and emergent media production cultures. He is presently an Assistant Professor of Media and Culture at West Chester University of Pennsylvania

Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Suzanne Scott & Camilo Diaz Pino (Part I)

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Camilo Díaz Pino

My personal relationship to popular politics far precedes my scholarly engagement with Cultural Studies proper. I was born during the waning years of Pinochet’s regime in Chile, and my parents moved us away from the country shortly before the return of formal democracy. While they didn’t take as many open risks as some of their friends, both of them were active in their opposition to the regime at the time, and like all Chileans who lived through that period, their lives and ongoing behavior have been shaped by the cultural traumas of state terror. Much of the damage done to Chile’s social body during the dictatorship hinged on the regime’s concerted efforts to incapacitate popular collective political action — damage we can likewise now see in the United States, though it occurred very differently here. In Chile during the 1970s and 80s this was done most visibly and notoriously through violent political repression, but also insidiously through neoliberal policies that sought to disintegrate any and all institutional frameworks that fell outside of (or subverted) governmental or business hierarchies. My mother, Walescka Pino-Ojeda, has for her part dedicated most of her academic career to analyzing this very phenomena and its aftermath.

In the years since the re-establishment of formal democracy, Chile has often been hailed as a success story both for its implementation of neoliberal state structures, and later its creation of governmental policies seeking truth and reconciliation for past atrocities by the junta. This was an uneasy compromise; a kind of Third Way liberalism for the traumatized. The inherent structural contradiction of these two processes (attempting to create social unity within mechanisms that were created in part to paralyze the populace away from social-political action) came to a head with an outbreak anti-neoliberal popular protests in the 2010s. These waves of (still ongoing) activism were, at the time, novel in their ability to both mobilize a critical mass of Chileans from across the demographic spectrum, as well as successfully occupy and negotiate public spaces and forums. Perhaps predictably, these have largely been led by the first generations of Chileans to be raised outside the bounds of active state terrorism.

I see my own work as an academic now as an extension of the cultural activism and critical subaltern memory-keeping that these waves of direct political action both correspond with and contribute to. This work shares a direct continuity with the cultural production, scholarship, and political action undertaken by several interconnected underground networks during the dictatorship. These networks were themselves also largely transnational, fueled both ideologically by de-colonial Tricontinentalism, and tactically by the broader lived realities of the CIA-backed dictatorships and US-sponsored state terror that was ongoing in Latin America during the 1970s and 80s.

Now working in the United States, my engagement with participatory politics focuses on the ways in which popular subjects and cultural landscapes have been shaped by such transnational flows of exchange. I’m particularly interested in the ways in which these are affected by often overlooked avenues of cultural intermingling — those taking place in popular media circulation, but also those skirting the edges of power, travelling trans-peripherally, rather than from (or through) centers of global political power. As such, my work has concentrated on both the popular impact of Asian (Japanese, Korean, Turkish and now Indian) culture in the Latin American popular consciousness, as well as the ways in which these are forming an emergent imaginary of activism and the consolidation of new social-political agendas.

Like many scholars, I’ve taken a growing interest in the seemingly sudden awakening of an organized left in the United States during the Obama administration (and heightening in visibility in the aftermath of Trump’s election). Part of my attention here is on how these movements reflect (and in some cases have been informed by) similar modes of activism that started roughly a decade prior in places like Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador and Chile. I’m particularly interested in the recent emergence of social media based networks of global exchange established between activists working within the U.S. and those who have for years been active in confronting state-sanctioned violence elsewhere.

An anecdote from the height of the Black Lives Matter protests comes to mind, in which I saw a flurry of tactical advice given by Palestinian activists to BLM protesters. This focussed mainly on avoiding containment tactics and protecting participants from riot weaponry. For me, moments such as these evidence a true breaching of our old state-centered models of center-periphery dynamics and politics. In this exchange, these Palestinian activists were conceptualizing the BLM movement quite pointedly as integrating a wider network of post-colonial struggle. This globalist vision indeed recalls Che Guevara’s Tricontinental theory, but also extends it towards a conception of peripheral identity that doesn’t see the U.S. as a monolith of external oppression, but as a state that, like the so-called third world, depends structurally on a “internal” exclusions and exploitations as well.

Suzanne Scott

For better or for worse, I ended up doing the bulk of the work on my book, Fake Geek Girls: Fandom, Gender, and the Convergence Culture Industry, during the first years of Donald Trump’s presidency.  You can see the traces of this throughout the book, most actively in the introduction, “Make Fandom Great Again,” which modifies Trump’s campaign slogan to make explicit connections between sexist, racist, and xenophobic strains of nostalgia in fan culture over the past decade and the rise of the alt-right and our current political moment. Much of my interest, then, is in the gender politics of participation, and how these are either tacitly endorsed by industry (in the form of various legal and ideological “terms and conditions” that attempt to standardize fan culture in order to better capitalize on it) or by intra-fannish boundary policing practices that restrict who can claim an authentic fan identity and privilege a conception of fandom as a preserve for white, cishet men.

With that said, I vividly remember the reactions that rolled in when it was revealed that over 50% of white women voted for Trump in 2016, which ranged from performative shock to knowing dismay. I was in the latter camp. Even growing up in one of the most liberal areas of California, being upper middle class I had plenty of friends whose parents (quietly) voted Republican for the benefit of their own wallets and at the expense of a wide array of social justice issues that didn’t directly impact their daily lives.  While we recognize that sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, sizeism, and xenophobia exist within fandom and participatory cultures more generally, too often we align this exclusively with the bigoted behavior of small collectives of white, straight men. Not without good reason, in many cases, but one ramification of this is that our conversations about “toxicity” in geek culture tend to be inherently limited to discussions of “toxic masculinity” that rarely take into account the roles that white women play in propping up systems of power that they also might benefit from.

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In other words, if we are to talk about the potentialities of “participatory politics,” I think we also need to grapple with those who might be hindering real change (however unintentionally) or the ways in which our valorization of “resistance” narratives also produce blind spots in our consideration of white, female fans. As a woman and as a fan scholar, I understand how easy it is to intellectually and emotionally invest in celebratory accounts of the feminist and potentially activist valences of female fan culture (even when they are coded as or problematically presumed to be white and straight), and I also get on a very visceral level why many would be reticent to have that conversation. I also want to be clear that I’m not saying anything here that scholars like Rukmini Pande, Kristen Warner, Benjamin Woo, Rebecca Wanzo, Zina Hutton, Dominique Deirdre Johnson, or Mel Stanfill (to name just a few) haven’t already said about fan spaces.  But, increasingly, I find myself interrogating the spectrum of white female fan culture, which can range from activists and allies to white feminists and TERFs to female fans who are as expressly racist and homophobic and invested in maintaining patriarchal power as their male counterparts. One current project I’m working on in this vein is an analysis of the overwhelmingly white female fans who advocated for the reinstatement geek culture commentator Chris Hardwick in the wake of sexual assault accusations in 2018, through an analysis of fan activist hashtags on social media and petitions like this one.

I close my book with a discussion of “fan fragility,” which obviously plays off of Robin DiAngelo’s discussion of white fragility, or the defensive moves that tend to manifest when white people are confronted about racism and their own institutionalized privilege.  Anastasia Salter and Bridget Blodgett discuss a similar phenomenon in their book Toxic Geek Masculinity (which, sadly, due to publishing schedules I didn’t get to engage in depth), but I deploy the term pointedly to be able to address both instances of racism and misogyny within fan culture that we tend to conceptually associate with white men, but also engage the other end of the spectrum in which white women within both fan culture and fan studies might respond defensively. To put this another way, while we can and should look to the long histories of activism within fan culture for inspiration on how to best cultivate a progressive participatory politics, I also think we need to look at the other side of the coin, when activist intent is limited or fails to be meaningfully inclusive. Many folks are currently doing work on the more “reactionary” strains of participation within fan culture, but what I would actively like to discuss as part of this conversation about the potentiality of participatory politics is how best to hold ourselves accountable in the work that we do.

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Suzanne Scott is an Assistant Professor in the Radio-Television-Film department at the University of Texas at Austin.  She is the author of Fake Geek Girls: Fandom, Gender, and the Convergence Culture Industry (NYU Press, 2019) and the co-editor of the Routledge Companion to Media Fandom (2018).

