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.

Situating Bollywood: An Interview with Aswin Punathabekar (Part Three)

Despite your description of the range of media industries and practices which construct Bollywood today, it is clear that cinema remains the center around which all of these other media systems operate, and you also argue that cinema remains core to understanding the connections between Indian diasporic identity and media. So, what accounts for the continued centrality of cinema to the narrative you are constructing, given the other pressures towards transmedia and transnational logics you describe?

There are several reasons for the privileged position cinema occupies. The first is simply the enduring popularity of films and film music (mainly Hindi language cinema from Bombay) among South Asian families who migrated to the U.S. following changes in immigration law in 1965. From the late 1960s, when enterprising families began screening films in university halls and other venues, to the recent forays into film exhibition by Bombay-based media companies like Reliance Entertainment, Hindi-language Bollywood films continue to dominate the Desi mediascape.

These film screenings were usually held in university halls rented for a few hours during the weekend, with films screened off 16mm, and later, 35mm reels. These weekend screenings, with an intermission that lasted 30-45 minutes, were an occasion, apart from religious festivals, for people to wear traditional clothes, speak in Hindi or other regional languages, and participate in a ritual that was reminiscent of “home.”

During a period in which there were no cultural institutions in place, and little on offer in mainstream media that resonated with their emotions, nostalgic longing, and cultural values, leave alone addressing the difficulties of life in a new cultural space, these screenings were marked as an exclusively Indian space, away from mainstream society, where families could meet and participate in a ritual of sharing personal and collective memories of life in India.

A second reason that films and film music figure prominently in discussions of Desi youth culture relates to Desi youth appropriating and re-mixing film songs and dance sequences in college events, dance clubs, and so on.

Third, it is in and through cinema that diasporic writers and directors like Hanif Kureishi, Mira Nair, and Gurinder Chadha began addressing the complexities of claiming and defining South Asian identities in countries such as the U.K. and the U.S.

But you’re right that we are beginning to see some major changes in the diasporic mediascape. One question to ask is: do we even have a space for diasporic south asian films?

Mira Nair’s The Namesake does deal with diasporic themes, but it is a Bombay-based company that produced and distributed the film. Further, we are not at a point in the cultural life of the South Asian diaspora where media from the Indian subcontinent is only one part of a very diverse mix. Finally, with a range of actors of Indian-origin making their way into American and British public culture, one might argue that the diasporic sensibility that marked the work of cultural producers during the late 1980s-mid-1990s has given way to engagement with mainstream media.

 You begin your discussion of Bollywood fans by setting up the contrast between grassroots forms of media circulation that get labeled “media piracy” and various forms of industry cooperation which get labeled “crowdsourcing.” Is there a meaningful “space in between” these two paradigms? If so, what does it look like?

Part of the difficulty involved in charting the terrain of participatory culture surrounding Bollywood, especially in an era of networked audiences and publics, stems from the sheer range of sites and modes of participation one encounters. And in the Indian context, our understanding of participatory culture remains tied to a very specific history of fan associations and their links to electoral politics in south India. This narrative of fan/cine-politics has been so dominant that other modes and sites of participatory culture have not been considered, leave alone studied in systematic fashion, for no apparent reason other than their seemingly “non-political” character.

In fact, the topic of fan activity has not even been raised in relation to Bollywood. So in the book, I drew on some research I’ve done on fans of A. R. Rahman to argue that we need to move beyond narratives of political mobilization. The major Rahman fan community online includes fans who are primarily interested in film music, fans based in Malaysia for whom participation in the Rahman fan community is part of a larger process of claiming a Tamil ethnic identity, fans in India who work with Rahman, some fans who are, yes, “pirates,” and some who go so far as to police music stores (makeshift stores set up on pavements in busy shopping areas, in shopping complexes, and so on), threatening to call the police if pirated CDs of Rahman’s music are not taken off the shelf.

This is, as you put, a very complex “space in between” piracy and crowdsourcing. And we simply do not have the critical vocabulary to describe and theorize what’s going on in this space.

While my own recent work has sought to map the emerging links between fandom and activism, you argue that these links have totally dominated discourse around Bollywood film fans to the extent that they crowd out understandings of film consumption in the context of everyday life practices. American fan studies has often been accused of not being sufficiently political, of being too interested in the personal, cultural, affective, and social dimensions of popular culture. What might these two groups of scholars learn from each other?

The crucial difference we need to first acknowledge is between film studies and TV/media and communication studies in the Indian context. Film studies is the disciplinary location within which there has been at least some discussion of fandom, even if it has been studied primarily in the south Indian political context.

TV/media studies in the Indian context is yet to take the question of participatory culture seriously. I do not know of a single book-length study of participatory culture surrounding television in India. This is beginning to change in part because the past decade in India has been marked by some very interesting instances of participation surrounding reality TV, for instance, that has intersected with larger political issues.

In my own work in this emerging area, I’ve tried to be very careful to not make easy ‘political’ readings simply because I know next to nothing about the sociable dimensions of participation. And this is what I admire so much about scholars’ work on pleasure and participation in the American context.

As I see it, what we have here in the US is a wealth of historically grounded material on audiences and fans that provides a necessary foundation for examining links between participation and politics. But despite this archive that we have to work with, I feel strongly that it is only when we fully comprehend how participation and everyday life – say, in relation to our current digital and mobile context – are braided together that we can meaningfully pose questions about political impact.

 Your final paragraph includes a very provocative statement, which I was hoping you might expand upon here: “to look broadly at fan participation is to imagine transnational media worlds that are intimately tied to, but not always constrained by, statist or industrial imperatives.” Do tell.

As I’ve already explained, fan activity surrounding cinema in India – south India, in particular – has always had very close connections to the realm of politics. This cine-politics take on fandom has tended to dominate our understanding of participatory culture in India.

However, this cine-politics frame has given way to an extent under the influence of the incredible expansion of the mediascape since the mid-1990s. One of the key changes that the proliferation of television channels engendered was a shift in how audiences were imagined. Television channels like MTV-India, Channel [V], Star Plus, ZEE, and others invited audience participation. Of course, audience participation was tightly controlled and managed expertly – from talent shows to programs like Lift Kara De that leveraged fan labor for ostensibly humanitarian ends.

