Kids on YouTube: An Interview with Patricia Lange (Part One)

Not long after I launched this blog, I featured an interview with Mimi Ito and the graduate students from USC and Berkeley who worked with her on the Digital Youth Project. One of the first projects funded by the MacArthur Digital Media and Learning Initiative, this project did a large scale,multi-site ethnography to try to understand mechanisms of informal learning and the contexts where young people were encountering digital media. From this research came the now classic typography of “Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out” to describe different modes of engagement in and through networked technologies, a framework which has now informed everything from the design of public libraries to the development of curriculum.

Looking retrospectively, Ito and her co-P.I., the late Peter Lyman, had assembled and shaped a team of some of the top digital scholars of their generation, as becomes clearer as they have begun to publish their solo works. I was lucky enough to have gotten to know many of them through their work on this project and to have maintain contact with them through the years, watching them develop their own distinctive strands of research.

Later this month, Patricia Lange, one member of the Digital Youth team, publishes her first solo book,  Kids on YouTube: Technical Identities and Digital Literacies. I recall having her interview me for her video blog after one of my very first meetings with this group; she later shared with me a rough cut of a documentary she produced about the culture of video-blogging, and more recently, she’s shared drafts of the chapters for what has become an outstanding book about how childhood and parenting is playing out differently in an era of video sharing and other forms of participatory culture.

Patricia Lange’s Kids on YouTube raises important issues about the ways that our current participatory media practices intersect contemporary family life and help to shape the ways that young people form their sense of themselves and the world around them. Through vividly drawn accounts of the roles which media-making and sharing plays in the lives of particular families, Lange convincingly demonstrates why these activities matter in terms of fostering new literacies, enabling new social relationships, and sustaining new forms of civic engagement.

Lange has immersed herself into this culture of video production and sharing, asking core questions, and making contributions to central critical debates around participatory culture, connected learning, the risks and rewards of online publishing, the hacker ethos, gender and technology, and the development of young citizens, all of which she speaks to in the course of this extended interview.

 

We first met through your work on the Digital Youth Project. Looking backwards, this project’s report, Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out, has proven to be a landmark in the emergence of the Digital Media and Learning movement. Reflecting backwards, what do you see as the legacy of this project and what impact did it have on your own intellectual development?

The Digital Youth Project was a joint effort between teams of researchers at the University of Southern California and the University of California, Berkeley who were interested in studying informal learning in digital environments. Participating in the Digital Youth project was truly an honor. I am deeply grateful to the MacArthur Foundation, and to Mimi Ito and Peter Lyman, whose vision about reformulating education through informal learning inspired the research. I think the Digital Youth Project reinforced the benefits of teamwork in conducting contemporary research in digital environments. The researchers came from many different backgrounds, and that brought advantages and challenges. But it was interesting to compare the findings of numerous projects operating under one research umbrella.

Media ecologies are complex and shifting, and it is instructive to know, are the findings gleaned by studying any particular set of technologies or websites limited to those sites, or are there patterns that reach across different theoretical lenses, methodological approaches, technological platforms, and research populations? This amazing project gave us the opportunity to explore those questions in a way that is more difficult when researchers are conducting separate projects on their own.

It was also quite exciting to see our research applied to the design of educational efforts such as the YOUmedia after school space in the Harold Washington Library Center in downtown Chicago. Drawing on the findings of the Digital Youth report, the YOUmedia space acknowledges the way that youth engage in varied ways with media and technology.

Our report found that kids’ engagements range from casual, socially-motivated encounters to highly-geeked out ways of making media. Recent reports in the media seem unaware of how academics contribute to the design and improvement of everyday spaces and processes. I am proud of this implementation of our research and I am hopeful that these and other spaces that draw on our research may facilitate the kinds of educational change that many of us in the field of informal learning are trying to re-imagine.

The project began by focusing on the rubric of “digital youth.” At that time, it was obvious that kids and youth were growing up with a range of technologies that even the younger members of the team did not have access to in their own childhoods. However, as the project progressed and was completed, it became quite clear that “digital youth” were quite a varied bunch. Not all digital youth were created equally. While operating under this rubric, the research also simultaneously challenged it, which I think is also an important legacy of the project.

My project on YouTube pushed back on conceptions of “digital natives.” It became apparent that kids exhibited vastly different media dispositions with regard to how comfortable they felt sharing videos of themselves to the world. Further, my analysis of how people perform affiliation to technologies showed dramatic variation in terms of family background in technical expertise, kids’ interest in technology, and professional aspirations.

Terms such as “digital natives” imply that all kids are equally well versed in all technologies, and such was not the case in my study. In the same household, an older brother may be far more technically-oriented than a younger brother, and in some cases, it was technically savvy parents who encouraged kids to develop video blogging skills. Yet, not all kids adopted their parents’ enthusiasm for messing around with computers and creating videos. Some kids’ outright rejection of their parents’ video interests severely challenge the concept of kids’ digital autochthony. Not all kids emerge into the world ready to make videos in a seriously geeky way, and making that assumption is problematic for creating strategies to nurture diverse youth’s digital skills and interests.

I also observed bifurcated technological skills. Some kids even saw themselves as being so much more expert than some of their peers that it was difficult to mentor their less tech-savvy friends. They did not even share basic technical vocabulary, which led to a break down in informal learning opportunities. Wide gaps in technical abilities in kids urge us to question and challenge how ageist rubrics obscure the investigation of important nuances that could be instrumental in improving informal learning dynamics, which are not guaranteed to work simply because they occur among peers.

For me, one of legacies of the Digital Youth Project was to show the advantages of challenging and even pushing back on initial research rubrics, and questioning their assumptions. The project reinforced the idea that it is advantageous to ask critical questions about any research paradigm one is operating under at a given time. Rather than wait till the project is over, it is reasonable to keep an open-mind as research is being conducted. I believe the project models how it is possible and desirable to step back, even during the research process, and question a rubric while simultaneously contributing to it in a fundamental way. These kinds of self-reflective questions are challenging but ultimately healthy.

 

In your introduction, you challenge some of the established categories we use to talk about these forms of productions — including the notion of “amateur”, “grassroots,” and “Home Mode Media.” Instead, you propose a category of “personally expressive media.” What do you see as some of the limits of these more familiar categories? Why do you put such an emphasis on “personal expression”?

Years ago, Robert Stebbins (1980) wrote extensively about how “amateur” and “professional” categories are not as neatly divided as they are often assumed to be. Although he was writing generally about amateurism and professionalism and not media creation, his lessons apply in the video realm as well. We need to dust off our Stebbins and reacquaint ourselves with his ideas! Failure to do so risks aligning researchers with media discourses that seek to minimalize so-called “vernacular” accomplishments.

During my investigation, I saw a kaleidoscopic of media ontologies. In other words, videos came from many different people with a variety of backgrounds and skills. For example, I interviewed a former television producer, Ryanne Hodson, who was a champion of video blogging. She believed that making videos was another type of literacy that people should cultivate in order to spread their message. What status should her video blogs have?

She was quite literate in professional media production, but her personal blog was not operating in a professional context. She had control over her own video blog which was not produced under the auspices of traditional media institutions.

How should we categorize the work of teenagers whose family members had attended film school, or had family members who had a television show on a local cable access station? Are these creators operating in some kind of vernacular innocence? No they are not. I found that the amateur/professional divide became slippery and not particularly helpful for understanding people’s phenomenological experiences of their mediated moments of video creation.

“Home mode” is another category that is often misunderstood in research. When anthropologist Richard Chalfen (1987) initially introduced it, he was attempting to address a gap in the anthropological record on everyday media. Many people tend to wildly over-generalize anything they see on YouTube as “home mode,” because it was made at home or with friends. But home mode referred to a specific type of intimate media that was made for a relatively small group. People who made the media knew who were in the pictures and vice versa, generally speaking.

