Citizen Fan: An Interview with Filmmaker Emmanuelle Wielezynski-Debats (Part Three)

Many of the texts cited by the fans here are from the Anglo-American media realm or from the world of Japanese manga. Are there popular texts from France that has generated a fan-like response and if so, what can you tell us about them?

From what I observed,  99% of the fans I met,  are in American or Japanese fandom. Only one or two mentioned working on French literature or French films. Natacha Guyot, for instance, is one of these exceptions. She worked at AO3 (for the Diversity showcase) and so she is very aware of this question. She practices vidding with French Canons such as“Angelique, Marquise des anges” or more recent French TV series. She uses French music, as well.

French canons do exist. Sometimes, we do not know the French origin of the canon : it is the case with Code Lyoko, or Dofus video games. In the past, there were always sequels to Alexandre Dumas’ works, but the thing is that nowadays, Fanfiction are often written in English, when it comes to canons such as Les Misérables, Le fantôme de l’opéra, Mademoiselle de Maupin, Les 3 mousquetaires, etc… I had the impression that there are more American fans writing fanfiction around Les Misérables or Dumas’ books, than French fans.

French fanfic writers probably want to have a large community of readers, they probably feel that would not be possible around French canons. They want their readers or their audience to know well the characters, the universe.

It is also possible that French culture would impress them too much to dare to write fanfic around it. Most of the fans I met told me they didn’t like our literature. They disliked reading at school. They have the feeling that classical books are boring. One of Citizen Fan‘s characters told me “Clearly in France,  we have the feeling that there is one culture that is worth it and another one that is worth nothing.”

In my opinion, our French authors have been sacralized, by our culture and by our laws as well,  meaning nobody is allowed to touch them. This might be the best way to kill them. Several fans told me “I would certainly never read Proust ! ” This struck me because these people read a lot and have a very large culture, including Japanese mythology for instance, but, from what I‘ve seen, they do not seem concerned with the French classics.

Now, Lionel Maurel reminded me that if you take the example of “Tintin”,  the society Moulinsart, which owns its rights,  defend them in a caricatural way: they attacked systematically fan sites. I wonder if , under the circumstances, Fandom can emerge or would survive. It is the same with “Le petit Prince”… And   “Arsene Lupin” is not as famous as “Sherlock Holmes”. Or should I write “Herlock Sholmes”, like Maurice Leblanc, father of Lupin, used to name a British detective involved in several Lupin’s adventures, providing us with some great crossovers! But Maurice Leblanc’s family would have blocked any Fandom’s crossovers. That’s for sure. Probably some fans know about that and do not want to take risk.

I have to put forward three recent French canons that have gathered around them,  very large fans communities, involved in fanarts, cosplays and fanfilms,  but yet not really in fanfiction writing. They are either TV or Web series. Their names are “Hero Corp”, “Le visiteur du futur” and “Noob”.

To what extent are these French fans engaging with fans from other parts of the world via the web?

From what I observed: a lot! Fans read and write in English. It is one of this things they seem to all share: English.

They engage with other parts of the world very easily. I met some who make collaborative vidding with Russians. Others challenge cosplayers from all Europe. Cosplayers send their pictures to American Video games editors via Facebook and intend to initiate conversations. They make digital fanzines with Canadians. They publish American fanart. They participate in conventions all over Europe.

Fandom is helping to erase difficulties. Some who had never left France, took the plane to join a convention or a festival, to get an interview of an actress. MLP fans organize conventions, thanks to crowd funding,  where MLP authors come from Los Angeles.

Manga fans learn Japanese, they travel over there. They have an expertise about anything Japan. Did you know that the main French fans convention is called “Japan expo”? Japanese video games producers usually send 50 of their top-management to attend this unbelievable event. France is the second largest market for Manga, after Japan. Some fanzine associations are big enough to invite Japanese authors to make a tour in Paris.

And also, very recently, NOOB team received an award in Los Angeles, as one of the best web-series. Funny thing is that French media gave this information but had never mentioned NOOB during the last years.

You talked to both male and female fans on the project and you often asked them about the gendered dimensions of fandom. Can you say something about what constitutes masculine or feminine modes of fan engagement in the French context?

A : Female fans are more numerous. In TV series, like Castle, there was 3 boys out of 70 contacts I made. I wanted to have boys in Citizen Fan, and so I clearly made efforts to have them.

Boys are gathered in My Little Pony fandom, where apart from one woman in the convention staff and maybe a few cosplayers, I’ve met only boys. I’ve seen a lot in the Video Games fandom, some in mangas and a lot in Star Wars.

When it comes to fanfiction, boys literally vanish, except for MLP, some video games and manga. During the Multi-fandom IRL fanfiction challenges, I attended, there was not any boy. Maybe one or two were online. When it comes to becoming a professional writer, only one person told me that was what he wanted and he is a boy. Girls never said so, they told me the opposite: they said they would never be a professional writer.

Fanart (drawings) seems more genre-balanced. For what I observed, maybe boys are a bit more numerous.

Cosplay is apparently also mostly feminine, except for Star Wars where 80% are male according to Arnaud Miralles, (the president of French 501st).

Fanfilms are totally different from boys to girls : for what I observed, boys gather 100 friends, with proper equipment and 4 cameras. Shooting looks like pro. Girls I have observed, gather 10 persons and 1 camera and the result seems less important than having a good time.

According to what I saw, Boys seemed engaging with a high degree of organization with clear objectives, they speak in public, they show themselves more, on Youtube or during convention panels. I observed that Girls have a high degree of personal engagement, they give more of their time and somehow are less concerned with what people think. They remain also more anonymous, they mentor and beta-read a lot.