These changes made it clear that fandom was now an integral part of the corporate media apparatus. What I tried to signal with that last statement is the need to look beyond these two dominant frameworks – politics/state and market – without ignoring their structuring effects. I wanted to make a case for approaching fandom in India from a position of trust rather than suspicion (as my friend and colleague Paddy Scannell argues, media studies tends to operate with a hermeneutics of suspicion). Or to draw on your work, I want us to hop on this realm of pop, not stomp all over it.

For e.g., there is a group of fans who have painstakingly collected and subtitled numerous videos – film clips, TV appearances, interviews, advertisements, etc. – of the Bollywood star Shahrukh Khan. For anyone who might not understand the Hindi language, this website – srkpagli.net – was a wonderful resource. To approach the work that these fans have done by – a) dismissing it as apolitical or b) as simply a part of the Shahrukh Khan/corporate Bollywood system – is too reductive. I simply wanted to clear the space so we can begin to acknowledge the astonishing range of practices that constitute ‘fandom’ in the Indian context, and in doing so, develop richer and more nuanced accounts of participatory culture.
Aswin Punathambekar is an Associate Professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He is the author of From Bombay to Bollywood: The Making of a Global Media Industry (2013), and co-editor of Television at Large in South Asia (2013)and Global Bollywood (2008). He is now conducting research on the politics of mediated activism in India as part of a collaborative SSRC project on “Media, Activism, and the New Political.”

Situating Bollywood: An Interview with Aswin Punathambekar (Part Two)

You spend a significant amount of time in the book exploring the role that MTV India has played in shifting how films are marketed and how Bollywood understands its audiences. What factors have allowed MTV India to become a core player in this space? What has been their impact on Bollywood’s media strategies?

MTV did play a crucial role in shaping Bollywood’s industrial identity and marketing strategies, but it didn’t happen overnight. A range of new television channels that entered the Indian market during the mid-1990s attracted audiences with a range of film-based programs. ZEE, Star Plus, and other channels introduced a number of innovative film music-based shows like AntakshariSa Re Ga Ma, and Videocon Flashback, weekly countdown shows like BPL Oye and Philips Top Ten, and shows that reviewed popular films and evaluated their box office performance.

In fact, MTV-India went off the air for a period of two years and returned in 1996 with a redesigned brand identity and, most crucially, with the recognition of the importance of Hindi film music and “localized” programming to its fortunes in the Indian market.

Suggesting that the makeover was not exactly an easy process, one MTV-India executive explained to me that the decision to start with the “look” of the channel, especially the on-air promos, turned out to be the right one and crucial in terms of reaching out to directors and producers in the Bombay film industry who were skeptical, if not dismissive, of music television. As this executive put it, their goal was to “dovetail cool with Bollywood.”

Beginning in 1997-98, with a clear mandate to forge ties with the film industry, MTV-India executives began initiating conversations with a range of producers and directors in the Hindi film industry. And it took well over two years before the film industry began responding to television executives’ overtures. Once they had their foot in the door, however, MTV-India began making the case that their particular brand identity and programming sensibility would make the difference in what was a very cluttered television landscape. And by the early 2000s, Bollywood producers began setting aside a larger percentage of the budget for marketing and promoting films.

 

What roles did the internet play in shifting the relations between domestic and diasporic audiences for Bollywood films? To what degree is the contemporary media industry being shaped by a desire to court and capture “NRI Eyeballs”?

The trouble with saying anything about Bollywood-internet connections is the pace at which things change! My research does not take into account the impact that social media has had on marketing, stardom, participatory culture, and so on. But I can say that dot-com companies did play a central role in establishing the “overseas territory” as a key economic and cultural site for Bollywood. Simply put, television and marketing professionals working in Mumbai were not in a position to shape Bollywood’s relationship with overseas markets.

Speaking a language of web-metrics and capitalizing on the growing interest in marketing and promotions, dot-com companies began generating knowledge about overseas audiences’ engagement with Bollywood that was hitherto unavailable to filmmakers and stars operating primarily from Bombay. More crucially, dot-com professionals were able to forge connections and establish themselves within existing social networks in Bombay’s media world. And in doing so, dot-com companies emerged as powerful knowledge brokers who shaped the imaginations and practices of film industry professionals for whom envisioning an overseas territory had come to constitute an increasingly important dimension of going global.

Exploring this terrain raised a very interesting question for me regarding the dynamic relation between the expansion of capital into new territories and the work of rendering those new territories more imaginable. What Bollywood got was, in fact a very limited “spatial fix” as dot-com companies interpreted and resolved the problem of space—of imagining the overseas territory—in terms of overseas audiences’ cultural temporality with the nation. In other words, these companies only thought about the overseas territory in terms of non-Resident Indians. It is only over the past 4-5 years that these industry professionals have begun taking into account Bollywood’s popularity beyond South Asian communities.

 

What do you see as the use value of the concept of “transmedia entertainment” for exploring the ways that convergence has impacted the Bollywood industry? What do you see as missing from such an approach?

 

I don’t think “transmedia entertainment” is particularly useful at this point. I have yet to see a media producer in Bombay truly grasp the potential for transmedia storytelling. At the moment, it is largely driven by a marketing sensibility: pushing Bollywood content across platforms. To be sure, there have been a handful of interesting marketing campaigns and there was also an ambitious attempt to draw on India’s rich mythological tradition to drive film content. But we are yet to see a major push for storytelling across media.

Writers have started to talk about “Bollystan” to describe this new configuration of diasporic cultural identity. What does this term mean and is it a good description of the changes you are discussing in your book?

 

The term comes from a widely circulated article titled “Bollystan: The Global India,” in which the author Parag Khanna reflected on how processes of globalization had reframed relations between India and the vast Indian diaspora. Khanna wrote: “Increasingly linked by culture and technology, they form a Global India, which I call Bollystan. ‘Bolly’ connotes culture (e.g., Bollywood), and ‘Stan’ (Farsi for “land”) represents the transcendence of borders and sovereignty.” Khanna’s neologism first appeared in the Fall 2004 issue of Another Magazine, a now defunct publication targeted at “young, upwardly mobile South Asians.” Featuring Bollywood star Aishwarya Rai on the cover, the magazine declared: “Bollystan is a state without borders, defined by a shared culture and common values.”