But examining his work more carefully shows that Chalfen bracketed out anyone who was trying to distribute his or her media to widespread audiences. He specifically stated that he was not interested in media created in camera clubs, or in academic settings, or by anyone else with aspirations to become more knowledgeable about making media. His research had an important theoretical purpose; it made sense to study everyday media makers at home who did not have professional or even advanced amateur aspirations.

But the people studied under the Digital Youth project, and in my study of Kids on YouTube varied tremendously with regard to their goals, skills, and what I refer to as their media dispositions. Some of them loved making videos with a passion, while others found it simply odd to make videos to show to the world. Some people may have captured home gaffes and put them online with the intention of becoming a YouTube partner and trying to make money with their “innocent” videos.

Rather than attempt to adjudicate complex questions of amateur/professional media ontologies using arbitrary criteria, I found it more useful to see this media as a form of personal expression that might shift status within and across attention and money-making economies. A video maker’s status might also depend upon their dispositions and future desires with what they hoped to gain by making media.

My research goal was to find some way of talking about media with complex or ever-shifting ontological statuses in ways that did not pre-judge videos. Such divisions are often used to minimize so-called vernacular abilities and elevate professional statuses, a binary discourse which simply does not theoretically hold when analyzing media made by so many different people, who often have direct experience of or are influenced by knowledgeable mentors in professional media-making contexts. Exploring how and to what degree people were able to develop skills to convey their personal message seemed to be a far more fruitful project.

 

 

Patricia G. Lange is an Anthropologist and Assistant Professor of Critical Studies at California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco. Recognized as an expert in studies of new media and YouTube, her work focuses on technical identity performance and use of video to creatively express the self. Her new book (Left Coast Press, Forthcoming, 2014) is called Kids on YouTube: Technical Identities and Digital Literacies, which draws on a two-year, deeply engaged ethnographic project on YouTube and video bloggers to explore how video is used in informal learning environments. She also released her ethnographic film, Hey Watch This! Sharing the Self Through Media (2013), which was recently accepted for screening in Paris at Ethnografilm, an international film festival showcasing films that visually depict social worlds.Hey Watch This! provides a unique diachronic look at the rise and fall of YouTube as a social media site, and offers a poignant look at how YouTubers envision their digital legacies after their deaths. At CCA, she teaches courses in anthropology of technology; digital cultures; new media and civic engagement; space, place and time; and ethnography for design. Prior to joining CCA, she was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. More information may be found on her websites:https://www.cca.edu/academics/faculty/plange and patriciaglange.org.

Why Do We Need to “Understand” Fans?: A Conversation with Mark Duffett (Part Four)

There remains a strong emphasis within fan studies on issues of gender and sexuality, not to mention generation, yet there is still relatively limited focus on issues of race. One consequence is that the “whiteness” of fandom is often taken for granted, with very few examples here of the practices associated with fans of color. How might we expand current paradigms of fan studies to deal more fully with race or be more inclusive of diverse kinds of fan tastes and interests?

In the book’s conclusion I mention that there is much more work on fandom and race. There is a danger here, though, that we might essentialize “fans of color” and their practices, creating a kind of academic segregation by default. Instead, there are ways to explore fandom and race that might lead the discussion in fruitful directions.

The first is to explore fandom’s multiple implications within what we might reductively call “the colonial project.” After all, it is a type of blindness not to deal with race within its historical context of colonialism, production and labour. It would be a mistake here to see wider issues of identity and consumption as fully falling outside those concerns. Collecting has always been a means of defining identity. What therefore happened in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when electronic media became the context within which such practices were defined? Fans operated from within the orientalist ideologies that defined the colonial and postcolonial era. I have not seen very much work like this, but I think it would be interesting to explore the orientalism at play within fans’ collections of ‘exotic’ artefacts or ‘exoticized’ media genres.

A second approach might involve examining the implication of fandom within specific racial or ethnic cultures. Blackface, in its later incarnations, is an obvious example here. Researchers like Eric Lott have made clear that it was a mode of performance primarily organized to define whiteness. It continued in its vestigial forms into many of our own lifetimes. To identify as a fan of blackface was necessarily to implicate oneself in racial terms. Equally, we might explore dimensions of racial ownership around things like the chitlin’ circuit. How did fandom function within on-going histories of race relations, as a way to express ethic or racial identities at particular junctures?

A third way of examining race in the context of fandom is to examine moments when race made a difference within particular fan cultures. How are fans of a particular background treated when they constitute a minority with a particular fan culture? What does that say about perceptions of the object or the ethics of the fan community? Should, for example, one’s status as a ‘black Doctor Who fan’ always be a point of discussion? To what extent are people actively using fan cultures for particular objects as ways to build or deny inter-racial alliances? The recent discussion in the journal Transformative Works about racism in cosplay was instructive there.

Also, to what extent it unproductively generalizing and essentialist to explore why particular ethnic groups claim ownership over certain fan objects, some of which at first appear unconnected with their specific cultures? We can generate hypotheses at least, for example that Morrissey’s Chicano fans connect with his Anglo-Irish status as a white ‘outsider,’ but such theories hold absolutely no weight until they are subjected to thorough empirical assessment.

 

A final direction for the study of race and fandom might be to consider the racial implications of fandoms based around racially controversial objects. For example, how do the fans of the vulgar contemporary blackface performer Shirley Q. Liquor see the racial connotations of their object? This kind of research is a rather thorny area; using unsolicited material might give us some traction.


You suggest that academics writing about fandom often have a very static conception, not doing research on how people become fans or for that matter, how specific fandoms emerge. What do you see as some possible steps towards addressing these questions?

The answer to your query has two possible directions: one for collective communities and the other for personal fan passions.

The emergence of specific communities and fandoms is amenable to historical study. A substantial number of younger researchers still see the online world of the present as the main place to research fandom, but I expect to see more of this historicizing work as fan studies further expands as a field. In consequence, we might then be able to start developing a more elaborate understanding of the history of media fandom itself. To set the ball rolling we need a greater historicization of fandoms specifically as living cultures, communities that go through periods of expansion and decline. There has been some interesting recent work on this, including your piece for Boom about the San Diego Comic-Con.

The question of how people become fans is still something of an elephant in the room for fan studies. There may be some scope there for a project comparing ‘becoming a fan’ stories. As I explain my book, however, serious methodological obstacles await anyone who uses such material to explain the emergence of personal fandom. Longitudinal studies of individual fans – even autobiographic or auto-ethnographic ones – always have a reflexive, ex post facto element. People can keep diaries, but fandom is hard to anticipate. Serial or genre fans who predictably move from one object to the next are already fans in a sense, so their personal stories are not the same as those of new fans.

As new fans progress through the process of initiation, they change their perspective and commitment. Self-reporting afterward is not going to create the same data as might be collected ‘live’ at each stage. Asking individuals who already keep diaries to reveal their contents during phases of first initiation would move the question forward, but such individuals were not primed to talk about things that might help to address theoretical concerns. It is quite a thorny issue, but we need to start addressing it to fully understand fandom.

You write at the end of the book, “a master theory of fandom may never be found, but it remains a worthy goal to understand the phenomenon as a special bundle of processes that interact in contingent ways.” How does this push for a more general theory of fandom relate to the push, elsewhere in the book, for ever more particular accounts of specific kinds of fans and fan practices?

The concern that you raise here is in some ways like squaring a circle, because fan studies has expanded so rapidly as a field. Media technology has continually changed. More researchers have become interested. New fandoms and new ways of pursuing fandom have sprung up. Empirical work on fandom has now rather exploded. Beyond this, Understanding Fandom was deliberately rich in detail because I was disappointed by some other media textbooks: volumes that were well organized but rather low on information.

Because the value of some recent work is yet to be decided by history, the world of textbooks moves a bit slower that the field that they discuss. Although articles are referenced in Understanding Fandom and sometimes discussed quite extensively, I focused quite deliberately on the ‘classic’ texts of fan studies. My hope was to get a balance between theory and empirical detail, especially when particular examples could further illuminate theoretical concerns and point a way forward.

