Digital Cosmopolitans: An Interview with Ethan Zuckerman (Part Three)

You talk a bit in the book about some of themes we tackled in Spreadable Media – the degree to which more and more media comes to us because it is passed along by our friends rather than through mainstream distribution. How does this impact the challenges we face in developing a more “cosmopolitan” perspective on the world? What do you see as some of the limitations of “social discovery”?
I see social discovery as a third paradigm in how we find information online. In the early commercial internet, we saw a lot of curators from an earlier generation of media taking their place in the digital world. These curators are very helpful in guiding us to unexpected discovery, pointing us to media we might not have otherwise found, but they have been challenged and unseated by an internet-age suspicion of “gatekeepers”, who silence some voices and amplify others.
For much of the development of the consumer internet, search has been a dominant paradigm. In search, we look for precisely what we want, and we often find it. It’s a very rewarding experience, but it’s one with some complicated implications. It’s possible to surround ourselves with information that confirms our existing biases and prejudices, and to filter out voices that might challenge our preconceptions. And search demands that we know what we’re looking for, which is problematic, because we don’t always know what we want or what we need.
Social discovery has emerged in part as a way of reintroducing serendipity into online discovery. It gives us signals about what our friends are interested in that we’ve not yet discovered, which allows us the experience of novelty and discovery. But what we’re discovering is what our friends knew, which means our horizons are limited to those of our friends. If we’re blessed with a broad and knowledgeable set of friends, this can be a very profound discovery mechanism. But for many of us, our friends have similar backgrounds and similar perspectives, and discovering the world through their shared media may reinforce our existing worldviews, not only telling us what we want and expect to hear, but persuading us that our perspectives are universal ones, because our friends share that perspective.
I think that spreadable media escapes some of these limitations in that fandoms often bring together people from very different backgrounds around a shared media experience. Sharing a fondness for sumo gives me a point of encounter with people in Japan, Mongolia, Bulgaria and Brazil (four countries well represented in sumo at present) and the possibility to discover new perspectives through the encounter. But it’s possible to imagine other experiences of sharing an interest that leads you back to people you already encounter in your daily existence – I’m not sure my experience as a Red Sox fan broadens my social or global perspectives very much.
You draw heavily across the book on your experiences with Global Voices. What has this project taught you about the kinds of human resources, processes, and technologies needed to facilitate meaningful exchanges across national borders?
Global Voices has taught me two major lessons: the importance of face to face relationships, and the idea that cross-cultural communication is a skill. Global Voices is celebrated as a virtual community that somehow manages to bring 1400 people in 100 countries together to work on a common project. While that’s true, the secret of the community is that we invest heavily in face to face contact. The project started at a meeting at Harvard, and most of our important decisions have been made when many of us are able to be together in the same space. It’s ironic that a project about connection through digital media is so physically mediated, but I think that just reinforces how significant in person encounter remains in a digital age. I think a lesson learned from our experience is that it can be very valuable to combine short burst of face to face encounter with use of digital media to prepare for and deepen relationships. We’re big fans of introducing people online, bringing them together in person for a few days, then asking them to work together virtually for years at a time.
Most of the people involved with Global Voices are bridge figures, brokering ideas and information between two or more cultures. I’m increasingly persuaded that this sort of bridging is a skillset that can be developed and cultivated. People in our community who are committed to some other form of cultural bridging aside from blogging or writing – living and working outside their home culture, working across different socioeconomic groups – tend to be our strongest and most productive community members. And people who work with us through the years, particularly people who work in different positions within the organization, develop a very strong suite of tools that allow them to mitigate conflicts and build new connections.
As for the technological piece: we’re almost luddites at Global Voices. We used IRC for many years for internal conversations, and mailing lists. We’re reluctant to embrace technologies until they are very widely usable. But we’re starting to make some shifts. GV Faces is my favorite new project – it’s a panel discussion on an issue in the news, held via Google Hangouts and recorded for broadcast on YouTube. When we started Global Voices, it was hard to imagine that we’d see technology advance to the point where we could do a global video talking heads show, but that’s where we are, and I’m loving the outcome.
You also draw on your experiences as a fan of certain forms of global pop music. To what degree might music circulate across borders that it is harder for news to cross? Does this movement pose a risk that the music will be exoticized, decontextualized, and misunderstood or does it potentially spark interests and connections that can lead to thicker forms of communication down the line? Might the same thing be said for other kinds of cultural products — Japanese Anime or Bollywood films, for example?
Music is the easiest route into a new culture for me – I’ve listened to and collected global pop music since my teens, and my first trip in any new city is to the record store. There are many countries where I know nothing about the politics but something about the music. For me, knowing something about a country’s music opens me to learning something about the news or the politics – when I follow the rebellion and civil war in Mali, I’m thinking of the wealth of amazing songwriters in Bamako, and about the guitar playing of Tinariwen and other Tuareg musicians.
There’s no doubt that music can be a space for appropriation without exploration. I examine Diplo’s use of Brazilian dance music in Rewire and conclude that he’s skating right up to the line, if not crossing it, in his work with MIA. But I also consider how a blatant, naked appropriation – Deep Forest’s use of “Rorogwela”, a Solomon Islands lullaby, which they repackage as “pygmy music” from the Congo – leads internet artist Matt Harding to seek out the creator’s family in the Solomon Islands and make a deep and significant personal tie. Harding found a piece of music he loved, learned the complicated story behind it and it ultimately led him to make personal connections behind the music.
I think cultural media like music, movies and food are often a shortcut around the caring problem. I may know little about the Uighur and their ongoing struggles with the Chinese government, but I know – and dig – the music of Zulpitar Zaitov, and so I’m inclined to pay more attention to Uighur news than I otherwise would. I see no reason why this couldn’t work around anime or Bollywood, and suspect it probably does.

 

You are now heading up the MIT Center for Civic Media. How might the projects you are developing there help to further address the challenges you’ve identified throughout your book?
I talk in Rewire about a set of tools that can help us monitor our individual use of media and decide whether or not we are getting the diverse picture of the world we need. We’re building some of those tools at Center for Civic Media, using the Media Cloud software that I’ve been working on for years with colleagues at Harvard’s Berkman Center. Tools like Catherine d’Iganzio’s Mapping the Globe are designed to help us visualize the concentrations and biases of media coverage. Nathan Matias and Sarah Szalavits have built a tool called Follow Bias that helps show how many women, men and brands you’re following on Twitter and, perhaps, make a decision to change your behavior and follow more (or fewer) women. We’re also building tools that look at how ideas and culture spread globally, as with a tool like What We Watch, which maps global audiences for YouTube videos. Finally, we’re starting to build tools that help you add serendipity to your media diet. Catherine is working on a Masters thesis called Terra Incognita, which helps you monitor where in the world you pay attention to and discover sources from parts of the world which are unknown to you.

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.

Digital Cosmopolitans: An Interview with Ethan Zuckerman (Part Two)

The word, cosmopolitanism, is often used and often misunderstood. What does the term mean to you? What do you see as the core values or virtues of adopting a more cosmopolitan perspective?
I debated whether or not to use the world “cosmopolitanism” in the book, as it evokes a sense of globe-hopping placelessness that’s not what I wanted to evoke. But I ended up using it because I found Kwame Appiah’s thinking about cosmopolitanism so helpful.
Appiah, a Ghanaian-American philosopher, suggests that cosmopolitans recognize that there is more than one acceptable way to live in the world, and that we may have obligations to people who live in very different ways than we do. This, he argues, is one of the possible responses to a world where we find ourselves interacting with people from very different backgrounds. Cosmopolitanism doesn’t demand that we accept all ways of living in the world as equally admirable – he works hard to draw a line between cosmopolitanism and moral relativism – but does demand that we steer away from a fundamentalist or nationalist response that sees our way as the only way and those who believe something different as inferior or unworthy of our consideration or aid.
I’m struck by how personal a response Appiah’s cosmopolitanism is. He navigates two very different cultures in his life – his academic life in Princeton and his family in Ghana – and aspects of that life, notably his homosexuality, can be very controversial in one environment and uncontroversial in another. The solution he proposes, it struck me, is one of the more thoughtful approaches to life in a world where we continually encounter other ways of thinking and living. A cosmopolitan approach offers us the encouragement to discover other ways of solving a problem while accepting the idea that we may choose to continue living in ways we have in the past. What we are not free to do is to dismiss other ways of living out of hand, or to fall back on a narrow, tribal definition of obligation. It strikes me as a responsible reaction to a world that is connected in ways large and small, in ways we rarely see or understand.
 You discuss across the book the symptoms of an “incomplete globalization.” Is it incomplete in the sense that it is broken or incomplete in the sense that it is still in process? 
One of the criticisms I’ve received about the book is that it’s insufficiently critical of contemporary global capitalism. One reason critics have brought up that objection is that I’m enthusiastically pro-globalization, though not in the ways most people use that term. I’ve been involved with global economic development for the past two decades, and it has persuaded me that what developing economies need is more globalization, not less. Nations that have the hardest time educating their populations and giving them economic opportunities tend to be those most detached from global trade and migration flows. This doesn’t mean that I support exploitative globalization, and I think that a great deal of what happens at the WTO and other international trade fora is rigged against developing nations. But the enemy isn’t globalization – it’s bad, unfair globalization.
I use “incomplete globalization” as a way of describing a tension between three types of movement. Atoms are quite free to move across global borders – we’ve built trade systems that allow low-cost sourcing of raw materials and manufactured goods from across continents and oceans. While trade in atoms isn’t barrier free, it’s far less restrained than the flow of people, which has been dramatically restrained in the 20th century, to the great detriment of many in the developing world. I am deeply influenced by Lant Prichett’s arguments which make the case that increased migration would be the single biggest step taken towards economic development in poor nations. My contribution to the debate is to note that globalization of bits often lags behind globalization of atoms, closely following the globalization of people. I am concerned that a world where we globalize atoms and not bits is a dangerous world – we are dependent on other parts of the world without understanding local circumstances. So I would argue for a more complete globalization of atoms, bits and people, in ways that are careful, fair and focused on human development. So “incomplete globalization” is both broken in some ways, and incomplete, though my focus is one the ways it is incomplete and imbalanced between globalization of atoms, people and bits.
 
