Digital Cosmpolitans: An Interview with Ethan Zuckerman (Part One)

Ethan Zuckerman is one of the big thinkers, and doers who consistently inspires me. His Wikipedia entry identifies him as “an American media scholar, blogger, and internet activist.” All of this is true, but that’s just part of the picture. He’s also someone who consults regularly with major foundations, think tanks, NGOs, and policy-makers, as they try to understand the potentials, and risks, of networked computing. As the founder of GeekCorps and Global Voices, he’s put his geeky skills to work to try to change the problems which worry him the most about our contemporary culture. He’s someone who has a formed a network of other bloggers and digital activists around the world, and someone who travels often to parts of the planet that most of us could not point out on a map, in order to better understand the political, cultural, and technological conditions on the ground there. He’s become one of our best thinkers about “digital age civics” and through his work as the Director of the MIT Center for Civic Media, he’s leading a team of graduate students as they seek to design tools which might empower activists and community leaders to be more effective at fostering social change. He does this while remaining mild-mannered, easy-going, modest, and open-minded, a model for what an engaged public intellectual might look like in the 21st century. I am lucky to be able to call him a friend.
Last year, he published an important and timely book, Rewired: Digital Cosmopolitanism in the Age of Connection, which should be required reading for all Americans. Zuckerman is asking us to think more deeply about how we learn about the world and whether our access to the WORLD Wide Web has done much to change the parochialism within our culture. Here, he draws on the full range of his experiences to bring us face to face with the blind spots in our information consumption, with the challenges in overcoming isolationist and xenophobic tendencies in our society, but also to propose alternative strategies by which some people are becoming “bridge builders” who embrace diversity and insure that we have greater access to alternative  perspectives. Zuckerman understands the complexities and contradictions of our current moment, adopting a position that is sometimes optimistic, somethings skeptical, but always feels  is in the service of building a better society.
In the interview that follows, Zuckerman spells out some of the core concepts from Rewired, including some consideration of what the book might have to say to fans, journalists, educators, and other citizens.
Much of the media discussion around the Arab Spring movements has centered on the fantasy of more person-to-person communications across borders via social media rather than through the more formal relations between nations or the mediated communications of traditional journalism. Why has this fantasy of a “Twitter Revolution” proven so compelling to people when their everyday practices often involve relatively limited communications outside of their immediate circles of friends and families?
 
Like many compelling fantasies, the Twitter Revolution myth has some roots in fact. Tunisia’s revolution had a strong media component. Protests in Sidi Bouzid would likely have been invisible to the rest of Tunisia and the rest of the world had they not been documented on Facebook, edited and contextualized by Nawaat.org and amplified by Al Jazeera. And there are deep ties between activists in Tunisia and in Egypt that helped spread ideology and tactics of those revolutions via social media. But any account of the Arab Spring that doesn’t focus on existing labor movements, soccer fanclubs, neighborhood organizations and other forms of offline social organizing misses the point.
 
I think Twitter revolutions are such a compelling idea because they allow us to inscribe ourselves on global events. If digital media is the key actor in a political event, and we’re participating by amplifying tweets online, we are part of the revolution, an exciting and compelling prospect. And there are times when this, too, is true – if an event is visible locally and invisible globally, and we take responsibility for translating and amplifying it, leading to global coverage, we might, in fact, share some credit for changing circumstances on the ground.
 
But this ability to be a participant in a minor way in a global event tends to blind us to our more ordinary use of these media. Very few of us are Andy Carvin, using our online presence to curate digital media and connect our readers to global events. Our use of these tools tends to be about connecting with friends and interests that are far closer to home. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that – it’s fine for social media to be a tool that connects us locally if we have other media that informs and connects us globally. What strikes me as dangerous is the illusion of connection, the compelling idea that we are encountering global perspectives via digital media when we’re mostly reinforcing local ones.
 
You write, “[New Media] tools help us to discover what we want to know, but they’re not very powerful in helping us discover what we might need to know.” This seems to be a central theme of the book, that we have opened up new channels of communication which might allow us to connect with others around the world, but that our use of those tools has been limited by a lack of motivation or understanding. We seek out information only about those topics we already care about, and a large part of the world falls outside of that zone of interests. What are some of the signs that our interest in the world is more limited than our technological reach at the present time?
 
 I think the main reminder is sense of surprise that pervades much of modern life. The Arab Spring was a surprise, but only up to a point. For those few watching Tunisian social media, it became clear pretty quickly that something deeply unusual and transformative was taking place. At Global Voices, we were able to see the protests unfolding weeks before they received attention in mainstream American media. There’s a strong tendency in our contemporary media environment to pay attention to stories only when they’ve reached a crisis point – we’re always arriving in the fourth act, and we never stay through the denoument. It’s possible to imagine a form of media that’s scanning the horizons and giving us a better sense of what’s coming, not what’s already arrived.
 
I think a second reminder is our ability to turn on global networks at moments of crisis. The global response to SARS was quite amazing – within a week of identifying a new syndrome, the WHO had global videoconferences that allowed frontline medical personnel to identify symptoms and jointly diagnose new cases. Once those networks were set up, the spread of the disease slowed dramatically. When we need international connection, we’re capable of bringing it about very quickly.
 
One of the reasons the book has been challenging to describe is that this question you’re asking -what are we missing when we’re so tightly attached to local media – is a really hard one to answer. I tend to understand it in personal terms. I follow African media, particularly west African media, quite closely, due to my long personal ties to the region, and as a result, I see stories well in advance of their visibility in broader media. And while that sounds self-congratulatory, patting myself on the back for my global vision, the actual experience is more anxiety-producing, because it’s a perpetual reminder of how much there is to know and discover. The little I know about Nigerian politics that most Americans don’t is a perpetual reminder of how much else is going on in the world, and how little we encounter until it manifests as a crisis or emergency.
 
What roles does the news media play in shaping what we care about and conversely, to what degree does our lack of concern or interest impact what the news media is prepared to cover?
 

I think this relationship between caring and coverage matters much more than it did a generation ago. Newspapers include stories on a wide range of topics, local, national and international. Until recently, our sense for what readers wanted to hear about came from newsstand sales and letters to the editor, very inexact tools for understanding which stories were being read and which were being ignored. Now we have incredibly granular information, that shows interest on a story by story level, including readership and time spent per reader per article. Publishers are acutely aware of these statistics, and more editors and writers are becoming aware of these figures. It becomes harder and harder for authors to report on stories that don’t already have an audience, as there’s a very strong temptation to write what people want to hear, as they will reward you with their attention.

 
This becomes a circular equation, because people need help developing an interest in new topics. A fascinating story isn’t immediately apparent or comprehensible to an audience. Take the mortgage crisis a few years back – most coverage focused on the moment to moment details, featuring stories that were comprehensible to financial professionals and few others. This American Life made a major investment – an hour-long story called The Giant Pool of Money – that helped audiences understand the crisis and become better consumers of future stories on the crisis. If we wanted people to pay attention to protests in Sudan (people beyond those of us who are already watching those protests), we’d need to invest time, energy and reader attention in explaining the context and importance… and we’d be gambling that we were able to create an audience for that story in the future. 
 
The net result of this cycle, I fear, is that we get an enormous amount of information on stories we “know” are important – the minutia of US federal elections and the machinations of Congress  - and very little information on parts of the world we know little about, care little about, and care little about because we hear little about.
 
I’ve often thought that there might be a need to shift from a focus on international news (news about things happening elsewhere on the planet) to global news (news that shows the connections between distant events and people in our own communities.) Would such an approach help resolve the gaps you are describing here? Why or why not?
 
I think we’d gain a great deal from journalism that helped contextualize global events in local terms. The best newspapers and broadcasters have historically tried to do this – one of the losses we experience  when local newspapers cut international bureaus is the connection between global stories and local communities. 
We need something broader, I suspect, as not every event in Myanmar has an immediate local connection. Sometimes we need heroes and heroines – think of Malala in Pakistan and the ways in which her story has been a window into gender and educational issues in that part of the world. While we can go too far and turn a story about issues into a story about a single person, we often benefit from stories that let us feel like we know and care about an individual in another country or culture.
 
I think we also need to learn how to tell stories that look at local facets of global issues. A story like climate change is critically important, but extremely difficult to report. We might benefit from an approach to reporting that showed us the implications for different people in different communities, interweaving personal stories with the science and politics of the issues.
 
Ethan Zuckerman is director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, and a principal research scientist at MIT’s Media Lab.  He is the author of “Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection”, published by W.W. Norton in June 2013. With Rebecca MacKinnon, Ethan co-founded international blogging community Global Voices. Global Voices showcases news and opinions from citizen media in over 150 nations and thirty languages. Ethan’s research focuses on issues of internet freedom, civic engagement through digital tools and international connections through media. He blogs athttp://ethanzuckerman.com/blog and lives in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts.

What World Wrestling Entertainment Can Teach Us About the Future of Television (Part Two)

The following exchange is between my son, Henry Jenkins IV, who is a Creative Development Coordinator at the Alchemists, a transmedia company, and Sam Ford, who is  Director of Audience Engagement at Pepercom Communications, a strategic communications firm. They are both life-long wrestling fans and regular contributors to this blog. They are sharing their thoughts here about some significant new developments in the world of “sports entertainment,” which constitute another of those factors this past year, which are transforming television as we know it. Tom Phillips,  Senior Research Associate contributing to research at University of East Anglia and University of Edinburgh, has written a thoughtful response to this blog post, which can be read here

Henry:  As a writer of transmedia I want to think about the biggest, most creative ways you could use the WWE Network. But realistically there are a host of factors that limit what a producer is going to want to do. Budget is one of those factors. You can’t spend the money that the WWE Network will make when so far it hasn’t made a cent. It won’t start selling subscriptions until late next month. Man hours are also an issue. They’e already producing six hours of TV every week, and it’s going to be a massive undertaking just to get the infrastructure working and the archive available online. But here’s another recent story that would play on my mind if I were them.

The WWE has a reality show, Total Divas, on the E! Network. The writers weren’t finding enough time to flesh out the female wrestlers’ characters on their main shows, so they created Total Divas as a way to build relationship-driven, soap operatic stories around those characters. On the surface it was a brilliant move. Two of the main characters of Total Divas, identical twin wrestlers Brie and Nikki Bella, had come across poorly for years, but became genuinely likable stars on Total Divas. Just one or two episodes completely changed the way I felt about those characters. The show did good ratings. Online fans seemed to like it. So the WWE took the obvious next step: They pushed The Bella Twins to the forefront on their wrestling shows. They got crickets. Nobody cared.  It baffled me for a second, but then I think everyone realized what the problem was. Most of their fans still weren’t watching Total Divas.Only a subset of the WWE’s global following had been necessary to make Total Divas a success, and the people who were interested in watching the women’s wrestlers plan their weddings weren’t necessarily the ones going to the fights. The show was on a different network, at a different time. The people who hadn’t seen the Bellas in a likable light yet hadn’t changed their opinion. They booed the Bellas. So in a way, the show had only accomplished half its goal. It had given the divas more time to develop their characters, but hadn’t noticeably effected their popularity at the live events.

Total Divas was originally conceived of as a WWE Network program, and you can see the logic. The WWE has about 80 wrestlers on their active roster. They’ve got 24 hours of programming to fill. Better start utilizing everyone. They’re using the Network as a chance to showcase NXT – the minor leagues of pro wrestling. Commercials and online videos have explicitly reminded fans that the top stars they love began their careers in NXT, and told them to watch the next stars’ rise to glory from the very beginning. Another move that echoes real sports, where fans are often excited about their team’s young prospects. One could imagine a reality show that focused on following tag teams. Do they get along off stage? Do they have fights right before they have to team up on camera? Or do they love each other and have lots of fun together that we never get to see? With the WWE already airing six hours of programming on cable, and now posting thousands of hours on their archive, can they count on a significant percentage of their audience seeing any one show? And if not, then is producing more programming necessarily going to deepen the audiences’ understanding of the master narrative in any consistent, meaningful way? Can the narrative ever become so big it’s unwieldy? I don’t think the WWE has an answer for that yet, and until they do creating a lot of new programming risks spinning their wheels.

