Why Co-Creation Matters: An Interview with John Banks (Part Two)

You’ve been studying co-creation in the games industry over an extended period of time. Can you describe some of the changes you’ve observed over this period? What was the status of co-creation when you started your research and how would you characterize its status now?

 

When I started studying co-creation in the games industry back in 1997 I was actually uncertain as to what was going on here, what was I looking at. As were the participants themselves. I recall approaching it, from my disciplinary perspective coming from cultural studies and media studies, as possibly a case of active audience and/or fan community practices. My reference here included your book, Henry, Textual Poachers. That book was in my backpack when I undertook my initial fieldwork and first interviews in 1997 with games developers and gamers.

What struck me at the time was a sense of the developers, including those in senior management, trying to figure out the nature of these emerging relationships with the players and why they would invest in them. Greg Lane, Auran’s CEO, on a few occasions when I discussed this with him, mentioned he wasn’t sure if they would gain any direct financial or commercial benefit from their activities with the fans, but the fans and some of the developers seemed to enjoy it and it was therefore worth exploring. He viewed it as an investment in the player community that he hoped might also eventually gain a commercial return. But he was also committing time to supporting that and the time of developers because he gained a sense of intrinsic value and satisfaction.

 

From that point back in 1997, at least in the context of the central ethnographic study in the book, this co-creative activity grew – from involving the players in design and development feedback, through to online and offline marketing initiatives, through to the quite extensive reliance on user generated content. As I suggest in the book, this was no longer an ancillary or marginal activity –  it was becoming core. This content and the gamers’ co-creative practices were contributing directly to the commercial viability of this product – a train simulator in the case of the book’s central ethnographic case study.

This shift was captured for me in a key moment when I worked at Auran as a community manager in 2001. I shifted my desk from sitting with the marketing and web team to in with the development and design team. This was because a big part of my role had become liaising between influential content creator members of the gamer community and the core Auran development team. Before that, although requiring some contact with the developers (the programmers, designers and artists), my position was viewed as more of a marketing and communications role I guess. This definitely shifted.

Part of my decision to move the desk was also about getting a closer ethnographic insight about what was going on. But it was also about being able to do my job better as an online community manager. Figuring out the implications of this shift across the next few years as I saw it play out at this workplace and as it was negotiated between the developers and the gamers was a big focus of my research and of the book.

 

The most recent shift I’ve seen is around how big data and data analytics contributes to games development and indeed if this can be approached as co-creative at all. I first encountered this in 2007 while undertaking research on Auran’s development of Fury (a failed MMOG). At the time there were disagreements among the core team of developers, the Fury gamer community (especially those involved in the play testing) and the online community managers about reasons for the games problems and the quite critical reception it was receiving from the gamers participating in the testing.

At a particular meeting one of the developers dropped on the table a print out of data taken from that past weekends play testing. He used it to support his view that many of the players making arguments on the forums were “uninformed” and that the data proved (captured from their interactions with the game) something very different from the players’ views as expressed on the forums.

Now the community managers contested his interpretation of that data, but at the end of the day, as my fieldwork journal noted, ‘we just got trumped’. At the time this provided a quite telling case of game developer studio culture and the various forms of expertise and craft involved in that. As I discuss in the relevant chapter 5, ‘Co-creative expertise’ co-creation is very much about how these diverse and conflicting forms of knowledge and expertise (both amateur and professional) interact and converge.

 

What I didn’t quite see back then was the shift here in the way the gamer was being figured or represented in these exchanges – as data traces really. For me questions were also raised about the power of that form of knowledge and around how it was being mined.

Is this co-creative? I guess that depends on how that data is used and how transparent all that is to the player.

In the book’s conclusion I include material from an interview I did with Will Wright (designer of games such as The Sims and Spore) in which Wright touches on how designers can increasingly capture metrics about players’ behaviours and then potentially feed that back into the game to change the game experience. He mentioned how ‘… we’re just kind of scratching the surface of that now’. In more recent research I’ve undertaken over past few years with Halfbrick (Brisbane, Australia based developers of Fruit Ninja) this issue of data analytics has very much come to the fore. But there isn’t a single developer perspective on these issues around data analytics. Programmers, lead designers, producers and so on often have very different opinions and approaches on, for example, how big data might inform game design.

 

 

In the academic realm, the major push-back against co-creative production has come from critics writing about “free labor.” What does that critique get right and what does it get wrong about the kinds of practices your book discusses?

 

The labor question is incredibly important in the context of co-creation. A central focus of my book is how developers grapple with the challenges and opportunities of co-creative production at the coalface of their everyday workplace – the game development studio. Co-creativity is not just about the bottom up, peer-to-peer participation of gamers and fans. Co-creativity requires the craft skills and knowledge and commitment of professionals and experts.

So in the book I seek to describe the lived experiences and understandings of these professionals and citizen consumers as they together explore together the opportunities and challenges of co-creative production. An important point here that I mentioned earlier is paying close attention to their understandings of all this. This is the ethnographic impulse I guess that orients much of my research.

These understandings are diverse. For example, professional videogames development teams are often far from united in their support for co-creative production or for the value that these engagements offer. Throughout my now well over a decade research on this one of the clear points coming through again and again is that producers, designers, programmers, artists, CEOs, marketing and community managers all have very different understandings of these co-creative relationships.

 

The ‘free labor’ argument going back to Tiziana Terranova’s work and others such as Andrew Ross is that through these kinds of co-creation activities we see significant value generated that creative industries rely on. Following from this the argument is made that this extraction of surplus value is unfair and exploitative. Furthermore, co-creative production practices may also contribute to the precarity of creative professionals working lives. The concern here is that this ‘free labor’ may replace the jobs of media professionals. This political economy critique questions accounts that emphasise the empowering and potentially democratizing, participatory potential of these activities.

 

What does this critique get right? For me what it gets right is foregrounding questions of work and labour. In the book my approach to this is to focus on the participants’ (both users and game developer professionals) understandings of these topics. In ‘Chapter 4: Co-creative labour?’ with Sal Humphreys, we approach all of this as a question. Indeed, there are a lot of questions posed in the chapter. Should we approach these co-creative activities as a form of labour? What are the impacts of these practices on the employment conditions and professional identities of videogames developers? If we accept that labour is a helpful category then should we approach this as a case of exploitation in which surplus value is extracted by capital in such a way as to reduce costs and potentially displace paid workers?

We suggest that co-creative media production may sit uncomfortably with such political economy critiques. I guess I’m open to criticism here that in doing this I become an apologist for, or at least complicit with, the interests of business and capital. In this book I’ve tried to avoid what I find to be quite unhelpful and polarising polemic around these issues.

I don’t think my book is especially valorising or celebratory of co-creativity, at least I hope not in any panglossian sense. I most certainly have concerns about market excesses and exploitative labour practices that can characterise the videogames industry. Nevertheless, the argument I develop is that co-creative production should not necessarily be approached as cheap content or unpaid and therefore exploited labour.

One of the keys for me here is that the participants themselves (the gamers and the developers) do not often approach it or understand it in these ways. Sometimes they do – at moments in the ethnographic research participants do raise the concern that the practices are becoming exploitative or unfair.

The way I’ve approached it then is to try and understand co-creativity as a dynamic and often contested mechanism for coordination and change in which the participants are adaptively experimenting with these opportunities for mutual benefit and endeavouring to figure out what that mutual benefit looks like and how best to realize that. Yes exploitation can occur and yes work practices and employment conditions are at stake. But I’m just not convinced that the language and framework of exploitation and extraction of surplus value necessarily explains what is occurring here.

 

The co-creative relationships cannot easily be reduced to corporate exploitation of the gamers and the professional developers. I try as much as possible to take my lead from the often quite nuanced understandings of the participants themselves. I struggle with the assumption that there are social forces (exploitative and manipulative) at work behind the actors’ backs as it were.

I question this ‘unknowingness’ by suggesting that the players and professional developers often do know what they are producing and the conditions under which this is occurring and they often do not understand this in terms of exploitation. They are usually quite canny and indeed competent participants in the shaping of these relationships. They make informed judgments about the nature and conditions of the value exchanges and transactions that are occurring.

I question an assumption that academic critics are in some sense blessed with an ability to see through manipulative or exploitative practices that the participants themselves are blind to. However, in making this point I’m not saying that exploitation and unfair practices don’t occur. The ethnographic description in the book includes extensive coverage of participants (including the gamers) identifying such occurrences and working through their understanding of this.

 

I’m just not convinced that political economy critique adequately grapples with the flows and exchanges of value characterizing co-creativity. These flows can be very different from say a displacement of professional labour by unpaid creative labour. Instead we need approaches and models that grapple with how economic outcomes and incentives sit alongside and co-evolve with social and cultural outcomes. But in all this yes the question of labour is crucial. We need to keep posing the difficult questions about sustainable and rewarding livelihoods in these industries, as does for example Gina Neff in her important book Venture Labour.

 

As an aside on this, I’m also interested in how the kinds of workplace and labour issues I’ve seen in games development also occur and are experienced in other areas of media production. For example, in Marvel Comics: The Untold Story (2013 Harper), Sean Howe vividly describes the experiences of comic book writers, artists and editors in the ‘Marvel bullpen’ as they weathered the turbulent boom and bust cycles of the comics market. In reading this book I was struck by the similarities to videogames development and it raised for me questions about sustainable and rewarding livelihoods in these volatile industries.

 

John Banks is a senior lecturer and researcher in the Creative Industries faculty, Queensland University of Technology.  He researches and publishes on co-creativity, innovation and social media in the creative industries, especially videogames and interactive entertainment. He has a special interest in organisational and workplace culture.

His past decade of research on the topic of co-creativity in the videogames industry culminates in the recently published book Co-creating Videogames (2013 – Bloomsbury Academic).  Banks is currently lead investigator on an Australian Research Council (ARC) industry linkage research project investigating the sources and processes of innovation in the Australian interactive entertainment industry.

 


Why Co-Creation Matters: An Interview with John Banks (Part One)

The other day, I received a question — via tweet — from a reader: “New practices that are emerging in cyberspace: Is it more of the same? Is it capitalism in new bottles?” This is a fundamental question which anyone who has been paying attention over the past two decades of media in transition has found themselves rethinking again and again. For me, the way this question is so often framed suggests an either-or logic: either everything has changed or nothing has changed as a consequence of the process formerly known as “the Digital revolution.” And the clear sense here is that “nothing has changed” as long as the structures of capitalism remain in place. My own belief is that changes can be local, gradual, and particular, and still matter in terms of the quality of life, the diversity of culture, or the democratization of governing institutions.

Let’s stipulate, as lawyers might put it, that economic systems, understood on a grand level, are surprisingly resilient. There are relatively few models that have emerged around the planet over the course of human history and they are slow to change. So, whatever we want to say about the current economic context in the United States, it’s still capitalism.  Let’s also stipulate that within those larger models, all kinds of local changes are occurring all the time in response to other shifts on the social, cultural, political, legal, and technological levels. We have changes, say, in terms of the mode of production or the systems of exchange or the conditions of labor that matter. Some are describing the current moment as one of Neoliberalism, but I am not convinced this framing fully captures everything that is going on.