Using the term Bollystan to refer to a vast space of trans-national cultural production that included everything from henna tattoos and remix music to literature and films, Khanna and other writers sought to map how rapid flows of people, culture and capital across national borders have rendered difficult any easy separation between nation and diaspora. In fact, Khanna proceeded to argue that Bollystan is “cosmopolitanism’s inversion: instead of one person being at home anywhere, it is re-rooting Desis everywhere in a real and imagined shared cultural space.”

But the fact is that where commercial media ventures are concerned, Bollystan has a very specific Anglo-American cultural geography and as a consequence, re-roots only certain kinds of Desis. The network of cities that are part of diasporic entrepreneurs’ imagination of Bollywood’s global reach include cities such as London, New York, Los Angeles, and Toronto but not, for instance, Durban in South Africa. And even within these cities in the Global North, it is only a certain narrow, largely middle and upper-middle class cultural sphere of South Asians that informs the imaginations and practices of media industry professionals.

Aswin Punathambekar is an Associate Professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He is the author of From Bombay to Bollywood: The Making of a Global Media Industry (2013), and co-editor of Television at Large in South Asia (2013)and Global Bollywood (2008). He is now conducting research on the politics of mediated activism in India as part of a collaborative SSRC project on “Media, Activism, and the New Political.”

Situating Bollywood: An Interview with Aswin Punathambekar (Part One)

This is another in a series of interviews with the authors of books we have published through the PostMillenial Pop series which I co-edit with Karen Tongson for New York University Press. 

I have known Aswin Punathambekar since he was part of one of the first cohorts of the MIT Comparative Media Studies program, where he did an ethnography/oral history of the experience of South Asian diasporic audiences in Boston as they impacted the reception of Bollywood films. He continued his graduate work at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where his dissertation focused on the online fandom around Bollywood composer A. R. Rahman. He has made some key contributions to the project of expanding the study of fandom and participatory culture beyond its origins in Western Culture, as reflected by articles published in Transformative Works and Culture and Popular Communication.

In a relatively short period of time, Punathambekar has developed a scholarly profile that is at once programmatic (in that he continually  deepens our understanding of media production and consumption in India and its global diaspora) and expansive (in that he has used his expertise on Bollywood to bring a much needed non-western perspective to work on a range of topics, including fan studies, participatory culture, media convergence, narrowcasting, mobile media, and digital citizenship, which have been central to media scholarship in the 21st century.) Punathambekar  has expanded upon his initial focus on audience studies to develop a mixed methods approach, which is at once theoretically sophisticated and historically informed.

His new book, From Bombay to Bollywood is a tour de force, one which connects Bollywood decisively to larger conversations about our current moment of media change, one which moves incorporates close readings not only of texts but also of media rituals (informed by the best work in Production Studies), to explain the larger contexts through which Bollywood operates as a global media industry, one that moves backwards from Bollywood’s relationship to digital networks to explore the historic role in radio in helping to shape the circulation of Indian film music.  This expansive understanding of what once might have been treated purely through a lens of “national cinema” was anticipated by his Global Bollywood anthology, which he co-edited with Anadam P. Kavoori. Global Bollywood brought together established scholars with younger researchers, many of whom received their first publications under his leadership, to create an important and groundbreaking exchange around how Hindi Cinema reflects and drives larger developments in the global media scape.

In this interview, he situates Bollywood at a series of intersections between film and other media, between local, regional, national, and transnational industries, between domestic and diasporic audiences, and between producers and fans.

You begin the book with the suggestion that Bollywood should be studied across media rather than through more traditional paradigms of national cinema. What factors have contributed to making Bollywood a particularly rich case for understanding contemporary convergence culture?

I worked out this perspective of media convergence or inter-media relations in part by revisiting a question that several scholars have tackled: how did Bombay emerge and maintain its position as the pre-eminent media capital in India? Film and media scholars have identified a number of key factors: the city’s position as a center of trade and commerce, and the influx, through the decades, of mercantile capital into film-making; its status as a vibrant cultural center, with established theater movements initially providing the film industry with a range of creative personnel; the use of Hindi which accorded the Bombay-based film industry (located in a multi-lingual city and in a state where the official language is Marathi) ‘national’ status whereas film industries in cities like Madras and Hyderabad were ascribed ‘regional’ status; and the impact of India’s partition on other centers of film production, most notably Calcutta and Lahore, and the migration of a number of producers, directors, actors and technicians to Bombay during this period.

I argue that there is another important factor: the role played by new media—radio, television, the internet and the mobile phone—in enabling the Bombay film industry to consistently imagine and mobilize a national and now, transnational audience. Moving past a film-centric approach, the case studies of television and dot-com companies’ relations with the film industry that I develop in the book invite us to consider how various ‘new media’ have, historically, reconfigured the cultural geography of Bombay cinema and Bombay’s status as a media capital.

Considering the case of Radio Ceylon, which broadcast a range of film-based programs that reached audiences across the Indian subcontinent, South Africa, and even some cities in east Africa, encourages us to ponder how other technological and institutional developments influenced the circulation of films and film music, transforming the Bombay film industry’s spatial coordinates and engendering new sites and forms of consumption. This does not necessarily mean that we think only about continuities from the 1950s to the present. Rather, my goal is to open up a space for more grounded explorations of the interwoven histories of different media technologies and institutions and, in the process, expand our understanding of the histories and patterns of media convergence.

So at a basic level, the ‘national cinema’ paradigm isn’t productive given Bombay’s position as a media capital that has always been shaped by trans-national forces and factors.  I’ll say more about the limitations of a strictly ‘national’ framework as I answer other questions here. But I should also point out that film historians like Priya Jaikumar have argued very convincingly that we need to move past the national cinema framework to understand how aesthetics, regulation, and other dimensions of the cinema in India have always been worked out in relation to various trans-national forces and factors.


