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

HJ: Can the immense amount of backstory produced by serial texts become a drag on the future development of the story? Are audiences less likely to jump onto a story when they feel like they need to do a lot of homework to get up to speed?

FK: I think aligning audience desires with backstory management is always a balancing act. More than that, it’s a balancing act that continually has to readjust itself to a current state of technological capabilities and role differentiations (i.e., how audiences understand themselves as audiences). This being said, serial texts have always defined their backstories selectively and strategically. Any serial narrative tends to change its pasts in the act of moving forward; backstory evolves just like the story itself evolves. This is what is meant by “recursive progression” in the book’s first chapter.

This particular feature of serial storytelling didn’t pose such a big problem as long as serial stories could count on audiences simply “forgetting” all those things and elements that didn’t make it into the current version of a backstory. After all, evolving narratives are defined by the fact that they produce more information than is required by the simple need for coherence and continuity, because such excess information then provides potential connecting options for future usage.

Conversely, everything that’s not repeated, reanimated, or re-presented will not be “remembered” in the current backstory. And that’s okay, because this surplus usually doesn’t challenge a narrative’s evolving sense of consistency: it’s simply not part of the past that’s present. But how do you deal with audiences that conceivably remember everything that has ever been told in a story, so that all connecting options ever presented on screen or paper become potential backstory?

This is a real dilemma for current series. Serial texts in the digital age have to deal with audiences that are often capable of accessing every bit and piece of serial narration. Such audiences are likely to put much higher demands on internal logic and coherence. But then, the more a series tries to meet these demands, the more complicated its narrative will become until it’s just not that attractive to newcomers anymore. As you say, people have to do “homework” to fully enjoy—or even to comprehend—what is being narrated.

HJ: If this is so, what might a better theory of seriality help us understand about the challenges and opportunities this extensive backstory represents?

FK: One way of dealing with the dilemma of extensive backstory is to invite audience members to understand themselves as contributors to a collective game of sense-making. Lost had a good run with this strategy for most of its duration, continually producing more information than a single human mind could possibly process (which is, of course, the very definition of “complexity”). As a result, audience engagement shifted to collaborative acts of playful story reconstruction that mirrored and reinforced the complexity of the series itself. In order not to overtax individual audience members, Lost offered them roles as part-time storytellers in a huge division of narrative labor. It worked quite well until this game had to come to an end.

Another strategy consists in not even trying to connect everything, because this will result in byzantine structures that still won’t cohere in the end. Such overtly complicated (not necessarily “complex”) backstory constructions can also become supremely boring, as the Star Wars prequels demonstrated when they traded storytelling for fastidious myth management.

To avoid this, a serial text can branch out into unexplored narrative spaces, opening up side-worlds or parallel universes that are connected only at one or two plausible points of transfer with established story lines. So that’s stressing the serialization of world-building over the serialization of narrative, and it seems to be a fairly sustainable strategy right now. Taking my cue from your own contribution to the book, I would dare to predict that in some media and some genres, serial storytelling will perhaps be increasingly eclipsed by serial word-building. We’re certainly seeing something like this happening in certain digital games, as Shane Denson and Andreas Sudmann suggest in their chapter.

HJ: How do we situate reboots of media properties in our understanding of the ways seriality operates in contemporary popular culture?

FK: Rebooting is another strategy of dealing with the dilemma of byzantine boredom versus quasi-omniscient audiences. Con Verevis says in his chapter that the reboot may be the film-remaking format of choice for the digital era, because it doesn’t try to cancel earlier versions but feeds on them, operating according to the logic of co-existence.

But there are different rebooting strategies. Kathleen Loock is currently writing this amazing history of film remaking practices, in which she argues that all these formats—the sequel, the prequel, the reboot, but also the classical “remake” in the sense of a re-filming—are best understood as historically flexible praxeologies rather than formal categories. This means that they always bleed into each other, so that even the most faithful “remake” will always also contain aspects of sequelization in a kind of second-order seriality.