Camilo Diaz Pino holds a Ph.D. in Communication Arts with a focus on Media and Cultural Studies from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. His research concentrates on global media circulation, cultures of media production and re-mediation, and dynamics of intercultural cultural transformation across global peripheries and emergent media production cultures. He is presently an Assistant Professor of Media and Culture at West Chester University of Pennsylvania





Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Jennifer Earl & Zizi Papacharissi

What’s in a Name?

By Jennifer Earl and Zizi Papacharissi

 Zizi

I like to say that technologies network us, but it is our stories that connect us. Identify us. And potentially, divide us. But presently, it feels like we are connected and disconnected at the same time. And not sure about our identity. Participatory media can enhance our storytelling ability; they can help us tell stories that make us feel more connected to our experiences and that also help us make sense of our experiences. We are everyday sensemakers, through storytelling. Participatory media afford tiny acts of political participation (Margetts, John, Hale & Yasseri, 2015 ), and further fill in, punctuate, or become grammar to our stories. But I often worry that participatory media also always and constantly invite us to tell a story, and by doing so, they further amplify not just our storytelling ability, but our need to tell stories. Our need to make sense of everything. And thus, our anxiety when things do not make sense instantly, as is often case. And in so doing, it is possible that we experience the tyranny of turning everything into narrative; of finding some meaning everywhere immediately; of seeking to make sense of everything; when in fact some things are senseless and have to be processed as such. I know Jenn has been doing work exploring how people come to identify as activists, and I want to invite her to tell us a little bit about that process. Is it a path to sensemaking? 

Jenn

How people come to make sense of who they are and what they are committed to is really important to participatory politics and social movement activism (the kind of engagement I study the most). Prior research shows us that seeing yourself as an activist is consequential for one’s continued likelihood of engaging, with some research even suggesting that activist identification may impact how you behave offline and online when you talk about the issues you care about. But, how people come to see themselves as activists isn’t at all straightforward. Indeed, many people who engage in participatory politics and even clear forms of activism (whether online or offline) don’t see themselves as activists. For instance, in the mid-2000s I was studying a range of online spaces that facilitated, invited, and/or organized activities that to a social movement scholar looked like activism (e.g., organizing letter-writing campaigns, offline rallies, etc.). I interviewed a random sub-set of the organizers of these spaces and asked as part of the interview what sites they considered their peer sites and whether they considered themselves activists. I quickly found out that most did not see themselves as activists and did not identify activist peers but instead saw their peers as online spaces that had similar topical interests, even if not engaged in some form of action (e.g., many fan activists I interviewed didn’t see themselves as activists and saw their peers as other fan sites). Since then, my research group has found that lots of young people who are really active don’t necessarily see themselves as activists either. More broadly, research in social movements finds that even amongst persistently active individuals, not all see themselves as activists. Given the benefits of activist identification to supporting future engagement, I have been thinking a lot about how we could recognize the actions people are engaged in and help connect their participation to deeper senses of identity and belonging within cause-oriented communities. I am wondering whether Zizi has any insights into how to support that kind of identification or at least undermine cultural messages that make activist a hard to achieve and relatively exclusive identity?

Zizi

It would seem to me that attaining an identity is both an empowering and restrictive exercise. I do believe that naming is an exercise in power, so the ability to claim a name, and be the first to do so is a form of turf claiming. On the one hand, the reluctance to claim the activist identity might reflect a tendency to disassociate oneself from how activism has been claimed as a way of being political in the past. On the other hand, these kinds of tiny acts of independent or coordinated participation or activism have often been termed slacktivism, and so people are reluctant to be tagged as slacktivists for engaging in political activity of this nature. But I wonder if there is also something else going on here, reflective of a tendency to renegotiate what activism stands for and at the same time retain an elusive, reflexive and fugitive identity for activists. By fugitive I mean both on the run but also reluctant to conform to societal norms we embrace as normative.

Jenn

I loved your first sentence – the empowerment and restriction of identities are both important to consider and often the restrictive elements of identities are not paid equal attention. For the people I interviewed, and the young people that members of my team interviewed, there was rarely a sense that the nature of activism (e.g., engaging online) was what drove their lack of identification, even though there are plenty of negative cultural messages about online activism (don’t get me started here—I have a whole rant about the problems with the term of slacktivism and the ideas that often underlie that label!). It seems instead like there is some cultural archetype of activist that is so invested in a movement that few can meet that standard. In my mind, that is a risky vision of activism to cultivate because its exclusivity tells people the actions that many people can take aren’t important enough. But, research by Heidi Reynolds-Stenson shows that the exclusivity of these identities also helps keep long-term activists engaged, even in the face of repression. Assuming that both are true—that a restrictive identity both keeps highly committed people engaged but keeps people with an interest and willingness to participate, but not as a central component of their lives, from seeing themselves as engaged—movements need to consider how to balance these because movements need both types of people to succeed. Do any of these themes resonate with your work on visions of democratic participation?

Zizi

Yes. Throughout my work I have been able to trace a general reluctance to identify with this imagined archetype of what being an activist means. Instead, I notice that people find greater meaning in activities naturally gravitate towards, activities that frequently fly under the radar. They are often misread as apathy or cynicism and do not count as activism because we do not have labels for them. I have never interviewed anyone who enjoyed being labeled! Likewise, in observations of civic behaviors, I often notice that people enjoy remediating, poking fun at, and playing with conventional labels, often turning them into hashtags, memes, gifs or other forms of transmedia common reference points that we affectively coalesce around. I like that and it is part of why I have always enjoyed the work I do.

I will say this though: As much as I enjoy the openness of expression that exists beyond labels, I am concerned with the obsession others exhibit in ascribing labels, especially within populist narratives. So in electing an activist path, one must be pro Brexit or against, pro Bernie or against, pro AOC and against, and so on. These binary frames are often imposed by narratives presented by both politicians and the media, increase polarization, and define expectations. So yes, I am for rejecting labels. But I worry about whether that makes us vulnerable to ascribing labels to us, and whether we possess the literacies and the antibodies, if you will, to reject the process of retrofitting our opinion, our activities, our sense being into prescribed categories.

Jenn

I liked the imagery of antibodies and the freedom represented by a lack of labels, but I fear that whether I am for or against labels, there will be labels. So, my position is not that there should not be a label of activist, but rather that since there will be, that the label be more accessible and the implications of exclusionary access be contemplated more fully. For instance, I think it would be very positive if social movement organizations and actors more consciously considered both the benefits and costs of encouraging a more exclusionary boundary that only qualifies the most committed amongst them as activists. But, one need not focus exclusively on labels as places that participatory politics could be made more participatory—in other work, my colleagues and I have argued that there are a host of ways that social movements could be more inviting to a wider array of potential participants, including making much greater efforts to recruit young people, particularly embracing their fuller intersectional identities (e.g., young gay men, young lesbians of color, etc.). Simple things like explicit invitations really matter and so inviting young people from a variety of backgrounds to get involved may be as initially consequential to their sense of belonging, and the identities they develop, as preconceived ideas about labels such as “activist.”

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Jennifer Earl is a Professor of Sociology and (by courtesy) Government and Public Policy at the University of Arizona. She is Director Emeritus of the Center for Information Technology and Society and Director Emeritus of the Technology and Society PhD Emphasis, both at University of California, Santa Barbara. Her research focuses on social movements, information technologies, and the sociology of law, with research emphases on Internet activism, social movement repression, and legal change. She is the recipient of a National Science Foundation CAREER Award for research from 2006-2011 on Web activism. She is also a member of the MacArthur Research Network on Youth and Participatory Politics. She has published widely, including an MIT Press book, co-authored with Katrina Kimport, entitled Digitally Enabled Social Change, which examines how the use of Internet affordances are reshaping the basic dynamics of protest online and was awarded an Honorable Mention for the Communication and Information Technologies Section of the American Sociological Association’s Book Award in 2013. She was inducted in 2016 to the Sociological Research Association, an honorary association for sociological researchers. She is also the winner of a career achievement award from the Communication, Information Technologies, and Media Sociology Section of the American Sociological Association, the recipient of a university-award for excellence in undergraduate research mentoring in 2010-2011, and the recipient of a university-wide award for the most outstanding assistant professor on her campus in 2005-2006. She has received over 1.25 million in grant funding post-PhD.

