Digital Cosmpolitans: An Interview with Ethan Zuckerman (Part One)

Ethan Zuckerman is one of the big thinkers, and doers who consistently inspires me. His Wikipedia entry identifies him as “an American media scholar, blogger, and internet activist.” All of this is true, but that’s just part of the picture. He’s also someone who consults regularly with major foundations, think tanks, NGOs, and policy-makers, as they try to understand the potentials, and risks, of networked computing. As the founder of GeekCorps and Global Voices, he’s put his geeky skills to work to try to change the problems which worry him the most about our contemporary culture. He’s someone who has a formed a network of other bloggers and digital activists around the world, and someone who travels often to parts of the planet that most of us could not point out on a map, in order to better understand the political, cultural, and technological conditions on the ground there. He’s become one of our best thinkers about “digital age civics” and through his work as the Director of the MIT Center for Civic Media, he’s leading a team of graduate students as they seek to design tools which might empower activists and community leaders to be more effective at fostering social change. He does this while remaining mild-mannered, easy-going, modest, and open-minded, a model for what an engaged public intellectual might look like in the 21st century. I am lucky to be able to call him a friend.
Last year, he published an important and timely book, Rewired: Digital Cosmopolitanism in the Age of Connection, which should be required reading for all Americans. Zuckerman is asking us to think more deeply about how we learn about the world and whether our access to the WORLD Wide Web has done much to change the parochialism within our culture. Here, he draws on the full range of his experiences to bring us face to face with the blind spots in our information consumption, with the challenges in overcoming isolationist and xenophobic tendencies in our society, but also to propose alternative strategies by which some people are becoming “bridge builders” who embrace diversity and insure that we have greater access to alternative  perspectives. Zuckerman understands the complexities and contradictions of our current moment, adopting a position that is sometimes optimistic, somethings skeptical, but always feels  is in the service of building a better society.
In the interview that follows, Zuckerman spells out some of the core concepts from Rewired, including some consideration of what the book might have to say to fans, journalists, educators, and other citizens.
Much of the media discussion around the Arab Spring movements has centered on the fantasy of more person-to-person communications across borders via social media rather than through the more formal relations between nations or the mediated communications of traditional journalism. Why has this fantasy of a “Twitter Revolution” proven so compelling to people when their everyday practices often involve relatively limited communications outside of their immediate circles of friends and families?
 
Like many compelling fantasies, the Twitter Revolution myth has some roots in fact. Tunisia’s revolution had a strong media component. Protests in Sidi Bouzid would likely have been invisible to the rest of Tunisia and the rest of the world had they not been documented on Facebook, edited and contextualized by Nawaat.org and amplified by Al Jazeera. And there are deep ties between activists in Tunisia and in Egypt that helped spread ideology and tactics of those revolutions via social media. But any account of the Arab Spring that doesn’t focus on existing labor movements, soccer fanclubs, neighborhood organizations and other forms of offline social organizing misses the point.
 
I think Twitter revolutions are such a compelling idea because they allow us to inscribe ourselves on global events. If digital media is the key actor in a political event, and we’re participating by amplifying tweets online, we are part of the revolution, an exciting and compelling prospect. And there are times when this, too, is true – if an event is visible locally and invisible globally, and we take responsibility for translating and amplifying it, leading to global coverage, we might, in fact, share some credit for changing circumstances on the ground.
 
But this ability to be a participant in a minor way in a global event tends to blind us to our more ordinary use of these media. Very few of us are Andy Carvin, using our online presence to curate digital media and connect our readers to global events. Our use of these tools tends to be about connecting with friends and interests that are far closer to home. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that – it’s fine for social media to be a tool that connects us locally if we have other media that informs and connects us globally. What strikes me as dangerous is the illusion of connection, the compelling idea that we are encountering global perspectives via digital media when we’re mostly reinforcing local ones.
 
You write, “[New Media] tools help us to discover what we want to know, but they’re not very powerful in helping us discover what we might need to know.” This seems to be a central theme of the book, that we have opened up new channels of communication which might allow us to connect with others around the world, but that our use of those tools has been limited by a lack of motivation or understanding. We seek out information only about those topics we already care about, and a large part of the world falls outside of that zone of interests. What are some of the signs that our interest in the world is more limited than our technological reach at the present time?
 
 I think the main reminder is sense of surprise that pervades much of modern life. The Arab Spring was a surprise, but only up to a point. For those few watching Tunisian social media, it became clear pretty quickly that something deeply unusual and transformative was taking place. At Global Voices, we were able to see the protests unfolding weeks before they received attention in mainstream American media. There’s a strong tendency in our contemporary media environment to pay attention to stories only when they’ve reached a crisis point – we’re always arriving in the fourth act, and we never stay through the denoument. It’s possible to imagine a form of media that’s scanning the horizons and giving us a better sense of what’s coming, not what’s already arrived.
 
I think a second reminder is our ability to turn on global networks at moments of crisis. The global response to SARS was quite amazing – within a week of identifying a new syndrome, the WHO had global videoconferences that allowed frontline medical personnel to identify symptoms and jointly diagnose new cases. Once those networks were set up, the spread of the disease slowed dramatically. When we need international connection, we’re capable of bringing it about very quickly.
 
One of the reasons the book has been challenging to describe is that this question you’re asking -what are we missing when we’re so tightly attached to local media – is a really hard one to answer. I tend to understand it in personal terms. I follow African media, particularly west African media, quite closely, due to my long personal ties to the region, and as a result, I see stories well in advance of their visibility in broader media. And while that sounds self-congratulatory, patting myself on the back for my global vision, the actual experience is more anxiety-producing, because it’s a perpetual reminder of how much there is to know and discover. The little I know about Nigerian politics that most Americans don’t is a perpetual reminder of how much else is going on in the world, and how little we encounter until it manifests as a crisis or emergency.
 
What roles does the news media play in shaping what we care about and conversely, to what degree does our lack of concern or interest impact what the news media is prepared to cover?
 

I think this relationship between caring and coverage matters much more than it did a generation ago. Newspapers include stories on a wide range of topics, local, national and international. Until recently, our sense for what readers wanted to hear about came from newsstand sales and letters to the editor, very inexact tools for understanding which stories were being read and which were being ignored. Now we have incredibly granular information, that shows interest on a story by story level, including readership and time spent per reader per article. Publishers are acutely aware of these statistics, and more editors and writers are becoming aware of these figures. It becomes harder and harder for authors to report on stories that don’t already have an audience, as there’s a very strong temptation to write what people want to hear, as they will reward you with their attention.

 
This becomes a circular equation, because people need help developing an interest in new topics. A fascinating story isn’t immediately apparent or comprehensible to an audience. Take the mortgage crisis a few years back – most coverage focused on the moment to moment details, featuring stories that were comprehensible to financial professionals and few others. This American Life made a major investment – an hour-long story called The Giant Pool of Money – that helped audiences understand the crisis and become better consumers of future stories on the crisis. If we wanted people to pay attention to protests in Sudan (people beyond those of us who are already watching those protests), we’d need to invest time, energy and reader attention in explaining the context and importance… and we’d be gambling that we were able to create an audience for that story in the future. 
 
The net result of this cycle, I fear, is that we get an enormous amount of information on stories we “know” are important – the minutia of US federal elections and the machinations of Congress  - and very little information on parts of the world we know little about, care little about, and care little about because we hear little about.
 
I’ve often thought that there might be a need to shift from a focus on international news (news about things happening elsewhere on the planet) to global news (news that shows the connections between distant events and people in our own communities.) Would such an approach help resolve the gaps you are describing here? Why or why not?
 
I think we’d gain a great deal from journalism that helped contextualize global events in local terms. The best newspapers and broadcasters have historically tried to do this – one of the losses we experience  when local newspapers cut international bureaus is the connection between global stories and local communities. 
We need something broader, I suspect, as not every event in Myanmar has an immediate local connection. Sometimes we need heroes and heroines – think of Malala in Pakistan and the ways in which her story has been a window into gender and educational issues in that part of the world. While we can go too far and turn a story about issues into a story about a single person, we often benefit from stories that let us feel like we know and care about an individual in another country or culture.
 
I think we also need to learn how to tell stories that look at local facets of global issues. A story like climate change is critically important, but extremely difficult to report. We might benefit from an approach to reporting that showed us the implications for different people in different communities, interweaving personal stories with the science and politics of the issues.
 
Ethan Zuckerman is director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, and a principal research scientist at MIT’s Media Lab.  He is the author of “Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection”, published by W.W. Norton in June 2013. With Rebecca MacKinnon, Ethan co-founded international blogging community Global Voices. Global Voices showcases news and opinions from citizen media in over 150 nations and thirty languages. Ethan’s research focuses on issues of internet freedom, civic engagement through digital tools and international connections through media. He blogs athttp://ethanzuckerman.com/blog and lives in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts.

Announcing Transforming Hollywood: The Futures Of Television

UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television

and

USC School of Cinematic Arts

Announce

Transforming Hollywood: The Futures of Television, April 4, 2014, UCLA 

Co-directors:

Denise Mann, UCLA

Henry Jenkins, USC

Presented by the  Andrew J. Kuehn  Jr. Foundation

Media Sponsor: Variety

Friday April 4   2014

James Bridges Theater, UCLA

Conference overview:  This year, the fifth installment of Transmedia, Hollywood has been given a new name—Transforming Hollywood: The Future of Television—to reflect our desire to engage more fully with the radical changes taking place in the American television industry for creators, distributors, and audiences. When future generations of historians write their accounts of the evolution of the American television industry, they will almost certainly point to the 2010s as a moment of dramatic change: we’ve seen the entry of Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and YouTube as major players shaping the production of original programming, gaining critical praise, courting industry awards, and perhaps, most dramatically, starting to compete in terms of number of subscriptions to the top cable networks. We’ve seen Kickstarter emerge as an alternative means for “crowdfunding” television content, allowing fans to exert a greater role in shaping the future of their favorite series. We’ve seen a continued growth in the number of independent producers creating and distributing their content through the web. And with these other changes, we are seeing the industry and academia struggle to develop new insights into what it means to consume television content in this connected and yet dispersed marketplace. This conference will bring together key creative and corporate decision-makers who are shaping these changes and academics who have been trying to place these shifts in their larger historical and cultural contexts. What does all of this mean for those of us who are making or watching television?

For more information, see:  http://www.liquid-bass.com/conference/

For conference Registration, see : https://transforminghollywood5.eventbrite.com

 

Panel one: “Virtual Entrepreneurs—Creators Who are Reinventing TV for the Digital Future.” 

9-9:10 Opening Remarks

Henry Jenkins, USC and Denise Mann, UCLA

9:10-11:00AM

Moderator: Denise Mann, UCLA

 

In the fall of 2011, Google announced plans to invest a hundred million dollars to forge talent partnerships with a number of talented YouTube creator in order to enhance the production value of their work and their value to brands. This panel gives voice to two new types of virtual entrepreneur: individual web-creators who are reinventing entertainment for the digital age, and the CEO of a new type of web-based multi-channel network (MCNs), which is forging deals with individual web-creators in exchange for providing them with infrastructural support in the form of sound stages, green screens, higher quality cameras and editing equipment, enhanced social media marketing tools, and brand alliances. Early entrepreneurs in this newly commercial, digital economy include Felicia Day and Sheri Bryant (Geek and Sundry), Freddie Wong (Video High School), and Dane Boetlinger (Annoying Orange), each of whom has catapulted his or herself into the top tier of web-celebs based on huge fan followings.  Many of these entrepreneurial web-creators have sought out deals with MCNS, such as Maker, Fullscreen, Maker, Machinima, and The Collective, in order to expand their budding entertainment enterprises. However, other creators are chafing inside these long-term contracts with the MCNs, frustrated by what they see as onerous terms—the split of advertising revenues and intellectual property rights. Today’s panel debates the viability of these new creative and business models, asking whether they represent a radical rethinking of entertainment that puts power back into the hands of creators or are they transitional systems that will eventually be absorbed by Hollywood’s big media groups.

