The Ambivalent Internet: An Interview with Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner (Part One)

Two of the most promising young scholars writing about digital culture today -- Whitney Phillips (This is Why We Can't Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship Between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture) and Ryan M. Milner (The World Made Meme: Public Conversations and Participatory Media) -- have collaborated to produce an important new book that is being released this week -- The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity and Antagonism Online. They are making a case for why folklore studies might provide us the conceptual tools we need to make sense of some of the most peculiar, twisted, perplexing, and problematic dimensions of contemporary online culture. I feel a certain sense of pride in what Phillips accomplishes here, having first met her when she was a somewhat befuddled graduate student, featuring her work on my blog and via our Spreadable Media website, and having provided her with mentorship off and on through the years. With her first book, Phillips has already displayed a nuanced understanding of people and practices that others would have dismissed with a well situated swat of the hand: instead, she helps us to understand what motivates trolling, how it is integrated into a much larger set of media practices (including those shaping professional journalism), and why it matters. This work seems all the more urgent as Trump and his minions, who in many ways embody aspects of the trolling subculture, has taken over the White House, with his disruptive tweets and outrageous claims.

I am just getting to know Milner but I am definitely going to keep my eyes on him from here.  Milner's work on memes as political speech is every bit as subtle and every bit as urgent, so I was excited to see what would happen as they join forces.

The resulting work is accessible to a broad range of audiences (including, of course, our undergraduates) so it is sure to be widely adopted as a textbook: it combines a rich gloss on existing literature in folklore with case studies drawn from the two researchers' own research.

In the interview that follows over the next three posts, I will grill them about both the larger methodological implications of this project and some of the particulars of their case studies. Both brought their A-game to this exchange, so look forward to some thinky responses.

The concept of ambivalence seems to be cropping up everywhere in contemporary cultural theory and appropriately it gets used to mean a wide variety of things. What aspects of ambivalence do you mean to evoke in the title of your book?

Our use of the ambivalence framework evolved out of what we thought we wanted to write a book about—online behavior that wasn’t entirely positive or entirely negative. We were thinking the title would be something like Between Play and Hate, to reflect that in-between nature. But as we started sifting through possible case studies, both online and off, we realized that so much of what we were looking at wasn’t cleanly falling within those bounds. Much more often, the behaviors in question were positive (world building, identity-reinforcing, fun) for those participating, and negative (alienating, identity-antagonising, upsetting or just plain annoying) for outsiders. And a whole range of reactions along that good/bad spectrum, as different groups encoded different meanings onto different texts for different reasons, for better and for worse and everything in between.

The simultaneity of these reactions, and fact that one couldn’t be designated as the definitive account, brought us to the concept of ambivalence. Not the colloquial sense of the term, which is more closely aligned with indecision (“Meh I’m ambivalent about going out to dinner; I’d be fine either way”) or ambiguity (“I’m not sure what they mean; it’s a pretty ambivalent message”). Rather we approached the term etymologically, with particular emphasis on that Latinate prefix ambi-, meaning “both, on both sides.” Coupled with its valeo root, meaning strong (think “valor”), ambivalence as we employ it is strong tension between opposing forces. So when we say that a particular behavior, message, or tool is ambivalent, we mean that it is equally capable of helping and harming, making laugh and making angry, and being both vessel for diverse expression and hindrance to diverse expression. In a way it takes on a verb’s role, implying a polysemic social process. This framing underscores our broader point that, when it comes to digital media, there are no easy solutions, and no simplistic, one-size-fits-all answers to pressing questions about free speech, collective participation, and basic safety—because these media don’t just go either way, they can go any way all at once, depending who might be participating, how, and why.

You also suggest here that the internet researcher needs a certain amount of ambivalence to pursue their work, suggesting the ethical choices that get made about what content to discuss often fall at fault lines between concerns about amplifying content that can cause harm or pain and the desire to critique and explain content that might otherwise be taken for granted. What insights does this work offer about how researchers navigate those ethical challenges? On what basis did you decide which cases to discuss here, what images to use, etc., issues you flag consistently across the book?

First, we’d back up and say that these questions aren’t solely the purview of internet scholars. Researchers exploring fully embodied folk practices have faced similar kinds of conundrums in their studies of bigoted, offensive, or otherwise ambivalent cultural content, for example Alan Dundes’ analyses (one conducted with Thomas Hauschild in 1983 and another with Uli Linke in 1988) of Auschwitz jokes popular in post-WWII Germany. As Dundes concedes, publishing these kinds of jokes continues their circulation, and risks further normalizing their bigotries. But not publishing would mean that the jokes couldn’t be held up to the full light of reason, with the implicit assumption that fresh air disinfects.

The same sorts of debates unfold around digital content, though with markedly heightened stakes: unlike the paper-copy, somewhat access-restricted academic studies Dundes was describing (i.e. his own articles, which no offense to Dundes weren’t exactly the hottest new trend for America’s teens), potentially destructive folklore can travel so much further and so much faster online than in embodied contexts. More problematically, this folklore is so much more easily unmoored from its original analytic context, whether academic or popular press; any published account collating and critiquing bigoted expression can be instantaneously employed as remix fodder for further bigotries. This is the main problem with listicle-type articles that collect the best (i.e. worst) examples of specific racist memes or disaster jokes or instances of antagonism. It puts the content in front of so many more eyeballs, and such a range of eyeballs at that, allowing for an equally broad range of remix and play.

As a result, we maintain (surprise) an ambivalent perspective on issues of amplification. We emphatically maintain that identity-based hate, harassment, and violence—and we’ll go right for an objectivist moral claim—is wrong. Not speaking out against these kinds of injustices risks signaling complicity (“you folks are on your own”), and might even facilitate further injustice. Buying into either option is morally irresponsible. On the other hand, it’s difficult to know when and if and how amplification, even with the very best, most earnest intentions, will ultimately make a problem worse, say by extending the half life of a story, or attracting more participants to a coordinated harassment campaign, as was Phillips’ concern in the wake of the sustained attacks against comedian Leslie Jones.

In short, by amplifying hateful content, particularly online, you never know whose water you might inadvertently end up carrying—a fact that should give everyone, and not just researchers, pause about how or if to respond to hateful content. As this relates to the book, we did our best to weigh the potential costs (amplified exposure or harm) against the potential benefits (amplified pushback against injustice) of including specific examples. And when we felt that discussing a case was warranted, like the attacks against Jones, we were careful to approach the people affected holistically—not as dry case studies to analyze, but as fully fleshed out individuals with friends and families and feelings. We may not have struck this balance perfectly every time, but we did our best to pay attention.

This book can be read as an introduction to core concepts in folklore studies and a demonstration of how they can be applied to digital culture. What do you see as the value of this disciplinary approach as opposed to, say, one grounded in cultural studies?

First and most basically, what’s happening on the internet—all the situated vernacular, all the creative expression, all the remix, all the slang; every in-joke and hashtag and portmanteau—is folklore; it’s exactly the sort of traditional expression (that is to say, expression that communicates traditional cultural elements, i.e. passes traditions along) that folklorists have focused on for over a century. Because folklore is what’s happening on the internet, folkloric approaches provide an obvious lens for exploring the internet—an opinion many folklorists share, as illustrated here by Lynne McNeill and here by Robert Glenn Howard. There are, as a result, all kinds of useful folkloric tools to employ when analyzing online behavior, including Dundes’ discussion of amplification, Toelken’s twin laws of conservatism and dynamism, Brunvand’s multiple variation, Oring’s appropriate incongruity, the list goes on and on.

The usefulness of folkloric tools runs much deeper than their applicability to online spaces. They are useful, much more significantly, because of why these tools were developed in the first place—namely, to contend with the fact that the lore of the folk has always been deeply, intractably, often head-explodingly ambivalent. At the most basic level, folklore is ambivalent because, to quote the ubiquitous folklorist Alan Dundes, it’s “always a reflection of the age in which it flourishes,” for better and for worse and for everything in between.

This isn’t the only source of folklore’s ambivalence. Because folkloric expression falls outside of or stands in some degree of conflict with formal culture, a significant percentage of this expression is quite literally not safe for work (or school, or church, or any other seat of institutional power); American folklorist Barre Toelken, for example, estimates that up to 80% of folkloric content is obscene, or at least would be regarded as such by outsiders looking in. Toelken wrote this in the 90s, and was referring to fully embodied behaviors. But the fact that folklorists have been exploring subversive, difficult, profane, and, sure, weird* behavior for generations, and furthermore, because these studies have focused specifically on the ebb and flow of traditions between and across social collectives, the discipline of folklore is uniquely equipped to deal with the ambivalent contours of the internet.

*With the gentle reminder that one person’s weird is another person’s Tuesday.

For example, most work in cultural studies might rely on the notion of subculture and of resistance, yet neither word has a very strong presence here, despite Whitney’s earlier work on the Troll subculture. So, how do you define the space where these forms of cultural expression emerge and the ideological positioning of these provocative works?

One of the main reasons we didn’t focus on subculture or resistance was because we couldn’t have been sure when those words were even applicable. These complications hinge on one of the book’s primary theoretical concepts: Poe’s Law, an online axiom stating that online—particularly in contexts where participants are unable to fully contextualize others’ messages—it is often difficult, if not impossible, to definitively parse sincerity from satire. This doesn’t just complicate questions about who is actually resisting what, but who is actually doing what, what their messages are even meant to mean. Something might appear to resist something, or appear to cast off “subcultural batsignals,” a term Phillips used when describing the (at the time) bounded community of subcultural trolls. And maybe it does for some participants. But maybe it’s doing the opposite for others. Maybe both things are true simultaneously. In any case, it’s just not possible to make universal claims about where subcultures end or begin, or where earnest subversion gives way to ironic play. What ground can you even point to, when it’s ambivalence all the way down?   

One example of this shakiness is 2015’s rash of White Student Union Facebook groups. As we discuss in the book, these groups—the first of which was purportedly affiliated with NYU—might have been the handiwork of real racists really enrolled at NYU and the other universities who were really concerned about creating “safe spaces” for (what they described as) historically trodden-upon white people, whose lands have been unfairly usurped, and whose heritage has been minimized (again, that’s their professed argument, not ours, dear god). But because the group emerged just as contemporary white nationalism—and critically, pushback against that white nationalism—was reaching critical mass, it was difficult to say exactly what was happening.

The groups could have been the handiwork of, or at least been amplified by, anti-racists eager to make white nationalists look as stupid as possible, or sincere white nationalists (maybe college students, maybe not) employing ironic rhetoric as a sincere send-up of so-called PC culture, or good old fashioned shit-stirrers (also maybe college students, also maybe not) looking to exploit emerging concern about white nationalism for laughs. Without knowing which was which—and allowing for the possibility, if not likelihood, that each possibility could have been true simultaneously—it’s not possible to say anything definitive about what was being resisted or what subculture was being represented. And so we didn’t try.


Whitney Phillips is an Assistant Professor of Literary Studies and Writing at Mercer University. She holds a PhD in English with a folklore structured emphasis (digital culture focus), as well as an MFA in creative writing. Her work explores digital media and technology studies, communication studies, cultural studies, folklore studies, literary studies, and critical race, gender, and sexuality studies. The MIT Press published her book This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture in 2015, which she followed in 2017 with The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online (Polity Press), co-authored with Ryan Milner of the College of Charleston. She tweets at @wphillips49.

Ryan M. Milner is an Assistant Professor of Communication at the College of Charleston in Charleston, SC, USA. He investigates the social, political, and cultural implications of mass connection. He has published in outlets like Fibreculture, The International Journal of Cultural Studies, and The International Journal of Communication, along with contributing public commentary to Slate, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and The New York Times. His book on memetic media, The World Made Meme, was published by The MIT Press in Fall 2016. His research on memes informs his second book, co-authored with Mercer University's Whitney Phillips; The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online, is forthcoming from Polity Press in Spring 2017. He tweets at @rmmilner.

Science Fiction and the Civic Imagination: Whose Future Does Science Fiction Foretell (Part 3)

Samantha Close: So, thank you all so much for coming. This is really interesting. So, we’ve talked a lot about what we may call it primary texts and primary authors and originators. But one of the things that’s always interested me a lot about the science fiction and fantasy genres is the fandoms and the way that readers become writers and start to interact. And there’s been a lot of conversation in fandom recently about, you know, issues of what does it mean if you take a character and change their race, what does it mean, you know, to reimagine worlds this way, why is this something that hasn’t been done. If we can imagine alien biology, why not a character of a different skin color? And so, I was wondering about the fandoms around these kinds of works. Nalo: And what specifically about the fandoms are you wondering?

Sam: I guess, we talked a certain amount about this being kind of more underground and more, you know, artistically focused. And so, is that kind of more the mode of fandom where people are reading text and analyzing them or are people kind of transforming, is there interchange between the artists and with the writers and the readers?

Nalo: Some of them, some of them not. They’re not, as far as I have found a lot of people in fandom doing fan writing based in my work. I have found people doing illustrations. And that’s always cool to see how somebody else imagines your work. But it’s also a bit of a shock. What I like about fandom in the science fiction is the ways that it can -- they don’t have to have breaks. So, saying earlier that they can imagine stories into places that we might feel we might not want to or might not be able to get published or -- and when I first discovered what the term slash came from, which was a fan writing Kirk/Spock fiction where Kirk and Spock were lovers. It made so much sense, I almost stopped breathing. It was, oh my God, of course, I’ve never seen it that way. Of course, that’s what’s going on.

So, I value that. I have to say for myself there is also the reaction of often there isn’t the type of craft I would -- that I prefer.

I like the energy of the discussion that happens because they don’t have to deal with the kinds of considerations a published author does. I remember when the last Bordertown anthology came out, it’s a shared world anthology. The world is established and writers are invited to write stories in it. The creative board of talents specifically says, you can write fan fiction, listen, I have no problem with that, you’re not allowed to publish it. And finding a fan discussion board where they’re saying, well, why not, what’s the difference. The writers we’ve invited are writing fan fiction. And they’re getting paid for it.

William: I think the indigenous film and literature sci-fi genre is already so marginal that there’s not a lot, I think, that might be categorized exactly as fan fiction. But I think going back to the idea of imagining and the image, there’s a lot of parody through art. So, if anyone knows Bunky Echo-Hawk, he’s an incredible artist and he’s got a lot of takes on Star Wars. He has this image of Yoda which is titled “If Yoda was an Indian he’d be chief.”

He also engages Darth Vader as Custer, and the mustache works right with his mask. The imperials are the Americans, are the Europeans. So, he plays on that imagery to take it one step further than metaphor. And Walking the Clouds is just great compendium of lots of indigenous science fiction literature. It’s not fan fiction, it’s the canon.

And then there are some things that are parodies, like we watched earlier, the Star Blaks which is from the show Black Comedy in Australia, which is a parody of Star Trek. I think you have more fandom when there is a center to be marginal from.

Muhammad: There’s a lot of re-imaging of familiar western sci-fi. Many things like that are going on in the Muslim world. So, one that I would highly recommend is -- there’s a series of paintings by this Turkish artist, Murat Palta. He reimages a lot of western movies like Star Wars, Scarface, Inception, but done in the style of Persian or Ottoman miniature paintings. And those are really amazing. You should -- I highly recommend checking them out.

And also in Turkey, I’m not sure if that was intentional, but Turkey -- in the 1970s and 1980s, Turkey has this tradition of -- reimaging is, I guess reimaging not necessarily the right word, but they re-made some of the western movies like Star Trek and Star Trek, and they have this quality of it’s so bad that it’s good. Those are really interesting to watch.