You make a productive distinction in the book between Xenophiles and bridge figures. What are the differences between the two? What kinds of functions do they each serve in connecting people together across national differences? How do they both fit within a larger vision of a more cosmopolitan culture?
For me, bridge figures are the cultural brokers and translators who work to make cultures understandable to each other. Bridge figures have deep attachments to two or more cultures – they’ve usually lived and worked in different parts of the world, and they’ve chosen to champion those cultures, identifying the good parts in one and introducing them to the other.
If you’re going to have an advocate for a culture, they need someone to advocate to. Xenophiles are people who seek inspiration and new ideas in different cultures. They don’t have the background in the different cultures to build new bridges, but they can cross the ones that bridge figures build.
For the project of increasing global understanding and connection, both types of figures are critical. I probably emphasize the function of the bridge figure more thoroughly in Rewire because it’s hard for me to imagine much global connection without bridging. But xenophiles – particularly xenophiles who wear their interests and passions on their sleeves, like Anthony Bourdain and his relentless search for interesting global food – are enormously important in promoting the possibility and importance of international connection. Not everyone can be a bridge figure, I argue – it’s an accident of circumstances as well as a choice of perspective and temperment – but xenophilia is a choice and one I hope more people will make.
 What steps might educators take to foster a greater interest and engagement with the kinds of global communication flows that you value? Is it simply a matter of encouraging Americans to learn foreign language or beefing up geography teaching, or does it require rethinking the curriculum at a deeper level?

Languages, geography, history and travel are all powerful tools to encourage engagement, but I think we need a more fundamental change in educational systems. We need much greater awareness of interconnection so that the importance of understanding the wider world is far more apparent. We’re lousy about teaching students the complex systems that hold the world together – trade, financial flows, shipping, migration – so it’s not a surprise that complex stories that require us to understand interconnection are hard to develop audiences for.

Near the end of the book, you discuss “cognitive diversity” and its value in contemporary organizations. How do you define this concept? In what sense is it different from “Identity diversity”? What steps can organizations take to foster and sustain greater “cognitive diversity” in their operations?
Cognitive diversity and identity diversity have some common ground, but do not fully overlap. Cognitive diversity recognizes different ways of thinking about problems and tends to track to differences in cultural upbringing and education. Two people who have different ethnic and religious backgrounds might think very similarly if they were raised in the same geographic community and attended the same set of schools and trained in the same ways.
Near the end of Rewire, I argue that teams benefit from cognitive diversity and may need to look for it both through identity diversity and above and beyond identity diversity. This likely requires changing how we recruit talent, looking at broader pools of individuals with different paths towards qualification. It also means making a commitment towards building teams to encourage diversity and accepting some conflict over more comfortable, homophilous teams, possibly trading some degree of comfort and harmony for creative tension.
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.

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.

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.”

Highlights from the “Rethinking Intermediality in the Digital Age” Conference

Earlier this fall, I reported here about my trip to Transylvania to attend a gathering of the International Society for Intermedia Studies, hosted at Sapientia Hungarian University of Transylvania. I found the interdisciplinary and international mix of speakers invigorating, as they shared reflections of a broad range of historical periods, national contexts, and media platforms and practices. They have since made available videos of the three keynote addresses from this conference, and I wanted to pass them along to you.

Here is my address, “‘All Over the Map’: What Oz The Great and Powerful Can Teach Us About World-Building.” The recent Oz film has been generally dismissed as too much focused on visual spectacle, too little interested in character and story. I take a contrarian perspective, arguing that we need some aesthetic criteria for discussing works where richly realized worlds take center stage and become the key focus of our attention. Here, I situate the Oz film, and its play with intertextuality and world-building, in the much larger history of the Oz franchise, noting that Oz was the first conceived of as more a world than a story and that there have been many stories which sought to allow us to “return” to this world — a theme that goes back to even the earliest Oz films (produced by L. Frank Baum himself). I am now in the process of developing this talk into an essay for publication — one of the tasks I’ve set for myself over the break. But, I thought some of you might enjoy this glimpse at a work still very much in progress.

Marie Laurie Ryan was a second keynote speaker at the conference, and she addressed the concept of transmedia storytelling from a narratological perspective. I thoroughly enjoyed, though nervously anticipated, her critique of my work, which I felt was fair in its challenges and also touched on themes which I have been exploring through my own more recent writing, ubeknowst to her.

And finally, there was Joachim Paech, who dug much more deeply into the concept of the intermedial, from a perspective grounded in continential aesthetic philosophy. People at the conference suggested that the three keynotes were a study in contrast with each of us embodying different academic styles and cultures and each speaking from a place deep within our own national traditions. I will allow you to judge this for yourselves.

This will be my last post for 2013. I am going to take off a few weeks to focus on family, recreation, and writing in that order, but we will be back again after the start of the year with more exciting interviews which I already have ready to go. So, see you on the other side…

Participatory Poland (Part Seven): Brafitting: From a Participatory Community to a Marketing Strategy, and From Poland to America

In the “Participatory Poland” report a group of Polish aca-fen makes a preliminary attempt towards defining the specificity of an Eastern European country’s participatory culture shaped both in the communist and post-communist periods. By placing the development of selected fan-based activities against a broader socio-historical background, we are trying to capture the interplay between the global and the local context of participatory culture, as well as take preliminary steps towards making its Polish branch available for academic research. Thanks to Professor Henry Jenkins’ incredible support, we are able to share the first, though by no means final, results of our investigations with aca-fen worldwide. The posts included in this report deal with several examples of Polish participatory activities, namely, the literary and media fandom of speculative fiction and role-playing games; comics fandom; fandom of manga and anime; historical re-enactment associations; and the prosumerist phenomenon of bra-fitting. While we are planning to continue and expand our research, we hope that its samples presented in this report contribute to the exploration of participatory culture.

Brafitting: From a Participatory Community to a Marketing Strategy, and from Poland to America

Aleksandra Mochocka

Kazimierz Wielki University in Bydgoszcz

 

In the beginning, there was (almost) nothing. Put simply, the communist economy neither encouraged, nor enabled the mass production of well-made and visually appealing lingerie. With no incentive from the market forces, and no technology to support the process, nobody seemed to be specifically interested in manufacturing bras in Poland after the WWII and before the collapse of the communist regime.

Then the cornucopia began: with the advent of free economy, bras of all colours and prints gradually flooded the market, or market places literally, as private entrepreneurs started to import lingerie from foreign wholesalers, including cheap Chinese no-name bras. Yet only a limited number of women were able to find a bra that would fit their needs. And by “needs” I do not mean the personal taste in colour or style, but first and foremost – the need of a particular, individual woman to feel comfortable wearing her bra, regardless of her body’s type/size and other characteristic.

In short, the phenomenon of bra-craze can be seen as an example of de Certeau’s (1988) “strategies” and “tactics”. For de Certeau, strategies are a part of the system that upholds the balance of power; representing organisational structures, the producers calculate the most efficient strategies available from the position of power (xix). Subjected to the strategies, the consumers are far from being passive, as they develop cunning tactics to regain some of the power by subterfuge. On one hand, there have been the marketing strategies of manufacturers/wholesalers/retailers, and the official channels of bra distribution; on the other hand, sharing know-how and pieces of advice on the Internet, the community of women has developed some inventive solutions in response (and as a form of self-defence). The process has nearly gone full circle, with manufactures introducing more and more diversified size options, and commercial bra fitting services being offered even by the companies which have very little to do with the original idea of breast-friendly bras, and still selling a limited range of bras. Braffiting has become a profitable business.

The brafitting movement in Poland, or stanikomania (which translates to bra-mania or bra-craze) could be perceived as a participatory culture phenomenon related to the construction of femininity and the body image issues. The advent of the braffiting lobby was closely connected with the grassroots Internet communication (discussion boards and blogs); initially, the whole idea was to share know-how and find some alternative buyer tactics to select a bra to fit a body, regardless of its shape or size, instead of adjusting the body to fit a bra. Some activists may have had adequate professional background (e.g. in IT, marketing or gender studies) and more professionally oriented  aims, but for the majority of users it was a fan activity, with a low threshold of involvement thanks to the Internet technologies.