 

2.“The Programmers of the Future: Video Streaming on Demand.” 

Moderator: Andrew Wallenstein, Editor-in-Chief, Digital, Variety

11:15AM-1PM

Overview: As consumers spend more of their free time online, viewing and sharing content on social networks such as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Vimeo, Tumblir, and Vine, what does this mean for the future of television? Cord-cutters and cord-nevers represent a very real threat to the current big dogs of digital distribution—the multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs), also known as the subscription cable systems (Comcast, Time-Warner, Comcast), the satellite carriers (Direct TV), the telcos (AT&T U-verse), and the wireless companies (Verizon FiOS). At the same time, the MVPDs have been waging too many public battles with the Hollywood broadcasters over their high re-transmission fees, resorting to theatrics by pulling favorite sporting events and sit-coms–behavior that alienates consumers and tests the patience of government policy-makers.  At the same time, these policy-makers are making little effort to curb the reckless deal-making taking place in the video streaming on demand (VSOD) space as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus, and new players, such as Microsoft X-box, make aggressive moves to expand globally while freeing themselves from their dependency on Hollywood licensing deals. By creating their own libraries of critically-acclaimed original programming—House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, Betas—the VSOD services are creating legions of new, loyal consumers, paving the way for a future that may or may not include Hollywood’s premium content licensing deals going forward. Furthermore, the VSOD services are attracting A-level talent by offering greater creative autonomy than their micro-managing counterparts at the studios and networks. Do these new programming and streaming options foretell the end of an era in Hollywood or the beginning of a revised set of practices for creators and additional viewing options for binging viewers? Only time will tell?

 

3. “Second Screens, Connected Viewing, Crowd-funding, and Social Media: Re-imagining Television Consumption.”  

2-3:45PM

Moderator: Henry Jenkins, USC

 

Overview:  As the television industry has been remapping the flow of media content, as new forms of producers and distributors enter the marketplace, there has also been an accompanying effort to rethink their interface with media audiences.  Over the past decade, we’ve seen a renewed emphasis on audience engagement strategies which seek to insure consumer loyalty and social buzz as a way for individual programs or networks to “break through the clutter” of the multiplying array of media options. New metrics are emerging for measuring the value of engaged viewers and the kinds of social and cultural capital they bring with them when they embrace a program. So, for example, the rise of Black Twitter has been credited with helping to rally support behind new programs with strong black protagonists, such as Scandal, Sleepy Hollow, and Being Mary Jane.  Second screen apps are becoming ubiquitous as television producers seek to hold onto the attention of a generation of viewers who are prone to multitasking impulses. The successful Veronica Mars Kickstarter campaign opens up the prospect of fans helping to provide funding in support of their favorite stars, creators, or series. And the commercial success of 50 Shades of Gray, which was adapted from a piece of Twilight fan fiction, has alerted the publishing world to a hitherfore underappreciated value of women’s fan fiction writing as a recruiting ground for new talent and as a source for new creative material. Yet, for all this focus on engaged audiences, does the industry value some form of viewers and viewership more than others? Which groups are being under-represented here and why? Are the new economic arrangements between fans and producers fair to all involved?

  

4. Indie TV: Where Creators and Fans Pilot New Shows

Moderator: Aymar Jean Christian, Northwestern University

4-5:45PM

 

Overview: The Internet broke the network bottleneck. Through platforms like YouTube and Vimeo, creators release series directly to fans, who follow shows and share them with friends. Web-content creators can write stories in whatever length, style, and genre they choose, on their own schedule, and with actors of their choosing. The result is a truly open television ecosystem, where creators, talent and fans work together to realize stories they want to see. Each of the producers who appear on this panel has contributed to this new vision of television, producing series that are developed for the Internet but are also being shaped for traditional TV as well (several of these series are being developed on HBO). Issa Rae developed The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl with a small team and expanded the show using a successful crowdfunding campaign; she went on to produce a number of series with other creators,including Amy Rubin’s Little Horribles. Released by her own Barnacle Studios, Rubins sitcom became a hit with fans and critics at Variety, LA Weekly and Splitsider, among many others. Dennis Dortch and Numa Perrier launched the Black & Sexy TV network to showcase indie comedy, releasing their own hit series, The Couple, and many others from emerging Hollywood talent. Jay Bushman helped The Lizzie Bennet Diaries grow into a deeply engaging transmedia phenomenon, where viewers of the Jane Austen-inspired series followed characters from YouTube to Twitter and Pinterest. As these examples convey, the internet has become an incubator for talented, next-generation web-creators and web-celebs, who, in combination with their fan followers, are reinventing television for the digital age.

 

Speakers to be announced.

SAVE THE DATE. WATCH THIS BLOG FOR FURTHER UPDATES

 

Situating Bollywood: An Interview with Aswin Punathabekar (Part Three)

Despite your description of the range of media industries and practices which construct Bollywood today, it is clear that cinema remains the center around which all of these other media systems operate, and you also argue that cinema remains core to understanding the connections between Indian diasporic identity and media. So, what accounts for the continued centrality of cinema to the narrative you are constructing, given the other pressures towards transmedia and transnational logics you describe?

There are several reasons for the privileged position cinema occupies. The first is simply the enduring popularity of films and film music (mainly Hindi language cinema from Bombay) among South Asian families who migrated to the U.S. following changes in immigration law in 1965. From the late 1960s, when enterprising families began screening films in university halls and other venues, to the recent forays into film exhibition by Bombay-based media companies like Reliance Entertainment, Hindi-language Bollywood films continue to dominate the Desi mediascape.

These film screenings were usually held in university halls rented for a few hours during the weekend, with films screened off 16mm, and later, 35mm reels. These weekend screenings, with an intermission that lasted 30-45 minutes, were an occasion, apart from religious festivals, for people to wear traditional clothes, speak in Hindi or other regional languages, and participate in a ritual that was reminiscent of “home.”

During a period in which there were no cultural institutions in place, and little on offer in mainstream media that resonated with their emotions, nostalgic longing, and cultural values, leave alone addressing the difficulties of life in a new cultural space, these screenings were marked as an exclusively Indian space, away from mainstream society, where families could meet and participate in a ritual of sharing personal and collective memories of life in India.

A second reason that films and film music figure prominently in discussions of Desi youth culture relates to Desi youth appropriating and re-mixing film songs and dance sequences in college events, dance clubs, and so on.

Third, it is in and through cinema that diasporic writers and directors like Hanif Kureishi, Mira Nair, and Gurinder Chadha began addressing the complexities of claiming and defining South Asian identities in countries such as the U.K. and the U.S.

But you’re right that we are beginning to see some major changes in the diasporic mediascape. One question to ask is: do we even have a space for diasporic south asian films?

Mira Nair’s The Namesake does deal with diasporic themes, but it is a Bombay-based company that produced and distributed the film. Further, we are not at a point in the cultural life of the South Asian diaspora where media from the Indian subcontinent is only one part of a very diverse mix. Finally, with a range of actors of Indian-origin making their way into American and British public culture, one might argue that the diasporic sensibility that marked the work of cultural producers during the late 1980s-mid-1990s has given way to engagement with mainstream media.

 You begin your discussion of Bollywood fans by setting up the contrast between grassroots forms of media circulation that get labeled “media piracy” and various forms of industry cooperation which get labeled “crowdsourcing.” Is there a meaningful “space in between” these two paradigms? If so, what does it look like?

Part of the difficulty involved in charting the terrain of participatory culture surrounding Bollywood, especially in an era of networked audiences and publics, stems from the sheer range of sites and modes of participation one encounters. And in the Indian context, our understanding of participatory culture remains tied to a very specific history of fan associations and their links to electoral politics in south India. This narrative of fan/cine-politics has been so dominant that other modes and sites of participatory culture have not been considered, leave alone studied in systematic fashion, for no apparent reason other than their seemingly “non-political” character.

In fact, the topic of fan activity has not even been raised in relation to Bollywood. So in the book, I drew on some research I’ve done on fans of A. R. Rahman to argue that we need to move beyond narratives of political mobilization. The major Rahman fan community online includes fans who are primarily interested in film music, fans based in Malaysia for whom participation in the Rahman fan community is part of a larger process of claiming a Tamil ethnic identity, fans in India who work with Rahman, some fans who are, yes, “pirates,” and some who go so far as to police music stores (makeshift stores set up on pavements in busy shopping areas, in shopping complexes, and so on), threatening to call the police if pirated CDs of Rahman’s music are not taken off the shelf.

This is, as you put, a very complex “space in between” piracy and crowdsourcing. And we simply do not have the critical vocabulary to describe and theorize what’s going on in this space.

While my own recent work has sought to map the emerging links between fandom and activism, you argue that these links have totally dominated discourse around Bollywood film fans to the extent that they crowd out understandings of film consumption in the context of everyday life practices. American fan studies has often been accused of not being sufficiently political, of being too interested in the personal, cultural, affective, and social dimensions of popular culture. What might these two groups of scholars learn from each other?

The crucial difference we need to first acknowledge is between film studies and TV/media and communication studies in the Indian context. Film studies is the disciplinary location within which there has been at least some discussion of fandom, even if it has been studied primarily in the south Indian political context.

TV/media studies in the Indian context is yet to take the question of participatory culture seriously. I do not know of a single book-length study of participatory culture surrounding television in India. This is beginning to change in part because the past decade in India has been marked by some very interesting instances of participation surrounding reality TV, for instance, that has intersected with larger political issues.

In my own work in this emerging area, I’ve tried to be very careful to not make easy ‘political’ readings simply because I know next to nothing about the sociable dimensions of participation. And this is what I admire so much about scholars’ work on pleasure and participation in the American context.

As I see it, what we have here in the US is a wealth of historically grounded material on audiences and fans that provides a necessary foundation for examining links between participation and politics. But despite this archive that we have to work with, I feel strongly that it is only when we fully comprehend how participation and everyday life – say, in relation to our current digital and mobile context – are braided together that we can meaningfully pose questions about political impact.

 Your final paragraph includes a very provocative statement, which I was hoping you might expand upon here: “to look broadly at fan participation is to imagine transnational media worlds that are intimately tied to, but not always constrained by, statist or industrial imperatives.” Do tell.

As I’ve already explained, fan activity surrounding cinema in India – south India, in particular – has always had very close connections to the realm of politics. This cine-politics take on fandom has tended to dominate our understanding of participatory culture in India.

However, this cine-politics frame has given way to an extent under the influence of the incredible expansion of the mediascape since the mid-1990s. One of the key changes that the proliferation of television channels engendered was a shift in how audiences were imagined. Television channels like MTV-India, Channel [V], Star Plus, ZEE, and others invited audience participation. Of course, audience participation was tightly controlled and managed expertly – from talent shows to programs like Lift Kara De that leveraged fan labor for ostensibly humanitarian ends.

These changes made it clear that fandom was now an integral part of the corporate media apparatus. What I tried to signal with that last statement is the need to look beyond these two dominant frameworks – politics/state and market – without ignoring their structuring effects. I wanted to make a case for approaching fandom in India from a position of trust rather than suspicion (as my friend and colleague Paddy Scannell argues, media studies tends to operate with a hermeneutics of suspicion). Or to draw on your work, I want us to hop on this realm of pop, not stomp all over it.