Sam Ford: Agreed, Henry, that the WWE has to be awfully careful about crafting its programming in a way that allows for various depths of viewing. They will have this always-on network of programming. They will continue to have their “big” monthly shows. They will continue to have their website that they update 24/7. And they will have their programming on other networks that will continue. No one fan can possibly watch everything they put out there…but that has always been the case with WWE. I can’t imagine there is already any one fan who has seen every tweet every wrestler has put out, every archived show available in their online and video-on-demand “WWE Classics” programming, watched every hour of first-run television they’ve created, and so on.

Instead, what WWE needs to create is a storyline that makes sense for fans who, say, only will watch Monday Night RAW and the PPVs and intermittently drop in on everything else.  But it needs to create almost two tracks of experiences with everything else:

  • deeper continuity and new meaning that can be gleaned from fans who want to view additional original programming that gives more depth to certain characters, or provides historical context to something currently happening on screen, etc.
  • supplemental experiences or pleasures, for fans who like WWE and don’t want to extend the narrative further but rather the experience of watching WWE. In this case, it might be more “features-like” programming that have no bearing at all on storyline, or it might be interactive programming of some sort, etc. In Spreadable Media, drawing on Alex Leavitt’s work, we look at how Glee does this to a degree—embracing and drawing on participatory programming (fans doing covers of songs from Glee, for instance) or inviting fans into the experience more deeply in a way that extends the feel of the story world rather than anything about the progression of the narrative in the story world.

It’s important to keep in mind that WWE is contemplating the launch of this new network alongside another significant change. The company has set the contracts for its various first-run programming so that it all runs out at the same time: their weekly 3-hour Monday Night RAW on USA Network; their show Main Event on ION; their show Friday Night Smackdown on SyFy; and their show on E!, Total Divas. In addition, they had let the contract run out on their children’s show, Saturday Morning Slam, on CW Network. Their plan is to go to a family of networks and sell all of that programming in as a package deal, to try and command the sorts of prices that sports leagues do for packaged programming with a media conglomerate.

It remains to be seen if that approach will help them negotiate a better deal, but WWE would be in an interesting position if they have a really deep partnership with one centralized distribution company for its weekly first-run programming and then its own WWE Network for its monthly big shows and all its supplementary content. Should WWE get that sort of arrangement in place and have success using the launch of its network in the build-up to Wrestlemania this year as a way to get subscribers (who will sign up for an initial six-month subscription), it might allow them to think about the sorts of questions you pose here—how they craft a narrative that one can follow across watching only its most central of texts but find ways to provide depth and value across various experiences.

There’s another challenge we have to think about here, though. WWE fans both love and are often frustrated by the company’s creative direction. Of course, you can never satisfy all fans, and WWE certainly has very different fan bases to satisfy. But one frustration across the board by WWE fans who have moved from a casual to a more in-depth relationship with the brand is that there is often a lack of attention paid to detail and continuity with the company’s storytelling, as the ability WWE has—through its live programming—to overhaul and shift its creative direction quickly can be a double-edged sword….leading to shows getting rewritten often and a lot of second-guessing of creative directions.

For WWE to take full advantage of garnering the sort of in-depth loyalty from its fans to make the network idea work in the long term, it has to create a product that the fans feel confident in investing in. I would guess WWE’s hope is both to draw a greater number of its casual fans into a deeper relationship with the company and also to draw lapsed fans back in, in part by creating deeper connections between WWE’s current content and its content from yesteryear. That all makes sense, but fans have to develop a level of trust with the organization to deepen or renew that commitment. Many more casual fans may have not gotten more deeply involved with the WWE because of frustration with that lack of continuity, and many lapsed fans may be wary of re-committing due to those continuity concerns.

In short, WWE has a lot of business and creative potential with this network and its related packaging of all its cable network TV programming. But the quality of it will also come through the details, so they are better served to do all they can to deliver a great narrative experience for their primary narrative, and finding connective tissue between that primary story and all this supplementary material…than they are to develop too many supplementary shows, a la Total Diva, in the formative months of the network and dilute their focus.

From a storytelling standpoint, I’d love for WWE to use their network to:

  • help further build the story of their big events. More traditional “sports analysis” sorts of shows might help better tell the story of the history of certain rivalries, etc., that are leading to a match at an upcoming big event than can be accomplished on the live nature of a MondayNight RAW or a Friday Night Smackdown. History pieces about the ways two rivals have crossed paths in the past, featuring original studio interviews with them, etc., is something WWE could benefit from more of.
  • connect current WWE programming to events from the past. If one of the commentators makes reference to a wrestler from yesteryear or a match from the past during a show, WWE Network could feature those matches in its on-demand programming later in the week for fans who wanted to see more. For shows like Smackdown that aren’t aired live, they could even provide pop-ups during the programming to drive people to the WWE Network to check out what was just referenced.
  • provide more interest in what happens at WWE Live Events. One of the challenges WWE has is that its live arena shows that aren’t televised have little meaning around them. But the WWE Network might allow them to have something happen (an interview; a skirmish; etc.) at one of those live shows that has some impact on what happens on next week’s Monday Night RAW. The WWE Network might be the place where that can play out and that story could be told. These could be developments that don’t have deep narrative importance, in that you won’t be lost if you don’t watch it. But, for those who are more deeply immersed in the WWE narrative universe, it might provide greater interest in connecting the story.

Henry: I totally agree. My sense is that the larger the canvas, the more the WWE needs to discipline their story from the top down. Conventionally in the industry they would plan narrative arcs in advance, draw a flow chart of some sort showing how each storyline will play out across all of the different media channels, and find a fresh and interesting part of the story for each one to tell. WWE RAW and Smackdown would drive the narrative week-to-week. They would function like the weekly episodes of any other dramatic serial, furthering the storylines and ending with cliffhangers. Much as series like The Walking Dead and Doctor Who seasons are sometimes split into two half-season arcs, the WWE season would be split into 12 monthly mini arcs. The pay-per-views would be 12 mid-season finales. Can’t-miss special episodes. You’d have to watch them to see the storylines resolved.

With the WWE Network’s current price point they should be affordable and available to working families and young individuals. Even kids should be able to afford it with their allowance. That’s important from the perspective of serving the public, but it’s also important from the perspective of retaining viewers. Everyone will have more reason to emotionally invest in RAW and Smackdown if they know they’ll be able to see the payoff. WWE.com would do for pro wrestling what ESPN.comdoes for traditional sports. It would post small news bulletins as often as possible, and provide expert analysis and commentary on everything that’s going on.

That sounds like a complete circuit right there, but it’s not. I actually think WWE Network and social media have the coolest roles to play, and they really go hand-in-hand. That’s where everything takes on a third dimension – depth. At its worst, pro wrestling has cardboard cutout characters. At its best, it has real human beings that you can follow over their entire careers. At it’s worst, it has paint-by-numbers stories. At its best, it’s one epic story that has spanned over 50 years continuously.

WWE Network lets you watch a documentary like CM Punk: Best in the World and find out his whole life story. Twitter lets you continue following the story through Punk’s day-to-day experiences in real time. WWE Network should let you see Punk’s greatest matches. Twitter should let you know how he did tonight in Poughkeepsie. Although there was recently a History of WWE: 50 Years of Sports Entertainment DVD set, it’s the WWE Network that’s the living history.If they can manage to keep all the balls bouncing, the WWE can also use the network to go two important steps further.

`1) The WWE needs to use their original programming like Total Divas and NXT to target certain demographics, but they can’t count on them to change the overall audiences’ perception of a character. For example, my guess would be that Bella Twins have more Twitter followers and better merchandise sales than ever, particularly among women, because fans who have seen Total Divas are identifying more personally with those characters. Even though the Bellas aren’t getting huge crowd reactions at live shows, they’ve got more devoted fans now, and that’s good enough. If the global mainstream audience starts cheering for them too because they’ve heard the Bellas are cool, that’s the icing on the cake.

2) Original dramatic series that star the wrestlers could also give audiences a new way to enjoy the WWE’s talent. The company has been trying to make movies for years, and they haven’t been box office leaders. I think TV is a better medium because it demands a somewhat smaller audience, and asks them to come back week after week. That’s what WWE fans are good at.

The WWE already has more or less the infrastructure I just described. They should keep sharpening their process. What’s holding them back right now are the stories. Under the hood the infrastructure could be as fine-tuned as an Aston Martin. The graphics and set design can be as beautiful as that car’s body too. But if the stories suck, the car is going to be running on fumes.

Last week the WWE brought back Batista. I dislike him, but RAW got the highest ratings in 10 months. I’m not excited for it, but that tells me they should be pushing him. By the same token, Daniel Bryan is getting the loudest crowd reactions of anyone on the roster, including John Cena. If he main evented Wrestlemania the WWE wouldn’t have to fight an uphill battle by going against the fans’ wishes. They’d be driving downhill, with the full momentum of the crowd propelling them.

On a more general level, though, if the WWE wants to be respected in the same way as other mainstream shows, their stories need to be as intricate and well-structured as those shows.  Because they’re trying to do so much more than those shows it’s going to be really, really hard for them to pay the same attention to the craft of each script. There are a lot of people working on all of the WWE divisions who need to be on the same page, and a lot of important production people who are understandably going to want a say. I don’t envy the McMahons in having to organize that labor. But the fact remains that if the scripts aren’t well-written, the entire operation is going to be spinning its wheels.I think there is fan energy behind this Sunday’s Royal Rumble, but the storylines are frankly terrible. Batista is the only person who’s been written in such a way they could credibly win the Rumble match. John Cena and Randy Orton have just had a TLC Match, so putting them in a standard match without a brilliant new wrinkle in the story is anticlimactic. Brock Lesnar had a five star match against CM Punk at SummerSlam in which he was victorious, and fans wanted a rematch, but instead they’re getting Lesnar/Big Show. It just isn’t a good story. The WWE Network is a powerful tool. Everyone is excited about it. It can transform the landscape. But if the stories don’t get better, it’s not going to achieve the effect it could.

Sam: I think you’re right, Henry, that—in the end—it all comes down to story quality. The WWE, when it’s at its best, tells compelling stories that gets its fan base talking, that gets people excited, and that builds a narrative over time. Sometimes, that means doing a “variation on a theme” of a classic pro wrestling storyline: the slow build toward getting the title, while overcoming all the odds; the breakup of longtime partners, which leads to a heated grudge match; the brutal attack and injury, which leads to the triumphant return of a hero after the performer gets a much-needed vacation to rest his body.

One of the problems, though, is that the WWE has struck on a model these past several years where it is driven by a few major stories, with most of the other people being “programmed” into a series of matches with the same opponent but without much story driving it. Compare this to other periods in WWE’s history, for instance in the late 1990s, where it seemed there was significant thought being put into the stories of people, even at a mid-card level. If WWE wants to see fans engage more deeply, there has to be more story to find there. It’s true that people may decide to buy a PPV only on the merits of its top couple of matches, but to sustain long-term fan interest and to take advantage of this subscription model, I think those fans are going to hope to find depth in what they get in return.

Since WWE doesn’t have to worry so much about trying to get people to buy each show as one-off, I hope that frees up their creative resources to focus on finding stories and putting thought into people throughout the roster. That doesn’t mean everyone has to get pushed equally; but it does means that fans of the Bella Twins or fans of Kofi Kingston can watch that character’s journey and part of the story in particular and find deep narrative pleasure in that.

Here’s where WWE can learn a lot from the soap opera world where soaps, when they are at their best, have characters that cycle from front-burner to back-burner status in the story over time, but who always play a crucial role and aren’t just on the screen as filler between two important TV segments.

I often argue that WWE is a property that serial narrative storytellers or people who champion “transmedia storytelling” should be taking a close look at because of the depth of its storytelling potential. But I must admit that prompt is hobbled by the lack of quality in WWE’s storytelling. The WWE waffles between taking its own stories seriously, on the one hand, while drawing great attention to its artifice, on the other. The creative team often sours on an idea part of the way through and drops it, in ways that trains fans to be hesitant to invest that deeply and to believe that tracking the nuances of a story will actually have any sort of payoff.