But all this is very subjective and I must add that making documentaries, women are always more numerous and volunteer. So it might be that male fans avoided me.


American fans are increasingly struggling with the ways they are being entangled in the operations of the American media industry, as logics of engagement start to impact the way Hollywood interacts with its audiences. To what degree has this focus on engagement impacted the French media industries, which come from a very different tradition, one more grounded in public service and artistic enrichment than commercial success?

Manga:

A few years ago, one of the main French book publishers asked one of Citizen Fan‘s character belonging in the manga fandom, to give them some advice in choosing and publishing a manga. This fan helped them as much as he could. He helped them choosing the manga, having it translated but then the publisher didn’t listen to what the fan said about the drawings, the jacket and several other “details”. This manga did not do well on the market. The fan came out of this experience thinking there was no dialogue possible, because his expertise was not taken seriously.

Fanzine production in Manga is huge and very good and more and more numerous. People access printing technologies and produce faster. And yet they have not really a distribution circuit. The industry is probably keeping an eye on what fans produce.

Books:
1 – Publishers like Bragelonne are really well aware of fanfiction and they keep in touch with fandom. They released “Fangirl” here, in French, and for what I heard when I met one of their staff, Isabelle Varange, she had been a fanfic reader for a long time. This publisher is going to release Captive Prince in France.

2- There was once a fanfiction challenge, launched by Gallimard Jeunesse , following a book released : “A comme Association” ( P. Bottero & Erik L’Homme).

3 – Here is another example of an editor, Hachette, trying to catch the fanfiction practices. According to Fanfic writers, this s not truly fanfiction writing. In fact, they ask for original stories and they intent to control the texts.

Video Games :
The Industry organizes a commercial event in Paris, (Paris Games Week) gathering 300 000 people during 2 days. The Image of this gathering is a very aggressive one.
The video games are sold with Ferrari cars parked next to the desk, with scantly dressed women standing next to them… However, one of the organizers told me how much he would like cosplayers to come to this event. One of his reasons would be to please Japanese designers and producers, because they like cosplay and like to have Fans not to far from their games. For what I heard from fans, Paris Games week is very far from being the place to be. Are they going to manage a cosplay challenge ? We’ll see.

TV :
I’ve heard of some transmedia experiment related to Plus belle la vie (France Televisions’ Hit ). This approach didn’t focus on fandom creativity. It was more like an online game to enhance the universe. There were not any fans contents produced. Fans were just involved as an audience. France Televisions, thanks to its channel “France 4” has done a great job around two French Canons Hero Corp and  Le visiteur du futur. They met the fans in conventions and there was a dialogue with the fandom. This might be the first example of French canons really active fandom, communicating with a Broadcaster.

Emilie Flament who has this fan culture and was part of Citizen Fan‘s team as well was in the staff that broadcasted both. Here is what she told me about Hero Corp :

“I have the impression that with the arrival of new media, industry realized that public participation was at stake. Passive audience was a disappearing specie. In front of the multitude of contents, in order to keep the audience, they had to really catch them. Traditional media are starting to understand it and they have engagement strategies more or less written and editorialized. The example of Hero Corp is a bit of a an UFO in French television. This comedy around super heroes universe gathered a large community of active fans during the first two seasons (2008-2010) It was aired on TV in a quite confidential way. When they realized there would not be a third season, fans mobilized online and IRL, going to see the producers and broadcasters, exactly the same way as Veronica Mars or Roswell fans did in the US. In 2012, France 4 ordered a season (and now they are in the 4th one). Fan mobilization clearly influenced this decision but it also provoked the launching of a totally new transmedia process for new seasons : the show runner, Alexandre Astier imagined a multi-supports narration, giving exclusive elements to fans, such as web series, bonuses, etc… through a dedicated application.”

 

The example of NOOB (the web-series)
Noob is a French amateur web-series that is something like 9 years old. Video games characters inspire it. It has its own fans. These fans supported the crowd funding initiative launched one year ago that broke European records ( more than 500 000 euros in a few days) . They are now shooting a feature film. They became “Canon” or mainstream and yet the traditional media never talked about them.

To conclude on this, I would say that given the little knowledge our industries have of fans activities, their strategies are not yet having a strong impact on Fandom’s life, and are not “disturbing”. I agree on the fact that France has a strong tradition of public service ( Citizen Fan belongs to this), however, there is also the law issue, and the fundamentally elitist culture issue. All that stops the audience and tells them : stay quiet ! What kind of engagement will develop when the audience is expected to remain passive ?

In the end, what happens is that French fans engage mostly with American industries, naturally, since they are fans of American canons. They get to know about Amazon kindle worlds, they are Youtubers…

You’ve produced portraits of a number of fans which show us something of the world they inhabit — their homes, their cultural practices, etc. What did you hope for people to see as you situated these fans in their social settings?

I asked what was the easiest for them. We chose the setting accordingly. They had to feel at ease and so I often let the choice to them. I also wanted the audience to identify with my characters, to have a genuine idea of who was talking. They are not “pirates” or “hysterical idiots” or whatever : they are everybody. They live ordinary lives.
Yet, they are not filmed always in their home. Sometimes it was not possible, so I filmed them at my place or during conventions. It is a film about people. I hope the phenomenon of transformative works, in France, will have their faces, so it can be known, understood , and hopefully authorized by the French law.

You directly reproduced a number of examples of fan art and fan media within the project. Did you encounter any push-back over making some of this work as public as you do?