For e.g., there is a group of fans who have painstakingly collected and subtitled numerous videos – film clips, TV appearances, interviews, advertisements, etc. – of the Bollywood star Shahrukh Khan. For anyone who might not understand the Hindi language, this website - srkpagli.net - was a wonderful resource. To approach the work that these fans have done by – a) dismissing it as apolitical or b) as simply a part of the Shahrukh Khan/corporate Bollywood system – is too reductive. I simply wanted to clear the space so we can begin to acknowledge the astonishing range of practices that constitute ‘fandom’ in the Indian context, and in doing so, develop richer and more nuanced accounts of participatory culture.
Aswin Punathambekar is an Associate Professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He is the author of From Bombay to Bollywood: The Making of a Global Media Industry (2013), and co-editor of Television at Large in South Asia (2013)and Global Bollywood (2008). He is now conducting research on the politics of mediated activism in India as part of a collaborative SSRC project on “Media, Activism, and the New Political.”

Situating Bollywood: An Interview with Aswin Punathambekar (Part Two)

You spend a significant amount of time in the book exploring the role that MTV India has played in shifting how films are marketed and how Bollywood understands its audiences. What factors have allowed MTV India to become a core player in this space? What has been their impact on Bollywood’s media strategies?

MTV did play a crucial role in shaping Bollywood’s industrial identity and marketing strategies, but it didn’t happen overnight. A range of new television channels that entered the Indian market during the mid-1990s attracted audiences with a range of film-based programs. ZEE, Star Plus, and other channels introduced a number of innovative film music-based shows like AntakshariSa Re Ga Ma, and Videocon Flashback, weekly countdown shows like BPL Oye and Philips Top Ten, and shows that reviewed popular films and evaluated their box office performance.

In fact, MTV-India went off the air for a period of two years and returned in 1996 with a redesigned brand identity and, most crucially, with the recognition of the importance of Hindi film music and “localized” programming to its fortunes in the Indian market.

Suggesting that the makeover was not exactly an easy process, one MTV-India executive explained to me that the decision to start with the “look” of the channel, especially the on-air promos, turned out to be the right one and crucial in terms of reaching out to directors and producers in the Bombay film industry who were skeptical, if not dismissive, of music television. As this executive put it, their goal was to “dovetail cool with Bollywood.”

Beginning in 1997-98, with a clear mandate to forge ties with the film industry, MTV-India executives began initiating conversations with a range of producers and directors in the Hindi film industry. And it took well over two years before the film industry began responding to television executives’ overtures. Once they had their foot in the door, however, MTV-India began making the case that their particular brand identity and programming sensibility would make the difference in what was a very cluttered television landscape. And by the early 2000s, Bollywood producers began setting aside a larger percentage of the budget for marketing and promoting films.

 

What roles did the internet play in shifting the relations between domestic and diasporic audiences for Bollywood films? To what degree is the contemporary media industry being shaped by a desire to court and capture “NRI Eyeballs”?

The trouble with saying anything about Bollywood-internet connections is the pace at which things change! My research does not take into account the impact that social media has had on marketing, stardom, participatory culture, and so on. But I can say that dot-com companies did play a central role in establishing the “overseas territory” as a key economic and cultural site for Bollywood. Simply put, television and marketing professionals working in Mumbai were not in a position to shape Bollywood’s relationship with overseas markets.

Speaking a language of web-metrics and capitalizing on the growing interest in marketing and promotions, dot-com companies began generating knowledge about overseas audiences’ engagement with Bollywood that was hitherto unavailable to filmmakers and stars operating primarily from Bombay. More crucially, dot-com professionals were able to forge connections and establish themselves within existing social networks in Bombay’s media world. And in doing so, dot-com companies emerged as powerful knowledge brokers who shaped the imaginations and practices of film industry professionals for whom envisioning an overseas territory had come to constitute an increasingly important dimension of going global.

Exploring this terrain raised a very interesting question for me regarding the dynamic relation between the expansion of capital into new territories and the work of rendering those new territories more imaginable. What Bollywood got was, in fact a very limited “spatial fix” as dot-com companies interpreted and resolved the problem of space—of imagining the overseas territory—in terms of overseas audiences’ cultural temporality with the nation. In other words, these companies only thought about the overseas territory in terms of non-Resident Indians. It is only over the past 4-5 years that these industry professionals have begun taking into account Bollywood’s popularity beyond South Asian communities.

 

What do you see as the use value of the concept of “transmedia entertainment” for exploring the ways that convergence has impacted the Bollywood industry? What do you see as missing from such an approach?

 

I don’t think “transmedia entertainment” is particularly useful at this point. I have yet to see a media producer in Bombay truly grasp the potential for transmedia storytelling. At the moment, it is largely driven by a marketing sensibility: pushing Bollywood content across platforms. To be sure, there have been a handful of interesting marketing campaigns and there was also an ambitious attempt to draw on India’s rich mythological tradition to drive film content. But we are yet to see a major push for storytelling across media.

Writers have started to talk about “Bollystan” to describe this new configuration of diasporic cultural identity. What does this term mean and is it a good description of the changes you are discussing in your book?

 

The term comes from a widely circulated article titled “Bollystan: The Global India,” in which the author Parag Khanna reflected on how processes of globalization had reframed relations between India and the vast Indian diaspora. Khanna wrote: “Increasingly linked by culture and technology, they form a Global India, which I call Bollystan. ‘Bolly’ connotes culture (e.g., Bollywood), and ‘Stan’ (Farsi for “land”) represents the transcendence of borders and sovereignty.” Khanna’s neologism first appeared in the Fall 2004 issue of Another Magazine, a now defunct publication targeted at “young, upwardly mobile South Asians.” Featuring Bollywood star Aishwarya Rai on the cover, the magazine declared: “Bollystan is a state without borders, defined by a shared culture and common values.”

Using the term Bollystan to refer to a vast space of trans-national cultural production that included everything from henna tattoos and remix music to literature and films, Khanna and other writers sought to map how rapid flows of people, culture and capital across national borders have rendered difficult any easy separation between nation and diaspora. In fact, Khanna proceeded to argue that Bollystan is “cosmopolitanism’s inversion: instead of one person being at home anywhere, it is re-rooting Desis everywhere in a real and imagined shared cultural space.”

But the fact is that where commercial media ventures are concerned, Bollystan has a very specific Anglo-American cultural geography and as a consequence, re-roots only certain kinds of Desis. The network of cities that are part of diasporic entrepreneurs’ imagination of Bollywood’s global reach include cities such as London, New York, Los Angeles, and Toronto but not, for instance, Durban in South Africa. And even within these cities in the Global North, it is only a certain narrow, largely middle and upper-middle class cultural sphere of South Asians that informs the imaginations and practices of media industry professionals.

Aswin Punathambekar is an Associate Professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He is the author of From Bombay to Bollywood: The Making of a Global Media Industry (2013), and co-editor of Television at Large in South Asia (2013)and Global Bollywood (2008). He is now conducting research on the politics of mediated activism in India as part of a collaborative SSRC project on “Media, Activism, and the New Political.”

Situating Bollywood: An Interview with Aswin Punathambekar (Part One)

This is another in a series of interviews with the authors of books we have published through the PostMillenial Pop series which I co-edit with Karen Tongson for New York University Press. 

I have known Aswin Punathambekar since he was part of one of the first cohorts of the MIT Comparative Media Studies program, where he did an ethnography/oral history of the experience of South Asian diasporic audiences in Boston as they impacted the reception of Bollywood films. He continued his graduate work at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where his dissertation focused on the online fandom around Bollywood composer A. R. Rahman. He has made some key contributions to the project of expanding the study of fandom and participatory culture beyond its origins in Western Culture, as reflected by articles published in Transformative Works and Culture and Popular Communication.

In a relatively short period of time, Punathambekar has developed a scholarly profile that is at once programmatic (in that he continually  deepens our understanding of media production and consumption in India and its global diaspora) and expansive (in that he has used his expertise on Bollywood to bring a much needed non-western perspective to work on a range of topics, including fan studies, participatory culture, media convergence, narrowcasting, mobile media, and digital citizenship, which have been central to media scholarship in the 21st century.) Punathambekar  has expanded upon his initial focus on audience studies to develop a mixed methods approach, which is at once theoretically sophisticated and historically informed.

His new book, From Bombay to Bollywood is a tour de force, one which connects Bollywood decisively to larger conversations about our current moment of media change, one which moves incorporates close readings not only of texts but also of media rituals (informed by the best work in Production Studies), to explain the larger contexts through which Bollywood operates as a global media industry, one that moves backwards from Bollywood’s relationship to digital networks to explore the historic role in radio in helping to shape the circulation of Indian film music.  This expansive understanding of what once might have been treated purely through a lens of “national cinema” was anticipated by his Global Bollywood anthology, which he co-edited with Anadam P. Kavoori. Global Bollywood brought together established scholars with younger researchers, many of whom received their first publications under his leadership, to create an important and groundbreaking exchange around how Hindi Cinema reflects and drives larger developments in the global media scape.

In this interview, he situates Bollywood at a series of intersections between film and other media, between local, regional, national, and transnational industries, between domestic and diasporic audiences, and between producers and fans.

You begin the book with the suggestion that Bollywood should be studied across media rather than through more traditional paradigms of national cinema. What factors have contributed to making Bollywood a particularly rich case for understanding contemporary convergence culture?

I worked out this perspective of media convergence or inter-media relations in part by revisiting a question that several scholars have tackled: how did Bombay emerge and maintain its position as the pre-eminent media capital in India? Film and media scholars have identified a number of key factors: the city’s position as a center of trade and commerce, and the influx, through the decades, of mercantile capital into film-making; its status as a vibrant cultural center, with established theater movements initially providing the film industry with a range of creative personnel; the use of Hindi which accorded the Bombay-based film industry (located in a multi-lingual city and in a state where the official language is Marathi) ‘national’ status whereas film industries in cities like Madras and Hyderabad were ascribed ‘regional’ status; and the impact of India’s partition on other centers of film production, most notably Calcutta and Lahore, and the migration of a number of producers, directors, actors and technicians to Bombay during this period.

I argue that there is another important factor: the role played by new media—radio, television, the internet and the mobile phone—in enabling the Bombay film industry to consistently imagine and mobilize a national and now, transnational audience. Moving past a film-centric approach, the case studies of television and dot-com companies’ relations with the film industry that I develop in the book invite us to consider how various ‘new media’ have, historically, reconfigured the cultural geography of Bombay cinema and Bombay’s status as a media capital.

Considering the case of Radio Ceylon, which broadcast a range of film-based programs that reached audiences across the Indian subcontinent, South Africa, and even some cities in east Africa, encourages us to ponder how other technological and institutional developments influenced the circulation of films and film music, transforming the Bombay film industry’s spatial coordinates and engendering new sites and forms of consumption. This does not necessarily mean that we think only about continuities from the 1950s to the present. Rather, my goal is to open up a space for more grounded explorations of the interwoven histories of different media technologies and institutions and, in the process, expand our understanding of the histories and patterns of media convergence.

So at a basic level, the ‘national cinema’ paradigm isn’t productive given Bombay’s position as a media capital that has always been shaped by trans-national forces and factors.  I’ll say more about the limitations of a strictly ‘national’ framework as I answer other questions here. But I should also point out that film historians like Priya Jaikumar have argued very convincingly that we need to move past the national cinema framework to understand how aesthetics, regulation, and other dimensions of the cinema in India have always been worked out in relation to various trans-national forces and factors.


You note that most work to date within the production studies tradition has focused on western and for the most part, American contexts. So, what might production studies as an emerging paradigm gain from a more thorough exploration of media production in India?

 

This is a crucial question not only for production culture/industry studies but media studies at large. Too often, “global media studies” serves as a mere placeholder for media studies outside Anglo-American academic settings, with “global” gesturing towards studies of “Other” media ecologies. Such studies are often understood as mere case studies that test and refine theoretical concepts developed within media studies proper. In writing this book, I have tried hard to steer clear of fitting what I observed into existing theories of production culture while at the same time avoiding celebrations of local difference.