In short, WWE has a narrative world that could be the stuff of truly great storytelling that would put any entertainment franchise in awe. But it has to put a deep commitment to quality storytelling at the forefront to take full advantage of that opportunity. I’d love to see WWE ranking as a serious contender for creative awards and to see the TV critics and others start paying attention to what WWE is doing. The WWE has barely scratched the surface of the depth of the immersive stories they could tell. And the way they can draw the audience into that story, and take advantage of being a story told in real time and in the real world…just as they have even more they can do with the depth of live fan engagement on social media. See my Fast Company piece about how WWE has used listening via social media to correct storyline continuity errors within the course of a single episode. I’d love to see even more of this from them.

From my perspective, WWE in 2014 sets in front of a boundless storytelling potential. I don’t know if “the world is watching,” to steal a former WWE marketing phrase, but I know the wrestling fan base is. And I think anyone interested in entertainment and storytelling should be as well.

Sam Ford has been a fan of professional wrestling since his youth. His fan activities has ranged from fantasy wrestling leagues to putting on costume wrestling shows with his high school friends to even, for a time, being a licensed professional wrestling manager in the state of Kentucky and playing the role of owner of the local “Universal Championship Wrestling.” He has taught courses on pro wrestling in U.S. culture at MIT and at Western Kentucky University and has written about wrestling in publications like Fast Company, CommPRO.biz, Cinema Journal Teaching DossierIn Media Res, and in an essay in the 2012 book Bodies of Discourse. His undergraduate honors thesis at Western Kentucky University was entitled “Grappling with Scholarship on Pro Wrestling: Comparative Media Studies Inside the Ring.” Sam is Director of Audience Engagement at Peppercomm, an affiliate with MIT’s Comparative Media Studies/Writing and the Popular Culture Studies Program at Western Kentucky University, and co-author, with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green, of the 2013 book Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture.

Henry Jenkins IV is a devoted fan, and critic, of professional wrestling. The son of Professor Henry Jenkins, he dressed up as The Undertaker for Halloween as a child; wrote scripts as an apprentice promoter with the Carolina Wrestling Federation after college; and will attend his eighth Wrestlemania in New Orleans this April. He previously wrote memoir accounts – first of being a child fan in the 80s in the article “Growing Up and Growing More Mature” for Nicholas Sammond’s collection Steel Chair to the Head: The Pleasure and Pain of Professional Wrestling and then of a recent trip to Wrestlemania with his dad in “Same Old Shit!”: Fan Resistance at Wrestlemania 29. He is a transmedia producer and write for The Alchemists whose credits include The CW drama Cult and the Hulu original series East Los High. He has also written numerous unproduced television pilot scripts which lay the groundwork for transmedia franchises. Last year he performed a five month study on The 20 Greatest Franchises of All Time and summarized his findings in a proprietary white paper for The Alchemists. He ranked the WWE near the top.

“Engage!”: Reflections on My Public Intellectuals Class

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The cartoon above was created for the USC Annenberg Agenda, the newly revamped newsletter for the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Jeremy Rosenberg, the school’s Assistant Dean for Public Affairs and Special Events, commissioned Chandler Wood, an LA-based comics artist, to sit in on several sessions of my Public Intellectuals: Theory and Practice class and capture something of the spirit of our ongoing conversations. Wood was the author of Another LA Story, a comic which ran in the LAWeekly from 2005 to 2011. A storyboard artist and designer of many a commercial and the occasional film (most recently 47 Ronin), he is nearing completion of his first graphic novel, Tonight There’s Gonna Be a Jailbreak, co-authored with Darren Le Gallo. I thought he did a brilliant job in conveying something of the core of the class and capturing some aspects of my personality and persona. This is the first of what the school hopes will be an ongoing series of cartoons focused around some of the innovative teaching within the school.

If you’ve followed this blog, you already know about this class. You can find the syllabus here. And you may well have seen the series of blog posts my PhD students generated as part of the class activities (running between October 8 and October 28.

As I look back at my experiences teaching the class last term, I consider it one of my peak intellectual experiences in a classroom. This was an extraordinary group of students, who came from diverse backgrounds in Communication and Cinema Studies, and many of them came to the class with some practical experience at translating their ideas into language which might effectively reach some public beyond the academy. Some already had blogs, some had been journalists, some were already appearing on television interview programs, and some have worked on student radio. But, all of them grew enormously over the course of the semester as a result of paying close attention to issues of writing and self-presentation and especially in being reflective about their own goals and about what their desired public might expect from them. Some were studying and theorizing communication practices that they had not yet applied to their own work, and sometimes, they were struck by the contradictions between what they knew conceptually and what their reflexes were as a scholar in training. By the end, all of them seemed to have grown enormously — it is too easy to say they found their own voice, since most of them had a powerful voice before, but they learned to use their voice more effectively in the service of their personal and professional agendas.

I was struck by the urgency of the students’ desires to talk through these issues of “professional development” which extended beyond recommendations that grew out of the “publish or perish” tradition. They knew a fair amount about what was involved in submitting conference papers and journal articles, but most of them hoped that there could be more to their professional lives than these scholarly pursuits. Many of them had strong political motives for wanting to speak out to a large public about their research — students working on how to create environmental awareness or shape educational policy or challenge efforts to regulate the content of video games or challenge various forms of privilege and overturn negative stereotypes. Some of them, perhaps most, had creative urges which were not going to be satisfied by producing sometimes deadening academic prose. Some of them wanted to forge strong alliances with nonprofit organizations, governmental agencies, political parties, labor unions, or media production companies, which would allow them to not only study the current media environment, but also to help transform and reshape it. Many of them were struggling with deep ambivalences about whether they wanted to pursue a career in academic life or whether they wanted to make a difference in some other sector. But, they had found it hard to talk about these conflicting goals and ambitions in their other subjects, had found that universities often treat PhD candidates who don’t want to became academics as failures, rather than exploring ways that scholarly skills and knowledge might become resources for a range of other activities.

I was also struck by how enthusiastic so many of our guest speakers were. I drew extensively on other faculty and researchers in the Annenberg School and elsewhere at USC who had a public-facing dimension to their work. They saw what we were doing in the class as important and they were eager to contribute. They found the class a chance to reflect deeply on their own professional practices. And they spoke frankly about the rewards and risks in pursuing these kinds of opportunities. One thing my students said again and again in their closing reflections on the class was that this approach showed them so many different (sometimes contradictory) models of how they might do work that mattered to a larger public.

An ongoing debate in the class had to do with the kinds of relationship which might exist between Communication scholars and industry, from some who held industry at arm’s length, to others who had found jobs which allowed them to move fluidly between the two. We talked about the ways that scholarship might make a difference in shaping media companies, and we talked about some of the painful compromises and dead-ends other researchers had encountered trying to do these kinds of interventions.

Speakers were frank about failures in a way which doesn’t happen very often in the classroom or in our writing, and we heard a lot about what we can learn from our own and others’ mistakes as we are taking meaningful risks in the pursuit of our work. I had colleagues who worried that I was trying to turn all graduate students into public intellectuals, but I think that the class gave students many chances to reflect on what choices are right for them and what is gained and lost by thinking outloud in public. We considered definitions of the public intellectual which involved speaking truth to power, but we concluded that in order to do this, one has to actually speak to power, and that often involves moving out of our comfort zones and dealing with people we don’t know very well or trust very much.

A key theme running through the class was the power of storytelling. Students heard from several different journalists about how they might translate their ideas for a larger audience, and again and again, it came down to telling compelling stories, often drawn from personal experiences. In doing so, we found ourselves pushing back against a generation of scholars who had been taught to distrust narrative as brushing over contradictions and not challenging established wisdom or reinforcing racist stereotypes and patriarchal pleasures. The challenge, then, was how to hold onto the underlying values which drove those critiques, while finding ways to expand the conversations those critiques grew out of. It is no longer enough to “problematize” existing frameworks unless doing so can also provide tools that can be appreciated and deployed by those who are on the front lines of these struggles.

We talked a lot about the ways that it is much easier, less risky, for some people to tell their stories than others, and this led to some frank discussions about how race, gender, and sexuality are experienced within — and beyond — academic cultures and I came to admire the good humor and civility with which everyone involved was able to share their experiences and perspectives around these often “touchy” issues. We benefited enormously from having a mix of international students in the group, who again and again forced us to acknowledge that our understanding of what constitutes an intellectual, what constitutes a public, and what we see as a desirable relationship between the two is deeply grounded in cultural traditions and political structures which differ from one national context to the next.

A key strength of the approach we took was this constant movement between theory and practice: practice understood both in terms of the front-line perspectives of our many guest speakers and in terms of the applied assignments which had students doing blog posts, op-eds, print and radio interviews, and digital humanities projects, all growing out of their own research.

A key challenge I’ve struggled with has been at what stage in a student’s career such training would be most valuable. On the one hand, those students who took this class in their first term in graduate school felt that it provided them with a strong overview of the full range of opportunities and practices they might want to explore in their career. People talked about  the class as “pulling away the curtain” and helping them to see the actual work that went into becoming a scholar. On the other, some of these incoming students did not yet have a fully developed sense of themselves as a scholar; they did not have perhaps enough research of their own yet to draw upon as they started to do these more public-facing projects.

Some of the students said that others in their cohort not in the class had joked about this being a course in how to become an academic “rock star.” But, I think by the end of the term, we were all clear that this kind of public facing work occurs at every level of visibility and access. It can involve sharing what you know at a PTA or school board meeting. It can involve work within a hyperlocal community or through an online forum. These many different scales and localities of communication reflect the affordances of a more networked culture, and they force us to move from a world where public intellectuals are superstar scholars, a select few, to one where these activities are a normal part of how many if not most scholars go about their work.

There’s no question given the success I experienced in this class, and given how meaningful both my students and I found this process, that this subject will become a standard part of my teaching rotation here at USC. I am also hoping that I may inspire more faculties around the world to try teaching a similar kind of class to their students. Annenberg’s Dean, Ernie Wilson, has sparked debate recently about what is required to teach communication scholars how to communicate effectively what our field is about. I suspect that such classes might force all of us — faculty and students — to grapple with the complexities of that issue. My class worked in part because I have such a great group of colleagues here (and at other institutions who joined the class by Skype) who are applying some concept of the public intellectual in their own work. I am lucky to be at an institution which is creative and generous with each other about what constitutes scholarship and which is more open than many schools about the ways new digital platforms and practices might be expanding the arena of public discourse. Annenberg supports experimentation and innovation in ways that more conservative institutions might not.

But, I believe that teachers at many schools could look around them and find rich and compelling examples in their own backyard of scholars who are doing different kinds of work in part as a response to the expanded range of communication options we confront at the current moment. Each such course would be different, because it needs to be grounded in your own institutional context, but I hope that others will see the value in incorporating this kind of teaching into their school’s curriculum. And if you do so, please share some of your experiences with me and my readers.

Announcing Storytelling and Digital-Age Civics Webinar Series

I wanted to call to your attention a really exciting webinar series which my Media, Activism, and Participatory Politics research group is helping to organize in collaboration with the MacArthur Connected Learning Initiative, the Youth and Participatory Politics Network, Youth Radio, the Black Youth Project, and the Media Arts and Practices Division of the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Over four webinars, you will be able to hear from line perspectives from a range of youth who are seeking to change the world.

This webinar series explores storytelling as a practice that bridges cultural and civic/political engagement. We define storytelling as a shared activity in which individuals and communities contribute to the telling, retelling, and remixing of narratives through various media channels. To create these stories, youth make use of various media including theater, photography, blogs, books and videos. Organized around the lifecycle of a story, this webinar series will explore the affordances and challenges of digital media for civic action by bringing together civically active youth to discuss how political narratives are created, produced, spread and recontextualized through “digital afterlife.” To encourage a fruitful discussion, we have invited people and groups who represent a broad range of perspectives and practices.

 

 

Jan. 14 10 a.m. PST
Finding Your Story

How do you identify and frame stories that engage with your community?