And in order for these changes to occur, there are all kinds of localized experiments through which we collectively explore other alternatives and see how they work out in practice. Many of us hoped that the web would be a place for such experimentation, exploration, and speculation, where at the local level, other alternatives might emerge. Many of us wanted to see what would happen if we expanded dramatically who had access to the means of cultural production and circulation, if we explored what would happen if more people had a creative say in the cultural institutions and practices that impacted their everyday life, if we experimented with what a more diverse and participatory culture might look like. All kinds of amazing and all kinds of deeply disturbing things have emerged as a consequence of those ongoing experiments. How could it be otherwise? And the results of these experiments have been unevenly distributed across the culture, some moving rapidly, some slowly, towards wide-spread adaption.

If we look back over those twenty plus years, what has emerged has been a mixed bag — not simply “more the same.”  I don’t think the rewards of all of these experiments can be reduced to the language of the “free labor” critique: new forms of exploitation with no real gain for the communities that are seeking to shift the conditions of their existence. Yet, I also don’t think what has emerged has been as “revolutionary” as some of us might have hoped.

One of the people I know who has reflected most deeply about these issues is John Banks, who has spent more than a decade exploring the concept of co-creation and traced its impact  within the games industry. In Convergence Culture, I had pointed towards the games industry as a key example of a creative sector which has adopted a more collaborationist relationship with its consumers, often encouraging them to build freely on its products to see what might emerge from such grassroots experimentation, and in some cases, reaching out to core groups of consumers and bringing them more directly into the production process, seeking their advice on new products and their suggestions for design decisions. Banks was a graduate student at the creative industry program at Queensland University of Technology, a program led by Stuart Cunningham and John Hartley, and out of which have come such key thinkers about digital matters as Axel Bruns, Jean Burgess, Joshua Green, and Alan McKee, among many others.  Wanting to understand how this co-creative labor worked, Banks embedded himself as a community manager inside an Australian games company, Auran, placing himself at the point of contact between consumers and professional creators. Through this research, he has yielded some core insights into what changes — and what doesn’t change — when companies embrace co-creation as part of their production process.

In the interview which follows, Banks looks back over that decade of research. He reflects on his recent book, Co-Creating Games, but also looks beyond it, to try to assess the complexities and contradictions which have surfaced through some of these experiments. There is a degree of nuance here which we rarely see in discussions of emerging labor and business practices, a refusal to accept “either-or” answers. I think his comments provide the clearest explanation I can offer as to why co-creation is more than “capitalism in new bottles” but also not quite as revolutionary as some people might have once believed. All those we enter here, be prepared to think (and rethink).

 

You titled the book’s introduction, “Co-Creating Matters.” Let’s break it down. How are you defining co-creation and what are some of the ways that co-creating matters?

 

Co-creation concerns the practices through which users and consumers take an active role in generating value in the domain of cultural production and consumption. In the context of the videogames industry I propose in the book’s opening sentence that gamers do not just play videogames; they also make them. The boundaries between playing, producing and consuming blur as player consumers collaborate and cooperate with each other and with professional developers to design, produce, circulate and market compelling videogames. So this is about shifts in the conditions of cultural production. My starting point definition in the book is that co-creativity occurs when consumers contribute a non-trivial component of the design development, production, marketing and distribution of a new or existing product. Here I’m drawing on others work, including yours Henry on participatory, convergence cultures and colleagues such as Axel Bruns on ideas of produsage.

 

In this book though I’m less interested in a static definition of co-creation than I am in describing the processes and practices that constitute this phenomenon. My approach is ethnographic and I’m very much led in my research by that ethnographic commitment to describing the lived experiences of media industry professionals (in this case game developers) and gamers (consumers and users) as they explore and negotiate the opportunities and challenges of co-creativity. So the micro behaviours and practices are very much my focus. In the book’s introduction I refer to ethnographer Paul Rabinow’s comment in his study of a biotech company (Making PCR: A Story of Biotechnology 1996:17) that ‘the anthropologically pertinent point is the fashioning of the particularity of practices’. This has been a guiding aim throughout the research that informs Co-creating Videogames – to describe the particularity of co-creative practices.

 

You ask what are some of the ways that co-creating matters. I guess that is one of the things I’ve been trying to figure out over the decade or more in which I’ve undertaken this research. The starting point is that it does matter – it is significant culturally and economically. Value is being generated through these practices – both cultural and economic. But what struck me very early in the research was the quite diverse ways in which these practices come to matter and the dynamic and conflicting relations among these ways of mattering.

 

I’ve tried to avoid assuming how co-creating matters and to explore how it comes to matter for and among the participants (both professionals and amateurs / users) and to describe how this mattering is negotiated. I guess this is the inquiry that orients this research, by not starting out knowing what I’m looking for or looking at. Part of all this is also seeing or trying to see the materiality, the technologies and materials, that contribute to shaping co-creative practices. This struck me very early in the research; in my first visits with the videogames developer, Auran games, and involvement with the gamer fan community forming around their games, this question of technology and tools came to the fore. The developers talked to me about game engines, code, servers, tools and so on. Their daily work practices involved all of this.

In one of my early contacts with a member of the Auran fan community (this was back in 1997), the company had just released their hit real-time strategy game Dark Reign) a member of that community, VR_Bones, contacted me. VR_Bones got on a train with his PC box and visited me at my home. It was a good 30 minutes or so train journey for him and he then walked to my home (another 10 minutes or so from the station) lugging his PC game rig. He wanted to show me some content, user created content, he and a few other members of the community had made for Dark Reign (these included user created maps and some AI routines that would modify the behaviour of in game units – so mods).

He spent a good while walking me through the challenges they were confronting in using the tools Auran provided to make this content. He also raised concerns about how Auran was not quite providing the level of support and information they needed to continue with this work. At the same time he praised Auran for the fact that they were engaging with the player community and listening. As he put it, ‘hey they are listening isn’t that great, each week they have a chat session online with us. And some of the guys, the devs, on the team, they provide us with helpful information and answer our emails and stuff when they have the time’.

 

Shortly after the visit from VR_Bones I went into the Auran studio to have a crack at my first interviews with the developers. I sat with a young programmer who was hunting down bug fixes in the final stages of a game project. He was very focused on that screen and the conversation was kind of stilted and uncomfortable. He was trying to describe stuff to me, the core of his job really, which I just didn’t get. When I raised the developers’ relationship with the online gamer fan community and the work they had been doing with them he got a little more animated, but kind of dismissed me gesturing at his screen and commenting, ‘I should be getting back to it’.

Understanding what that “it” was for him and his fellow developers and how all this played out in relationship to the activities I was seeing with the gamer fans, I wanted to understand that. This meant figuring out how to get better access to the studio, how to spend more time with the developers and so on. Back then I didn’t have a term for it, the kinds of interactions I was seeing and participating in between the developers and the players, I certainly wasn’t calling it co-creation back in 1997. I was trying to frame it then in terms of ideas of active audience and fan cultures. I first used the terms co-creation to start grappling with all of this in a book chapter I wrote back in 2001, published in 2002 (‘Games as Co-creators: Enlisting the Virtual Audience – A Report from the Net Face’).

 

I think there’s a lot about mattering in this brief vignette from the early ethnographic research that I’ve been trying to unpack ever since.

 

There’s the technology question that I pursue as a theme in the book, including a dedicated chapter, ‘Co-creative Technologies’ that explores this in the context of a dialogue with actor-network theory and others who take up this question of technologies and materiality such as Ian Bogost. There’s the question of the nature and characteristics of the value being generated through these co-creative practices. For VR_bones and his fellow gamers it mattered to them, they had a lot invested in this activity and in the materials they were collectively making and sharing. For him it was also about learning by participating in these networks – learning about games development and AI.

There is also an exchange of value here between the developers and the community of players – what are the terms and conditions of that exchange, the expectations, understandings and indeed misunderstandings about these transactions. This concerns a dynamic and at times volatile and uncertain relationship between economic and commercial motivations/incentives and other non-commercial motivations and incentives.

 

At its heart this book is about the participants’ diverse understandings, motivations and incentives that collectively contribute to making co-creativity. These participants include technologies – so humans and non-humans. What also matters in this, in the negotiation of these co-creative relationships, is the different forms of knowledge and expertise.

I address this in chapter 5 ‘Co-creative expertise’. Co-creativity relies on if not requires networks of amateurs and professionals, experts and non-experts. This blurring of the professional-amateur divide, however, is never easy or straightforward. It is often contentious and conflictual. I think that comes through in the ethnographic accounts of co-creativity as it plays out in the game developer workplaces. But nor are these complex and at times quite fraught relationships necessarily an impediment to co-creativity. They are the very conditions through which co-creativity plays out.

This also brings out another issue that matters here. The everyday work practices of professional media workers are at stake in these co-creative networks. Co-creativity can unsettle the expertise, employment and identities of media professionals. The question of labour and work conditions matters in all of this as well. It is a thread that I think runs through the entire book and has a chapter dedicated to it – ‘Co-creative Labour?’. Finally another aspect of matters concerns the debates and discussions among academics as we attempt to grapple with, analyse, understand and explain emerging phenomenon such as co-creative production.

 

 

John Banks is a senior lecturer and researcher in the Creative Industries faculty, Queensland University of Technology.  He researches and publishes on co-creativity, innovation and social media in the creative industries, especially videogames and interactive entertainment. He has a special interest in organisational and workplace culture.

His past decade of research on the topic of co-creativity in the videogames industry culminates in the recently published book Co-creating Videogames (2013 – Bloomsbury Academic).  Banks is currently lead investigator on an Australian Research Council (ARC) industry linkage research project investigating the sources and processes of innovation in the Australian interactive entertainment industry.

A Race So Different: A Conversation Between Joshua Chambers-Letson and Karen Tongson (Part Two)

We’ve just learned that Joshua Chambers-Letson’s A Race So Different: Performance and Law in Asia America has just been been awarded the 2014 ATHE (Association of Theater in Higher Education) Outstanding Book Award! Karen and I are so proud to be working with such outstanding scholars for our Postmillenial Pop book series at New York University Press.

KT: Your chapter, “The Nail That Stands Out: The Political Performativity of the Moriyuki Shimada Scrapbook” offers some very personal, very moving first-person accounts of your own childhood experiences with your mother as a “mixed” racialized subject, and about your own struggles with legibility coming to the fore as you confront the parable of “the nail that stands out.” Could you explain a little more to our general readership about your own relationship to performing one’s own story in work that is explicitly about racialization? How is the personal, biographical, or anecdotal a part of your methodology? And how might it stand in concert or at odds with the logics of narration in legal discourse as well as performance studies?

JC-L: I feel deeply ambivalent about the place of the personal/anecdotal in this book. The “I” in this book—with the exception of that one passage in chapter four and the dedication to my grandmother—remains at a critical distance throughout A Race So Different. I’m Japanese, Black, and white, and in some ways my relationship to the question of racial justice is shaped by this accident of autobiography, as Gayatri Spivak might call it. How could it not be?