The challenge of creating a textbook is to be able to frame the work that has been done, and – ideally – explain a bit about what is missing or offer some fresh perspectives. One of the things that seemed missing to me from fan studies was much discussion about celebrity-following. I hope that the book begins a dialogue that will encourage us to widen our scope a little further, beyond a focus on fan practices and communities to think more carefully about on fan motivations. Of course, ‘textual’ fans follow auteurs and celebrity actors, so celebrity-following is a practice or set of practices, not a separate set of fandoms, but it is a practice that forces us to think about the “why” of fandom, not just the “how.”

The fascinating thing about media fandom, for me, remains that it affectively unites commercial culture, individual subjectivity and collective empowerment. My aim with Understanding Fandom was to explain it in an ethical way that might connect research on practices with a wider spectrum, if you like, of work on representations, identities and processes.

Mark Duffett is a Senior Lecturer in media and cultural studies at the University of Chester with research interests spanning fandom and popular music culture. As well as publishing Understanding Fandom (Bloomsbury, 2013), he guest edited a recent special edition of the journal Popular Music and Society, and also edited a Routledge book called Popular Music Fandom(2013) which featured chapters by Cornel Sandvoss, Joli Jensen and Matt Hills. In 2010 he organized an International Symposium on music fandom at Chester and was keynote speaker in 2012 at the MARS music conference in Finland. He is currently writing a book on Elvis Presley for the Equinox Press series, Icons of Popular Music, and co-organizing an April 2014 international conference on rock music and love in Montpellier.

 

Why Do We Need to “Understand”Fans?: A Conversation with Mark Duffett (Part Three)

There has been ongoing tension in recent years over researchers who are interested in understanding the personal motivations of individual fans (who may have no strong social connections with other fans) and those who are studying fandom as a specific subcultural community with its own traditions, norms, and hierarchies. How do you negotiate this conflict in writing your account?

With respect, I think that the question begins from a false polarity. It is not so much that we have personal fandom on one side and the fan community on the other. Rather, we share in a conceptual separation of the private and public sphere that was never fully sustained in an age of electronic media and is even harder to discern in the digital era. If we can start to understand that the public constitutes, invades or invalidates the private – and also that versions of the private can exist in public – then I think we can get much further in this discussion.

In relation to fandom, reconsidering the validity of the full distinction means devising and embracing concepts that conjoin or embrace both spheres. Our traditional tools have been limited there. Psychoanalysis and psychology offer quite powerful explanations of individual behavior that often, I think, start to break down when we make collective generalizations. Equally, the transformative works tradition offered a way out of previous intellectual dilemmas, but it did not come with a strong conception of why individual people become fans (except, perhaps, as a kind of communitarian, ethical act).

If we ignore commonly circulating (public) assumptions that audience members take up, in some ways I think that fandom still appears to begin as a ‘private,’ personal interest – a kind of autonomous statement of personal conviction – but it can then become the basis of public collective activity. The question for researchers is how to think in ways that reduce the distinctions between private and public to order to approximate real life.

As a label, fandom broadly began as a way to define groups of people who built their identities around media consumption. Because fandom is, socially, about our passions and declarations of subjective interest, it has become a way to personally express oneself. Unfortunately, it has also become a term of abuse for our shared fascination with the products of commercial culture.

However, I don’t think that all humans are born fans. My humanity is more essential than my fandom, but what does that mean? I’d locate my fandom as a human response to a social and economic system that hijacks, reconfigures and transforms human relationships. What that means is that there’s no need – other than image management – to (re)locate fans as creative, political, active or social; all human beings have those qualities.

Rather than thinking about how we might redeem fandom socially by seeing fans as redeeming texts, I’d rather locate fandom as a set of human, social relationships emergent in an industrialized era of electronic mediation: an era where we electronic traces of others can prompt our emotional experiences. From that perspective, fandom is a form of human chemistry pursued within a context where it inevitably gets alienated, amplified and shaped or directed.

There is a danger that in talking about ‘human chemistry’ we are liable to essentialize arbitrarily posited needs. However, I think there are some absolute basics that we can talk about, like the idea that generally we like company and want to feel socially-valued as people, or that we appreciate great creativity. These are universal needs that happen to be expressed within fandom.

I’d therefore see the genesis of fandom – sympathetically – as an ideological process. Rather than suggesting that fandom is something that begins completely in private, it is important to remember that we all carry notions of the audience as a collective entity. When we watch someone on screen, we know that others are watching them too. In the case of live studio audiences, we can see actually them, but they are always implicitly there.

Unlike some of my colleagues, I don’t think that the Internet age has fully ended this kind of collectivization; by lowering the barriers of entry to public debate it may have allowed many of us find a low level of celebrity, but it has also created important new indices of mass popularity (YouTube hits, Twitter followers, etc). As a personally recognized, individual conviction, fandom begins within this context of our individual understanding of the wider audience. So, even if we consume and become fans in private, we are always in the matrix of something much more communal.

Indeed, when we are convinced by a performance, we are likely to know that others are convinced too. We recognize our connection with a dedicated fraction of the audience and locate ourselves as part of “the fandom” or “the fanbase.” This means, conceptually, that we don’t fully begin in private and go public. Instead, we always have assumptions about the public and our relationship to it.

Beyond thinking carefully about our prior understanding of audiencehood and concurrent notions of the fanbase, there are several other ways that I attempt to conceptualize that unified private-public fannish self in the book. One is the notion of a “knowing field,” which I’d locate as a kind of phenomenology of participation in the fanbase. This idea posits fannish conviction as a shared inner territory of emotional certainty: suggesting “knowing” almost in the carnal or mystical sense, rather than simply holding a stock of appropriate knowledge.

The “knowing field” becomes something that, as fans, we enter and/or move across, which I suppose makes it quite similar to Cornel Sandvoss’s notion of Heimat, the difference being that Sandvoss understands Heimat more through its linkage to personal safety or self-esteem. The idea of “knowing field” is more about conviction and does not posit psychological foundations, at least in the same way. You have sometimes located fandom as a kind of equivalent to sexual identity: inner, perhaps essentially felt, based on desire. I’d also see it, perhaps, as a bit like patriotism: a recognition of emotional commitment to something that we also know is shared with others.

A second bridging idea is to think about Durkheim’s notion of totemism: although not all fandom is the same or a secular substitute for religion, I do think that Durkheim’s notion of totemism can explain quite a lot about fannish motivations in relation to the the power associated with celebrities. Totems are foci of collective attention who gesturally return the energy of collective attention back to their individual followers through personal one to one transactions. The idea says quite a lot about notions of fame and human aura. It makes some sense to say that celebrity-following fandoms are an extension of totemism as a human process of attachment organized in a media age.

Another bridging concept I introduce in the book is the idea that we share “imagined memories” to describe socially prized moments of performance. Each imagined memory is based on a thing you wished you had experienced, but never did, like, say, being at Woodstock. It is not exactly a fantasy, because it really did happen to someone else. However, it is not your memory either, because it happened to someone else. By valorization in the media and more precisely in the narrative of history, it is therefore a kind of fantasy that authenticates itself as something like a memory.

The term points to the paucity of phrases like ‘cultural memory’ in describing the mediated past: for a few people these memories are real enough (although, even for them, the memories have been inflected by the subsequent story of the event). Imagined memories only matter because of what came after them and are therefore spaces of emotional investment that are necessarily contradictory. In a sense, then, they are commodity templates: they are both made to matter by stories and characterized by their own rarity value (not everyone has the ‘real’ memory). This is precisely why they become starting points for further commodities (media documentaries, heritage tourism, anniversaries, re-enactments, etc).

Each of those concepts – the “knowing field,” totemism, imagined memories – is deliberately partial and open enough to account for variety; each has its share of flaws, but does attempt to get beyond an artificially separated public and private sphere and to chart a course between personal and collective fandom. They attempt to talk about power, affect and communality without recourse to the usual generalizations.