The same with reboots: there are many practical options. Reboots can serially reanimate storyworlds that have lain dormant for a long time, almost in an act of archeological rediscovery. They can do so with storyworlds that were originally serialized or not. But reboots can also turn to recent complex multiverses and then return them to an initial state of enforced simplicity. And many other possibilities.

One of the most interesting cases lately was Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which looks like a cross between a prequel (situating itself in a timeline before a recently concluded series) and a tie-in or spin-off (filling in, or creating, blank spaces in the original narrative), but then it’s really more of a reboot, because tonally and ideologically, this film offers not just a variation but a decided alternative to existing Harry Potter stories (much more so than most previous spin-off series have done, I would argue). Unlike Rogue One, which implicitly re-makes the first Star Wars film in the form of a prequelized side-story, Fantastic Beasts really tries to re-think—and actually to qualify—the original series. That’s a risky move, but highly interesting. We will have to wait and see how it continues and how far this can be pushed (or not).

HJ: Do you have any thoughts about Rogue One as an intervention in the Star Wars universe, given the degree to which George Lucas’s original inspiration for the franchise emerged from classic movie serials of his youth? What kinds of interventions does this new film make into the serial structure of the series as a whole?

FK: I’ve heard the term “legacyquel” used for The Force Awakens—and I think it fits Rogue One as well. If this is indeed the film’s goal, the result is fairly successful. Formally, Rogue One achieves a largely convincing balance between remembering and renewing, fan service and pacing. If we consider how many Star Wars films have sunk under the weight of their accumulated narrative cargo, this one is pretty agile. But it’s also a bit redundant, after The Force Awakens already stressed the remaking aspects of sequelization.

So you wonder why Rogue One doesn’t make more use of the freedom provided by its sideway position in the series. But then, versioning and modernization—rather than revision—seem to be key ambitions of both films: both The Force Awakens and Rogue One basically revisit the same narrative template and then try to update it for a new media generation.

In a word, these are tightly franchised films, perhaps more so than seems necessary. So we get all these dialogues which reference irrelevant names and events, and such dialogues are always more obtrusive than visual Easter eggs, because unlike something you simply see or don’t, a dialogue always takes up time and it potentially confuses viewers who don’t know if this information is significant for the story at hand or if it merely seeks to place the film within the franchise. Even in Rogue One, there were some moments early on when I feared another retconning disaster, but then the film quickly got its act together.

Of course, the emotional climax comes in the end, when we find ourselves at the beginning of the franchise again—but not in terms of performative coherence because the 1977 film looks hopelessly obsolete now, not like something that could possibly “follow” Rogue One in terms of film style or technological standard. So, the emotional force of this prequel effect truly resides in second-order seriality (as Kathleen Loock and myself have called it). Which is to say that this scene touches audiences at the level of their media memories, their generational belonging, their biographical brand attachments.

I watched Rogue One the day after Carrie Fisher died, so the appearance of her digital avatar in the end was both poignant and creepy—almost obscene, in fact. But my fifteen-year old daughter didn’t think this moment was particularly important or powerful, although she knows the original Star Wars, but for her it’s nothing special, just some old film. For many viewers of my generation, that’s different.

In terms of modernization, then, the chief variation—or intervention—of this new version really occurs at the level of representational politics. Dan Hassler-Forest has written insightfully about this. I agree with him that Rogue One’s progressive casting policy allows the film to discard the metaphysical quest plot of earlier versions and the hokey Freudian family drama. But even without these elements, Rogue One is ruled by the same media nostalgia that animated George Lucas’s original, only that this time it’s not nostalgia for classical Western and adventure serials but for earlier Star Wars movies.