You note that most work to date within the production studies tradition has focused on western and for the most part, American contexts. So, what might production studies as an emerging paradigm gain from a more thorough exploration of media production in India?

 

This is a crucial question not only for production culture/industry studies but media studies at large. Too often, “global media studies” serves as a mere placeholder for media studies outside Anglo-American academic settings, with “global” gesturing towards studies of “Other” media ecologies. Such studies are often understood as mere case studies that test and refine theoretical concepts developed within media studies proper. In writing this book, I have tried hard to steer clear of fitting what I observed into existing theories of production culture while at the same time avoiding celebrations of local difference.

For instance, I take into account the enduring power of long-standing social and kinship relationships in the Bombay film industry and, equally important, the creative ways in which small-scale, family-run businesses have responded to changes in the global media landscape and calls for corporatization. Examining the impact that the discourse of corporatization has had on the film industry by analyzing the construction of industrial identities suggests that the narrative of transition from one established mode of production to a new one, say Fordism to post-Fordism, does not adequately explain the industrial logics and practices that characterize Bollywood.

In fact, Madhava Prasad’s observation that the Hindi film industry adopted a “heterogeneous form of manufacture in which the whole is assembled from parts produced separately by specialists, rather than being centralized around the processing of a given material,” troubles stagist narratives of media industries in the non-Western world catching up with those in the West. After all, the dominant mode of production in the Bombay film industry could be described using terms like flexible accumulation and de-centralization that theorists like David Harvey use to describe the logics of late capitalism in the West. In other words, the particular histories of capital in Bombay cannot be easily set aside.

But this does not imply documenting a set of practices that are somehow essentially Indian. A closer look at the operations of family firms suggests that production relations defined by mercantile capital and kinship networks are neither static nor contained within national boundaries. And when we move beyond family businesses to consider a wider range of companies and professionals, it becomes clear that every domain of Bollywood including production, distribution, marketing and promotions, and exhibition involves negotiations among actors and institutions enmeshed in multiple, asymmetric, and seemingly incongruent cultures of capitalism.

You link the global extension of Bollywood to shifts in national cultural and media policy in India over the past decade, policies which involved a greater state role in the financing of media production, the regulation and “corporatization” of the media industries, and a recognition of the core cultural mission which film plays in shaping communication between the South Asian Disapora and the mother country. During this same period, though, we’ve seen a growing crisis in state funding and support for cinema, television, and other media across Europe. What might we learn by looking at developments in India and Western Europe side by side as we think about the place of state funding for media production in the 21st century?

Situating the emergence of Bollywood within the socio-historical conjuncture of the past two decades helps us understand how the state worked out its relationship with the cultural industries. Let’s not forget that even though Bombay had emerged as major center of film production during the 1930s and 40s, the Indian state did not regard filmmaking as an important industrial activity or as central to the project of defining national culture. What changed during the late 1980s and early 1990s?

This was a period that witnessed a number of socio-cultural and political transitions engendered by the Indian state’s adoption and gradual legitimization of neo-liberal economic policies including the privatization of different sectors of the economy and, broadly speaking, attempts to integrate the nation into a global economy. Among other arenas of cultural production, Hindi-language films and television shows played a crucial role in mediating these concerns. So one way to understand the state’s overtures towards the media industries is in terms of the media industries having become useful to the state. This is, of course, a global story. For instance, we see this kind of strategic alignment of state-media relations in the UK and Australia under the “creative industries” banner.

But in the Indian context, the usefulness of the media and entertainment industries was articulated in more than just this economic sense. If we consider Bollywood’s presence in settings such as the World Economic Forum (at Davos), we can see that the transformation of the Bombay film industry into Bollywood was caught up in a larger process of the state re-aligning its understanding of ‘culture as resource’ away from well-worn developmentalist paradigms towards meeting the demands of new circuits of capital. While development-oriented media production had its own shortcomings, it wasn’t beholden to commercial mandates. If anything, it is all the more difficult now to imagine carving out a space for independent and public media production.

It is also important to keep in mind that this particular re-alignment of state-media relations ended up privileging Bollywood as the global (Indian) media industry. The Tamil and Telugu language film and television industries based in Chennai and Hyderabad, for instance, are anything but “local.” The use of the term “regional” to mark these industries’ position within the Indian mediascape and the Indian state’s material and symbolic investments in Bollywood underscore the continued relevance of the “national” as a scale where the politics of media globalization play out.

Aswin Punathambekar is an Associate Professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He is the author of From Bombay to Bollywood: The Making of a Global Media Industry (2013), and co-editor of Television at Large in South Asia (2013)and Global Bollywood (2008). He is now conducting research on the politics of mediated activism in India as part of a collaborative SSRC project on “Media, Activism, and the New Political.”

Rethinking the “Value” of Entertainment Franchises: An Interview with Derek Johnson (Part One)

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

I have followed the career of Derek Johnson since he was an entering Master’s Student. We were foolish enough to have rejected Derek when he applied to be part of one of the first classes accepted into the MIT Comparative Media Studies program — it is not a mistake I would make again, because I now see Johnson as one of the most impressive cultural scholars of his generation. I admire his commitment to test theoretical frameworks against carefully documented case studies and his refusal to take an either-or position in our ongoing debates about structure and agency. He is someone who pays attention to points of negotiation or, his term, “collaboration,” where different participants in the processes of cultural production meet each other with differing stakes and differing degrees of power and control.

His strengths as a theorist and researcher are aptly demonstrated in his new book, Media Franchising: Creative License and Collaboration in the Culture Industries. The term, “franchises,” has been used loosely in media studies for years, but no one has systematically developed a framework for understanding its historic emergence, its discursive implications, its relationship to other industrial practices, and its consequences for what media content is produced and how it is marketed and consumed. Johnson’s work here is multidisciplinary — including a focus on the management of media systems, archival research and interviews with industry insiders, textual analysis, and audience research, all in the service of understanding the logics shaping contemporary media production. The book makes a vital intervention into ongoing discussions around transmedia storytelling and places a new emphasis upon the role of production design and world-building in the contemporary entertainment industries. I have already incorporated this book in my own teaching and writing, especially his work on “world-sharing” within the Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek universes. His writing is clear and accessible enough to satisfy many undergraduate students and sophisticated and provocative enough to generate heated discussions in graduate seminars, a hard balance to achieve.