Being a person of color can give one a particular perspective on the experiences of racialization and racism. These experience and perspectives are often ignored or debased by a dominant culture that still refuses to accept that racism continues to play a critical role in shaping of US American life. As critical race theorists like Mari Matsuda have taught us, personal narrative can be an important and useful way of disrupting the legal discourses of the dominant culture. But it also has its dangers.

Rey Chow has done perhaps more work than anyone to show us how the seeming liberation promised by the minoritarian scholar’s personal reflexivity and self-referentiality can become a cage that traps this scholar within identitarian coordinates. So while one must sometimes respond to the dominant culture’s elision and erasure of minoritarian lives by articulating and telling the stories of our lives as they are lived, I also believe that we must be strategic in how we do so. And, perhaps more importantly, we shouldn’t give everything away: I want to protect certain secret forms of survival and intimacies that structure minoritarian lives from a culture that so often takes such knowledge, appropriates it, distorts it, or guts it of its operative and insurgent potential.

If there’s anything I might say about my turn to the anecdotal that isn’t ambivalent, it’s this: the story I tell in chapter four is about something that my mother, Shadi, taught me as a kid in order to help me survive the racist and homophobic environment of Colorado, where I was raised. And I wanted to honor my mother, who is as much a theorist of race, sex, class, and gender, and a practitioner of minoritarian survival, as any of the famous philosophers, scholars, and artists that I engage with in the book.

KT: Finally, what are some of the broader stakes for you of doing a book like A Race So Different and situating it in a series about popular phenomena using contemporary methods in a contemporary moment? Who are some of the broader audiences you hope to reach, and what would you like some of your project’s “takeaways” to be? To what extent is this first project the foundation for some of your new work on Marxist theory and minoritarian performance?

JC-T: It was important to me to show how cultural forms (including, especially, the popular) should not be divided away from legal or political forms. This is because, as I argue throughout the book, they are inextricable from each other. When I disaggregate the parts of a system (e.g., separating the law and aesthetics from each other), I lose a more comprehensive vision of that system and become less capable of taking the system apart in order to build something better.

In this way, the mode of ideology critique that undergirds this book is largely inspired by Marxist theory. For me, Marxist theory is both an interrogation of system, capital, and labor as it is a philosophy of emancipation. It felt like a logical extension to explore more fully the relationship between Marxist theory and minoritarian performance in the next project. The law, too, will be present in that project because law plays a key role in the reproduction of the conditions of production.

As to the question of audience: On a deeply personal level, José Muñoz was and always will be the primary audience of this book. It began as a dissertation under his care and he read it and supported it, challenged it, and thought through it with me at every stage. The fact of this book is now difficult because it is part of a conversation with and inspired by him that is left incomplete by his death.

But, obviously, one doesn’t write a book for only one person. So perhaps it would make the most sense to say that it was written for the subjects of the brown commons. It was written for all of us who are struggling to make this world better because we cannot abide the insufficiencies of the here and now. And it was written for those of us who still believe that aesthetics will play an important role in this coming transformation of our conditions of existence, as they always played a role in revolution and transformation throughout all history.

KT: Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us, and, of course, for sharing your project through our book series. And I, personally, find your closing words about the brown commons and José—a dear friend and mentor to me as well—an especially apt, and moving way to frame our conversation, and our own scholarly intertwinement.

Joshua Chambers-Letson is an assistant professor in the Department of Performance Studies at Northwestern University. His first book A Race So Different: Law and Performance in Asian America was published by NYU Press in December of 2013. He is currently working on a second book project, The Coming Communism: Marxist Theory and Minoritarian Performance, which theorizes minoritarian performance practices (by artists including Félix González-Torres, Yoko Ono, Michi Barall, William Pope.L, Tehching Tshieh, and the Knife) as rehearsing and anticipating concrete forms of actually existing Marxist sociality.

Karen Tongson is Associate Professor of English and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California, and the author of Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries (NYU Press, 2011). Her work has appeared in numerous venues in print and online, including Social Text, GLQ, Nineteenth-Century Literature, and Novel: A Forum on Fiction. She is currently, with Henry Jenkins, series editor for Postmillennial Pop at NYU Press, and recently completed a multi-year term as co-editor-in-chief of the Journal of Popular Music Studies. Her current book project, Empty Orchestra: Karaoke. Critical. Apparatus. critiques prevailing paradigms of imitation in contemporary aesthetics and critical theory, while offering a genealogy of karaoke technologies, techniques, and desires.

A Race So Different: A Conversation Between Joshua Chambers-Letson and Karen Tongson (Part One)

The following is another in a series of interviews with the authors of books in the Postmillenial Pop series which I co-edited with Karen Tongson for New York University Press. In this case, Karen Tongson did the interview and wrote everything below.

Among the most recent titles in our Postmillennial Pop series at NYU Press is Joshua Takano Chambers-Letson’s ambitious first monograph, A Race So Different: Performance and Law in Asian America. Chambers-Letson brings together a range of cultural phenomena in the “long twentieth century”—from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly to, Ping Chong’s Chinoiserie, to the contemporary, L.A. based indie band, Dengue Fever—in order to illuminate how the legal histories of Asian Americans, in the U.S. are deeply intertwined with genealogies of performance. More specifically, the law itself becomes a genre of performance in Chambers-Letson’s work, as it shapes, defines and calls into (legal) being Asian American bodies through exclusion, relocation, extradition and rendition. Trained as a performance studies scholar, Chambers-Letson is interested more broadly in how we find performance practices beyond the stage, and in the genres of the everyday, including popular culture. He took the time to speak with me about how he imagines his work on Asian American law and performance in a much broader political and scholarly context.

KT: Allow me to begin with a simple “chicken or egg” question, since our readers are always curious about what inspires the eclectic projects that have appeared in our series. In other words, when you first began to conceptualize the project, did you begin with the legal archives and debates, or did the specific case studies and performances inspire you to look deeper into the legal and archival materials?

JC-L: Rather than a sequence, I usually began with the question I wanted to explore and then followed the question to the right place. The book is trying to offer a theory of the state that makes a simple point: the law has an aesthetic dimension and aesthetic forms often mediate and transmit legal knowledge. Court opinions have their own narrative conventions (including wit and humor, rhetoric, tone and style) and court cases are often staged in a theatrical fashion or through legal ritual. In turn, a show like Law and Order is one of the prime ways that many people gain access to the law and (sometimes manipulated or mutated) legal knowledge. As such, the main thing I wanted to address was this conjunction of law and performance.

Because I was approaching the project in a fashion that blurred the line between law and aesthetics, there wasn’t really a sequence to the way I gathered material. You know, the last thing the world needed was another chapter on how racist Madame Butterfly is; so that’s not the chapter that I wrote. Instead, I started with the question: how can I think through the ways that popular works about culture mediate and disseminate legal discourse. Since so much of Madame Butterfly is concerned with questions of law, and since the legal discourse in Butterfly so neatly lines up with legal narratives that were being produced about Asian and Asian Americans in US courts at the time, it seemed like the right place to go to answer that question.

From there, I shuttled back and forth between the legal archives and the cultural site. This is cheesy, but my favorite comfort food is oyako-donburi, which is basically a rice bowl with simmered chicken and egg. There’s no sequence to it, they all happen at the same time.

KT: Not cheesy at all (I also love a good donburi), but definitely delicious! Moving on…I’d like to follow up a bit about your interest in the law and legal studies, especially since your graduate training was in performance studies. The relationship between the two can be traced to the moment when “performativity” (viz. Austin, Butler and others) entered conversations about “performance” in the late 1980s, early 1990s. And yet your work does so much more to expand the category of performance in relation to the law, since it moves beyond the speech acts that “declare” certain legal statuses into being. What were some of your larger objectives in bringing together the two categories and approaches, and how did you come up against some resistance to the idea that the “law” is in many respects, also a “stage”? I think this will be of interest to some media scholars who are also invested in the legal and political economy of their objects and how they’ve been legislated.

JC-L: By exploring the conjunction between law and performance, I was interested in exploring questions raised by Austin and Butler, as well as questions posed by Thomas Hobbes, Carl Schmitt, Louis Althusser, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and José Muñoz. There’s a funny moment in Leviathan where Hobbes makes fun of Aristotle. He goes on to lambast people who believe in the idea of a government that is ruled by law rather than by men. This is because in the final instance the law is only as good as the people that execute or perform the law’s commands.

Schmitt does a similar thing in his attack on legal positivism when he reminds us that all law is situational and it is precisely because law has interpretive gaps that it is a political—and I would also say performed or embodied—art.

Althusser asks us to consider how it is that our own everyday performances of life come to realize the ruling ideology as it is transmitted through ideological apparatuses such as the law. From Sedgwick I learned that the distinction between performativity and performance, or say law and aesthetics, is a false distinction and that we should be suspicious of the binarization of these two.

And Muñoz taught me in Disidentifications that the operative fictions and apparatuses of the dominant culture, in this case the law, can be played with through performance in order to survive hostile conditions and even survive them.

By asking these kinds of questions, I hoped to show how it is that we can better understand how the law works, how it lays claim to our bodies, and how we might be able to disrupt this claim. I also wanted to press home the point, one more time, that cultural production is as much an ideological apparatus as the law and that the conjunction of the two is central to the reproduction of our conditions of existence.

KT: As you know, our book series is interested in popular cultures and phenomena broadly defined. We were of course captivated by the expansiveness of the cultural archive in A Race So Different, moving as it does from Puccini’s (popular) opera, Madame Butterfly, to the contemporary So. Cal “Cambo-rock” of Dengue Fever. How do you feel your book implicitly and explicitly provides its own definition of popular culture? How do the objects in your book exceed their contributions to “Asian/American” performance (as some are wont to isolate texts featuring Asians/Americans) into a broader, transcultural, transmedia framework for the popular?

JC-L: My friend C. Riley Snorton recently released a beautiful book about the discursive circulation of the “down low” within popular culture. I see his project as being very much in conversation with my own. In that book he returns our attention to Raymond Williams’ three-part exploration of popular culture as being “low” or “base,” work that is meant to appeal to the masses, and work that is simply consumed in mass. I followed an impulse similar to Snorton’s approach, which was to break down the distinctions between a work of “high” art (like opera) and more popular forms (like melodrama or rock music), to show how they bleed together.

I also wanted to show how the daily rituals that structure our lives should be included within the sphere of the popular, as with my studies of the taking of personal photographs for a scrapbook, the mounting of a high school play, or the schoolroom performance of the pledge of allegiance (all from within the Japanese American concentration camps of World War Two).

I’m not sure if the book provides a definition of popular culture so much as it asks whose agenda is being served when we carve out certain forms of culture as “high” (opera or avante-garde performance) from the “low” material of popular culture (scrapbooking, rock music, community theater). The division between “high” art—which is often the work associated with the economic and cultural elite—and “low” or popular culture is one that we should be suspicious of insofar as it reifies a division of intellectual and cultural labor that contributes to the reproduction of class and social hierarchy.

The book focuses on Asian America in order to ground and illustrate these larger points. My hope is that it does as much work for helping us to think about the specific conditions under which racial meaning comes into being for the Asian American body as it does for thinking about the way cultural practices within the popular realm shape all of our broader material and social realities.