For instance, I take into account the enduring power of long-standing social and kinship relationships in the Bombay film industry and, equally important, the creative ways in which small-scale, family-run businesses have responded to changes in the global media landscape and calls for corporatization. Examining the impact that the discourse of corporatization has had on the film industry by analyzing the construction of industrial identities suggests that the narrative of transition from one established mode of production to a new one, say Fordism to post-Fordism, does not adequately explain the industrial logics and practices that characterize Bollywood.

In fact, Madhava Prasad’s observation that the Hindi film industry adopted a “heterogeneous form of manufacture in which the whole is assembled from parts produced separately by specialists, rather than being centralized around the processing of a given material,” troubles stagist narratives of media industries in the non-Western world catching up with those in the West. After all, the dominant mode of production in the Bombay film industry could be described using terms like flexible accumulation and de-centralization that theorists like David Harvey use to describe the logics of late capitalism in the West. In other words, the particular histories of capital in Bombay cannot be easily set aside.

But this does not imply documenting a set of practices that are somehow essentially Indian. A closer look at the operations of family firms suggests that production relations defined by mercantile capital and kinship networks are neither static nor contained within national boundaries. And when we move beyond family businesses to consider a wider range of companies and professionals, it becomes clear that every domain of Bollywood including production, distribution, marketing and promotions, and exhibition involves negotiations among actors and institutions enmeshed in multiple, asymmetric, and seemingly incongruent cultures of capitalism.

You link the global extension of Bollywood to shifts in national cultural and media policy in India over the past decade, policies which involved a greater state role in the financing of media production, the regulation and “corporatization” of the media industries, and a recognition of the core cultural mission which film plays in shaping communication between the South Asian Disapora and the mother country. During this same period, though, we’ve seen a growing crisis in state funding and support for cinema, television, and other media across Europe. What might we learn by looking at developments in India and Western Europe side by side as we think about the place of state funding for media production in the 21st century?

Situating the emergence of Bollywood within the socio-historical conjuncture of the past two decades helps us understand how the state worked out its relationship with the cultural industries. Let’s not forget that even though Bombay had emerged as major center of film production during the 1930s and 40s, the Indian state did not regard filmmaking as an important industrial activity or as central to the project of defining national culture. What changed during the late 1980s and early 1990s?

This was a period that witnessed a number of socio-cultural and political transitions engendered by the Indian state’s adoption and gradual legitimization of neo-liberal economic policies including the privatization of different sectors of the economy and, broadly speaking, attempts to integrate the nation into a global economy. Among other arenas of cultural production, Hindi-language films and television shows played a crucial role in mediating these concerns. So one way to understand the state’s overtures towards the media industries is in terms of the media industries having become useful to the state. This is, of course, a global story. For instance, we see this kind of strategic alignment of state-media relations in the UK and Australia under the “creative industries” banner.

But in the Indian context, the usefulness of the media and entertainment industries was articulated in more than just this economic sense. If we consider Bollywood’s presence in settings such as the World Economic Forum (at Davos), we can see that the transformation of the Bombay film industry into Bollywood was caught up in a larger process of the state re-aligning its understanding of ‘culture as resource’ away from well-worn developmentalist paradigms towards meeting the demands of new circuits of capital. While development-oriented media production had its own shortcomings, it wasn’t beholden to commercial mandates. If anything, it is all the more difficult now to imagine carving out a space for independent and public media production.

It is also important to keep in mind that this particular re-alignment of state-media relations ended up privileging Bollywood as the global (Indian) media industry. The Tamil and Telugu language film and television industries based in Chennai and Hyderabad, for instance, are anything but “local.” The use of the term “regional” to mark these industries’ position within the Indian mediascape and the Indian state’s material and symbolic investments in Bollywood underscore the continued relevance of the “national” as a scale where the politics of media globalization play out.

Aswin Punathambekar is an Associate Professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He is the author of From Bombay to Bollywood: The Making of a Global Media Industry (2013), and co-editor of Television at Large in South Asia (2013)and Global Bollywood (2008). He is now conducting research on the politics of mediated activism in India as part of a collaborative SSRC project on “Media, Activism, and the New Political.”

Rethinking the “Value” of Entertainment Franchises: An Interview with Derek Johnson (Part Three)

In many ways, children’s television (and media more generally) has been the testing ground for franchising strategies. What is it about this genre/market which lends itself to this mode of production? How have children’s franchises represented the merger of logics from multiple industries?

I argue in the book that, in some ways, the franchising model is an extrapolation of the episodicity of television, where one episode is meant to lead viewers into the next.  In franchising, this just functions across multiple markets and media.  In children’s television specifically, this structure has combined with marketers’ desires to use one media to drive kids’ interest in consumer experiences in another.  That is, of course, how US commercial television approaches all its audiences more broadly.  But television for children has been regulated differently; our concerns about children as a special, protected audience has led to increased activism in an attempt to protect children from this kind of coordinated commercialism.

I don’t really make this claim so explicitly in the book, but it strikes me now that these regulatory attempts at protection may have helped feed the very franchising strategies that anti-commercialism activists would (and did) decry.  When you had Action for Children’s Television pushing for tighter restrictions on how toy companies could advertise their products on television, and succeeding in getting “program length commercials” like Hot Wheels pulled from the air, companies like Hasbro adapted.  While they couldn’t produce television based directly on their toys, they saw no regulation against advertising comics, so they created a partnership with Marvel Comics to create a GI JOE title that could tie-in with a television program.  They now had not just a TV show, but also a comic, both which would help create visibility for the TV.

Of course this only created a model for Transformers and other TV-comic-toy partnerships to follow, and it was really the deregulatory atmosphere (and not attempts at greater protection of kids) that weakened the rules and set off the wave of franchising to follow (where the comics intermediary wasn’t so necessary).  And at the same time as we try to protect kids from commercialism, it’s also common to assume kids don’t have well developed sense of taste—so alongside the impulse to protect them, we could shrug and ignore moves toward commercialization as indicative of the poor taste of kids.  But in either case, we tend to look at kids as special or essentially different, and I think that franchising strategies developed in these sectors in specific relationship to that cultural belief.

Other important factors here, thinking more long term, have to do more with nostalgia. Transformers may have been highly franchised back in its original 1980s incarnation too, but its persistence as a franchise today is tied very heavily to Hasbro’s “transgenerational marketing” strategies whereby adults are encouraged to share their childhood culture with their own children.  (Marvel has just started a similar “Share Your Universe” campaign meant to transfer parent tastes to a new generation of comic readers).  In the long term, focusing on childhood culture now creates the possibility for new iterations in a generation’s time when your original audience procreates.  The reproduction of franchising is in that sense tied to the reproduction of people.

I should also mention, in terms of creativity, that because we tend to delegitimize the tastes of kids, those working in children’s media sectors aren’t often accorded the greatest status and capital within the industry.  Regardless of what you think about it’s commercial motivations, the franchising of kids’ media led to a lot of experimentation with how you could tell an ongoing, collaborative story, and the familiarization of children with more serialized production strategies in the 1980s must have certainly helped create a literacy for the (far more critically endorsed) serial storytelling we see in some parts of “adult” TV today.  There were a lot of people working in children’s TV who still considered themselves creative and innovative despite wider industrial and popular perceptions, and from an insistence of that may have come a lot of new ideas about how to reach kids—both in a marketing and narrative sense.

I’m trying to zero in on this question of childhood in my current research, so I find this connection to be worth exploring with more care than I have here.  But I think there’s definitely an important relationship for us to see there.

Some have seen the franchising system as one more device which American cultural industries use to exert their dominance over the global media imagination, yet you stress the ways that they operate within a transnational context. How might we understand what others have discussed as the transnational exchange of television formats as part of a logic of franchising? What role does localization play within the franchising process?

I’m not sure I want to suggest that franchises are not in fact such a device, but it is more complicated than that critique usually allows.  Television formats, as I mentioned earlier, allow television to travel in localized ways, where instead of the US sending completed episodes of Friends to every nation on earth, the idea for shows like Big Brother are traded amongst different television markets to be remade and localized to suit specific cultures.

One of the most interesting things about the format market is that the dominance of the US is far less clear, with companies like Endemol from the Netherlands having become big players in the market for localizable concepts.  Of course, that doesn’t mean the old import/export market is dead—NBC’s The Office was formatted from the BBC version, as were series in many other nations, yet in international television sales, the American version is still able to find a global market, playing alongside the other localized versions that do not travel as freely (including the British original).  Formatting allows us to have Law & Order in many different incarnations travel through the global market, but also to develop localized offerings like Law & Order: UK.

But while American power persists amid formatting and in other kinds of franchising more broadly, I think that the processes by which formatted local uses are incorporated into the system challenges our ability to talk about franchising in terms of purely national origins.  In the television format, the innovations introduced locally can often become a part of the overall formula to be fed back into all the other contexts in which it is used.

In that sense, the formats sold by Endemol are not specifically of “Dutch” origin, but over time become the product of a transnational exchange of culture.  This is what I see in the global exchange of properties like Transformers that operate at a level beyond the single television format.  Given the complex history of exchange and shared innovation of a concept between toy companies and television producers in Japan, the US, and elsewhere, it feels over-simplistic to say that Transformers is either a Japanese or an American property.  I think we understand that franchise much more effectively if we see it as the product of these more complex relations and exchanges between transnational industries. And that might help us better understand globalization more generally.

I was struck by your use of the term, “enfranchisement,” in your closing chapters to describe consumer relations to media properties and your insistence on a more “ambivalent” account of what it means to be a fan of some of these series.  You write, “In the end, we have to ask not just how end users might occupy the spaces of cultural production once controlled by media industry, but also how those media industries might occupy the spaces of play and creative labor in which users participate.” What do you see as a way forward for cultural theory in response to these contradictions and ambivalences? Is it possible for us to acknowledge the grounds gained and lost through these negotiations without coming across as wishy-washy and indecisive?

I suppose that the way forward I hoped to find in that passage was one where were could recognize the agency of consumers and their participation in cultural production while at the same time recognizing how that pleasurable, playful participation can function as a part of industrial economies. I’m taking cues there from a number of inspirations, from your own work to that of Marc Andrejevic.  What I hoped to accomplish on a theoretical level with this idea of enfranchisement, however, was not just to recognize the role of consumers’ playful, pleasurable participation in industry, but to start thinking by implication about the work of professionals too as a form of collaborative participation both playful and uneasy (where the ideas about design and world-sharing can often turn us).

In the shift to thinking about “participatory culture” that your own work helped inspire, the focus of participation often remains on the audience.  By considering the identities and subjective uses of media by audiences in relation to industrial production, I think that my hope was that we could equally conceptualize the work of professionals and amateurs as “participatory,” as a way of using the media with pleasures and forms of engagement tied to their identities and communities as participators as well as the institutions that give them license to engage in these practices (extending of course the important work that John Caldwell, Vicki Mayer, and so many others have already done to connect production, labor, and identity).  One way forward for cultural theory, therefore, might be to continue to deconstruct hierarchies of production and consumption (as much as I feel continued, focused attention on production is a significant priority) and to focus on how creativity and participation more broadly turn on relations of power that manifest through identity, meaning, labor and other vectors of cultural struggle.

I don’t think that risks wishy-washiness or indecision, so much as it is asking for a paradigm shift, where we stop thinking about industry work cultures and amateur participation as all that different, and instead look at both production and consumption together as sites where identities and meanings form in relation to the participation structured by relations and institutions of power.  Instead of juxtaposing industry and audience or production and consumption, we might think about them more in terms of their commonalities.