If we consider the characteristics of participatory culture as suggested by Jenkins et al. (2009), bra-craze seems to be a perfect example; apart from the above mentioned “low barriers to […] engagement,” there is also the “strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with others” (for example, direct encouragements to share one’s experiences, or blog functionalities facilitating uploading photos and comments) as well as “informal mentorship” (sharing knowledge as the main aim of the movement); the participants strongly “believe that their contributions matter” (accounts of successful conversions or illuminations of bra-illiterate women initiated by the bra-maniacs abound on the forums and blogs) and last but not least, that everyone can (yet do not have to) participate (p. 7).

Before this revolution (and this is a term bra-maniacs actually use), women would often feel ashamed of their “irregular” bodies for which there were no comfortable or attractive bras. One’s breasts were deemed too big, or too small, or too narrow, or too perky, or too bulky, or too saggy to fit in the bra. The bra was the ultimate measure of one’s body, the Cinderella’s shoe style. (By no means is the problem exclusive to post-communist economies; consider Victoria’s Secret bras – beautiful designs in a dramatically limited size range, excluding most of the female demographic.)

The bra-mania has been (and still remains) primarily Internet-based; sharing information and connecting those who know how-to with those who seek knowledge, women of the bra-maniac may be perceived as a neotribe, to use Maffesoli’s (1996) term. Bra-mania seems to share the “efflorescence and effervescence of neotribalism which, in various forms, refuses to identify with any political project whatsoever, to subscribe to any sort of finality, and whose sole raison d’être is a preoccupation with the collective present” (p. 75). The common experience of looking for and successfully finding a comfortable (and beautiful) bra against the odds of free market economy and producers’ strategies is the unifying factor here, and the bra-maniacs feel that they belong together.

They also feel significantly empowered, although their activities are centred around buying/consuming a product, a commodity designed to re-shape their bodies into socially accepted (and expected) gendered forms. Is this postfeminism in action?

Certainly, the bra-maniacs are not the ones to burn their bras (a bra-maniac can have an impressive collection of several bras, and some bra-maniacs sleep in their bras, finding it beneficial for the condition of their breasts). There has been the action and there have already been the results, as with the opportunities created by on-line shopping and the growing pressure of the lobbyists, more and more retailers and manufacturers started to change the approach to their products, offering a wider selection of different size options and designs. Brafitting has become mainstream, and Polish companies, such as Ewa Michalak or BiuBiu, have started to enter the US market.

 

The miserable life of the “unconverted”

Until the mid 2000s, most Polish manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers felt more comfortable offering only four or five different cup sizes (A, B, C, D, and sometimes E) combined with only four to five band sizes, which gave circa twenty-odd options to choose from (Kulpa 2011). (To illustrate the point, imagine that shoes are offered in two size options only, say 7 and 8.) Obviously, women would have felt comfortable in bras that do not flatten the breasts, or slip away, or pinch, or cut into the flesh, making the breast painfully bulge over the rim of the cups. Sadly, with twenty-something bra sizes on the market, most women had to satisfy themselves with lingerie that might look attractive (and/or be cheap), but was far from good when it came to the comfort of use.

Remember the shoe analogy?Imagine walking in shoes two sizes too small for your feet. It is going to hurt, right? Obviously, if you were looking for new shoes, nobody would persuade you to buy such a pair. However, if you were a woman looking for a new bra, most shopping assistants would persuade you to buy a bra that hurts you and distorts your body, humiliating and shaming you on the way (the bra is perfect – if it fails to fit, it is your fault).

The reason why is as simple as that: the retailer fails to have the proper size range in stock, as there should be at least as many as 60 to 80 different bra size options available if an average woman is to be served (Kulpa 2011). With a limited size range, you would have to select one of the twenty options, instead of selecting one out of eighty. Chance is, you bra is going to be uncomfortable. And that was the situation in Poland well into the 2000s.

Nevertheless, around the middle of the decade there were some socio-economic and technological changes. From 2006 Polish people could emigrate to Great Britain freely, and many took their chances. Internet shopping became more and more popular, and British currency had a convenient exchange rate. There had already been British lingerie brands, such as Panache (http://www.panache-lingerie.com/gb/ ), that offered bras in the sizes unheard of in Poland. The access to such bras inspired women to develop some very specific know-how. In July 2005 a user known as Butter77 started an Internet forum, called Lobby Biuściastych (The Buxom Ladies Lobby) http://forum.gazeta.pl/forum/f,32203,Lobby_Biusciastych_.html, now hosted on gazeta.pl site (as of today, there are 268585 posts and counting). Soon some of the most active participants of the forum started their own sites, the most famous being Stanikomania (http://stanikomania.blox.pl/html ) run by Kasica (Katarzyna Kulpa), which started in January 2007, and Balkonetka (March 2008)  (http://balkonetka.pl/# ), run by Mauzonka (Julia K. Szopa). Answering the question about the Lobby Biuściastych origins, Butters77 (2007) explains that

the story how it started is quite simple and related to practical issues mostly:) As far as I remember, I used to have problems buying a bra for fuller breasts, specifically: a bra with big cups and tight underbust band. It was verging on a miracle to find one in a Polish store. What was offered to me was the regular option (that is ‘small breasts == tight band’ or “huge breasts = huge band’).

I rebelled and thought, that if there big cups existed, it had to be possible to attach them to a band smaller than 80. I miraculously managed to find a couple of exceptions, which made me believe that it is right to advertise such exceptions.

[…] the forum was meant to be a place for the bigger-breast women where they could exchange information concerning lingerie manufacturers, recommend tested fashions, help to find the proper size etc.. And first of all – where they could discourage themselves from yielding to harmful market standards. Joining in over time, other “lobbyists” provided invaluable help in developing this idea. (translation mine; http://broszka.pl/alfabet-nie-konczy-sie-na-d,ap )

The idea of rebellion was hanging in the air: the consumers realised that they can be prosumers, directly influencing the market. The bra-mania movement has grown upon the principles of prosumerism, collective intelligence, and participation.

What was the doctrine of the newly minted bra-craze movement? You cannot tell what the “volume” of the cup is, unless you know the combination of the cup size (e.g. F) and the band size (e.g. 70). As follows, there is no such a thing as a uniform “A” cup or “D” cup. Labelling a woman as a “D cup wearer” means nothing, because 60D is a totally different size than, for example, 110D (as explained here http://stanikomania.blox.pl/2010/01/Ta-slynna-miseczka-D.html ).

A very important idea was also that all the lettering and numbering should be used only to sort out bra sizes, not to label or categorise women, as in the notorious “she is a flat-chested A” style. Moreover, it was emphasised that the bra band should uphold up to 80% of breasts weight and fairly tight. The cups should be large enough, with the underwire sitting on the ribcage. And now comes the ingenious part: women were recommended to ask for the bra which had a 5 to 10 cm smaller band than they would have been offered usually, and the cup size three or four times bigger. It was the clever trick, a consumer tactic: the better bras had been already there, yet dedicated for other women, and the trick was to claim their use (for example, if a size 85B bra would be unstable and flatten the breasts, the idea was to ask – against the shop assistant’s recommendation – for a 75D bra, with bigger cups and a tighter fit; the band, being elastic, would expand). It was strictly the question of know-how, not the question of a new product on the market, but along with this tactic went the demand for more size options.

 

The “conversion” or the “enlightenment”

The women posting on the Lobby Biuściastych forum would often compare finding a proper bra to a transforming experience (there is a thread called “How I profited from changing my bra size to the one I should wear” – some accounts are deeply personal and passionate http://forum.gazeta.pl/forum/w,32203,75213023,,Co_mi_dala_zmiana_rozmiaru_stanika_na_wlasciwy_.html?v=2 ). In the lingo of the Lobby the terms such as  “enlightenment”, “conversion” or “de-bra-fing” (my attempt at translating the Polish coinage ostanikowanie) are used. Women would write about the physical and psychological comfort they have gained.

To quote a young woman I’ve personally asked  about her experience with professional brafitting service (made possible because of the years of bra-maniacs‘ lobbying), it is “like getting her breasts back”. Lots of “converts” compare their experience to an epiphany of a kind, dividing their lives into “before the conversion” and “after the conversion” phases. It is only partially tongue in cheek. Jumping and running have suddenly become possible without that embarrassing threat of letting one’s breasts loose. There is no longer the pain in the back. Small-breasted women suddenly discover that they “have breasts”. Nearly everyone feels “slimmer”. All feel more attractive.

The scope of this text does not allow for a profound analysis of these aspects. It should be noted, however, that they are open for discussion. The lobbyists would often stress the fact that, as a rule, their primary aim is not to dress up or adjust to fit in with male expectations (though the voices about getting a better bra to get the breasts in the better shape to be more sexually attractive are not uncommon). To quote the founder of Balkonetka.pl, Julia K. Szopa (2009):

the pro-bust communities are not only about helping one another to find a well-fitted and good-looking bras, although this is their main function. The mission they have is to change the way women think about themselves: from “I’m a freak, there is nothing I can wear, I’m a loser” to “I’m a fine woman, expecting that the world would allow me to feel good with my breasts!”. (translation mine; http://balkonetka.pl/2009/1/9/biusciaste-spolecznosc-wcale-nie-marginalna )

However, this claim might be worth reconsidering in the light of theories developed by Susan Bordo (2003), Carole Spitzak (1990) or Vickie Shields (2002), to name just a few scholars focused on the gendered body image. Are the lobbyists doing it for themselves or rather to themselves for the sake of the male gaze?