More recently, there’s a -- they just came out just a few months ago. There’s a British-Pakistani artist who reimages Superman but the difference is that his pod lands in Pakistan instead of Kansas. And he actually takes, one could argue that Superman closer to his original looks as compared to what we have been seeing in Superman lately. So, for example, the one thing that -- it becomes a political commentary on the Pakistani society as a whole.

So, one thing that Superman -- this version of Superman does is that -- he does not actively use violence, for example. But during the drone attacks on Afgan-Pakistani border, he actively destroys those bombs which are going to hit civilians, for example. So, it becomes interesting commentary in its own right.

Audience 2: Yeah. I had a question actually for William. And it kind of jumps off a little with Professor Jenkins’ asking regarding the colonizing of genres. And it has to do with whether you could talk a little bit about the circulation of skills like production skills in one of your book that you’re working. And I was wondering about kind of the emergence not only of stories or scripts for the films that people are making but whether they are also envisioning kind of aesthetically a different way of telling them or whether they’re kind of like quality and patterns and it’s like western aesthetics or -- basically whether the idea of creating science fiction is also -- does it come with kind of like a visual kind of reimagining also of how to tell the stories or is it just --

William: Yeah. It’s a good question. This gets into my dissertations, which followed the social life of film projects in indigenous organizations in Australia. There were two outlets, one outwardly focused on production values and end products, and one by, for, and about remote Aboriginal communities.

And so, there’s a long answer. But to quickly answer, when people are making sci-fi films, they’re high budget productions. They usually come out of a Sundance or an imagineNATIVE initiative. But these are unsual and sleek productions. And so it’s not necessarily that people are making anything they want. It has to be discernibly science fiction, perhaps as utopian, dystopian, alien—recognizably in that genre even if it’s radically departing from it as well. So, in the sort of world of indigenous media, these are anomalies in that they’re highly funded and that’s a reason that most of them are very short.

These programs have been very successful in general. People who made these shorts tend to go on to make features, and not necessarily more sci-fi films. At the very least it’s a great career launch pad because people love sci-fi. And I think that they end up having the more freedom after they do these projects to make other media. I can’t think of anyone whose career hasn’t been significantly furthered after producing one of these sci-fi films.

Audience 3: I’m a film director. I just finished a feature-length animated film called Birds Like Us. And it’s inspired by a 11th century Persian poet Farid al-Din Mohammad 'Attar -- and the book that it’s based on is called Conference of the Birds. And I come from Bosnia, from Sarajevo. And I’m raised as a Muslim. I was also growing up in a multicultural society, multi-religious place. I actually had been exposed to all kinds of religions. And my actually first comic books was a comic version of The Bible.

And for me, growing up in a religious environment, I always have felt that the ultimate science fiction actually comes from the holy books where you have a creature who is reaching out to you and saying here I am, your all-seeing, omnipotent creator of everything, every living thing and you can be like me and this is how. And then, in these books, there are set examples of King Solomon who ruled everywhere and there are -- where I’m going with this, there is so much of inspiring fiction, and beyond physical evidence of ideas in the holy books, in religious writings.

But somehow we have the communities, the human mankind actually colonized the race color that -- and created actually these smaller parts while the higher idea is actually a very inspiring and moving form from -- between asking yourself what is actually science fiction and what’s the difference between the fiction, science fiction and the fantasy and all that. Well, it’s purpose is to inspire and move forward and explain, provide a better living inside of your senses, with your perception of the world.

And do you think that your role as writers and contributors to this vision, is it possible to set yourself free from the boundaries of being Islamic science fiction or Jamaican or native Aboriginal or -- can you maybe, I don’t know --

Nalo: I do have an answer and that’s that it does -- whatever we identify -- whatever particular cultural, ethnic or racial version of science which we’re interested in has no boundaries. It’s talking to things that we all care about. So, I don’t feel like I’m boundaried. I mean, I can write whatever I want and do. But I think it’s not as boundaried as you’re fearing that there’s -- I want so -- Sherman Alexie was at a literary event and somebody in the audience asked him if he ever felt limited. The wrong thing to ask Sherman Alexie. He blasted her. But his basic answer was any great story you can imagine is happening in my community, I can write it.

And that’s been useful for me to think about. So, no, I don’t feel that there is a boundary. I feel that there is this particular set of interest in philosophies and aesthetics, but it’s all over.

Muhammad: Right. And then to that I’ll add that -- continuing on same line of thought that there are certain modes of thoughts, philosophies, aspirations, fears that all human cultures and religions throughout space and time that they share. It’s just that in the concept one must include who indigenous people, are Muslims, are Christians, are atheists. It’s through their life experiences, their histories that that’s the metaphors that they use on their cultures to describe those ideas. So, that’s not necessarily the limiting factor. It just shows where they come from.

So, just may we take the example of Farid al-Din 'Attar’s Conference of the Birds. Although at one level it’s the cultural product of newly Islamized Persia, and the method to express was using metaphors. But that’s a product of its times but at the same time, it also speaks to universal human feelings of, for example, longing for the divine, for example, which regardless of whatever culture we are in, we can share and appreciate.

William: I think that radical assumptions provides a good definition for science fiction in this realm. I’m thinking of my own family not that many generations back, subjected to genocide in German gas chambers—radical assumptions are sometimes as simple as making it to the next year. It’s very relative and science fiction helps you define what radical is by giving the filmmaker the power to normalize things strategically.

But also, driving from the airport and seeing those Hollywood signs was exciting to me. It made me think about how there’s all of this money in Hollywood. There’s endless money and more that I can imagine. And while I like being on production teams with large projects, the biggest film anyone I ever worked on had a $100,000 budget, and that’s just a rounding error in Hollywood.

Yet, despite the endless money in Hollywood, somehow that can’t find a good script. They’re making the same movie a thousand times, with some notable exceptions. But in Aboriginal communities like the one I was working in, there are endless incredible stories to tell, though there’s very little funding.

It’s interesting just how different what the limited resource is in different places. And I think in a lot of Indigenous communities around the world, people have such complicated histories, and very difficult but incredible lives that it is no surprising just how many stories there are to tell. The problem is that there are not enough hours in the day because there’s so much. And while at the genre level there are sybolic boundaries, when people are making things on the ground, I don’t think that many worry about those boundaries and just follow the story.

Nalo: One more thing to add to that in that as somebody creating it, one of the things that science fiction fantasy teach you is if that place that you’re thinking you don’t dare to go, that’s where you should be going. So, if you think there’s a boundary there, what happens if you break it? And see what happens.

Henry: That’s a perfect note to end this session on. So, go on and break some boundaries.

Science Fiction and the Civic Imagination: Whose Future Does Science Fiction Foretell? (Part 2)

Tok: You talked about your own particular areas of expertise. But what -- you know, having heard all these speakers, how do you think that your own projects sort of intersect with each other? How do they speak to each other’s projects? Nalo: Well, as writers we talk to each other a lot, particularly people who are writers of color or women writers, we see the commonalities in what we’re trying to write about. And we talk to each other. And last year, at UCR, my science fiction research cluster caught a Mellon grant to have a year of discussions about alternative futurisms.

So, for a year, we brought in -- our idea was that we have this almost -- got Afro futurism, we’ve got other types of ethnic futurisms and that the scholarship about talking to each other, this was a thing that we could start to foster. So, we brought people in, we brought in scholars, I brought in writers, we brought in film directors. And people just shared their work and talked about what they were doing. In a way it’s starting to generate some more connection amongst all these various visions, philosophy, scholarship. So, yes, we are talking to each other.

William: Yeah. I think it’s a great point about generalizing and engaging. This discussion is very difficult in the native studies world. I’m not native myself, and the feeling I get having been in this realm for a while is there’s sometimes a reasonalbe reaction against such inclusionary discourses. One of the reasons that indigenous science fiction is so relatively new, especially in film, is because there’s a sense that there’s been a silencing of people, which is part of settler colonialism and the imperial imagination in which indigenous peoples are relegated to a past in a way that other groups haven’t been—not that this is more or less vicious, but it’s a different process relating to time, history, and existence into the future.

And I think like many things with native studies, the genre is new and developing, and there’s hundreds and hundreds of groups, united by a similar dynamic in relation to history of settler and resource extraction colonial states. Often what the films share as far as a common thread is that they represent indigenous people as more complicated than popular depictions have done. So, it’s not reactionary, but rather shares a common language.

There’s a way in which they can be generalized a little bit more, speaking back to utopian, dystopian, and alien encounters. But that’s changing quickly. I think the first step into a genre is to learn the scales, and new films that are coming out, are much more outside of the typical subgenres. I think that a decade down the line, there’ll be a lot more of that. Because of the history of native studies as becoming relegated to the margins, there is perhaps a hesitancy to engage other futurisms before having a chance to further develop this genre.

Muhammad: My experience is that empathy is usually the key. If you can get people in these different communities to empathize really on their own or to seek out commonalities, if people are more willing to dialogue or even be more engaged in the other communities. And just to give you some examples, like within the Muslim community in the U.S., there’s a whole subgenre of sci-fi coming out, not just science fiction but whole ideology is inspired from what we would recognize as sci-fi themes coming out of the African-American community in which many of the other Muslim communities are not Arab or South Asians are not even aware of.

Yusuf Nuruddin has a really excellent article. It’s called -- urban -- it’s the approximate title, urban mythologies and -- extraterrestrials, urban mythologies and sci-fi jihad. It talks about, for example, some -- what I recognize as some of the fringe religious movements within the African-American Muslim communities in the last hundred years -- which are inspired from or which have sci-fi elements in them.

Another thing is that there’s actually a lot of material, as I mentioned earlier, that just because we are not aware of it does not mean that it doesn’t exist. So, for example, when we talk about sci-fi produced by Muslims, people generally tend to think about Arabs. But Arabs are actually just a small minority of Muslims around the world, for example. Or even in the U.S. Recently, I’m discovering that there’s sci-fi or proto sci-fi literature which has stories from 1930s in Eritrea, 1940s in Nigeria. I mean, I was not really aware of this until recently and I’ve been looking into this for the last 12 years or so, and I was really surprised that such material actually existed.

And part of the problem is that even the reason that I was surprised that such material exists. I think that it sounds problematic that we assume that such material does not exist. I should have not have assumed that. It’s just that we are conditioned to think in such a way. But I think things are changing. There’s more scholarship with respect to the areas or parts of the world that are previously neglected. So, I’m actually hopeful about the future.

Henry: So, we struggled with how to name this panel. And ended up with the term “foretell” to describe the relationship of science fiction to reality. And we worked through “predict,” “depict,” “imagine,” “recount,” “anticipate”, et cetera. All of which suggest slightly different relationships of science fiction to reality, none of which seems quite adequate to the task of explaining.

So, I think, running through your comments have been some implicit assumptions about how those things connect. But could you lay out a little more what models you have of the role of the imagination in relation to real world conditions and the potential for change?

William: A thought came to mind when you were mentioned that there’s very little Islamic imagery and representation in the science fiction canon, where there’s lots of indigenous representation. It’s just really bad representation, from wise elders like Yoda to any sort of evil and alien communal society such as the Borg. It’s in almost everything. It’s just very one-dimensional and from the point of view of a colonial society.

Going from that on to answer the question, imagining seems to be the word to me. The Facebook group that engages this genre is called imagining indigenous futurisms. Imagination is something that comes up all the time in that it relates to the image of film itself. If anyone’s heard of the imagineNATIVE film festival, it’s the now the premiere native film festival in the world and half of that word is imagine.

So, the word imagine is really important, I think, partly because it doesn’t give as much of a sense of linear time and progress. It doesn’t seem to have as many baked-in assumptions about western notions of what the future means at a fundamental level. Furthermore, re-imagining is the word I hear a lot.

This is partly because of the implicit assumption that indigenous peoples are not there in the future, at least in a substantial way. They just don’t exist. And I think it’s the battle of ideas that people are often engaged in. It’s very practical in Australia especially as they’re de-funding many Aboriginal communities and organizations. Imagination matters, where on the far right you have kind of vicious desires just to de-fund and overt racism; on the far left there is a liberal imagining of communities as dystopian and beyond repair, and a desire to save kids from suffering and then bring them into cities.

For progressives, if they can’t imagine an indigenous future, their policies will be just as assimilatory, just through a more humane and muted process, but assimilation nonetheless, and in the long scale of history, will lead to similar outcomes.

So, it’s about reimagining what is possible, what should happen, and what can happen. If you can imagine a future through these visceral filmed worlds, then you start thinking about different types of policies. And if you don’t imagine any future, it almost doesn’t matter what your politics are in a way. It’s almost irrelevant.

Nalo: I think one of the things I can do and my friends who are writers do as writers of text-based science fiction, there’s been scientific research that shows that when you read a metaphorical description of a sensation, your nerve endings relevant to that sensation fire. I’m not a scientist so I’m putting this in very, very lay terms, I’m sure it could be correct. But when you read a straight up depiction of that sensation, those nerve endings don’t fire.

So, to say she ran across the room gives you a very different picture than she galloped across the room. You say she galloped and all of a sudden your legs are starting to try and feel those -- what that’s like. If you take a literature that imagines -- literally imagines what does not exist yet and does that to you, all of a sudden, you are at a somatic level living in that new world. You’re having an experience of a culture you haven’t experienced. You’re having experience of ways of doing things you haven’t experienced.

So, I think this is one of the things that makes science fiction and fantasy very, very powerful because fantasy reimagines the past and imagines our relationships as cultures to myth. And myths are very, very powerful. We use them as driving images. We make new ones, completely new ones, all of a sudden, you have at a physical level a new way of experiencing the world.

I think a lot of science fiction writers will say we don’t try to foretell shit. Often you see in the press people say, well, 1984 predicted this. I think he was trying really hard to not predict it. So, it isn’t really a game of prediction. It’s a game, as you say, of imagination.

Muhammad: That’s a really excellent point about prediction. I guess in my experience it’s like a lot of writers project when you’re imagining certain worlds how things should be. That’s not necessarily always the case. So, if I, for example, take, say, these utopias or the dystopias that have come up of the Arab world, for example, in the last 150 years or so, a lot of times they just project the aspirations of the people around that particular era and time.

Thus during the height of colonialism, for example, a lot of these utopias are actually focused on a better idealized societies. A lot of these writers were Muslims, so they imagine societies which are run by Islamic principles and everyone was happy. If we move forward in time, so they’re just subgenre of sci-fi utopias written by people affiliated with the Muslim brotherhood who were in Egyptian jails in the 1960s and 1970s.

And one common thing about these utopias is that they envision this idealized Islamic government which is running -- ran according to the brotherhood’s version of what an Islamic state should be, and contrast that -- and we can contrast that with some of the utopias that came out of Turkey around the same era, again by people who were imprisoned by the Turkish state.

A lot of these also imagine idealized Islamic societies. But what is really interesting is that the ones that came out of Turkey imagine a future or the societies which have a more mystical, more metaphorical bend towards their interpretation of Islam. In both of these cases, they’re imagining idealized Islamic societies, but one is more, for lack of a better term, more legal-oriented, and the other is more oriented towards personal relationships, more mystical in nature. And then fast forward that to more recent things where -- say, the recent events of the past, especially the failure of the Arab Spring, we have more dystopian outlook about what the future world would be.

Tok:  So, science fiction most often speaks about the future, it’s what we generally think of a science fiction. But in what ways might this be important to groups which have historically been perceived by white America almost entirely in relation to their past or their traditions? How is thinking about the future allow us to rethink the past? I’m also sort of inspired, too, by, for instance, you mentioned the One Thousand One Arabian Nights and all the contributions from Islamic society into Mesoamerican society, the contribution from native America to the contribution by African-American society. So, this is the past that perhaps were past that perhaps we’re not focused on. So, I’m kind of curious, what does science fiction tell us about the past?