How do you see Amazon’s new Kindle Worlds program in relation to the contradictions about audience “enfranchisement” that you describe in your closing chapter? It is not, strictly speaking, “free labor,” since fan authors are paid royalties based on their contributions, yet it also represents potentially an extension of corporate control over audience fantasies since writers need to work within prescribed rules and boundaries and be granted authorization before they can contribute their stories to this program. Does this make fans part of the “world-sharing” process you describe here?

 Exactly—it’s not free labor, but it is enfranchised labor, where the participation and labor of these users comes under the terms of the contract of the Terms of Service of End-User License Agreement to which one must consent to participate.  Fans would absolutely become implicated in the world-sharing process with which I am concerned.  Much like any licensee, these fans would, as sanctioned contributors to the franchise, become subject to the same kind of stringent approvals and conditions described by MJ Clarke in his book Transmedia Television.  That might seem counterintuitive given that we probably imagine Amazon playing a pretty heavy intermediary role between fans and rightsholders—but Clarke reminds us how rare it is for professional licensed creators to communicate directly with license holders either.

The collaboration behind this kind of licensed enfranchisement is not based in significant communication, so much as taking up a prescribed role within a shared economy of creation.  Given the restrictions that the Content Worlds contributors will face, I would expect participants to adopt many of the same world-sharing strategies that any professional licensed creator would.  Expect plenty of continuity-mining.  Again, I think this helps us to try to think around some of our binaries between production and consumption, or professional and and amateur, in that we can think about similar subject positions, identifications, and negotiations of creativity, participation, and convergence operating across both sets of terms.

 

You end the book with this provocative sentence, “it is at the point where collaboration stops, however, that new alternatives might emerge.” Do you have any sense of what those “new alternatives” might look like? Is cultural production possible without collaboration – in the multiple senses you are using the word here?

 

My intention in talking about collaboration in that chapter was to consider it both in the creative sense of shared effort, and in the political sense of complicity with an occupying regime.  In that final sentence imagining an end to collaboration, I may have been leaning slightly more toward that latter sense of the term, given that collective participation may be not just political advantageous, but also, as your question and much of the book itself suggests, inherent to cultural production more generally (even something as seemly authority-driven and corporately-controlled as media franchising).

You’re right that it is difficult to imagined cultural production without the social dimensions of exchanges and sharing we’re been discussing.  But what I think I was getting at speaks to the way in which I understand collaboration in relation to franchising more generally; I’m not insisting that these things are collaborative in the sense that franchise participants all get together and have open conversations about how to make a shared work—in fact, I think this is very much the opposite of what happens given the cultural and economic obstacles to that kind of cooperation.

Again, the collaboration that I see happening here is one where people who do the work of cultural production, professionals and amateurs alike, enter into a shared economy of creation by taking up one of many specific positions within an industrial set of relations.  The “end” of collaboration I’m talking about then is one in which those roles are perhaps not accepted so easily, and the terms of participating as a “user” or “sharer” of something like a franchise get renegotiated (both economically and in the sense of how we identify with and in relation to that cultural work).

I’m not sure that’s a very specific answer, but I’m imagining possibilities where we start to challenge the system that tells us who does and does not have the right to participate in culture in what prescribed ways.  If nothing else, this could be a refusal to abide the roles that EULAs and licensing contracts give us in making sense of our productive contributions to popular culture. The end of collaboration, in this sense, would be a form of cultural production where the users of culture are active in determining what their roles might be, where enfranchisement leads not just to agency participation in a set creative relations, but the reimagination of what those relations are.

Derek Johnson is Assistant Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.  He is the author of Media Franchising: Creative License and Collaboration in the Culture Industries (NYU Press, 2013), as well as the co-editor of A Companion to Media Authorship (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013) and Making Media Work: Cultures of Management in the Media Industries (NYU Press, forthcoming 2014).  His research focuses in the media industries, looking at how cultures of production negotiate creativity, convergence, and collaboration.  Most recently he has started working on a new single-authored book project focusing on children’s media industries and the way in which producer identities cohere in relation to ideas about age, taste, and the child audience.  He has published several journal articles and chapters on the subject of Marvel Comics and their cross-media practices, and in his forthcoming publications, he has critiqued the industry strategies behind the HerUniverse web shop as well as the racial logics behind LEGO’s licensed film and comic minifigures.

Rethinking the “Value” of Entertainment Franchises: An Interview with Derek Johnson (Part Two)

 

What do you see as the limits of the concept of transmedia storytelling for accounting for the range of different production practices you discuss in the book?

 It’s often very appropriate to talk about franchising in terms of transmedia storytelling, but as I understood the concept in my reading of your work in Convergence Culture, I felt that transmedia storytelling represented a kind of aesthetically ideal case of franchising, where every element is designed to work together in a coordinated, coherent, integral way, without elements that seem unimportant to an overarching story.  Often, a way to do this is to ensure that your franchise is being guided by a strong authorial, editorial, or managerial vision.  I may be reading what you originally wrote a bit strictly, and I really love how you have since extended the concept to account for a greater range of multiplicity—where one-off interpretations and “what if?” spins on the franchise still make an integral contribution to the whole through their unique take on the formula.  I’m not always sure that creation under a centralized vision is the most interesting or ideal, so I think that acknowledging the pleasures of multiplicity and divergent interpretations really enhances our understanding of transmedia storytelling.

But where I think transmedia storytelling cannot fully account for the full range of franchising is in the inherent messiness of franchising and its push away from integrated forms of collaboration.  I think that all transmedia storytelling is a form of franchising, but not all franchising manages to count as transmedia storytelling.  The industrial relationships of franchising across boundaries of corporation, media form, and production community lead to a resistance to the kind of collaborative creativity transmedia storytelling implies.  For many in the industry who have embraced the idea of transmedia storytelling, I feel that franchising is the “bad” object they want to move away from.  I think franchising is very much with us still, and I’m interested in it a little more because I want to understand the persistent tensions and struggles and unevenness that the ideal of transmedia storytelling often seems to want to move away from.

 

I have often seen Marvel celebrated as an example of the successful and creative management of a franchise. What do you think Marvel has done that has won over fans, even as it has also been commercially successful? How do you see the new SHIELD television series fitting within the history of Marvel media production you trace within the book?

This speaks not just to the world of comics, but also the world of film, television, and video games that Marvel has colonized over the last fifteen years (where I see its success touted most often in a comparative sense against the failure of competitor DC in similarly trying to build franchises around its characters, Batman excepted).  Coming back again to the idea of authority, I think the way that Marvel has won over fans in this effort over the last five or six years in particular is based in some part in reaffirming the idea of centralized control and authorship against the multiple authorship of franchising (similar to the transmedia storytelling ideal vs. franchising bad object described above).

The Marvel case study in my book actually stops at the moment that Marvel starts to move away from licensing Hollywood studios to produce Marvel films, as has been the case in the 20th Century Fox X-Men and Sony Spider-Man series.  But in a parallel article in Cinema Journal, I explored this new moment where Marvel starts to self-finance and self-produce its own films, starting with Iron Man and of course leadings to last years’ The Avengers.  This involved a shift in the way Marvel executives talked about the company, the (gendered) identities of its talent, and its relationship with Hollywood; Marvel singled itself out as the only entity that truly had the experience and expertise to deal with these characters.

What was needed, this suggested, was not the licensing-based franchise model they had been relying upon, but a more centralized form of creativity where the ideas remained under the control of the entity that originated them.  This was a more authority-driven idea that connected with common sense notion about creativity—of course Marvel would do a better job making Marvel movies.  Of course 20th Century Fox would be less desirable than the originator.

I’m not trying to identity who does and doesn’t make more objectively good comic book films, so much as illustrate how the celebration of Marvel (and the much-repeated suggestion from fans that Marvel try to buy back X-Men and Spider-Man rights from its old studio partners) is in some ways tied to our continued investment in the idea that “real” or “the best” creativity lies with the originator, not the licensee or franchisee.  Marvel’s success, then, lies beyond the screen in tapping into our continued investment in creative authority.

Agents of SHIELD though represents an even newer moment.  With Avengers already planned as the culmination of a multi-year production sequence before Disney purchased Marvel in 2009, I think we’d have to be careful about characterizing the build-up to that 2012 film as truly indicative of how Marvel operates under Disney.  Agents of SHIELD is perhaps one of the first high profile projects to come more fully out of the new relationship with Disney, and its subsidiary, ABC.

One of the big fan concerns about the Disney deal was what this would mean for Marvel’s autonomy, and Marvel is now in the position of needing to assert that autonomy in the face of not just Disney, but also the TV network.  At the same time, you have producers like Joss Whedon working to create as much distance as proximity to the familiar success of the film, suggesting that the series will have a different, more everyday focus and that recognizable superheroes won’t be doing cameos every week.  Much of this is about managing fan expectations, I’m sure, but I also feel some dimension of it must be about assuring audiences that this project has a creative raison d’etre of its own, as well as an executive independence.

 

Where-as others speak of “world-making,” you write extensively here about “world-sharing.” What are some of the challenges of constructing a world that will be “shared” by many industry participants (not to mention diverse fan communities)? Does this phenomenon of “world-sharing” mean that the idea of a transmedia experience as coherent and coordinated is a practical impossibility given the current structure of the entertainment industry?

 

I think I hinted at this above when comparing transmedia storytelling to franchising, in that there are definitely structural obstacles to making world-sharing happen in a coherent and coordinated way.  When media producers operate within different markets and corporate cultures, or even just in different silos within a single parent company, it is logistically difficult to manage collaboration—which is why companies like Starlight Runner have emerged to perform that labor, and we see new transmedia producer credits for those working to push production past those hurdles.

What I want to emphasize though is that the obstacles aren’t always structural and/or economic—they are often social and tied to a sense of production culture and identity.  World-sharing in a coherent and coordinated way is a challenge because there is often no economic incentivize to do so.  But it is also a challenge because there is sometimes no creative incentive to do so (in the sense that creativity is a type of identity and not just an aesthetic trait).

Think about television spin-offs where two or more related series are in production at the same time.  In that case, the shared world makes it possible for characters from one show to pop up on another, but it rarely happens because of both practical scheduling matters and corporate concerns about dilution and confusion of distinct sub-brands.  At the additional level of production culture, however, producers often resist these kinds of stories, identifying one series and set of characters as “theirs”, and others as belonging to another creative community.  So in the 1990s when you had multiple Star Trek series in production under a single franchise manager (Rick Berman), but with each under the pen of a different writing staff, there was a sense of intra-franchise competition, not cooperation.  Each writing staff and crew had duties specific to one part of the shared world, and they often wanted their contributions to be seen as the best, competing for accolades and attention.  So there were occasional crossovers, sure, but producers just as often resisted coordination because each staff wanted to generate its own identity and culture.

I don’t think that the tensions involved with “world sharing” make transmedia storytelling a practical impossibility, however.  It’s just requires working against these factors, and my own concern is more about the desirability of doing so, the unchallenged privilege we might accord the idea of central authority over sharing, and whether these competing creative visions and tensions may have some alternative value beyond their failure to always produce coherent narratives.

In the process of discussing “over-design” as an industrial process, you’ve developed what I see as one of the richest account of the production design process within contemporary entertainment. In many ways, contemporary stories are as much constructed by decisions made by art directors and costume designers as they are by decisions made by screenwriters. Yet, our critical discussion of these productions lags behind, often grumbling about products being overly dependent on “special effects” as if these choices could somehow be isolated from the overall experience of the fictional world. To what degree is it important to see these new franchise properties as “designed” rather than “authored?”

Based on how many times I’ve brought it up already, I think I’d be hard pressed to say that authorship isn’t important, since that idea is often the terrain of struggles over creativity in cultural production.  But the idea of design helps us get past the question of who the author is, and more toward how multiplicity, collaboration, and competing claims to authorship can be supported in creative practices.