And I would argue that this strongly shapes the film’s political structure as well, above and beyond its diversity activism—which is a little compromised anyway by the sacrificial death of its entire non-white cast, as if we’ve watched a one-off redshirts saga. Either way, exchanging white Jedi knights for multicultural rebels simply doesn’t change the fact that this film is still telling the same story of populist uprising that in many Anglophone countries passes for antifascism.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to downplay the importance and timeliness of Rogue One’s representational achievements—it’s the best thing about the film—but Rogue One is performing this innovative move in a slightly gimmicky fashion, while simultaneously reproducing the same generic (almost genetic) script that’s been organizing American political storytelling across party lines for a long time now, the script of “the people” vs. the evils of centralized government. This also explains why the film’s innovatively cast characters turn out to be such easily recognizable figures. Jyn Erso, but also Rey in The Force Awakens or, for that matter, Katniss in The Hunger Games are all variations of one type—a fact that considerably qualifies the originality of casting a female lead.

So, regarding the film’s politics—and I hope I’m not stepping on anyone’s toes here—Rogue One’s understanding of fascism is pretty much the same well-intentioned but ultimately inane understanding of fascism that has been dominating Hollywood films from classical sound serials through Star Wars and Indiana Jones all the way to The Hunger Games. And I wouldn’t even complain about this, because a lot of it is fun to watch and told tongue-in-cheek, so that ideology-critical “decoding” isn’t a particularly appropriate method for reading these texts, but in 2016/17, all of this is happening at a time when we’re in dire need of more accurate theories of neo-fascism and when we could use some mature political storytelling in our popular media. I’m not sure this is what the conspicuous self-politicization of Rogue One provides. In the end, it’s a film about Heldentod with digitally resurrected celebrities. That’s scary stuff, if you think about it.

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 One)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tracing the Roots of Media Literacy: Raymond Williams and John Fiske

A while back, media literacy educator and advocate Renee Hobbs approached me about contributing an essay to a new anthology she was editing: Hobbs asked some leading scholars to share personal essays about the people who have influenced their own thinking about media, popular culture, and learning. I was asked to contribute something about the role Birmingham cultural studies had played in the development of media literacy, and I was happy to agree.

We were supposed to describe our intellectual “grandparents”, and I ended up writing a deeply personal essay that discussed the relationship between my work on participatory culture and that of Raymond Williams and John Fiske. Along the way, I  also shared something of my biological grandparents — on my father’s side — and the ways I saw myself in some of William’s more autobiographical writings.

Hobbs’ book, Exploring the Roots of Digital and Media Literacy Through Personal Narrative, has just come out, so I asked her if I could share a bit of my essay as a way of whetting your appetites for this important collection.  Here are a few others who have contributed to this anthology, which offers a novel way to introduce students to the roots of the media literacy movement:

  • David Weinberger on Martin Heidegger
  • Lance Strate on Marshall McLuhan
  • Dana Polan on Roland Barthes
  • Cynthia Lewis on Mikhail Bakhtin
  • Douglas Kellner on Herbert Marcuse
  • Amy Petersen Jensen on Bertholt Brecht
  • Donna E. Alvermann on Simone de Beauvoir
  • Jeremiah Dyehouse on John Dewey
  • Renee Hobbs on Jerome Bruner
  • Vanessa Domine on Neil Postman
  • Peter Gutierrez on Scott McCloud

What follows is an excerpt from my contribution. There’s more where this comes from:

John Fiske can be described as the Johnny Appleseed of Cultural Studies, given the ways that his personal journey as an academic who worked in the United Kingdom, Australia, and finally, North America, helped to spread and reframe the cultural studies approach to new generations of scholars. Fiske also provides an important bridge between his mentor, the Welsh born critic and novelist Raymond Williams, and my generation, many of whom were Fiske’s students, who helped to adopt the British-based approach to deal with the particulars of U.S. culture. Read together, our story represents one trajectory in the relations between cultural studies and media literacy.