Nalo: One of the more powerful stories for me is a piece of Taíno folklore, Taínos being the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean. And the story goes that they used to live on the moon. And that they could see all around them floating in the sky other circular bodies which were like the one that they were living on. And one of those -- they were all bright and shiny, they were all lovely, except for the Earth. The Earth who’s this big, round, dirty thing. And they felt embarrassed because the Earth was their neighbor and they should have been looking after it.

So, they get into sky boats made of clouds and they sail down to the Earth and they spent a bit long time cleaning it up. And the story goes on and on, there are various things that happened. The sky boats go away, and so, they’re stranded on Earth, so they have to call to God for help and God sends down the tree that has every edible thing growing on it. And they each take pieces of it and this is how peach and gardens came to be, that kind of thing.

But what I love about this story is that the first thing it does is it dispels any notion that indigenous peoples are primitive and incapable of scientific reasoning. Because these are people who have looked at the things in the sky, have that their body is similar to the one they’re on and then have generated a story about it.

The second is this idea of stewardship. The idea that we live next to this place, it is our responsibility to keep it from getting dirty, getting dysfunctional. And so, we should be cleaning it up.

So, that’s the kind of thing, I think, some of these science fiction and fantasy can do. This is a folktale that I ended up using in one of my own novels. The other thing it can do, it can re-center the story. So, when my friend, Tobias Buckell writes a short story about the Caribbean space program, and it’s about the first Caribbean black astronaut going out and story ends with the line -- he names all the people already up there, all the nations and says we coming up, too. And that puts tears in my eyes every single time, that last line.

When Toby released that story, one of the first responses he got was from someone saying, well, the story was implausible because Caribbean people will never make it into space. We don’t have enough technology. So, the kind of imagining we do, the kinds of stories we tell can re-center the conversation that could say, look, start from the basis of this culture. This culture is capable, people who are already in it know what we’re capable of, let’s start talking about that.

It also can put you in a place where you are not necessarily paying attention to what you think the mainstream can handle. So, a lot of times I write in a version of -- there are many Caribbean English vernaculars as many as there are Caribbean nations. I’m most familiar with Jamaican and Trinidad and a little bit of Guyanese. Sometimes I mix all three and I write in vernacular.

Caribbean people will get it. It’s a bit of an extrapolation for them but they’ll get it. People who aren’t Caribbean have to take a little more effort. But by the very act of writing that way, I’m not twisting myself into not squiggle what can they understand, what can they not.

And I’ve had readers who really resist that, who -- let’s not call them readers because they’d end up not finishing my stuff. And I’ve had readers who’ve told me what that was like for them. If they’re Caribbeans for the first time experiencing a science fiction story told in their modes of speech or fantasy stories told in their modes of speech. If they’re not a Caribbean, how do they relate to this way of speaking and way of thinking and the foods I bring in, the cultures, the colors. So, it can re-center the conversation.

Mohammed: So, I guess part of reimagining the future is actually reimagining the past as well. But the way that we imagine the past is -- can describe who we are with ourselves and through others. So, part of recovering, I think there is also this project for a lot of -- especially people who were colonized which is basically most of the planet, is describing who they are is also part of recovering their past or pasts, I should say.

So, some of the projects that I found really fascinating is that this research on the print technologies, which are not necessarily lost but we don’t really talk about them anymore from different regions in the world, for example, in the Middle East. There’s a long history -- and we were talking about this earlier -- there’s a long history of automatas which a lot of people in the west, for example, don’t know about.

One of the most famous ones were done by two groups of people. So, one is the Banū Mūsā family, the Mūsā brothers are very famous. And another one is by Al-Jazari. And so, they had automatas and we’re talking about 12th, 13th century. We had drawings on multiple descriptions of this where -- so the most famous one is we have this group of five musicians, automatas, different musical instruments part of an orchestra on a boat. And when the boat moves through the Euphrates River right next to Baghdad, water falls to the automata and then that’s how they play their music. That’s really fascinating.

Al-Jazari had humanoid automatas which move from one side of the room to the other side of the room. Most likely they had blinded mechanisms. So, things like that just tell us that it’s -- that other cultures had important contributions to make through science and technology throughout history. And it’s not just that it’s not well-known in the west, but because of the experience of colonialism, part of that actually has been lost to them also. So, recovering the past and whilst recovering some of those things is a part the stories that we tell ourselves with respect to who we are.

William: Yeah. And just going along those great answers, I would re-emphasize that in Australia Aboriginal people are widely known as the oldest living societies, going back at least 50,000 years. And it wasn’t long ago that anthropologists were using them as windows into human evolution, essentially as caveman, and there’s still hints of that. I think that’s deeply embedded that they’re windows in the past like an endangered species. So, that is deeply embedded even if the politics have changed, that core structure is there still.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of temporal sovereignty. The time has been captured like territory and land. I’m still thinking through exactly how sovereignty relates to temporality.

In native science fiction studies, Grace Dillon talks a lot about slipstream exists in other parts of sci-fi. It’s really important in native sci-fi, getting away from the future as the linear progression. Slipstream plays with time and space, where past is ahead of us as much as the future is, in terms of family and kinship.

There’s an amazing VR project through the Initiative for Indigenous Futures at Concordia University directed by Jason Lewis. It’s an amazing project. Time traveler is a VR second life game where you go in and you play a Mohawk character. You can go between 1491 and deep into the future, and it’s all integrated. There’s nothing categorically distinct about pre-contact or the deep future in this. It’s all one interlaced thing in which these demarcations of history are what we project on to something that doesn’t necessarily mean all that much outside of Western history.

And there’s another great series called the Anamata Future News by Maori TV. And they do future news, reporting as though it’s happening in the time period. They go from 50 years from the future all the way to 2,500. In the last episode, there is this interstellar voyaging by the Maori, in which they’re essentially running their interstellar voyages, not like Star Trek, but like Pacific Islander Wayfinding, using that traditional logic with high technology.

I recently published a short story called Planeterra Nullius. It’s a parable replacing Aboriginal Australian history with white Australian history, to increase empathy regarding what it would be like if all of these things happened to Westerners.

Henry: You’ve really talked a little bit of the colonial history in the ways Aboriginal science fiction has to work beyond that or indigenous science fiction has to work beyond it. The metaphor – “space the final frontier” introduces the connection of science fiction to frontier mythologies.

I mean, historians of the pulp magazine era in science fiction tell us that a lot of our ideas around Mars emerged from the fact the writers were reselling stories. And if they couldn’t sell story to the western magazines, they revamped it and sold it as a Martian story to Hugo Gernsback. They couldn’t sell a story about an Amazon to a fantasy exotic adventure story, they set it on Venus and sold it as science fiction.

So, in some ways the whole building blocks of science fiction as a genre in the west starts with colonialism and white supremacy as is true for most of the pulp genres we’re working with today.

So, I wanted to get your thoughts on how we de-colonize genres. What does it take for us to take something that that’s so baked into the DNA, that’s been there from the very beginning and re-imagine it from a new perspective and get that to place where audiences will engage with it in new ways?

Nalo: I’m going to say that just because you don’t experience something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. And so, one of the things I find all science fiction and fantasy teach me to do as a creator is to question my own assumptions and to assume that if I can conceive something, somebody else probably has. So, with my very first novel, I had been reading about Detroit, what happened to Detroit. And at that time, economists were calling it the hole in the donut syndrome where civic support, government support is withdrawn and you have this -- they were calling it a vacuum. And you have white flight to the suburbs and breakdown of institutions.

And they were writing about it as though there was nothing there. I’ve been to Detroit. There’s plenty there. At that point I hadn’t yet been to Detroit but I knew what it was like to be living in a situation where services were being withdrawn. I was at that point living in Brian Mulroney’s Toronto. He was our Prime Minister for a while and he had this notion that you should avoid duplication in city services and he was busy withdrawing support.

Engineers have another name for duplication. They call it efficiency. So, I was living in a world in which this was happening, I thought I don’t think it’s right to imagine Detroit as being a hole -- there’s got to be something there.

And I began to imagine what it must be like to be -- what it could be like to be living in that situation to transport it to Toronto. So, part of what it does is it gives you a way of thinking about the thing that you are taught that is an absence, the thing that you have no paradigm for thinking about. Science fiction gives you ways of mapping that, to start trying to imagine yourself into that space.

And it’s one of the things, I think, that is truthful for lots of activists. I was one of the guests at Ferguson is the Future which was a symposium at Princeton that was about art and activism particularly in the living through the experience of state and police violence against black men here.

And the guest speakers started off with Alondra Nelson and she talked about Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred, which is fantasy novel in which a black woman in the 1970s keeps getting punted back to plantation era past and has to deal with what she finds there, being assumed to be a slave. And Alondra said the thing about Kindred is that black people, and particularly black men living here know that at any moment, they can be snatched back to the past. They can be snatched back to the plantation and be living that nightmare again.

And so, science fiction fantasy can give you a way of (coding that experience so that you have a little bundle of knowledge for what that might be like where before you had nothing. It’s my theory. I just made it up.

Muhammad: I think past can be a really good resource with respect to imagining alternate ways of encounters between different cultures, so that we go outside of this whole colonial encounter. So, for example, if you look at the encounters between non-Muslim cultures and civilizations throughout history, there are a lot of things that can be learned. So, one of my favorite examples is how a lot of Chinese Muslims actually categorize their history.

So, there is this founding myth amongst Chinese Muslims, and don’t quote this in your history class because, again, this is a myth, where in this story the Chinese Muslim community was founded when the Prophet Muhammad himself sends some emissaries to the emperor of China and he received these emissaries and he was really impressed. He did not convert himself but he allowed these people to live and live in his domain.

There’s another story which one can even conceptualize that as an alternate history which talks -- so, in classical Islamic scholarship, the emphasis is that the prophet is this illiterate person so that all the knowledge he has must be divine. But within the Chinese context, they take -- the Chinese Muslims take Confucius or Lao-Tze or the classical Chinese sage as a model, and turns the Arab or the non-Chinese Muslim model on its head where the prophet is depicted as this really wise man/philosopher. And in his lifetime he wrote a large number of books and these books were spread far and wide throughout the world and a lot of people were impressed by his knowledge.

Again, none of that actually happened. But again, this is a myth which gels well with a particular mode of thinking. And I guess that’s one of the reasons why within the Chinese Islamic culture you have things which are very uniquely Islamic and very uniquely Chinese. So, for example, they have -- so within the Chinese (inaudible) 01:10:01, for example, even the Chinese language was traditionally written with the Arabic script. And that’s very unique, that’s very different.

In China, you have a 600-year old tradition of female-only mosques. I mean, you don’t have that in any other part of the world. They don’t have -- even the imam of the mosques were women and still now. And again, that’s a very uniquely Chinese phenomenon. You would have things like writing Arabic calligraphies but with Chinese strokes and Chinese style.

So, I mean, encounters like these, I think, these are really the goal in mind in trying to understand or trying to extrapolate what could have been or what could be in the future when different cultures interact.

William: I have three quick points. The first relates directly to the idea of the frontier. I’ve been in conversation with the Anthropology of Outer Space. There’s a great book that just came out called Placing Outer Space by Lisa Messeri and David Valentine does a lot of great work as well. What they’re finding is folks like Elon Musk and astrophysicists are using analogs from the colonial Western frontier to think through what outer space is and what the future is going to be like off Earth.

I think these ambitions are not always thought through. There’s this obsession by someone like Musk to get to Mars, but there’s no real thought of, why if we’re getting to a new planet that’s harder to live on, would the same type of society have a better result. There’s no real answer to that; in fact, why wouldn’t it be worse? Martian movies don’t usually end well. It’s that progressive fantasy that if only we could just ascend to the next leve,l there’s a utopian ideal which is always the shadow of something dystopian as well.

I imagine the goal of academics as trying to create these conversations between worlds that wouldn’t always converse. So, just as an example, I just released this blog, Navajos on Mars on which is sort of an imagined science film festival online forum. People like Musk, very, very smart people, get caught up in the fantasy because they’re so objective in their technical attempts.

At a deeper level, one point of sovereignty is to not have to explain yourself to everyone, to not be included, to not have to be assimilated. So, there is a way in which these might be a little internally focused. While the broader culture may get something out of it, I think the deeper idea is very practical.

Indigenous futures are not about technology, it’s survival. It’s not being poisoned by mercury. It’s having a place to live and not being de-funded and not having meth come into the community. So, I think it’s very practical at a certain level. Of course what people really care about are their kids. Are their kids going to feel like they have a future, a place in the world? If it can have an effect on the broader society, I think that’s great, but there is a deeper priority for sovereignty.


Science Fiction and the Civic Imagination: Whose Future Does Science Fiction Foretell? (Part One)

Earlier this year, the Civic Imagination Project hosted a forum focused on diversity, science fiction, and the civic imagination. Here's how we framed the event:  

Science fiction has long provided resources -- compelling narratives, rich metaphors -- through which we might explore alternative possible directions for technological and social change, especially at a time when profound and prolonged periods of change disrupt established ways of thinking. Throughout most of the 20th century, science fiction, however, was a genre by, for, and about white men and thus offered a narrow range of visions of tomorrow. In recent years, though, a range of groups have sought to speak their truths through speculative fiction and used its language to map past and future trajectories. In this session, we will explore a range of different movements within science fiction that reflect the perspectives of post-colonialist, Afrofuturist, Indigenous, and Muslim creators and audiences, each making claims for the future through their particular deployments of the genre’s core building blocks. This forum will engage the multiple strands of futurism in contemporary science fiction which have helped to diversify what voices can be heard and opened up new modes for thinking through contemporary issues and future aspirations in American society.  Bringing these diverse and alternative conceptions of the future together allows us to debate more richly the directions we want to see our society take.

Here are the bios of our core speakers:

Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad is an Affiliate Associate Professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Washington, Visiting Research Scientist at the Indian Institute of Technology and Senior Data Scientist at Groupon. He is the founder and editor of the Islam and Science Fiction Project that focuses on Science Fiction from the Muslim world as well as depiction of Islam and Muslims in Science Fiction especially in the Anglo-American world. It is the most comprehensive resource on this subject. He has been running the project since 2005. He also edited the first ever anthology Science Fiction set in Muslim cultures in 2008. Recently he launch first in a series of such anthologies titled Islamicates.

Dr. Nalo Hopkinson is an Afro-Caribbean author and sometime editor of science fiction and fantasy (speculative fiction). A Canadian citizen, she moved to California in 2011 to become a professor of Creative Writing at the University of California Riverside, where she is a member of UCR's research cluster in science fiction. Recognition for her writing includes the John W. Campbell Award, the World Fantasy Award, the Sunburst Award for Canadian Literature of the Fantastic, and the Andre Norton Award for young adult science fiction. She was recently the fiction co-editor of a special edition of Lightspeed Magazine, "People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction," and an invited guest at Princeton University's symposium "Ferguson is the Future — Incubating Alternative Worlds Through Arts, Activism, and Scholarship." Her current novel-in-progress, Blackheart Man, is historical speculative fiction which takes place in an imaginary Caribbean island nation founded by escaped enslaved people and defended successfully for over 200 years.