 

 

Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Aniko Bodroghkozy & Ceasar L. McDowell (Part II

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Ceasar

I would say yes.  We have somehow come to equate expression in a democracy with civility.  But democracy in a complex society demands contestation. Democracy needs processes and institutions that can support the public in voicing their lived experience.  This point was emphasized by two different city planners in our podcast series TheMove. Wendal Joseph spoke of the need for cities to create spaces in public hearings for venting, while Sabrina Dorsainvil advocated for embracing delight in our civic life.

We need to remember the idea of democracy was built on a narrow concept of who was worthy to participate:  Property owning white Christian men, many living in communities of faith. Over time we have challenged and adapted the notion of who could participate (women, nonmembers-property owners, asanas, blacks, people of the First Nation and so on...) without changing the system built on a foundational of exclusion.  

As a result, our imagination for how democracy should function is stunted.  We are in some sense trapped inside the Norman Rockwell Freedom of Speech which to me is a caricature of the town hall meeting.  This image is so powerful that even today with our advanced technology and social processes we still hold the quaint New England idea as the pure form of citizen's voice in a democracy. Thus we end up with televised town hall meetings that are nothing more than orchestrated forms of theatre.

We have tinkered with our system of participation as much as we can.  We have to invent new civic systems built on the notion of inclusion capable of supporting the varied ways we know and understand the world and the diverse ways we need to express that knowledge. We need to create a new civic system capable of strengthening the public's ability to be in dialogue and struggle around race, the most rooted tradition that binds us.  

I find it helpful to think of the civic challenge facing America, and all democracies as threefold: 1. Designing spaces/places in which it is possible for the complex public to “peacefully struggle” with the traditions that bind and the interest that separate; 2. Designing the interactions that occur in those space/places so that the public emerges from these struggles with path(s) forward that provide just and equitable improvements on the past; 3. Designing a framework that overtime connects individual spaces/places into an organic infrastructure where the public is able to do that work that only the public can do in self-governing systems.

Is it possible?  Yes. I think this is one of the main reasons  The Movement for Black Lives is so important: they are on the frontlines of creating an inclusive civic system capable of sustaining joy, struggle, and hope.

Aniko

As an historian of the civil rights era, I have been grappling with the question of what that history can illuminate about the strengths and weaknesses of the Black Lives Matter movement. In a recent article in The Journal of Black Studies, political scientist Dewey M. Clayton compares the civil rights movement to BLM suggesting that the former was more inclusive in its approach, while BLM was more exclusive and that the civil rights movement was better able to create an expansive “master frame” around the issues it was advancing -- equality, freedom, justice -- that could excite potential allies (such as white liberals and moderates) than has Black Lives Matter whose “master frames” have, he suggests, been more narrowly structured around police brutality and criminal justice reform. Non-black liberals and moderates might feel themselves less included by BLM’s framing of issues. “The genius of the civil rights movement,” he argues, “is that they were able to elaborate these values into a master frame that made the civil rights movement problem an American problem. Today Black Lives Matter does not utilize the same framing -- it has yet to appeal to mainstream Americans and convince them that its [BLM’s] concerns are part of the national identity.”

For instance, in Charlottesville, local BLM activists have chanted and draped the Confederate statue of Robert E. Lee with the slogan: “Fuck white supremacy.” This kind of “incivility” has raised hackles among some as potentially alienating supporters. The argument is that the civil rights movement was more dignified. In a Washington Post piece, veteran civil rights movement activist Barbara Reynolds wrote about why she found it difficult to fully support BLM: “The demonstrations are peppered with hate speech, profanity, and guys with saggy pants that show their underwear” even as she acknowledges that “This ain’t your grandparents’ civil rights movement.”

She’s concerned that the albeit justifiable rage and anger of BLM activists will be counter-productive. On the other hand, to criticize activists today for not being decorous in their protest style as Reynolds and others have done is to misremember how the civil rights movement was received much of the time as similarly raucous, alienating to white moderates because of its confrontational marches, civil disobedience, and encouragement of violence by white supremacists (the strategy required to get media attention). Only in nostalgic memory was the civil rights movement “civil.” Only in retrospect do we recognize the civil rights movement as a high point in the expansion of American democracy and a shining example of American ideals of equality and justice for all.

Ceasar

I raised The Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) to acknowledge the structural work around organizing it began in Cleveland when over 50 community organizations and 2,000 individuals gathered to reflect on their movement. Over the next year, people gathered in local a national convening to create a platform for advancing the work of liberation and the policies necessary to get there.  

The unapologetic focus on Black Lives (in all its forms) by M4BL exemplifies what I believe is one of the core tenets of designing an inclusive civic infrastructure: Design for the Margins. Solutions that emerge from focusing on those at the margins of society have a greater possibility of providing benefits for more people than solutions derived by concentrating just on the mainstream.  Why? Those pushed to the margins of society are most attuned to the structural and value failures of the system. Participation solutions that emerge from a focus by and with those at the margins will not only improve engagement for those at the margins but inevitably, for the broader society.

M4BL's year-long and ongoing effort to create and maintain a Platform for dialogue and action around the liberation of black lives is to engage in the struggle with the traditions that bind us and the interest that separate us" that Moore suggests democracy requires. For me, M4BL  has much to teach us about creating the spaces and processes in which it is possible to engage in the struggle for a future that is equitable, just and liberating improvement on the past. But will we allow ourselves to learn from what they have to offer?

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Aniko Bodroghkozy is Professor of Media Studies at the University of Virginia and has been on its faculty since 2001. She is the author of Equal Time: Television and the Civil Rights Movement was published in 2012 by the University of Illinois Press. Her first book, Groove Tube: Sixties Television and the Youth Rebellion was published by Duke University Press in 2001. In 2018 she published a major anthology, edited for Wiley-Blackwell’s

Ceasar L. McDowell is Professor of the Practice of Civic Design at MIT. His current work is on the design of civic infrastructures and processes to connect the increasingly demographically complex public.  Ceasar teaches on civic and community engagement and the use of social media to enhance both.



















Gathering of Folks at M4BL Cleveland:

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Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Aniko Bodroghkozy & Ceasar L. McDowell (Part I)

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Aniko

I’m a media historian, so that’s the lens I bring to everything. My scholarly focus has been the mediation of movements for social change in the 1960s — the era’s youth movements and the civil rights movement and their complicated engagement with media representation. I was mostly comfortable staying in the 1960s for my research and writing. Then Nazis came to my home town here in Charlottesville. And the whole world was watching — on cable news and on various social media platforms. In trying to process the trauma of white supremacists with tiki torches parading around my university chanting “Jews will not replace us” and marauding bands of fascists, “alt-righters,” Proud Boys, assault rifle-toting militia types, and assorted racists rampaging through this pretty college town, resulting in a terrorist car attack, I’ve been trying to figure out to what extent my historian’s’ tools can help make sense of what happened and is continuing to happen in our new era of street protest, mass mobilization, and polarized turmoil. “History doesn’t repeat itself,” the adage goes, “but it often rhymes.” Are there useful historical rhymes for this era of crisis? How significant are the new social media tools that were mobilized by the alt-right — but that anti-racist activists also used very effectively? How does media matter in this environment of highly visible protest? How do anti-racist forces counter the alt-right? Does “Charlottesville” have any lessons to offer? Can looking to the past and the “new media” environment of the 1960s around television help us determine what is fundamentally new now — and what may not be so new?

Those are just some of the questions obsessing me as I try to work through how something so formerly unthinkable could erupt in this country and that just happened (albeit not accidentally) to manifest itself in my home.

Ceasar

Aniko, being in Charlottesville you are in the heart of the struggle for America.  It seems incomprehensible that this country would follow eight years of the first African American president with someone who uses racism, xenophobia, sexism to become president. But when I see protestors in the streets by the thousands denouncing the hatred, fear, divisiveness and the othering of most of America, I  can hold on to the belief that there is an America that wants to be.