Joshua Chambers-Letson is an assistant professor in the Department of Performance Studies at Northwestern University. His first book A Race So Different: Law and Performance in Asian America was published by NYU Press in December of 2013. He is currently working on a second book project, The Coming Communism: Marxist Theory and Minoritarian Performance, which theorizes minoritarian performance practices (by artists including Félix González-Torres, Yoko Ono, Michi Barall, William Pope.L, Tehching Tshieh, and the Knife) as rehearsing and anticipating concrete forms of actually existing Marxist sociality.

Karen Tongson is Associate Professor of English and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California, and the author of Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries (NYU Press, 2011). Her work has appeared in numerous venues in print and online, including Social Text, GLQ, Nineteenth-Century Literature, and Novel: A Forum on Fiction. She is currently, with Henry Jenkins, series editor for Postmillennial Pop at NYU Press, and recently completed a multi-year term as co-editor-in-chief of the Journal of Popular Music Studies. Her current book project, Empty Orchestra: Karaoke. Critical. Apparatus. critiques prevailing paradigms of imitation in contemporary aesthetics and critical theory, while offering a genealogy of karaoke technologies, techniques, and desires.

Breaking Down the Rhetoric of Education Reform: An Interview with Elizabeth Losh (Part Three)

You write in the book about feminist uses and critiques of online learning technologies. What might the tradition of feminist pedagogy have to teach us about the limits of the current fascination with MOOCs?

The FemTechNet white paper http://femtechnet.newschool.edu/femtechnet-whitepaper/ emphasizes the fact that appeals for open access to education have a long history that go back to the settlement house movement, and this history continues through various cyberfeminist projects, so open education certainly didn’t begin with Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs, and feminists aren’t hostile to openness, although they do value how the embodied “live” classroom can serve as a safe space to explore uncomfortable issues.

The problems begin with the fact that the “course” part often reinforces traditional power structures, because a – usually – lone white male expert – unchallenged by any dissenting opinions and divorced from dialogue with others – transmits information as gospel to a passive audience unable really to answer back.  It’s really time travel back to the pedagogy of the nineteen fifties from before the free speech movement.  At such a “massive” scale it’s also impossible to form interpersonal relationships with students and to be accountable to their personal needs.

 

One of the more provocative passages here centers around Tim Gunn’s performance on Project Runway and its various online extensions. What might academics learn about the construction of their public personas by studying how Gunn has presented himself through this series?

 

There is a lot of talk about trying to be the “guide on the side” rather than the “sage on the stage” in the pedagogical literature and also about project-based learning in which students need to iterate, experiment, revise, explore, deliver, and reflect.  It is hard to miss these aspects of education if you like to watch episodes of Project Runway.

It’s also the rare reality show where the hugs for a disappointed student look genuine.  I tend to like the early shows the best, from when fashion mentor Tim Gunn was still an administrator at Parsons with a much more professorial personality.

I like the fact that he displays a sense of humor – as well as empathy and high standards.  It’s a spirit that I aspire to bring to my own academic appointments, although I am a much less natty dresser.

 

You argue that the current fascination with badges often confuses notions of “earning” and “learning.” Why is this an important distinction to maintain? Why do you think badges have been so appealing to educators and funding organizations? How do they illustrate some of the limits of thinking about education in terms of gamification?

Assessment is always a challenge to educators, so I understand why instructors are desperate to find methods other than high-stakes testing at which so many talented students who are good at revised work fail or alternatives to the grades that serve as a source of so much conflict and so much labor in justifying grades rather than providing feedback that actually enlightens or changes behavior.  (However, as a rhetorician I actually enjoy reading grade complaints, because they tend to be quite well-written; students have a strong sense of purpose in approaching the task of writing a grade complaint.)

I argue that badges don’t necessarily get us out of the problems that we have with grades, and they work against holistic assessments that are easier for multiple audiences to interpret.  But, as they say, “never say never.”  Right now I am working with my colleague Wayne Yang on an interesting project that might involve badges.

In the book I criticize the general trend toward gamification in education, and I would also recommend the forthcoming volume from MIT Press that is edited by Sebastian Deterding on the subject.  Like many educators interested in digital media and learning, it’s irritating to see game formats adopted very superficially without much consideration about how people learn more deeply from interacting with the rule-based systems of games.

I also have a more specific gripe about emphasizing the goal of happiness rather than the goal of understanding when thinking about how games serve as a model for learning.  Games can be a very effective way to explore the procedural character of concepts like injustice, which is important in a well-rounded education, and I don’t have much patience for advocates for positive psychology who emphasize what I think are much more simple-minded and self-centered personal rewards.

 

In the book’s conclusion, you ask: “How can we influence the digital university to be more inclusive, generative, just, and constructive?” In many ways, this is the central theme of the book. What do you see as some approaches to digital media and learning which might satisfy those criteria?

In the final chapter I propose six general principles, so if someone wants to give a copy of the book to a university president as a not very subtle hint about how to chart a new course when it comes to instructional technology, there’s essentially an executive summary with a list of recommendations.

In general, I think that “technology” is imagined too narrowly to mean only brand new digital technologies to be used only for formal traditional instruction that need to be purchased from instructional technology vendors.  But in our Culture, Art, and Technology program, we remind students that technology can encompass many things.  After all, windows that let in light or chairs that move are also instructional technologies.

I also think that we define learning far too narrowly to focus only on objectives from courses listed in catalogues and ignore all of the other things that students learn not only in college but also in many other contexts in which people interact and communicate. In Sixth College we emphasize “experiential learning” and encourage students to learn from faculty in settings other than the classroom, such as laboratories, field sites, clinical settings, or community centers.  That’s the place for exercising all those so-called “soft skills” valued by employers that higher education can develop.

If we don’t take a one-size-fits-all approach to digital technologies, experiment ethically, pay attention to failures, avoid fetishizing novelty, and most of all listen to our students, I think there is actually tons of hope for doing great work generating new knowledge together in the university setting. 

Elizabeth Losh directs the Culture, Art, and Technology program at the University of California, San Diego.  She is the author of Virtualpolitik: An Electronic History of Government Media-Making in a Time of War, Scandal, Disaster, Miscommunication, and Mistakes (MIT Press, 2009) and The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University (MIT Press, 2014). She is also the co-author of the comic book textbook Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013) with Jonathan Alexander.  She writes about the digital humanities, institutions as digital content-creators, the media literacy of policy makers and authority figures, and the rhetoric surrounding regulatory attempts to limit everyday user practices.

 

Breaking Down the Rhetoric of Educational Reform: An Interview with Elizabeth Losh (Part One)

On paper, Elizabeth Losh and I can sometimes look like polar opposites: she’s definitely much more of a skeptic, much more rooted in the Critical Studies side of Rhetoric,  more likely to point to issues of corporate exploitation and government manipulation, than I am. Indeed, when we appeared together a few years back at the Mobility Shifts conference at the New School of Social Research, for what was billed as debate, Losh’s partner created two sets of race car jackets for us, demarking Team Critical Studies and Team Cultural Studies, so we could perform the culture wars which sometimes divide these frames of reference.

In practice, where education is concerned, we both end up somewhere much closer to each other, as we’ve discovered to our delight since I have moved to California and gotten to know her and her work much better. She’s someone who works closely with classroom teachers and has a firm belief in the importance of public education, someone who is invested in debunking corporate claims about new tools and platforms in favor of promoting forms of education which allow more expressive freedom and creative participation for students, and someone who is ultimately a pragmatist in terms of trying to figure out how we can change the current system from within rather than engaging in rhetoric about blowing up the schools and starting over.

We’ve written a piece together about the challenges of bringing participatory culture and learning into the schools, and so I was excited when I saw that she had a new book coming out on education to grab another chance for us to talk together about some of these mutual concerns and interests. Her new book, The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University, comes out in just a few more days and deals with the ways that new media is having an impact (real and imagined) on higher education.

Losh draws here on her own classroom experiences as someone who is constantly experimenting with new teaching methods and cutting edge toolkits, but she also looks at a range of national controversies and alternative imaginings (Project Runway!) through which we can think about what the university classroom might become. She examines all of these topics with the critical eye of a trained rhetorician, debunking many myths and false claims, but also articulating some ideals we as pedagogues and mentors should embrace if we are serious about making our classrooms into more participatory environments.

Here’s what I say in the blurb I wrote for the book: “Elizabeth Losh’s The War on Learning makes an invaluable intervention into current debates about the role of digital media in higher education by adopting an approach that is at once hopeful and skeptical, that rejects technological euphoria and moral panic alike, that challenges the promises made by corporate vendors but also those made by educational reformers, and that insists that core principles of inclusion and mutual respect should govern the relations between faculty and students.”

I meant it!

Throughout the book, you challenge some of the rhetorics which are used to describe the introduction of new technologies into the classroom. What would the Rhetorician Liz Losh have to say about the author Elizabeth Losh’s use of “war” as the central metaphor in her book’s title?

As a rhetorician, I am always interested in how people use language to characterize different aspects of public policy debates.  Using “war” in the title – along with “gaining ground” in the subtitle – to characterize how social computing is disrupting higher education was a very deliberate choice.  When I started to look at how faculty (and the media) talked about using instructional technology systems like Turnitin.com to monitor plagiarism in student writing, words like “weapons” and “arsenal” began to jump out at me, and I started to notice how much of our discourse about these issues is driven by military metaphors, either because we needed to stage a revolution in the university or because we need to defend our battlements against uncouth invaders. Well, we all know how the “war on poverty” or the “war on drugs” turned out, so I also wanted to make clear that adopting either a strategy of command and control or one of mob rule wouldn’t take us very far.

I also wanted to make learning the focus of my intervention.  So it’s really two titles: it’s about the “war on formal learning” coming from social media and other distributed knowledge dissemination systems and about the “war on informal learning” being waged by campus administrators who don’t want students subverting or gaming the system.

I proposed a book that would be a “scholarly polemic,” and then I found in writing it that my engagement with this subject matter – as an instructor myself – is much less abstract and more personal and more complicated than the binaries of an antagonistic argument, so there are also a lot of my own stories about negotiating conflict in the classroom or the lecture hall or the residence hall.  I claim that far too often people assume that a radical generational division between the “digital generation” and everyone else makes communication between students and faculty impossible when technology is involved.  Certainly the traditional system of disciplining students isn’t well suited for some of these emergent phenomena.  And then there is the weird fact that some of this conflict may even be manufactured by interested parties with an agenda for sowing discord.  Some of the most dramatic scenes of conflict – such as viral videos of professors destroying laptops or cell phones – are actually staged.

 

You begin the book by identifying some common mistakes or misunderstandings that often shape digital learning initiatives. What do you think we most often get wrong when universities seek to bring new media technologies and practices into higher education?

 

As I say in the opening, the material features – as well as the human aspects of technology that involve standards or values or design choices – are frequently underestimated, so that people have very idealized conceptions about technology in which technology exists without the mess that seems to compromise and contaminate everything else in the world.  Technology is presented as something that manifests itself as a liberating force that is characterized by its youth and radical novelty, and it isn’t supposed to be constrained by physical barriers or historical baggage.