Starting with a strong belief in the critical agency of “ordinary” people, the multidisciplinary field of Cultural Studies documents the ways everyday people create meaning and pleasure through their everyday practices. Media Literacy as a movement has sought to insure that everyone has access to the critical literacies which allow them to meaningfully consume, critique, produce — and now participate within — media. One could argue that cultural studies is the theory, media literacy is the practice. We need look no further than NAMLE’s Core Principles of Media Literacy Education, which insist that the concept of literacy can be applied to a broad range of different forms of media and popular culture, that media content gets actively interpreted by individuals and groups based on local frames of reference, and that media literacy is fundamental to the promotion of active political and civic participation, all concepts that come — at least in part — from the British cultural studies tradition.

Along with the historian E. P. Thompson, the literary critic Richard Hogarth, and the theorist Stuart Hall, Williams is widely acknowledged to be one of the founders of the cultural studies approach. More than any other essay, William’s “Culture is Ordinary” (1958) set the tone for the British Cultural Studies movement. Williams offers a more inclusive model of culture, a concept Williams would described in Keywords (1976) as “one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language.” Here, Williams tells us, “Culture is ordinary: that is the first fact. Every human society has its own shape, its own purposes, its own meanings. Every human society expresses these, in institutions and in arts and learning. The making of a society is the finding of common meanings and directions, and its growth is an active debate and amendment under the pressures of experience, contact, and discovery, writing itself into the land.” (p.93) William’s conception of culture contrasts with that of Matthew Arnold, whose 1869 essay, “Culture and Anarchy,” had defined culture in terms of “the best knowledge, the best ideas of their times,” seeing the promotion of high cultural values to the general population as the best defense against what he saw as “harsh, uncouth” about modern industrial culture. Under Arnold, some aspects of human life—the most elevated or perfected aspects, those removed from immediate utilitarian value and from the harshness of a growing machine culture—were worth passing down to the next generation, while others were disposable. Those who embrace Arnold focus on the value they see as intrinsic to “great works,”while those who criticize the tradition focus on what it excludes–including most of what has been written by women, minorities, the developing world, as well as media and popular culture.

William’s approach is expansive, embracing the arts and sciences, the exceptional and the ordinary, the traditional and the emergent. For Williams, culture is at once the stuff of learning, an acquired set of skills and appreciations, and the stuff of experience. Perhaps, the essay’s most radical element is the way Williams pits his own lived experience growing up working class in the Welsh countryside against what his own mentors were teaching him at Cambridge: “When the Marxists say that we live in a dying culture and that the masses are ignorant, I have to ask them, as I did ask them, where on Earth they have lived. A dying culture, and ignorant masses, are not what I have known and see.” (p.96) Cultural studies commits itself to better understanding the ongoing struggle over what counts as culture and who gets to decide what culture matters.

Williams is at his most moving when he describes what reading and writing meant for his family: “My grandfather, a big hard laborer, wept while he spoke, finely and excitedly, at the parish meeting”, (p. 92) he tells us, while his father, a labor organizer, read through the lines of news stories to identify entrenched economic interests. He talks about the value his people placed on library books and tell us many more would have gone to college except for the financial responsibilities they bore to their family and their communities. He describes a visit home after time in college and discusses the tension he felt within himself as he looked at their culture through eyes shaped by formal education: “Now they read, they watch, this work we are talking about: some of them quite critically, some with a great deal of pleasure. Very well, I read different things, watch different entertainments, and I am quite sure why they are better…But talking to my family, to my friends, talking, as we were, about our own lives, about people, about feelings, could I in fact find this lack of quality we are discussing? I’ll be honest — I looked; my training has done this for me. I can only say that I found as much natural fitness of feeling, as much quick discrimination, as much clear grasp of ideas within that range of experiences as I have found anywhere.”(p.99) He contrasts this sense of a community eagerly engaged in conversation with the snootiness of the tea shop just outside his university, which taught him in the most painful way possible that some see culture as “the outward and emphatically visible sign of a special kind of people.” (p. 93) Williams suggests, “If this is culture, we don’t want it.” (p. 93)

Through such images, Williams conveys his discomfort with the policing of cultural boundaries, the ranking of cultural products, and the dismissal of other people’s culture. While himself critical of the “cheapjack” quality of the new industrially produced culture, Williams articulates a great distrust of the “directive” impulse in the Cambridge intellectuals who seek to “impose” their cultural assumptions on the unlearned masses. “There are no masses, but ways of seeing people as masses,” Williams writes (p.96). And he also distrusts the anti-intellectual impulses in his own background, the ways that working class critics dismiss “culture vultures” and “do gooders”, even when doing so cuts them off from resources that might improve the quality of their lives. Something vital is at stake in these struggles over culture, and his goal as an educator was to help people to better articulate their own cultural politics.