I also believe that we are facing a unique challenge as human beings. The vast majority of us are living among the most demographically complex set of people who have ever lived together in a democracy. And yet most of the cities, towns, neighborhoods in which we live have neither the infrastructure nor process that enables that demographically complex public to come together and do the essential work of a democracy that only the people can do.

Over the past few years, I have used to words of Carl Moore to shape how to approach this problem.  Carl suggests the “democracy exist when people who are interdependent struggle with the traditions that bind them and the interest that separate them in order to realize a future that is an equitable improvement on the past”.  Borrowing from Carl, my work at MIT and in my practice is supporting the design of new civic infrastructures and methods through which the peaceful struggle can happen.

__________

Aniko Bodroghkozy is Professor of Media Studies at the University of Virginia and has been on its faculty since 2001. She is the author of Equal Time: Television and the Civil Rights Movement was published in 2012 by the University of Illinois Press. Her first book, Groove Tube: Sixties Television and the Youth Rebellion was published by Duke University Press in 2001. In 2018 she published a major anthology, edited for Wiley-Blackwell’s

Ceasar L. McDowell is Professor of the Practice of Civic Design at MIT. His current work is on the design of civic infrastructures and processes to connect the increasingly demographically complex public.  Ceasar teaches on civic and community engagement and the use of social media to enhance both.


Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Kevin Driscoll & Pablo Martínez-Zárate (Part II)

Kevin

I read your opening statement before writing mine and it got me thinking about the relationship of art and education. I think of art as a way of approaching the world that is surprisingly compatible with research and teaching. In both art and research, you're out there in the world, looking for strange details, asking odd questions, testing out materials, and making little prototypes. As a pedagogy, art has the one unique requirement that you must to make things. You have to get your hands dirty.

Making things is where I feel art and education and participatory politics coming together. Whether someone is producing a documentary video or crafting a perfect email to send to a friend, participation always involves production.

So I am intrigued by the idea of putting tools to the test "continually", as you put it in your opening statement. To me, this suggested a kind of endless cycle of making and appropriating and re-making radical media. There is no single moment of transformation but, as you concluded, a commitment to on-going transformation.

Have there been particular projects or technologies or techniques that helped you to adopt this way of doing your work?

Pablo

Well, the idea of putting the tools to test as a basis of a particular form of art based research is the foundation of what I've been calling an experimental documentary art. I have tried to approach this from from different perspectives in multiple projects. I will get to that, but your initial prompt takes me to a broader reflection on art and pedagogy which I would like to take as a start.

I totally agree that one point of encounter between participatory politics, art and education is the act of "making things". This takes me to the concept of poiesis (from the ancient greek "making", "creating", "fabricating"), and also to the relationship between the act of creating (getting our hands dirty) and our involvement with the world as historical subjects. In this line of thought, I believe that the act of making or creating something that was not in the world before we created it (an idea, an image, a song, a text) underlines the fact that as activities related with the building of the world (and the creation of meaning regarding our shared experience), these activities are strongly charged with a historical force. Therefore, art, education and participatory politics are ways in which individuals and collectivities not only build the world but also weave the historical narratives that allow us to give sense to our experience of this world we live in.

In this sense, the idea of production holds a strong historical implication (if not responsibility), and this is why I defend an experimental approach to artistic production and pedagogical intervention. The experimental take means, in its simplest form, to never settle with the standards, always push the limits of the possible (and so, of our expressive potential). They are both (artistic production and pedagogical intervention), I think, a form of participatory politics, of involving actively in the common issues of our world. And to your question, a couples of the most recent projects I have developed in Autumn 2018 and Spring 2019 deal with these ideas from multiple angles. For example, activating a photo archive of the 1968 student movement in Mexico through a collaboration with a performance collective, and transforming it into a 360 installation for 6 projectors, that was originally filmed by 10 cameras in both analogue and digital formats. This was a mode of activating memory through the incarnation of history, so the technique is both performative and technological (for it required the design of strategies for integrating different media and the complexity of the montage). In the most recent transmedia project called Dissections over planes, an essay on a huge modernist urban complex in Mexico City, I also deal with different materialities (analogue film, architectural models, performative practice and VR technologies) to explore the possible dimensions of such a labyrinthine and historically charged site as Tlatelolco (the web documentary can be explored at dsctlatelolco.net).

I guess one of the issues that arises from our conversation is how we can define the uses of technology (especially, media technology) when thinking about our historical conscience. Do you think that art education and artistic practice could be areas of challenging and reinventing our relationship with technology? How does this affect our understanding of memory and history? And thinking also about your work, have you noticed an evolution of the interrelation between the artistic realm and the media horizon regarding to the latest trends in social media (the use of image and moving images, text and sound in aesthetic frameworks –i.e., Instagram–, as a basis of contemporary interaction and participation)? If we say that media are the platforms for building the historical narrative (transforming events into archival material, that is, media memory),  what are your thoughts on the evolution of media platforms in relation to a broader, perhaps more general historical consciousness?

Kevin

I agree that experimental approaches to production are important and I think education creates the context for low-stakes experimentation. When we are learning a new technique in a classroom or studio setting, no one expects to be good. In fact, it's normal and OK to make mistakes, ask questions, and try new things. This connection between learning and experimentation seems crucial if we are concerned with social change. Participatory politics relies on low-stakes modes of engagement for newcomers.

In my research, I am especially interested in the media produced by amateurs and non-experts. One aspect of social media that is easy to take for granted is that it prompts people to make weird things. The "story" format that started on Snapchat and has since turned up on Instagram and other platforms is a very unusual form of video. It's been interesting to see how different people are exploring the "story" as a new format. It doesn't yet have strong norms or standards so experimentation is the default mode for creating a story. It seems appropriate, then, that Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is such an active user of Instagram Stories. As with her nascent political career, the story format conveys a sense of excitement, creativity, and unknown future potential.

At the same time, I am also curious about a tension between the process of media making and the products. If I might make a crude generalization about the formal art world, it seems that an artist's career depends on creating clearly-defined works that may be organized into a portfolio or a CV. Yet, the kind of everyday experimentation that happens in a classroom, studio, bedroom, or on a social media platform can feel quite ephemeral. We make something and forget about it. Or, give it away. Or, trash it. The Snapchat/IG story was designed in much the same spirit. The images exist for a few hours and then disappear.

I realize now that much of my thinking about media, culture, and participatory politics has hinged on the circulation of somewhat durable artifacts. Whether they are films or little GIFs, I am imagining media that have the potential to become an archive. As you put it--they transform events into memory. But if the media are designed for ephemerality, do they lose this memorial quality? Can we have a participatory politics organized around flows of fleeting images? Perhaps there is something freeing about the lack of accumulation in these new social media formats that will enable more experimentation?

Have you been making Instagram Stories? How do you find that this format compares with some of the materialities you have been weaving into your recent works?

Pablo

It is not only normal and OK to make mistakes, I would say that it is necessary and almost a condition for innovation and social transformation. I like what you say about low-stake experimentation as an entrance to a more active and high risk participation. At the same time, it seems that in contexts such as contemporary Sudan or Venezuela, even Mexico, it is this low stake experimentation in media (mainly social media and other grassroots communication forms) where the potential of revolutionary action and social transformation evolves. This seems as a particularity of our hypermediated era, as an extension of course of pre-electronic dissident media. Low-stake media are often used for larger social causes, such as a social revolution, an economic or a humanitarian crisis.

Another thing that I find really interesting of what you say is the relationship between products and processes in art. I agree that there's a sort of fascination with the work of art itself, yet I am no so sure if this is more rooted in the art market (and the public) than in the artists and the creative process in a broader sense. I think that as artists we are often driven by the research and development of this investigation rather than by the products that come out of it. At least that is something that I consider crucial in the experimental approach described before. I also think that this applies to pedagogical processes (for example, a university degree is important for the market, for students and teachers transformation occurs in the path of attaining a degree). This prompts the idea of participatory politics as an ongoing process as well, one that beyond specific aims and results, is a motor of community building, sustenance and transformation.