Most famously Nicholas Negroponte, of One-Laptop-Per-Child fame, spent significant time in Being Digital differentiating between “bits” and “atoms.”  Of course Matt Kirschenbaum loves to point out that computational media depend on material components and that you can actually see bits on a surface of a hard drive.  (I also like how Paul Dourish points out that digital signals have signatures that are actually a lot less mathematically perfect, because they always depend on technology that is analog at some level.)

So universities tend to assume that digital technologies only involve shiny new gadgets combined with intellectual property – pure code to be licensed from vendors – and not physical property that institutions have to continue to maintain with labor.  Because technologies are always new we also don’t have to think about them aging or dying or about things like the infrastructure needed for support.

I particularly love the assertion that technologies are inevitably labor-saving devices and that teaching online or with a course management system will always reduce labor so that teachers can teach more efficiently.  Part of this is a mistake about misunderstanding the nature of pedagogical labor and the assumption that the affective labor of managing students’ feelings doesn’t matter because teaching is simply a logical process of transferring content from one party to another that process can be divorced from emotions or conceptions about one’s identity.

I say all this as a technophile, as someone who loves experimenting with new technologies in my teaching, as a person actively involved with initiatives like Digital Media and Learning Central, Reclaim Open Learning and FemTechNet.

 

You direct many of the book’s strongest criticisms against the “acceptance of shortsighted commodity solutions from corporate vendors.” Why do you think such “solutions” have gained such a toe-hold in the modern university and what are the consequences of thinking about digital media and learning in terms of products and services? Do such practices further a tendency to think of education in terms of consumption rather than participation?

Well, we live in a commodity culture, and I tend to be a pragmatist about how much the university can really transform our society by reshaping the individuals who participate in higher education.  In education-speak we talk about the “zone of proximal development” that describes the area of activity where intervention is most effective and the process of trying to meet people near to where they are as learners.  I might argue that the same principle holds true when we talk about a politics of public resources and common values.

The tendency to think about students as consumers that we want to keep happy with dazzling media or brand-named stuff is certainly understandable, because unhappy students might become unhappy alumni who won’t be very likely to become generous donors.  Gadget-distribution programs, such as handing out an iPad to every registered student, make for good headlines . . . until things begin to go wrong, as they did rather spectacularly for the Los Angeles Unified School District that will probably never recoup its investment.

I am often astonished at how naïve administrators can be and how susceptible to pseudo-scientific pitches from instructional technology companies with as much research to support them as a typical soda commercial.  I actually think the best strategy is to play the capitalist and to appeal to the logic of consumption by at least arguing for lower cost solutions. The thing that I find most exasperating is that treating the educational enterprise as a marketplace for experiencing high-tech goods and services is that it is really prohibitively expensive.

Elizabeth Losh directs the Culture, Art, and Technology program at the University of California, San Diego.  She is the author of Virtualpolitik: An Electronic History of Government Media-Making in a Time of War, Scandal, Disaster, Miscommunication, and Mistakes (MIT Press, 2009) and The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University (MIT Press, 2014). She is also the co-author of the comic book textbook Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013) with Jonathan Alexander.  She writes about the digital humanities, institutions as digital content-creators, the media literacy of policy makers and authority figures, and the rhetoric surrounding regulatory attempts to limit everyday user practices.

Transforming Hollywood: The Future of Television Conference Videos (Part Two)

Last time, I shared videos of the opening sessions of the Transforming Hollywood: The Future of Television conference, recently hosted at UCLA, and organized by myself and Denise Mann (UCLA). I am grateful to David McKenna for his epic work in editing, mixing, and uploading these videos so quickly.

Today, I am sharing the video from the final two sessions of the conference — including my one-on-one exchange with Sleepy Hollow‘s Orlando Jones around the ways he has been using social media to interface with his fans and the politics of diversity and creativity in the contemporary television industry.

TMH5, Panel Four: Indie TV – Where Creators & Fans Pilot New Shows from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

Indie TV: Where Creators and Fans Pilot New Shows

The Internet broke the network bottleneck. Through platforms such as YouTube and Vimeo, creators release series directly to fans who follow shows and share them with friends. Web-content creators can write stories in whatever length, style and genre they choose, on their own schedule, and with actors of their choosing. The result is a truly open television ecosystem, where creators, talent and fans work together to realize stories they want to see. Each of the producers on this panel contributes to this new vision of television by producing series for the Internet that are being shaped for traditional TV as well; (several of these web series are being developed for HBO). Issa Rae created The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl with a small team and expanded the show using a successful crowdfunding campaign. Rae went on to produce additional series, including Amy Rubin’s Little Horribles, which Rubin released via her own Barnacle Studios. In the process, Little Horribles has become a hit with fans and with critics at Variety, LA Weekly and Splitsider, among others. Dennis Dortch and Numa Perrier launched the Black & Sexy TV network to showcase indie comedy, releasing their own hit series The Couple, and releasing additional series created by other emerging Hollywood talent. Jay Bushman helped The Lizzie Bennet Diaries grow into a deeply engaging transmedia phenomenon, which prompted viewers of the Jane Austen-inspired series to follow characters from YouTube to Twitter and Pinterest. Raising tens of thousands of dollars from fans, Adam Goldman created and wrote two critically-acclaimed dramas, The Outs and Whatever this is, exploring the realities of being insecure in New York City. After showrunner Brad Bell co-created Husbands with Jane Espenson, the indie hit caught the eye of CW executives, who used the series to launch their new online network. As these examples convey, the Internet has become an incubator for talented, next-generation web creators and web celebs, who, in combination with fan followers, are reinventing television for the digital age.

Moderator: Aymar Jean Christian, assistant professor, Northwestern University

Panelists: Brad Bell, co-creator and star, Husbands
Jay Bushman, producer and writer, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries
Adam Goldman, writer and director, Whatever this is
Numa Perrier, co-founder, Black & Sexy
Issa Rae, creator and star, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl
Amy Rubin, creator and star, Little Horribles

TMH5, Panel Five: Discussion on fandom and the future with Orlando Jones, the star of Fox’s “Sleepy Hollow” from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

Fandom and the Future of Television Orlando Jones, Star, Writer, Producer, Sleepy Hollow with Henry Jenkins

At the opening of the panel, I share the story of how I first connected with Orlando Jones. Orlando, who is ever-present on Twitter, had referenced my book, Textual Poachers, which seemed to be a ready invitation to engage. I wrote back to say that I was following his new series, Sleepy Hollow, closely and enthusiastically. A few minutes later, I wrote back to see if he might be willing to visit my PhD seminar on fandom, participatory culture, and Web 2.0 the next time he was in Los Angeles, and within the course of 30 minutes, we had met, shared our mutual admiration, and he had agreed to do a guest lecture (already had his people working with me to pull this off). And of course, fans online were already speculating about whether there might be a Henry/Orlando ship forming (Horlando, perhaps?) and the answer is wouldn’t you like to know. His visit with my USC students was captured on video and today, I am finally able to share it with you also, so for my fellow Sleepy Hollow fans out there, this is a double dose of Orlando’s magic. And for everyone else, I hope you will agree with me that he is an extraordinary individual — deeply respectful of his fans, outrageously funny at the drop of a hat, and deeply thoughtful about his craft and about the changing media environment a second later. I’ve learned so much from my two conversations with him so far and am very happy to be sharing these exchanges with a broader public via this blog. Enjoy!

Orlando Jones from USC Annenberg Innovation Lab on Vimeo.

Who Do Humans Tell the Stories They Do: An Interview with Lily Alexander (Part Six)

You ended the book with some speculations about the future of storytelling, including a discussion of the singularity as an emerging story about the “possible symbolic communities of the future.” 2014 will see the release of several new films and television shows focused on the Singularity. What roles do you think stories written by humans can play in helping us to understand the implications of what some are predicting will be a post-human world?

By singularity we mean a fusion of the biological with the technological, in the evolution of the human race (as per Ray Kurzweil’s interpretation). The outcome may take any form within a spectrum from bliss to horror.

Like everybody else, I am addicted to my gadgets, and suffer a withdrawal headache when forced to go without my email, my mac, my playlist, or my Netflix. They have become part of my Self. As Michio Kaku suggests in his new book The Future of the Mind, there will be no limits to what we will be able to do in the centuries to come. We will be able to send each other our dreams-movies by sheer will and through our brainwaves. I am all for it! (We can save a lot of money on cameras, actors and props. Note to Self: everybody will still need screenwriting manuals and storytelling instructors).

 

The warm and fuzzy picture of humans of all races and ethnicities, no longer endangered animals, aliens, cyborgs, and robots living happily ever after, telling each other stories, and peacefully sharing the universe, sounds good to me.

But, if in this bio-techno-utopia someone will intercept our brainwaves and manage to reprogram us, making us his servants, it will be a dystopian brave new world that is coming. Thus I think there are several issues to discuss.

First, what are the irreducible, non-negotiable traits of humanity, without which our species no longer exists? Perhaps this short list includes: a free and resilient person, a bond between two individuals, a family and a community, as well as the ability to feel empathy, to respect the Other, share experience and collaborate.

Conceivably, we won’t be able to preserve these qualities and connections. There may be a limitless number of scenarios of how we could be turned into brainwashed cyborgs; and there will be a lot of resistance on the part of our species. An army of Sci-Fi writers and media philosophers will then step in, in advance of such a nightmare future, to explore defense mechanisms humankind can utilize to prevent this dystopia from happening. Between now and then, when it might occur, there will be millions of us who will try to find a way out. The battle hasn’t been lost yet.

Freedom, choice, social bonds, and social responsibility for consequences are perhaps what else makes us human; these qualities are constantly reinforced by storytelling. Drama examines and propels ideas of opportunity and choice, as well as cause and effect. To be human is to have variable paths, the freedom to choose one, and the responsibility for the outcome. That is why debates on how we use technology and how we socialize in the age of technology are crucially important.

Perhaps it’s my naïve optimism, but I’m not concerned about humankind fusing with machines and losing itself in radio waves or digits, at least not any time soon. Freedom is what is really important. The dangers of dehumanization and enslavement have creped up on humanity in many forms before, such as: cannibalism, slavery, religious and class oppression, fascism and chauvinism, Stalinism and Maoism. In essence, the forces behind these dangers tried to turn humans into robots (slaves, zombies, gulag laborers, sex slaves, child miners, soldiers, etc.). There have been many temporary successes in this route toward dehumanization and exploitation, before, and outside of, technology. And those who conceived and executed these ideas were not robots. They called themselves humans.

We can’t stop the march of technology. But it is the degree to which we’ll be able to maintain our passions, bonds and communities that will define our survival. Concerns for the techno-future are not about researching genes or accessing phones. They are about who wants to use science, technology and the media to subdue and control others; and what we can proffer as counter measures and solutions – alternative outcomes.

And this is the ultimate question: regardless to whom we might lose our freedom (new dictators, techno-humans, robots, aliens), how will we maintain the balance between individual freedom and the collective good that is optimal to our species? Will our Hamlets be able to ask the question “to be or not to be,” make decisions, take responsibility and choose to act independently? Or will dependence on technology take key choices away from us, leaving us with only “consumer choices” – this tablet or that?