The following interview focuses  on some of  the book’s core concerns, since there is so much there which will be of interest to the various communities that follow this blog. But, you need to know that Johnson is now producing scholarship at an astonishing speed on a broad range of contemporary media practices — from My Little Pony to Lego culture — and topics — including an important new collection on media authorship and another book in the works that deals with the processes and structures of media management. His recent work has especially engaged with issues of gender, sexuality, race, and class, as they relate to the development of children’s entertainment properties.

As you note, the concept of media franchises involves “a migration to the media industries of market logics from other business sectors.” What can you tell us about how the concept of media franchises emerged and what do you see as the implications of using the same concept to discuss the production of “McDonald’s, Mr. Goodwrench and Chicken Delight” and of Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica?

There’s at least two levels at which I think it’s important for us to draw this connection between the production of entertainment and these kind of business formats often used in the retail sector.  At the most basic, economic level, a franchise is a business arrangement where one party extends to another party the right to use some kind of idea or intellectual property in a new market.  In the mid 20th-century, McDonald’s and other franchisors increasingly looked to sign a bunch of independent franchisees across the country (and later the world) to extend the corporate footprint with little risk and investment (since the financial burden for operating these new locations fell on the franchisee, who actually paid the franchisor a fee for this right).  This is a very similar arrangement to what we see with media licensing—film rightsholders, for example, extending production responsibilities for video games or comic book tie-ins to third parties who absorb the production costs and risks.

Of course, media licensing is a practice with a long history predating the post-WWII franchise boom (see Avi Santo’s excellent work for this), so I’m not claiming that this kind of arrangement was fully inspired by McDonald’s and the like.  But I think it’s an important connection to draw because there’s a large literature in organizational communication, business, and other non-media fields that have reflected on the social dynamics of franchising structures.  Retail franchisors and franchisees have not always worked in unison; instead, franchisors are always working to assert their authority over independent outlets they cannot fully control, and franchisees seek to assert their local agency in a larger corporate culture (in a way a bit more complex than George Ritzer’s notion of the “McDonaldization” allows). It’s exactly the kind of question of power and negotiated struggle that I think speaks to cultural studies of the media.

What I do think is perhaps more “new” is the way this franchise boom in the latter half of the 20th century helped to shape the way in which the production of media entertainment would be increasingly imagined.  Media licensing, and even formatting (in the sense Albert Moran researches, where ideas for TV programs are exchanged between different local markets) were not new to the entertainment media of the 1950s and beyond, but came to be understood through this same “franchise” imaginary.  As Moran tells us, Romper Room was a 1950s children’s television series that was originated in one local television market, and then spawned new productions in others—with the creators having looked to fast food franchising as an alternative model to network distribution.  It is by the late 1980s and early 1990s, of course, that the language of franchising enters common usage for making sense of entertainment media—where we start to understand “franchise” as a commonsense descriptor for things like Star Trek, Batman, and others that cross multiple sites of branded production and consumption.

I think it’s particularly crucial to understand this connection because the franchising metaphor also shapes our critical orientations to these entertainment brands.

Calling something a “franchise” is not a neutral declaration: it prompts us to think about the media in the same terms that we think about McDonald’s.  There is a recognition of the industrial basis for that culture and its hyper-commercial, systemic mode of multiplication and maintenance over time.  Often that comes with an implied critique as well, where acknowledging something as a “franchise” product suggests that its existence is based on market calculation more than creative expression.

When I first offered franchising as a site of analysis at a conference many years back, one colleague advised me to come up with a different term because of the very economically determined, delegitimating connotations it had.  The link between McDonald’s and media in franchising, therefore, is one that makes cultural production meaningful, and it does so in ways that are not always flattering and make it a source of tension and struggle for those involved or invested in that production.  My interest was not to take the economic determination implied by franchising for granted, but to think about how those implicated in and by that term work to negotiate those meanings.

 

You argue that franchises are not “self-propagating” phenomenon. So, where does agency lie in our discussion of franchises?

In the people who do the work of that propagation.  I consider franchises not as produced by corporations who own the rights to media properties, but also all the other stakeholders who seek to get something out of the work of expanding production and making more of that cultural product.  This could be the producers hired by major media conglomerates to take the reins of a particular franchise—author figures like Ron Moore (Battlestar Galactica) or JJ Abrams (the recent Star Trek films) or the long line of different comic book authors and editors hired by Marvel or DC to be steward of their ongoing superhero narratives.

Despite whatever authorship and genius we might recognize in these folks, they are still “for hire” workers with only a very bounded and limited (often contractually temporary) claim to authority in the franchise.  The site of agency could also lie in the less visible below-the-line labor of production designers, musicians, and technicians who are asked to recognize the vast histories and networks of collaboration surrounding a franchise in the course of their work.  And it could also extend to the licensees who are contracted to produce ancillary materials meant to work in some relationship to other products, but produced from a position outside more privileged sites of creativity and subject to the stringent approvals of rightsholders and other authorities.  I also want to locate agency within the consumer as well, as fans and other audiences do a lot of work to help these franchises move across markets and persist over time.

 

The idea that a popular narrative is a complex mix of commercial and cultural motives has been one of the most long-standing themes in film studies (going back to the auteur theory), so why has it been so hard for some people to accept the idea that “franchise properties” might also be culturally meaningful? In what sense are the properties you study “creative”?

 

In that there’s a lot at stake in the ability of people working in these contexts to be able to lay claim to the idea of creativity.  On the one level, I definitely acknowledge and am fascinated by the capacity for franchising to support complex storylines, design histories, and capacities for expression.  But on the other, I see “creativity” not as an essential truth but as a status and subjective identity that media producers and workers would claim about themselves (“I am creative; I do creative work”).  Particularly because the hyper-commercial realm of media franchising is so critically delegitimized, I’m particularly interested in how those involved with franchising might position themselves in opposition to that franchising and assert their uniqueness, authority, or vision.