In the part called EXPLORER, I had 5 persons out of 400 who said NO ! To tell the truth, I made a deal that was : you authorize me to show your work and I link to your account on Deviantart, Facebook etc… The webdoc probably was more easy to accept , for them, than a movie screened in theaters. They are used to share their arts online. In Le PHENOMENE, I had no problem, because the fact to show their work was always, from the beginning, something I wanted and they agreed. France Televisions is well respected, as a public service. They never doubted me or France Televisions.

Tell us more about the choice to make this a nonlinear documentary via the web as opposed to a more traditional kind of linear documentary feature? Why was this approach appropriate for this subject?

This approach allowed me to be where they all were and where their creations were. This is a segment of population that is no longer in front of TV. I would have liked to have a linear version on TV as well, for the larger audience, but it was never accepted. The webdoc allows me to put more information without really making a longer film : each character’s video last about 10 minutes and I hope it brings enough information so the audience can think about it as representing fandom. If someone wants to come back and watch another character, it is possible 24/7, from every where in the world. This is a gift for the documentary maker. Usually, we meet the audience during screenings in festival. It happens once a month. Here, anyone can send me a message, and for instance the fan artists already gave me extremely valuable and gentle feedback.

I would add two more reasons to choose the webdoc :
1- The audience can enhance Citizen Fan by uploading new works. This is the least we can do dealing with fandom creativity !
2- The illustrations surrounding the interviews, are the ones I also used in the videos.
In the linear format, I could only thank them in the end credits. Nobody would ever remember them and where it comes from. They are like a dead illustrations.
Unless you recognize the work immediately, which means it is something as famous as “la Joconde”, anything unknown remains unknown. Here, illustrations are “alive” : if you like that Pony, just click on it and see more of the same fanartist. Then, if doing so, you forget about Citizen Fan, never mind ! The aim of this documentary was to send you there…

 

Emmanuelle Wielezynski Debats was born in 1970 , she is married and mother of  one. Emmanuelle grew up in Algeria, Ivory Coast and France. She was always interested in films and originally wanted to be a scenario writer. She graduated from a Business School in France and attended Film Studies, aside from an MBA program, in Montreal. In 1993, she registered in Anthropology, in Paris VII (Jussieu) with a major in Visual Anthropology. In 1995, she directed a short film, La Voie Blanche. For 12 years, Emmanuelle has worked at various film production companies, as an assistant to directors and to an editor as well. She now lives in Normandy with her husband, Michel Debats, a film director ( Oscar nominated  Winged Migration). In 2007, together they launched their own production company, La Gaptière Production, focused on documentaries. (www.lagaptiere.com)

La Gaptière Production has produced 5 films, starting with School on the Move, in 2008, a feature film released in theaters, that was selected by 50 festivals around the World and won 14 awards, as anthropological documentary, in several countries such as China, Russia, as well as the US (Columbus, Ohio and in Missoula, Montana).  Then came out  three TV films, Femmes en campagne (about women in rural world), Une jeunesse en jachère (about being young in rural world) and Qu’allez-vous faire de vos vingt ans ? (about Jean Jaurès’ s legacy). Emmanuelle has worked during 3 years on a more personal project : Citizen Fan, just released as a webdoc.

Citizen Fan: An Interview with Filmmaker Emmanuelle Wielezynski-Debats (Part One)

Once upon a time, there was a group of french fan boys, with names like Francois, Jean-Luc, Claude, Louis and Alan, who showed up day after day at the same movie theater, sat on the front row, and watched mostly American genre films. Sometimes they wrote about they saw, engaging in intense debates in their own publications. Soon, they began to make transformative works — films that borrowed elements from their favorite genres, paid homage to their favorite directors, repurposed clips and remixed posters and book covers from works that had inspired them. These works were transformative in another sense — they changed world cinema. These fan boys created the French New Wave, which has been a source of pride in French national culture ever since.

I am telling this story because I want to challenge readers to think about what it means to a fan — a creator of transformative works — in the context of contemporary French culture. I’ve been pondering this question lately because of a recently released web documentary, Citizen Fan, which may just be the best documentary about fan culture that I have seen. The videos are in French (with the option of English subtitles) and they take us deep into the world of contemporary fans of everything from Castle to Harry Potter, from My Little Pony to anime, manga, and video games. Each segment focuses on a different fan, tells their story, introduces their world, and through this process, we get a glimpse into the cultural context in which they work. The site is amply illustrated with examples of fan art. All of this was created as a labor of love by a French documentary filmmaker,  Emmanuelle Wielezynski-Debats.

The filmmaker had reached out to me as she was beginning her work on this film, which was originally intended to deal with French fans of the American series, Castle, but as she describes below, expanded outward and shifted its focus along the way. She had shared with me her own sense of discovery as she fell hard for Castle and from there, fell into the world of French fandom (a community, as she notes, that has strong connections with fan cultures elsewhere around the world.) When I visited Paris a few summers ago, she asked me to do an interview, which we shot in a screening room at the Pompidou Center.

What I recall most vividly about the interview was being surrounded by French fan artists and writers who had shown up to hear my perspectives and provide potential links to the vignettes in her documentary.

I was delighted to learn that this material was now available on-line and could be accessed by those of us whose French would not be strong enough to keep up with what is being said. Unlike other documentaries about fandom, which always feel the need at some point to distance themselves and often fall into various traps of exoticizing, eroticizing and otherizing fandom, this film starts from a place of total respect for the value of what fans create. There have been other documentary projects from within fandom itself, often produced on very low budgets, often with limited production skills, but this is the first one I have seen made by a self-proclaimed fan, growing out of the fan world, and made with professional competency.