It is especially important to clean house and have order at home in our social world, when the Other – friend or foe? – the technological future, is at the gates. In order not to lose our humanity, we need a highly effective “anticipatory reflection” (Anokhin), and “action-reflection” (Turner’s theory maintains that any steps taken must be adequately processed). Speedy examination of every emerging and foreseeable change must be discussed and profoundly reflected upon by society. Keeping an eye on the road is our only option. Choices regarding where to turn, or when to stop, must take place within the social community.Many individuals and communities may stimulate discussions about our future. And do it with a speed that matches our technological march, while trying to maintain a profound level of examination. Consider for example, the cultural figure of the public intellectual. He or she is a person who has an agenda and the ability to disperse new knowledge and discuss it with the public, bypassing slow routes of established or bureaucratized channels (academic hierarchies, and the publishing industry’s profit-driven goals and slow production cycles). The Public Intellectual is a cognitive factor and a facilitator of “anticipatory reflection” processes that ensure that an accurate set of “templates of the future” can evolve.

While employing a range of modern media, including the Internet, the Public Intellectual demands and hopefully provides a thorough exploration of issues through opinion-sharing and open forums; and does so as exhaustively as required by the complexity of looming problems. In other worlds, s/he is the “planner-coordinator” of the community’s future, and an inborn catalyst of a self-organizing system.

By means of public debates on the utopian and dystopian scenarios of the future, current media thinkers and writers engage us in collective forums. Emerging stories help us to understand the implications of the many directions we might take, which would lead to alternative outcomes of the future. Storytellers-seers alert us, at the “crossroads,” to wisely choose our paths.

To sum up, your book’s title signals its focus on “fictional worlds.” How are you defining worlds and what role do fictional worlds play within the book’s argument?

Fictional worlds are a framework for the symbolic construction of community, for the behavior-shaping genre system, and for the many story formulas, which propel humanism, as explored in my book. They serve as testing grounds for human actions and for ideal relationships we imagine and would like to implement. Fictional worlds are also the templates, by which we, as a species, explore our “possible futures” and paths toward survival and advancement. Aristotle’s “astonishment,” or the “wow” factor, suggests that we always have elements in fictional worlds, which stretch our imagination, thus leading us toward innovative solutions. Fictional worlds represent imaginary realities with definitive organization, laws – natural and social – and a unique aesthetic regime. Different genres and story types require their own distinctive fictional worlds, within which they may fulfill their cultural functions.

These worlds may be fantastic or “realistic,” and different in various genres (fairytale vs. film noir vs. screwball comedy). Even within the same genre, authors’ original creations may vary widely. For example, the worlds of screwball comedy differ vastly in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Lope de Vega’s The Dog in a Manger, Chekhov’s The Bear, as well as in Roman Holiday and Sex and the City.

Fictional worlds may transcend their own textual borders, including on-screen, reappearing in sequences, and reflected in intertextual content by other artists. The creations of human imagination, fictional worlds channel our dreams about a better tomorrow.

Media’s fictional worlds are intrinsically linked to the actualization of possibilities. They may be understood as narrative subjunctive clauses, hidden emerging tendencies, as well as all sorts of “what ifs” – “could be, would be, and should be” dimensions that are the inner realms of fictional world-building, and the modalities of its relations with reality.

Fictional world-building is an activity as ancient as culture itself: no myth, ritual, or any form of narrative communication took place without the creation of imaginary worlds (believed to be faraway, yet “real”). Someone – a hero? A world traveler? One “returning” from the dead? – had to testify about the existence of Otherworlds and vividly describe their landscapes, fantastic beings, and ways of life; thus helping his community to visualize and also, symbolically, “visit” them.

At the dawn of a new era – that of City Culture, industrialization, the rise of mass society and visual culture – additional factors led to an explosion of world-building activities: in art, literature, on-screen; with mixed, often tragic, results in social reality. On one hand the rise in literacy, in the means of transportation intensifying cultural exchange, and a new accessibility to world literature, exposed the reading public to the brave and imaginative fictional worlds of the past, and across cultures. On the other hand, new technologies, enhancing languages of communication via the screen, made acts of visualization (“proving” the existence of imaginary worlds) and actualization (making them desirable and almost really “possible”) easier.

Above all, a cultural need for world-building emerged, stemming from the conditions of mass society. Social space was becoming increasingly too crowded, too regulated, and too programmed. The suffocating conditions of the early industrial era and of societies close to totalitarian rule made world-building almost imperative for personal psychological survival. “Far and away!” from city streets and walls, and from an over-regulated social order, was Mass-Man’s plan; often implemented within the new lands of possibility he created.

World-Building is conceivably a new ritual-cultural function, linked to the growing opportunities and stresses of civilization. The increase in: formal social interactions, often in humiliating loneliness; requirements of strict submission to law and order; control and surveillance; separation among new casts, by class and income; limits on personal space and decreases in social mobility – all of these factors are counter-balanced by the freedom, the bonding with the like-minded individuals, and advanced knowledge, endowed by created worlds of “wonder,” limited only by the human imagination.

This concludes our interview. Lily Alexander wants to share with my readers her essay, “Storytelling in Time and Space,”which uses the concept of the Chronotope to explore the storytelling techniques and practices of filmmakers Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni and Andrei Tarkovsky.

Lily Alexander has been teaching film, literature, media and screenwriting for fifteen years; the last ten years in New York, at NYU and CUNY. She received her masters in drama and film, and defended a dual doctorate in anthropology and comparative cultural studies, with an emphasis on narrative, in 1998. Alexander teaches her brand of courses, which uniquely combine theories of culture and storytelling with creative writing, hoping to enthuse new Tolkiens and Rowlings. Her most recent classes, at Hunter College, focus on world fairytale, folklore, myth, novel, short story, and science fiction as part of the framework of past and present storytelling practices. Alexander’s new book Fictional Worlds: Traditions in Narrative and the Age of Visual Culture was published in October 2013 (available on amazon.com). This text is also available in digital formats, as a set of Kindle books, and forthcoming as a set of iBooks for the apple platform. The four books of the digital sets are titled, Fictional Worlds I: The Symbolic Journey & The Genres System; Fictional Worlds II: Dramatic Characters & Dramatic Action; Fictional Worlds III: Tragedy & Mystery; and Fictional Worlds IV: Comedy & the Extraordinary. Her website is storytellingonscreen.com. Email: contact (at) storytellingonscreen.com. Comments and questions are welcome.

Why Do Humans Tell the Stories They Do: An Interview with Lily Alexander (Part Five)

Throughout, you draw examples across a range of different media forms, including oral stories, literary texts, films, television shows, and drama, among others. To what degree is the art of storytelling (and its classic functions) indifferent to medium? At what point does the affordances of media enter into your analysis?

The more I think about it, the less I believe that “the media is the message.” Frankly, I think the message is the message, and content is king. There is a set of vitally important ideas that facilitate our advancement and survival. It is the responsibility of the artists working in various formats to find unique ways to convey the wisdom of life continuation.

In fact, it is the uncritical acceptance and superficial understanding of this well-know maxim that leads to embracing the inevitability of our gadgets becoming more important than our stories. This implies that we should not “bother” with content. We must resist the idea that the story is “out there, anyway, inside the machine.”

I was a graduate student in the 1990s, and of course this was the motto of the day. McLuhan’s paradoxical revelation was profound and timely. It also resonated with a similar one, “form is content,” proclaimed prior to McLuhan, as a new theoretical paradox and paradigm by the Formalists in the 1920s. This idea meant to explain to the confused contemporaries of emerging modernism that all these crazy paintings and poems had profound meaning and that their form functioned as content, and already had embedded and encoded ideas within visual and narrative representation.

The logic behind the idea that “form=content” aligns with the belief that “medium=message,” and is very familiar from the study of art theory. The most valuable insights of the Formalists’ and McLuhan’s maxims are the degree to which form/medium affects and defines content/message. The Formalists’ ideas were later developed by the Structuralists, who looked into the overall complex dynamics between form and content, which generate multilayered messages that affect us on conscious and subconscious levels.

When McLuhan’s maxim is not invoked as an excuse to abandon content, we may find some truth in this approach. In fact, in Fictional Worlds I followed the Formalists, the Structuralists (who effectively complicated this formula) and Turner, in detailing how each genre, and many story formulas, already have – or have encoded – a powerful content found innately within their construct.

The writer can unlock this symbolic content to achieve great impact on the audience. This embedded architectonics, when learned, can free a writer because the iron carcass of the “story form” allows the creator to experiment. Providing a structural “safety net,” the story form enables the author to go in any direction, employ fantastic beings, travel to distant islands/planets, as well as unleash on the fictional world dangerous crises and enlist diverse heroes with problem-solving skills. The logic of the form will make the Journey balanced and powerful. Yet, a certain amount of freedom remains in the hero’s journey formula, allowing even radical experimentation with “story logic.”

The influential and wise screenwriting guru Robert McKee, whom I highly respect, noted that he teaches form but not formula. I think it is his response to the “get-rich-quick” superficial use of the Hero’s Journey.” This trend, triggered by the success of Lucas’ Star Wars, has been evident among some aspiring screenwriters in Hollywood.

In fact, I argue that a thoughtful approach toward both the logic of “the ritual story” and the logic of “the dramatic arc” are very important for writers, and are interlinked. I explain these profound connections and propose creative writing methods based on formula and form in chapters 3-6 of Fictional Worlds.

The crux of teaching the dramatic arc is Fictional Worlds’ “golden rule of the three Cs” – encouraging writers to take maximum advantage of every decision-making situation and moment of choice (correct or flawed), at each dramatic crossroad. This, incidentally, is what unites drama and games. Extensive discussions of these issues in my classes led to the conclusion that dramatic form must boost the trajectories of choice in any story, while games will develop in the direction of multiple choices and roads (more forking paths). Instead of a “right” or a “wrong” move by a gamer, transmedia can offer a spectrum of crossroads and trajectories which may lead to many “right,” but diverse, approaches to the successful Journey. This is what the new generation wants, and this is what makes sense to me.

A fandom is often described as a community which self-organizes around their shared engagement with a story (or storyworld). What similarities or differences would you draw between contemporary fan communities and the older forms of“symbolic communities” you write about in the book.

There are many ways of looking at this phenomenon. I would highlight three angles: fandom as a spontaneous ritual-symbolic activity, as discursive communities, and as a social movement. These modes overlap.

If there is any “master theory” of fandom to be found (to refer to your dialogue with Mark Duffett), I suggest it will be in anthropology, in ritual theory. Symbolic anthropology also explains why “performed identity” is inseparable from “transformed identity” within the ritual framework, as I also argue in Fictional Worlds.

As a ritual-symbolic activity, fandom signals that many people seek transformation, adjustment and belonging to a new group. Since ritual activity per se is not practiced by modern societies and the media is only partially effective in meeting these cultural needs, the numerous un-initiated and un-adjusted take matters into their own hands and create networks in which they try to achieve initiation, transformation and social adjustment.

In fan communities, the divine Donor of New Knowledge is the Author who creates the environment of the transformative Journey in which adjustment is possible. The Initiating members of traditional rituals took the Initiands into imaginary mythic-symbolic lands. Many modern stories transcend textual boundaries and expand into fandom activities that come closer to such promise. Consciously or subconsciously, spontaneous fandom communities are, in essence, “initiating themselves.”