William Lempert is a PhD candidate in cultural anthropology at the University of Colorado at Boulder. With the support of Fulbright and the Wenner Gren Foundation he recently completed his fourth and primary research trip of 20-months to Northwestern Australia where he worked on the production teams of two Indigenous media organizations. He followed the biographical social life cycles of their films as they travelled between remote communities, regional towns, and national festivals. His dissertation aims to understand the paradoxical emergence of two contrasting national Aboriginal television networks amidst the mass defunding of Aboriginal Australian communities and organizations by articulating the tensions of contemporary indigeneity embedded within the daily practices of diverse film projects. Building on his previous work on the rise of the Native American sci-fi film genre, he is particularly interested in understanding how Indigenous filmmaking can imagine and generate alternative futures. More broadly, he argues for the temporal reorientation of anthropological projects toward futures, especially in relation to Indigenous peoples so associated with mythic pasts and fraught presents. To engage broader publics, he has published blogs, stories, videos, and podcasts through the Medium, Fulbright, Sapiens, Savage Minds, Cultural Anthropology, Visual Anthropology Review, and Australian Broadcasting Corporation websites.

Tok Thompson was born and raised in rural Alaska. At the age of 17, he began attending Harvard College, where he received his bachelor’s degree in Anthropology. In 1999 he received a Master’s degree in Folklore from the University of California, Berkeley, and three years later received a PhD in Anthropology from the same institution, all the while studying under the late great folklorist Alan Dundes. After receiving his PhD, Tok engaged in a two-year postdoctoral position with the Centre for Irish-Scottish Studies at Trinity College, Dublin, where he helped launch a new M.Phil. in Translation Studies. He also researched Irish language traditions in County Fermanagh on behalf of the University of Ulster, Northern Ireland, and the District Council of Fermanagh. In the Fall of 2006, Tok came to USC, where he has been teaching graduate and undergraduate courses in folklore and related topics. Additionally, he has taught folklore as a visiting professor at universities in Northern Ireland, Iceland, and Ethiopia. While still in graduate school, he co-founded and co-edited the journal Cultural Analysis: An Interdisciplinary Forum on Folklore and Popular Culture, which he co-edited for 15 years. From 2013-2017 he was the editor for Western Folklore. He is currently working on a textbook for World Mythology (with Greg Schrempp), and a casebook entitled Posthuman Folklore.

Over the next two posts, I am going to share a transcript of this exchange. Enjoy!

Henry: Hi. I’m Henry Jenkins. I’m one of the two moderators for this event. The other one is Tok Thompson from USC Anthropology Department. This event is being put together by the Annenberg Innovation Lab and Civic Paths research group with funding from the USC Collaboration Grant.

Over the past few years, the Civic Paths group has been spending some time thinking about the concept of a civic imagination. Before you can change the world, you have to be able to envision what a better world looks like. And that’s led us to think very deeply about speculative fiction as a space for political change. What does speculative fiction offer us as activists and as citizens as events in the world are requiring us to think about social justice in new ways. Our group is also taking inspiration from the methodologies of speculative fiction -- particularly world building -- to think about how communities might work together to determine what a better world might look like, one which supported our shared goals and values.

Samantha Close, a PhD candidate, called my attention to the work of William Lempert, who is an anthropologist who has done interesting work on indigenous forms of science fiction. Zhan Li, an alum from our group, brought our attention to the work of Muhammad Ahmad, who has been doing interesting thinking, writing and curating around Islam and science fiction. And I have known Nalo Hopkinson off and on since I brought you to MIT at the beginning of both of our careers some 20-plus years ago. So, we thought this was a really interesting mix of people to think about the question, whose fiction does science fiction foretell.

So, with that, let me turn over to Tok who had a few things he wanted to say at the opening.


Tok: Sure. Well, thanks, first off, for pulling me into this project. It is a big interest of mine. And when I heard the idea for this, I was just really excited to be a part of it. We’ve also had an opportunity last couple of hours to kind of hang out at Professor Jenkins’ labs and had some very fascinating backward-forward discussions about some of the larger things that we’ve been looking at.

I think my introduction to this as a genre began a little while ago. I read a book by Ursula Le Guin, whom you probably all know for her work. She had a book called Always Coming Home. That was just a fabulous book. And it was a sort of a vision of California. And it was a vision of California where there is super high tech, so super that you really didn’t notice it. That’s how super the high tech was.

And people have these lives that were much more locally based. They were living locally. They were harvesting locally. When they needed to know some information, it was always there. Their lives, although there was, of course, plot drivers of problems in the book, it was a pretty nice lifestyle and became clear, gradually, that this was an indigenous lifestyle, although she never came out and said it. It became clear as you read it. It was all based on indigenous lifestyles pre-colonization, sort of almost an alternative present, or perhaps an alternative future: that, I think just has a lot of promise, when we’re thinking about this. Ursula Le Guin is the daughter of Alfred Kroeber who started anthropology in California, of UC Berkeley.

So, I’ve been thinking of her a little bit. She recently won a very major award for writing. And I just have a little quote from her here that she delivered. This is her quote. “I think hard times are coming when we’ll be wanting the voice of the writers who can see alternatives to how we live now. We can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being. And even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom, poets, visionaries, the realists of a larger reality. Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art.

Profit motive is often conflict with the aims of art. And we live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begins in art, and very often, in our art, the art of words. I’ve had a long career on a good one, one in good company and here at the end of it I really don’t want to watch American literature gets sold down the river. But the name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.”

So, in this issue of freedom, freedom to imagine futures, freedom to compel each other to discuss what we like this world to be in a few years, these are some of the more compelling issues that -- and again, within a sense of hope, always a sense of hope-- that we can imagine what the future might be.

And so, with that, I’m very, very happy to be in the company of people who are working directly with artists, writers, who are imagining our potential futures.


Henry: So, each of the panelists are going to do about 10 minutes opening comments, reflections, on our core theme. Tok and I have some questions, framing questions to get the panelists talking amongst themselves. And then we’ll open up to the floor for questions . So, Nalo, you want to get us started?


Nalo: Oh, good. So, Henry asked us to do sort of an opening introduction to ourselves and why we’re drawn to this genre. I’m originally from the Caribbean. So, I was born in Jamaica, lived in Jamaica, Trinidad and Guyana, also briefly lived in Connecticut as a child of six when my dad was in a theater program at Yale University and my mother was pregnant with my brother. And the only play they could think of to put my actor father in was Othello.

I’ve always read and enjoyed the fantastic, be it Gulliver’s Travels or Homer’s Iliad because my dad was an English teacher and was teaching those. My first genre science fiction was Kurt Vonnegut’s Welcome to the Monkey House, which I found in the pages of a Playboy magazine I stumbled on to when I was eight years old. And being me what I concentrated on was the fiction.

In that same time period, I remember reading a children’s novel I’ve never been able to find since. It was a fantasy novel. A handful of young children from all walks of life have to power through various trials. And their reward is going to be that they get to a place where any wish they want will be granted.

So, they all succeed and they get to this magical place. The white children wish for things like castles and horses, in other words, wealth, property. Then the book revealed that there had been a black child who’d also won through to this magical place. He hadn’t been mentioned in the book earlier. He was quite poor. He wore torn, patched clothing. And what did he wish to have for all eternity? A watermelon patch of all the watermelon he could eat.

So, as the book closes, one of the last scenes we have the children riding their horses and, you know, examining their jewels. And this little boy with not even a roof over his head, sitting in a watermelon patch, eating slice after slice of watermelon.

Now, I love watermelon, I still do. But I suspect that that children’s book was a big part of the reason why when I moved to Canada from the Caribbean at age 16, it was a while before I would let a non-Caribbean white person see me eating watermelon.

So, some of my earliest connections to science fiction and fantasy and I love epic stories that have ghosts and monsters in them. On the one hand, you’ve got deep racism. On the other hand, you’ve got these adventure epics, Iliad, the Odyssey, you have the coded social critique of Gulliver’s Travels -- I don’t know what to Welcome to the Monkey House.

And I got to -- since, you know, Playboy was my initiation threw in the wide-eyed innocence of Little Annie Fanny. I don’t know if any of you are old enough to know that regular Playboy strip. It’s about a clueless ingénue who’s frequently surprised to find herself naked and sexually compromised. It was played for humor.

But being a kid, I read Little Annie Fanny as -- because I could tell that she was being made fun of, I understood her as the holy fool. You know, the guileless, naïve -- through her guilelessness shows up the creepiness of the more worldly people around you. So, this is my intro to science fiction and fantasy.

And I think people ask me what drew me to it and there’s no way to give an honest answer to that. But a large part of it was difference. Science fiction fantasy told different stories than the ones -- the real world around me with its pesky laws of physics and its systemic biases and systemic injustices did.

And as I grew older, I desperately needed models for different ways to do things. Science fiction fantasy provided me with some of those. It takes our unquestioned narrative and it calls them into question. It tells stories about how -- about and with those cherished narratives and it messes with them. A well chosen neologism, a coinage of a new word, can lay bare all the assumptions that are buried in the word that we would use in its place.

So, I find that people assume that’s why I like science fiction -- that it’s a political reason. And I find -- I kind of resist that. It’s partly true but that is buried in the fact that as a creator of it, as a reader of it, I want a story that works. I want a story that on a fictional level works. And in order to do that, it’s got to think about the underpinnings of the world. So, it’s not that -- I covered it first, I think, from the creative. And I think the creative needs to take all of this into context.

I have ended up a novelist, short story writer, sometimes a fiction editor. I now teach creative writing at the University of California Riverside. I am part of a science fiction research cluster. And one of the lovely things about it is that you see the student body is something like 77% non-white. For many of the undergrads, whatever their racial or ethnic background, it’s the first time anyone in the family has gone to university.

And to be able to bring this idea of science fiction as something that can help think about how the world could be different, and therefore, how to make it a very powerful place to be doing that.


William: First, I want to start by thanking you for bringing me to campus. It’s been wonderful trip from Colorado. To follow up on a question I was asked after my earlier talk related to how well-known indigenous science fiction actually is, and the short answer is it’s not very well-known. So, I’m always compelled, if I have captive audience, just to try to in very broad brushes to lay out some of the things that are happening in indigenous science fiction because it is quite amazing and expanding quickly.

I’m a PhD candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder. I’ve been thinking about and writing along with indigenous science fiction for about six years now. I also just came back from two years of field work in Northwestern Australia working with Aboriginal filmmakers and media makers in the outback.

I am really pleased to be in this discussion. We shared some great chats in the office just before. I was struck when I saw my first couple of science fiction films made by indigenous producers. When most people think of indigenous peoples, they imagine an ideal past, a tragic history, and a troubled present. I come from the world of anthropology. I don’t know if there’s any anthropologist in the room, but continues to have legacies of the savage slot of the past and the suffering slot of the present. There’s not a lot about the future. This seemed especially clear to me when I started seeing some of these films.

So, more and more filmmakers have begun drawing explicitly on the science fiction genre while reimagining it in quite new ways. Relating to science fiction, native or western or anything else, today we’ve been talking about all sorts of certain sub-genres. It’s a very powerful format that creates an unusually effective cross cultural register and language, and it’s great to hear about some of your projects along those lines of the civic imagination as a way to discuss our deepest hopes and fears about technology, humanity, and climate change.

Film has it has the particular ability to demonstrate world making. David MacDougall makes the argument that there’s something different about creating a world that you see, hear, and can almost touch—and perhaps will in the future—that makes a different kind of argument, not just an intellectual argument but an emotional and visceral one as well.

And so, there are many types of alternative futurisms. A main difference in comparison to Afro and feminist futurisms—which have decades-long literatures and are very developed in ways that indigenous futurisms are not—is not an accident, but because they’ve been structurally silenced by the imperial imagination.

One point I like to make echoes Grace Dillon, the pioneer of indigenous science fiction studies, which is that another main difference in this genre in comparision with other alternative futurisms is that people want sovereignty from the settler state as a higher priority than they want equitable inclusion, justice, or equality as they are imagined in multi-cultural liberal discourse. So, that’s a very seemingly subtle, but important distinction that plays out in this genre.

As Gregory Benford notes, you cannot have a future you do not first imagine, and I often think about this. You can’t have a future you don’t imagine, but also, the futures you do imagine are consciously and unconsciously created based on what we assume to be possible, desirable, or inevitable. So while science fiction—especially if you’re not in a room of people inherently interested in it—might seem to be a sort of fringe interest, actually it’s incredibly relevant because it has to do with the sort of subconscious ideas about possibility through which politicians and bureaucrats enact policy.

So, what I think makes for a good reference is to think about the Western science fiction canon, which you might divide up into utopian and dystopian films. You have lots of self-destruction and alien encounter films, and the alien films perhaps makes this argument most succinctly. Virtually without exception they all replicate colonial encounters. Even in the buddy films like ET, the larger context is that the government that can’t find that extraterrestrial would torture them or do all sorts of horrible things to them if they could, even if it’s in the backdrop.

Where in opposition, native science fiction films are doing things that are very different. As far as utopian films go there’s The Sixth World, which is about the Navajo Nation as the leading partner in the trip to Mars, saving the mission with their sacred corn pollen over the GMO corn which fails. There’s also a film titled File Under Miscellaneous, which shows a dystopian future in which indigenous peoples surgically remove their skin and have it replaced with white skin in a 1984-like dystopia.

And films such as The Visit, a very short film we watched earlier, is a short animated story of a flying saucer visiting a remote reserve in Canada, asking why aliens would necessarily visit New York or some other western metropolis. The policemen don’t know what to do, but the father starts playing his drum and it pulses along with the beat. There is no colonial encounter. It’s an interaction.

There are many ways in which we project through science fiction. As much as there’s a diversity in all Western alien films, in a way, there’s very little ideological diversity. Even exeptions suc as Arrival, which we talked about earlier are only a tiny bit different but still have the same backdrop.

To conclude, I’ve been thinking a lot about what is happening today. We live in this global era defined by apocalyptic rhetoric around climate change, ISIS, Middle Eastern wars, specters of deregulation-induced financial global collapse, the political mobilization of populism and record-high first world income inequality.

With everything going on, something that I mentioned earlier that caught my attention is that the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists recently moved the minutes to midnight, from 3 minutes, 30 seconds forward to 2 and a half minutes to midnight, which is closer than we’ve been since 1953 when we were testing hydrogen bombs in the South Pacific on the Bikini Atoll.

And so, while the world looks opaque and potentially disastrous in the West, I would point out that indigenous futures today encompass Standing Rock, Lakota futures, climate change, planetary futures, and species futures. Increasingly, they’re all interconnected. And if anyone’s been to Standing Rock actions, I think that this is becoming increasingly clear. This is not just happening in science fiction; it’s happening in many ways, which are good in the sense that people are paying attention in a new and broader way.

The way that indigenous peoples see the future has never been more relevant not only for their communities, but also for everyone else. Really what could be more relevant than the imagined futures of people who have lived through the apocalypse and survived it, and who aren’t 2 minutes to midnight but 10 minutes after midnight. So, perhaps they have something really important to say and the medium of science fiction and film provides a really compelling and visceral way to get that point across. Thank you.


Muhammad: Thank you for organizing this, Henry. I’m from Seattle, so it’s good to be in a place where the sun actually comes out. I’m the founder and editor of the Islam and Science Fiction Project also at the University of Washington, and a senior data scientist at Groupon. So, I’ve been interested in science fiction as far back as I could remember. Must have been six or seven when The Next Generation came out, so I used to watch it and I got hooked into the original series.

But my real interest in the intersection of science fiction and Muslim cultures came, I would say, around 2004-2006. That was when I became really fascinated with intersection of science fiction and religion in general. It is my personal opinion that some of the best science fiction novels which are out there have just very strong religious themes. So, a few that comes to my mind are Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny and his work in general. Lord of Light has very strong Buddhist and Hindu themes. There’s a lot of really good Catholic sci-fi out there. The novel Canticle of Saint Leibowitz comes to mind that does have a strong religious, mainly Christian, presence. There’s also the Case of Conscience by James Blish.