Think JJ Abrams and not only his choice to replace the old Star Trek continuity with the new one, but also the distance he puts up between himself and the original series (he prefers Star Wars), and his tendency to retroactively disavow ancillary video games (he just claimed to have “dropped out” of producing the 2013 Star Trek video game despite his co-producers’ participation in the development stages, distancing himself from perceptions that it was nothing but a cheap cash grab)

One of my other favorite examples is how Dirk Benedict, the original Starbuck from the 1970s Battlestar Galactica, attacked the new series by emphasizing its “franchise” status and casting the mass production of franchising as part of a gendered war on masculinity.  The commercialism of franchising raises the stakes for media workers to position themselves as creative and as different from all the others that use the same idea or premise or property toward this ongoing commercial end.  It helps to position one’s self as such if you actually do innovative things, and I think we do see that a lot in media franchising given this imperative for differentiation.

But sometimes that differentiation comes as much in the identity claims of specific contributors as it does the product itself (and as the case of Benedict and what Suzanne Scott calls the “fanboy auteur” suggest, these franchise identity claims are often explicitly gendered).  As much as franchise products may or may not be indicative of creativity, I see franchising more broadly as a site of struggle over creativity, what it means, and who can claim it in industrial contexts.

You describe in the book interviews you have done with media industry insiders who want to deflect or disavow the concept of franchising as informing their creative decisions. Why do you think the term produced such discomfort? What alternative models do they draw on to describe their work?

 

Similar to the above, I think it’s because when you’re talking about creative decisions, the idea of franchising (and all the economically-determined calculation it implies in popular and industry use) calls the potential creativity of those decisions into question.  So what I found were often appeals to reassert creativity—and often singular authorship—in opposition to the idea of franchising.

While this wasn’t one of my own interviews, Lost is a great example of this, where the conclusion of the series generated all kinds of industry and critical speculation about franchise potential, and the producers repeatedly came out to publically state that they would have none of it and that theirs was “definitive” version of Lost.

To me that’s what fascinating about franchising—it is both a logic for multiplying media production, but also a meaningful discourse for making sense of and assigning value to that production.  It forces producers to confront the fact that they don’t have creative monopoly in the for-hire work they do for corporations.  It also forces them to position themselves and their work in relation to that of others who come before, after, and in parallel.  That can create contradiction and discomfort around the idea of creativity, which leads to that disavowal.

Derek Johnson is Assistant Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.  He is the author of Media Franchising: Creative License and Collaboration in the Culture Industries (NYU Press, 2013), as well as the co-editor of A Companion to Media Authorship (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013) and Making Media Work: Cultures of Management in the Media Industries (NYU Press, forthcoming 2014).  His research focuses in the media industries, looking at how cultures of production negotiate creativity, convergence, and collaboration.  Most recently he has started working on a new single-authored book project focusing on children’s media industries and the way in which producer identities cohere in relation to ideas about age, taste, and the child audience.  He has published several journal articles and chapters on the subject of Marvel Comics and their cross-media practices, and in his forthcoming publications, he has critiqued the industry strategies behind the HerUniverse web shop as well as the racial logics behind LEGO’s licensed film and comic minifigures.

Guerrilla Marketing: An Interview with Michael Serazio (Part Two)

You make an interesting argument here that today’s guerrilla advertising represents the reverse of the culture jamming practices of the 1980s and 1990s, i.e. if culture jamming or adbusting involved the highjacking of Madison Avenue practices for an alternative politics, then today’s branding often involves the highjacking of an oppositional stance/style for branding purposes. Explain.

 

There have been various examples that have popped up here and there that hint at this hijacking: Adbusters magazine’s apparent popularity with ad professionals; PBR’s marketing manager looking to No Logo for branding ideas; heck, AdAge even named Kalle Lasn one of the “ten most influential players in marketing” in 2011.  Similarly, you see this subversive, counterculture ethos in the work of Crispin Porter + Bogusky, the premier ad shop of the last decade.  But I think the intersection goes deeper than these surface ironies and parallels.  There’s something about the aesthetics and philosophy of culture jamming that contemporary advertising finds enticing (especially when trying to speak to youth audiences): It resonates a disaffection with consumer culture; a streetwise sensibility; and so on.  For culture jammers, such stunts and fonts like flash mobs and graffiti art are political tools; for advertisers, they’re just great ways to break through the clutter and grab attention.  More abstractly, culture jammers see branding as an elaborate enterprise in false consciousness that needs to be unmasked toward a more authentic lived experience; guerrilla marketers, on the other, simply see culture jamming techniques as a way of reviving consumers from the “false conscious” of brand competitors.  Think different, in that sense, works equally well as an Apple slogan and a culture-jamming epigram.

 

You cite one advertising executive as saying, “friends are better at target marketing than any database,” a comment that conveys the ways that branding gets interwoven with our interpersonal relationships within current social media practices. What do you see as some of the long-term consequences of this focus on consumer-to-consumer marketing?

 

In a sense, the whole book – and not merely the friend-marketing schemes – is an exploration of how commercial culture can recapture trust amidst rampant consumer cynicism.  That’s what drives guerrilla marketing into the spaces we’re seeing it: pop culture, street culture, social media, and word-of-mouth.  These contexts offer “authenticity,” which advertisers are ever desperate to achieve given their fundamental governmental task is actually the polar opposite: contrivance.  (Sarah Banet-Weiser’s new book offers a sophisticated analysis of this fraught term across wide-ranging contexts in this regard.)  As far as long-term consequences go, I think it’s important to keep in mind the complicity of consumers in this whole process: In other words, being a buzz agent is still just a voluntary thing.  It’s not like these participants are being duped or exploited into participating.  It’s worth accounting for that and asking why shilling friends is acceptable in the first place.  Is it because of some kind of “social capitalism” wherein we already think of ourselves in branding terms and use hip new goods to show we’re in the marketplace vanguard?  The book is, of course, only a study of marketers not consumers, so it’s pure conjecture, but I think understanding that complicity is key to any long-term forecast of these patterns’ effects on our relationships and culture.