Throughout, there’s an emphasis on exploring fandom as a “performed” identity rather than as a natural or essential one. What do we gain by this focus? What are some of the ways and contexts through which fan identity gets performed?

I do question essentialism in the book, but I’m not sure that I entirely replace it with performance. Personal fandom is, in my view, something that is neither essential nor, exactly, performed: it is not at the root of one’s very being, but it does begin as something internal.

When I talk about fannish subjectivity, I tend to locate its origin in a form of self-recognition (a kind of “I realized I was a fan…”): an inner recognition of connection and subjective fit rather than an outer attempt to persuade anyone else. However, I know that performative elements come into play once we start to look at social communications. I am therefore partly reporting on what existing writers like Matt Hills have said – performance, after all, is something that shows fans are active.

Beyond that explanation, I also think that we could do with more bridging concepts. The term “performers” is used quite a lot in the book to allow me to keep the register open and not narrow down to specifically speak about fan objects as “actors” or “singers.” Performance is, nevertheless, a powerful perspective precisely because it has the potential to easily make connections between our existing repertoire of ideas.

If used it with understanding, it allows us to begin mediating between issues of textuality, spectacle, identity, communication, empirical situatedness, temporality and history, creativity, agency, style and affect – all of which are relevant, I think, to discussing fandom. How can one discuss cosplay, for instance, without talking about performance?

One of the issues here, though, is that performance studies research has been seen as a separate scholarly tradition emerging from theatre studies and slowly integrating itself with cultural studies approaches. Scholars like Phil Auslander are beginning to integrate that tradition with the study of media cultures.

 Mark Duffett is a Senior Lecturer in media and cultural studies at the University of Chester with research interests spanning fandom and popular music culture. As well as publishing Understanding Fandom (Bloomsbury, 2013), he guest edited a recent special edition of the journal Popular Music and Society, and also edited a Routledge book called Popular Music Fandom(2013) which featured chapters by Cornel Sandvoss, Joli Jensen and Matt Hills. In 2010 he organized an International Symposium on music fandom at Chester and was keynote speaker in 2012 at the MARS music conference in Finland. He is currently writing a book on Elvis Presley for the Equinox Press series, Icons of Popular Music, and co-organizing an April 2014 international conference on rock music and love in Montpellier.

Why Do We Need to “Understand” Fans?: A Conversation with Mark Duffett (Part Two)

You argue here that anti-fandom is not necessarily always a totally outsider or oppositional perspective, that under some circumstances, the industry or individual performers actively “invite” the anti-fan response. At first glance, this may seem counter-intuitive since the industry clearly hopes to attract the largest number of consumers. So, what are some of the reasons why producers might court or encourage anti-fan responses?

The idea that the industry hopes to attract the largest number of consumers assumes a monolithic entity (the media industry) with one market place and one audience, ignoring notions of consumer targeting or niche marketing.

This is one of the areas where popular music studies might productively contribute. I cite Bob Dylan as a clear example of invited anti-fandom in the book. Courting controversy has been both a catalyst for publicity and a form of audience segmentation, particularly in rock. Controversies have expressed social change at certain points in time and have also been a familiar part of the production process. From around 1956 to 1976, some of the most commercially successful music was based on the idea of a generation gap that articulated, at its mildest, a kind of autonomy and permissiveness, and at its extreme represented a push towards obscenity. Allusions to sexual debauchery became a genre convention in rock and the knowing evocation of moral opposition was characteristic of whole subgenres – notably punk. Individual artists, from Jim Morrison and GG Allin to the Dayglo Abortions, continually at pushed the boundaries, sometimes without any other recognizable cultural project.

In his foreword to Understanding Fandom, Matt Hills seems to suggest that the process might be unique to popular music, but I am not so sure. Certain forms of exploitation or art cinema purposely push at boundaries and violate concerns, like Christianity, that groups in society hold dear. It’s clear that Srdjan Spasojevic’s movie A Serbian Film (2010), for instance, was designed to shock and provoke offence.

Perhaps what we need to think about the relationship between invited anti-fandom and different industrial regimes. One point here is that products that seem to deliberately evoke anti-fandom regularly go on to become ‘cult’ phenomena. Another is that parent corporations can treat them at arm’s length, signing independent producers to distribution-only deals so that they can skim profit but avoid the risk.

I don’t, therefore, fully see anti-fans as a kind of free-floating audience; perhaps they too can be ‘courted’ by the industry as a marketing strategy. Perhaps we can even talk about ‘anti-fanagement.’

You argue, at places here, that academics miss some of the picture when they define fans in relation to political ideologies or corporate interests, suggesting that fans are never simply compliant or oppositional, but rather fans are “relatively indifferent” to the industry. Explain.


Fans use economic mechanisms for cultural purposes, while media industries use culture for economic ends. Both parties interact and are, to some extent, merged. They each, however, have distinct priorities. Fans are inspired by media products, but their concerns and practices cannot – as the Fiskean tradition demonstrated – be reduced to industrial planning.

The words I use quite a lot to talk about fans and their concerns in relation to the media industries are “tangential” and “collusive.” By this I mean that fans can be relatively indifferent, co-operative or oppositional, depending on which fan culture we decide to examine and when we decide to examine it.

While I have no doubt that fans can act collectively as ethical communities, I also think that is a danger that we tend to forget the “business as usual” aspect of fandom – that television fans were, for instance, generally more interested in watching the final episode of Breaking Bad than contesting High Bridge / Sony Pictures. This does not mean that they were pawns in someone else’s game who bought into hype. It means they felt that the show spoke to them, they enjoyed it, and they were engaged by its narrative. They became fascinated and dedicated.

As I think you noted in Textual Poachers, such fans may well “rescue” a series after the network stops broadcasting it – although, of course, networks themselves now often help to facilitate that. So maybe there is a kind of goal towards which fans are heading that can be further facilitated, either by agents in the industry or those outside it.

I think, though, that because our academic traditions work to ignore or reject a focus on the enjoyment of commercial culture, we are in danger of forgetting that win-win situations are part of this spectrum of relationships. Rather than searching for the dramatic moments where fans contest media producers, to understand fandom it seemed a greater challenge to me to start providing non-generalizing, non-reductionist frameworks within which we might explain why fans are sometimes complicit in doing what they do.

I should add, however, that “business as usual” is not static and also includes fans organizing into communities, creating different factions, and acting collectively. I do not necessarily see it as a term that excludes group ethics or politics, but rather one that encompasses ordinary activities and motivations.

Mark Duffett is a Senior Lecturer in media and cultural studies at the University of Chester with research interests spanning fandom and popular music culture. As well as publishing Understanding Fandom (Bloomsbury, 2013), he guest edited a recent special edition of the journal Popular Music and Society, and also edited a Routledge book called Popular Music Fandom(2013) which featured chapters by Cornel Sandvoss, Joli Jensen and Matt Hills. In 2010 he organized an International Symposium on music fandom at Chester and was keynote speaker in 2012 at the MARS music conference in Finland. He is currently writing a book on Elvis Presley for the Equinox Press series, Icons of Popular Music, and co-organizing an April 2014 international conference on rock music and love in Montpellier.

Why Do We Need to “Understand” Fans?: A Conversation with Mark Duffett (Part One)

When I visited England two years ago, as part of my grand European tour, I was struck that there was a new generation of British cultural and media scholars, often the offspring of old friends such as Roberta Pearson, Will Brooker, Matt Hills, Nickianne Moody, Mark Jancovich,  Peter Kramer, and others, who were turning their attention to the study of fans and media audiences. Most of them are not yet well known on this side of the Atlantic, but they are posed to leave their marks, and they are voices we are going to be hearing more from in the years to come.