Well, your question about IG stories touches a sensible issue. I've been thinking about it for so long! Should I start using it? There is certainly something seductive and truly powerful about it. I once wrote an essay entitled 'Snapchat time or the unsuspected murder of Godard', where I considered this ongoing flux of images as a clear manifestation of an emergent time-space paradigm just as film condensed the modern, industrial perception of reality. As the star system depended on photogenic creation of ideals, the Instagram body model is altering our human self-representation in unsuspected ways. I have really been preparing my first IG story because I know that once inside, there might be no way out (though I wonder - I already peek into stories every now and then, so I guess I am already trapped). How about you? If so, how do you approach it?

Kevin

I am a big fan of the story format! For one, I like that it is intended to be created and seen on vertically-oriented mobile phone screens. But the primary reason that I love stories is that they encourage people to be playful with their social media. All the drawing tools and wacky fonts and GIFs and filters make it possible to create very different kinds of images and videos than other social media systems. And because they eventually disappear, I see people posting much weirder stuff on Stories than they do on their conventional feeds. It's a throwback, in a way, to an earlier time on the Web. When I'm watching my friends' stories, I get the same feeling of joyful chaos as browsing their MySpace pages. (I will never forgive Facebook for forcing every user's page to look the same. So boring!)

The way that celebrities and friends and coworkers and strangers all appear in seemingly random order on my Stories reminds me of one of the trickiest things about our media environment: there are no clear boundaries between low- and high-stakes, high- and low-budget. So when it comes to massive platforms like YouTube or Instagram, the exact same software, networks, and platforms carry everything from Hollywood blockbusters to clips of my dog at the park. It seems like this collapsing of boundaries (at least within platforms) is part of what links low-stakes media to larger movements for social change. Whether or not the creator of a Snapchat Story is seeking attention and visibility, they must know that the technical potential exists for the things that they make to reach bigger audiences than originally expected.

Of course, over the past few years, the access to big audiences afforded by these platforms has been most beneficial to extreme, far-right media-makers. To the cynical and strategic, the potential to reach mass audiences looks like a game. As sociologist Francesca Tripodi recently testified to the U.S. Senate, far-right groups exploit search engines like Google and YouTube to gain visibility for their otherwise marginal opinions. With the (substantial) financial support of wealthy donors, these groups look less like the experimenters we've been discussing but it seems important to note that we are all swimming in the same digital waters.

____________

Kevin Driscoll is an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia where he specializes in technology, culture, and communication. He is currently writing alternative histories of the internet from dial-up BBSs and CB radio to CompuServe and interactive TV. Together with Julien Mailland of Indiana University, he co-authored Minitel: Welcome to the Internet and runs the Minitel Research Lab, an online archive dedicated to the pioneering French videotex platform. Links to Kevin's papers and projects are up at kevindriscoll.info.] 

Dr. Pablo Martínez-Zárate Pablo Martinez Zarate (Mexico City, 1982). Mexican filmmaker, writer and artist. Professor at the Communications Department of Iberoamericana University, where he coordinates the photography lab and is head of the Master in Film programme. Pablo’s work bridges memory, territory and identity through film, photography, multimedia and writing. He has exhibited individually at Laboratorio Arte Alameda, Interactive Museum of Economics, Spain’s Cultural Center in Mexico and Mexico’s National Museum of Art. Amongst his films are Ciudad Merced (2013), La Película (2014), So Much Light (2015) and The Monopoly of Memory (2018).

Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Kevin Driscoll & Pablo Martínez-Zárate (Part I)

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Pablo

The first thing that drew me into participatory politics (though I didn’t understand it as such at the beginning) was a profound personal dissatisfaction with the rampant injustice both in Mexico and the world. I thought that the main field in which I could have any influence, considering specifically Mexico’s educational system, was through radical pedagogy both at university level and in informal contexts, mainly by community education. I started working with media literacy under the belief that it is through the defiance of ordinary appropriation of media technology that we can renovate the way we imagine (and therefore live) our shared world. It didn’t take long for me to spot in artistic practice a concrete way of radical media use, which lead me to build an interdependent practice-research that weaves art and pedagogy.

My understanding of radicality depends on the defiance of ‘normality’, a normality that underpins the necrophilic regime that has extended its tentacles to every corner of the globe and that needs to be contested even if we know that victory is either ‘imaginary’ or very limited in its impact. In this sense, I’ve worked mainly with what I call ‘documentary and experimental’ art, and I do so for different reasons. First, it is through research and intervention of reality that documentary art finds its place. Second, in order to achieve radical media forms, one needs to investigate expressive tools at hand and ‘put them to test continually’. This means that radical media involves pushing technological appropriation to its limits constantly, questioning the market-imposed values on media and renovating their expressive potential. In a way, documentary-experimental practice focuses on the research and intervention of media technology with a critical focus.

In this line of action, I’ve done transmedia documentary projects, experimental films, video and art installations, and organized alternative educational platforms both as a professor at university and as part of different art collectives in Mexico, organizing artistic workshops both for artists and communities. With this work I don’t only try to resist ‘the evil ways’ of the world, but mostly my own evil ways, for I believe that art and education are paths towards transformation mainly because they help us transform ourselves incessantly. And so, my dissatisfaction is still present, but now I manage to recognize my own complicity with those destructive and oppressive forces that surround me, and try to work with myself and with others to achieve discrete yet meaningful transformations on a daily basis.

Kevin

Around 2010, the concept of participatory politics gave shape to something that I felt, but could not name, about politics, popular culture, and the internet. I’ve taken the opportunity of this forum to reflect on that moment and how my expectations of participatory politics have changed in the face of right-wing terror and platform indifference.

Prior to becoming a teacher and researcher, my experiences in media arts, music, and nightlife set me up with certain expectations about what it meant to “do politics.” I had low expectations of any institutions to support social change. Rather, I believed that our collective aim was to set up situations in which alternative aesthetics, relationships, and ways-of-being might flourish. As my research interests took me out of my ideological enclaves, however, I began to see the limits of “making space” as an end in itself. The concept of participatory politics was especially compelling because it combined grassroots, do-it-yourself values with a commitment to challenging dominant political institutions.

Looking back, I am surprised to find how strongly issues of access shaped my early understanding of participatory politics. For years, access to information, access to tools, access to networks, and access to audiences felt like urgent pre-conditions for any sort of participatory politics. Of course, there was some justification in this concern because participation requires low barriers to entry. Yet, today, I rarely think of access alone as a goal. Instead, my sense of urgency shifted from the pursuit of access to examining how we make use of the access that we already have. Instead of access to information, I find myself calculating the cost of preservation and the burden of stewardship; instead of access to tools, I’ve been reading arguments for the cultural value of maintenance and the right to repair; instead of access to networks, I’ve been listening to those who strategically disconnect or refuse to connect; and instead of access to audiences, I have been reflecting on who is targeted and surveilled as an audience member. The battle for media access, it seems, was just a proxy for a much more intense struggle for media justice.

With some distance, I can see that my concern with access was shaped by a unique moment of media change. Growing up in the suburbs of the northeast U.S. during the 1980s and 1990s, I was fixated on barriers and gatekeepers. Even as media-making tools were becoming more widely available, the networks of circulation and legitimacy remained opaque. Preparing to write this piece, I remembered walking past the public access cable TV station in my hometown. The studios were housed in a brick building at the bottom of a hill, on the site of an old railroad depot. At the top of the hill, my friend and I recorded hours of home video in the hope of getting on the air. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the station managers could never find room in the schedule for our tapes. We privately raged at being left out while “Senior Scene” entered its umpteenth season.

Bumping up against these barriers in my local media system shaped how I later experienced political activism and the internet. In 1999, I felt a strong identification with the Indymedia activists who covered the anti-globalization movement. Their grassroots journalism—hand-made in HTML and low-res JPEGs—seemed like an end-run around media gatekeepers. Likewise, in the early 2000s, I regarded peer-to-peer file-sharing and remix culture as new fields for production and circulation, alternatives to the dominant media industries. In each case, my mistake was to diminish the role of administrators as always obstructionist rather than seeing them as potential allies, caretakers, or stewards.