I had known France had produced some of the most intense cineastes in the world, who had helped to identify and name, for example, film noir, in the post-war period and I also knew that France has one of the most intense comics culture to be found anywhere, again suggesting a people often intensely invested in its high culture and literary traditions, but also popular culture. But I also knew that it was a country which provided very little protection for fair use and transformative works. So, I had questions about how a culture built on transformative cultural production would thrive in this particular national context. At a time when many of us in fandom studies have been calling for more work in the global and transnational dimensions of fan culture, it’s exciting to have access to this rich database of how fandom operates in France.

In the three part interview which follows, Wielezynski-Debats shares with us her experiences in making the film and her observations about how French fandom navigates a culture that seems especially hostile to their identities and cultural practices.

She has been nice enough to share with us some clips from the documentary, but to have the full experience, you need to visit and explore the Citizen Fan website.

You’ve shared with me that part of what inspired this film was your own relationship to Castle. How did those experiences change the way you thought about what it meant to be a fan and what did you want to share about those experiences with the people beyond fandom who might be watching your film?

I didn’t know what a FAN was. The word was not part of my vocabulary. What happened is that I started watching Castle. I started watching it beyond reason. I was under the spell of Castle. Yet, I didn’t think to use the word FAN, which is so familiar now.

The term FAN could have been at that moment, in my opinion,  only related to the pop singers’ groupies. Obviously, I had no idea of transformative fans.

The internet had never played a central part in my life before that fannish time. I discovered internet because of my addiction. It probably made it stronger. I was surprised by this invasion of my privacy.  I knew Castle‘s intrusion had something to do with my 20’s, when I used to see two screwball comedies per day, in Paris theaters.

There was quite a long moment where I felt weak, because of the addiction, a bit ashamed. At that moment, if I had to call myself a fan, I would have said something like “being a fan is a self introspection through the image of an imaginary character”. I didn’t think that might be a pattern shared by others. I had not found a way to be creative. I didn’t even know that creativity was the key. When I first discovered fanfiction, it was a shock. These people dared to do by themselves what I thought had to be made by the author.

I always had a strong respect for authors. When I read a book, I like to imagine the author behind the story. But I had to admit that reading fanfiction was more than pleasant. I could tell it was healing something. I liked it. Later,  I discovered there was an audience reading those fanfiction, making comments. These people were providing themselves and others with what they needed, they were entering into the storyworld and sitting at the author’s table. I thought something in the society was changing and I started to admire this phenomenon.

So yes, my encounter with French fans has changed a lot of things.  They claim being a fan is an identity, they gather in a community and they create things. I suspected none of this when I was on my own. When I started, I was excited with what I had just discovered. I felt very necessary to share with people beyond fandom the different steps:  being a fan, being addict, sharing, creating, feeling better.

You, Henry Jenkins, said in Citizen Fan,  “the fan doesn’t only raise questions, he provides answers”. This is something important. The answers are not only about the Canon but also about ourselves.

I had the impression there was another French society , other than the one I used to know. Another creativity. Another relation to media, therefore to culture…and especially to American culture. I wanted to share this insight  through a documentary.

Tell us more about your journey in creating this project.

I was able to meet about a hundred transformative fans, thanks to two people: BlackNight, founder of the Castle French Boardhttp://castle.frenchboard.com/;  and Alixe, who writes fanfiction in Harry Potter. She created www.ffnetmodedemploi.fr”>a guideline in French in order to help people post upon Fanfiction.net. I think most of French fanfiction writers know this website. These two women are highly creative. They have made several websites, written fanfiction, and fanzines and they have great skills. They are leaders. These two women are also quite different. One of them lives in the rural world and is unemployed, and she is in her mid 20’s;  the other one made long studies, has a full time job in Paris and is in her 40’s.  Their networks are very different. Both impacted Citizen Fan a lot.

In January 2012, I started meeting Castlefans all around France. I traveled by train. Fans would come to the railroad station to pick me up and we would spend the day together, discussing the documentary itself, how much it was needed and also obviously sharing views about Beckett and Castle. I enjoyed the fan-“brotherhood” or fan-“sisterhood”. I was for the first time feeling the warmth of the fandom.

As I met them IRL, they became the faces of what a fan is. This word went along with people. Very nice people, easy to become friends with, especially since they were welcoming me as a fan too. They were never foreigners not one second. From the first minute, we knew each others. This close relationship was always an asset for the film and remains the same now. I interrogated them about their creations. I was not filming. We were talking for hours. I took notes about how we were going to show these creations to a larger audience. In France, as in many places in the world, writing is a noble art, so fans who write would be considered. So I thought.

In November 2011, I had contacted France Televisions online services. Boris Razon, who was the head of this department, was interested in the project. I worked with Christophe Cluzel who is really fond of the fandom activities, and Emilie Flament, who had been a Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan and had written Fanfiction. However, it took almost two years to convince the rest of the staff and to have the definite “Go”.  We tried to have a linear version of Call me Kate! (Citizen Fan‘s working title)  on TV. Unfortunately,  France 2, the channel that airs Castle, didn’t want anything about Castle fans. They didn’t see this phenomenon as a legitimate subject.

The Web-doc is a new genre. I had to understand new techniques and new priorities, that were totally different from traditional documentaries. France Televisions organized several development seminars, where Sébastien François (@sebastien_fr)  a French Sociologist who made his PhD on Harry Potter Fanfiction in French, Lionel Maurel (@calimaq) a whistle blower as well as an expert of our law and Natacha Guyot (@natchaguyot) a former AO3 staff, involved in vidding as well as in academic research on Video games,  took part. We tried several ideas. Nineteen groupe, the web agency that put Citizen Fan online, was here from the start, including during these development seminars.