There will be mixed results because each fan group’s choice of Great Book or Cult Movie boxes them in, limiting “new knowledge” to that contained in the text. Similarly, “new values,” essential for the sacred Journey, may be defined by the “Initiators,” the leaders of this fandom group. Sort of “masters of ceremonies,” keen on seeing opportunities for power, they may advance themselves within the local fandom hierarchy. Despite such possible power games, fandom indicates that the need for ritual structures and rites of passage of all kinds is great, and the void is not filled.

Discursive community is one which is typically organized around a text. The fandom unit is a form of discursive community, focusing on a particular Book/Movie. While on the path to initiation, such fandom groups employ their chosen “sacred” text in place of the sacred myths which used to be communicated to Initiands within traditional ritual. Unlike the traditional Hero’s Journey with its thresholds at which the hero confronts ordeals and tests, fandom units select and reenact scenes from their Book/Movie for such threshold experiences.

As a social movement, fandom signals that there are a considerable number of people who are determined to seek new knowledge within a variety of “possible worlds” and to explore them as templates for social development. This also signals that they have more trust and interest in fictional worlds than in their familiar reality (the current state of society, law, ethics, politics, etc.), as exploratory fields for the future. Avoiding arguing with, or openly criticizing, society, “fandom crowds” turn to new, albeit fictional, side roads to examine possible futures.

On the dark side, there are pitfalls. I recall a student in my Writing for the Media class, a graduate course in which students were expected to produce an episode for television in any genre, with an option to write it as a pilot that they could submit to the networks. Most students elected to do a pilot, which meant that the quality must be better and the story more persuasive in order to entice a network to consider such a new series. After two months of studying the nuts and bolts of storytelling, the students submitted their screenplays.

One student chose a fan convention in a hotel as the setting of the assignment. Her screenplay project featured a fashionable bunch of Medieval-Gothic-Aliens, or something like this, drawn from a variety of comics, movies, and TV shows. Her play was about the protagonist (her alter ego) changing costumes – I can imagine! – and visiting different hotel rooms where others would comment on her costume and “like it,” and “accept her.” Then she would then go back to her room to change her clothing, and “repeat, repeat.”

There was no action and no story, just suitcases with costumes. I offered this student all kinds of storylines that might happen in such a (weird) “crossroad” place (in the tradition of the movie Grand Hotel). I explained that the play did not exist without a story, and she decided to choose one of my suggestions: that eager, costume-changing young parents do not notice that their toddler walks out of the hotel room and vanishes. This plot provided an instant chill, imagining how she wanders alone surrounded by the Medieval-Gothic-Aliens, each one scarier than the next. Then the crowds rush to find the girl; they are dressed accordingly and are unaware “who is who” (friend or foe; we have mixed elements of mystery, tragedy and farce). But, “our” glorious protagonist turns out to be courageous and smart enough – she’s the one who finds the little girl and saves her from the clutches of… (enter your villain type here). The student liked the idea and promised to make it work (a cliché really, but at least drama: a quest to find a missing child, peppered with some macabre visual irony and options for interesting quirky scenes).

Imagine how stunned I was when at the end of the semester the student removed all the elements of the story and turned everything back to “she changes costumes and people like her;” because “this was good enough,” she said. For her, just as in ancient rituals, this “mystic” changing of skins was a magical entrance into a mythic world. The rest was irrelevant.

Of course, some attitudes within fandom are not about the self or others, transformation, or even belonging. The focus is on a pageant or “ceremony,” a popular culture phenomenon already mocked many times, as in Little Miss Sunshine, Miss Congeniality, etc., where showing costumes – fashion – is the goal. Even the delicious monsters of this student’s story setting – such a rich resource for any magic tale! – were not employed to shape the story. They served as decorations. This is an example of fandom as a rather superficial activity. Yet, I do think that the author-protagonist really wanted the Heroine’s Journey, but she did not yet know it.

I was pleased, however, to recently discover a website which highlights fandom as a transformative activity: http://transformativeworks.tumblr.com/

Across cultures and eras discursive communities have always been present. They were organized at first around a sacred story, and later around a book, film, or artist. Some discursive communities moved beyond their chosen text, developing higher goals, new communal ethics and worldviews. They also fueled social movements, becoming effective symbolic communities and advancing their societies.

In the book, you argue that horror does not actually constitute a genre in the sense you are using the term here. Explain.

There is no question that horror abounds in screen culture and the media. But is horror a genre? If one accepts the functionalist approach of Fictional Worlds toward genre, and its anthropological genre theory, the answer is no. There is no cultural need behind, nor community-building or life-asserting function featured in, horror.

I argue that horror is a narrative “fragment” of something else (perhaps the “ritual story,” the one embedded within the structure of ritual); as asteroids are pieces of an exploded planet. Horror has many of the same elements featured within the ritual story such as “symbolic death” that ritual has, including pain, torture, murder and evil beings. However, a horror story abandons its characters and audience, as its “curtains fall,” just before the upward curve, while a ritual structure ensures rebirth and enlightenment. Horror originated from an incomplete ritual of “symbolic death-rebirth.’

Take a horror movie, find the hero – maybe a victim coming alive from paralyzing fear – give the screaming cornered prey guts and a sword, s/he will awake from victimhood, and defeat the deadly powers with panache. S/he will stop evil, fight to the death, survive and gain wisdom. You have a new adventure story.

Alternatively, take any good adventure or Journey story, stop it half-way – and it turns into horror. Take away from the hero the inner strength and determination necessary to avoid being a victim, and s/he will end up in the horror of the “dragon’s intestines.” Horror is an adventure with the hero deprived of power and courage. It is the storyline of the ritual of initiation broken in half. Thus death occurs and becomes a permanent condition; while death-rebirth will never take place, as it should in any mythic-ritual adventure story.

In horror, the antagonists, the dragons or other dark forces, “reverse” the story structure to become its evil-protagonists. (Consider the empowered vampires, who now demand every role in every story, from the lovers to the teachers of life). The focus is on the winners, whoever they are – zombies, serial killers, or the walking dead. And we accept their dominance, because they so convincingly win in the story.

These forms – adventure vs. horror – are mutually “convertible.” The question becomes where do screenwriters stand – are they trying to scare their contemporaries, or teaching them to overcome fear and grow? The writer endows his hero(ine) with courage, or takes it away. Similar elements are in place, but they are compositionally reconfigured and serve different social purposes.

Lets play devil’s advocate for a moment and suggest that perhaps horror stories are an early alert system, and their pessimism is therefore constructive. Indeed, in reality where a cheerful tone is set by Triumph of the Will, I’ll take the gloomy The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari anytime.

However, there is a “but.” First, the historically tried and tested genres of tragedy, mystery, crime drama, and recently film noir, though full of dark shadows, terrible twists and horrible events, do just this – provide an early alert – more effectively and in a balanced, reflective manner. They contain the mechanisms of revelation of the truth, dramatic resolution, the villain’s self-inflicted wounds, and unexpected endings that, as a whole, facilitate our contemplative response to the painful outcomes of the story.

Second, there is the notorious Kracauer question. In his seminal book From Caligari to Hitler, Siegfried Kracauer, German film scholar and refugee, asks the core question: whether the expressionist cinema, and Dr. Caligari in particular, was a warning to the Germans regarding the terrible things that were to come – the rise of Fascism – or did it “condition” them for submission to power? German expressionist cinema was about fear, but was it fear that leads to action or to passivity in accepting one’s fate?

For several years I taught a full-year Film History class, during the course of which the students in the filmmaking program and I had enough time to investigate the relationship between cinema and politics within world cultures. Among the topics proposed for the students’ course essays I included the Kracauer question. Many students chose to investigate it. Time and time again, individual students and I came to the same conclusion. The cinema of fear may serve a warning, but it also teaches surrender. And so does horror.

So horror may be an ineffective response to anxiety and crisis on the part of the audience. They flock to see it again and again, eagerly hoping for “death-rebirth” and catharsis; yet waiting in vain. On a social level, the troubling consequences of horror movies is that they create spellbound self-sufficient fictional worlds of masochistic pleasure, in which this horror world’s distorted meanings become the measure of all things, including reality. With one foot in this horror-world, there is no will left to fight when facing a real problem.

Horror’s “no-future” model is adverse to the exploration of possibilities. What happens with a self-organizing system when it creates an inquiry-model of the possible future?  It must internalize it to act on it. And what if this model responds in a robotic voice, “There is no future, only death”? Such a powerful signal, a signal system actually, would send the “structural order” to its end; it is a “stop being” command. Stop living.

To sum up: there is no cultural need behind, nor community-building or life-asserting function featured in, horror. If there is latent content that this form structurally conveys – it is a message “Surrender! Resistance is futile.”

Lily Alexander  has been teaching film, literature, media and screenwriting for fifteen years; the last ten years in New York, at NYU and CUNY. She received her masters in drama and film, and defended a dual doctorate in anthropology and comparative cultural studies, with an emphasis on narrative, in 1998. Alexander teaches her brand of courses, which uniquely combine theories of culture and storytelling with creative writing, hoping to enthuse new Tolkiens and Rowlings. Her most recent classes, at Hunter College, focus on world fairytale, folklore, myth, novel, short story, and science fiction as part of the framework of past and present storytelling practices. Alexander’s new book Fictional Worlds: Traditions in Narrative and the Age of Visual Culture was published in October 2013 (available on amazon.com). This text is also available in digital formats, as a set of Kindle books, and forthcoming as a set of iBooks for the apple platform. The four books of the digital sets are titled, Fictional Worlds I: The Symbolic Journey & The Genres SystemFictional Worlds II: Dramatic Characters & Dramatic ActionFictional Worlds III: Tragedy & Mystery; and Fictional Worlds IV: Comedy & the Extraordinary. Her website is storytellingonscreen.com. Email: contact (at) storytellingonscreen.com. Comments and questions are welcome.

 

Why Do Humans Tell the Stories They Do: An Interview with Lily Alexander (Part Four)

How might a reliance on mythic structures be vital in a world of transmedia stories?

I suggest that as part of the ritual-mythological system, itself a component of symbolic and modeling processes, mythic stories are useful in facilitating the adjustment of individuals, families, groups, and society at large. By means of storytelling, they provide exciting “settings” and “characters,” timeless and wondrous landscapes, and a bountiful choice of magic beings. Mythic-ritual structures can be very powerful in aiding the meaning-making process – our construction of current symbolic maps of the world – by employing, recombining and reinterpreting familiar mythic images.

However, an “evolution” of terms would be helpful. What used to be termed (and rightfully criticized as) “mythic structures,” was renamed and redefined by Turner and his school of symbolic anthropology as dominant symbols (as a result of collaborative field work, rather than the work of armchair philosophers), and later as dominant symbolic processes (Turner’s functionalist approach redefined all symbols as processes), and even more precisely as a system of ritual-symbolic processes. Mythology is part of such processes.