I began to feel the limits of my access-oriented media politics in the mid-2000s with the restructuring of Silicon Valley around platform economics and user-generated content. While platform providers such as YouTube were clearly committed to providing access to those who were left out of conventional circuits of visibility—remember “Broadcast Yourself”?—they offered no vision for the world that would come after access, no imagined future, no articulation of utopia. Many other critics have written about the moral failure of venture capitalism and the doctrine of perpetual growth so I won’t repeat those arguments here. But, suffice to say, the pursuit of access without a commitment to justice resulted in a media system lacking accountability. With growth as the only measure of value, platforms celebrated the creation of any and all “content” regardless of the content of that content.

In the spirit of critical utopianism, I want to consider new futures for participatory politics. I believe that these futures must involve a form of radical care and stewardship for our shared media ecology. In the United States and elsewhere, access without accountability has provided discursive space and material support for reprehensible, reactionary, white supremacist voices. With the leadership of scholar-activists such as Joan Donovan and Whitney Phillips, we are learning short term tactics for stopping the flow of visibility to these figures. However, to thrive in the long term, we need a shared vision of the future marked by accountability and justice. In this future, who will tend to the information in circulation? Who will maintain the tools and repair the networks? Who will introduce barriers and filters and enforce periods of disconnection? Who will be accountable?

_______

Kevin Driscoll is an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia where he specializes in technology, culture, and communication. He is currently writing alternative histories of the internet from dial-up BBSs and CB radio to CompuServe and interactive TV. Together with Julien Mailland of Indiana University, he co-authored Minitel: Welcome to the Internet and runs the Minitel Research Lab, an online archive dedicated to the pioneering French videotex platform. Links to Kevin's papers and projects are up at kevindriscoll.info.] 

Dr. Pablo Martínez-Zárate Pablo Martinez Zarate (Mexico City, 1982). Mexican filmmaker, writer and artist. Professor at the Communications Department of Iberoamericana University, where he coordinates the photography lab and is head of the Master in Film programme. Pablo’s work bridges memory, territory and identity through film, photography, multimedia and writing. He has exhibited individually at Laboratorio Arte Alameda, Interactive Museum of Economics, Spain’s Cultural Center in Mexico and Mexico’s National Museum of Art. Amongst his films are Ciudad Merced (2013), La Película (2014), So Much Light (2015) and The Monopoly of Memory (2018).

Review Essay: On Making European Cult Cinema (Part II)

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What follows is the second part of a review essay written by Billy Proctor and addressing some core debates in the fields of cult media and fandom studies.

As the chapters proceed in Making European Cult Cinema, Carter eventually comes onto the object of study, European Cult Cinema (85), and makes yet another outlandish claim. This time it is cult media studies that comes within his rifle-sights, but his pop-shots are again quite easily knocked aside. Like fan studies, cult media scholars are culpable in celebrating the object of study as a symptom of the scholarly attempt to push ‘trash cinema’ into academic purview, an attempt that, Carter argues, continues to be conducted by ‘fancademics’ in ways that valorize fan objects. But in order to do so, Carter once again misses key literature that would undermine his points about this so-called ‘fancademia.’

Take Carter’s brief rejection of the label ‘trash,’ which he argues comes out of academic discourse. This is factually inaccurate. In Chapter Three, Carter suggests that an early use of the term ‘trash’ as a label for low-budget cult cinema emerges can be found as far back as Pauline Kael in 1968 (86). Yet Pauline Kael is not an academic, but a renowned film critic, hence more a journalistic discourse than an academic one (if that is indeed the origin of the term as it pertains to cult cinema, which is surely worth investigating further). Carter argues that ‘Fancademics use the academic discourse of trash to justify the value of studying cult film while fans employ the word “cult” as a way to give their fan object greater aesthetic validity’ (87-88).

For fans, the word trash is problematic. As the academic use of the term has increased, it has been rejected by fans because of its derogative, disrespectful connotations. Evidence of this rejection can be found in the many fan blogs and message board responses to the release of European cult film Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977) on DVD and Blu-Ray by the British Independent DVD label CineExcess. Fans objected to the use of the subtitle “taking trash seriously’ found on the front cover, believing it to be, as described by one fan, “borderline offensive.” Such reactions seem to be a labelling of the fan object as trash (87).

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It is more than likely that the fan rejection of the ‘trash’ signifier here is primarily because it is attributed to Suspiria, rather than cult cinema in general, as the film invariably considered to be Dario Argento’s crowning masterpiece, a director that has been viewed as ‘the Hitchcock of Italian Cinema.’ Of course, Carter would no doubt argue that valorizing Argento as ‘auteur’ would be to fall into the ‘fancademic’ trap, but it is not only academics that have suggested that the director isn’t ‘trashy,’ but part of a broader discursive cluster, supported by Brigid Cherry’s analysis of fan discourses which suggests that Suspiria represents the apotheosis of Italian cult cinema (2012), a sentiment articulated by Carter later in the book: ‘Suspiria is probably the most celebrated of these films’ (185). I feel the same way about Mario Bava, especially Blood and Black Lace, if I’m honest, while I’m more than happy to recognize Lucio Fulci’s work as trash cinema, which isn’t to say I don’t enjoy his films (but that’s a ‘fancademic’ perspective I guess!) What I mean to say is that the example of fan complaints about Suspiria being branded trash cinema is because Argento is held in high esteem as a canonical visionary artist by fans, film critics, and, yes, by academics. Carter is correct that ‘in the DVD age…the dominant discourse has become that of “art object”’ (87), but this discourse is not a simple matter of a fan/ academic binary. This understanding of ‘cult-as-art’ is part and parcel of industrialized brand discourses, what David Church (2015) describes as a ‘genrification’ process, strategized by media companies such as Arrow—amazingly left out of Carter’s analysis except for a brief mention in the conclusion—that discursively transform ‘trash cinema’ into ‘art-objects’ via material-object practices like lavishly designed box-sets filled with special features, interviews, director’s commentaries, and 4K transfers. From this perspective, it is not only that ‘fan discourses circulated in fanzines, magazines, and online fora tend to treat the films as art cinema rather than trash’ (87), but also as an economic strategy adopted and maintained by ‘genrified’ DVD/ Blu-Ray distributors. In doing so, these brand discourses and distribution strategies conduct a flattening of cultural distinctions between so-called ‘high art,’ and ‘trash cinema,’ as Mark McKenna argues:

Though a gamut of companies operate within this market, these marginal offerings can be most easily understood as being located in what has historically been considered opposite ends of the spectrum. First, that of high art: the worthy, canonical films of academia, often art-cinema or films of perceived artistic merit that have been judged to have a significant cinematic value. Second, and at the other end of the spectrum sit low culture, trash or ‘B’ movies— films perceived as having very little artistic merit which often revel in sex or violence and can collectively be grouped under the umbrella of exploitation or cult movies. Though processes of cultural distinction have historically separated these cinemas based upon preconceived valorisations, in recent years an increased convergence of these markets has been observed. This is largely commercially driven, with distributors reinforcing, extending and challenging traditional notions of what might constitute the canonical film, and consequently further augmenting how ideas of value are constructed for films which fall outside mainstream consumption (2017). 

Hence, the artistic legitimation of trash cinema by DVD/ Blu-Ray distributors shares characteristics with the cultural distinctions appended to ‘prestigious’ boutique releases by Criterion, working to collapse the ‘high art/ low trash’ binary as an economic strategy, and one which many fans embrace in droves. Joan Hawkins has also shown how art cinema and trash objects sat side-by-side in video catalogues during the 1980s and 90s, whereby ‘the design of the catalogs also enforces a valorization of low genres and low generic categories,’ challenging ‘many of our continuing assumptions about the binary opposition of prestige cinema (European art and avant-garde/ experimental films) and popular culture’ (3).   

In the world of horror and cult film fanzines and mail-order catalogs, what Carol J. Clover calls “the high-end” of the horror genre mingles indiscriminately with the “low-end.” Here, Murnau’s Nosferatu (1921) and Dreyer’s Vampyr (1931) appear alongside such drive-in favorites as Tower of Screaming Virgins (1971) and Jail Bait (1955). Even more interesting, European art films that have little to do with horror— Antonioni’s L’avventura (1960), for example—are listed alongside movies that Video Vamp labels “Eurociné-trash” (2000, 3-4).