So, that’s how it started -- it got me thinking about the intersection between science fiction with Muslim characters or Islamic themes in science fiction. I started digging around in books, libraries, different forums online, and I discovered that there was almost no material on this subject. I even found one article where the author, who I will not name for certain reasons, actually went to say that as far as our science fiction is concerned, it [Science Fiction in Islamic background] does not even exist.

And years later I came across an article by an African-American scholar, Yusuf Nuruddin, who diagnosed the problem with saying that just because something has not been covered in certain academic western scholarship that it should not be taken to mean that it does not exist. So, with that, I started collecting material on this subject and that’s how the Islam and Science Fiction Project was born.

So, if you look at history of fiction with fantastical elements that came out of the Islamic world, the most famous is, of course, the Arabian Nights, also known as the One Thousand and One Nights. A number of stories in that collection have what we now recognize as having broad science fiction elements. So, for example, you have invisibility cloaks, you have travel to other planets, you even have stories with time travel, so on and so forth. John Campbell, I believe he’s at University of Alabama is doing some scholarship on a project about -- which he describes as one of the first sci-fi novels which was written in Arabic in 14th century by Ibn Al-Nafis.

Ibn Al Nafis’ claim to fame was actually that he was one of the earlier discoverers of circulation of blood in the human body. And the other -- not just the fiction or fantastical elements but if you look at other parts of the Islamic worlds in South Asia actually have the largest epic fantasy ever written. And when I say that this is not an exaggeration I actually mean it. So, the whole collection is called TAilsm-Hoshruba or magic that takes your senses away or in other words, mind-blowing magic.

It’s a collection of -- it’s a novel or a collection which consists of -- literally of one hundred thousand pages. We can safely assume that nobody has read it or at least nobody alive has read it. And it takes a very liberal -- especially from contemporary times view of early Islamic history. So, it’s settled in this alternate world where the protagonist is actually the uncle of Prophet Muhammad, Hamza, who unlike real history did not die in a war but became this epic hero [in this story] and went on to fight demons and dragons and other creative creatures in Persia and China and other parts of the world.

The story has a very multicultural cast. Part of his entourage are people from India and China, Persia, a couple of his friends are even Romans. So, it also gives us a very interesting window into a past of the Middle East which was much more color and much more open-minded and much more diverse, one could even argue.

Lets talk about [fiction] closer to the modern era. It’s difficult to say that there’s -- it’s even impossible to say that there’s such a thing as the Islamic world, they have multiple cultures which have this belief system as a commonality. They have their own -- a lot of them have their own literatures which sometimes intersect. So, for example, a lot of recent literature with respect to sci-fi which is coming out of the Arab world has many dystopian themes which is in light of the events -- especially in the light of events which have been going on in the Arab world in the last years or so.

If you look at 19th and early 20th century sci-fi literature in the Arab world, we do have many more examples of utopias. More recently, there’s this award-winning novel which came out of Egypt. It’s called Utopia. It’s written by Ahmed Towfik. Although it’s set in the near future very dystopian Egyptian society bereft with class war and class distinctions.

There’s another novel that came out after the Arab Spring also from Egypt. I believe it’s called The Queue. And it’s set in an unnamed country where a people’s revolution has failed and the government is very authoritarian and controls each and every single thing that people -- that citizens are allowed to do or not allowed to do. And one of the more interesting recent novels that came out -- actually came out of -- from Iraq by this author whose name is evading my mind right now. It’s called Frankenstein in Baghdad.

The premise is that the Frankenstein monster is actually created from people who have died because of the -- first because of the invasion and then after because of the civil war. Once the Frankenstein monster, this monster gets animated, it sets itself as its goal to take revenge on people who constitute its body parts. It’s supposed to be a commentary on the invasion of Iraq and the sectarian and religious violence which is going on in Iraq right now.

And if you look at the other parts of the Arab world, so for example, there is this thing called Gulf futurism. Mainly centered around Qatar, Bahrain and Dubai and the other emirates, where the idea is that if you actually look at Gulf even now, it has a very cyberpunk/dystopian feel to it. So, we have -- we literally have the tallest buildings in the world and some of the biggest construction projects in the world which appear to be found right off a sci-fi novel. But at the same time, we have a very large underclass of people who are barely getting minimum wages and trying very hard to survive.

Crossing the water, if you look at places like Saudi Arabia, it’s interesting. So, there’s -- a couple of years ago there’s these two brothers who even started a publishing house centered around science fiction. They came up with this novel, its translation is actually available freely on the Internet. It’s called HWJN. So, part of the Islamic belief is belief in the supernatural creatures called djinns or in the west we call them genies.

The novel tries to give a naturalistic explanation for them that they live in this parallel universe. And one of the protagonists who is this creature falls in love with a human female who lives in our world. And then, it uses that as a launch pad to explore class divisions within the Saudi society and also religious extremism, religious tolerance. And not surprisingly it got banned within Saudi Arabia. And after the ban that they actually made the novel freely available on the Internet both in Arabic and in English.

And it was hugely popular -- I should say, at the underground level it was hugely popular a couple of years ago. So, if I were to make like one generalization about sci-fi coming out of the Islamic world, it’s that it’s the local conditions and the histories that inform what people are envisioning about the future. So, the future is -- so one could even argue that the future is actually about the present. We project our hopes, fears and aspirations about what future could be or what future cannot be.

Another place surprisingly where we actually have sci-fi inspired from Islamic cultures, they’re having Islamic influences is actually the United States. The most famous sci-fi novel ever is Frank Herbert’s Dune is inspired from the Middle Eastern culture. Many of the terms that Frank Herbert actually uses are directly lifted from the Islamic religious canon, for example. There are a couple of authors which are well-known, G. Willow Wilson, she’s actually a Muslim convert. So, her novel -- her graphic novel is called Alif the Unseen.

It’s set in this cyberpunk setting where the genies that I described, they actually have a way to interact with our modern technology. That’s a pretty interesting read. There’s another sci-fi fantasy author, Saladin Ahmed, is actually the first American Muslim to be nominated for the Hugo. So, he has this novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon, it’s part of trilogy that’s coming out. A lot of interesting work which has been done.

I would end with the note, as I described earlier, that it’s difficult to generalize about such a large mass people. But at the same time, there are certain things and commonalities that we see, basically hopes and aspirations of people which are projected about the present and the future.

And one thing that I would say is much needed is that as we are moving from a western or Euro-centric view of science fiction, we should also not get into the trap of when we are talking about, say, sci-fi from the Muslim world or from China or indigenous sci-fi or from Africa that these are not necessarily bubbles but there should be a cross communication across these different worlds. Because if we really think about it, that actually has been the rule throughout history that cultures have never been born by isolation. There’s always been cross fertilization.



Exercising the Imagination Muscle: Notes from the Imagine 2040 Symposium on April 7, 2017

I wanted to share this report on some of the work being organized by my research team at USC. Our work on the Civic Imagination Project has been funded by the MacArthur Foundation. This research grows out of our last book, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism, which was published by New York University Press. We are hard at work on a new book which will expand our understanding of the concept of "the civic imagination" and the events described here are, among other things, part of the process of ideation around this research. We would love to hear from other research groups that are exploring related themes and topics.

Reposted from the Civic Imagination Project website.

Photo by RB Photography

April 7th, 2017 marked an important step forward in the emerging work that the Civics Path Group is carrying out around the idea of the Civic Imagination. With support from the USC Collaboration Fund and the MacArthur Foundation, Civic Paths and the Civics and Social Media research groups convened a one-day symposium on the USC campus called “Imagine 2040.” The event brought together a widely diverse set of scholars, practitioners and activists from across the country and Mexico to think about the civic imagination and to consider key questions that have emerged from our initial work in this area.

We will be continuing to explore the outcomes and ideas from this day for the next several months and will have more in-depth analyses to share as we go forward. But we wanted to get things started by giving a quick account of the event along with some high-level takeaways and reflections from the organizers. For more background on the civic imagination and previous activities please see our About section and Chronicles page.

Photo by RB Photography

The Event

Although many of the participants of “Imagine 2040” are already harnessing civic imagination in their work in one form or another, we wanted to create a shared foundation of concept and experience to ground the event so we began our day with a brief presentation from Henry Jenkins and an abbreviated worldbuilding exercise. Dr. Jenkins provided an overview of how we define the civic imagination within our work and how that definition aligns and diverges with others. From there, Sangita Shresthova and Gabriel Peters-Lazaro led the group through an abbreviated version of a worldbuilding workshop similar to one that Civic Paths ran internally in the fall of 2016 in which we collectively imagined the world we’d like to live in in the year 2040.

After a wide-ranging whole-group brainstorm about the future, participants worked in smaller groups to develop and share back narratives about how that world came to be that included stories about sentient birds, participatory pedagogy and sustainable agriculture. Before breaking for lunch we spent a little bit of time reflecting on the process from the morning. Participant Susu Attar, who also helped create the very first worldbuilding workshop that we ran as part of the Media Activism and Participatory Politics (MAPP) project, shared these thoughts:

I think the thing that I really love about the design of this is that you’re considering life on earth and then you’re engaging people through  imagination and creativity about future problems but also future solutions. And that requires listening and building consensus and then making something together….It exercises all the tools you need to really ever do anything in this life.

On our return from lunch we organized the afternoon based on The World Cafe model of discussion. Civic Paths research assistants Samantha Close, Raffi Sarkissian and Yomna Elsayed each led a round of discussion. Each round started with the introduction of a topic related to our collective inquiry into civic imagination, framed with a brief introduction and key points for consideration. Participants then spent 20 minutes discussing these points in small groups around their tables. Notetakers from Civic Paths stayed at the tables to share back summaries of the discussions from each group after each round. For each subsequent round, participants would move to new tables creating new discussion groups.

Discussion leaders Close, Sarkissian and Elsayed share their topics of inquiry and brief accounts of participant responses in the following sections below.

Photo by RB Photography

Round One: Imagination from escapism to escape - Yomna Elsayed

Topic Introduction

 To many parents and educators, daydreaming is negatively viewed as a sign of withdrawal, a kind of solitary confinement by choice that should be resisted for the sake of better involvement with the world around us. Inspirational videos circle the web urging young people to stand up and do something, anything. Somehow doing is more valued than imagining. The rapid pace of our modern lives, and the severity of much of our modern day tragedies, be it the Syrian civil war, the rise of ISIS, transnational migration crisis, all push us to act, and act quickly. After all, we cannot see what someone is imagining, even our tools of description be they language, art or technology repeatedly fail us at capturing the exact details and at the same time vividness of our imagination when constrained by words, materials, colors or what is technologically possible. But like world events have become ephemeral phenomena, so have many of our actions and their effects. How can civic imagination slow us down to come up with civic, possibly better, alternatives that work to reimagine the world we live in, rather than just mend it?

In his 2013 talk, English author and fiction writer Neil Gaiman urged us “We all – adults and children, writers and readers – have an obligation to daydream. We have an obligation to imagine. It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything that we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field. But the truth is, individuals change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.”

To Gaiman, “pretty much every form of fiction [including fantasy] can actually be a real escape from places where you feel bad, and from bad places. It can be a safe place you go, like going on holiday, and it can be somewhere that, while you’ve escaped, actually teaches you things you need to know when you go back, that gives you knowledge and armour and tools to change the bad place you were in. So no, they’re not escapist. They’re escape.” (link)

These divergent views on imagination got us asking: when is imagination ‘escape’, and when is it ‘escapist’, and if there is a difference between the two? Whether imagination is self-sedating or if it can be used to pass critique and/or question reality? And if so, when does imagination become civic?

Key Insights From Round One

Imagination is an active process.

Initially, someone lost in their thoughts, a fiction book or a game, might seem to be a passive contributor to this world, occupying physical space without really contributing to it. Participants however, suggested that imagination can be a processing space, one that is suitable for building fiction, which can itself move us one step closer to a solution. In building up a fiction, authors have to strip away constraining details, thus allowing themselves, even in imagination, to move beyond physical limitations, noted one of the participants. In other words, to many, imagination can be a safe dynamic space for experimenting with ideas.

Participants suggested that even technologies that are often accused of distracting people from “real-life” such as social media and virtual reality sets, have a double function, to both engage and escape. Virtual reality technologies for example, can be used as escapism but also as a tool for empathy, they noted.

Imagination is crucial for activism.

With many of our participants working in activists spaces, the question “does escapism contradict with being woke?” came up more than once. Asked differently, can escapism or even escape be valuable to activism?

While the literal meaning of staying-woke may sound contradictory to the image of someone lost in their thoughts or daydreams; figuratively, however, staying woke is about staying informed and aware of the underlying workings of systems of power, which does not necessarily stand in contradiction with the act of imagination. As one of the participants suggested: escape in itself can be a retreat, a recharging period to reflect, make sense of the world and imagine alternatives.

For marginalized communities, imagination becomes a necessity when reality does not seem to be offering them much to work with. Therefore, they have to start by first pushing boundaries in their imagination: one has to imagine themselves in a particular space first before they can participate in it; it thus takes a leap of faith, sometimes. A similar tension occurs between art and activism, where art needs room to dream and imagine while activism needs a space to act.

Our participants partially concluded that instead of pitting escapism and “woke-ness”, art and activism, against one another, we should view them not as goals in and of themselves but as active and dynamic processes that work together to enable action. Once imagination is actionable, noted one of the participants, it is transformed from being an escapist route to becoming an escape route.

Round Two: Civic Imagination as a mechanism? Civic Imagination as a valence? - Samantha Close

Topic Introduction

Carrying on the thread from the last prompt, one of the enduring debates about both media and technology are whether they are, at their basic levels, empowering for everyday people and conducive to progressive political change or empowering for existing governments and corporations and conducive to conservation of the status quo.  Others argue that media and technology are fundamentally neutral; means that can be turned to a variety of ends.

You could ask a similar question about the civic imagination.  But this might not be the most productive question to ask—at least at first.  Rather than starting off debating if the broad idea of a civic imagination is just a tool, a way of doing things, or if it carries an inherent political and ethical charge, we are interested in when and how particular civic imaginations have been thought up and put out into the world in particular moments.

We asked participants to think of examples of civic imagination that scare, worry, or repulse them—what kind of civic world do they imagine?  How is that imagination expressed?  Then we encouraged them to think of some civic imaginations that inspires them or in which they share.  How are those imaginations expressed rhetorically or put into material practice?  Do these different examples of civic imaginations share anything, either in the ways in which they are expressed or put into practice?  In what is imagined?  If not, where do they diverge—what are the differences in how they are expressed, what they imagine, and how they are materialized?

After considering these questions we asked participants to try to pull back to the abstract level.  If civic imagination is like a mechanism, a way of thinking and doing, what are its key components?  What does an idea need to have or do to be both civic and imagining?  Is it possible to distinguish the progressive or inspiring civic imaginations from those that scare and concern you, to say something like “an ethical civic imagination will have these things”?

Key Insights from Round Two

Imaginations are civic when they are shared.

Participants had little trouble coming up with examples of civic imaginations, pulling together civic imaginations from current politics, history, and popular culture genres from music videos to video games.  But there seemed to be a minor divide over a deliberative/collectivist view of civic and an aesthetic, somewhat solitary, view of civic. According to the first view, when imagination is shared, it moves from the private space of our own minds to a shared public space in which it is engaged in conversation. Some ventured to suggest that even sharing one’s imagination is action in itself (and to a member of a marginalized community, an act of courage). The second view however, suggested that even private imagination is value unto itself, as it is also changing the person who is doing the imagining.