 

Both of our new books pose critiques of the concept of “the viral” as they apply to advertising and branding, but we come at the question from opposite directions. What do you see as the core problems with the “viral” model?

 

From my perspective, there’s an implicit (and not necessarily automatically warranted) populism that accompanies the viral model and label.  Viral success seems to “rise up” from the people; it has a kind of grassroots, democratic, or underground ethos about it.  In some cases, this is deserving, as we see when some random, cheap YouTube video blows up and manages to land on as many screens and in front of as many eyeballs as a Hollywood blockbuster which has all the promotional and distribution machinery behind it.  And because viral is supposedly underdog and populist, it’s “authentic,” so advertisers and brands naturally gravitate toward it, which, for me, makes it an intriguing object of study.  Abstractly speaking, that, too, is at the heart of the book’s inquiry and critique: The masquerades and machinations of powerful cultural producers (like advertisers) working through surrogate channels (like viral) that exude that authentic affect in different guises (here, populist).  Again, this is not to invalidate the genuine pluckiness of a “real” viral hit; it’s simply to keep watch on efforts to digitally “astroturf” that success when they show up.

 

While this blog has often treated what I call “transmedia storytelling” or what Jonathan Gray discusses as “paratexts” sympathetically as an extension of the narrative experience, you also rightly argue that it is an extension of the branding process. To what degree do you see, say, alternate reality games as an extension of the new model of consumption you are discussing in this book? Does their commercial motives negate the entertainment value such activities provide?

 

Oh, certainly not – and I should clarify here that I’m by no means taking the position that commercial motives necessarily negate the pleasure or creativity of participatory audiences.  Alternate reality games (or alternate reality marketing, as I call it) are, in a sense, the fullest extension of many of these practices, themes, and media platforms scattered throughout the book.  They feature outdoor mischief (e.g., flash mob-type activities) and culture jamming-worthy hoaxes, seek to inspire buzz and social media productivity from (brand) communities, and, above all, seem to be premised upon “discovery” rather than “interruption” in the unfolding narrative.  And the sympathetic treatments of their related elements (transmedia storytelling, paratexts) are assuredly defensible.  But they are, also, advertising – and, for my purposes here, they’re advertising that tries not to seem like advertising.  And, again, I believe in that self-effacement, much is revealed about today’s cultural conditions.

 

You end the book with the observation that “more media literacy about these guerrilla efforts can’t hurt.” Can you say more about what forms of media literacy would be desirable? What models of media change should govern such efforts? What would consumers/citizens need to know in order to change their fates given the claims about structure and agency you make throughout the book?

 

I suppose I end the book on a lament as much as a diatribe.  I’m not an abject brand-hater and I hope the book doesn’t come off that way.  That said, I certainly do empathize with the myriad critiques of advertising mounted over the years (i.e., its divisive designs on arousing envy, its ability to blind us to the reality of sweatshop labor, its unrealistic representation of women’s bodies, etc.).  The media literacy I aim for is awareness that these commercial forms are (often invisibly) invading spaces that we have not traditionally been accustomed to seeing advertising.  In general, brands don’t address us on conscious, rational terms and, thus, if we’re wooed by them, our subsequent consumer behavior is not necessarily informed as such.  In that sense, I guess, it’s as much a Puritan critique of commercialism as it is, say, Marxist.  Media literacy like this would encourage consumers to think carefully and deeply about that which advertisers seek to self-efface and to (try to) be conscious and rational in the face of guerrilla endeavors that attempt to obfuscate and bypass those tendencies.  The cool sell is an enticing seduction.  But we can – and do – have the agency to be thoughtful about it.

Thanks very much for the opportunity to discuss the book!

Michael Serazio is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication whose research, writing, and teaching interests include popular culture, advertising, politics, and new media.  His first book, Your Ad Here: The Cool Sell of Guerrilla Marketing (NYU Press, 2013), investigates the integration of brands into pop culture content, social patterns, and digital platforms amidst a major transformation of the advertising and media industries.  He has work appearing or forthcoming in Critical Studies in Media CommunicationCommunication Culture & CritiqueTelevision & New Media, and The Journal of Popular Culture, among other scholarly journals.  He received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication and also holds a B.A. in Communication from the University of San Francisco and a M.S. in Journalism from Columbia University.  A former staff writer for the Houston Press, his reporting was recognized as a finalist for the Livingston Awards and has written essays on media and culture for The AtlanticThe Wall Street JournalThe Nation, and Bloomberg View.  His webpage can be found at: http://sites.google.com/site/linkedatserazio

Guerrilla Marketing?: An Interview with Michael Serazio (Part One)

Transmedia, Hollywood 4: Spreading Change. Panel 1 – Revolutionary Advertising: Creating Cultural Movements from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

From time to time, I have been showcasing, through this blog, the books which Karen Tongson and I have been publishing through our newly launched Postmillenial Pop series for New York University Pop. For example, Karen ran an interview last March with Lucy Mae San Pablo Burns, author of of the series’s first book, Puro Arte: Filipinos on the Stage of Empire. This week, I am featuring an exchange with Michael Serazio, the author of another book in the series, Your Ad Here: The Cool Sell of Guerrilla Marketing, and I have arranged to feature an interview with the other writers in the series across the semester.

We were lucky to be able to feature Serazio as one of the speakers on a panel at last April’s Transmedia Hollywood 4: Spreading Change conference, see the video above, where he won people over with his soft-spoken yet decisive critiques of current branding and marketing practices. Your Ad Here achieves an admirable balance: it certainly raises very real concerns about the role which branding and marketing plays in contemporary neo-liberal capitalism, calling attention to the hidden forms of coercion often deployed in approaches which seem to be encouraging a more “empowered” or “participatory” model of spectatorship. Yet he also recognizes that the shifting paradigm amounts to more than a rhetorical smokescreen, and so he attempts to better understand the ways that brands are imagining their consumers at a transformative moment in the media landscape. His approach is deeply grounded in the insider discourses shaping Madison Avenue, yet he also can step outside of these self-representations to ask hard questions about what it means to be a consumer in this age of converged and grassroots media.  I was struck as we were readying this book for publication that it was ideally read alongside two other contemporary publications — Sarah Banet-Weiser’s Authentic TM: The Politics of Ambivalence in Brand Culture (see my interview with Banet-Weiser last spring) and our own Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture (co-authored with Sam Ford and Joshua Green). Each of these books comes at a similar set of phenomenon — nonconventional means of spreading and attracting attention to messages — through somewhat different conceptual lens.