I like the framework of “design” because it points to the creation of a system or context in which other things will happen.  That’s how I see a lot of the creative energies of franchising at work, where the creativity that occurs in one instance becomes the context for creativity in another.  It might be a little easier to see these dynamics when comparing different entries in a franchise—the way in which the new Star Wars films will be produced in relation to the design of those that have already been produced, for example.  But even outside of franchising, design could be a useful framework for reconceptualizing authorship more generally, in that we might think about how the creative work of many different labor categories (from directors to production designers to foley artists) occurs in relation to a shared context for designed for collaborative creation.

 

Derek Johnson is Assistant Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.  He is the author of Media Franchising: Creative License and Collaboration in the Culture Industries (NYU Press, 2013), as well as the co-editor of A Companion to Media Authorship (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013) and Making Media Work: Cultures of Management in the Media Industries (NYU Press, forthcoming 2014).  His research focuses in the media industries, looking at how cultures of production negotiate creativity, convergence, and collaboration.  Most recently he has started working on a new single-authored book project focusing on children’s media industries and the way in which producer identities cohere in relation to ideas about age, taste, and the child audience.  He has published several journal articles and chapters on the subject of Marvel Comics and their cross-media practices, and in his forthcoming publications, he has critiqued the industry strategies behind the HerUniverse web shop as well as the racial logics behind LEGO’s licensed film and comic minifigures.

The Prosumption Presumption

 

There is a growing conversation about the nature of participatory culture (and digital media more generally) in Post-Communist Poland. Late last year, I featured a series of blog posts by Polish scholars looking at various aspects of this phenomenon and before that, I shared a report discussing media-sharing practices there. This week has seen the release of an important new report, Prosumption in the Pop Industry:An Analysis of the Polish Entertainment Industry, issued by the Local Knowledge Foundation, and prepared by Piotr Siuda Radosław Bomba Magdalena Kamińska Grzegorz D. Stunża Anna Szylar Marek Troszyński  and Tomasz Żaglewski.

As part of their process, the researchers reached out to myself, along with Mark Deuze and George Ritzer, for our insights into what the report calls “prosumption,” and they ran the transcript of our responses at the end of the report. I have sought their permission to share some of my response to their questions here: There’s more from me as well as responses to these questions from Mark and George if you follow this link, where you can read a English language version of the report as a whole. The interview was conducted by Michał Chudoliński. (See bio below)

I should say at the outset that I am not a big fan of the concept of “prosumption,” which the field has inherited from Alvin Toffler. It assumes a kind of hierarchical relationship where the top level is occupied by the professional and the bottom by the consumer, with the amateur and prosumption layers existing in between. It assumes that the primary goal of amateurs is to gain entry into — or directly influence — the professional sphere of media-makers, and in my experience, this is more true of some fans or some kinds of fans for others. Across my work, I have documented cases where fans seek to actively influence mainstream media content, and others, where fans seek to construct their own culture, for their own purposes, and just want the corporate media to leave them the hell alone. Some of this has to do with their assumptions about whether the producers are apt to “get it right” if they seek to act on the fans’ desires, whether they have a history of being exploited or marginalized by corporate media rather than embraced, whether they see their pleasures as subcultural or dominant, and as such, the idea of prosumption is more apt to be embraced by those in dominant groups (i.e. white male straight Cis middle class etc.) rather than those who find themselves in more subordinate positions. I do not want to close the door entirely — I think there are ways that at least some fans have gained greater influence, there are always new and emerging models which we need to confront with an open mind and a wait-and-see attitude, etc.

Some of this skepticism comes through in some of my responses here, but I was not asked to directly address the concept of prosumption per se as a way of describing the phenomenon this report discusses. I was much more enthusiastic about the process of fans and producers working together towards shared ends a decade ago when I wrote Convergence Culture, than I am today, after six or seven years of “Web 2.0″ corporate practices, which have just as often sought to strip mine fandom as a source of revenue and labor,than to act in ways that democratize and diversify who gets to participate in our culture. Yet, I think this report, which gives us a glimpse into how these questions are being thought about in industries that emerge in a different cultural, political, and economic context, may be a good moment for some further reflections on the nature of “prosumption” and where we are at in terms of corporate relations with fandom.

MC: In your opinion, what is the general level of prosumption in the pop culture industry globally? By prosumption, we mean the manner in which the pop cultural industry uses the activities and commitment of a mass culture audience to promote specific brands or franchises.

HJ: I have not seen anyone offer a quantitative measurement for how much user-generated content is being produced, under what conditions, in which contexts, around which content, etc. I would not, in any case, be the right person to try to address this question from a quantitative point of view. A part of the problem is that prosumption, as you are defining it, is a sliding scale. There are many forms of amateur cultural production in response to mass media fandom which is neither solicited nor valued by corporate rights holders. This is the realm of fan culture as we have historically understood it. There are forms of amateur production which make money only indirectly for corporate interests, such as the way content travels on Facebook, Twitter, and to some degree, YouTube, where the company does not really care what is being produced but simply that their platform is seeing a certain amount of traffic that comes in ways they know how to capitalize on. There are forms of cultural production where user-generated content is curated and harvested, so that the ‘best material’ gets shared with the larger community but the bulk of it ends up on the cutting room floor: this is often true in terms of various design contests around brands. There are forms of cultural production which are semi-commercial and semi-professional: much closer to the original meaning of prosumption. Here, both sides may profit from what is produced and shared: see for example Etsy or Amazon’s Kindle Worlds for two models of what this might look like. To me, these revenue sharing based models are very different from many of the kinds of free labor which have been critiqued by Marxist theorists. So, until we have a better vocabulary for talking about these and a range of other arrangements, I doubt we can come up with anything approaching a definitive answer to your question.

MC: What are the reasons for the emergence of prosumption in mass culture?

HJ: Again, to paint in broad sweeps, there was a great deal of grassroots cultural production across human history: it was simply localized or personalized, produced and shared within a geographic community and/or within a localized subculture. Many of these forms of cultural production were pushed from view by the rise of mass culture, but they did not totally disappear. We can trace many examples of participatory culture at any given moment across the 20th century and many struggles to gain greater access to the means of cultural production and circulation. These various local practices provided the initial seeds of today’s prosumption. What happened though is that net- worked communications made these alternative cultural practices more visible; they could be shared easily across geographic boundaries; there were hybrid media spaces where different subcultures could observe and learn from each other; and people with shared interests could find each other. As this wave of participatory culture moved across networked society, then other institutions responded, seeking to channel and commodify participation in the various ways we discussed above. And that is what results in Web 2.0 business models and discussions of user-generated content. The problem with that model is that it defines all of the participants in relation to the tools, platforms, or content producers and not in relation to their collective goals as members of particular kinds of communities of practice.

MC: How do you expect pop culture prosumption to develop globally?

HJ: We are seeing examples in most parts of the world at this point, but its spread is uneven, not simply because of limited access to technological affordances, but also for cultural, legal, and political factors, given the ways that collective cultural production is bound up with issues of free expression and democratic citizenship, given that expanding chances to produce and share culture and knowledge can have a destabilizing effect on established hierarchies. But, we do not want to think about this purely in terms of a spread of one dominant participatory culture across the planet, though we can see people interacting at small scales via social media across national boundaries. Ethan Zuckerman’s new book does a convincing job of showing us all of the boundaries and barriers that affect who communicates with whom or who cares about what on the World Wide Web. We are also seeing local traditions of cultural production, say, the samba schools in Rio, assert themselves through digital media, and thus finding new forms of cultural expression and social connection.

MC: In your opinion, what strategies will be implemented to increase the significance of prosumption in pop culture? What will be the role of the Internet in this process?

 

HJ: I am less sure I want to increase prosumption as you have defined it above, where it is an extension of the commercial logics of corporate mass media or part of the new emerging logics of Web 2.0. What I want to promote is a more participatory culture where we expand access to the means of production and circulation to more of the population, with access defined here not simply in terms of tools and platforms, but also social and cultural resources. We need to promote a broad array of different models for production and circulation, many of which are not governed by the motives of neoliberal capitalism, some of which follow more closely forms of gift or reputational economies where creativity is motivated by social rather than material rewards.

 

MC: Pop cultural prosumption is more or less linked to fandom as a life- style. Fans who receive free samples, help to organize conventions, or re- view promotional copies are regarded differently by their community. Their status among other fans changes—they gain popularity and respect and their role as experts becomes more and more important. Have you noticed this phenomenon?

 

HJ: Yes and no. I think that in the US, fans are often distrustful of those who become more fully imbricated into the commercial system. Forms of prosumption may or may not actually value fan expertise or respect fan traditions. Certainly, there are more casual consumers who feel more comfortable remaining in these corporately policed spaces, but I think it is an open question whether these spaces will ever fully replace more grassroots spaces, which often actively resist corporate motives or question ideologies. Also keep in mind that fandom is only one form of participatory culture and only one of the sets of cultural communities that motivate prosumption. It might be interesting to look at something like Etsy, which certainly attracts some forms of fan production/consumption, but also taps into older crafter traditions that have often de- fined themselves in direct opposition to mass culture.

 

MC: In the traditional media model, the producers imposed their desires on the audience. What is the situation today and how is it changing? Is there equality between fans and producers? In fact, whose arguments are more important when it comes to conflicts of interests?

HJ: We are nowhere near ‘equality’ at the present time, but there have been shifts in the relationships between producers and consumers, at least as I observe them in the US. I would hate to universalize this. It has always been the case that producers have sought to control both the distribution and interpretation of their content as much as possible, and fans have often sought to elude that control to pursue their own interests. No one can really control what happens to media content once it reaches the hands of the consumer, but consumers have had difficulty influencing production decisions. This is why John Tulloch described fans as a “powerless elite.” Today, what fans make of the raw materials producers provide them is much more publically visible. More and more people know about fan fiction or are watching fan remix videos, and fans are collectively exerting much stronger pressure on producers to respect their interests as they are making decisions than impact the production. Fans are also involved in the circulation of the content, as more stuff travels through digital social networks, as well as across broadcast networks. As this has happened, producers have started to reappraise their relationships with fans. They initially acted out of fear of losing control. It is now clear they have already lost control in that sense, so they are seeking to court fans. Clearly, they would like to exert as much control as possible, but they are also having to give grounds on many traditional constraints on audience behavior as they are coming to realize that engagement is a key currency in the contemporary media economy.

MC: How do you evaluate pop culture producers’ tendency to employ fans (i.e., a fan becomes a professional)? Is it a common practice? How will it evolve in the next few years?

HJ: This is still a minority practice, but it is growing. Of course, in some senses, the line is an arbitrary one. Obviously, most people who produce popular media also consume it, many of them were ‘fans’ in the broadest sense or otherwise why would they enter the industry. But the process of training and recruitment as a professional often involves a reorientation where you are discouraged from seeing the world from the consumer perspective, and recruits often come to see consumers as very strange creatures. What we are seeing is that some producers are consciously bringing some of their most vocal fans ‘into the tent,’ i.e. inviting them to help advise the production on the desires of their community and in return, act as translators back to the worlds they came from. This works only in so far as these ‘fans’ are ‘representative’ of or ‘meaning- fully tied’ to the fan world in the first place. It is not as if fans speak with the same voice; there are all kinds of tensions within fandom and thus, there is a tendency for producers to recruit certain kinds of fans and leave others outside, perhaps even more marginalized than before. Fans make a distinction between affirmational and transforma- tional fans, i.e. fans who celebrate and master the storyworld as it is given to them vs fans who recreate the story materials to better serve their own interests. It is been much easier for producers to absorb affirmational fans than transformational ones, and this has gender implications since the first category is heavily male and the second more heavily female. So, unless the producers develop a deeper understanding of fandom’s own diversity, hierarchy, and traditions, there is a danger that they will over-weigh some fans at the expense of reaching the full range of consumers who are invested in their property.