Collectivity is a necessary means but not a good end.

A sense of collectivity is a necessary means, part of the mechanism of any civic imagining, but it is not an ethical end.  Ethical civic imaginations must be built on the fact that there are and will be important differences between people—there will always be people fighting for what they believe in.  Civic imaginations that scared the group generally had in common that they imagined a collectivity of sameness, futures where everyone was alike in the most important ways.

To imagine a civic world, you must also imagine power.

It is essential to imagine power: what it is and where it comes from.  This is a shared feature of many civic imagination examples.  There does not need to be only one kind or source of power, but knowing what they are and how they are accessed is essential.

Round Three: From Imagination to Civic Imagination to Action - Raffi Sarkissian

Topic Introduction

The final prompt brought the discussion of the civic imagination to the work that each of the participants do in their professional and civic lives. In this round, we asked each table to think about how the ideas and approaches discussed throughout the day reflect or reinforce the principles and practices of their own projects. Is the civic imagination active or compatible with their own work? Alternatively, we wanted the groups to discuss potential obstacles to adopting the tenets of the civic imagination across the fields and spaces, both physical and digital, they occupy and intersect. Ultimately, we wanted them to think through ways we can put the ideas of the symposium into practice.

The ensuing conversations around each table were rich with inspiring work participants were already engaged in and raising important provocations as they synthesized the collective thoughts and experiences that informed the discussion throughout the day.

Key Insights from Round Three

Many of the participants shared that key principles of the civic imagination were already present in their work. The discussion around several tables centered on the role of media-makers in creating narratives of the civic imagination beyond what is available in existing popular (and often hegemonic) texts and formats. For instance, one group gave pushback to the confines of the traditional, linear model of storytelling, which included the world-building exercise from the morning session. They raised questions on how to tell stories about individuals doing great work in marginalized communities but avoid the hero/leader trope. How can we expand existing stories and avoid fixed narrative structures in order to tell stories about collective action?

Several groups brought up social media and technology as double-edged swords in that they can foster networked communication but also act as obstacles often slowing us down, whether by trolls, distractions, or exhaustion. Some cited the need to keep resistance alive but push it to the backdrop and instead use imagination to move us forward. Others noted the constant pressure they feel for civic content and outreach to be entertaining. Another table discussed the trade-off between depth of content and breadth of its reach in regards to alternative media narratives, especially in local artist communities. A few others discussed the challenges of inclusion when considering the reach of the civic imagination--how can the civic/political be inviting without being prescriptive?--and recognizing that some groups have been consistently fighting for these goals way before November 2016.

To put much of this work into context, one of the tables likened the civic imagination to a muscle, which needs exercise to grow and see its full potential. While many activists are already engaged in this work, those who are not as attuned to practicing imagination need to work out and flex that muscle. This was an apt analogy to cap off the productive day of collaborative imagination.

Connecting Imagination to Action needs a nudge.

One of the workshop participants, an educator by profession, noted that sometimes all students need is a nudge, possibly referring to constraints of an assignment or a project that encourage students to flex their imagination muscles and equips them with tools for tying their imagination to action. However, the nudge can be anything from a symbolic to a physical limitation that pushes people to experiment with other creative ways of circumventing their apparently constrained realities.

This is of course is not an encouragement for educators or decision makers to become more authoritarian so as to breed creativity, but it is an illustration of how civic imagination need not be only a goal, but also a starting point, better a methodology, whereby imagining civically is one of the ways for carving out an “escape route”.

Photo by RB Photography

Conclusions and Next Steps

One of the primary challenges of conducting such a rich and wide ranging event with so many thoughtful people is to harness and catalog the ideas and energy that emerged from that day. Our group is currently in the process of conducting one-on-one interviews with symposium participants. This gives us and them a chance to let some of the ideas settle and to reflect in depth on the themes and questions of the day as well as to explore possible future collaborations across the emerging network seeded at the event. This work is ongoing but we are already excited to hear from participants about ways the work of that day has stayed with them and about the kinds of creative actions that we are already beginning to plan going forward.

In addition to interviews and written work that we will continue to grow and share on this website, we were also fortunate to have the talented Greg T. Whicker with us as a graphic recorder. Throughout the day, John listened closely to the ideas and conversations flowing through the room and at a steady and focused pace, translated those words into colorful visual representations. Beside being a recommended component of World Cafe, we found the participation of a graphic recorder to be a valuable tool and wonderful complement to our engagement with civic imagination; helping to bring ideas to life in the visual realm and to expand a collective sense of vision and action.

The “Imagine 2040” symposium was a valuable experience for our work and has already influenced the direction of our next steps, helping us to continue to expand and hone our theoretical frameworks around the civic imagination. We are also looking forward to running more events in this model, bringing new voices and perspectives into conversation and growing the network as much as we can. We want to extend a huge ‘thank you’ to everyone who participated in our April event and who helped to make it possible. And we want to encourage any readers who may be intrigued by this account and these ideas to reach out to us for more information or to get involved.

Summary by: Gabriel Peters-Lazaro

Videos from Transforming Hollywood 8: The Work of Art in the Age of Algorithmic Culture

The videos are now available for our May 5 conference at UCLA. 9:00-9:15 a.m. - The Work of Art in the Age of Algorithmic Culture.  Welcome by Transforming Hollywood by co-directors Denise Mann (UCLA) and Henry Jenkins (USC).


9:15-10:20 a.m. - Keynote Presentation,” by Ted Striphas, “Algorithmic Culture.” 


10:30-12:00 p.m. - Panel One: Playing with Snackable Content in Virtual Marketplaces, moderated by Denise Mann, Professor, School of Theater, Film, Television, UCLA.


  • Larry Fitzgibbon, CEO and Co-Founder, Tastemade
  • Thomas Jorion, Head of Strategy and Innovation, Havas 18
  • Rob Kramer, CEO and Founder, PurposeLab
  • Kym Nelson, Senior VP of Sales, Twitch
  • Ted Striphas, Professor, Colorado University

TH8 Panel 1: Playing With Snackable Content in Virtual Marketplaces from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.



12:15-1:45 p.m. - Panel Two: Fake News and Struggles Over Circulation, Moderated by Henry Jenkins, Provost Professor, Annenberg Communication and School of Cinematic Arts, USC.


  • Mark Andrejevic, Professor of Media Studies, Pomona College
  • Brooke Borel, journalist and Author of The Chicago Guide to Fact-Checking
  • Hannah Cranston, host and executive producer of ThinkTank and guest host ofThe Young Turks.
  • Jon Passantino, deputy news director for BuzzFeed News, Los Angeles.
  • Ramesh Srinivasan, Associate Professor, Department of Information Studies and Design/Media Arts, UCLA.
  • Laura Sydell, Correspondent, Arts Desk, NPR.

TH8 Panel 2: Fake News and Struggles Over Circulation from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.


2:45-4:15 p.m. - Panel Three: Music Streaming & The Splinternets: The New, Competing Cultural Curators, moderated by Gigi Johnson, Founding Director, The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music.


  • Matthew Adell, CEO and Founder, MetaPop
  • Shanna Jade, Director of Community, Stem
  • Alex White, Head of Next Big Sound at Pandora

TH8 Panel 3: Music Streaming & The Splinternets: The New, Competing, Cultural Curators from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.



4:30-6:00 p.m. - Panel Four: Creating Binge-worthy “Streaming Web TV,”Moderated by Neil Landau, author of TV Outside the Box and The Showrunner’s Roadmap.


  • Jessie Kahnweiler, creator, The Skinny (Hulu)
  • Zander Lehmann, creator, Casual (Hulu)
  • Dawn Prestwich, co-executive producer, Z: The Beginning of Everything(Amazon)
  • Nicole Yorkin, co-executive producer, Z: The Beginning of Everything(Amazon)


TH8 Panel 4: Creating Binge-worthy “Streaming Web TV” from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.



All About Seriality: An Interview with Frank Kelleter (Part Three)

HJ: From an audience point of view, the greatest enthusiasm for serial texts seems to come mid-stream when there are many different directions for interpretations and speculation. Why have so many serial texts had difficulty sticking the ending? FK: As with all living things, the end is a sad affair, at best a moment of relief, but hardly ever an occasion for joy and celebration. I’m exaggerating, of course, but only slightly. As commercial products—and that’s an important “preposition” of this material: its openly commercial nature—popular series would like to go on forever. A successful television series is renewed; that’s the mark of its success, as Jason Mittell says: being successful means being able to continue.

Of course, all parties involved know that there is no such thing as real infinity, not even for very successful prod­ucts. All television series must end sooner or later. But when they do, this almost never happens because everything that was meant to be told has been told now. On the contrary, in most cases, television series do not “end” at all, in any strict sense of the term, but they simply disappear. This shows them as what they are: popular commodities, profitable only for so long. The narrative simply doesn’t return from its seasonal commercial break.

Sometimes a series knows in advance that it will be written off, but the result of such knowledge is often some flimsy sense of finalizing structure, usually imposed in a rather forced manner. In fact, it was relatively rare until recently that final seasons would be announced as final seasons—and even in that case, carefully prepared closure typically consists in making the series look retroactively like a multi-part work, and even then, there are often oblique options for future continuation. (Miniseries are different, of course, but only at first glance, because they, too, are frequently serialized now with a second season.)

All in all, there is no satisfying ending to a story that is structurally premised on its own return and continuation. Long-running mystery series—like Lost, where the secrets proliferated along with the show’s various narrative identities—will never be able to answer all the questions they have spawned. Even largely episodic programs, like sitcoms, reach a moment of narrative crisis when the final episode arrives. Seinfeld reacted to this challenge by brilliantly looping back to a remote beginning, but many people didn’t like that either, because they wanted the show to go on, not to eat itself up.

So, Sean O’Sullivan has a point when he says that satisfaction is not such a useful concept when we talk about serial storytelling. But then it’s an empirical fact that many viewers are dissatisfied or angry or sad when their favorite series disappears from their daily lives. In terms of audience attitudes, there are probably two extreme poles here: there are those audiences who would like to see their series as self-contained artifacts, closed and coherent “works,” like bourgeois novels, and so they expect a certain resolution in the end, a final “payoff” for all the time they’ve invested in watching or reading. And then there are those who relish precisely the challenges of storytelling on the go. Those are perhaps the ones most likely to engage in public storytelling themselves, be it fan fiction, be it audience activism, be it some more bureaucratic or academic type of narrative account keeping.

These para- and post-textual activities can go on for a long time after a series’ core text has stopped moving forward. And interestingly, this type of receptive production often tends to perform a switch from valuing satisfactory storytelling to valuing satisfactory world-building, because the pleasures of world-building are potentially endless too. This is what you discuss in your contribution to the book: an imaginary map will never be completely filled with information. There will always be blank spaces for future exploration.

HJ: How might a better understanding of how seriality works contribute to our grasp of transmedia storytelling?

FK: I would say seriality has an almost natural affinity to transmedia storytelling. Popular series are not easily contained within their core texts and media. Again, this has to do as much with their commercial mode of existence as with their narrative practices, because both are related and mutually reinforcing. Christina Meyer writes about this in her chapter on the Yellow Kid, one of the first serial comics figures. And Con Verevis in his chapter points out that remade blockbuster films in the digital age are almost necessarily intermedial.

Of course, when a story is told across media, the challenges of recursive sense-making proliferate tremendously: serial continuity management and serial self-observation are confronted now not only with a constantly growing number of episodes but also with different technologies of storytelling. What’s interesting about this process is how it can prompt serial storytelling to become explicitly modular. This is especially visible in contemporary trends, so I’m tempted to say that modularity might become the most likely form of seriality within our digital media ecology.

And again, there will be viewers who will cherish modular consistency, hoping (and even demanding) that a story’s transmedia manifestations fit into each other like the pieces of a puzzle—and there will also be viewers who will be fine with parallel processing, seeing modules as building blocks with different functions that can be rearranged or ignored in changing constellations. In both cases we can expect very intricate and controversial “canon” constructions to evolve. Of course, much of this has been prepared and pioneered by the expanding Star Wars universe.

HJ: Audiences have long used the gaps in the flow of serial texts as points for discussion and speculation. How might today’s social media contribute to these forms of engagement? Does binge viewing alter the dynamic by which consumers engage with serial texts?

FK: A number of issues are at work here. First of all, I would say that any type of large-scale reception practice does indeed alter the dynamic of popular seriality, especially when it concerns the temporality of story engagement. So, yes, eliminating the time gaps between episodes potentially changes both story consumption and storytelling. In the case of Netflix original series, with their full-season dumps, the result is paradoxically to slow down the reaction time for collective discussion and serial self-observation, because this business model shifts seriality from the level of the episode to the level of the season.

But that’s not an entirely new phenomenon. After all, this is what serial storytelling does, in terms of social practice: it organizes time and it does so for very large collectives, virtualized collectives. What we call “binge watching,” for example, is only the latest—perhaps we should say: the timeliest—manifestation of serial culture’s interest in continuous reception and production.

But in the history of mass media, every new medium has provoked such discourses of addiction and substance abuse, all the way back to social-hygienic concerns about novel reading in the 18th century. And I’m not saying this to mock the motivation behind such concerns; as with anything that we feed our bodies, there are good reasons to think about questions of dosage and long-term effects. But historically, there is nothing inherently disruptive about binge viewing or social media. These developments are evidently attuned to the current techno-state of our physical existence.

So when we think about audience-text-hookups, I find evolutionary accounts more convincing than revolutionary ones. The self-understanding of serial audiences really coevolves with the affordances of serial media.

Frank Kelleter is Chair of the Department of Culture and Einstein Professor of North American Cultural History at John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany. His main fields of interest include the American colonial and Enlightenment periods, theories of American modernity, and American media and popular culture since the 19th century. He was the initiator and director of the Popular Seriality Research Unit (2010-2016). Frank writes in German and English but finds it incredibly difficult to translate his own texts. Most recent publications: Media of Serial Narrative (ed., 2017), David Bowie (Reclam, 2016), Serial Agencies: “The Wire” and Its Readers (2014), Populäre Serialität (ed., 2012).

All About Seriality: An Interview with Frank Kelleter (Part Two)

HJ: A key claim here is that seriality in its modern sense emerges from 19th-century print culture. Explain. Doesn’t Homer produce works that can be understood in terms of their seriality? FK: Stories told in installments are probably as old as human culture. So, yes, manifold structures of repetition and variation can be identified in Homer, in medieval story cycles, in picaresque and chivalric novels, and so on. The specificity of modern (or “popular”) seriality reveals itself when we begin to think of seriality not as a narrative device but as a cultural practice. The medium of print and its affordances are crucial here, because print allows for a heretofore unimaginable production of “intimacy at a distance” (as Horton and Wohl called it). As Daniel Stein shows in his chapter, this is exactly what we witness in the first newspaper novels of the 19th century, starting with Les mystères de Paris.

Newspapers are important in this regard because they tremendously speed up the process of synchronizing the most heterogeneous spaces and demographics—a process which then comes to describe itself as “modernization.” This, at least, was Benedict Anderson’s point, when he argued that the print revolution afforded the idea and the reality of the modern nation. And Harold Innis had something similar in mind when he said that large territories first became governable with the invention of modern communication machines that coordinate time and space.

HJ: How do the stories published there differ from, say, story cycles involving recurring heroes, found in the Classical world for example?