Another issue is the body image and the conversion and subversion of the cultural norms regulating its “proper” formula. Women with the so-called bigger breasts are still expected to have them reduced or concealed, but the lobbyists’ actions have contributed to a change in the approach. Big breasts on an “everyday normal woman”, previously considered an indecency and meant to be hidden (flattened with an uncomfortable bad-fitted bra or even with a special reducing bra), could be supported with a high-end wiring and netting and exposed as a pair of apple-shaped, full on top balls separated by a tempting valley (to use some bra-maniac lingo).

However, careful not to exclude the small breast women as they are, the lobbyists tend to attribute positive value to bigger/fuller breasts, somehow reinforcing the big breast ideal. One way or another (small breasted or big breasted), many lobbyists discovered that they did not need plastic surgery to feel satisfied with their bodies, the question of how plastic surgery (breast augmentation or reduction) is perceived by the women belonging to the movement constitutes another intriguing issue for some further studies.

The lobbyists have not limited themselves to producing posts, blog entries and You Tube videos. They proliferated and proselytised, attracting the attention of media (a short review of the movement and its reception by a sociologist Marta Klimowicz, 2009, http://klimowicz.blox.pl/2009/01/Lobby-Biusciastych-wydarzenie-roku-2008.html ). Where there is an Internet article devoted to bras, or a bra advertisement, with an option to leave a comment or “like/dislike” it, bra-maniacs go for it. A brand offering its limited size range bras, however beautiful visually they could be, can expect a very strong feedback. Moreover, from the early years on, there have been regular “real-life” meetings, bra exchanges and bra-fitting events, as well as charity/community work. One of the latest examples of such affirmative actions is the workshop organised by a lobby member nicked Bra-dreamer in a mental care home for intellectually challenged women in Warsaw (http://forum.gazeta.pl/forum/w,32203,146441486,147671905,Re_projekt_biustonoszowy_prosba_i_propozycja.html).

 

Bust-friendly brands

As Szopa (2008) has it, “in the 1990s one was virtually unable to buy a 65J size bra in Poland” (translation mine; http://balkonetka.pl/2008/3/16/ale-o-co-chodzi-z-tym-uswiadomieniem ). The situation has changed dramatically. In the stores and on-line stores founded by the lobbyists one can find a plethora of bras, but the demand influenced some other stores as well. New brands have been launched successfully and old ones offer a wider variety of sizes. A Polish brand worth mentioning in this context is Ewa Michalak (http://www.ewa-michalak.pl/ ), offering bras in sizes from 60A to 105HH; the models used in Michalak’s footage have different body types and their pictures are not digitally enhanced, the idea being that the customer has the right to see the product presented by a “real” person. Another branch of merchandise has surfaced: namely, breast-friendly clothing, represented by BiuBiu (http://www.biubiu.pl/ ) and Urkye (http://urkye.pl/ ).

Brafitting has been transformed into business, too. Some of the activists started their consultation businesses, and there has been the obvious corporate reaction. At present, almost every bra store offers some kind of brafitting services, though in some cases the quality of the fitting could still be dubious. Brafitting has become a catch-phrase, sometimes with no real reference to the original bra-maniac ideals.

As more and more Polish brands produce bras in size options unavailable in the USA, American customers decide to buy their bras here. Some of them have already turned to blogging and write the reviews of Michalak or OnlyHer bras; to name only: Voluptous and Beautiful http://voluptuouslythin.wordpress.com/, Miss Underpinnings http://www.missunderpinnings.com/ or Thin and Curvy http://www.thinandcurvy.com/ . Finally, collaborating with the founder of Bratabase, the founder of Balkonetka, Julia K. Szopa, has just launched the Wellfitting.com platform.

 

Sources 

Bordo, Susan (2003). Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Berkely, California: University of California Press.

 

de Certeau, Michel (1988). Practice of Everyday Life. vol 1. Berkely, California: University of California Press.

 

Jenkins, Henry et al. (2009). Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. http://www.macfound.org/media/article_pdfs/JENKINS_WHITE_PAPER.PDF  Accessed 2013.10.31

 

Klimowicz, Marta (2009). http://klimowicz.blox.pl/2009/01/Lobby-Biusciastych-wydarzenie-roku-2008.html Accessed 2013.10.30

 

Kulpa, Katarzyna (2011). “Dyskretny urok biustonosza.”  http://lawendowydom.com.pl/dyskretny-urok-biustonosza/ Accessed 2013.10.30

 

Maffesoli, Michel (1996). The Time of the Tribes: The Decline of Individualism in Mass Society. London: Sage.

 

Shields, Vickie R. (2002). Measuring Up: How Advertising Affects Self-Image. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

 

Spitzak, Carole (1990). Confessing Excess: Women and the Politics of Body Reduction. Albany: State University of New york Press.

 

Aleksandra Mochocka is a Literature and Non-digital game researcher with a Ph. D. in Literature, working at the Faculty of English Studies at the Kazimierz Wielki University in Bydgoszcz, Poland. A member of the Polish sf&f fandom, she has translated D&D books and co-authored several RPG-related articles. She is a founding member of the Games Research Association of Poland and a historical reenactor. She has published articles on science fiction theory, Orson Scott Card, table-top role playing games (e.g. “The Evaluation of Elusiveness”, in States of Play. Nordic Larp Around the World, Pohjoismaisen roolipelaamisen seura, 2012), alternate reality games, and interactivity and intermediality in codex books. Her recent research has been focused on the relationship between literature and games (e.g. board games), as well as on texts (e.g. product reviews) produced by prosumers.

Participatory Poland (Part Six): Fighters, Martyrs, and Missionaries for Manga: The Early Days of Polish Manga and Anime Fandom

In the “Participatory Poland” report a group of Polish aca-fen makes a preliminary attempt towards defining the specificity of an Eastern European country’s participatory culture shaped both in the communist and post-communist periods. By placing the development of selected fan-based activities against a broader socio-historical background, we are trying to capture the interplay between the global and the local context of participatory culture, as well as take preliminary steps towards making its Polish branch available for academic research. Thanks to Professor Henry Jenkins’ incredible support, we are able to share the first, though by no means final, results of our investigations with aca-fen worldwide. The posts included in this report deal with several examples of Polish participatory activities, namely, the literary and media fandom of speculative fiction and role-playing games; comics fandom; fandom of manga and anime; historical re-enactment associations; and the prosumerist phenomenon of bra-fitting. While we are planning to continue and expand our research, we hope that its samples presented in this report contribute to the exploration of participatory culture.

Fighters, Martyrs, and Missionaries for Manga: The Early Days of Polish Manga and Anime Fandom

Katarzyna “Hitohai” Wasylak
Karkonosze College in Jelenia Góra

In 2012, a manga convention Animatsuri in Warsaw featured a discussion panel entitled “True Fans Are No More.” The subject referred to the nostalgic commentaries frequently reiterated by middle-aged fans recalling the “olden days” when manga and anime market was hardly existent in Poland. The life of manga fans in the late 90s was filled with quests: to obtain VHS cassettes with Japanese animation, to get any manga in any language, to bring the existence of manga and anime to broader awareness, to create positive publicity for their hobby, to generate more fans and build a nation-wide network, to improve the availability of manga in their country, and finally, to find a partner who would accept their weird hobby. There were many hardships awaiting the fans: hostility experienced from the society and other fandoms, conflicts within their own fandom, expenses connected with importing manga merchandise, etc.

Since the data about the beginnings of manga in Poland I managed to gather may be incomplete, I will start with the first official record of the event at which Japanese comics and animation were presented to the Poles under the names “manga” and “anime.” The story begins in the early 90s, with Robert “Mr. Root” Korzeniowski visiting a computer fair in London, where he stumbled upon the anime Akira. In the year 1994, at the Amiga computers’ fans convention in Warsaw, Mr. Root organized a section “Manga Room” with the purpose of familiarizing the Polish audiences with manga and anime. Soon, Korzeniowski introduced a column under the same title in a computer game magazine Secret Service. Simultaneously, Paweł ”Mr Jedi” Musiałkowski started the section “Mangazyn” in the computer magazine PC Shareware. In 1997, “Manga Room” developed into an independent magazine about manga and anime Animegaido (closed down in 1998), and Mr Jedi became an editor-in-chief of  Kawaii (1997-2005).

Although Polish channels had been already airing anime series (targeted mainly to children) like The Adventures of Maya the Bee, Yattaman, Princess Sarah, Battle Commander Daimos, or Captain Tsubasa, the first broadcast of the Sailor Moon series on public TV in 1994-1995 turned out to be a breakthrough for the popularity of manga and anime in Poland. Encouraged by Sailor Scouts’ success, J.P.Fantastica Publishing released Naoko Takeuchi’s Sailor Moon series in 1997, which constituted a significant step forward, given that till then, the only manga published in Polish was Riyoko Ikeda’s Ten no Hate Made; (Until the Borders of Sky – Poland’s Secret Story). As I have mentioned, the year 1997 also marked the launch of the first magazine devoted entirely to manga, anime, and Japanese culture—Kawaii. Apart from my personal experience as a fan and other fans’ accounts, in this paper I will draw heavily on the readers’ letters section of Kawaii in the attempt to give a brief outline of Polish manga fandom in the transitory period when fans still did not rely so strongly on the Internet to communicate and collect information.