It was decided that Citizen Fan had to be ready to upload what fans would send us. It had to meet all the requirements of France Televisions’ complex digital network.

When everything was settled with France Televisions, after two years work, I learnt that the CNC (French Ministry of Culture) would not fund us, at all. Half of the budget was gone. They stated that this subject was not “sound” enough. After meeting French fans, I wanted to meet some French academics working on Fandom or Folk culture, or Fanfiction. I had very few names, and received very few answers. The first ones I contacted didn’t give me the names of any colleagues. There were several dead ends.

Until I met Sébastien François, who was finishing his PhD at TELECOM Paris Tech and who is now assistant researcher at Universités Paris 13 and Paris Descartes. He is a specialist of French Fanfiction. He accepted right away and helped me during all the process of making Citizen Fan.

During all that time, I had been reading your books, as well as Hellekson and Busse‘s and Michel de Certeau’s. I watched documentaries such as Remix manifesto, IRL the Bronze, Trekkers etc… It seemed to me obvious that I had to interview you. You had the kindness to accept. Your  interview was the first one I conducted, but I had already met with all my characters and I knew them well. So, I questioned you with the idea that your answers might enlighten what fans would tell me, describing their life and creative process. I constructed your interview accordingly.

I had chosen 22 fans which I found were representing, the different issues in Fandom. I always kept your answers in mind, while I was interviewing them. It helped me leading the interviews. Because of the budget cut, we ended up editing in my flat, totally out of the traditional circuit of the audiovisual production in Paris.

The editing was the longest part. I had to ask 400 people, one by one,  for the authorization to use their artworks. I wanted to illustrate Citizen Fan 99% with fanarts. This was my choice. Yet, I was and remain in the uncertainty, as far as French law is concerned. Do I have the right to show transformative works, in a country where transformative – even for free – is forbidden ? I kept worrying about that, all along. And no lawyer could give me any piece of advice.

Emmanuelle Wielezynski Debats was born in 1970 , she is married and mother of  one. Emmanuelle grew up in Algeria, Ivory Coast and France. She was always interested in films and originally wanted to be a scenario writer. She graduated from a Business School in France and attended Film Studies, aside from an MBA program, in Montreal. In 1993, she registered in Anthropology, in Paris VII (Jussieu) with a major in Visual Anthropology. In 1995, she directed a short film, La Voie Blanche. For 12 years, Emmanuelle has worked at various film production companies, as an assistant to directors and to an editor as well. She now lives in Normandy with her husband, Michel Debats, a film director ( Oscar nominated  Winged Migration). In 2007, together they launched their own production company, La Gaptière Production, focused on documentaries. (www.lagaptiere.com)

La Gaptière Production has produced 5 films, starting with School on the Move, in 2008, a feature film released in theaters, that was selected by 50 festivals around the World and won 14 awards, as anthropological documentary, in several countries such as China, Russia, as well as the US (Columbus, Ohio and in Missoula, Montana).  Then came out  three TV films, Femmes en campagne (about women in rural world), Une jeunesse en jachère (about being young in rural world) and Qu’allez-vous faire de vos vingt ans ? (about Jean Jaurès’ s legacy). Emmanuelle has worked during 3 years on a more personal project : Citizen Fan, just released as a webdoc.

 

The Steampunk Scene in Brazil: Strategies of Sociality

One of the pleasures of running this blog is the chance to engage with readers all over the world, who are able to share with me  what’s happening in their countries. The phenomenon I discuss here — from participatory culture and politics to new media literacies to transmedia entertainment — are playing out right now on a global scale. Thanks to these contacts, I have been able to share with my readers new developments in Russia, China, India, Poland,  among many other examples, and I look forward to sharing other such cases in the future. Recently, I have corresponded with Éverly Pegoraro who has been researching the Steampunk scene in Brazil. And after some back and forth, I am happy to be able to share with you today some of her findings — in words and images.

By the way, readers in Brazil may be interested to know that there is now a Portuguese edition of our most recent book — Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture (with Sam Ford and Joshua Green)– which is published there as Cultura  da Conexão: Criando Valor e Significado por Meio da Mídia Propagável. You can learn more at the Aleph website. Thanks so much to our friend, Maurico Mota, for his hard work to make this book approachable to our friends down in Brazil.

 

Steampunk scene in Brazil: strategies of sociality by Éverly Pegoraro  

What motivates steampunks? For some, just nostalgia. For others, daydreams. Amid fans and critics, the fact is that steampunk and other retrofuturistic movements extrapolate elements from the literary imagination as the basis for generating creative urban experiences. A meaningful example of this process may be perceived in Brazil. The steampunk “scene” in Brazil has already a substantial number of participants, spread across 13 states. Steamers, as they are known here amongst fans, participate in many activities.

Each Brazilian state holds a different group of steamers. For the past three years, I’ve had the opportunity to follow one of the most active steamer . groups in Paraná state in southern Brazil, Steampunk Council of Paraná Lodge. In this space, generously provided by Professor Jenkins, I will share some impressions about the research, which is part of my doctorate thesis.

