A Whale Of A Tale!: Ricardo Pitts-Wiley Brings Mixed Magic to LA

Last February, I announced here the release of Reading in a Participatory Culture, a print book, and Flows of Reading, a d-book extension, both focused around work my teams (first at MIT and then at USC) have done exploring how we might help educators and students learn about literary works through actively remixing them. Our central case study has been the work of playwright-actor-educator Ricardo Pitts-Wiley from the Mixed Magic Theater, who was successful at getting incarcerated youth to read and engage with Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick by having them re-imagine and re-write it for the 21st century. You can read more about this project here. And you can check out the Flows of Reading d-book for free here. 
If you live in Los Angeles, you have a chance to learn more about Pitts-Wiley and his work first hand. I’ve been able to bring Ricardo for a residency at USC this fall, which will start with a public event at the Los Angeles Public Library on September 26. Ricardo is going to be recruiting a mixed race cast of high school and college aged actors from across the Los Angeles area and producing a staged reading of his play, Moby-Dick: Then and Now, which will be performed as part of a USC Visions and Voices event on Oct. 11th. You can get full details of both events below. I hope to see some of you there. We are already hearing from all kinds of artists here in Southern California who have sought creative inspiration from Melville’s novel and used it as a springboard for their own work. But you don’t have to love the great white whale to benefit from our approach to teaching traditional literary works in a digital culture, and we encourage teachers and educators of all kinds to explore how they might apply our model to thinking about many other cultural texts.
For those who live on the East Coast, our team will also be speaking and doing workshops at the National Writing Project’s national conference in Boston on Nov. 21.
Thursday, September 26, 2013 7:15 PM
Mark Taper Auditorium-Central Library
Thu, Sep 26, 7:15 PM [ALOUD]
Remixing Moby Dick: Media Studies Meets the Great White Whale 
Henry Jenkins, Wyn Kelley, and Ricardo Pitts-Wiley

Over a multi-year collaboration, playwright and director Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, Melville scholar Wyn Kelley, and media expert Henry Jenkins have developed a new approach for teaching Moby-Dick in the age of YouTube and hip-hop. They will explore how “learning through remixing” can speak to contemporary youth, why Melville might be understood as the master mash-up artist of the 19th century, and what might have happened if Captain Ahab had been a 21st century gang leader.

* Part of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles and Los Angeles Public Library’s month-long citywide initiative “What Ever Happened to Moby Dick?”


Henry Jenkins is Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. He has written and edited more than fifteen books on media and popular culture, including Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture with Sam Ford and Joshua Green. His other published works reflect the wide range of his research interests, touching on democracy and new media, the “wow factor” of popular culture, science-fiction fan communities, and the early history of film comedy. His most recent book, Reading in a Participatory Culture: Remixing Moby-Dick for the Literature Classroom was written with Wyn Kelley, Katie Clinton, Jenna McWilliams, Erin Reilly, and Ricardo Pitts-Wiley.

Wyn Kelley teaches in the Literature Section at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and is author of Melville’s City: Literary and Urban Form in Nineteenth-Century New York and of Herman Melville: An Introduction. She also co-author Reading in a Participatory Culture: Re-Mixing Moby-Dick in the English Classroom with Henry Jenkins and Ricardo Pitts-Wiley. She is former Associate Editor of the Melville Society journal Leviathan, and editor of the Blackwell Companion to Herman Melville. A founding member of the Melville Society Cultural Project, she has collaborated with the New Bedford Whaling Museum on lecture series, conferences, exhibits, and a scholarly archive. She serves as Associate Director ofMEL (Melville Electronic Library), an NEH-supported interactive digital archive for reading, editing, and visualizing Melville’s texts.