MODERATOR - Derek Williams is a 21-year-old Project Associate at the Peabody Award-winning production company, Youth Radio, in Oakland California. At Youth Radio, he co-launched a national Youth Advisory Board focused on innovations to address the country’s youth unemployment crisis. Derek has taught journalism at Youth Radio and produced stories for NPR, KQED, and The Huffington Post.
FACILITATOR - Sangita Shresthova is the Research Director of Henry Jenkins’ Media Activism & Participatory Politics (MAPP) project, based at the University of Southern California. Her work focuses on the intersection between popular culture, performance, new media, politics, and globalization.
Erick Huerta is an undocumented immigrant that was granted Deferred Action. He’s currently a journalism student, an advocate for immigrant’s rights, cyclist rights and social media and communications consultant.
Matt Howard served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 2001 to 2006 and deployed to Iraq twice where he began to deeply question the wars. He now works on elevating the stories of veterans organizing for their own rights and for the rights of people impacted by U.S. militarism as the Communications Director of Iraq Veterans Against the War.
Jason Russell is a co-founder and Chief Creative Officer at Invisible Children. He graduated from University of Southern California’s Film School with a degree in Cinema Production, and has gone on to direct over a dozen documentaries.
Carol Zou co-organizes the public fiber arts collective, Yarn Bombing Los Angeles. Best known for their work to cover the Craft and Folk Art Museum in 8,000 crocheted granny squares, Yarn Bombing Los Angeles examines participation in public space through the use of fiber arts.
Monica Mendoza is a 20-year-old poet and proud daughter of immigrant parents. An Oakland native, Monica is currently a second-year college student pursuing her undergraduate degree in women’s studies and was most recently featured in the Off/Page Project‘s film “Whispers from the Field” and The Bigger Picture project’s film “A Taste of Home.”
Jan. 16 10 a.m. PST 
Making Your Story
How do you decide the best way to give shape to your story?
MODERATOR - Derek Williams is a 21-year-old Project Associate at the Peabody Award-winning production company, Youth Radio, in Oakland California. At Youth Radio, he co-launched a national Youth Advisory Board focused on innovations to address the country’s youth unemployment crisis. Derek has taught journalism at Youth Radio and produced stories for NPR, KQED, and The Huffington Post.
FACILITATOR - Gabriel Peters-Lazaro is the Media Design Lead and Instructor at the Media Arts + Practice Division of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. There, he researches, designs and produces digital media for innovative learning with special interests in early childhood education and the role of video in networked cultures.
Lauren Bird is the Spokesperson and Digital Content Strategist forThe Harry Potter Alliance. She has spoken on the subjects of participatory media and fan communities on numerous panels including at TEDx Women, MIT’s Futures of Entertainment, and San Diego Comic-Con.
Dorian Electra is a musical artist and video director. Her work includes educational music videos about economics and “PARTY MILK” — a song, music video, and online media campaign about milk-drinking, cookie-eating dance parties. She studies history and philosophy of science at Shimer College in Chicago and is writing her thesis about the science of human consciousness.
Andy Warner is a San Francisco-based cartoonist and journalist whose comics have been published by Slate, American Public Media, Symbolia, KQED, popsci.com, Generation Progress and The Cartoon Picayune.
Charlene A. Carruthers is the National Coordinator for the Black Youth Project‘s “BYP 100″. She is a Chicago-based political organizer and writer with over 10 years of experience in racial justice, feminist and youth leadership development movement work.
Named one of the “25 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World” by the Utne Reader, Tani Ikeda is an award-winning director who creates narratives, documentaries, music videos, and commercial films. She co-founded imMEDIAte Justice Productions, which now spans the globe with Summer Camps taught in Beijing, China and Kampala, Uganda.
Roxana Ayala is currently a senior at the Math Science & Technology Magnet Academy at Roosevelt High school. She is the the Vice President of Magnet and active member Upward Bound, Moviemento Estudantil Chicano/a de Aztlan, and I.AM. USC Mentorship.
Uriel Gonzalez is a senior at the Math Science & Technology Magnet Academy at Roosevelt High school. He is the President of the Magnet Academy and currently involved as President of the RHS Bible Club, an Upward Bound member, and a proud GIS advocate.

 Jan. 21 10 a.m. PST

Spreading Your Story

How do you develop strategies to circulate your story to the desired audience?

MODERATOR - Derek Williams is a 21-year-old Project Associate at the Peabody Award-winning production company, Youth Radio, in Oakland California. At Youth Radio, he co-launched a national Youth Advisory Board focused on innovations to address the country’s youth unemployment crisis. Derek has taught journalism at Youth Radio and produced stories for NPR, KQED, and The Huffington Post.
FACILITATOR - Henry Jenkins is the Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts, and Education at the University of Southern California and the Principal Investigator for the Media Activism and Participatory Politics Project.
Thea Aldrich is the community manager for Random Hacks of Kindness, a 7,000+ member community dedicated to making the world a better place through the development and implementation of open source applications in the fields of disaster response, transparency, civil society organizations and government.
Nirvan Mullick is a Los Angeles-based filmmaker who directed the Caine’s Arcade short film and founded the Imagination Foundation.
Rubi Fregoso is the Director of Education for KCET Departures’s “Youth Voices”. She has worked with KCETLink Public Media since 2007 in a number of capacities including, education, community outreach, and production.
Kat Primeau is a Los Angeles-based actor and improviser. She performs with her musical improv troupe Robot Teammate and The Accidental Party and is a core member of improv outreach non-profit Laughter For a Change.
Luvvie Ajayi is a writer and digital strategist who believes in using the power of technology for social change. She’s also co-founder and Executive Director of The Red Pump Project.
Joshua Merchant is a writer, activist and native of East Oakland. Combining a masterful eye for detail, Joshua is currently preparing his debut book to be published by Youth Speaks’ First Word Press in early 2014 and is the inaugural fellow of the Off/Page Project.
Jan. 28, 10 a.m. PST
Considering Your Story’s Afterlife

How do you sustain the conversation your story generates, and expect the unexpected?

MODERATOR - Derek Williams is a 21-year-old Project Associate at the Peabody Award-winning production company, Youth Radio, in Oakland California. At Youth Radio, he co-launched a national Youth Advisory Board focused on innovations to address the country’s youth unemployment crisis. Derek has taught journalism at Youth Radio and produced stories for NPR, KQED, and The Huffington Post.
FACILITATOR - Elisabeth (Lissa) Soep is Senior Producer and Research Director at Youth Radio, the Oakland-based, youth-driven production company that serves as NPR’s official youth desk. The Youth Radio stories Lissa has produced with teen reporters have been recognized with honors including two Peabody Awards, three Murrow Awards, and the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award.
Jonathan McIntosh is a pop culture hacker and transformative storyteller. He has been remixing mass media narratives for critical purposes since before the invention of YouTube. Everything he makes is freely available on the internet to view, share and remix.
Joan Donovan researches global anti-capitalist movements use of information and communication technologies. In 2011, she helped build the InterOccupy.net platform, which facilitates distributed direct actions by linking networks of activists. She is completing a dissertation at the University of California San Diego on the communication infrastructure of the Occupy movement.
Wajahat Ali is the co-host of Al Jazeera America’s “The Stream” – a daily, social-media driven talk show. He is the author of the play “The Domestic Crusaders” published by McSweeney’s and the lead author of the investigative report “Fear Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America” published by CAP.
Peter Fein is a computer programmer, media hacker and Internet activist. Since 2011, he’s helped keep the Internet running in the mideast and organized protests against censorship & surveillance around the world.
Jasmeen Patheja is the founding member of Blank Noise, a Indian nation-wide, volunteer-led community arts collective triggering public debate on the issue of street sexual harassment.
 For more information and for links that will allow you to access the webinars, visit our website.  We will be sharing the videos of these exchanges as well as other resources after the fact, if you can not join us live.

Participatory Poland (Part Five): You Forgot Poland: Exploratory Qualitative Study of Polish SF and Fantasy Fandom

In the “Participatory Poland” report a group of Polish aca-fen makes a preliminary attempt towards defining the specificity of an Eastern European country’s participatory culture shaped both in the communist and post-communist periods. By placing the development of selected fan-based activities against a broader socio-historical background, we are trying to capture the interplay between the global and the local context of participatory culture, as well as take preliminary steps towards making its Polish branch available for academic research. Thanks to Professor Henry Jenkins’ incredible support, we are able to share the first, though by no means final, results of our investigations with aca-fen worldwide. The posts included in this report deal with several examples of Polish participatory activities, namely, the literary and media fandom of speculative fiction and role-playing games; comics fandom; fandom of manga and anime; historical re-enactment associations; and the prosumerist phenomenon of bra-fitting. While we are planning to continue and expand our research, we hope that its samples presented in this report contribute to the exploration of participatory culture.

 

You Forgot Poland: Exploratory Qualitative Study of Polish SF and Fantasy Fandom

 

By Justyna Janik, Joanna Kucharska, Tomasz Z. Majkowski, Joanna Płaszewska, Bartłomiej Schweiger, Piotr Sterczewski, and Piotr Gąsienica-Daniel, Jagiellonian University in Krakow

 

 

The analysis presented hereby comes from the recently concluded pilot part of the “Participatory Poland” project. We have carried out a computer-aided qualitative content analysis (applying commonly used guidelines for this kind of research, see Selected Bibliography)on the largest fantasy fandom portal in the country – polter.pl. The analysis included all content published on the site in September 2013. Poltergeist (widely known shortly as Polter) is the largest site of its type, but more importantly, it invites most participation and engagement and of all the fantasy-fandom-related platforms. It also courts the largest number of content created by the users.

Polter became the central hub of fan activity in the early 2000s, after the magazines which had fulfilled such role before – the literary Nowa Fantastyka and the roleplaying games magazine Magia i Miecz – either lost popularity and became more of niche press (NF) or closed down (MiM). Polter fulfills the double role of an informative as well as a social medium,  Some of the texts (mostly news on events and recent releases) are published by the editorial staff, but the portal also allows for user contributions, some of which are  featured on the main site. The blogs section is well developed and provokes lengthy discussions, offering reviews, roleplaying guides and tips, and articles on a variety of subjects connected with the fandom. Blog submissions are purely amateur and do not require the staff’s preliminary approval although they can be modified or deleted in case of violating the site’s guidelines. Polter has also been one of the first fandom platforms, together with Valkiria (which concentrates largely on games) and Fahrenheit (with a literature focus), and definitely one with the goal to cover all fandom matters.

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Caption: 30 years of progress? The first cover of Fantastyka magazine and its 30th anniversary rendition (Nowa Fantastyka magazine)

Historically, and to this day, the majority of SF and fantasy fans have concentrated their attention on literature and pen and paper roleplaying games. While genre films, TV series, computer games and other media usually of great interest to fans worldwide still appear in discussions and activities of Polish SF and fantasy fandom, they remain less popular.

Within the genres of tabletop roleplaying games and SF literature, Polish fandom differs from the majority of Western fandoms with its definitions of canon works. The limited access to and the small number of Western media available (mostly via unofficial means and xerox copying) to fans before the political transformation of 1989 has hugely influenced this state. For instance, the system considered as the classic of the Western roleplaying fandom, Dungeons and Dragons, was adopted in Poland with a significant delay and never reached the top popularity although nowadays it is also considered a classic. Instead, the prototype of all the games and still the major point of reference for most players, is the setting of Warhammer (in the 2000s followed by both editions of World of Darkness).

Similarly, when composing the list of the greatest SF and fantasy classics, a typical Polish fan would create a list different from their American or British counterparts. While the works of the authors considered worldwide as absolute classics (such as J. R. R. Tolkien, R. E. Howard, Ursula Le Guin, Frank Herbert, P. K. Dick) still underline the literary canon, they are accompanied by many works from Eastern European writers (such as the Strugatsky brothers or Kir Bulychov) and, maybe most importantly, Polish works which before ’89 tended to be heavily influenced by the need to write about the political situation under the guise of SF. This trend of science-fiction prose as a vessel for social, political and sometimes philosophical topics was largely established by Stanisław Lem and Janusz A. Zajdel, whose impact on later fiction is recognizable to this day.