You will get a better sense of Serazio’s unique contributions to this debate by reading the two-part interview which follows.

You discuss the range of different terminology the industry sometimes uses to describe these emerging practices, but end up settling on “Guerrilla Marketing.” Why is this the best term to describe the practices you are discussing?

 

Conceptually, I think “guerrilla” marketing best expresses the underlying philosophy of these diverse practices.  To be certain, I’m appropriating and broadening industry lingo here: If you talk to ad folks, they usually only think of guerrilla marketing as the kind of wacky outdoor stunts that I cover in chapter 3 of the book.  But if you look at the logic of branded content, word-of-mouth, and social media strategies, you see consistent patterns of self-effacement: the advertisement trying to blend into its non-commercial surroundings – TV shows and pop songs, interpersonal conversations and online social networks.  Advertising rhetoric has long doted upon militarized metaphors – right down to the fundamental unit of both sales and war: the campaign. 

But when I started reading through Che Guevara’s textbook on guerrilla warfare, I heard parallel echoes of how these emerging marketing tactics were being plotted and justified.  Guerrilla warfare evolved from conventional warfare by having unidentified combatants attack outside clearly demarcated battle zones.  Guerrilla marketing is an evolution from traditional advertising (billboards, 30-spots, Web banners, etc.) by strategizing subtle ad messages outside clearly circumscribed commercial contexts.  Guerrilla warfare forced us rethink the meaning of and rules for war; guerrilla marketing, I would argue, is doing the same for the ad world.

 

Let’s talk a bit more about the concept of “clutter” that surfaces often in discussions of these advertising practices. On the one hand, these new forms of marketing seek to “cut through the clutter” and grab the consumers attention in a highly media-saturated environment, and on the other, these practices may extend the clutter by tapping into previously unused times and spaces as the focal point for their branding effort. What do you see as the long-term consequences of this struggle over “clutter”?

 

Matthew McAllister had a great line from his mid-1990s book that tracked some of these same ad trends to that point: “Advertising is… geographically imperialistic, looking for new territories that it has not yet conquered.  When it finds such a territory, it fills it with ads – at least until this new place, like traditional media, has so many ads that it becomes cluttered and is no longer effective as an ad medium.”  I think this encapsulates what must be a great (albeit bitter) irony for advertisers: You feel like your work is art; it’s all your competitors’ junk that gets in the way as clutter. 

As to the long-term fate of the various new spaces hosting these promotional forms, I don’t have much faith that either media institutions or advertisers will show commercial restraint if there’s money to be made and eyeballs to be wooed.  I think eventually pop culture texts like music tracks and video games will be as saturated as film and TV when it comes to branded content; journalism, regrettably, seems to be leaning the same direction with the proliferation of “native advertising” sponsored content.  Facebook and Twitter have been trying to navigate this delicate balance of clutter – increasing revenues without annoying users – but here, too, it doesn’t look promising. 

Maybe if audiences wanted to pay for so much of that content and access which they’ve grown accustomed to getting for free, then maybe clutter is not the expected outcome here, but I’m not terribly sanguine on that front either.  The one guerrilla marketing tactic I don’t see over-cluttering its confines is word-of-mouth just because as a medium (i.e., conversation) that remains the “purest,” comparatively, and it’s hard to imagine how that (deliberate external) commercial saturation would look or play out.

 

There seems to be another ongoing tension in discussions of contemporary media between a logic of “personalization” and individualization on the one hand and a logic of “social” or “networked” media on the other. Where do you see the practices you document here as falling on that continuum? Do some of these practices seem more individualized, some more collective?

 

Really interesting question and here I’ll borrow Rob Walker’s line from Buying In on the “fundamental tension of modern life” (that consumer culture seeks to resolve): “We all want to feel like individuals.  We all want to feel like a part of something bigger than our selves.” 

The guerrilla marketing strategies that are showing up in social media probably best exemplify this paradox.  On one hand, brands want to give fans and audiences both the tools for original self-expression and simultaneously furnish the spaces for that networked socialization to take root.  On the other hand, all that clearly needs to be channeled through commercial contexts so as to achieve the “affective economics” that you identified in Convergence Culture

I look at something like the branded avatar creation of, say, MadMenYourself.com, SimpsonizeMe.com, or Office Max’s “Elf Yourself” online campaign as emblematic pursuits in this regard.  The “prosumer” can fashion her identity through the aesthetics of the brand-text (i.e., personalization) and then share it through their social networks (i.e., it’s assumed to be communally useful as well).  But, as I note in a forthcoming article in Television & New Media, these tools and avenues for expression and socialization are ultimately limited to revenue-oriented schemes – in other words, corporations are not furnishing these opportunities for self-discovery and sharing from an expansive set of possibilities.  They’re only allowed to exist if they help further the brand’s bottom line.

Michael Serazio is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication whose research, writing, and teaching interests include popular culture, advertising, politics, and new media.  His first book, Your Ad Here: The Cool Sell of Guerrilla Marketing (NYU Press, 2013), investigates the integration of brands into pop culture content, social patterns, and digital platforms amidst a major transformation of the advertising and media industries.  He has work appearing or forthcoming in Critical Studies in Media CommunicationCommunication Culture & CritiqueTelevision & New Media, and The Journal of Popular Culture, among other scholarly journals.  He received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication and also holds a B.A. in Communication from the University of San Francisco and a M.S. in Journalism from Columbia University.  A former staff writer for the Houston Press, his reporting was recognized as a finalist for the Livingston Awards and has written essays on media and culture for The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, The Nation, and Bloomberg View.  His webpage can be found at: http://sites.google.com/site/linkedatserazio

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.