Ricardo Pitts-Wiley is the co-founder of the Mixed Magic Theatre, a non-profit arts organization dedicated to presenting a diversity of cultural and ethnic images and ideas on the stage. While serving as Mixed Magic Theatre’s director, Pitts-Wiley gained national and international acclaim for his page-to-stage adaptation of Moby Dick, titled Moby Dick: Then and Now. This production, which was presented at the Kennedy Center for the Arts in Washington, DC, is the centerpiece of a national teachers study guide and is featured in the book, Reading in A Participatory Culture. In addition to his work as an adapter of classic literature Pitts-Wiley is also the composer of over 150 songs and the author of 12 plays with music including:Waiting for Bessie SmithCelebrations: An African Odyssey, andThe Spirit Warrior’s Dream.

A Tale of Three Quilts

Another in a series of outtakes from Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, this passage sets up the contrast between folk culture (as it operated in 19th century America), mass culture (as it operated in the 20th century), and the new participatory culture (as it operates in the digital age). I argue in the book that digital culture often applies processes of cultural production we associate with folk culture to content we associate with mass culture.

We can understand the relations between these three phases of cultural production by considering the example of three very different kinds of quilts. The first was made for my grandmother upon the occasion of her wedding by the women in a small town in Southern Georgia. The quilt was built up from scraps which each woman had left over from previous sewing projects. The cloth was commercially produced at southern textile mills, but its value here was sentimental – a token of each woman’s affection for the young bride. The women didn’t have a lot of money but by combining their scraps they could share what they had and express their support. As the quilt was being created, the older women were passing along their skills and experience to younger women, some of whom perhaps had never worked on such a project before. Quilting as a process and the quilt as a product both helped to shape the social relations between the women in that small town. The result was a one of a kind object, shaped by local traditions but also customized to the tastes of its recipient.

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Political Reality

Another in a series of outtakes from Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, this passage explores ways that reality television might become a vehicle for political education. The section was inspired in part by this passage from Joe Trippi’s book, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Democracy, The Internet, and the Overthrow of Everything:

“When Americans get the choice…they constantly surprise the producers and the celebrity judges. They go for gospel singers and torch singers and big band singers. They vote for fat people and geeky people and ugly people. They go for people like themselves….This is the most important thing that any business can learn from the first wave of this revolution and its impact on entertainment. We want the power to choose….In every industry, in every segment of our economy, the power is shifting over to us.”

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Eight Traits of the New Media Landscape

The following text was written as part of the original draft for the MacArthur white paper about educating young people for a participatory culture. It was cut due to length considerations but it providees useful background for people reading the report.

Most often, when people are asked to describe the current media landscape, they respond by making an inventory of tools and technologies. Our focus should be not on emerging technologies but on emerging cultural practices. Rather than listing tools, we need to understand the underlying logic shaping our current moment of media in transition. These properties cut across different media platforms and different cultural communities: they suggest something of the way we live in relation to media today. Understanding the nature of our relationship with media is central to any attempt to develop a curriculum that might foster the skills and competencies needed to engage within participatory culture.

The Contemporary Media Landscape is:

1. Innovative. We are the midst of a period of prolonged and profound technological change. New media are created, dispersed, adopted, adapted, and absorbed into the culture at dramatic rates. It is certainly possible to identify previous “revolutions” in communication. The shift from orality to literacy, the rise of print culture, and the emergence of modern mass media in the late 19th and early 20th century each represent important paradigm shifts in the way we communicated our ideas. In each case, a burst of technological change was followed by a period of slow adjustment. If, as Marshall McLuhan (1969) has suggested, “media are often put out before they are thought out,” then there was ample time to think through the impact of one media before another was introduced. As historians and literary scholars have long noted, the explosion of new technologies at the end of the 19th century sparked a period of profound self-consciousness which we now call modernism. Modernism impacted all existing institutions, reshaped all modes of artistic expression, and sparked a series of intellectual breakthroughs whose impact is still being felt today. If anything, the rate of technological and cultural change has accelerated as we have moved through the 20th century and shows no signs of slowing down as we enter the 21st century. The turnover of technologies is rapid; the economic fallout cataclysmic; and the cultural impact unpredictable.