 

Poland2

Caption: Kir Bulychov as a guest at a convention organised in a college, 1997. Photo: Szymon Sokół

 

Fantasy cons and fan gatherings have always been the liveblood of Polish fantasy and SF fandom. Unlike many Western conventions, Polish gatherings are not dominated by discussion panels from academics, aca-fen and media creators, but are instead filled with roleplaying sessions (sometimes announced but often spontaneously arranged) or lecture-like presentations often given by fans who do not study or lecture on the subjects professionally. Cons are usually organised by particular, city- or province-based fan organisations, and everyone who works at them does so voluntarily. Local fan organisations use conventions as a tool for promotion, and the quality of the events is seen as the reflection of the club’s rank and the strength of the local fandom. Such connections with a specific local community are often highlighted in cons’ logos that contain visual motifs associated with certain Polish cities.

Conventions are attended by authors and publishers, but the content producers in attendance are usually connected to the realms of books, comics and roleplaying games, with movie and television producers largely absent. It is worth noting that even the largest conventions (attended by above 10,000 fans) are all run by the fans themselves, without the involvement of any professional event planning companies. The authors in attendance are not compensated for their involvement. Commercial booths accompanying the events,  limited to small areas, are not considered a significant feature of a con. The majority of cons are held on  weekends, usually in rented classrooms of public schools, and not in conference centers or fairs venues. However, our analysis suggests that fans often formulate demands for the conventions to be organised in a more “professional” manner – this trend becomes noticeable in our material in the comments sections of the posts on a major event, Polcon, infamously nicknamed by the fans in social media as “Kolejkon” (“Queue-con”) because of its organizational issues. Some fans argue that because participants pay for the entry, a con should be considered and evaluated as a product. A commercial standard is being applied to an event run by unpaid volunteers, which marks a certain change of attitude considering the grassroots origins of Polish conventions.

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Caption:  Polish mermaids are the most beautiful! Local pride expressed in the promotional graphics of Warsaw-based Polcon convention (mermaid is the symbol on Warsaw’s coat of arms). By Sylwia ‘Saarl’ Smerdel

 

Furthermore, the most active fans are most appreciated by their colleagues and such participation and productivity are important criteria in fandom’s internal stratification. Professional book writers hold the biggest prestige among the community, followed by creators of other media (for instance game designers have a lower status than authors of literature) and active fans (where participation in events and local gatherings is valued higher than online-only activity). These distinctions are also reflected in convention programmes:  institutionally recognized contributors (such as book authors or academics) invited by the organisers have a status of “guests,” whereas those who volunteer to give presentations or run other events are called “programme creators” and have a lower status than “guests.”

Conventions become hosts to most important awards within fandom, starting with the Hugo-inspired literary award Zajdel (or: Nagroda Fandomu Polskiego im. Janusza Zajdla), through such honors as PMM (Puchar Mistrza Mistrzów – the Cup of the Masters’ Master), a competition for the title of the best Game Master, and Quentin,  atrophy given to the author of the best roleplaying scenario. These are not the only honors awarded within the fandom, but they are also best known and as such, most discussed and disputed.

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Caption: A statuette of Janusz Zajdel Polish Fandom Award, a Hugo-based literary prize. Photo: Szymon Sokół

 

These are just some of the subjects fervently discussed on Polter and became the subject of our analysis in this study. All of the items published in September were copied together with accompanying comments into a program aiding in content analysis. With its help, the posts were sorted according to the site’s division into news, reviews, articles, blog posts, etc. Next, they were coded with a codebook established earlier for the purpose of this research. Coding categories were modified during the course of research in order to make them more suited for the encountered data. The categories were devoted to the forms of communication between the users, especially to the internal links between comments and the references made to various cultural texts. Also, specific categories were established to examine the various criteria of validation used by the fans in relation to commented media or events, textual strategies of justifying their opinions, and discursive ways of forming fans’ identities (inclusion and exclusion of certain content and groups).

It is important to hold in mind the exploratory character of the analysis, the results of which are by no means finite or final, but rather outline the field of study and constitute the basis for the research questions we will be tackling. This initial analysis set out to discover the most interesting content and processes in the contemporary Polish fandom. The following stages of the project will include data from a number of other sites sharing a similar profile. Due to the significantly low number of fandom-devoted portals in Poland, we can include all of them in our analysis. We are also planning to extend our research to some of the most interesting topics arisen during the initial analysis, as well as to turn to researching the participants themselves, that is the fans.

During the researched month, close to five hundred items were posted to Polter. Within those, books get the most coverage among all the media, while?  news about recent releases and reviews form the largest group of content published by the editorial staff. However, our study showed that it is the content connected to games (mostly pen and paper RPGs, but also videogames) that generates most social engagement. Roleplaying games seem to be the center of attention of Polter’s community; fans eagerly comment not only on the news and reviews of player’s guides, add-ons etc., but also on users’ submissions, such as scenarios, reviews thereof and session reports. The extent of these participatory mechanisms can be well observed in the case of Quentin,  the annual contest for the best roleplaying scenario, established in 1999 and hosted by Polter since 2003. All submissions for the contest are published on the website. The scenarios are evaluated by an independent committee and the winning work is posted on Polter, but users’ activity related to the contest entries does not stop after the verdict is announced and many of the texts concerning Quentin are user-created.

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Caption: Quentin award for the author of the best role-playing scenario. Photo: Szymon Sokół

 

The case of Quentin-related engagement is also an example of another wider trend. Our study showed that most of the interactions within the Polter community, as well as the comments on the works, are positive. Polter users express appreciation more often than dissatisfaction, and the criticism of other users’ content is usually constructive. This leads us to an assumption that mutual support and quality of content published on Polter are important values for this community and that fan identity is created and maintained through positive rather than negative expression (we elaborate on matters of inclusion and exclusion later in the text). This observation somewhat contradicts the widespread stereotype of a malcontent fan who uses online media mostly to express dissatisfaction and engage in conflict; the stereotype also held by the fans themselves, who seem to perceive the community as largely negative.

Our study paid a significant attention to the strategies of developing fan identity, through interactions and tactics of inclusion and exclusion. A part of this identity is forged through reading and media consumption habits presented publicly. As noted before, the majority of news posted on the website were connected with book releases, despite the fact that the most heated discussions were related to game posts and blogs. While most fans participate in several areas of media consumption and fan activities, SF and fantasy novels are perceived as much more high-brow than gaming. A fandom portal such as Poltergeist, while catering to the needs of all kinds of fans, makes a claim to a professional status by showcasing book releases and publishing book reviews. Similarly, fans attempt to raise their fandom status by disclosing their reading habits; the more books read the better, and the quantity is just as important as the quality of the works.

While the status of ‘having read’ the classics is important to a fan’s social standing and the familiarity with well-known works is desired, fans also have a tendency of distancing themselves from everything and everyone that has ‘sold themselves out’ and became irreversibly commercialised and therefore tainted by the mainstream association, becoming somehow less connected to fandom. This tendency features both in the case of actual commercial properties that have acquired a greater renown and in the case of fandom participants who have forged their fan activities into a source of income. Such cases are often treated with distrust or derision.

Poland 6

Caption: Growing popularity of steampunk and cosplay: Mad Artistians’ stand at Falkon 2013. Photo: Falkon 2013

 

Another topic connected with identities included in our research is the ways Polter users conceptualize and discursively create the boundaries of fandom and its subcommunities. While there is a widespread use of the general term “the fandom,” incorporating all fans and topics of SF & fantasy regardless of the division into particular media and subgenres (and the Polter website sections also support this generalizing attitude), the self-identification practices of fans are more nuanced. Several times in the source material we encountered opinions about specific interest groups within the fandom that perceive themselves as autonomous and hardly want to communicate with each other – this was said about fans of LARPs, manga & anime, videogames and comic books. Manga & anime fandom seems to be especially stereotyped and more often than not placed outside the boundaries of SF and fantasy community; mentions of it in the source material often provoke the commenters to talk about “fandoms” (in plural). A similar case of a fandom splintering can be seen in the case of the Western comics fandom, but while the comic books fan seem content with standing apart from ‘the fandom’ of SF and fantasy, manga and anime fans strive for inclusion and recognition, especially on the local level of conventions and events. Their attempts are sometimes met with resistance, such as exclusion of manga and anime subjects from the convention programmes by the organisers. It is worth noting that the manga and anime fandom is relatively younger and much more feminised than the SF and fantasy fandom, and has been introduced in Poland fairly recently in comparison with others (more on this topic in an upcoming part of the report, devoted specifically to the manga & anime fandom).

Our findings also point out that patriotism is a vital component of Polish fans’ identity. This phenomenon can be observed on several levels. The most apparent is that the fans are eager to include, or even ‘adopt’ works or authors who seem even marginally connected to Poland. While in general, works most often consumed and discussed come from abroad rather than from Poland (with the exception of cult writers such as Lem or Sapkowski), the national pride and patriotism seems to be awakened by mentions of Poland and Polish matters in foreign works. This tendency has been illustrated during the analysed period in the instance of the new novel (Forest Ghost) from Graham Masterton, who set his story in Poland. Masterton himself accentuates his Polish connections and his new novel had been published in Poland even before its debut in the UK. Another example of clear national pride is displayed when a Polish work enjoys success abroad (in recent years it has especially been the case with game developers, most notably the creators of The Witcher series) as fans consider themselves to be a part of that success.

Poland 7 (1)

 

Caption:  Agents of F.I.E.L.D.? Promotional graphics of the expansion Conspirators for the Veto! collectible card game about the Polish noblemen from the 17th century. Spoof of The Avengers movie poster. By Igor Myszkiewicz and Maciej Zasowski

On a more general level, SF & fantasy fans seem to share and reproduce the vision of patriotism grounded in the Polish 19th-century Romanticism, with its focus on national history, the values of chivalry, fight for a just cause and an idealised view of love and femininity. This can be well-observed in the case of fans’ attitude to history. Historical narratives (also those incorporating SF & fantasy elements) are being evaluated with the use of ideologized notions of “scholarly validity” and “historical accuracy,” accompanied by a belief in the possibility of access to the truth about certain events and phenomena. Historical references are used to maintain the national pride (hence the popularity of novels set in the “Sarmatian” period of Polish history regarded as the highest point of national splendour), but also tend to be connected with practices of exclusion – for example, the presence of female warriors (or women in positions of strength in general) is disregarded as historically implausible.

Poland 8

Caption: Practically Polish. Graham Masterton (on the right) socializing with Polish fans at a convention. Photo: Geekozaur

 

On the other hand, our study found some instances of views that are more critical to the mainstream Polish views on patriotism. The anticlericalism and pagan inspirations attempt to challenge the usual affirmative approach to Christianity and its cultural role. An informative discussion occurred in the comments on a Polish card game about the Polish military fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Whereas the reviewer appreciated a Poland-related theme, there were also opinions criticizing the game for allowing players to choose the Taliban side (and fight against the Polish), and also for depicting colonial violence. The discussion thread shows the clash between the conflicting views on Polish patriotism: the same work can be viewed in terms of continuing the honorable tradition of fighting for freedom or criticised as promoting Polish participation in imperial oppression.

Another aspect of declared patriotism is connected to consumer choices. As stated before, the media discussed and referred to on Polter are predominantly Western, mostly originating from English-speaking countries. However, there is a very distinct declarative tendency to ’support the Polish market‘ (both discursively and financially). The market of Polish SF & fantasy products (especially RPG-related) is perceived as small and constantly endangered by financial hardships. It is worth noting that certain dissatisfaction with the quality of Polish works or editions/translations does not stop these slightly patronizing general appeals to support the local media and creators.