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Carter effectively constructs a ‘moral dualism’ (Hills 2002) between ‘trash’ as a ‘bad’ academic term, and ‘cult’ as a ‘good’ fan term, in essence rejecting the former and unwittingly buying into a valorization of the fan-object, begging the question as to whether Carter ends up in a hermeneutic trap of his own making as a ‘fancademic’ himself (which I come onto below). But he again undermines this argument several times by openly saying that his first confrontation with the term ‘trash’ as a cult cinema fan himself comes not from academia but a fan publication, European Trash Cinema, ‘one of the earliest fan publications to focus exclusively on European Cult Cinema (86)—which is also the focus of  Antonio Lázaro-Reboll’s ‘Making Zines: Re-Reading European Trash Cinema’ (2016), another academic publication that Carter does not consult despite the argument sharing profound similarities regarding the way in which fans ‘contributed to the circulation, reception and consumption of European horror film’ (1)—and later in the book, Richard Green’s Confessions of a Trash Fiend (105). Film historian Guy Barefoot identifies trash’s origins in fan discourse in publication such as Trash City, Trashola, Trash Compactor, and Asian Trash Cinema (2016, 2017). In more contemporary terms, there is the Trash Cinema Festival[1], film screenings such as Stacey Case’s Trash Palace[2] or Hamilton’s Trash Cinema[3], and online recommendations for trash films[4], and other examples (far too many to list here exhaustively). Thus, trash is neither valorized nor rejected by fans, but is part of a broader discursive field with utterances emanating from several quarters (journalism, film criticism, fan publications and practices as well as academic literature). In fact, in an empirical study of trash fans, Keyvan Sarkhosh and Winfried Menninghaus found that the label ‘trash’ was widely endorsed by fans, thus ‘underlying the positive use of the label, i.e on how something can be identified as cheap and worthless “trash” and still be embraced and (re-)evaluated as providing positive enjoyment’(2016). The point here is that trash is in no way, shape or form a product of ‘fancademic’ discourse, and even when used for scholarly purposes, it is to theorize and conceptualize it as a ‘reading protocol,’ an ironic positioning that some fans embrace and some don’t, as David Church complicates in Grindhouse Nostalgia: Memory, Home Video and Exploitation Film Fandom (2015).

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For Carter to make the claim that ‘the study of European cult cinema has been dominated by fancademic work’ (97) that celebrates the object in the same manner that a fan would, he needs to circumnavigate literature that would complicate that perspective, especially in relation to Italian cult cinema, the focus of Carter’s book. Indeed, Carter explains that his focus is more on fan enterprises related to the Italian genre known as the giallo, so effectively, the book’s title should perhaps have been revised from Making European Cult Cinema to Making Italian Giallo Cinema. But I want to look more closely at this concept of the ‘fancademic’ to fully understand what Carter means before moving on.

How is ‘fancademic’ different to Jenkins’ ‘aca-fan’ (1992) or Hills’ ‘scholar-fan’ and/ or ‘fan-scholar’? Carter claims that ‘fancademia’ is also where fan and scholar collide, but the way in which it is framed seems to illustrate that it is the academic side of the identity that is taking control, lionizing and celebrating the fan object without being necessarily self-reflexive enough, so that scholar-fans are now more likely to be better identified as fan-scholars, which ‘can lead to academic work that is the product of the author’s fandom’ (19). My reading of Carter is that ‘fancademic’ work is when a fan object is unduly celebrated by scholars and that this can take different routes. Firstly, to view fan production as a form of symbolic resistance to dominant ideologies and meanings is celebratory because it excludes consideration of economic factors and the conditions with which fan productions come to be made. (We have already seen how this is a fallacious assertion.) Secondly, in relation to cult film, ‘the majority of “fancademic” work [tends towards] textually analyzing European cult film, without investigating or problematizing either the fandom that surrounds it or the process through which the fan object was delineated’ (85), which ‘has meant that attention has been placed on the text rather than considering its consumption, or more specifically, its fandom’ (90). Carter goes onto claim that ‘Italian cult cinema is often ignored in academic studies of the Italian film industry or is relegated to a brief mention’ (93). This is untrue. There  are multiple works that do not simply analyze ‘the text,’ but which assuredly address the cultural, economic and political contexts in which cult films were produced, most certainly not ‘relegated to a brief mention’ (for example see: Allmer et al 2012; Baschiera 2017; Baschiera & Hunter 2016; Bondanella and Pachionni 2017; Fisher 2011; Fisher and Walker 2017; Hunter 2016; Hunter 2017; Kannas 2017; Platts 2017; Totaro 2011; Wagstaff 1992; Wagstaff 1998). Thirdly, Carter suggests that ‘fancademic’ work tends to also focus on single directors, or auteurs, and as a consequence, ends up producing valorizations and celebrations of cult cinema (94) in the same manner by which fans do. Yet Carter argues that British fan publishing house FAB press ‘is a publisher of fancademic work’ (94), within which ‘the writing style is semi-academic, attempting to critically interrogate film’ (133). Taking all of this together, then, I suggest that the concept of the ‘fancademic’ should be rejected before it gets off the ground as it definitionally and semantically replicates the term ‘scholar-fan’ without further interrogation. More than this, however, is that Carter seems to unwittingly equate fan studies and cult media studies scholars with ‘semi-academic’ fan publications like FAB Press, by extension accusing scholars of being ‘half’ academic! Thus, being a ‘fancademic’ means one’s focus is on either of these four options, each of which are nothing but celebratory: a/ marshaling fan activities as symbolically resistance; b/ conducting textual analysis; c/ examining the work of single directors, thus elevating cult filmmakers to the status of auteur; and d/ who do not include production and consumption in their exegesis.

But of course, Carter is neither ‘fancademic,’ scholar-fan nor aca-fan (or at least he doesn’t identify clearly as one or the other). That’s not problematic in and of itself; I don’t identify as such either. In fact, I share Will Brooker’s distaste regarding the label ‘aca-fan’:

As the term is taken to mean fans of popular culture—often, more specifically, science fiction, superheroes and fantasy, I think—who write critically about something they love, and about the communities around it, often but not always including an exploration of their own fan identity and their attachment to the fan object. That is what we tend to mean by it, but we could also consider that Shakespearean scholars are also, no doubt, fans of Shakespeare—the same must be true of most scholars of Dickens or Austen. Academics who write about politics are surely fascinated by politics and follow it in the same way as someone else might follow Star Trek through routine patterns of viewing, through discussion, through communities and gatherings…I suspect most math scholars love mathematics (2018, 64).  

Naturally, we might expect the age-old distinctions between ‘high art’ and ‘low culture’ to be maintained by scholars of Shakespeare, Dickens and Austen, but does this also not risk effectively reproducing those same cultural distinctions by insisting that fan identities need to be laid out naked for all to see, especially if it is only a small portion of the academic population that does so? I would not have considered myself a fan of superhero comics when I started my PhD thesis on reboots, even though comics were a big part of my childhood. Yet as I poured over thousands of comics during research, and spoke to many academics and fans about the forces and factors that underpinned their continued publication after the better part of a century, as well as favorite titles and characters etc., I similarly grew to enjoy certain authors, artists and stories, so much so that I continued to read comics after my PhD was completed (although to be fair, I have written on comics outside of that research and am currently writing a monograph based on my PhD). Am I a fan? And is it possible to isolate out the complexities that make me ‘me,’ whether by claiming I’m an academic first and a fan second, or dealing with the other multiple identities that combine and coalesce to form ‘the self’? Do I have to identify as a fan because I have parted with a lot of cash over the years by spending on comic purchases? (And it is a lot of money, I admit.) But I spend a lot more money on academic books, so am I safe in accepting that I do this for scholarly reasons and ignore the fun I have along the way? I read recently that Umberto Eco was inspired to study comics, taking ‘his collection of two or three hundred issues of Superman out of his cupboard and used it to write the first critical article on American comic books’ after reading the following injunction by Edgar Morin:

It is also essential for the observer to participate in the object of his observation’ one must, in a way, enjoy oneself at the movies, be fond of inserting coins into jukeboxes, have fun with slot machines, keep up with games on the radio and television, hum the latest tune. You have to somehow be one of the crowd, at the dance, among onlookers, or at sports events yourself. You have to enjoy strolling along the boulevards of mass culture (quoted in Gabilliet 2010, xix-xx)

(I’m sure I wouldn’t lump Eco in with the ‘fancademic’ label though.)