MC: Majority of the fans consider their favorite protagonists to be beyond mere characters from a TV series or a graphic story. Rather, they are symbolic figures who inspire and have an opinion about important ethical truths or the contemporary world. Is such a perception deeply rooted among fans or is it becoming stronger, perhaps, due to some new phenomena?

 

HJ: I would say that stories have always existed as mythical resources through which we ask core questions about ourselves, our values, and our world. We understand this clearly enough when we are talking about folk tales, myths, and legends of the more historic variety, but when we talk about mass culture, the commercial dimensions—the commodity status of the text—can often drown out our appreciation of the symbolic roles such stories play within our culture. There has been a tendency to say that fans are confusing fantasy with reality—and that is almost never the case—or that they are ‘reading too much into’ popular fictions which were made for ‘entertainment purposes,’ and that is also not right. They are using these stories as springboards for important discussions they want to be having about the world, and they are using the characters as symbolic or mythical resources within those exchanges. That is why they want to rewrite or remix them: because they stand for something and they can be used to express ideas collectively that need to be heard. That is why fans are not content simply consuming: they ask questions, they tell stories, and they remix content, to see if they can more fully realize the symbolic potentials they see within this material. They are going to be doing this regardless of the commercial frames you put around that. Some kinds of prosumption practices can build partnerships with fans, while others impose limits and constraints or exploit fan labor in ways that will damage that relationship. Where this happens producers will face backlash from fans or fans will simply route around the constraints to more fully satisfy their goals. Right now, fans are much more sophisticated at navigating through the social media realm than producers are and have a much longer history of thinking about grassroots cultural production and circulation.

Principal researcher:

Piotr Siuda – an author and a coordinator of “Prosumption in the Pop Industry” project. PhD in sociology, Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Sociology at the Kazimierz Wielki University (Poland), author of Religion and the Internet (2010), The Cultures of Prosumption (2012), Japonisation. Anime and its Polish Fans (being published). His research interests are the sociology of culture and social aspects of the Internet.

e-mail: piotr.siuda@gmail.com

Interviewer:
Michał Chudoliński is an alumni of Collegium Civitas in Warsaw, where he majored in Sociology and ran the Comics Club. In the years 2003-2006 he ran the comics department at „BatCave”, the most popular website about Batman in Poland and is currently the editor of “KZ” magazine (The most recognised Polish on-line magazine dedicated to comics) and the blog “Gotham in the rain” (A new blog, dedicated entirely to the Dark Knight of Gotham). He publishes in: “Nowa Fantastyka”, “Czas Fantastyki”, “2+3D”, “Ha!art”, and on the pages: “Polityka.pl”, “Noircafe”, and “ArtPapier”. Websites: http://www.kzet.pl/, http://www.gothamwdeszczu.com.pl/.

E-mail: michal.chudolinski@gmail.com

“From Imaginary to Virtual Worlds”: An Interview with Historian Michael Saler (Part Three)


As I was reading your discussion of this process of providing “proof” for imaginative narratives, I could not help but think of the roles being performed by contemporary transmedia extensions. For example, see the case that Campfire constructed around the launch of Game of Thrones — (http://campfirenyc.com/work/projects/game-of-thrones/) or these videos relased this summer in relation to Pacific Rim (http://sheridantransmedia2013.wordpress.com/2013/01/15/pacific-rim-viral-site/) and the next Planet of the Apes movie (http://www.firstshowing.net/2013/dawn-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-kicks-off-viral-simian-flu-website/).  To what degree are these very contemporary practices a continuation of the techniques that you suggest emerged around the New Romance?

 

These transmedia extensions are all ways to heighten the immersive reality of imaginary worlds by appeals to our senses and to our reason. (Modernity requires fantasy to be rational at some level; many seek enchantments that don’t reject reason but augment it.) Such practices transform imaginary worlds into virtual worlds that can then inform our thinking about the real world because we have assimilated them corporeally, emotionally, and philosophically.

Why do so many fans collect replicas, first editions, autographs, or other palpable material relating to the imaginary worlds they love? In effect, these are secular reliquaries; they put fans in contact with the intangible mana or charisma of the imaginary world, just as symbols of a favorite sports team, or even a favorite nation, provide many with a sense of identity.

The advantage that imaginary worlds have over some of these other forms of affiliation is that they are explicitly marked as imaginary. European soccer fans can be violent, their conflicts often linked to national identities, but I have yet to see Middle-earth fans get into physical blows with Golden Compass fans. The “virtually real” nature of so many secondary worlds is undercut by acknowledging that they are provisional constructions, and that habit of mind that can be usefully applied to other beliefs we hold in the primary world. Living an “as if” life does not preclude political, spiritual, or ethical commitments, but it does temper arrogance while opening us to a multitude of worlds we might not have considered otherwise.

 

Some recent writing, yours among them, have linked the concept of imaginary worlds with Tolkien’s notion of Sub-creation, which seems to limit the model to talking about worlds that are largely if not entirely the work of the imagination. Yet, Dudley Andrews has discussed the concept in relation to “Dickens’ London,” you discuss here Doyle’s London, and I’ve made the case for Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. Each represent an artist’s particular inflections of real cities, but developed in sufficient imaginative detail as to constitute an immersive environment with a character uniquely its own.  What is the case for or against these environments being regarded as “virtual” in the ways you are using the term?

I think all of these “realist” worlds are clearly marked as fictional, and thus can be thought of as “secondary worlds” distinct from the primary world. They too can become “virtual” through social media that permits their audiences to inhabit them communally, for prolonged periods.

In the late nineteenth century, the imaginary worlds that became virtual through reader participation were primarily works of fantasy, because readers were explicitly seeking an escape from literary realism: they wanted new forms of enchantment that were compatible with modern reason but did not replicate the status quo. Thomas Hardy’s “Wessex” was an imaginary world, complete with a detailed map, but contemporary readers who wanted to immerse themselves for prolonged periods in an imaginary milieu turned to Haggard, Stevenson, Conan Doyle, and other writers of the fantastic, where they could gratify their sense of wonder as well as their reason. (Sherlock Holmes’s “London” is a fantasy world, because it contains Sherlock Holmes, a fantastic character – among others!)

Many middle-class readers and critics, though, thought that this form of immersion in fantasy was irresponsible and regressive. Today’s readers and critics are less likely to dismiss “escapism” in such terms; even those who don’t like fantasy find themselves immersed in the imaginary worlds of Jane Austen and James Joyce, both of which are now virtual with their own fan bases, dedicated social media spaces and, in the case of “Bloomsday,” cosplay every year.

 

I was struck by Edmund Wilson’s critique of Lovecraft’s realm as “a sort of boy’s game.” First, in what sense are these worlds “games,” that is sets of activities in which readers can participate alongside writers? And if they are games in that sense, then, where do the rules of these games come from? and Second, were the kinds of collective activities you describe emerging around these stories always heavily gendered as masculine which would seem to be part of the implication of calling them “boy’s games”? And finally, there’s implications here of “infantilism” or “latency,” charges that have long been associated with fandom. In your research, was fandom always associated with arrested development?

 

Edgar Allen Poe and Jules Verne thought of their imaginary worlds as games, and established rules for them that were taken up by the New Romance and the later marketing genres of science fiction, fantasy, and mystery. (When Hugo Gernsback established Amazing Stories in 1926 – thereby inaugurating the marketing genre of “science fiction” – he constantly cited as his predecessors Poe and Verne, as well as H.G. Wells, and reprinted many of their works.)

Poe argued that imaginary worlds ought to be constructed as meticulously as any hoax, which has become one of the tacit rules for modern imaginary worlds. Verne acknowledged his debt to Poe on this score, continuing the imaginary world Poe created in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1844) in his An Antarctic Mystery (1897).

The notion of including multiple paratexts became firmly established with the New Romance beginning in the 1880s, and the implicit rules for the fannish habitation and extension of imaginary worlds derived from Sherlock Holmes fandom beginning in the 1890s. (Indeed, they called their prolonged and immersive explorations of Conan Doyle’s world the “Great Game.”) Holmes’s fans were the first to write “scholarly” essays about his world as if it were real, and pastiches that augmented the world, making it a living, “virtual” creation.

By the 1930s, these and related rules of the imaginary-world game had become widespread – even science fiction pulp magazines were peppered with paratexts, including learned footnotes in Amazing Stories and Robert Heinlein’s famous “Future History” chart published in Astounding.

Dorothy Sayers wrote a marvelous essay about the Great Game (the term is hers), but on the whole Sherlockian play was masculine, especially in the United States, echoing the homosocial world that Conan Doyle created. (The American Baker Street Irregulars refused to invest women in the society until the 1990s, although there were “scion” societies that did welcome them.) Similarly, science fiction fandom for much of the twentieth century was largely male, and this was true for other subcultures dedicated to comics, horror films, and so on.

There was somewhat more gender parity in the imaginary worlds purveyed by radio in the interwar period. “Little Orphan Annie,” “Captain Midnight,” “Buck Rogers,” “Jack Armstrong,” and other children’s programming provided significant agency for boys and girls in their plot lines and premium campaigns, largely for commercial reasons. Gender hierarchies and imbalances persisted, but at least these worlds were not exclusively male preserves.

The charge of “infantilism” was certainly applied by elites to fans of mass culture for much of the twentieth century. But this charge has a longer history in Western culture. It has usually been associated with any extended immersion in the imagination, which historically has been defined as subordinate to reason and associated with subaltern groups: women, workers, children, so-called “primitives.”

The late-eighteenth century romantics challenged this binary opposition between reason and imagination, and mid-nineteenth century children’s literature also welcomed rather than feared imaginative play. By the late nineteenth century the imagination was being defined by psychologists, philosophers, critics and others as being complementary to reason.

The suspicion of the imagination by elites may have been more prevalent in Protestant than Catholic countries (certainly it was prevalent in Britain and North America, whereas late nineteenth and twentieth century France was practically ground zero for the new celebration of the imagination). Nevertheless, it has continued to play a large role in the negative reception of fantasy, and fandom, until very recently.

Your discussion of Lovecraft suggests that fans from the start saw fantasy, science fiction, and horror as points of entry into conversations about race, ethnicity, and immigration and that readers and writers were often blind to their prejudices even as they celebrated forms of exploration that went beyond the margins of current public sentiment. Much of what you share there could have come from more recent debates amongst fans about the role which race play in contemporary speculative fiction. Can you share more of these debates and their impact on mid-century readers?

 

 I’m a bit disheartened about the way some of the current debates about race and speculative fiction online have used Lovecraft as a convenient punching bag and go no further. It’s easy to do that – no one can deny that he was a virulent racist for most of his life.

But history shows that he, and other fans, were debating issues of race, imperialism, sexism, and other issues since the onset of public spheres of the imagination. Rather than excoriate figures from the past because their views don’t accord with ours, itself an ahistorical practice, it might be better to examine the conditions that enabled these views to flourish, and to explore how such views were challenged and at times changed by diversely constituted public spheres of the imagination.

In other words, the prehistory of our current use of imaginary worlds and virtual realities has much to say about how we might promote pluralism and an acceptance of difference. To dismiss Lovecraft as simply a “racist” without acknowledging how far he had changed – and the reasons for this change – is to abandon the resources that history gives us for negotiating the present.