Today, the introduction of new media technologies sparks social and aesthetic experimentation. Anthropologist Grant McCracken has described the present moment as one of cultural “plenitude,” represented by an ever-expanding menu of cultural choices and options. McCracken argues that “plentitude” is emerging because the cultural conditions are ripe for change, because new media technologies have lowered barriers to entry into the cultural marketplace, and because those traditional institutions which held innovation in check have declined in influence (what he calls “the withering of the witherers”.) The result has been the diversification of cultural production. Each new technology spawns a range of different uses, inspires a diversity of aesthetic responses, as it gets taken up and deployed by different communities of users. Such transformations broaden the means of self and collective expression.

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From Viewers for Quality Television to Television Without Pity

Another in a series of outtakes from Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, this sidebar takes a look at two very different mechanisms by which audience members expressed their feelings about television programs — Viewers for Quality Television and Television Without Pity. Each emerged, in part, in response to shifts in the ways the television networks conceptualized their viewership — TQT reflected a new focus on demographics (and the recognition that middle class consumers were highly desired by advertisers) and TWP reflects a new focus on expressions, that is, on the emotional investments audience members make in the programs they watch. This originally appeared in Chapter Three of the book.

The shift in the ways networks and advertisers think about consumers is reflected in the differences between the two audience forums which can be seen to characterize their respective eras – Viewers for Quality Television (in the 1980s and 1990s) and Television Without Pity (in the early 21st century). As Sue Brower notes, Viewers For Quality Television (VQT) was a product of a specific historic juncture, where Nielsen first began to provide information about audience demographics and media producers sought to exploit this information to sustain shows which had low ratings but attracted highly valued niche audiences. Shows, such as Hill Street Blues, Cagney & Lacey, and St. Elsewhere, touted themselves as “quality television” because they attracted “quality audiences” and their producers formed alliances with fan groups to construct a case for keeping these series on the air.

Viewers for Quality Television emerged from these grassroots, but corporately supported, efforts to sustain programs that appealed to college educated and upper middle class consumers. The group regularly polled their membership to identify not only what shows they liked but who they were and what products they purchased. Evaluations of quality emerged through consensus within the readership of VQT monthly newsletter, though the group’s founder and spokesperson Dorothy Swanson offered this definition: “A quality show is something we anticipate before and savor after. It focuses more on relationships than situations; it explores character, it enlightens, challenges, involves and confronts the viewer; it provokes thought and is remembered tomorrow. A quality show colors life in shades of grey.”

While the group supported a range of shows, including sitcoms such as Frank’s Place, Designing Women, or Brooklyn Bridge, VQT was most closely associated with hour long ensemble-cast serialized dramas, such as ER, Murder One or NYPD Blue. VQT held an annual convention where they announced their list of recognized shows for the year. Their rankings were widely monitored by industry leaders and media observers, who saw them as giving a boost, no matter how small, to deserving series.

If VQT embraced the ensemble cast drama, TWP has become central to building up and sustaining audiences for science fiction, fantasy, reality, and other cult programs. In the summer of 2004, featured series included 24, Alias, Joan of Arcadia, Gilmore Girls, Smallville and The Sopranos, not to mention Survivor and American Idol. Most of these series define their quality more in terms of their contributions to popular genres than in terms of the concept of “novelistic” television Swanson promoted.

If VQT became emblematic for the shift towards “high demographic” programming, TWP may become emblematic for this search for a more interactive, attentive, and committed consumer. The site offers recaps and discussion forums for 25 shows, most which fall into those genres which attract the highest viewer commitments, according to Initiative’s research. While VQT asserted itself as an earnest and aesthetically-minded tastemaking community, TWP is an altogether more playful group as suggested by its motto, “Spare the snark and spoil the network.” Swanson argued that the most active segments of the television audience were drawn towards quality and that fans of lesser shows wouldn’t put the effort into sustaining such collective efforts. Yet, TWP demonstrates that shows which no one would call high quality may provoke strong emotional reactions and generate net chatter.