“Culture is Ordinary” was published in 1958, the year I was born. I never knew Williams, never heard him speak, never got to talk with him, but I would first encounter “Culture is Ordinary” when doing a directed reading for John Fiske at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. When Williams writes about the experience of taking a bus through the mountains to go off to college, I have come to trace my own drive across the Blue Ridge mountains to go to graduate school.   I have come to see myself as perhaps several generations further into the process of cultural, economic, and technological change that Williams describes there. I had been raised in Georgia, the son of a construction company owner, the grandson of a sheet metal worker, and the great-grandson of a dirt farmer. Across three generations, my family had left the farm, moved to the city, and then, to suburbia, and our class status had shifted along the way. As an upwardly mobile middle class youth, I had experienced with distaste the trappings of “redneck culture” which still found their way into my home: I wanted nothing to do with that “shit-kicking” bluegrass music my grandparents listen to and I cringed when they used earthy language to describe themselves and their values. Yet, I was also starting to make my peace with my roots. When I was heading off to graduate school, my dirt-poor grandfather gave me some money — a small amount for most, but a kingly fortune for him — to take with me on my journey. As I stood in his workroom, surrounded by rusty wire and scrap metal he had salvaged by the roadside, not to mention wooden crosses he had carved by hand, he told me about his own first steps away from the family farm when he went away to France during the first world war. Despite having only a fourth grade education, he had marked in the front of his King James Bible the number of times he read it cover to cover. And alongside it, in his desk, could be found his union card, a book of the collected speeches of FDR, and a postcard depicting Will Rogers, each a marker of a particular form of grassroots politics that had shaped his world view. I’ve come to hear some of that progressive politics as it gets expressed through the bluegrass music I once held in disdain and now, the twangier, the more atonal, the better. I’ve come to appreciate that my grandmother, who made quilts, was a remix artist, who took patches of leftover cloth from the local textile mills and working with other women, made them into something artful which could be used to express their shared joy when a new couple got married or a new baby was brought into the world.

I don’t think I ever felt so “southern” as I did when I left the south to pursue my education. And so, when I first encountered Williams’ account of his struggles to reconcile what he had learnt at the family dinner table with what he was being taught at Cambridge, I recognized myself in his conflicts, and through his eyes, I came to a deeper appreciation of who I was and where I had come from.

As a graduate student, I also felt a strange disconnect from what I knew as a fan about the ways that everyday people might critically and creatively engage with media texts and what I was being taught by my own professors, at a time when prevailing forms of media theory stressed the power of media texts to suture their readers into a powerful ideological system which always worked against their own interests.

And this is the moment when John Fiske entered my life. The first time I saw him, I was struck by his broad toothy grin, the crinkle of his leathery skin, the wicked sparkle in his squinting eyes, and the Akubra hat that he was wearing in the frozen wastelands of Iowa City. He entered our lives as “the Man From Down Under” — something exotic, something wild and untamed, yet it did not take long to discover his gentleness, his modesty, above all, his care for his students.

When Fiske came to the University of Iowa, he sparked a degree of intellectual excitement I have not experienced since. Every week, more students were showing up at his seminar, eager to learn what for us was a new conceptual framework, drawn from cultural studies that informed his work. Like Williams, Fiske offered us a way to see the world that was critical of inequalities of opportunity and the imposition of cultural hierarchies, yet which was hopeful about the prospects for meaningful change and respectful of diverse forms of cultural experience.