Oliver Carter does admit that he is an academic and a fan of cult cinema, however, yet he also argues that his fandom is an advantageous characteristic, which is precisely what Jenkins argued in 1992! However, Carter pursues the idea that his fandom does not colonize his academic identity like it does with ‘fancademics,’ arguably meaning that many ‘aca-fans’ should perhaps be understood as ‘fan-scholars’ with the fan identity taking over and celebrating the object of fandom at the expense of academic rigor and theoretical control. That isn’t only disrespectful but incredibly arrogant, effectively running the risk of setting up a ‘me-versus-them’ dichotomy that is difficult to escape from. In effect, Carter seems to imply that he is an academic first and foremost; a fan second; and definitely not a ‘fancademic,’ or a ‘semi-academic.’ I would not presume to argue one or the other for Carter as it is, in many ways, irrelevant. But I admit to thinking that the way in which he does claim that certain disciplines are awash with ‘semi-academics’ is not productive.

I wonder why Carter felt that constructing definitive statements and casting specious claims all over the place would be the best way to support his central argument, especially considering that it often undermines itself. As we move into Chapter Four, Carter turns a corner, although the latter half of the book is not without its problems, mainly due to a distinct lack of theorization around the principles of virtual ethnography and auto-ethnography as well as the economic dialectics between “formal” and “informal” industries. Indeed, I would argue that Carter’s case studies may be framed as enacted through hegemonic processes of ‘resistance and incorporation,’ and that this could have added some theoretical meat to the bones of the argument.

The first case studies are historical examples, looking to three fan companies which produced fanzines, magazines, books, and films, clearly establishing that much hard work, love, money, and risk, go into alternative economic practices. The ‘semi-academic’ publication house, FAB Press, which is deemed as such because ‘[n]umerous articles draw on psychoanalysis, cite academic work and are fully referenced’ (133), publications that ‘would be fancademic, textually and contextually analyzing cult films and using citations’ (134), meaning that we can also lump legitimate academic studies that draw on psychoanalytic frameworks or other contexts as celebratory (one would be forgiven for wondering what approaches would not be viewed as fannish celebrations at this point, although I am not a lover of psychoanalysis by any means). But what is interesting about FAB Press is that creator Harvey Fenton ‘moved from being a sole trader to establishing FAB Press as a limited company’ (135), which demonstrates a moving-between the ‘informal’ alternative economy, and the ‘formal’ structures of neoliberal capitalism. This maneuver should not be taken as a sign of distinct economic spheres as Fenton would also sell FAB products out of shops, like Forbidden Planet, or on websites such as Amazon, before he established FAB Press as a limited company, emphasizing the dialectical relationship between ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ economies. It seems to me that what is being described here are processes of hegemony, whereby ‘resistance/ incorporation’ are not binary spheres, but interlocking forces dialectically and dialogically interfacing with one another.

Fablogo.png

In Chapter Five, Carter moves to a case study which is more contemporaneous, considering the way in which fans conduct illegal practices on a Torrent site to share, upload, and download giallo films as part of a living digital project, ‘as a factory for fan production’ where members ‘receive no obvious financial reward for their production’ (140), but instead, run the site as a gift economy, with numerous reciprocal transactions taking place whereby users accumulate symbolic tokens, identified as ‘Cigars,’ the credit value of which ‘can be used to purchase different items such as upload credit, lottery tickets (to win a large amount of upload credit), and to make requests for specified content to be uploaded to the site by other members’ (147). In my reading, this convincingly lays out that symbolic tokens operate simultaneously as fan subcultural capital, which as Carter puts it, ‘the more cigars a user has, the greater standing they have within the community’ (147) (although that is my reading, not Carter’s).

But Carter makes yet another bold claim, that ‘commercial DVD releases of gialli have slowed’ in the UK and USA (140), which is demonstrably false. The aforementioned Arrow as well as other DVD/ Blu-Ray companies such as 88 Films, have been producing and distributing Italian cult cinema objects in boutique forms at an accelerated pace, and the availability of gialli and Italian horror etc. has never been so healthy in UK and USA markets—although it is difficult to ascertain which gialli as rare and unavailable as Carter doesn’t mention which films he is speaking of (although he does mention Red Light Girls [1974], which has not yet received boutique treatment as far as I’m aware). In addition, Iain Robert Smith has also written on the very same website, but this is neither discussed nor cited (2011).

With that said, I found this chapter to be engaging, providing the most valuable insights regarding the alternative economy, with fans actively breaching copyright legislation and risking criminal prosecution in order to support distribution of fan objects. In many ways, it is fandom as outlaw, the internet as wild west, and file-sharing sites as saloon. But even within this digital frontier, there are Sheriffs in town. As Carter addresses, the hierarchies in place on the site ‘reproduces formal political and economic conditions in order for the site to function, operating as if it were factory of fan production’ (163).  (I admit that I found it ironic that Carter cites Jenkins’ Textual Poachers in this chapter to support several points, literally drawing upon what he sees as ‘fancademic’ work.)

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The final chapter on fan enterprises is also insightful, moving onto fans who produce T-shirts, again transgressing, or at the very least subverting, the legalities of copyright. Carter then performs a unique maneuver whereby he recounts the production process centered on fan t-shirt manufacturing by utilizing the services of Spreadshirt himself to create giallo branded garments. Although Carter’s auto-ethnographic account could definitely use stronger theorization, it is a distinctive approach that will be very informative for readers interested in the methods and modes of fan productions that use ‘formal’ outlets to produce ‘informal’ products, again stressing the dialectics between alternative and legal economic spheres (which would probably be best to view as interlocking Venn diagrams than discrete entities).

In the conclusion, Carter considers the rise of Crowdfunding, with the emergence of internet portals that allow fans to raise finances for fan productions of various kinds (the most famous example perhaps being Kickstarter). Narrativizing the way in which one fan managed to raise funds for a documentary film, Eurocrime (2015), which focuses on the politziotteschi cycle of Italian cult crime films, and managed to reach its goal, now available to purchase in the formal economy.

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There is much to admire about the book’s later chapters, especially when Carter turns to his case studies, but in the conclusion, he raises hackles again by repeating his insistence that ‘fan studies needs to further consider the economic processes that are involved in fan activity, moving away from the celebratory, fancademic studies’ (198). Again, I’m not quite sure why Carter set out his stall so aggressively, especially when lacking solid epistemological foundations. If nothing else, Making European Cult Cinema: Fan Enterprise in an Alternative Economy will no doubt spark further debate about the claims made within as it pertains to fan studies and cult media studies, but I would also encourage interested readers from those disciplines, and perhaps other fields, to consider the valuable insights brought out by Carter’s investigation into fan enterprises. There are many fruitful aspects that will no doubt support and enhance scholarly thinking on the topic, and that should not be denied either.       

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Endnotes

[1] http://www.trash.hr/?page_id=32

[2] https://www.thespec.com/whatson-story/6227862-welcome-to-trash-palace-a-connoisseur-s-collection-of-bad-movies/

[3] http://cfmu.ca/posts/126-so-bad-it-s-amazing-learn-about-hamilton-s-trash-cinema

[4] https://www.imdb.com/list/ls000042235/

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William Proctor is Senior Lecturer in Transmedia at Bournemouth University. He has published widely on matters pertaining to popular culture, franchising and fandom, including comic books, film and TV. William is the co-editor of Global Convergence Cultures: Transmedia Earth (with Matthew Freeman for Routledge), Disney’s Star Wars: Forces of Production, Promotion and Reception (with Richard McCulloch for University of Iowa Press), and the forthcoming edited collection Horror Franchise Cinema (with Mark McKenna for Routledge). At present, William is completing his debut single-authored monograph Reboot Culture: Comics, Film, Transmedia for publication in 2019/20 (for Palgrave).