FK: It’s certainly possible to compare narratological structures in classical storytelling with popular seriality, but in the early 19th century, we see an entirely new and distinct temporal regime come into existence that has everything to do with a media revolution that leads us from periodical newspapers to broadcasting media to digital media, each with their own specific synchronicities and non-synchronicities: with their distinct seriality practices, that is. We can call this larger system of continuous reading/viewing “print capitalism” or “media capitalism” or simply “popular culture”—and depending on which description we choose, we can critique it or celebrate it—but in all cases it’s important to see that serialization takes on different functions, and hence different meanings, when it operates within new technologies, even if their formalisms resemble earlier conventions.

For instance, think about the news as one of our most ubiquitous serial forms, and then think about what it meant for the evolving function and the evolving meaning of something appearing as “news” when the technologies of newsmaking switched from event-based media (such as the pamphlets of the early modern era) to increasingly fast-paced periodical accounts (such as weeklies and dailies). Ever since this happened, the newsworthiness of a piece of information has been heavily co-determined by the media logic of regular publication, and not just by the novelty or relevance of the information itself. In other words, the modern newspaper, as a serial publication, is forced to produce news even when nothing strikingly new has happened. And after a while it needs to do so daily—it needs to do so always, not just on certain ritualized occasions. Newspaper novels and almost all later types of popular seriality follow similar time constraints: episodes are typically written under a strict deadline, and the deadline very much modernizes the good old game of repetition and variation, encouraging new practices of standardization and multi-authorization, for example.

HJ: How might we think about the cultural status ascribed to serial texts?

FK: For the longest time, popular-serial texts have not been particularly interested in cultural status—and when they have achieved it, they commonly did so in non-serialized form, for example, when a serialized novel was republished and reworked as a bound book. So, historically speaking, if popular-serial texts have resisted canonization, this is because they’ve often not sought it.

If you think of traditional serial formats—newspaper novels, dime novels, comic books, TV shows of the network era—it becomes clear that in their aesthetic self-conception, indeed in their very materiality, these products never meant to become validated objects of cultural memory. Instead they aimed at rapid reception. As commodities, their prime interest was to attract as many readers or viewers as possible, in as short a time as possible, and then to quickly make room again for new offers.

That’s why, materially, they didn’t even imagine the possibility of future storing or archiving. Printed on cheap, almost deliberately unsustainable paper, or broadcast without back-up copy into the living rooms of anonymous viewers, entire genres and periods of popular seriality have become unavailable to us, because they were never meant to be seen again, let alone be analyzed by future historians. Popular culture always has this deep investment in the present moment.

So, whenever canonization takes place, it has to circumvent certain formal, material and experiential features of the canonized material. An important technological prerequisite is the existence of sustainable and generally accessible storage media. Derek Kompare, Jonathan Gray, and Jason Mittell have written about how the DVD box set has helped canonize certain TV shows—and, even more importantly, how the prospect of DVD releases has prompted TV serials around the turn of the millennium to try out, or in some cases to mimic, narrative techniques that can be aligned with culturally validated practices, such as complex but coherent plotting, narrative closure, overt stylistic experimentation, deep psychological characterization of figures, and so on.

But that’s not the end of the story. Clearly there’s another change underway in our own time, when the notion of cultural status itself is becoming increasingly problematical, because a text’s value now isn’t necessarily dependent anymore on the material distinctions of specific media forms but can also be associated with a text’s interfacing accomplishments in a system of textual co-presences within one and the same medium (acting as a super-medium).

HJ: Seriality seems to be one of those traits that gets dismissed when talking about soap operas but praised as one of the defining traits of today’s “quality television.”

FK: It is telling that in the 1990s and 2000s, many academic observers of the new “complex” television shows of the time thought that they were reading “novels.” Unsurprisingly, this comparison was particularly widespread among scholars who were trained in doing exactly that: reading and teaching novels. So, for a while it became a topos almost in certain intellectual circles to preface your professional interest in, say, HBO series by declaring that you usually don’t watch television or that you don’t even own a television set. The term “quality television” is best understood here as a legitimating term, not a descriptive term, because it implies that the most valuable type of television is the one that looks the least like television. But TV seriality, even in explicitly artistic programs, is usually not about epic scope or integral completion but about explorative movement. Twin Peaks understood this early on.

So when seriality gets dismissed in soap operas but praised in supposedly novelistic shows, the meaning of seriality itself is shifted toward more oeuvre-like notions, especially the notion of a whole that is made up of parts. And this is not just a question of literary scholars starting to watch a few television shows. We find similar moves within television studies.

Issues of gender and class play an important role here, I would say. They always do when we talk about legitimacy and prestige. I think this largely explains why soap operas—very complex and highly self-reflective narratives—have seen so little cultural valorization, even within television studies, at least in the sense of valuing soaps in their aesthetic and formal achievements as serial television (rather than valuing their populist use-value).

Conversely but accordingly, the “soapy” qualities of shows like The Sopranos or The Wire—say, their employment of melodramatic scripts and effects—have been systematically overlooked until critics like Robyn Warhol, Linda Williams, or Amanda Lotz pointed out that the most highly acclaimed (early) examples of digital-age television all shared one characteristic: they all told sentimental tales of white masculinity in crisis. Jason Mittell takes up this point in his chapter on Breaking Bad, when he discusses the melodrama of Walter White as a “‘women’s film’ told in reverse.”

HJ: Jason Mittell here suggests the challenges of interpreting serial texts, since meaning often rests on how an idea gets worked through across the entire work, and the full implications of an action may not be revealed midstream. So, what are critics to do with serial texts?

FK: I think whatever they do, they should try to respect the fact that they are dealing with serial texts. I wouldn’t want to argue for a unified methodology or research agenda. Marxist critics will do Marxist work, ethnographers will do ethnographic work, feminists will ask feminist questions. But in every case, the material comes with certain praxeological traits—Latour would say: with certain “prepositions”—that should be respected and accounted for, so that we don’t turn our objects of study into mere illustrations of pre-established assumptions or arguments.

And that’s where Jason Mittell’s point about endings becomes important, because when Jason reminds us that critical assessment of a serial text must remain fluid as long as that text is progressing, he’s not saying that we have to wait for the finale to uncover “what it all means,” like the last scene of a whodunit. Rather, the final episode is important for our assessment of the series “as a whole” because afterwards, no more additions can be made, at least not by the narrative itself, not until this narrative is revived again or reinterpreted in later versions.

So, the ending of a serial text is not necessarily its conclusion, and certainly not its solution. But it is the moment when the narrative—at least for a while, sometimes for a very long while, sometimes for ever—stops being able to react to its own effects, as serial narratives are wont to do. The feedback loop turns into a concentrated point of dispersion, so to speak, a launching pad. If storytelling continues, it has to continue now outside the bounds of the original core text—consider the many different versions of The Wire that have been circulating in public arenas after the show’s final season.

So, what are critics to do with serial texts? I would say, anything that seems important but let’s remember that we are dealing with moving targets. This means that even when these stories have come to rest now, they once existed as lively networks of multi-authored practice. This has always been their textual reality too.

Frank Kelleter is Chair of the Department of Culture and Einstein Professor of North American Cultural History at John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany. His main fields of interest include the American colonial and Enlightenment periods, theories of American modernity, and American media and popular culture since the 19th century. He was the initiator and director of the Popular Seriality Research Unit (2010-2016). Frank writes in German and English but finds it incredibly difficult to translate his own texts. Most recent publications: Media of Serial Narrative (ed., 2017), David Bowie (Reclam, 2016), Serial Agencies: “The Wire” and Its Readers (2014), Populäre Serialität (ed., 2012).

All About Seriality: An Interview with Frank Kelleter (Part One)

In the summer of 2012, I paid a visit to my friend Jason Mittel who was spending his sabbatical year in residence at Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, where he joined a group of researchers working on historical and contemporary forms of serial entertainment, headed by Frank Kelleter. While I was there, we discussed an advanced copy of the chapter on media engagement for my then forthcoming book Spreadable Media and I did a public lecture sharing early ideas about Comics and Stuff, which I hope to finish up the summer. But for me the most valuable part of the encounter was getting to know the members of the research unit on "popular seriality – aesthetics and practice":  they gave me a glimpse into their individual and collective research, around which we had a lively and rigorous exchange.

Some years later, Frank Kelleter has released a new anthology, Media of Serial  Narrative, which brings together a collection of outstanding essays that emerge from the research group over its multiyear history. Contributors include Jared Gardner, Daniel Stein, Christina Meyer, Scott Higgins, Jason Mittel, and yours truly (an essay about world building in and around L Frank Baum's Oz books). The collection ranges  from print culture in the 19 century to Hollywood serials to contemporary television, games and Transmedia franchises. The book makes the case for the centrality of seriality as an underlying aesthetic principle shaping much popular entertainment, offering new critical and theoretical vocabularies for understanding its narrative logic and cultural functions. Such work contributes much to our comprehension of the formal, industrial and ideological dimensions of popular entertainment.

Over the next few installments of this interview, Kelleter provides a cogent overview of some of the book's core insights about serial narrative, moving back and forth between contemporary and historical examples, between theory and application in ways that represents the strength of the collection as a whole.

HJ: Let’s start with a bit of back story. What can you tell us about the origins and history of the Popular Seriality research network?


FK: The Popular Seriality Research Unit started in 2010 as a group of 13 scholars from different German universities. We came from different disciplines, too, but all of us were fascinated by stories that never seem to end but then simply disappear one day, or stories that always come back looking the same, but then after the tenth time, or the hundredth time, they’re not the same anymore. The German Research Foundation gave us a large grant for six projects, and so for three years we got to watch a lot of television and read a lot of comics. But most importantly, we used these first years to hook up with like-minded scholars from all over the world—chiefly the US, however—and suddenly, we found ourselves immersed in this amazing international network of people and projects and schools of thought, all trying to understand serial popular culture. Our sponsor was satisfied, too, and we received another generous grant for three more years. At the time, we already knew that this would be the final season, because that’s the allowed maximum for Research Units in Germany, six years. So we added another seven projects, some of them reaching back into the 19th century, others about digital games, non-fictional seriality, and other topics.


HJ: How did this book emerge from the network’s ongoing investigations?


FK: In 2013, when we got the follow-up grant, the group’s core activities moved from Göttingen to Berlin. The book was conceived at this time, at the moment when we were both branching out and already beginning to think about the end. All in all, it seems appropriate that Media of Serial Narrative is coming out now, shortly after our big valedictory conference in 2016, but it’s not a conference volume. The book almost feels like a condensed summary of the Research Unit’s work, within and without the German core group. So we’ve got collaborative chapters that are based on projects from our first funding period, such as Ruth Mayer and Shane Denson on serial figures, or Christine Hämmerling and Mirjam Nast on what they call “quotidian integration.” And then there are chapters that are more explorative, because they’ve emerged from brand new projects, such as Kathleen Loock and me writing on film remakes as serial forms. Some of the contributors were Fellows of the Research Unit in Göttingen or Berlin or both, such as Jason Mittell, Sean O’Sullivan and Con Verevis. And we’ve got chapters by close collaborators, such as Jared Gardner, who’s been a tremendous inspiration for our comics projects, or Scott Higgins, a good friend of our cinema projects.


HJ: Why study popular seriality across genres, media, nations, and historical periods?


FK: To study seriality means to study things in motion. It’s more of a kinesiological task, if you will, not so much an ontological one. So the study of seriality is often the study of specific temporalities. Rhythms, speeds, frequencies, the timing or non-timing of pauses, intermissions, and gaps, but also larger historical conditions like the timeliness or untimeliness of modes of production and reception—all these kinetic concerns are essential to make sense of how serial stories make sense.


HJ: How are you defining the concept of popular seriality?


FK: I would preface any definition by pointing out that serial stories usually move forward in adaptive feedback loops with their own effects. This kind of feedback can be more or less direct; it’s not necessarily a matter of audiences immediately influencing a narrative—there are also more indirect forms of interaction between storytelling and story consumption. So I’m not making a populist argument for fan autonomy here, but I want to highlight that serial storytelling is evolving storytelling. And evolving storytelling is always dispersed storytelling. In other words, seriality (both in its episodic and its progressive manifestations) necessitates a certain division of labor and it usually provokes all kinds of authorization conflicts.

So, pointing out the importance of feedback loops is not the same as claiming that serial storytelling is democratic storytelling. Rather, we’re saying that series and serials can observe their own effects. They watch their audiences watching them—and they are able to react. As developing and proliferating stories—as stories that are not easily programmed toward a predetermined ending or an ending that would be really final, without potential further resurrections—series and serials are virtually forced to adapt to their own consequences, to the changes they effect in their cultural environments.

Here is a definition, then (with the term “series” referring to both episodic and progressing formats): series can be defined as self-observing systems. And self-observing systems always produce theories about their own motions—they do so in order to keep moving. Likewise, series usually experiment with formal identities and they “think” about their own possibilities of continuation. However, when I say that series are “doing” these things, I don’t mean that they are intentional entities. Of course series do not act like human beings—or instead of human beings. But they involve people and intentions. Just think about what it means that the producers of a specific serial text—the writers, illustrators, actors, photographers, marketing managers, and so on—are sometimes much younger than the series in question, and that they will often express a sense of practical commitment to “their” series rather than a sense of originating authorship.


HJ: What can popular seriality teach us more generally about the nature of popular culture?


FK: The larger argument here is that all serial forms are such entities of distributed intention and that they all tend to generate, in historically specific ways and forms, what I would call reproductive intelligence. In fact, this process can be observed not only in the evolution of individual series but in the evolution of popular culture at large. So when we focus on seriality in our study of popular culture, we will sooner or later be looking for vocabularies that help us describe popular culture’s systemic dimensions, its reproductive intelligence … which can include all kinds of reproductive stupidity too—and representational violence and injustice.


HJ: Given the centrality of seriality to many different media, why has there been so little scholarly writing on this topic?


FK: A lot of scholarship uses serial texts to make some argument or other. But it’s rare for these studies to truly engage with the seriality of their material. So you get a lot of articles and papers and talks about “the representation of this-or-that in X,” with X being a serial text. And that’s valid research but it’s not seriality studies.

At the other extreme, you find the scholasticism of both narratology and axiomatic master-thought. So there are formalist typologies that basically see seriality as a narrative device, with all sorts of classificatory problems and solutions in tow. In rhetorical competition with this approach but following a similar logic, you have the writings of Sartre or Deleuze or Adorno and their continuations in academic storytelling.

Both types of scholarship have given us absolutely useful vocabularies to make certain distinctions—tempting vocabularies, too, because they’re so easily re-applicable once you’ve overcome the initial difficulty of learning their production code. Narratological terminology and philosophical rhetoric are great time-saving machines. But they also tend to define seriality as a fairly abstract “principle” or “force” or “structure”—or, in the case of Sartre, as an axiological term that serves to uphold a somewhat questionable theory of “mass culture.” For Sartre, the concept of seriality is basically a scholastic tool to solve a scholastic problem, the problem of aligning an existentialist script with a Marxist script. And that’s true for a lot of theoretical employments of terms such as “series” or “seriality” or even “repetition” and “variation.” Philosophies of art and culture often take the concept of seriality as a given: as something that can be used to explain things rather than something in need of explanation, something in need of historical retracings. It’s like the reduction of kinetics to ontology again.


Frank Kelleter is Chair of the Department of Culture and Einstein Professor of North American Cultural History at John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany. His main fields of interest include the American colonial and Enlightenment periods, theories of American modernity, and American media and popular culture since the 19th century. He was the initiator and director of the Popular Seriality Research Unit (2010-2016). Frank writes in German and English but finds it incredibly difficult to translate his own texts. Most recent publications: Media of Serial Narrative (ed., 2017), David Bowie (Reclam, 2016), Serial Agencies: “The Wire” and Its Readers (2014), Populäre Serialität (ed., 2012).