Mark Duffett was one of the many young scholars I met on this trip, and he’s recently published a significant new book, Understanding Fandom, which is intended as a textbook for fan studies classes. I am using it as one of the core texts for my own graduate seminar this term on fandom, participatory culture, and web 2.0. Duffett sets out to provide a critical overview of some of the core texts which have helped to define the study of fandom; as one of the writers he discusses at some length, I felt that he was asking hard questions about how this work has withstood the tests of time and the challenges of next generation scholarship but he approached them with fairness, nuance, and much greater attention to detail than most other writers bring to this subject. I did not always agree with what he had to say about some of the key issues in the field, but I was glad he was pushing the discussion to the next level, and I am eager to see how others in the field react to his formulations.

Beyond summing up what has already been done, though, he points us in some new directions — as Matt Hills suggests in his introduction to the book — and that’s where I’ve chosen to focus my attention in this interview. I learned a lot from reading his account, especially because he is not necessarily beholding to some of the false distinctions which have held our work hostage for so long. He offers a great illustration, for example, of how ideas drawn from the study of music and celebrity fans might be brought into active conversation with works that deal with cult television and transformative works, and I think what he has to say here about the divide between Fan Studies and Fandom Studies (which has often been both gendered and geographically and disciplinarily rooted) may offer some interesting directions forward for the field.

Mark’s publisher has been nice enough to offer us a free preview of the book.

There are sure to be debates sparked around some of the book’s findings, but this is a book that we all need to engage with as we think through the current state and future direction of fan studies. I know we will be hearing more from Mark and from his contemporaries amongst British fan scholars.

You spend a good chunk of time across the book nuancing and negating some of the negative stereotypes about fans that have concerned fan scholars from the beginnings of this field – among them, the idea of fandom as a religion or the fan as stalker. What justifies the continued emphasis on these negative constructions of fandom, given how much progress has been made within academia in constructing alternative understandings of some of these same phenomenon?

The short answer to that is that entry level students (as opposed to fan studies course graduates) still have to unlearn the stereotypes. Understanding Fandom was commissioned as a textbook, but I hope it’s also a critical discussion of the history of the field. I wanted it to be something that I could pass across to a competent student and say, “Here is what I know about the study of media fandom.” In my fandom seminar class every year I used to ask students to do some initial word association on the term “fan” just to see what was already in their heads. The same words and phrases repeatedly came up – things like “geek,” “cult,” “stalking” and “hysteria.”

Unfortunately, society has not fully given up on depressingly familiar ideas that equate fandom with obsession, extremity and emotional excess. In its six year life span, for instance, Chris Croker’s ‘Leave Britney Alone’ video has had 47 million hits on YouTube. Although the contemporary film and television producers tend to court avid fans as a market place, approaches to marginalized fandoms in the tabloid press have not changed a great deal. Even in the Internet era, they still influence popular understanding.

Judging by Facebook hate pages and other indications, modes of stereotyping that have traditionally been articulated against media fandom as a whole are now being used by specific fan cultures to marginalize those in other fandoms. Unfortunately, too, some of the less nuanced discussion of the academic material is also falling into a trap. Introducing the recent Radio 4 documentary Fan Power in November 2013, for instance, one presenter explained:”This program is about fans or fandoms, and whether being a fan is different now from how it used to be, and whether fandoms can be mobilized for political or social change. It’s not so much about Beliebers and Directioners and their crazy rivalries, but about what happens when fandoms turn their attention away from their idol to the real outside world.”

The introduction recalls the history of debate on media fandom by using a set of binaries: old (implicitly naive or consumerist) and new (savvy and activist) fan cultures, ‘crazy’ pop fanaticism and serious, mobilized fandom, distracted idol worship and the “real outside world.” The documentary’s introduction mirrors a tendency in fan studies, I think, to separate ‘worthy’ aspects (film and TV cult fandom, cultural productivity, text-based and literary interests, real world political activism) from unworthy ones: celebrity following, pop music, distraction, obsession, consumption… The logical extension here is that “outside world” politics matters and fandom is interesting only as its tool.

In the book I distinguished media fandom research – in its broadest sense – from fan studies. Research about fandom exists well beyond cultural studies and not all scholars are sympathetic with the Fiskean conception of fandom. Psychologists like Lynn McCutcheon have hypothesized connections between media fandom, “celebrity worship” and intellectual under-achievement. A student wishing to explore “extreme” fandom might come upon some of this less sympathetic material. I wanted to think about its ideological work from a cultural studies perspective.

I often go back to your discussion at the start of Textual Poachers to expose the stereotypes, but I think that addressing the stereotyping of fandom is something that is too important to only do once. We need to keep addressing the stereotypes, because if we don’t, in unexpected ways they will come back to bite us. To those students unfamiliar with 1990s cultural studies scholarship, the relative lack of recent work on fan stereotypes might seem to imply a critical silence. Perhaps we should consider addressing such estimations of fandom as a continual process.

 

You use the phrase, “media fandom,” in the book’s title. For you, this term includes fans of performers and celebrities, as well as fans of fictional texts. Indeed, some of the best contributions here come when you juxtapose work that has been done on what are often seen as radically different kinds of fans and find points of commonality between them. What do you think academics writing about fans of popular music, say, and academics writing about fans of “telefantasy” have to learn from each other? Why do you think these topics have been seen as separate for so long?

I will address your second question first, because it is a little easier to answer…

Perhaps we have also been concerned that different kinds of fan have been associated with each media form. I am reminded here of my colleague Phil Tagg’s claim that colleagues can be charged with ‘driving a disciplinary vehicle without a license’ if they dabble in a different field. Ironically, media studies and cultural studies have long offered a number of bridging concepts – consumption, genre, style, textuality, performance, affect – but these often seemed to contextualize fandom rather than fully explain it.

The separation of topics has partly been a matter of disciplinary specialisation. Television studies was relatively dominant in the cultural studies discussion about fandom. Many scholars in that area saw no need to look outside their own field. Popular music studies, on the other hand, rarely ventured to explore dedicated music audiences at all (specifically as fans), and either tended to focus either on texts (musicology) or sociological contexts (subcultural studies, scenes). It was not until the late 1990s that scholars like Dan Cavicchi started to explore music fandom. Fan studies did not have such a wide interdisciplinary reputation back then.

The way that fan studies focused on its object has gradually extended its reputation beyond television studies. In light of this there has been more ‘cross town traffic’: pop studies writers like myself picking up or working within the fan studies paradigm, and fan studies scholars – like Matt Hills and Cornel Sandvoss – refusing to draw narrow lines around the type of media fandom that they will investigate. I don’t actually think that the latest generation of researchers is as aware of those older distinctions, because fan studies has now begun to form its own vibrant and rapidly expanding research field.

To address the question of what researchers of different fan objects have to learn from each other…

Telefantasy research developed fan studies as a means to pay attention to fan activity, in the transformative works sense, and could therefore disrupt notions of “the pop fan” as one atom of a seduced mass. The problem for popular music research before the Internet was that in the public sphere fans were most visible in spaces associated with consumption and the mass audience: record shops, live concerts. Rock fans were respected, but the idea of pop traditionally linked music fandom to a feminized mainstream. Attention to your work has encouraged music researchers to think carefully about ethical dimensions when studying fandom and has offered us a framework within which to examine fan practices.

There is a textual focus in much of the television studies work. So I hope what some of the research on popular music fandom can offer telefantasy scholars in return is a focus on certain kinds of fandom as cultural fields organized around celebrity and affect. Popular music research always had to contend, in some ways, I think, with a disappearing object: relatively ephemeral, immaterial nature of emotionally engaging music. That was true at the level of the text itself – music’s meanings not being quite amenable to the usual modes of linguistic or representational analysis.

Yes, some music fans have textual objects (the song, the album, the genre), but there are many others who have become fascinated with a particular individual or group (the star, the band); in some senses the distinction itself is debatable because musical texts and their makers have inevitably become confused, raising questions of authorship and authenticity.

Celebrity-following is not unique to popular music, but rather popular music has often become associated with celebrity-following in the public sphere. Consequently, things that have sometimes been marginalized in the discussion of textual fandom, are right on the surface in popular music and require attention.