Within the identity-related categories in our study we also established one connected to direct and indirect statements about gender. Though it is by no means a dominant issue for Polter users, it is still possible to notice some general tendencies. In a few instances the site’s participants suggested and tried to diagnose some inherently and inescapably specific ways women engage in certain activities, such as playing pen & paper RPGs or writing books. Female physical attractiveness is commonly perceived as a valuable asset in various contexts, from evaluation of drawn fanarts through comments on female cosplayers on conventions. It is worth noting that we found very few statements about masculinity in the source material; generally, only women are objects of generalizing statements, which suggests that a male fan is recognized as a default member of the community and a female fan is a special phenomenon that requires examination. Historically, Polish SF and fantasy fandom has always been rather male-dominated, with a prevailing belief in the old chestnut that all gaming women are girlfriends of the game masters. However, in the middle of the 2000s, the numbers of female representation in the fandom surged significantly. The last few years brought on the attempts to form a female fan (and especially a female roleplayer) identity. These attempts in turn  sometimes meet with negativity from the more conservative fans trying to neutralise such emancipatory tendencies by generalizing statements along the lines of “fandom is not for women, fandom is for everyone.” At the same time, splinter fandoms of manga and anime or fanfiction writers tend to be much younger and female-dominated, and gender roles are often very different from the ones taken for granted by the majority of the SF and fantasy fans.

Poland 9

Caption: ‘Mom, can I exterminate already?’ A young female Dalek at a convention. Photo: Szymon Sokół

 

To sum up, in our exploratory research of Polish science-fiction & fantasy fandom we found the following problems to be the most interesting and worth further examination (possibly with an inclusion of diachronic longitudinal methods and different media outlets):

1) Fans’ attitudes towards national categories and notions of Polish identity. Divergent tendencies were observed in that area: on one hand, most of the fans seem to share conservative, affirmative views on Polish history and identity, with a distinct tone of national pride; they seek and appreciate topics related to Poland in foreign works and declare interest in and care about Polish SF & fantasy media despite being aware of the flaws and limitations of this market. On the other hand, the study showed that fans refer mostly to works of Western origin in their texts, comments and practices, which suggests that there is a constant process of negotiation between joining global cultural trends and maintaining local specificity; also, some more revisionist and critical attitudes towards the dominant discourse of Polish national identity start to appear. Still, references to national categories are vital points in fan discussions, even if treated negatively.

2) Gender views remain on the conservative side, with a prevailing tendency to see the masculine as the default. However, in the recent years a rising trend of female fans and players attempting to define their own identity has appeared. Such attempts are often opposed to on the grounds that they represent ‘special interests’ and are not pertinent to the group as a whole. Some female fans differentiate themselves from the whole of fandom either by adopting a unique style (of playing, of writing, of attire) or by finding niche activities to make their own, i.e.  fanfiction or forms of expression relating to costuming (cosplay, steampunk, etc.), while others openly demand more diversity within the fandom’s mainstream. As the demographics of fandom changed significantly in the past few decades, we can expect the trend of female fans making themselves more visible and aiming for recognition to rise in the future.

3) There are increasing voices calling for a professional approach to previously grassroots initiatives of SF and fantasy conventions. Historically, the events were organised by volunteers and local organisations and were perceived as a communal effort, while nowadays some of the convention-goers point out that the cons should be treated in terms of a commercial product and therefore give the participants the right to demand a much more professional approach. At the same time, other tensions between the amateur and professional realms emerge, presenting contradicting views: the fans want Polish works to succeed locally and internationally, but are distrustful of anything they consider too commercial or mainstream, bringing forth the accusations of “selling out”.

4) Tensions appear also in the area of media consumption. While most fans are ascribing prestige and nobility to literature, especially the more high-brow and canon works, and are eager to boast about their reading history, they tend to engage more with the works of a perceived lesser status, such as pen and paper roleplaying games.

We believe that our exploratory study of Poltergeist community can lead to deeper diagnoses of the specificity  of participatory culture inside the SF & fantasy fandom in Poland and forms a strong starting point for further research.

 

Selected Bibliography

Cappella J.N. et al. (2009). “Coding Instructions: An Example.” In Krippendorff K., Bock M.A. (Eds.), The Content Analysis Reader (pp. 253-265).Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.

 

Carvajal, D. (2002). “The Artisan’s Tools. Critical Issues When Teaching and Learning CAQDAS.” In Forum: Qualitative Social Research 3(2). doi: http://www.qualitative-research.net/fqs-texte/2-02/2-02carvajal-e.htm

 

Hak T., Bernts T. (2009). “Coder Training: Explicit Instructions and Implicit Socialization.” In Krippendorff K., Bock M.A. (Eds.), The Content Analysis Reader (pp. 220-233). Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.

 

MacQeuun K. et al. (2009). “Codebook Development for Team – Based Qualitative Analysis.” In Krippendorff K., Bock M.A. (Eds.), The Content Analysis Reader (pp. 211-219). Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.

 

Mayring P. (2000). “Qualitative content analysis.” In Forum: Qualitative Social Research 1(2). doi: http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/1089

 

About the Authors

Justyna Janik: MAs in Comparative Studies of Civilizations and Cultural Anthropology, PhD student in the Institute of Audiovisual Arts, interested in game studies and pop culture theory, especially fan studies;

 

Joanna Kucharska: MAs in English Literature and American Studies, PhD candidate at the Institute of Audiovisual Arts, researching audience participation and transmedia

 

Tomasz Z. Majkowski: Aca-fan, PhD in Literary Criticism, Assistant Professor at Department of Literary Anthropology and Cultural Studies at the Faculty of Polish Studies of Jagiellonian University, interested in pop culture theory, especially fantasy and sci-fi studies, game studies and historical interactions between pop culture and ideologies.

 

Joanna Płaszewska: Slavic philologist, librarianship and information science student, interested in fanfiction readership and new literacies.

 

Bartłomiej Schweiger: PhD student in Institute of Sociology on Jagiellonian University, interested in power-knowledge structures embedded in our culture, especially videogames.

 

Piotr Sterczewski: MA in Cultural Anthropology, PhD student in the Institute of Audiovisual Arts (Jagiellonian University), interested mostly in ideological aspects of videogames.

 

Piotr Gąsienica-Daniel: Sociologist and researcher at TNS Poland

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Participatory Poland (Part Four): Notes on Comics Fandom in Poland

In the “Participatory Poland” report a group of Polish aca-fen makes a preliminary attempt towards defining the specificity of an Eastern European country’s participatory culture shaped both in the communist and post-communist periods. By placing the development of selected fan-based activities against a broader socio-historical background, we are trying to capture the interplay between the global and the local context of participatory culture, as well as take preliminary steps towards making its Polish branch available for academic research. Thanks to Professor Henry Jenkins’ incredible support, we are able to share the first, though by no means final, results of our investigations with aca-fen worldwide. The posts included in this report deal with several examples of Polish participatory activities, namely, the literary and media fandom of speculative fiction and role-playing games; comics fandom; fandom of manga and anime; historical re-enactment associations; and the prosumerist phenomenon of bra-fitting. While we are planning to continue and expand our research, we hope that its samples presented in this report contribute to the exploration of participatory culture.

 

Notes on comics fandom in Poland

Michał Jutkiewicz, Polish Department Jagiellonian University

Rafał Kołsut, Polish Department Jagiellonian University

 

  1. Emergence of comics fandom in the 1980s

Until only a few years ago, history, and especially the 20th century, was the predominant subject of Polish comics. Nowadays that is not the case as more and more psychological and autobiographical stories or even superhero fictions are published. Nevertheless, historical comics, lavishly subsidized by cultural institutions, are still the essential part of the comics’ scene. This obsession with history may result from the fact that the situation of comics in Poland has always been influenced by national political and historical struggles.

After the war, when the communist government was established, the official attitude towards comics was somewhat ambivalent. On one hand, comics were perceived as a medium developed in capitalist countries and representing the corrupted American lifestyle. It is interesting that a lot of communist propaganda’s arguments and accusations—for example, those concerning promoting violence, sex and children’s demoralization — sounded as if they had been taken directly from Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent.

On the other hand, comics were perceived as a useful tool of propaganda directed especially towards kids. Forming the future citizens of a socialist state became an important issue in the 60s, when more and more comics were published and read by young readers. Probably the most popular were Tytus, Romek and A’Tomek (published from 1957 till today) by Papcio Chmiel and the series about Captain Żbik (Wildcat) created by Władysław Krupka and published from 1967 to 1982. The former series contained slightly surreal stories about the adventures of two scouts and an ape, which were nevertheless packed with an educational and moralizing content. The protagonist of the latter, was a lawful and honorable policeman fighting evil imperialist agents, who plotted against Poland and tried to destroy it.

Many factors influence the fact that, it was impossible for a community of fans to establish itself: among others the young age of the group at which comic books were targeted, a brazen propaganda of communist values  and an absence of comics from other countries. However, the aforementioned comic books were a starting point in the process of familiarizing young people with the medium and encouraging some of them to search for more examples.

The first signs of an emerging community of comics fans could be seen the early 80s and was related with S-F fandom emerging at the same time. Just as before, the formation of both fandoms was at that time closely connected to the political situation in Poland. The end of the 70s was marked by the rise of the Solidarność (Solidarity) movement, which was fulfilling the role of the political opposition. It was also a moment when people in their twenties were looking for some new cultural and social structures to identify with. punk music, with its distinctive fashion and seditious message, was one of the models to follow.

In comparison to the music-based subculture, which was considered by officials as degenerated, the fans of S-F were perceived by the state institutions as harmless, notwithstanding the fact that the genre was developing under the influence of such authors as Stanisław Lem, Kir Bulychov or Strugatsky brothers, who tried to sneak into their novels a veiled critique of the communist system and ironic allusions to the situation in their countries. S-F literature of the 80s was a very particular mixture of escapism and political engagement. A status of a fan and a member of a club of  SF literature was very often considered as a political act although it was not always one’s conscious choice.

The most important Polish magazine devoted to SF, Fantastyka, was established in 1982. It was the first publication of this kind in Poland, and its main goal was the popularization of sci-fi and fantasy literature, as well as the animation and coordination of activities of fan clubs, which were gradually set up all over the country. Comics were the subject of the one of the biggest discussions in the first issue of Fantastyka as the editorial board was debating whether to publish them in the magazine or not. Regardless of those discussions, sci-fi and fantasy comics were gaining popularity, mainly due to the fact that some Polish illustrators, especially Grzegorz Rosiński and Bogusław Polch, who both started their careers creating propaganda comic books in the 70s, have been recognized on Franco-Belgian and German markets. One of Polch’s most recognized series, based on Erich von Daniken’s theories, called Die Götter aus dem All was being published in Germany in the years 1978-1982. Meanwhile, Rosiński began a cooperation with such renowned script writers as Jean Van Hamme (making Thorgal) and André-Paul Duchâteau (Hans). Till this day Rosiński is considered an iconic person in the field of Polish comics and the Polish fandom, and an important guest at all comics conventions.

The editors of Fantastyka decided to print four-page long comics and publish comics-related reviews and news from abroad. The community of comics’ fans was growing so strong that soon a separate comics–oriented addition to the magazine was published from 1987 to 1990. Its name was Komiks – Fantastyka and it was the first attempt to build not only a magazine with comics in it but also a publication which would animate comics’ fans. It also tried to establish a foundation for professional comics criticism as it included articles about such academic theorists as Thierry Groensteen.

“Komiks – Fantastyka” maintained the sci-fi and fantasy profile of Fantastyka. publishing titles like “Hans” (renamed as “Yans”) and “Rork” by Andreas. The majority of translated comics at this time were Franco-Belgian, which created a peculiar generation gap among comics’ fans. Those raised in the 80s tend to prefer stories with realistic and detailed illustrations and strong world building typical of European comics. When in the 90s American superhero comics finally arrived in Poland, another generation of fans grew up. They were more interested characters and action than in with the detailed drawings. This difference can also be seen in the works of Polish comics creators, who in their youth were influenced either by the European style or by the American models.

Only one title published in the 80’ had a major influence on the shape of Polish comics and it can undeniably be called a masterpiece of its time. It is called Funky Koval and was written by Maciej Parowski and Jacek Rodek and illustrated by Bogusław Polch. It was first published in parts in Fantastyka since1982 and then as a whole in Komiks – Fantastyka until 1990. Funky Koval is important not only because of the story it tells but also, if not mainly, because of its cultural influence and the role it played in the integration of the fandom. No other comics of this time would gain a cult position and  become such a prominent point of reference for works published later.