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

While your book relies heavily on interviews with more than 80 people -- men and women -- involved in the television industry, you also rely on participant-observation -- your own experiences as a contributor to Current and Free Speech Television. What can you share of your experiences there and how did they contribute to your analysis of these forms of civic media? Why did Current, for example, fail to achieve its goals of democratizing television news?  

Between 2006 and 2009, I worked as a freelance documentary video producer for Current where I made 15 short videos on issues such as Iraqi refugees, divided cities like East Jerusalem, and religious contestation in India for UK, US, Irish, Italian cable and satellite television. This provided a valuable position from which to view the technoliberal ideals. It this was a heady time for the network as they were not being driven by economic liberal principles as much as by social liberal principles, meaning they didn’t have to worry about money too much and instead were burning their venture capital in an attempt to build hype around the very web 2.0, participatory culture ideals of media democratization, citizen video journalism, and other forms of technological empowerment.

As a go-to producer for Current I was at the front-lines of both receiving the propaganda about how networked technologies and new television-grade video cameras were transforming television—while at the same time receiving the precarious and unsufficient paychecks which enabled me to travel the world uninsured and unsupported. Fun, crazy, dangerous, and great for research. My position enabled me to embody the technoliberal paradox of technoliberalism. I was also able to see the weight of the contradiction eventually destroy the social liberal idealism as the market pressures mounted with the global financial crisis of 2008 and the exhaustion of the VC funds. (So, following the excellent work and guidance ofSherry Ortner and John Caldwell, I advocate that graduate students interested in the media industries attempt to work in those industries. No better access can be had!)

Current failed in terms of both economic liberalism and social liberalism, exposing the fallacy of that the technoliberal digital discourse can ameliorate this liberal paradox. The social liberal media democratization failed because there were not the global armies of camera-wielding activists and storytellers capable of making even remotely television-grade programming. Current did everything it could at film festivals, film schools, online and off, and found all of us and frankly there were not that many, a few hundred.

Democratization wasn’t the result but rather professionalization. Our content wasn’t that good, to be frank, and wasn’t scheduled but was randomly shuffled, so the audience didn’t develop around shows and stars so advertisers and cable providers weren’t interested. Eventually owners Gore and Hyatt sold the network to Al Jazeera for $100 million and a substantial personal profit, so it worked for these techno-elite and their technoliberal digital discourse apparently worked as well.

One of the most interesting chapters here deals with debates about the origin of the internet which erupted in the face of campaign statements by Al Gore and Barack Obama. What are some of the alternative understandings of digital history proposed? Who advocated them? And what do you see as the stakes in this debate?


Most people are familiar with former Vice President Al Gore’s statement about the internet while campaigning, “During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the internet,” uttered on CNN on March 9, 1999. But former President Obama also aligned himself with the internet on the campaign trail, saying on July 13, 2013: “The internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the internet so that all companies could make money off the internet.”

My argument is that aligning with the internet and all the good it symbolizes is a technoliberal political ploy. Gore fetishizes the internet while Obama mythologizes it and in the process both hope that their star will rise along with the NASDAQ and the hype of Web 1.0 for Gore and Web 2.0 for Obama.

But than a degradation ritual began in which both politicians are lambasted in the press. The different approaches used by the critical journalists expose the various types of technoliberal digital discourse. L. Gordon Crovitz at The Wall Street Journal started the polemic by going against the accepted wisdom and saying that former President Obama was wrong, it was Xerox PARC, and therefore corporations and not the government made the internet. Farhad Manjoo of Slate rebutted that the President was correct, the state did fund and support what became the internet. Harry McCracken of Time added to the debate by bringing back an old idea that never gets old in technology journalism, that it was not the state or corporations, but brilliant individuals like Tim Berners-Lee who created HyperText Markup Language (HTML), who should be thanked for creating the internet. Finally, Steven Johnson writing in The New York Times said it was not states, corporations, nor smart individuals but the people, namely, a public of open-source coders that should be thanked for building the software with which states, corporations, and individuals access the inter- net. These four liberal historiographies form contradictory dyadic pairs between economic and social liberalism.

What is at stake is what is always at stake in historiographical revisions: the path dependent direction of the present and future. And there is a clear winner, Crovitz.

Though likely the least accurate of the four historiographies, Crovitz’s argument is winning the present direction of internet — into the hands of the neoliberal elites and the politicians that support them. It is important, to differentiate the technoliberal and the neoliberal elites. Much like corporate liberals, technoliberals give lip-service to social liberalism and corporate, social, and self responsibility. Not so with the neoliberal elites whose ideology is non-contradictory. It is a pure breed of efficient economic liberalism without the baggage of social liberalism. Considering the ascent and present domination of technocapitalism in the last two decades, to read Crovitz is to hear the gloating of a victor. News Corp. owns The Wall Street Journal in which Crovitz gave his technocapitalist historiography that falls directly in line with the neoliberal principles which governs News Corp. and Murdoch’s longtime relationship with governments and other media corporations. With the 2008 US Supreme Court ruling, Citizens United v the Federal Election Commission, enabling unlimited economic contributions by corporations to political campaigns, on the premise that money is speech, the centrality of economic liberalism in US representational democracy is secured. While civil society groups like the Media Reform Coalition in the UK and Free Press in the US advocate for network neutrality and against media conglomeration, they have been largely omitted from power. This had been going on for decades but with the assignment by Trump of Ajit Pai to be the FCC Chairman, the final assault on socially liberal regulation of television and the internet will begin.

The media reform movement in the United States has often been divided between those who reach fatalistic conclusions based on the analysis of media ownership/concentration and those who maintain somewhat more optimistic perspectives based on expanded access to the means of production and circulation. Does your book offer any alternatives for thinking about what forms of media reform we should be advocating? What should we be fighting for?

As a cultural anthropologist, I need to oscillate between empirical case studies and broader theoretical interpretations and socio-political contexts. Hopefully, this regular movement between the micro and the macro dissolves the binaries, dualities, and other reductive absolutes. At each of the poles it is easy to be either cynical or optimistic.

At the political economic structural level the media landscape appears to be one in which the scale is winner-takes-all, resistance is coopted, and there is less and less opportunity to speak and be heard. On the ethnographic level one can participate in inspiring actions of media empowerment. If one adds the element of time, ebbs and flows of relative openness and closure become evident.

But in order for the openness which is necessary for robust participatory culture to survive and thrive activists need to focus on developing both the micro-level hacker-like skills of technological use and misuse as well as macro-level policy interventions. That way, if the trends toward closure and technocapitalism continue to dominate the present age of television and internet convergence in a mode of negative liberty and economic or neoliberalism than we are at least preparing to develop the next transmission system which can create a disruptive opening for temporary amateur and activist voicing.

I think the present is more about this form of subversion than it is about counter-hegemonic resistance and policy activism. We shouldn’t be fighting, but rather just getting on with making the subversive media we want to make, legal or not. In the memory of Aaron Swartz, we should just do what is right regardless of legality. Illegal downloads/uploads, radical free speech, whistleblowing, exfiltration, dark net uses, TOR encryption, DDoS—these practices are illegal while the NSA and GCHQ and other cyber-state cops are regularly using them against citizens in unwarranted investigations. States have become hackers while hackers are being thrown into state and federal prisons.

This is one of the issues taken up in my other 2017 book, After the Internet, and will be the single focus on my new book with Luca Follis, Hacker States (a continuation of concepts developed here and here): what rights will remain and what will be the future of democracy if nation states continue to prosecute hackers while hacking, leaking and depositing scandalous material, and using bots to pollute the public sphere?

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

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

What might those of us who care about today’s struggles over participatory culture in the digital realm learn at looking at some of the earlier moments where some degree of grassroots media power seemed to be promised around broadcast and local access cable television? When a new technology emerges, strike early, learn how to use the technology quickly, and also develop an understanding of the policy as well. In the book I develop a concept I call “proformation”, a portmanteau of pro duction/re formation. It is technological and political action to gain public access to the means of production on information infrastructures, be they satellite television systems or the internet. The concept addresses the hybrid culture of information reform and information production at the interface of private information and media reform, infrastructural praxis, and communications rights.

Proformation is inspired by Chris Kelty’s notion of the “recursive public,” a concept derived from his fieldwork with free and open source programmers, who not only argue about technology but through building technology. Similarly, in my fieldwork with politically-motivated independent television producers I noticed that they had to adapt their video production and broadcasting technologies to fit and in some instances challenge the policies of their time.

For instance, one of the networks I studied was the progressive Free Speech TV (FSTV) which was on seven cable networks (1989–1995) before being ejected by an anti-public interest telecommunication conglomerate CEO, John Malone. For the next five years (1995–2000), it adapted to a nomadic lifestyle as a “program service,” consisting of VHS packaged content that it “bicycled” to public interest networks that would air the content. As the same time, FSTV petitioned the US Congress and adapted itself to new policies regulating emergent information infrastructures. So it is important to be a multi-hyphenate: video producer and editor, but also a lawyer and politician, and sometimes a cyclist.

I’d also encourage media producers/activists to see that periods of closure give way to moments of openness—and new production and transmission technologies are the reasons for such apertures developing. So we can’t be luddites and must look for the emergent in places where we might not like to look. For instance, I am really into drone piloting as a new mode of documentary video production, a new cyborg way of seeing and documenting information infrastructure, as seen in Points of Presence, our recent experimental video on the undersea fibre optical cable system in the North Atlantic, and as a way of understanding the way Facebook and Google see the atmosphere as a new space to colonise and privatise with their drones and Loon balloons.

But many of my colleagues become uneasy when I mention drones, seeing only the military application of the technologies. (As we know, a lot of important information infrastructure—satellites, the internet, and GPS came from military investment). STS is quite popular in sociology in the UK and anthropology in the US, and STS scholars are happy to critique technologies but less likely to use them, hack them, break them, etc. (This is certainly less so at your previous employer MIT but that maker/theorise culture is rarer outside of the Media Lab). I’d encourage activist/scholars to try out some auto-ethnographic experimentation in socio-technical domains, and feel how progressive praxis emerges around new technologies.

Drawing on Adam Smith and Issiah Berlin, you make a distinction between positive and negative definitions of liberty. How might these concepts be helpful in understanding what needs to be done if we want to insure access and impact of grassroots media in the digital era?


If we believe that the government’s business should not only be protecting freedom of speech but also creating the conditions for speaking and being heard than we are proponents of positive liberty. Negative liberty, is a more Ayn Randian ideology of complete independence from government assistance. Grassroots media, idealized and by definition, is a community of media practice and political activism, that develops autonomous from government assistance and often in reaction to the absence of community-minded media.

So, in a surprising reversal, grassroots media grows in an environment of negative freedom—freedom from the financial, tax, and technical aid of the state. For if there is a robust state-support for grassroots media through grants, access to technology and studios, and platforms for television distribution than there wouldn’t be the grassroots frustration, ambition, and creativity—the DIY and hacker ethos—to make do regardless. It wouldn’t be grassroots media, would it?

Most people don’t live in a world of positive liberty—with state support for community media but rather a world dominated by negative liberty—with little to no support for small-scale media. Again, the binary categories are problematic. That is why I pair the discussion of positive and negative liberty, following the earlier work of Thomas Streeter, with a conversation on the varieties of liberalism: social liberalism (associated with positive liberty and state support for community media), economic liberalism (a soft negative liberty which provides lip-service to social liberalism but is more closely aligned with corporate liberalism), and, finally,  neoliberalism (associated with extreme negative liberty, and a survival of the fittest media ecological perspective). These variations of liberalism provide a bit more typological nuance to a topic with great cultural and historical multiplicity. Which is a great segue into technoliberalism, the title of the book.

How are you defining technoliberalism? In what ways does this concept represent the alignment of a particular model of technological determinism with some of the core tenants of traditional forms of liberalism? What alternatives might you propose in terms of the rallying cries for those of us who want to see true media reform in the United States?


Technoliberalism is a left-liberal, deterministic, utopian digital discourse. It claims that a faith in networked technology can ameliorate the contradictions of an ideology that includes both economic and social liberalism. So liberals like Al Gore, Howard Dean—Daniel Kriess does a great job of articulating Dean’s technoliberalism, and Barack Obama are featured characters in Technoliberalism who discuss the internet and enact digital strategies in such a way so as to assume that the internet can both improve social well-being and economic prosperity.

I see it as a discourse because it attempts to ignore the difficulties in the American media ecology of having both a for-profit, spectrum selling-off, anti-network neutrality, un-supported and under-attack public media domain and also have free speech, freedom of online assembly, the right to be heard, and other hallmarks of a what Nancy Fraser calls a vibrant “subaltern counterpublic.”

I don’t think we can have both a negatively liberated economic liberalism and a positively liberated social liberalism, without strong legislation and a direct funding system the latter dissipates. Which, may not be a bad thing because it leaves a void where more radical, anti-hegemonic, that is, structurally transformative media practices, may emerge instead of the counter-hegemonic, which is a system of thought that is critical of the dominant system but ultimately supportive of that status quo.

The rallying cries are different depending upon how scrappy you are willing to be, how much transformation you can handle agitating for, and what types of hacker tactics you can draw from in attempting to achieve your aims. Whatever transmission and consumption platform is used to present the cultural form of “television” it is a hegemonic or at best a counter-hegemonic system, either affirming or lightly critiquing the status quo. The book identifies the few anti-hegemonic moments and how new technologies created these critical openings in television and how the larger culture of television production, transmission, and consumption—which in the final summation is hegemonic—finally dampened or ameliorated these radical events.

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

Framing Dreams and the Technological Uncanny (Part Two)

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

Still from Paprika, by Satoshi Kon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Framing Dreams and the Technological Uncanny

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

From Little Nemo in Slumberland, by Winsor McCay.

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

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

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

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

Still from Paprika, by Satoshi Kon.

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


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



Framing Dreams and the Technological Uncanny (Part One)

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

Framing Dreams and the Technological Uncanny

by Mina Kaneko

From Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, by Winsor McCay.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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



Works Cited

"Oedipus and the Sphinx " The Met's Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. N.p., n.d. Web. Accessed 13 Nov. 2016.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Westworld Compressed: Rose is a Rose is a Rose is a Rose...


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


Rose is a Rose is a Rose is a Rose

by Noa P. Kaplan

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


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


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

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

Downtown Browns: Interactive Web Series, Intersectionality and Intimacy


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


Downtown Browns: Interactive Web Series, Intersectionality and Intimacy

By Emilia Yang

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Fig. 2

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

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

Interactive film and games

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

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

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

Fahrenheit 451 (1966)

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

Level 1: Representing an intersectional approach of Brown articulation

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

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

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

Fig. 3

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

Fig. 4

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

Fig. 5

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


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

Fig. 7

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

Fig. 8

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

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

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

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

Level 2: Simulating agency and structure

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

(Kinder 2000).

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

Simulating agency

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


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

Intersubjective experiences

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

Fig. 10

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

Fig. 11

Spatialized storytelling

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

Fig. 12

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

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

Level 3: Desiring intimacy against empathy

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

Ann Anthropy on Twitter

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fig. 13

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

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

About the author

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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

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

Reflections on My Involvement with Game Studies

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


For more information on the “20 years later celebration”, visit


Bibliography: My Selected Writings on Computer and Video Games


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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Follow her on twitter @KishonnaGray.

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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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