I find his story, and that of Tolkien (who did question some of his earlier, unexamined views about race, religion, and the nation) to be hopeful examples about how imaginary worlds can be used as well as enjoyed. Their case-histories provide instructive instances of how imaginary worlds are not simply escapist but inform the real world in many ways, for good and for ill. (This is not to say that all online discussions have been like this. Elizabeth Bear’s contribution to a public sphere of the imagination, Tor.com, is a reminder of how imaginary worlds can be good to think with about the primary world: http://www.tor.com/blogs/2009/12/why-we-still-write-lovecraft-pastiche.)

Michael Saler is Professor in the History Department at the University of California, Davis. He received his BA from Brandeis University and a joint Ph.D. in History and Humanities from Stanford University. He is the author of As If: Modern Enchantment and The Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality (Oxford University Press, 2012), The Avant-Garde in Interwar England: ‘Medieval Modernism’ and the London Underground (Oxford University Press, 1999); co-editor, with Joshua Landy, of The Re-Enchantment of the World: Secular Magic in a Rational Age  (Stanford University Press, 2009), and editor, The Fin-De-Siecle World  (Routledge, forthcoming).

“From Imaginary to Virtual Worlds”: An Interview with Historian Michael Saler (Part Two)

You write about the “ironic imagination” as a way of describing the ways fans are and are not immersed in the fictional worlds you describe. Can you explain what you mean by this concept and how it might address long-standing concerns about naive or unknowing spectatorship?

 

  Ironic self-reflexivity itself seems to be part of our natural makeup: psychologists find that children develop the capacity to engage in meta-representations from an early age. But the degree to which cultures encourage or discourage ironic self-reflexivity has varied.

For Western Europeans and North Americans, the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was not a period especially open to the ironic habitation of fictional worlds. The early Victorians in particular were ambivalent about fiction, which they shackled to religious and utilitarian strictures. In As If, I trace the gradual cultural shift from the Victorians’ stress on “sincerity” and a cohesive “character” to the Edwardians’ greater emphasis on multiple perspectives and a complex “personality” capable of living in multiple “worlds” without cognitive dissonance.

I found that the ironic, self-aware apprehension of representations during this latter period was widespread. Irony has long been identified with the literary modernism of the late nineteenth century, but it was also pervasive in mass culture as well. She, Dracula, and the Sherlock Holmes stories were among the many coyly self-referential texts that helped inculcate an “ironic imagination” in their readers.

Readers were trained to simultaneously believe and disbelieve in imaginary worlds and characters. Friedrich Nietzsche was an influential proponent of the ironic imagination, and Tolkien applied the concept to imaginary worlds directly. He noted that Coleridge was wrong to argue in 1817 that readers inhabited fantastic worlds through the “willing suspension of disbelief.” Instead, they willingly believed in these worlds, while at the same time acknowledging that they were engaged in pretense. Coleridge’s views reflected the “sincere” outlook of the early Victorians; Tolkien’s the “ironic imagination” of the late nineteenth century.

Critics of mass culture, from the fin de siècle to the nineteen-sixties if not beyond, have tended to assume that texts that appeal to the masses are simplistic, conveying univocal messages promoting the ideologies of the culture industry entwined with the state. Examining the texts themselves, and how they were received and repurposed by readers – the “textual poaching” you’ve analyzed in your work – reveals a very different situation. So-called postmodern self-reflexivity was emerging in the nineteenth century through the spread of the ironic imagination; consumers of the new mass culture often approached it in sophisticated ways.

However, it is important to stress that the ironic imagination is usually insufficient on its own to challenge mass culture’s appeal to desire. H.P. Lovecraft, for example, was a lucid exponent of the ironic imagination, but this didn’t prevent him from holding racist opinions without any irony whatsoever for most of his life. Similarly, The German writer Thomas Mann cultivated an ironic imagination, but lost all critical distance with the outbreak of WWI, becoming an ardent nationalist.

Audiences during the fin de siècle were not naive: but irony can be helpless against canny appeals to our desires. Fortunately, another resource arose in the late nineteenth century culture to challenge these emotional appeals: “public spheres of the imagination.” Even Lovecraft benefitted from these at a late point in his life, as he himself acknowledged.

 

Your term, “public spheres of the imagination,” seems especially evocative as a means of thinking about fan communities and practices. In some ways, we have reduced Habermas’s much richer notion of the public sphere, which included literature and the arts, to a narrower conception of the political. In my own current research, I am focusing on the concept of fan activism and looking at the ways activists/fans are appropriating and remixing elements of fictional worlds to build a new language for social change. Is your suggestion that this blurring between politics and fan culture is not some outgrowth of post-modernity, as some have suggested to me, but may have been part of the project of modernity all along?  In what ways do you see fan discussions as constituting a “public sphere”? What does the “imagination” bring to this process?

 

So much of what we take to be quintessentially “postmodern” – self-reflexivity, intertextuality, an emphasis on the provisional, contingent, social-constructionist dimensions of human experience – was already in play by the end of the nineteenth century. These qualities are characteristic features of imaginary worlds of the time (works by Jules Verne and H. Rider Haggard are wonderfully intertextual, for example). They were emergent rather than dominant forms of expression at the time, but they do suggest that postmodernism was not a break with modernity, as some have argued, but a vital tendency within modernity itself, which assumed a greater momentum in the second half of the twentieth century. (Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern should be modified to We Have Never Been Postmodern).

Readers have appropriated utopias for political purposes, notably Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888). But utopias and satires are associated with the primary world – they are not strictly “secondary worlds,” which connotes a greater degree of autonomy from the primary world. One of the fascinating aspects of secondary worlds is how fans nevertheless have used them to discuss, reimagine, and change the primary world.

Fans have been enabled to engage in these communal tasks via “public spheres of the imagination.” These first appeared in the late nineteenth century, in the new letters pages of fiction magazines. Readers were encouraged to discuss imaginary worlds with one another, the editor, and the works’ authors. In the 1920s, some magazines began to include the letter writers’ address, which fostered direct contacts between fans and led to new public spheres of the imagination in the 1930s, such as fanzines, fan clubs, and conventions.

I’ve noted that these venues allowed fans to inhabit imaginary worlds communally and for prolonged periods, transforming them into virtual worlds. But as an unintended consequence, fans also began to relate autonomous imaginary worlds to the real world, using the former as touchstones to discuss the latter.

I distinguish these public spheres from those discussed by Habermas by highlighting the central role played in them by the imagination. Habermas emphasized the importance of rational and egalitarian communications in his Enlightenment-inspired conception. Public spheres of the imagination also promoted rational and egalitarian discussions – at least these were proclaimed ideals – but added to them the alternate realities and “cognitive estrangements,” made possible by the imagination.

To a greater extend than Habermas’s conception of the public sphere, arguably, public spheres of the imagination encourage thinking outside of the box. (Late nineteenth and early twentieth century theorists like Georges Sorel and Ernst Bloch discussed the use of fantasy and the imagination for political and social purposes, but scholars have been largely unaware of how similar ideas were being generated and even put into practice by fans at this time as well.)

Public spheres of the imagination revel in the “cognitive estrangement” that science fiction and fantasy direct toward consensus reality. They are also sites in which individuals try to reconcile utopian aspirations with practical and rational programs. Russian fans of The Lord of the Rings, for example, were inspired by the Hobbits’ opposition to Saruman’s “scouring of the Shire” to actively support Yeltsin’s defiance of the attempted military coup of 1991.

Public spheres of the imagination, especially when they have a diverse constituency, can challenge unexamined assumptions and challenge one-sided convictions; they are a necessary complement to the ironic imagination when it comes to living in virtual worlds of the imagination. Thus members of the “Lovecraft Circle” at times vigorously contested Lovecraft’s political and social views, which were also challenged in the amateur journalism societies to which he belonged. He was forced to reconsider his most cherished beliefs, and over the long term he did modify many of his opinions and prejudices (although his racist views about Blacks never changed). Similarly, Christian fans of Middle-earth have engaged in constructive dialogues with fans from other faiths, or no faith at all, in the public spheres of the imagination dedicated to Tolkien’s imaginary world.

A homogeneous public sphere, however, often preaches to the choir. This was a problem with the Inklings, which Tolkien and C.S. Lewis belonged to. The group was largely comprised of white, middle class, Christian writers, and tended to reinforce, rather than challenge, many of the fundamental convictions of its members.

 

Rather than describing the “willing suspension of disbelief,” a common phrase, you argue that these practices are best understood through “the willing activation of pretense.” What mechanisms have emerged to support such a process? How is it tied to the various forms of “documentation” and “mapping” that you describe?

 

         As I noted, the early Victorians were worried about the irreligious and antisocial potentials of the imagination, and tried to delimit it to religious and utilitarian purposes. Coleridge’s famous phrase, the “willing suspension of disbelief,” reflects this point of view – “disbelief” is taken as the default position, which is then temporarily suspended. This restrictive attitude toward the imagination changed over the course of the century owing to many factors – notably secularist currents of thought and the rise of mass culture, which encouraged the exercise of the imagination and undermined the authority of elites by appealing directly to consumers.

A good example of this change was mid-Victorian children’s literature, which was less moralistic and didactic than earlier tracts delighting in naughty children burning in hell; instead, works like Alice in Wonderland celebrated, even encouraged, imaginative whimsy. Writers of the New Romance were weaned on these books and consciously recalled them as they wrote imaginary worlds for adults as well as children.

By the late nineteenth century, adults were allowed to actively “believe” in imaginary worlds, with the double-minded understanding that they were engaging in pretense. This is a more immersive state of mind than the “willing suspension of disbelief” and allows for imaginary worlds to become virtual worlds.

This immersive, participatory state of mind was also enhanced by the paratexts that were distinguishing features of the New Romance. Detailed maps, glossaries, footnotes, photographs, and so on imparted tremendous realism to the fantastic imaginary worlds described by the text. Paratexts remain a vital dimension of imaginary worlds to this day. (HBO’s “Game of Thrones” opens with a wonderful, three-dimensional map, gesturing to the traditions established by the New Romance.)

Paratexts also encourage fans to speculate about what has been left out of the documents, reconcile contradictions within them, and contribute to the cognitive mapping of the world from the information provided. These participatory activities enhance one own emotional and cognitive investment in the world, thereby escalating the immersive experience, rendering the world not only more “real” but more “alive” or virtual.

An interesting consequence of such virtual world building is that it often reminded fans of the constructed nature of the real world. Nationalism, or any number of other “isms,” became less defensible as unchanging essences distinguishing one group from another. Nations could be seen as “imagined communities,” in Benedict Anderson’s phrase; personal and social identities were increasingly acknowledged to be more fluid, constructed, and performative in nature. Tolkien, for example, created his imaginary world as an essentialist myth for England. Many of his fans, however, actively debated the nature and purpose of nationalism, as well as ethnicity, gender, class and religion. Many fans came to question essentialist outlooks.

Thus, as a result of inhabiting imaginary worlds, and discussing them with others in public spheres of the imagination, we see a move from the passive acceptance of essentialist, “just so” narratives to a greater comfort at embracing provisional and contingent “as if” narratives. Imagining new cosmopolitan worlds and pluralistic identities is one of the benefits of imaginary world building and habitation, or at least it can be. (I also discuss more “essentialist” receptions of Middle-earth by neo-fascists, which highlights the importance of diversely constituted public spheres and openness to debate as prophylactics against such “just so” stories.)

 

Michael Saler is Professor in the History Department at the University of California, Davis. He received his BA from Brandeis University and a joint Ph.D. in History and Humanities from Stanford University. He is the author of As If: Modern Enchantment and The Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality (Oxford University Press, 2012), The Avant-Garde in Interwar England: ‘Medieval Modernism’ and the London Underground (Oxford University Press, 1999); co-editor, with Joshua Landy, of The Re-Enchantment of the World: Secular Magic in a Rational Age  (Stanford University Press, 2009), and editor, The Fin-De-Siecle World  (Routledge, forthcoming).