This comic combines all the influences mentioned above: politics, sci-fi and fans. The story centers around a private investigator named Funky Koval, living in the USA in 2080. His adventures are focused on his struggles with evil corporations and corrupt politicians. There is a lot of action but it is not the main point of this comics. The authors of Funky Koval followed the example of literary texts published in Fantastyka and decided to pack their comics with intertextual games and allusions to the current political situation in Poland. The sci-fi façade enabled to avoid censorship and to build an ironic critique of the communist regime. Nearly every evil character was based on a real-life member of the communist party, and known to readers from the TV screen.

Moreover, the hero’s adventures contained allusions to Martial Law enforced in Poland from 1981 to 1983. Hence, readers of the comics were asked to participate in the game of who-is-who, and this aspect of Funky Koval was the key to its popularity. The act of decoding a hidden message was a ground for building a sense of belonging to a greater community, as their members identified  themselves with its hidden political agenda, so that the act of decoding became an act of contestation.

This level of intertextual games in Funky Koval was fairly easy to decrypt for everybody, but the authors went even further and decided to put not only public persons in their creation, but also people known to them personally. Indeed, a lot of characters in the comics are based on people active in the fandom of the 80s. To fully read it, one had to be a member of the community and know sci-fi and fantasy conventions, In this way Funky Koval strengthened the fandom and gave it some identification.

Although the roots of Polish comics fandom are entangled with the community of sci-fi and fantasy fans, it is really interesting to observe how in the 80s it slowly tried to emancipate itself and managed to separate completely in the 90s. At the beginning of the last decade of 20th century comics community started to organize their own conventions strengthening the bonds between community members, which made the group less fragmented and more hermetic.

 

2. Situation during the 90s and 2000s

 

After the political transformation of 1989 Poland was violently struck by a tide of Western culture, almost unknown to an average Polish audience until that time. A phrase effectively describing that period would be “the time of catching-up,” mostly with regard the works of pop culture. Independent distributors were (sometimes illegally) bringing from abroad absolutely everything that had any chance of selling to the newly ‘born’ consumers who were ravenous for novelty. The era of high-volume publications of Krajowa Agencja Wydawnicza (The National Publishing Agency) as the monopolist was gone forever. In 1990, after receiving the approval from the headquarters of Semic Press AB (a company publishing comic books in Scandinavian countries under the license of, among others, Marvel Comics), a Polish-Swedish company – TM Supergruppen Codem (later renamed as TM-Semic) published the first two monthlies in Poland. They contained adventures of the American superheroes: Spider -man and Punisher.

Those comic books had exactly the same format as the original ones, and only the volume was different – every month two stories were presented on 52 pages (in order to „catch-up” with the ongoing series in the USA). In time, having become very popular, Punisher was extended to over 100 pages, but for the sake of costs it was published only in black&white.

Making the first baby steps but noticing a great interest of its readers, the publishing house momentarily expanded its offer. Now, every group of the younger consumers was to receive “something special”. As a result, Barbie, Moomins, Casper, Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles or Garfield appeared in kiosks. The rights for Davis’s comics were soon bought by Egmont Polska (part of Egmont Group from Denmark) – the second great distributor for kids and teenagers, publishing also Bugs Bunny and Donald Duck (the latter is still published).

Thanks to the fanclub pages administrated by teenage comic books fan Arkadiusz Wróblewski, the more and more active community of superheroes’ fans started to form. The same year the album Batman/Judge Dredd: Judgment on Gotham was printed on thick paper and in hard cover. Nobody in Poland had published a comic book of such a high quality ever before. Thanks to the company, readers were presented with Knightfall, Dark Phoenix Saga or The Death of Superman. Nevertheless, consumers, familiarized with more and more aspiring titles, had also greater expectations. Simple stories about superheroes stopped selling. Issues dropped down and series after series started vanished from the market. The company collapsed in 2003. It’s place was taken by Egmont, which was not trying to sell the comic books but focused on publishing TPB – cult series for adult reader such as The Sandman or Preacher.

The comic books community calls the 90’s “The Time of Troubles,” during which Polish comics virtually disappeared from the market. The fall of Bogusław Polch’s studio which was working on the graphic adaptation of Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Witcher in 1995 is the caesura. Authors active during the time of the People’s Republic of Poland completely withdrew and started to look for other ways of earning money (with several exceptions, for example that of Henryk Chmielewski, the author of the popular young adult comics about Tytus the chimpanzee). Former stars, such as Janusz Christa or Szarlota Pawel decided, that it was not profitable to draw in the new political system.

The tradition was broken – also on the level of master-student relations. The ending of the 20th century belongs to self-taught, underground artists among whom the most active are the authors of hardcore punk fanzines: Dariusz Palinowski, author of Zakazany Owoc (Forbidden Fruit) and Krzysztof Owedyk, author of Prosiacek (Piglet). They both laid the groundwork for the constitution of the so called comic “xeroprasa” (photocopy press). Drawn in back&white and photocopied magazines (and sometimes one-shots) were sent directly to friendly readers from all over the country, that were subsequently photocopying them again and passing them on, usually for free. The scene of comics community fanzines was very similar to its prototype from the United States, but much smaller, of course, and developing almost 30 years later. Zines rose and fell, authors changed titles and places of distribution. The most important titles included Mięso (Meat), Azbest (Asbestos), AQQ and Ziniol (today it is a professional web magazine). A completely new environment formed up, created by people who are active until this day.

In the early 1990s, the Contur group started organizing the annual Ogólnopolski Konwent Twórców Komiksu (National Convent of Comics Authors) in Łódź (currently International Festival of Comics and Games – the most important meeting of Polish comic fandom). The biggest attraction of the festival was the short story comics contest, which quickly became a tradition.

Although many of today’s well established careers had their debuts in that contest, most of the young and promising authors, whose success was foretold at the time, never published anything – creating full-scale albums was absolutely non-profitable, since none of the domestic publishers was even remotely interested in publishing them. In the course of time, that phenomenon was called “Masters of the first board” syndrome because of the declarations and prologues to the stories which would never be created.

Everything changed thanks to Produkt (Product) magazine. Published since 1999 by Independent Press company, Produkt was presenting the latest output of the Polish authors. Today’s stars of Polish comics debuted and published on Product pages, including Michał Śledziński (from Azbest); Minkiewicz brothers; Karol Kalinowski; Ryszard Dąbrowski, the creator of the Likwidator (Liquidator) – a masked anti-hero who is an eco-terrorist and a serial killer; or Rafał Skarżycki and Tomasz Leśniak, the authors of George the Hedgehog series.

The comics published in Produkt belonged to the mainstream due to the magazine’s scope and professional distribution, but at the same time they were free from any publishing or editorial control. They contained violence, nudity, vulgarisms, satire against the government, the Church and authority in general. There was no taboo or censorship. The most important series that was published on Produkt’s pages, Osiedle Swoboda (Liberty District), created by the magazine’s Editor in Chief, Śledziński, was focused on young people’s everyday life in Poland. During its five years of existence Produkt not only brought together the most engaged authors and enlarged the number of regular consumers of graphic stories of domestic provenance but, most importantly, set the direction for Polish comics for the following years.

In 2005 Paweł Timofiejuk, currently the most important publisher at the Polish market, started a publishing line called Komiksowa Alternatywa (Comic Alternative) in frames of which he presented the cult albums of authors of fanzines, previously known only from the comic photocopying press. The artists, so far bereft of the chance to show their work to the world, could finally present the results of honing their skills. That so called “airing of the drawers” lasted for two years.

The time of the growing prosperity caused by the dissemination of cheap digital printing began. Publishing both the albums and the professional magazines privately became easier than ever before. Many independent publishing houses have been created, among which some are focused on publishing Polish authors only. Others are diversifying their offer, combining the most important works of the European authors with the local novelties. Polish artists are focused on creating authorial albums that they work on for months or sometimes even years.

Because of the very low sales of comic books and a small number of their readers, creating comics is not a profitable job. Polish comic books community which is the basis of the market has around 3 000 members, with a scarce addition of casual readers, who are usually interested just in one particular series. There is no such job as a “comic book author” in Poland. The graphic, the scriptwriters and the publishers are keeping regular jobs, while they work on comic books after hours and at weekends. The pay in the European standard can be provided only by the contract for educational albums devoted to the history of Poland (especially WWII ) and mostly funded by the government. Still, despite the difficult financial situation and the tiny market, every year 400 new comic books (mostly counting more than 48 pages) are published, about 120 of which are Polish authors’ productions covering ground from superhero stories of to formally experimental artistic albums.

3. Comics fandom and the Internet in the first decade of the 21st century

Around 2000, more and more households had Internet connections, which exerted a huge impact on different kinds of fandoms, fans of comics included. The first visible effect of the Internet’s growth in Poland was that the majority of printed comics magazines were discontinued one by one. Their main function in the 90s was to inform readers about newly published works and the schedules of upcoming conventions. The pages of comics magazines featured debuting authors who in turn could receive a critical feedback.

Yet none of these publications was able to build authority strong enough to act as a platform of institutionalized criticism. Probably one of the reasons was that the community was so small that readers and creators were closely linked anyway and could get feedback about their work immediately and directly just through personal connections. Very few people with academic background, such as Jerzy Szyłak and Wojciech Birek, put an effort to write more complex reviews, but those articles were not received well. That is why there was never an ongoing discussion about the condition of Polish comics during the 90s or at the beginning of the 21st century even though a lot of comics magazines were published.

From 2000 the Internet became the main source of information about newly published works and publishers’ plans for subsequent months, taking away one of the main reasons for the existence of not only comics magazines but also of other fan centered periodicals. The same thing happened to magazines about role-playing games – the last issue of one of the oldest such magazine, called Magia i Miecz (Magic and Sword), was printed in 2002 – and a little bit later, around 2005, to magazines about video games.

Also debuts began to be published online. The debut of the first Polish webcomics occurred during that period, which came as a shock especially to the community of comics fans and creators. Suddenly, the old and highly ritualized ways of publishing were losing their significance. Before, one had to show his or her work to someone in the community to be published. Even such an anarchistic genre as zines were following this procedure. The highly ritualized act of publishing was a social activity requiring contacts and acceptance of the community.

Comics on the Internet could appear on websites without all that. Thanks to the WWW new energy, comics fandom, which was becoming a little stale with no fresh blood (because of the declining numbers of comics readers), rejuvenated as a new generation of authors appeared. As early as in 2004 the anthology, Komiks w sieci (Comics on the Web) was published, which is a significant fact exemplifying how massive this wave of new creativity was.

Up to that point a lot of activities of the fandom were possible only a few times in a year, when people met on conventions, but thanks to the availability of the Internet, it could be done from a distance. Clearly, the comic fans needed an electronic forum where they would be able to discuss their interests. One of the most interesting and still active websites is esensja, which started as an e-zin in 2000. After 13 years it continues the tradition of imitating paper magazines with a monthly set of articles published along with news and reviews, which appear on a daily basis. A significant feature of this website is that, continuing the tradition of Fantastyka in the 80s, it tries to bring together different communities, for example fans of genre literature and movies, comics and games. Its popularity shows that there are fans who do not need to relate to a very narrow group of people with the same interests.

Another fascinating Polish website about comics is Zeszyty Komiksowe (Comics Notebooks). As is the case of esensja, this portal is connected to a magazine which has appeared irregularly in a paper form since 2004. The most important feature of Zeszyty Komiksowe is that every issue is devoted to a particular subject and that it publishes academic papers. It would be easy to dismiss the website because it usually publishes just news and sometimes reviews, but one element makes it very useful. Under the link “kopalnia” (mine) one can find a repository of academic articles about comics. It is a community based project, so it depends on people willing to share their work (usually BA or MA dissertations) to build collectively a comprehensive list of references. At the moment it has 1177 items. This is very admirable, taking into account the non-existence of comics studies in the Polish academic curriculum, as there are still very few academics writing about comics. Of course, many articles put on the Zeszyty Komiksowe website lack academic rigor and are a little naïve, but they are still a great example of the way fans are trying to fit with their fascination with comics into academic discourse.