Supernanny versus Pop Cosmopolitanism

In “Pop Cosmopolitanism: Mapping Cultural Flows in an Age of Media Convergence” (2006) Henry Jenkins refers to pop cosmopolitanism as “the ways that the transcultural flows of popular culture inspires new forms of global consciousness and cultural competency” (156). In the process, the texts of culture “are decontextualized and recontextualized at the sites of consumption,” which may result in “unpredictable and contradictory meanings” being ascribed to them (154). These mechanisms played a critical role for the perception of anime and manga shortly after they were introduced in Poland, as their medium itself was already connoted with particular meanings. Thus, many manga fans would be disgusted at the thought that Japanese animation for children or erotic hentai videos are called anime, just like, say, Mamoru Oshii’s masterpiece Ghost in the Shell. It becomes apparent from the letters published in Kawaii that for the majority of fans, manga and anime were primarily characterized by a deeply spiritual quality, while their entertaining aspect was seen as secondary or denied altogether, as being too vulgar.

On the other hand, the sarcastic term “Chinese cartoons” was typically used by non-fans to refer to anime in general. This confusion of medium and content, as well as the expectations about their fixed relationship (animation and comics are supposed to tell stories for children), constituted the source of constant humiliation for the fans (teenagers and grown-ups watching childish cartoons?), and aroused suspicion or even hostility toward manga and anime among non-fans.

In 2003, when manga market was in its first bloom, and it seemed that for a while nobody wanted to burn manga fans on stakes, one of Polish popular channels aired an episode of a journalistic show which stirred a controversy that came to history as “Bulma’s naked buttocks” case. In the program, a psychologist Dorota Zawadzka (nowadays known as “Supernanny”) relates how, to her shock and terror, she discovered “pedophile pornography” (Dragon Ball, Volume 1) in her teenage son’s comics collection. Apart from surreal special sound effects that accompanied numerous close-ups on the page where the heroine (Bulma) for a moment exposes herself in front of an old man (Keme Senin), the program featured the scene where children (approximately four years old) gathered to “read” the scandalous manga. While it is true that this episode of Dragon Ball may qualify as obscene, fans would not read it as pornography but as a comic device generally characteristic of Asian culture which, unlike Polish one, embraces more distanced and humorous approach to sexual innuendos. What is even more important, fans, as competent comics readers, would not offer such manga to a child, acting on the assumption a false assumption that all comic books are for children.

A large number of manga fans of the 90s connected their passion for manga and anime with the fascination for Japanese culture in general. Almost everyone dreamt about going to Japan and many of us knew more about Japanese art and literature than about Polish cultural heritage. This phenomenon was criticized in a letter from Halue, a half-Japanese, half-Polish fan living in Poland. The girl appealed to the readers that they should get to know and appreciate their own culture first, and only with such a basis may they take another step as Japanese culture’s aficionados (Kawaii 38:79). Another reader, who had been training karate for many years, warned other fans about the hardships of regular training, apparently to spare them disappointment in case they wanted to start training inspired only by their love for anime or Japanese culture (Kawaii 41:77). The same intention inclined Doppi-zoku to write an article about the Japanese Studies in Poland. The author confirmed that the professors in the Japanese Department were gravely prejudiced against manga fans and suggested that Kawaii readers should think twice before choosing Japanese as their major (Kawaii 36:83).

All these texts were written in good faith, however, they also reveal the background premise about the impracticality of fans’ knowledge and their inability to put the strategies they employed for hunting down the desired information to a better use. In this regard, manga fans’ pop cosmopolitan potential for enhancing their new cultural competences seems to be acknowledged only on the emotional level. Many fans wrote about how their identification with clever manga characters motivated them to be diligent at school. There are also numerous stories about fans who decided to learn a foreign language because of their love for anime series that was not available in Polish, or it was aired in Poland, but dubbed in a foreign language. This, however, leads to a question about the stability of such motivation—would they persevere in studying a foreign tongue after their favourite mangas had been finally translated into Polish?

Here, a broader social context comes into perspective. It is highly probable that if such fans decided to engage in fandom activities that involved, for instance, creating funsubs or scanlations, they would enter the network in which their knowledge would become currency and in order to upgrade their status in fans’ community or simply to share with others, they would continue to improve their skills. After all, perseverance is one of the most distinguished characteristics of a “true fan.”

True Fans, Otakus, and Obsession as a Beautiful Disease

In her MA dissertation Fans Practices as Symptoms of Society’s Changes in the Age of Web 2.0. (2012), Agata Sutkowska aptly notices that being a “true fan” is not supposed to be only about pleasure. This is evidenced in Kawaii readers’ reflections on how they define themselves as fans. According to these commentaries, “true fans” would not “abandon” their interest in particular anime even after its broadcast was terminated. Instead they would relentlessly pursue knowledge about new anime and mangas and devote most of their time to their hobby, more often than not sacrificing their social life and, as some claim, even sanity.

Sutkowska compares the construction of the “true fan’s” identity with the image of the “true Pole” cherished especially in the right wing environment. According to the author, they both rely on stereotypical behaviors, have no clear boundaries, and are predominantly ideological. Being called a “true fan” enhances one’s symbolic capital and saying that somebody is not a true fan becomes a form of offence (34). Finally, a “true fan” likes to display, rather than share, his/her knowledge and they often invest it with emotional and moral values. Thus such individuals are prone to confuse other fans’ flawed knowledge with flawed character in general. To give an example, an embittered fan Vanka relates that a “true fan” told her not to “disgrace manga” after he tricked her into calling a comics manga (Kawaii 33:79).

Although it is not clear from the fans’ letters how they discriminate between a “true fan” and an otaku, it seems that while the former term is used more often to refer to more active and conspicuous fans, “otaku” refers to these as well as to the socially withdrawn manga fanatics. The term “otaku” was popularized by Kawaii readers and at first bore a positive connotation, meaning a genuine fan, a nerd, or a geek. Nevertheless, after the publication of the article about Otaku no Video, which explained how this word is understood in the Japanese society, fans started to redefine it accordingly, as was reflected in many readers asking why at first being otaku was a source of pride and later—of shame (Kawaii 14: 12-15).

The discussion was heated up by many personal narratives appearing in the readers’ section—self-declared otakus defended their decision to escape from the “bleak reality” into the emotionally and intellectually fascinating world of beauty and the sublime. In response, apart from the messages expressing solidarity with these solitary dreamers, many letters were sent by the readers who wanted to help the “lost souls” to find balance between their hobby and social life, whereas some readers simply accused the “otakus” of cowardice and asked them to get a grip of their lives. In turn, the “otakus” were outraged by such a patronizing attitude—one of them suggested that being an otaku may be seen as a disease, but this would be a beautiful and harmless disease (Kawaii 28:80).

The metaphor for deep fascination with manga and anime as a disease had been relatively common among the readers. Some of them confessed that since they kept their hobby a secret, they felt as if they were hiding some embarrassing condition; others embraced their obsession with manga as a kind of mental illness. In the latter case, however, the fans often declared they did not want to be cured since their “disease” defined who they were.

The discourse adopted by the fans bears a strong resemblance to the one used in the nineteenth century to metaphorize tuberculosis or to talk about madness a century later, as demonstrated by Susan Sontag in “Illness as Metaphor” (1978). Firstly, the otakus’ “illness” was presented as not only mental but also spiritual condition that appeared “more soulful” (17) than depression or simply a social withdrawal syndrome. While for both obsessive manga fans and the Romantics “[s]ickness was a way of making people “interesting”” (30), by comparison, “[h]ealth [became] banal, even vulgar” (26). Many “true otakus” pointed out to the “normal” fans that the latter compromised their ideals with unsatisfactory life, which was also the argument for their otakus’ superiority over the “normals.” According to Sontag

Not TB but insanity is the current [20th century] vehicle of our secular myth of self-transcendence. The romantic view is that illness exacerbates consciousness. Once that illness was TB; now it is insanity that is thought to bring consciousness to a state of paroxysmic enlightenment. (36)

The fan that calls herself Tsubasa Ozora gained a lot of publicity in the readers corner by confessing about her extreme identification with the manga character, Tsubasa, not in terms of imitation, but rather with regard to incorporation or mysterious union—she claimed to love him so much that she imagined they were one. Although the fan stated clearly that at the same time she led a regular life and had caring (and real) friends, some readers speculated about her suicide (she never committed), and others felt alarmed by this case of self-transcendence, wondering whether or not she destroyed her own self in this process of extreme identification.

On the one hand, it is also true for manga fans that “the calamity of disease clears the way for insight into lifelong self-deceptions and failures of character” (Illness 42). Many “otakus” admitted to their extremely poor social skills and the fear of social situations that also contributed to their withdrawal into the realm of fantasy. On the other hand, as was pointed out to them by fellow fans, they often used their “disease” to draw attention to themselves and, at the same time, to excuse themselves from undertaking any action to improve their situation and ease their suffering. This takes us to another important factor shaping Polish manga fandom at the turn of the century—the martyrdom of fans.