VQT sought the ear of network leaders and program producers; these same people are increasingly monitoring TWP as a window into their illusive younger consumers. If the networks had to wait a year to learn how VQT ranked their shows, TWP responds instantly and in a much more nuanced fashion: its professional recappers post a detailed and often scathing critique of each episode within days and sometimes hours after it aired; these reviews in turn generate extensive discussion among the site’s readers. As the site’s FAQ explains, “Our mandate is, more or less, to give people a place to revel in their guilty televisual pleasures. In most cases, we have a complex love/hate relationship with the show, and this site is a way for us to work through those feelings. If we plain hated a show, we wouldn’t pay it any attention at all.”

While VQT was about quality, TWP is about passion. Many production companies will assign an intern to monitor the TWP lists to see how the audience reacts to various plot twists and character revelations, though many producers, at least those with thick skins, have been known to lurk there themselves. According to Sep, one of the site’s resident experts, “It’s certainly a tool for networks to see direct and immediate fan reaction that is far more specific than the Nielsen system.”

comics and convergence part four

This is the final in a series of outtakes from Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide dealing with the ways that the comics industry is responding to shifts in the media landscape. This segment deals with how we pay for digital content. Reading back through this, this section felt less au current than the other excerpts on comics I have posted here. When he spoke at MIT last week, Scott McCloud, himself, conceded that micropayments have not so far taken off in the ways that he had hoped and that other business models were emerging to support online content. To bring us up to speed on the latest developments in this area, I have arranged to run an interview tomorrow with industry observer Todd Allen, about recent trends in the digital distribution of comics.

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comics and convergence part three

This is the third of a series of out-takes from Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide which centers on convergence within the comics industry. This segment explores the ways that online communities are altering the ways that comics readers and publishers interact. A small portion of this content found its way into the book’s conclusion in a significantly altered form, but the rest of it is appearing here for the first time.

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comics and convergence part two

This entry continues the series of outtakes from Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. Again, the primary focus is on comics. Here, the focus is on the ways comics content is moving into film and television as well as the ways that television and film content increasingly is moving into comics.

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Comics and Convergence Part One

This is the first of a series of outtakes — passages written for Convergence Culture, but ultimately cut for reasons of length. Each represents a snap shot of convergence culture at work. Most of these sections were intended as side bars. Those of you who have read the book will know that it is structured around a series of core case studies that are developed in depth and sidebars which suggest other dimensionhs of the topic. Sidebars seemed like the most effective way of juxtaposing these other examples to the core discussion and seemed appropriate given the book’s focus on the way we pull together information from multiple sources. What I like about the sidebars is that readers will engage with them at different points in the reading process as their own whims dictate and thus each reader’s experience of the argument will be slightly different. Some will read them as they go; some will wait to the end of the chapter and then go back to read them, and so forth.

This section introduces comic books as a particularly rich site for understanding media change. As regular readers will note, I find comics a particularly interesting and relatively underexplored medium. Experiments in new approaches to popular storytelling often take place in comics — the risks are relatively low both because of lowered cost of production and because of the fringe nature of their readership. At the same time, comics content is being drawn into the commercial mainstream. More and more recent films have been based on comics — not simply predictible superhero fare such as X-Men, Batman Begins, or Spider-Man, but also off-beat independent films, such as American Splender, Ghost World, Road to Perdition, A History of Violence, and V for Vendetta, among others. I am a hardcore comics fan so you will be seeing lots of examples of trends from comics coming under my analytic gaze as this blog continues.

For those of you who own Convergence Culture, you can always print out these sections and tap them inside your book to assemble your own director’s cut edition. 🙂 For the rest of you, these will give you a taste of the style and structure of the book.

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