Unlike other countries, Brazilian steamers are organized in lodges (a Masonry inspiration) in each State, which are administered by local councils. All are supported by Steampunk Council. The Steampunk Council’s mission is summarized on their official web site:

The Steampunk Council was conceived with the central idea of ​​democratization, flexibility and sustainability of steampunk movement. It is less an organization and more a concept, on which representatives of steampunk community can create their lodges, as the cells are called from the concept of the Council. [ … ] The Steampunk Council‘s mission is to provide mechanisms for the dissemination of steampunk culture, provide reference material, promote all sorts of related events, encouraging cultural production of this sort of subjectivity and paying tribute to all those who create and produce material of Steampunk culture in all possible forms. (Available at http://www.steampunk.com.br/conselho-steampunk/)

Each regional group is autonomous to develop their own activities. The Steampunk Council of Paraná Lodge has existed for about four years and is managed by a group of the most active founding members. Besides them, there are many participants, some more regular and active (about 25 people), others only occasional visitors. Adopting the fluid, ephemeral and diversified characteristics of neotribes characterized by Maffesoli (1987), they form a heterogeneous group, across genders, ethnicities and ages (ranging from 14 to 50 years). Members are from different social classes, studying and/or working in many areas, such as writers, musicians, housewives, professors, and service providers.

As organized groups, they have the opportunity to create more permanent social ties than the relative ephemerality of the neotribos. This is a strong characteristic of Paraná’s group. The several proposed activities during the year encourage face to face interaction amongst the participants and create spaces where each discovers and develops artistic, literary, media production skills.

The Steamers’ creations blend the imagery of the nineteenth century, the individual preferences of media culture and the creativity of each participant. The Victorian aesthetic is strongly present in this urban culture, especially in the costumes and in the context of the stories. But steampunk enables a wide dimension of contextualization that are not directly inserted in Victorian Era.

Therefore, the selection of this period is not exclusively due to the visual. Steamers say they seek values ​​from the Victorian imaginary. They want more romanticism, sensibility and personal investment — in other words, less mechanical and utilitarian relationships.

[Steampunk] refers to a time when people cared more about delicacy, gentleness, there had been a different culture, a more educated one. I find it interesting to extrapolate the technology of this period and advance it as if it had been nothing after, to increase the capacity of a technology that actually has not developed much. I find it interesting to explore more things that sometimes were not explored in the past. (Brazilian steamer)   What fascinates me is the Victorian aesthetic, the well done style, with the smallest details, it has the seriousness of the men, the femininity of the women, the clothes […] the court society, the social rules. And there is also the convenience of the technology how we have today, the clothes are not made ​​by hand, not everything is very expensive, we have the benefits of communication, medicine, entertainment, movie theaters. (Brazilian steamer)

 

We see the old aesthetic is beautiful, more farfetched. A time when people had more free time to take care of themselves, but the values ​​were different. It’s interesting you deal with an older aesthetic, but with current values​​, especially for women. The corset is nice, but nobody wants to live as it was before. So, it’s cool to have that aesthetic, an aesthetic that people will look strange, for it’s old, but with values […] the female steampunk characters are not housewives, all professions in steampunk can be applied for men or for women.(Brazilian steamer)

The interviewees’ statements above indicate an attempt to retrieve the values ​​and behaviors of an idealized past. Such desires suggest the search for a less rationalist and mechanical subjectivity and the need to invest more deeply in relationships.

Homi K. Bhabha (2011) offers some interesting clues to consider the social articulations that occur in these inter-spaces of difference and minorities, in which there are complex processes of negotiation and cultural hybridisms. He conceives such cultural hybridism as a third space that enables new positions of meaning and representation. The negotiations that take place in these spaces allow hybrid agencies that do not seek cultural supremacy. Such movements are articulated in the “arts of the present”, defined by the author as the performances by which different minority group elaborates strategies of survival, identity formation, political contestation, social relations, and aesthetic manifestations. The steamers below talk about why they participate in this urban culture:

We’re putting a question to rethink who we are, it’s not to think who we may be in the future, it’s to rethink who we are today. Which were our real choices in the past that brought us here, and based on which choices we could have made. That’s what draws me into steampunk. (Brazilian steamer)

 

I think it’s a fascination for a time that is chronologically so close, but so radically different from our reality. (Brazilian steamer writer)

 

I do not think the nineteenth century so far, not so different. […] Over the past 200 years, more things happened than between 1400 and 1600. […] The planet got smaller because of communication technology, for better and for worse. […] The nineteenth century, for being so close, is a rich context to be described and to criticize the current moment. What is science fiction? It’s to put into perspective our reality through the accentuation of problems and defects from that historical moment. (Brazilian steamer writer)

Freedom of expression […] It’s a hobby to get away a little bit of our ordinary everyday, encouraging people to do something different. It’s for the pleasure […] to meet different people, search new experiences. (Brazilian steamer)

Brazillian steamers’ strategies of visuality and sociality are acts of resistance to contemporary spatiotemporal compressions, providing an inter-space of temporality and hybrid culture, which combines different historical periods. However, steampunk hasn’t derived from a pure and simple import of Europeanised customs, which, in turn, would result in similar actions to the Brazilian Belle Époque. Neither has it intended to celebrate a tradition originated from English distant past of ladies and gentlemen.

Besides the fascination with the Victorian imaginary, what unites Brazilian steamers, no doubt, is the science fiction in its various products, questioning the inventions that marked the transition to the modern world, especially in science and technology. This identification is made clear in the narratives constructed individually and collectively by the steamers. Some seek to insert elements of  history and Brazilian literature, as in the following example:

I tried to imagine how it would be a world in which the Baron [Mauá – Brazilian historical character] was even more influent, decisive to the directions of our country. So, I thought that the Abolitionist Campaign would be more successful with, let’s say, not only the prohibition of the slave trade in the 1850’s, but with the release of all slaves and with the attraction of foreign and specialized labor and, most importantly, a world in which there had not been the Paraguayan War, what would’ve stopped the waste of lives and money we had in reality. (Brazilian steamer writer)

The events that promote steampunk and encourage sociality among the participants are the main feature of the Brazilian group. Aiming to give visibility to their initiatives, steamers often attend events of other youth cultures, such as Victorian picnics (an event that has become a reference there). Each activity promoted by Steampunk Council of Paraná Lodge has a specific theme, in honor of historical characters and events, often from a specifically Brazilian context. They do not have a fixed schedule, but each event usually involves music, dance, literature and individual performances. The three major events promoted by Paraná steamers are named as the Steampunk Picnics, Steam Coffee (In Portuguese, Cafés a Vapor) and the workshops to learn how to customize clothing and objects.