Martyrdom of Manga Fans and Neon Genesis Evangelization

Equally common as the metaphorization of “otakuism” as a disease was the use of religious references to talk about the experience of being a Polish manga fan. As mentioned before, for many fans manga and anime already belonged to the sphere of sacrum (therefore, again, hentai could have been scorned by many of them as being profane). A fan A. d’A writes about “the holy war” he had been unwillingly taking part in as an RPG enthusiast and later on, a manga fan. He goes so far as to suggest that manga and anime are becoming perceived in the Polish society as a “religiously incorrect” hobby and tells other fans to prepare for possible future problems that this negative attention may entail (Kawaii 31:81).

His letter is one among numerous accounts given by (predominantly teenage) manga fans describing their suffering from intolerance experienced from family members, peers, teachers, or even shop assistants, because of their passion. There are several letters describing rather extreme reactions of fans’ parents who destroyed their children’s manga collections and attempted to force them to give up their “deviant” hobby. Other fans share their stories about being abandoned by peers who would sneer at their “childish” interests. There are also several stories about manga fans being discriminated at school for writing about or presenting on their “unworthy” hobby.Of course, these narratives are counterbalanced with plenty of inspirational stories told by the readers whose passion for Japanese pop culture had been encouraged by parents and teachers.

On the whole, however, manga and anime was undeniably receiving a lot of bad publicity in Poland in the late 90s and early 2000s. This incited a lively discussion about how to change the situation. Apart from organizing manga conventions, fans started congregating at “manga meetings” organized locally in many cities and smaller towns. Kawaii readers encouraged their fellows not to be ashamed of their hobby and stop hiding it. A lot of attention was devoted to the question about the ways in which manga and anime could be popularized among non-fans. Many agreed that the priority in preventing the numerous acts of discrimination should be educating non-fans about what manga and anime in fact are.

This was followed by what I would call “evangelization” initiative among Polish manga fans whose goal was to get through to their parents and peers by showing them how the fascination with exotic culture and Japanese art can be connected with their more “regular” interests. This also turned the fans’ attention to a broader cultural context of manga and their responsibility as representatives of the fandom. In this regard, many readers criticized the individuals who would damage the image of a manga fan by acting silly or odd (the appeal was particularly addressed the “otakus,” especially after “the Otaku Murderer” case had been covered by Polish media). The fans that succeeded in their mission would triumphantly describe their success, to which they would often refer as “converting” the non-fans.

In 2003 most of the editors in charge of Kawaii resigned from their function and started a new magazine about manga and anime—which, unfortunately, was closed down after a year. In her paper “Manga and Anime Fandom in Poland” (2006), Anna Czaplińska suggests that one of the reasons for Kawaii’s shutdown might have been that the magazine lost its previous function: the gradual infiltration of manga and anime into mainstream media, as the unrestrained access to the Internet gave the fans more independence in building social and information networks (21). It is not to say, however, that at present there are no print magazines about manga and anime. On the contrary, fans can buy magazines like Otaku, Kyaa, or Arigato in bigger bookstores and on the Internet. Nevertheless, the role of Kawaii for the development of Polish manga and anime fandom cannot be overemphasized. By offering its readers regularly featured sections devoted not only to anime and manga but also to Japanese music and traditions, drawing workshops, Japanese language lessons, and readers’ opinions and drawings, the magazine significantly aided the development of the fans’ pop-cosmopolitan awareness in rather isolationist environment.

Due to the spatial limitation of this paper, the transformations shaping Polish manga will become a subject of further research. For now, it must suffice to say that since Kawaii was closed down, Polish manga fandom has undergone a profound change: thriving on new possibilities offered by participatory culture, fans’ involvement resulted in organizing tens of manga conventions (and even a regular “Otaku camp”) featuring high quality cosplay performances, and copious production of fanfiction, fanarts, fanzines, dojinshi, AMVs, manga gadgets, etc.. From two leading publishers, Polish manga market flourished to host over seven manga publishings, including Studio JG which publishes, among others, works by Polish authors. Many fans have been actively participating in world-wide online communities devoted to fan productions; some of them now being internationally acclaimed manga artists. Although this seems to be the realization of the dreams dreamt by the fans of the 90s, however, most of us will never recover from the nostalgia for the times when manga and anime were still underground.

WORKS CITED

 

A.d’A. Letter. Kawaii. Vol. 31. 2001.81.

Czaplińska, Anna. “Fani mangi i anime w Polsce” (‘Manga and Anime Fandom in Poland’). Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń, 2006.

Doppi-zoku. “Japonistyka nienawidzi mangi” (‘Japanese Studies Hate Manga’). Kawaii. Vol. 36. 2002. 83.

Halue. Letter. Kawaii. Vol. 38. 2002. 79.

Jenkins, Henry. Fans Bloggers and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture. New York: New York University Press: 2006.

KnP. Letter. Kawaii. Vol. 41. 2003. 77.

Marcin “Tenchi” Świętoniewski. Letter. Kawaii. Vol. 28.2000. 79-80.

Nowakowski, Witold, et al. “Otaku no Video.” Kawaii. Vol.14. 1998. 12-15.

Sontag, Susan. “Illness as Metaphor.” New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1978.

Sutkowska, Agata. Fans Practices as Symptomps of Society’s Changes in the Age of Web 2.0. MA Thesis. University of Warsaw, 2012.

Vanka. Letter. Kawaii. Vol. 33. 2001.79.

 

Katarzyna Wasylak received a PhD in Literature from the University of Wrocław for a thesis Monistic Cosmologies in Modern Mythopeic Fantasy: Rejection of Transcendence in Favor of Immanence in Selected Works of Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip Pullman and Nancy Farmer . The main focus of her academic research is philosophy in fantasy literature for Children and Young Adults, manga, and anime. Alongside her academic work, Katarzyna Wasylak has worked as an illustrator and a graphic designer. She has also published several of her own graphic novels.

Participatory Poland (Part Five): You Forgot Poland: Exploratory Qualitative Study of Polish SF and Fantasy Fandom

In the “Participatory Poland” report a group of Polish aca-fen makes a preliminary attempt towards defining the specificity of an Eastern European country’s participatory culture shaped both in the communist and post-communist periods. By placing the development of selected fan-based activities against a broader socio-historical background, we are trying to capture the interplay between the global and the local context of participatory culture, as well as take preliminary steps towards making its Polish branch available for academic research. Thanks to Professor Henry Jenkins’ incredible support, we are able to share the first, though by no means final, results of our investigations with aca-fen worldwide. The posts included in this report deal with several examples of Polish participatory activities, namely, the literary and media fandom of speculative fiction and role-playing games; comics fandom; fandom of manga and anime; historical re-enactment associations; and the prosumerist phenomenon of bra-fitting. While we are planning to continue and expand our research, we hope that its samples presented in this report contribute to the exploration of participatory culture.

 

You Forgot Poland: Exploratory Qualitative Study of Polish SF and Fantasy Fandom

 

By Justyna Janik, Joanna Kucharska, Tomasz Z. Majkowski, Joanna Płaszewska, Bartłomiej Schweiger, Piotr Sterczewski, and Piotr Gąsienica-Daniel, Jagiellonian University in Krakow

 

 

The analysis presented hereby comes from the recently concluded pilot part of the “Participatory Poland” project. We have carried out a computer-aided qualitative content analysis (applying commonly used guidelines for this kind of research, see Selected Bibliography)on the largest fantasy fandom portal in the country – polter.pl. The analysis included all content published on the site in September 2013. Poltergeist (widely known shortly as Polter) is the largest site of its type, but more importantly, it invites most participation and engagement and of all the fantasy-fandom-related platforms. It also courts the largest number of content created by the users.

Polter became the central hub of fan activity in the early 2000s, after the magazines which had fulfilled such role before – the literary Nowa Fantastyka and the roleplaying games magazine Magia i Miecz – either lost popularity and became more of niche press (NF) or closed down (MiM). Polter fulfills the double role of an informative as well as a social medium,  Some of the texts (mostly news on events and recent releases) are published by the editorial staff, but the portal also allows for user contributions, some of which are  featured on the main site. The blogs section is well developed and provokes lengthy discussions, offering reviews, roleplaying guides and tips, and articles on a variety of subjects connected with the fandom. Blog submissions are purely amateur and do not require the staff’s preliminary approval although they can be modified or deleted in case of violating the site’s guidelines. Polter has also been one of the first fandom platforms, together with Valkiria (which concentrates largely on games) and Fahrenheit (with a literature focus), and definitely one with the goal to cover all fandom matters.

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Caption: 30 years of progress? The first cover of Fantastyka magazine and its 30th anniversary rendition (Nowa Fantastyka magazine)

Historically, and to this day, the majority of SF and fantasy fans have concentrated their attention on literature and pen and paper roleplaying games. While genre films, TV series, computer games and other media usually of great interest to fans worldwide still appear in discussions and activities of Polish SF and fantasy fandom, they remain less popular.

Within the genres of tabletop roleplaying games and SF literature, Polish fandom differs from the majority of Western fandoms with its definitions of canon works. The limited access to and the small number of Western media available (mostly via unofficial means and xerox copying) to fans before the political transformation of 1989 has hugely influenced this state. For instance, the system considered as the classic of the Western roleplaying fandom, Dungeons and Dragons, was adopted in Poland with a significant delay and never reached the top popularity although nowadays it is also considered a classic. Instead, the prototype of all the games and still the major point of reference for most players, is the setting of Warhammer (in the 2000s followed by both editions of World of Darkness).