If we were to consider myths as a set of static or “frozen images” (as Eisenstein suggested could be employed to underscore visual irony), unrelated to specific time, they would have merely a “decorative” or “entertaining” effect on new stories or games, hence a quite superficial significance. Even worse, they could be used to fool us and “pretend” to be part of a true adventure.

In the study of “mythic structures” I argue that outdated approaches must give way to newer methodologies developed over the last sixty years. I consider myth as part of a symbolic process, change, functionality in/for society, and never-ending activities of re-interpretation and meaning-making. I suggest that myths may even be the substance of which our templates of hypothetical realities are made; they may have a biosemantic significance.

If we grasp the relationship between myth and process/change – viewing mythological symbolism in the context of society, how it can function to mediate the needs and conflicts of one’s historical time, and how societal crises affect the interpretation of key symbols – then we can make mythic structures work in full force for us in storytelling media, optimizing society and its ever-changing challenges and needs.

Much recent writing discusses the tensions which occur between the activities of world-building and traditional forms of storytelling. What relationship are you positing between worlds and stories?

These are relationships of mutual dependence, of a Mobius band type. I understand that media scholars today may emphasize the “autonomy” of world-building from the story. I accept this as a polemical stance, a hyperbola meant to attract attention to a new phenomenon. Yet, while world-building exists today in novel forms and on a new scale, it is not a new phenomenon, but an activity rooted in ancient cultural practices of humankind. I strongly believe that there can be no effective use for a fictional world without a story. A story is a call for “Action” for the “world”-screenplay (to use a movie set metaphor). The story is what activates the world, and lets it unfold.

Consider the entrances and the trigger-points of some notable fictional worlds. From the moment of their introduction to us, these worlds experience a loss of balance because of a disastrous event. In The Odyssey, a young husband is drafted into the army and must leave his family, perhaps forever. Alice loses equilibrium and falls into a wonderworld, through the “underworld.” So does Dorothy, but by means of a violent twister, propelling her through the air. Harry Potter leaves home for a school of magic – his risky adventures are fated. In The Lord of the Rings, evil forces threaten to rob various human and human-like species of their shared Homeworld. The Enterprise is always crossing boundaries into dangerous Unknowns, where “no man has gone before.”

Besides planting flowers in gardens along diligently-mapped rivers of newly-built worlds, something should happen so that this picture-perfect world comes alive and gears up for defense. In the most influential cases, we are invited into fictional worlds when change is about to threaten their foundations. We are astonished, feel sympathy, and eagerly look for solutions alongside their anxious populations.

Fictional worlds are rarely invented out of leisure, perhaps only in poems. A “harmonious” wonderland would hardly sustain a story. Wonderworlds are created to underscore trouble within Homeworlds, and to explore their symbolic “loss of balance.” Fictional World-Building is a Homeworld Improvement, inseparable from World-Saving. Such a feat often begins with one hero on a journey, who must transform himself in order to understand a problem and rescue his world.

A fictional world is a template of a possible future. We can only assess such a hypothetic reality by testing it in action, giving it a stress-test. We must observe what is happening within it at moments of conflict/crisis; what the outcomes might be; and what resources such a template possesses for problem-solving. Only then can we determine the essence of this fictional world-model, and decide if it provides a “good future” for us.

Fictional worlds are also dramas: the need to “build” them is an “alert response” to social breaches and other emerging forms of dangerous disequilibria, to hidden troubles which even wise elders cannot foresee. Fictional world-building is always a reaction to (latent) crisis. Dystopia – a form of tragedy displaying not merely a hero’s peril, but the entire community on the edge of survival – is a “negative” model showing outcomes we must avoid. Our dystopian world-building insists that we must try to fix a problem in the present, so that we may heal the future.

When it comes to the stories of ordinary people, whether in realism or fairytale, fictional worlds are always realms of survival. They are invariably wonderlands of possibilities and infinite choices. The more constrained social conditions are in reality, the more imaginative, intricate and unapologetic are the gifts of “second chances” in Wonderworlds. These much-needed fictional worlds are also very “motherly,” as if the she-goddess Mother-Nature is in charge; expectedly they are empathetic and compassionate. Assisted by all sorts of magic helpers – from Fate, smart aliens, strange coincidences, and the Fairy God-Mother with cooperative mice, to the art of pathos and reverse pathos provided by ritual wailers and modern-day storytellers on-screen – fictional worlds emerge as a support system and a template for the future, created by people like us, mass-men and women.

Unsurprisingly, these magic carpet-like fictional worlds are woven out of lanes and crossroads of infinite chances. Any pit can be avoided by pulling oneself up by the bootstraps; jails have tunnels leading toward the outside world of freedom; underdogs and orphans get lucky and become useful and proud women and men. Such stories/parables always close with hard-earned happy endings, and with justice and everyone’s dignity restored.

While I highlight the fact that the connection between worlds and stories is profound, the variable dynamics between them is very interesting too. The fictional worlds can be viewed as sites of “forever interaction” – places with no end in time, into which new visitors/heroes can step, and where their new stories can take place. This is clearly a mythic timeless dimension.

Conversely, a story is a segment, based on the cause-and-effect principle, happening in linear time, with time progression, which demonstrates a phase transition with some sort of reversal (Aristotle’s “from bad to good” or “from good to bad”). We expect to witness the transformation of a character, and of a (social) situation. In the process, some in the cast of characters change, so too do some in the audience.

What do these two systems – worlds and stories – have in common? Cycles. These are temporary segments with endings, which always repeat themselves. So it is expected that into fictional worlds ever-newer protagonists will go, repeating the hero’s journey and feats, embarking on new adventures and acquiring new wisdom. However, each individual story-event is different and each heroic feat is not a feat/shift if it does not “change the world.”

Even when we have a cycle of hurricanes, each season is different, causing diverse effects; as is the summer harvest – one year is more fruitful than another. While cycles are repetitions, they also ensure a shift; the fictional world must gradually change, experiencing the impact of each Journeying hero and his/her team. The story/world dichotomy, at the very interesting junction between conceptions of linear and non-linear time, affects many phenomena of interest to narratology, anthropology and media theory, such as storytelling on-screen and on-stage, fandom, videogames, and transmedia.

Much contemporary writing on world-building emphasizes the act of imagination involved in building worlds from scratch, but your approach would seem to focus on the ways that storytellers rely on a shared vocabulary drawn from their culture’s pasts. Would it be better to think of this process in terms of rebuilding fictional worlds?

The current “age of adaptation” (Linda Hutcheon) signals our need to interact with, and re-build, worlds already in place in our collective imagination. This activity was already noticeable in the Renaissance (the word means “re-birth, reviving, restoring”), as well as in Romanticism and Modernism. Perhaps earlier: the Romans re-configured Greek culture in their own mythology, switching names, i.e. Zeus to Jupiter and Aphrodite to Venus. Even strikingly original contemporary worlds are subconscious responses to, and debates with, worlds of the past.

Nesting dolls – nesting worlds – emerging one out of another, created by previous eras’ imaginations are an interesting image-model. People may think they are designing fictional worlds “from scratch” because they don’t consciously acknowledge their own ancient stories and myths; yet their subconscious selves remember – and so it seems “from scratch.” Usually re-combinations of already known image-symbols are mobilized in new bold fusions (emerging from as early as the imagery of lullabies, as the magnificent animation Tale of Tales by Yuri Norstein suggests).

There is nothing wrong with the new creation having an umbilical cord connected to “forgotten” myths. Such work can still be groundbreaking and effective for a new era. Compare two stories of metamorphosis, for instance (one of myth’s typical plots). Both “remakes” are tragic-ironic. In one a man dies in an ass’s body (becomes a donkey), while another is turned into a giant insect (Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, or The Golden Ass versus Kafka’s The Metamorphosis). The difference is that one restores his human identity after numerous adventures, while the other has no adventures, just suffers a shameful isolation and never comes back as a man. A universal story of metamorphosis is rooted in early myth; but how differently do these remakes speak to their contemporaries, commenting with bitter sarcasm on the declining world of Antiquity and the Roman Empire, and later on Europe between two world wars.

In sum, I think nothing in culture can be made from scratch anymore. Consciously or not, we retrieve the memories of our favorite tales, which have “grown” out of previous mythic narratives, re-configured by new generations, with the composition altered, and the story elements recycled. I’d suggest that what is at work envelops an entire spectrum of combinations between the old and the new: we are in a state of the never-ending (ritual-symbolic) process of recreating, honoring, re-interpreting, rebuilding, fusing, making parody of, and creating – albeit from the same bricks – amazingly original, previously inconceivable, new worlds.

Examples of marvelously re-configured mythic worlds include some of my personal favorites: Roddenberry’s Star Trek: Next Generation; Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy; J.K. Rowling’s playful take on Celtic mythology and British literature in Harry Potter; Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, and Pan’s Labyrinth – multicultural neo-myths of the Spanish and Latin American traditions; the Japanese masters Akutagawa, Kurosawa and Miyazaki, with their brave insights on world narratives; and Ireland’s Joyce linking together Homer, Dante, Peter Pan and Modernism. Amadeus, Taxi Driver and Fight Club were “written” by the Russians Pushkin and Dostoevsky; while Hitchcock borrowed heavily from Shakespeare, the Baroque, the Romantics and the Expressionists. Such masters as Gogol, Kafka, Bulgakov, Borges, Marquez, and Cortazar generated an endless vibrant stream of magic realism. These re-configuring practices will become even more daring in the era of globalization, as storytellers increasingly borrow from each other’s national traditions.

It is not a question of how much old and how much new is in each emerging fictional world, or if it is created by the collective (oral tradition) or an individual (great author), but what elements and vital building blocks of imagery we need to make our “models of possible futures” be functional and effective. And in what order they should be linked together, to maintain life-asserting architectonics.

Thus, I would prefer “world-building” rather than “rebuilding,” because regardless of the building blocks, any original and effective fictional world is a unique “possible world” or template of a “hypothetical future,” a new and necessary addition to modeling systems. Each fictional world, if it is to be compelling, has its own unique function in fine-tuning and optimizing a specific society at a given historical time, addressing a new set of unresolved problems.

Lily Alexander  has been teaching film, literature, media and screenwriting for fifteen years; the last ten years in New York, at NYU and CUNY. She received her masters in drama and film, and defended a dual doctorate in anthropology and comparative cultural studies, with an emphasis on narrative, in 1998. Alexander teaches her brand of courses, which uniquely combine theories of culture and storytelling with creative writing, hoping to enthuse new Tolkiens and Rowlings. Her most recent classes, at Hunter College, focus on world fairytale, folklore, myth, novel, short story, and science fiction as part of the framework of past and present storytelling practices. Alexander’s new book Fictional Worlds: Traditions in Narrative and the Age of Visual Culture was published in October 2013 (available on amazon.com). This text is also available in digital formats, as a set of Kindle books, and forthcoming as a set of iBooks for the apple platform. The four books of the digital sets are titled, Fictional Worlds I: The Symbolic Journey & The Genres SystemFictional Worlds II: Dramatic Characters & Dramatic ActionFictional Worlds III: Tragedy & Mystery; and Fictional Worlds IV: Comedy & the Extraordinary. Her website is storytellingonscreen.com. Email: contact (at) storytellingonscreen.com. Comments and questions are welcome.