Take Lynn Zubernis and Katherine Larsen’s (2012) recent book on Supernatural fandom, for example. Precisely because they are exploring the interests of sections of the Supernatural fan community, Zubernis and Larsen focus as much or more on the consequences of female fans’ lustful identifications with the show’s lead actors as they do on show itself.

Their work reminds me of Susan Fast’s (2001) discussion of the way in which female fans perceived the lead singer of Led Zeppelin as an erotic object, or more recent work on boy band audiences. The commodification of romantic allure and sex appeal is a common theme across very different media forms. An interchange between different fields of fan research might help us better understand similar places that, in many ways, form common empirical ground.

In a wider sense, I think that we may be able to productively destabilize assumptions that come from our respective ‘home’ disciplines. This friendly destabilization could take the form of recognizing commonalities in fandom itself as a shared object. On one level, diverse fandoms operate within common social contexts and are have sometimes been marginalized in similar ways. Very different fandoms have been associated with, for example, the public performance of emotion and conviction.

On another level, different fandoms share common discourses and practices. Fans of very different objects can behave in surprisingly similar ways. Traditionally the similarities included things like collecting, canonization, displaying commitment and creating fanzines.

The realm of digital media offered a new context of convergence within which previously unrelated fandoms have shared common platforms and approaches: forums, fanfic writing, spoiling, video uploading, mash-ups, activism, nostalgia / archiving / heritage. Perhaps we should not be thinking in terms of media forms (say, TV serial or pop fandom) but in terms of different clusters of cultural capital: people liking similar cultural fields like, say, horror cinema and heavy metal.

Matt Hill’s notion of ‘inter-fandom’ is interesting in that respect. His concept is not about one kind of fandom, or even recognizing something common to different types, but instead about asking how – as media fans – we move between associated cultural fields to our efforts to display particular forms of cultural capital.

 Mark Duffett is a Senior Lecturer in media and cultural studies at the University of Chester with research interests spanning fandom and popular music culture. As well as publishing Understanding Fandom (Bloomsbury, 2013), he guest edited a recent special edition of the journal Popular Music and Society, and also edited a Routledge book called Popular Music Fandom(2013) which featured chapters by Cornel Sandvoss, Joli Jensen and Matt Hills. In 2010 he organized an International Symposium on music fandom at Chester and was keynote speaker in 2012 at the MARS music conference in Finland. He is currently writing a book on Elvis Presley for the Equinox Press series, Icons of Popular Music, and co-organizing an April 2014 international conference on rock music and love in Montpellier.

Deciphering Black Masculinity: An Interview with Mark Anthony Neal (Part Three)

You describe Stringer Bell in The Wire as the “thinking man’s gangster,” seeing him as a powerful illustration of the “cosmopolitan” qualities you ascribe to this acclaimed series. What is it that The Wire was able to achieve in terms of breaking with black masculinity? Some have similarly celebrated Orange is the New Black as a series which offers a broader range of alternative constructions of femininity (including black and Latino characters) than we typically see on television. Would you agree with that assessment? Why or why not?

Think that for David Simon and Ed Burns, these men were real to them—composites of folk they had interacted with in some way.  In that way, their experiences covering Black Baltimore in the 1980s made them aware of the diversity of Black men that existed.  Give HBO some credit for allowing them to fully explore that diversity throughout the five-year run of the series.  Beside opening up for  range of expressions of Black masculinity and Black femininity, The Wire and Orange is a the New Black has also cultivated a space for the performance of “Female Masculinity,” to draw on Jack Halberstam’s work.  It is in those moments that one can see the fluidity of Black identity, in ways, rarely, if ever, explored in mainstream entertainment.

Idris Elba has continued to gather public interest as he was widely promoted as a potential for casting as the new Doctor on Doctor Who (amid debates about whether or not the Doctor could be black). How have these more recent developments altered or confirmed your analysis of the performer in the book?  How might we imagine a black Doctor introducing themes of Afro-Futurism into this long-standing British series?

This is clearly the moment of the Black-Brit-Afropolitan actor.  If the question is,  is there an Afro-futurism for male Afropolitans actors, well yes, particularly if your name is Idris Elba or Chiwetel Ejiofor.  Not sure that a more “traditional” African-American or Afro-Caribbean actor, save Don Cheadle, would have those same opportunities.  Elba is really having the career that Calvin Lockhart and Delroy Lindo should have had.  Find it interesting that Ejiofor and Elba have been able to traffic in both more global and traditional African-American roles. I don’t think that is simply about their skill-set.

 

Entertainment Weekly had speculated that we might have had as many as four black actors in contention for the Best Actor Oscar this year — Idris Elba for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Forrest Whitaker for Lee Daniel’s The Butler, Michael B. Jordan for Fruitville Station, and Chiwetel Ejiofor for Twelve Years a Slave. How might we fit these black performers (and the characters they portray) in the trajectory of acclaimed black performances you traced between Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington? (This question was framed before the Oscar nominations came out)

I am happy for Ejiofor’s nomination—expected Elba to earn a nomination, especially after Mandela’s death.  Most disappointed that Michael B. Jordan didn’t get a nod, though I suspect that had much to do with his youth and the stark, un-sensational reality of Oscar Grant III life and death.  Washington had to break through the archetype that Poitier represented throughout his career.  I think this current generation, though Whitaker is a little older, has benefitted from Washington’s willingness to break ranks with roles in films like Training Day (most famously), but also He Got Game and American Gangster.

 

You end the book with a discussion of Barack Obama and Reverend Wright, suggesting the ways that the candidate has had to negotiate around assumptions about black masculinity identity. To what degree do you think Obama has been willing to explore the boundaries between Harvard and the Hood as he has responded to the politics around the Treyvon Martin Case?

Barack Obama is more of an enigma to me now, than he was at anytime during the 2008 campaign, when he was largely illegible to so many of us.  It’s not simply about how he has chosen to govern—from the Center, in reaction to the Right, largely dismissing legitimate critiques from his base of the Left—but his real silence on the ‘Hood, except as a lecturer of family values.  His calculated initial comments about Martin’s shooting—after checking for the winds of popular opinion—is the most obvious example.  I never forgot that the President took more than a week to comment on Michael Jackson’s death.  I always understood that the value of a Black President in the contemporary US was largely symbolic—albeit a powerful symbol—but what value is a Black President if he can’t even acknowledge the artistic legacy of a figure like Amiri Baraka.

 

Mark Anthony Neal is Professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University. He is the author of several books, including New Black Man and Looking for Leroy.  He is the host of the weekly webcast Left of Black.

Deciphering Black Masculinities: An Interview with Mark Anthony Neal (Part Two)

You argue that Avery Brooks, as a performer, was, despite often being cast in stereotypical roles, able to “draw on the full range of black expressive culture, often in opposition to the intent of the show’s writers and producers.” This claim has strong implications at a time when black men exert much greater influence on our culture as performers than they do as “writers and producers.” Can you say more about the forms of agency that surface in this analysis?

 As I mention in the book, Brooks was granted agency around the character, because the writers and producers really didn’t have a sense of who and what the character (created by the late Robert Parker) was.  I think what Brooks’ did with the character spoke a great deal about both his classical training and his investment in Black arts—he was of a generation that was a direct product of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s, he was deeply involved in the National Black Theater Festival, for example.  I think that in the last generation, Black performers have had more access to mainstream success and thus have had less need for the kinds of Black organizations that Brooks’ generation cultivated.  Whereas Brooks may have always been clear that his work was in conversation with a Robeson, Belafonte, or a Diana Sands and Rosalind Cash—to name just a few—contemporary artists don’t have the same relationship with previous generations of Black performers—and thus I think it limits their ability to really drawn fully and freely from “the culture” (whatever that means).  The irony is that in the era of Youtube, they actually have much more access to those earlier performers, than any other generation.  One of the things I appreciate about Beyonce’s art is that she has spent serious time in the “archive,” if you will, though she’s often criticized for not being original.  I see it as a real tribute to those folk, some of them obscure,  that come before her.