Similarly, when composing the list of the greatest SF and fantasy classics, a typical Polish fan would create a list different from their American or British counterparts. While the works of the authors considered worldwide as absolute classics (such as J. R. R. Tolkien, R. E. Howard, Ursula Le Guin, Frank Herbert, P. K. Dick) still underline the literary canon, they are accompanied by many works from Eastern European writers (such as the Strugatsky brothers or Kir Bulychov) and, maybe most importantly, Polish works which before ’89 tended to be heavily influenced by the need to write about the political situation under the guise of SF. This trend of science-fiction prose as a vessel for social, political and sometimes philosophical topics was largely established by Stanisław Lem and Janusz A. Zajdel, whose impact on later fiction is recognizable to this day.

 

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Caption: Kir Bulychov as a guest at a convention organised in a college, 1997. Photo: Szymon Sokół

 

Fantasy cons and fan gatherings have always been the liveblood of Polish fantasy and SF fandom. Unlike many Western conventions, Polish gatherings are not dominated by discussion panels from academics, aca-fen and media creators, but are instead filled with roleplaying sessions (sometimes announced but often spontaneously arranged) or lecture-like presentations often given by fans who do not study or lecture on the subjects professionally. Cons are usually organised by particular, city- or province-based fan organisations, and everyone who works at them does so voluntarily. Local fan organisations use conventions as a tool for promotion, and the quality of the events is seen as the reflection of the club’s rank and the strength of the local fandom. Such connections with a specific local community are often highlighted in cons’ logos that contain visual motifs associated with certain Polish cities.

Conventions are attended by authors and publishers, but the content producers in attendance are usually connected to the realms of books, comics and roleplaying games, with movie and television producers largely absent. It is worth noting that even the largest conventions (attended by above 10,000 fans) are all run by the fans themselves, without the involvement of any professional event planning companies. The authors in attendance are not compensated for their involvement. Commercial booths accompanying the events,  limited to small areas, are not considered a significant feature of a con. The majority of cons are held on  weekends, usually in rented classrooms of public schools, and not in conference centers or fairs venues. However, our analysis suggests that fans often formulate demands for the conventions to be organised in a more “professional” manner – this trend becomes noticeable in our material in the comments sections of the posts on a major event, Polcon, infamously nicknamed by the fans in social media as “Kolejkon” (“Queue-con”) because of its organizational issues. Some fans argue that because participants pay for the entry, a con should be considered and evaluated as a product. A commercial standard is being applied to an event run by unpaid volunteers, which marks a certain change of attitude considering the grassroots origins of Polish conventions.

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Caption:  Polish mermaids are the most beautiful! Local pride expressed in the promotional graphics of Warsaw-based Polcon convention (mermaid is the symbol on Warsaw’s coat of arms). By Sylwia ‘Saarl’ Smerdel

 

Furthermore, the most active fans are most appreciated by their colleagues and such participation and productivity are important criteria in fandom’s internal stratification. Professional book writers hold the biggest prestige among the community, followed by creators of other media (for instance game designers have a lower status than authors of literature) and active fans (where participation in events and local gatherings is valued higher than online-only activity). These distinctions are also reflected in convention programmes:  institutionally recognized contributors (such as book authors or academics) invited by the organisers have a status of “guests,” whereas those who volunteer to give presentations or run other events are called “programme creators” and have a lower status than “guests.”

Conventions become hosts to most important awards within fandom, starting with the Hugo-inspired literary award Zajdel (or: Nagroda Fandomu Polskiego im. Janusza Zajdla), through such honors as PMM (Puchar Mistrza Mistrzów – the Cup of the Masters’ Master), a competition for the title of the best Game Master, and Quentin,  atrophy given to the author of the best roleplaying scenario. These are not the only honors awarded within the fandom, but they are also best known and as such, most discussed and disputed.

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Caption: A statuette of Janusz Zajdel Polish Fandom Award, a Hugo-based literary prize. Photo: Szymon Sokół

 

These are just some of the subjects fervently discussed on Polter and became the subject of our analysis in this study. All of the items published in September were copied together with accompanying comments into a program aiding in content analysis. With its help, the posts were sorted according to the site’s division into news, reviews, articles, blog posts, etc. Next, they were coded with a codebook established earlier for the purpose of this research. Coding categories were modified during the course of research in order to make them more suited for the encountered data. The categories were devoted to the forms of communication between the users, especially to the internal links between comments and the references made to various cultural texts. Also, specific categories were established to examine the various criteria of validation used by the fans in relation to commented media or events, textual strategies of justifying their opinions, and discursive ways of forming fans’ identities (inclusion and exclusion of certain content and groups).

It is important to hold in mind the exploratory character of the analysis, the results of which are by no means finite or final, but rather outline the field of study and constitute the basis for the research questions we will be tackling. This initial analysis set out to discover the most interesting content and processes in the contemporary Polish fandom. The following stages of the project will include data from a number of other sites sharing a similar profile. Due to the significantly low number of fandom-devoted portals in Poland, we can include all of them in our analysis. We are also planning to extend our research to some of the most interesting topics arisen during the initial analysis, as well as to turn to researching the participants themselves, that is the fans.

During the researched month, close to five hundred items were posted to Polter. Within those, books get the most coverage among all the media, while?  news about recent releases and reviews form the largest group of content published by the editorial staff. However, our study showed that it is the content connected to games (mostly pen and paper RPGs, but also videogames) that generates most social engagement. Roleplaying games seem to be the center of attention of Polter’s community; fans eagerly comment not only on the news and reviews of player’s guides, add-ons etc., but also on users’ submissions, such as scenarios, reviews thereof and session reports. The extent of these participatory mechanisms can be well observed in the case of Quentin,  the annual contest for the best roleplaying scenario, established in 1999 and hosted by Polter since 2003. All submissions for the contest are published on the website. The scenarios are evaluated by an independent committee and the winning work is posted on Polter, but users’ activity related to the contest entries does not stop after the verdict is announced and many of the texts concerning Quentin are user-created.

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Caption: Quentin award for the author of the best role-playing scenario. Photo: Szymon Sokół

 

The case of Quentin-related engagement is also an example of another wider trend. Our study showed that most of the interactions within the Polter community, as well as the comments on the works, are positive. Polter users express appreciation more often than dissatisfaction, and the criticism of other users’ content is usually constructive. This leads us to an assumption that mutual support and quality of content published on Polter are important values for this community and that fan identity is created and maintained through positive rather than negative expression (we elaborate on matters of inclusion and exclusion later in the text). This observation somewhat contradicts the widespread stereotype of a malcontent fan who uses online media mostly to express dissatisfaction and engage in conflict; the stereotype also held by the fans themselves, who seem to perceive the community as largely negative.

Our study paid a significant attention to the strategies of developing fan identity, through interactions and tactics of inclusion and exclusion. A part of this identity is forged through reading and media consumption habits presented publicly. As noted before, the majority of news posted on the website were connected with book releases, despite the fact that the most heated discussions were related to game posts and blogs. While most fans participate in several areas of media consumption and fan activities, SF and fantasy novels are perceived as much more high-brow than gaming. A fandom portal such as Poltergeist, while catering to the needs of all kinds of fans, makes a claim to a professional status by showcasing book releases and publishing book reviews. Similarly, fans attempt to raise their fandom status by disclosing their reading habits; the more books read the better, and the quantity is just as important as the quality of the works.

While the status of ‘having read’ the classics is important to a fan’s social standing and the familiarity with well-known works is desired, fans also have a tendency of distancing themselves from everything and everyone that has ‘sold themselves out’ and became irreversibly commercialised and therefore tainted by the mainstream association, becoming somehow less connected to fandom. This tendency features both in the case of actual commercial properties that have acquired a greater renown and in the case of fandom participants who have forged their fan activities into a source of income. Such cases are often treated with distrust or derision.

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Caption: Growing popularity of steampunk and cosplay: Mad Artistians’ stand at Falkon 2013. Photo: Falkon 2013

 

Another topic connected with identities included in our research is the ways Polter users conceptualize and discursively create the boundaries of fandom and its subcommunities. While there is a widespread use of the general term “the fandom,” incorporating all fans and topics of SF & fantasy regardless of the division into particular media and subgenres (and the Polter website sections also support this generalizing attitude), the self-identification practices of fans are more nuanced. Several times in the source material we encountered opinions about specific interest groups within the fandom that perceive themselves as autonomous and hardly want to communicate with each other – this was said about fans of LARPs, manga & anime, videogames and comic books. Manga & anime fandom seems to be especially stereotyped and more often than not placed outside the boundaries of SF and fantasy community; mentions of it in the source material often provoke the commenters to talk about “fandoms” (in plural). A similar case of a fandom splintering can be seen in the case of the Western comics fandom, but while the comic books fan seem content with standing apart from ‘the fandom’ of SF and fantasy, manga and anime fans strive for inclusion and recognition, especially on the local level of conventions and events. Their attempts are sometimes met with resistance, such as exclusion of manga and anime subjects from the convention programmes by the organisers. It is worth noting that the manga and anime fandom is relatively younger and much more feminised than the SF and fantasy fandom, and has been introduced in Poland fairly recently in comparison with others (more on this topic in an upcoming part of the report, devoted specifically to the manga & anime fandom).