The Steampunk Picnics are annual events held at parks in Curitiba, capital of Paraná state. The steamers enjoy the sunny Saturday or Sunday afternoons to do the “steampunk scene”, where they go dressed in their costumes, play games and participate on sweepstakes, gymkhanas and photographic sessions.

Convescote Steampunk, março de 2012. Curitiba, Paraná, BrazilConvescote Steampunk, março de 2012. Curitiba, Paraná, Brazil  

 

Convescote Steampunk, março de 2012. Curitiba, Paraná, Brazil_2 The customization workshops occur every two or three months (there is no strict regularity) in Curitiba. They are also used as a shop window for steamers to exhibit their artistic abilities. They are artisans, designers, stylists and photographers who take the opportunity to promote their work and, in some cases, sell them.

After posting on their blog (http://pr.steampunk.com.br/) and on the group’s profile on Facebook (in Portuguese: Loja Paraná do Conselho Steampunk), the interested ones meet on a Saturday afternoon to learn basic techniques of steampunk styling. The workshops are taught by the older group members or by some guest who has a specific skill that can be useful in customizing clothing and accessories. During an afternoon, someone is highly unlikely to finish the process. But the steamers themselves make clear that the workshop will explain the basic technique. It is up to each person to develop (and even enhance) what was taught.

During workshops, Brazilian ......During workshops, Brazilian steamers discuss alternatives to materialize their imaginative ability

The workshops are characterized as a meaningful moment of sociality among the steamers, because there is sharing, exchange of ideas and interaction among them, while they discuss alternatives to materialize what they imagine. Tutors seek to encourage creativity by presenting a variety of objects made at home. The “students” identify themselves with these possibilities and discuss alternatives to adapt them to their purposes. Tutors share the difficulties to develop the techniques, aiming to ease the situation for those who are beginners.

Workshop to Make Mini and Top HatsWorkshop to make mini and top hats

Customizations are used in the practice of steamplay (adaptation of the term cosplay to the steampunk universe), when steamers perform their steampunk character, constructing their identities and embodying their clothing and accessories as well as their historical and social context. Public performances happen in the events that Steampunk Council of Paraná Lodge promotes or participates. Several factors influence the character creation, such as preferences and hobbies of each participant or their ability to afford the steamplay.

Steam Coffees are evening events. As an example, the night of Steam Coffee: The steampunk evolution (Tribute to Charles Darwin) began with the performance of a traditional tribal dance, created by two dancers for the event. According to one of them, the ethnic tribal dance joins elements and techniques of folk dances from around the world. The steampunk concept appears on the mix of industrial music and the aesthetic of the costumes.

 

Musical performance at Brazilian steampunk eventMusical performance at Brazilian steampunk event

Steampunk Event in CuritibaSteampunk event in Curitiba, Paraná, Brazil

Performance of a a Traditional Tribal DancePerformance of a traditional tribal dance, created to a Brazilian steampunk event  

Participants of a Brazilian Steampunk EventParticipants of a Brazilian steampunk event    

During the event, the participants had fun with a steampunk musical repertoire of a steamer DJ who shared music videos. Some steamers shared a steampunk tale written by one of the participants of Curitiba’s group, who is also a writer. Indeed, the practice of writing tales, editing magazines and creating all kind of steampunk media products (even if they’re not mainstream, but only released on the internet) is common among steamers. As pointed out by Jenkins (2010), these informal learning communities encourage participants to develop writing skills and styles as well as to build confidence in their own abilities before entering in the professional market.

Members of Steampunk Council of Paraná Lodge share a wide range of cultural interests drawn from the content of media culture products over which they claim a sense of ownership and mastery. Practices similar to those discussed by de Certeau (1998) and Jenkins (2010) in terms of bricolage or “poaching.” Steamers appropriate different science fiction books, movies, comics and RPG games, but giving them new meanings, expanding the stories, deepening their interpretations of the characters and reimagining the story world. The creations may even suggest impossible mixtures through the insertion of fictional or historical characters from different periods in the same narrative.

Similarly to what Jenkins (2010) describes, such practices involve a form of aesthetic perversion of the traditional limits imposed by the dominant cultural hierarchies which outline the desirable and undesirable cultures. Thus, they build a cultural and social identity through appropriation and modification of cultural products.

The first Brazilian steampunk photo roman – Curitiba’s steamers are pride to point out it as the first one – is a striking example. Steampunk Carnivale[1]photo roman (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ehm8RJ8KVwo) is a collective production involving performances by the various members of Steampunk Council of Paraná Lodge, who customized their costumes and accessories and collaborated to generate the plot. The work – which combined science ficton and intrigue — was shared via Youtube.

Despite the understandable limitations of an amateur production, this photo roman can be characterized as contributing to an urban culture that has taken shape around a common interest in steampunk retrofuturism with the production and exchange of such products acting as part of what Thornton (1995) describes as a micromedia circuit. What matters here is not so much the aesthetic merits of the community’s productions or their comparison with more mainstream cultural products but rather the social and cultural dimensions of participants interactions with each other.