You express throughout the book some deep ambivalence towards hip hop culture which you describe in your introduction as “a cottage industry of problematic images of black masculinity” but refuse to dismiss altogether as a vehicle for exploring alternative forms of black masculinity. When and how have performers or audiences been able to escape or at least challenge the more problematic aspects of hip hop culture? What contemporary performers do you think offer the best source for alternative articulations of black masculinity?

There’s an “inside baseball” aspect to this re: “corporate sponsored” entertainment geared to American youth, and what some would deem more “authentic” (however problematic that term is) rap music and Hip-Hop culture. I will only say that the latter is far less accessible to young people and the former is far more visible. From a pedagogical standpoint, I find all of it of value, provided we can equip audiences—young folk in particular—with a critical framing that allows them to contextualize what they are consuming.  Looking for Leroy is largely about providing some of that framing and hopefully encouraging even more framing from others.  Of contemporary artists, I find the work of a Jasiri X compelling, because of his ability to humanize some of the political realities of Black life globally, but even he is challenged to not simply be seen as the “protest” rapper.  I think in a purely artistic sense, beyond his place in celebrity culture, Kanye West is pushing past some boundaries particularly in indexing trauma, mental health struggles, vulnerability and loss within Black male life.  Indeed, his willingness to find raw sonic material from beyond the typical pop music archive, speaks to his searching to find sonic examples that best represents his emotions.

You draw in the book on Manthia Diawara’s notion of “homeboy cosmopolitanism”, a phrase which seems intentionally oxymoronic, given the rootedness in a particular location or community implied by “homeboy” and what you describe as the “desires for physical, social, and economic mobility” implied by the concept of cosmopolitanism. How can we resolve these contradictions? What forms of culture best express this concept?

 Part of the genius of Hip-Hop culture is that when many of these artists began to travel globally, they brought the ‘hoods they grew up in and the “hood” that they are all perceived to be from, with them.  I don’t think any of them saw this as a contradiction, in part because many of their ‘hoods, were always/already cosmopolitan, if we consider immigration patterns from the Caribbean, West Africa and migration from the American south as challenging the concept of a monolithic “blackness” or Hip-hop, for that matter.

Mark Anthony Neal is Professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University. He is the author of several books, including New Black Man and Looking for Leroy.  He is the host of the weekly webcast Left of Black. 

Deciphering Black Masculinities: An Interview with Mark Anthony Neal (Part One)

This is another in a series of interviews with the authors of books published as part of the Post-Millenial Pop book series which I edit with Karen Tongson for New York University Press.

Mark Anthony Neal’s weekly webcast, Left of Black, produced by Duke University’s John Hope Franklin Center of International and Interdisciplinary Studies,  is a powerful example of the roles academics can play as public intellectuals, brokering important conversations  the culture needs to be having, highlighting key scholarly and cultural works that deserve greater attention than they are apt to receive from mainstream media, and asking the most urgent questions his regular fans want answered about race as embodied by both lived experience and contemporary popular culture. Among topics recently addressed on the series include the thirty year history of the Urban Bush Women dance troupe, the story behind “We Shall Overcome” and other anthems of the civil rights era, the role of black barbers and barbershops in constructing the black public sphere, and parenting in a “post-racial” America.

Neal brings his diverse knowledge and interests to bear on various performances of black masculinity in his newest book, Looking for Leroy. Here, he argues that many constructions of black male identity in American culture are far too “legible”, reproducing the same lethal stereotypes where black male bodies are rendered as criminal, needing to be subjected to police authority and containment. Yet, he’s interested in the ways that some performers construct personas which are less legible, which challenge our expectations and force us to think differently about identity politics. The book ranges from Jay-Z and R. Kelly to Barack Obama, with stops along the way to talk about The Wire, Star Trek, Fame, and the Oscars. The writing throughout is direct, engaging, witty, and broadly accessible, which helps to explain why his work is attracting readers and listeners far beyond the university book store circuit. At the same time, he is the master of close reading, offering interpretations that are nuanced in their attention to detail and yet encompassing in their ability to link the specifics of individual performances into larger career trajectories and into their political contexts.

Neal is one of the busiest people in the field of cultural studies today, so I am grateful that he could spare some time to address my questions.

Let’s talk about your title, “Looking for Leroy.” Can you share with us what it was about the figure of Leroy in Fame which inspired this particular path through black masculinities? In what sense are characters like Leroy “illegible” figures  when compared to more stereotypical representations of black masculinity?

 

My connection to Gene Anthony Ray’s character “Leroy” from the movie and series Fame was personal.  The series debuted just as I was developing a sense of who I was as a young man (I had just turned 16 at the time) and as the primary Black male character on the show I had a natural affinity for him.  Yet it was clear, at least to me, that the character or perhaps Ray were gay—this in an era when there were only a handful of gay characters on network television.  As a 16-Black kid from the Bronx, who was regularly “queered” because of my choice of clothing and the way I spoke—which was read amongst some of my Black male peers as both too soft and also too White (this was the era of the Preppie)—something about Leroy always resonated to me.  It was fitting that he would be one of the primary inspirations for the book and my own grappling with illegibility.

 

Given the harsh realities confronting many black men in this country, why should we be concerned with popular representations of black masculinities? In other words, what relationship are you positing between the constraints experienced by black men and the cultural construction of black masculinity?

As someone whose academic training is in Cultural Studies, I’m always concerned about whether my work addresses (in any way) the real crises being faced by young Black men in particularly.  Whether we’re looking at sports, the criminal justice system or even national politics, it’s clear that so many perceptions of Black masculinity are framed by media depictions of Black men and boys.  Hoping my work is but one intervention, poised to acknowledge the range of Black masculinities and also deconstructing (on some level) the most visible images of Black masculinity.  I think there is real connection between the limited view of Black masculinity available in US media and the limitations placed on Black men and boys in their everyday lives.

 

What motivated the choice of these particular case studies? What do these performers and characters, individually and collectively, help us to see about popular representations of black masculinity?

Virtually all the choices I make in the book with regard to case studies, represent figures that I had some personal affinity to. In the case of “Leroy” or Avery Brooks, they really were figures that impacted how I viewed Black masculinity as a younger man.  It was that affinity to Brooks’ “Hawk” that made Idris Elba’s “Stringer Bell” legible to me.  In the case of Luther Vandross and Jay Z, as a fan who had consumed so much of their art, they allowed the opportunity to do the kind of close readings that I wanted to do.  And admittedly, there are any number of other figures I wanted to bring into the mix—Kanye West, Erik LaSalle’s character on ER (though that will show up in a later project), Rob Brown 16-year-old character in Finding Forrester, and a whole host of “Queer” Soul and Gospel (which will also show up in another project)—but I’d still be working on the book, LOL.  What I hope I have presented is just an opening, for more work to be done, in terms of thinking about the publicness of Black masculinity.  In that regard looking forward to new books from Jeffrey McCune and C. Riley Snorton.

 

 Mark Anthony Neal is Professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University. He is the author of five books, What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture (1998), Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic (2002), Songs in the Keys of Black Life: A Rhythm and Blues Nation (2003), New Black Man: Rethinking Black Masculinity (2005) and most recently, Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities (2013).  He is the host of the weekly webcast Left of Black.

A Meme Is a Terrible Thing to Waste: An Interview with Limor Shifman (Part Three)

Discussion of the internet is often polarized between those who stress the personalized or individualistic nature of net culture and those who see the network as a form of collective behavior. How might the idea of the meme clarify this discussion?

 

I think that the idea of internet memes is so powerful precisely because it bridges these two perceptions. While internet memes are all about individuals creating content, they are also all about individuals creating content with awareness of each other. Memes not only involve pervasive mimicry, they are also based on intense collaborative work and complex multi-participant choreographies. Moreover, studies conducted by Ryan Milner, Assaf Nissenbaum and Kate Miltner show that memes function as a type of cultural capital: knowledge about memes and the “right” ways to use them have become a marker of membership in some communities. In these contexts the duality of being both an individual and a part of a community is flagged on a daily basis: community members are expected to be original, but not too original, when creating memes.