Our findings also point out that patriotism is a vital component of Polish fans’ identity. This phenomenon can be observed on several levels. The most apparent is that the fans are eager to include, or even ‘adopt’ works or authors who seem even marginally connected to Poland. While in general, works most often consumed and discussed come from abroad rather than from Poland (with the exception of cult writers such as Lem or Sapkowski), the national pride and patriotism seems to be awakened by mentions of Poland and Polish matters in foreign works. This tendency has been illustrated during the analysed period in the instance of the new novel (Forest Ghost) from Graham Masterton, who set his story in Poland. Masterton himself accentuates his Polish connections and his new novel had been published in Poland even before its debut in the UK. Another example of clear national pride is displayed when a Polish work enjoys success abroad (in recent years it has especially been the case with game developers, most notably the creators of The Witcher series) as fans consider themselves to be a part of that success.

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Caption:  Agents of F.I.E.L.D.? Promotional graphics of the expansion Conspirators for the Veto! collectible card game about the Polish noblemen from the 17th century. Spoof of The Avengers movie poster. By Igor Myszkiewicz and Maciej Zasowski

On a more general level, SF & fantasy fans seem to share and reproduce the vision of patriotism grounded in the Polish 19th-century Romanticism, with its focus on national history, the values of chivalry, fight for a just cause and an idealised view of love and femininity. This can be well-observed in the case of fans’ attitude to history. Historical narratives (also those incorporating SF & fantasy elements) are being evaluated with the use of ideologized notions of “scholarly validity” and “historical accuracy,” accompanied by a belief in the possibility of access to the truth about certain events and phenomena. Historical references are used to maintain the national pride (hence the popularity of novels set in the “Sarmatian” period of Polish history regarded as the highest point of national splendour), but also tend to be connected with practices of exclusion – for example, the presence of female warriors (or women in positions of strength in general) is disregarded as historically implausible.

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Caption: Practically Polish. Graham Masterton (on the right) socializing with Polish fans at a convention. Photo: Geekozaur

 

On the other hand, our study found some instances of views that are more critical to the mainstream Polish views on patriotism. The anticlericalism and pagan inspirations attempt to challenge the usual affirmative approach to Christianity and its cultural role. An informative discussion occurred in the comments on a Polish card game about the Polish military fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Whereas the reviewer appreciated a Poland-related theme, there were also opinions criticizing the game for allowing players to choose the Taliban side (and fight against the Polish), and also for depicting colonial violence. The discussion thread shows the clash between the conflicting views on Polish patriotism: the same work can be viewed in terms of continuing the honorable tradition of fighting for freedom or criticised as promoting Polish participation in imperial oppression.

Another aspect of declared patriotism is connected to consumer choices. As stated before, the media discussed and referred to on Polter are predominantly Western, mostly originating from English-speaking countries. However, there is a very distinct declarative tendency to ’support the Polish market‘ (both discursively and financially). The market of Polish SF & fantasy products (especially RPG-related) is perceived as small and constantly endangered by financial hardships. It is worth noting that certain dissatisfaction with the quality of Polish works or editions/translations does not stop these slightly patronizing general appeals to support the local media and creators.

Within the identity-related categories in our study we also established one connected to direct and indirect statements about gender. Though it is by no means a dominant issue for Polter users, it is still possible to notice some general tendencies. In a few instances the site’s participants suggested and tried to diagnose some inherently and inescapably specific ways women engage in certain activities, such as playing pen & paper RPGs or writing books. Female physical attractiveness is commonly perceived as a valuable asset in various contexts, from evaluation of drawn fanarts through comments on female cosplayers on conventions. It is worth noting that we found very few statements about masculinity in the source material; generally, only women are objects of generalizing statements, which suggests that a male fan is recognized as a default member of the community and a female fan is a special phenomenon that requires examination. Historically, Polish SF and fantasy fandom has always been rather male-dominated, with a prevailing belief in the old chestnut that all gaming women are girlfriends of the game masters. However, in the middle of the 2000s, the numbers of female representation in the fandom surged significantly. The last few years brought on the attempts to form a female fan (and especially a female roleplayer) identity. These attempts in turn  sometimes meet with negativity from the more conservative fans trying to neutralise such emancipatory tendencies by generalizing statements along the lines of “fandom is not for women, fandom is for everyone.” At the same time, splinter fandoms of manga and anime or fanfiction writers tend to be much younger and female-dominated, and gender roles are often very different from the ones taken for granted by the majority of the SF and fantasy fans.

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Caption: ‘Mom, can I exterminate already?’ A young female Dalek at a convention. Photo: Szymon Sokół

 

To sum up, in our exploratory research of Polish science-fiction & fantasy fandom we found the following problems to be the most interesting and worth further examination (possibly with an inclusion of diachronic longitudinal methods and different media outlets):

1) Fans’ attitudes towards national categories and notions of Polish identity. Divergent tendencies were observed in that area: on one hand, most of the fans seem to share conservative, affirmative views on Polish history and identity, with a distinct tone of national pride; they seek and appreciate topics related to Poland in foreign works and declare interest in and care about Polish SF & fantasy media despite being aware of the flaws and limitations of this market. On the other hand, the study showed that fans refer mostly to works of Western origin in their texts, comments and practices, which suggests that there is a constant process of negotiation between joining global cultural trends and maintaining local specificity; also, some more revisionist and critical attitudes towards the dominant discourse of Polish national identity start to appear. Still, references to national categories are vital points in fan discussions, even if treated negatively.

2) Gender views remain on the conservative side, with a prevailing tendency to see the masculine as the default. However, in the recent years a rising trend of female fans and players attempting to define their own identity has appeared. Such attempts are often opposed to on the grounds that they represent ‘special interests’ and are not pertinent to the group as a whole. Some female fans differentiate themselves from the whole of fandom either by adopting a unique style (of playing, of writing, of attire) or by finding niche activities to make their own, i.e.  fanfiction or forms of expression relating to costuming (cosplay, steampunk, etc.), while others openly demand more diversity within the fandom’s mainstream. As the demographics of fandom changed significantly in the past few decades, we can expect the trend of female fans making themselves more visible and aiming for recognition to rise in the future.

3) There are increasing voices calling for a professional approach to previously grassroots initiatives of SF and fantasy conventions. Historically, the events were organised by volunteers and local organisations and were perceived as a communal effort, while nowadays some of the convention-goers point out that the cons should be treated in terms of a commercial product and therefore give the participants the right to demand a much more professional approach. At the same time, other tensions between the amateur and professional realms emerge, presenting contradicting views: the fans want Polish works to succeed locally and internationally, but are distrustful of anything they consider too commercial or mainstream, bringing forth the accusations of “selling out”.

4) Tensions appear also in the area of media consumption. While most fans are ascribing prestige and nobility to literature, especially the more high-brow and canon works, and are eager to boast about their reading history, they tend to engage more with the works of a perceived lesser status, such as pen and paper roleplaying games.

We believe that our exploratory study of Poltergeist community can lead to deeper diagnoses of the specificity  of participatory culture inside the SF & fantasy fandom in Poland and forms a strong starting point for further research.

 

Selected Bibliography

Cappella J.N. et al. (2009). “Coding Instructions: An Example.” In Krippendorff K., Bock M.A. (Eds.), The Content Analysis Reader (pp. 253-265).Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.

 

Carvajal, D. (2002). “The Artisan’s Tools. Critical Issues When Teaching and Learning CAQDAS.” In Forum: Qualitative Social Research 3(2). doi: http://www.qualitative-research.net/fqs-texte/2-02/2-02carvajal-e.htm

 

Hak T., Bernts T. (2009). “Coder Training: Explicit Instructions and Implicit Socialization.” In Krippendorff K., Bock M.A. (Eds.), The Content Analysis Reader (pp. 220-233). Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.

 

MacQeuun K. et al. (2009). “Codebook Development for Team – Based Qualitative Analysis.” In Krippendorff K., Bock M.A. (Eds.), The Content Analysis Reader (pp. 211-219). Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.

 

Mayring P. (2000). “Qualitative content analysis.” In Forum: Qualitative Social Research 1(2). doi: http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/1089

 

About the Authors

Justyna Janik: MAs in Comparative Studies of Civilizations and Cultural Anthropology, PhD student in the Institute of Audiovisual Arts, interested in game studies and pop culture theory, especially fan studies;

 

Joanna Kucharska: MAs in English Literature and American Studies, PhD candidate at the Institute of Audiovisual Arts, researching audience participation and transmedia

 

Tomasz Z. Majkowski: Aca-fan, PhD in Literary Criticism, Assistant Professor at Department of Literary Anthropology and Cultural Studies at the Faculty of Polish Studies of Jagiellonian University, interested in pop culture theory, especially fantasy and sci-fi studies, game studies and historical interactions between pop culture and ideologies.

 

Joanna Płaszewska: Slavic philologist, librarianship and information science student, interested in fanfiction readership and new literacies.

 

Bartłomiej Schweiger: PhD student in Institute of Sociology on Jagiellonian University, interested in power-knowledge structures embedded in our culture, especially videogames.

 

Piotr Sterczewski: MA in Cultural Anthropology, PhD student in the Institute of Audiovisual Arts (Jagiellonian University), interested mostly in ideological aspects of videogames.

 

Piotr Gąsienica-Daniel: Sociologist and researcher at TNS Poland