Raymond Williams had been Fiske’s personal tutor when he was pursuing his BA and MA in English Literature at Cambridge, and so it would be hard to imagine a better guide to the British cultural studies tradition. I was lucky to have studied under Fiske twice — first when he was a visiting scholar at the University of Iowa and then when he was a faculty member at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Like any great mentor, he empowered me to find my own voice, to draw on my own knowledge and experience, and to make my own original contribution to the field. I soaked up everything I could learn from this man, and in the process, absorbed vocabulary, concepts, philosophies, and ideological commitments, that have become so deeply enmeshed in my own world view, that I am still surprised to come across phrases in his writing that I had thought entirely my own. And, my own commitment to media literacy is deeply bound up with the things I learned from him and through him, from Williams.

When I wrote to Fiske, now long retired, and asked him about his relationship to the concept of media literacy, he stressed that the term was one which he never used directly, but that in retrospect, he now realized that he had been working through ideas about media literacy across his entire career: “I learnt the close reading skills of New Criticism while studying English literature at Cambridge, and soon realized that I wanted to apply them to popular media, television in particular, rather than literature. I had two interlinked aims. One was to show that TV was as multi-layered as poetry and thus worthy of equally serious attention, and the other was to equip ‘literate’ TV readers with the analytic skills to protect themselves against the hegemonic thrust of mass TV. My later work on the active audience grew from evidence that teaching this defensive literacy was less necessary than I had believed. Audiences were already literate in their viewing and had little need of academics like me. They were using their literacy not just defensively but actively in a way that turned a hegemonic text into a subordinate pleasure. They taught me what actual media literacy was all about.” (Personal correspondence with the author, 2013)

To read the rest of this essay, check out Hobbs’ exciting new book.

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

In 1999, the University of Southern California hosted the Interactive Frictions conference, organized by Steve Anderson, Marsha Kinder and Tara McPherson, with participants including some of the leading digital theorists, artists,  and game designers of the period. Among those featured were: Edward Branigan, Justine Cassell, Anne-Marie Duguet,Katherine Hayles, Vilsoni Hereniko, Henry Jenkins (that’s me!), Isaac Julien, Norman Klein, George Landow, Brenda Laurel, Erik Loyer, Peter Lunenfeld, Lev Manovich, Patricia Mellencamp, Pedro Meyer, Margaret Morse, Erika Muhammad, Janet Murray, Michael Nash, Marcos Novak, Randall Packer, Mark Pesce, Vivian Sobchack, Sandy Stone,  Yuri Tsivian and many others. I speak at many conferences each year, but this remains in my memory a defining event in terms of my own thinking about digital media and a conference where I met a whole bunch of folks who I have ended up working with over the past decade and a half.  For me, the conference brings back memories of the launch of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program, which I was able to discuss in my remarks at the event, and also represents the first of a series of interactions with the USC faculty that led ultimately to my decision to move here almost six years ago.

Last year, Kinder and McPherson revisited this conference with a new book, Transmedia Frictions: The Digital, The Arts, and the Humanities, which brought together many of the original participants, who shared essays that built upon, but also artfully revisited, their original contributions at the event. The result is a great opportunity to reflect on the evolution of the digital arts and humanities across the intervening years,  allowing us to test our original impressions and to reformulate them in response to so much that has happened since.

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

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

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

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

InteractiveFrictions:CatalogCover 

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

KinderFilmReels

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

BloodCinemaDisc

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

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

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

Runaways Cover

Runaways Interface

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

content

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

Labrinth Project

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

InteractiveFrictions:CatalogCover

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

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

IF Exhibition

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

Labrinth Team

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

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

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

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

As you note, there has been a struggle throughout much of the 20th century between fundamentalist Christianity and science, particularly around the topic of evolution, but also around issues of sexuality and reproductive rights. How have some evangelical leaders been able to reconcile a concern for climate change with skepticism about what their members often see as the “ideological” nature of modern science?