 

Throughout, you place a strong emphasis on the visual nature of the meme as a mode of communication. What do you see as the implications of this shift towards the visual in contemporary net culture?

The implications of the visual turn are pervasive, going way beyond my somewhat narrow emphasis on memes. Within the scope of the book I discuss this issue mainly in the political context. I claim that visual display allows greater integration between politics and pop culture, as it becomes extremely easy to Photoshop the US president’s head on the body of a Jedi knight, for instance. A second implication of the visual nature of internet memes relates to their polysemic potential, that is, their tendency to be open to multiple readings. Whereas in verbal jokes the target of mockery and the scorn expressed towards it are often clear, the openness of visual images and the lack of a clear narrative may invoke contrasting interpretations.  A third implication relates to memes’ global spread: Images may potentially cross international borders much more easily than words. However, such international flows still depend on local norms and conversions:  In some cases, images need to be replaced or localized to make sense in new territories. For example, in the book I describe the migration of the American “Successful Black Guy” meme to Israel, which resulted in a local take titled  “Akivathe Humanist Ultra-Orthodox“.  I am currently exploring some other implications of this, focusing on photo-based memes. It seems that meme creators subvert some of the fundamental roles traditionally associated with photography, such as the notion of photographs as “windows to reality”. But I’ve just started thinking about these issues so I hope to have more to say in a couple of months…

 

 

Let’s talk a bit about what gets excluded in a meme culture. Are there some groups or individuals who are excluded — either implicitly or explicitly — from meme culture? Is it easier to use memes to support dominant frames of reference rather than to challenge existing structures of belief?

This is a crucial issue which I address only briefly in the book. It would certainly appear that many groups and individuals are excluded from meme culture.  Ryan Milner’s current work on memes traces some of the racist and misogynist modes of discourse emerging in 4chan and reddit—prominent meme hubs that seem to be governed by white, privileged men.  He shows that both gender and race representations in these websites are dominated by familiar hegemonic stereotypes. The framing of these stereotypes as ironic lulz is used in many cases to whitewash exclusion. At the very same time, Milner notes that at least in relation to gender, misogynistic framings are often resisted and attacked by many participants.  It is extremely important to continue thinking about these issues and broaden our scope of investigation beyond the major meme hubs. Phenomena such as “Shit X says”, which generated heated debates about sensitive issues, may constitute interesting cases for further research.

My main assertion in the book is that we should take memes seriously. And doing that also means – to a large extent – critically examining the power dynamics that constitute memes and that are constituted by them.

 Limor Shifman is a Senior Lectureer at the Department of Communication and Journalism, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  She is the author of Memes in Digital Culture (MIT Press, 2013) and Televised Humor and Social Cleavages in Israel (Magness Press, 2008 [in Hebrew]). Her work focuses on the intertwining of three fields: communication technologies, popular culture and the social construction of humor. Shifman’s journal articles explore phenomena such as internet-based humor about gender, politics and ethnicity; jokes and user-generated globalization; and memetic YouTube videos.

 

A Meme Is a Terrible Thing to Waste: An Interview with Limor Shifman (Part Two)

What motivates people to participate in a memetic culture, either in terms of generating new meme content or simply passing along content that has been framed in terms of a meme?

With regards to generating new content, I believe that three main types of motivation are at play—economic, social and cultural. The economic logic behind meme creation relates to the attention economy governing contemporary societies. In short, it claims that the most valuable resource in the information era is not information but the attention people pay to it. Creating memes seems to work well in this kind of economy: an emulation of a famous video may get attention because it will appear in YouTube’s suggestions bar or pop up as a highly relevant search result when one is looking for the original video. The second, social logic of meme creation can be related to what Barry Wellman and others describe as “networked individualism.” On the one hand, by uploading a self-made video or a Photoshopped image people are able to express their individuality: they signify that they are digitally literate, unique, and creative. On the other hand, the text that they upload often relates to a common, widely shared memetic video, image, or formula. Through this referencing, people simultaneously construct their individuality and their affiliation with a larger community. Finally, the cultural logic of meme creation suggests that it actually represents the continuation of norms that are rooted in the history of pop culture genres and fan cultures, as you discuss extensively in “Textual Poachers” and subsequent works.

I think that the second logic – the social one – is also extremely important when passing along content that has been framed as a “meme”. Spreading a meme signifies that someone is “in the know”, thus reflecting positively upon her personality and (often) perceived sense of humor. 

While there is a tendency to think of the content of memes as trivial or playful, there have also been some powerful examples where memes were used in the service of political speech — Pepperspray Cop and Binders of Women come to mind as examples from your book. Often, the same meme may blur the lines between entertainment and critical commentary.  In my essay, “Photoshop for Democracy,” I argued that such remixes might function as the people’s editorial cartoons, offering vivid and memorable representations of complex issues which broaden the language through which we discuss politics. Is this a legitimate description of what you’ve observed in terms of looking at memes as a form of political participation? Are there risks involved in the simplification of ideas required to produce an effective meme?

Your argument about remixes as the people’s editorial cartoons is absolutely pertinent to the ways memes function as forms of political participation. The main new element that has been added in recent years, with the labeling of many of these Photoshopped images as “memes”, relates to our previous discussion about meme genres. The tendency to create memes in particular formats turns memes into powerful bridges between the personal and the political: people express their personal opinions while consciously joining larger pleas or patterns. A striking example of this quality is the “We are the 99 Percent” meme. Born out of the Occupy Wall Street movement, it featured an individual holding a handwritten text depicting his or her gloomy story, leading to the shared motto, “I am the 99 percent.” This combination of repetition and variation conveyed the message that people’s miseries are not just personal problems: they stem from systemic economic and political illnesses.

As to your second question about risks—I believe that simplification is indeed a problem, yet what worries me more is the depoliticization of many memes, which come into the world as pointed political commentaries yet at some point turn into fluffy balls of amusement. For instance, alongside the political versions of the Pepper Spray Cop meme (featuring, for instance, officer Pike pepper-spraying iconic American symbols such as George Washington crossing the Delaware or the Constitution itself), other versions presented him spraying figures who are perceived as annoying, such as Keyboard Cat or Rebecca Black. In such instances, the original meaning of the meme as critical of Pike would appear to be reversed.

You make a distinction between virals and memes in the book. Explain. Why do you think these terms are so often conflated in popular discourse on the internet?

 The main feature that separates memes from virals, in my view, relates to variability:

while the viral mostly comprises a single cultural unit that propagates in many copies,  an internet meme is always a collection of texts. Therefore, a video such as “Leave Britney Alone” can be depicted as a viral video that spawned user-generated engagement and thus became part of an internet meme. Even so, this example shows that the border between memes and virals is fuzzy: Indeed, many memes started out as viral photos or videos.  This fuzziness is perhaps the reason for the constant conflation between the terms and the tendency among many people to use them interchangeably.  But I still think that even if the borderline is murky this differentiation is important: the simple act of “forwarding” or “sharing” is not the same as more creative modes of engagement with content. Moreover, the motivations associated with these two forms are not the same: the factors that lead us to share content are not the same as those that lead us to recreate or remix it.  In the book I chart some of these motivational differences, but I believe that much more work should be invested in this direction.

Limor Shifman is a Senior Lectureer at the Department of Communication and Journalism, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  She is the author of Memes in Digital Culture (MIT Press, 2013) and Televised Humor and Social Cleavages in Israel (Magness Press, 2008 [in Hebrew]). Her work focuses on the intertwining of three fields: communication technologies, popular culture and the social construction of humor. Shifman’s journal articles explore phenomena such as internet-based humor about gender, politics and ethnicity; jokes and user-generated globalization; and memetic YouTube videos.