The cultural products that emerge from the steamers’ appropriation and remixing practices do not always fully cohere. Participants continually negotiate their relationship to the genre and to pre-existing culture materials according to their most immediate interests. As an example, note the following explanations of two steamers of Curitiba:

I really like gothic, so I wanted to make a gothic steamplay. I’ve brought a little bit of everything: I have keys, the belt that has potions, also weapons, which were made in the workshops. [ … ] I’ve watched the movie The Crucible (and also read the book), and I’ve been writing the story for me. […] Harry Potter has also influenced a little bit, so that my wand is from Harry Potter, it is not customized, I did not want to change it. (Brazilian steamer)   One of my ideas is inspired by Assassin‘s Creed games, which there are murders […] it is like a secret society, fighting against the old Knights Templar. (Brazilian steamer)

This is how steamers – between pirates and nomads (Jenkins, 2010) – create their performances and products in an experience that is both individual and collective, within a vast network of connections that constitute this participatory culture.

 

Brazilian steamer at Steam Coffee. Curitiba, Paraná, Brazil, 2012.Brazilian steamer at Steam Coffee. Curitiba, Paraná, Brazil, 2012

 

Brazilian steamersBrazilian steamers

Steamers start from the media culture products that most interest them and become producers of new texts including fictional narratives, photo romans, illustrations, photographic essays, customized objects, crafts, dance and music performances, fashion and accessories, magazines, events. These acts of cultural expression are informed by two competing logics: the Do It Yourself (DIY) aesthetic from the punk movement and the contemporary conception of Do It Together (DIT) as it has taken shape around the Maker movement. One emphasizes individual, the other collective production. Thus, even though DIY logic prevails, the premise is surrounded by a mutual aid policy: each steamer helps the others with his skills in making products and accessories, embodying the DIT logic of participatory culture.

This idea is summarized in the interview with one of the forerunners in Paraná, Carlos Alberto Machado:

People sometimes send e-mail asking: ‘do you sell steampunk clothing?’. ‘We are not selling, what we do is teach you how to do,’ I say. [ … ] Paraná is the state that is promoting more workshops. And the workshops are bringing a lot of people and a lot of good things. There is the shyest person who ends up getting more outgoing, and makes friends. [ …] We do not call it as a class, the idea is not to teach you the ‘abc’. The idea is to encourage the participants to bring things and the group teaches the group. […] They bring this knowledge and show them what they do to encourage the participants to try to do something similar. (Brazilian steamer)

Thus, the interest in steampunk by Curitiba’s group is structured through the desire to interact and be part of a community that shares broader cultural and social interests. Sociality grows from mutual interests, reflecting the group’s particular interpretative conventions as they are shaped by individual and collective acts of story telling, performance, and cultural production. While there is a strong emphasis here on self-creation, we should recall that all of this activity occurs within a consumerist context, where critical interactions between man and technology coexist with leisure, hedonism, and consumption. Their retrofuturist imaginings emerge from a particular local context and get circulated through a micromedia circuit.

Brazilian steampunk reinserts questions that turn away from traditional political participation. Steampunk encourages its participants to return again and again to the core question: “what if had it been different?”. Besides, creating a story of an invented past is a way to discuss current and relevant issues. It’s not an attempt to return to past, not about engaging with an exotic foreignness, but an inter-space that mixes criticism, socio-temporal concern, hedonism, entertainment. More than the fascination for the historical period of Victorian Age itself, what prevails is the will of the steamers to recreate their own fictitious historical memory, which is strongly impacted by media culture.

 

Éverly Pegoraro is a Brazilian university lecturer and PhD candidate in Communication and Culture at State University of Midwestern Paraná, Brazil . His doctoral research deals with the relationship between visuality and sociality in steampunk. He is the leader of the Communication and Sociocultural Interfaces research group. Contact:everlyp@yahoo.com.br ou https://www.facebook.com/everly.pegoraro.

 

References

Bhabha, Homi (2011).O entrelugar das culturas. In: COUTINHO, Eduardo (Org.). O bazar global e o clube dos cavalheiros ingleses: textos seletos. [The global bazaar and the English gentlemen’s club: selected texts].Rio de Janeiro: Rocco.

Certeau, Michel. de. (1998). A invenção do cotidiano. Artes de fazer [The practice of everyday life].(3rd ed.). Petrópolis, Brazil: Vozes. Conselho Steampunk. http://www.steampunk.com.br/.

Deleuze, Gilles; Guattari, Felix. (1995a). Mil Platôs. [Thousand Plateaus]. Vol. 1. São Paulo: Ed. 34. ______. Mil Platôs. (1995b). [Thousand Plateaus].Vol. 2. São Paulo: Ed. 34.

Jenkins, Henry. (2010). Piratas de textos.Fans, culturaparticipativa y televisión.[Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture]. Barcelona: Paidós.

Maffesoli, Michel. (1987). O tempo das tribos.O declínio do individualismo nas sociedades de massa. [The time of tribes.The decline of individualism in Mass Society]. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Forense—Universitária.

Thornton, Sarah. (1995). Club cultures: Music, media andsubcultural capital. Cambridge, England: Polity.

 

[1] Although the name of the photo roman refers to Carnival, one of Brazil’s major festive periods, the theme has no direct reference to the subject. Curitiba is not known for its Carnival tradition. Besides, in the days of this festivity, there is an alternative event for those who do not enjoy Carnival: Zombie Walk. As the organizers of the event use to say: “in Curitiba, Carnival is a horror”.

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…