One of the groups I interviewed were the leaders behind Creation Care, which was a kind of sub-movement at the time of my research in the mid to late 2000s. These were the same people who had worked on “What would Jesus drive?” a highly successful campaign to turn transportation into “a moral issue” for Christian communities.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

You argue that part of the problems is that scientists and journalists have conflicting professional ideologies, which prohibit both groups from being strong advocates for the importance of climate change and the values of any particular plan of action. Explain.

What initially got me interested in thinking about climate change were the debates I had encountered between scientists and journalists about whose fault it was that the public didn’t care (enough) about climate change. Yet, when I began researching this problem, I encountered a lot more common ground between scientists and journalists than might be obvious at first glance, particularly in regards to observing and negotiating with professional expectations of objectivity, distance, and independence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Many of us have a strong sense that gender differences are enforced in Japanese culture. I had the experience of crossing to the wrong section of a manga shop in Akihabara and seeming to create some consternation amongst the other patrons. Yet, in many ways, moe itself involves various kinds of transgressions of gender barriers – men consuming texts created initially for a market of young girls. Can you share with us a bit more about the ways gender is reinforced or transgressed in the moe culture you are describing? What does moe masculinity look like?

First of all, I don’t want to give the impression that moe is somehow limited to male fans of media featuring or originally targeting young girls. For one of my first major research projects in Japan, I spent a year with female fans of manga and anime, who referred to themselves as fujoshi, which means “rotten girls.” Why rotten? Well, because they enjoyed watching manga and anime featuring charismatic male characters, who they then would imagine sexual relationships between. They drew fanzines about these imagined romantic and sexual relationships, which they called “couplings,” and then sold these fanzines at conventions or published them online.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you hope to achieve with this book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

There’s Ain’t No Moe!

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

You also give us a glimpse into the emergence of a generation of Japanese academics who regularly write about moe and otaku culture more generally. Most of this work remains in Japanese, though small samples are starting to get translated into English and have become part of conversations about the global dimensions of fandom. Who do you see as some of the most important thinkers to emerge from this strand of research and what arguments there do you think are pertinent to western researchers trying to address questions of fandom and media consumption more generally?

There are many really fascinating thinkers who in some way or another intersect with otaku culture! Ōtsuka Eiji is one that immediately comes to mind. Parts of Ōtsuka’s work on media mix have been translated by Marc Steinberg, and his arguments about the origins of manga and anime under fascism have been translated by Thomas LaMarre. As both Steinberg and LaMarre point out, Ōtsuka changes our perspective on old questions. For example, his world-and-variation thesis, which was originally published in 1989, brings up the idea of the active and productive fan, which resonates with work coming out of cultural studies, but Ōtsuka is coming at this from the perspective of the corporation. He worked at Kadokawa and Dentsu, a publisher and ad agency, respectively.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Your interviewees suggest that initially, at least, manga and anime producers had little awareness of the adult consumers of their property and that when they discovered moe enthusiasts, they still sought to ignore them for the most part to focus on their targets – children. Is there a point at which this changes? Is there now content produced specifically for this niche, or does it remain a kind of “surplus” audience?

It’s a bit complicated, but manga “grew up” in the 1960s, when gekiga striving for realism and social commentary drew in adolescent and then young adult audiences. Tatsumi Yoshihiro’s works read like a critique of capitalism and the “economic miracle” in Japan that left marginalized people behind in the gutter. Shirato Sanpei’s stories about ninja who fight for the people against corrupt officials electrified a generation of young radicals, even as Tsuge Yoshiharu’s psychological explorations of dreams earned him artistic credibility. By the time Chiba Tetsuya’s Tomorrow’s Joe came out in Weekly Shōnen Magazine (from 1968-1973), it was possible for members of the student movement to say things like, “In our left hand we have Weekly Shōnen Magazine,” and for members of the Red Army, a far-left terrorist group, to claim, “We are Tomorrow’s Joe.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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