The last, and most important website for Polish community of fans, which has somehow become the center of Polish comics fandom is called Gildia Komiksu (the Comics Guild). It is a part of a bigger portal, gildia.pl, which has been active since 2001. The basic assumption of this website is completely opposite to that of esensja. Esensja tries to unify different communities of fans, while Gildia is divided into many “guilds” with different subjects of interest (conventions, movies, tabletop miniature games, computer games, tabletop games, horror, supernatural, RPG, Star Wars etc.), so that different fans can find a content of their interest. This segmentation was a starting point for comics fandom to grow in its own closed environment.

The main purpose of the website, as in the case of the ones mentioned above, is to give users the news and publish reviews, but the most important part of the portal is a forum, which during the 11 years of its existence has grown and attracted the attention of the most active people in fandom. After such a long time it is easy to see how the number of posts and authority of a given person on the forum reflect their social position during conventions. Of course, not every member of the community is active on the forum, but still it is one of the most important reference points. This is why topics of the forum can be treated as some vestigial form of discussion about comics which never happened in the 90s. It is a peculiar form of institutionalized criticism, additionally characterized by irony, trolling and lack of discipline: the typical features of Internet forums.

Gildia Komiksu is a source of hermetic jokes and memes understood only among fans of comics. The saying “back of a horse” is an example of such a phrase, as it originates in a 2007 debate on the forum, concerning the role of realist illustration in comics. In a heated discussion one of the participants said that creators of comics try to draw artistically, forgetting about simple things as “drawing a woman’s back properly and making an anatomically correct horse”. That is why some fans ask illustrators to draw them a back of a horse to humorously test their skills.

plecykonia (1)

All such phrases and inside jokes play a huge role in building the community, but for a newcomer it is really hard to get up-to-date with the eleven years of the forum’s activity. New users are treated kindly, but with a distance, typical of close-knitted groups.

4. The community of comics fans nowadays

From the outside, the community of comics fans can be perceived as a heteronomous group keeping very close ties and being reluctant to open up to newcomers. The majority are male representatives of three generations (those raised in the 80s, the 90s and first years of the 21st century), highly diversified, yet able to keep close with each other.

The publication of the comic called Rycerz Ciernistego Krzewu (The Knight of Spiny Shrub), which was a cooperation between a writer, a colorist and many different illustrators, shows that it is hard to join a community of fans. Every two pages of this comics were drawn by a different person but colored by the same one. As a concept it sounded experimental and interesting (even though previously used for example in Grant Morrison’s Invisibles), but the realization was a mess. This comic tried to tell a story of a Polish knight fighting with Teutonic knights, but it failed in every aspect.

The wave of critical reviews was justifiable, but their tone was somehow surprising. The authors were criticized for making  bad comics, and the critics’ shared assumption was that the technical problems with mastering the medium were an effect of the creators’ status of outsiders in the fandom community. They were treated as barbarians whose lack of the knowledge of customs makes them unworthy of joining the club.

One of the authors decided to aggressively fight back, which heated the discussion up to the point of full-blown controversy. This conflict shows that the Polish comics fandom tends nowadays to look for enemies to consolidate itself against. For some period manga and anime fans were playing a role of such an enemy, as they are usually female and mostly younger than average fans in the comics community. However, in many cases, people who read manga have been treating it as something essentially different from comics. Not many manga fans read works published in Europe or America. That is why those communities rarely meet, as manga and anime fans organize their own conventions.

Anyway, that particular antagonism is slowly burning out, as more ambitious mangas are being published, attracting the interest of fans of western comics. One of the first manga publishers widely read by both communities was “Hanami,” which specialized in gekiga genre, translating such works as Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto or the works of Jiro Taniguchi. This shows that there are some connections between both fandoms, and that some people move freely from one group to the other.

However, what the conflict with the manga fandom has shown is the existence of a broader problem of the marginalization of women in the comics community, among both fans and creators. Although women who are authors of comics books are not a totally new phenomenon, as confirmed for instance by Szarlota Pawel, one of the most popular creators of comics for children in the communist period, the number of Polish female comics creators has recently been increasing. Two anthologies presenting women creating comics in Poland were printed in 2012: the first one was entitled Polski komiks kobiecy (Polish female comics) and the second one was published in English, as Polish Female Comics – Double Portrait. As an outcome of this project, the editors launched a website Comix Grrrlz , where we can find a database of Polish female creators of comics.

This emancipation of the female perspective in comics and of feminist themes shows that there is a need for an opposition to the mainstream, male dominated market. A lot of the creators who appear in both anthologies have belonged to the fandom for a long time, but the individuality of their voices was never recognized. The importance of these two publications lies in the fact that they have unexpectedly revealed Polish fandom of comics not to be as monolithic and patriarchal as commonly perceived.

One of the attempts to reform the community  from the inside is to create an event that would go beyond the frames of typical scenarios for a convention of comics fans. This is one of the main goals of “Centrala” publishing house, the organizer of the International Comics Festival “Ligatura,” which takes place in Poznań. During this annual event “Centrala” is focused mainly on the promotion of alternative comics from the Central and Eastern Europe. As a result of this strategy, not so many internationally recognized stars attend the convention, and its organizers achieve an effect similar to that produced by both anthologies of female comics, i.e. make the community reflect on the essence of Polish comics in relation to their local and geopolitical contexts.

Every year during the festival the question of similarities and differences between countries from the former Soviet Union is approached. As an attempt to tackle this question, every year there is an exhibition launched with an accompanying lecture, workshops and other activities. “Ligatura” is an effective counterpoint to the slightly monotonous formulas of the conventions organized in Warsaw or Łódź. The strategy of stressing the role of alternative comics builds another kind of opposition to the mainstream, which is an important way to open up the Polish fandom to works published in the neighboring countries.

Another interesting attempt to blur the lines within the comics community is Wyjście z Getta (Coming out of the Ghetto) a collection of interviews conducted by Sebastian Frąckiewicz with creators of Polish comics. The starting point of Frąckiewicz’s book is acknowledging the fact that the Polish comics market is a niche, or even a ghetto. During the interviews, the author wonders whether it is possible for the whole community, but especially for the authors, to get out. He does not think that suddenly comics in Poland will become mainstream, but he confronts his interviewees with a notion of connecting two “ghettos,” so to speak, i.e. the comics community and the art world. He postulates putting comics into galleries.

This solution is highly debatable and a little utopian, but still Frąckiewicz manages to make many interesting points. The Polish fandom faced with a perspective of never being part of the mainstream tends to incorporate the role of the victim. In the 80s the role of the antagonist was played by the communist government, and now it has become ascribed to amateurs trying to make comics without proper skills and knowledge. To end this trend, comics fandom has to be constantly faced with other communities and its borders have to be constantly transgressed. It does not matter whether it happens in a confrontation with other communities or with minority groups inside the fandom. The current situation of comics and comics fandom in Poland is fluid. The hierarchical structure has been challenged on many occasions, which allows the community to redefine itself and refresh its own priorities.

 

Bibliography

Comics Grrrlz – comicsgrrrlz.pl

Esensja – esensja.pl

„Fantastyka” 1/1982 – 6 (93)/1990

„Fantastyka – Komiks” 1/1987 – 1-2 (10-11)/1990

S. Frąckiewicz; Wyjście z Getta. Rozmowy o kulturze komiksowej w Polsce; Warsaw 2012

Gildia Komiksu – komiks.gildia.pl

„Komiks” 1/1990 – 2 (32) / 1995

Komiks w Sieci. Antologia polskiego komiksu internetowego; Cracow 2004

Kontekstowy miks. Przez opowieści graficzne do analizy kultury współczesnej; ed. G. Gajewska, R. Wójcik; Poznań 2011

Ł. Kowalczuk; TM – Semic. Największe komiksowe wydawnictwo lat dziewięćdziesiątych w Polsce; Poznań 2013.

„Nowa Fantastyka” 1/1990 – 4 (367)/2013; fantastyka.pl

M. Parowski, J. Rodek, B. Polch; Klasyka polskiego komiksu #6 – Funky Koval; Warsaw 2002

Polish Female Comics – Double Portrait; Poznań 2012

Polski komiks kobiecy; ed. K. Kuczyńska; Warsaw 2012

Zeszyty Komiksowe – zeszyty komiksowe.org

 

 

 

 

About the Autors

 

Michał Jutkiewicz – PhD candidate at the Polish Studies Department of Jagiellonian University, writing his thesis on comics and comics culture on the Internet. Lecturer and an active member of Małopolskie Studio Komiksowe (Małopolska Comics Studio) at Public Library in Cracow, where he conducts regular meetings. One of the organizers of Krakowski Festiwal Komiksu (Cracow’s Comics Festival).

Rafał Kołsut – final year student of Theatre studies at Polish Studies Department on Jagiellonian University. Comic book scriptwriter, collaborating with magazines and annual anthologies such as Ziniol, Triceps, Kolektyw (Collective), Profanum. Pop culture reviewer in KZ – Magazyn Miłośników Komiksu (KZ - Comic Fans Magazine).

[Illustration: Back of the Horse by Robert Sienicki]

 

 

 

Participatory Poland (Part Three): Historical Reenactment in Poland: Where Grassroots and Institutions Collide

In the “Participatory Poland” report a group of Polish aca-fen makes a preliminary attempt towards defining the specificity of an Eastern European country’s participatory culture shaped both in the communist and post-communist periods. By placing the development of selected fan-based activities against a broader socio-historical background, we are trying to capture the interplay between the global and the local context of participatory culture, as well as take preliminary steps towards making its Polish branch available for academic research. Thanks to Professor Henry Jenkins’ incredible support, we are able to share the first, though by no means final, results of our investigations with aca-fen worldwide. The posts included in this report deal with several examples of Polish participatory activities, namely, the literary and media fandom of speculative fiction and role-playing games; comics fandom; fandom of manga and anime; historical re-enactment associations; and the prosumerist phenomenon of bra-fitting. While we are planning to continue and expand our research, we hope that its samples presented in this report contribute to the exploration of participatory culture.

Historical Reenactment in Poland: Where Grassroots and Institutions Collide

Michał Mochocki

Kazimierz Wielki University in Bydgoszcz

 

 

Medieval Knights or Native Americans: Who Was First

 

The first appearance of modern “reenactors” in Poland was probably the parade of 10th-century Slavic warriors, organised in 1967 to celebrate 1000 years since the founding of the Polish state. Set up by the communist government, without a fan community to back it up, it turned out to be a one-time, inconsequential event (Nowiński 2012: 76) and cannot be counted as genuine reenactment.

As Jacek Nowiński (2012: 76) says, there is no doubt among Polish reenactors about who deserves the credit as the pioneer. It was in July 1977 that the first reenactment event – a chivalric tournament – took place at Golub-Dobrzyń castle organized by the local division of PTTK (Polish Tourist and Sightseeing Society). It was headed by Zygmunt Kwiatkowski, who subsequently reigned as castellanus and organised annual tournaments until his death in 2005 (now the tradition continued by his son Piotr). Also in the late 1970s, Zbigniew Sawicki in Zawiercie started his research on Old Polish martial arts, which led to the founding of a small martial arts section in 1981 and a full-fledged club Signum Polonicum in 1986. The club  now holds 7 local units around Poland, 1 in the Czech Republic, and 1 in France.

Alongside medieval knights, the indianist movement in Poland was constituted in 1977 as well. With informal activities in several places dating from 1968, its first national convention took place in August 1977 (Placek 2004), a month after the Golub-Dobrzyń chivalric event. Actually, the convention had been scheduled for 24-26 June 1976, the 100th anniversary of Little Bighorn. The plan had been thwarted by the communist authorities, but an unofficial small-scale gathering had nevertheless taken place (Placek 2004). If we count the indianists among historical reenactors, and the unofficial 1976 event as their founding year, it could be said they had been here first: one year before “the white man” Kwiatkowski set up his medieval tournament. However, they are not associated with the reenactment movement (and do not seem to be willing to), as they are focused on spirituality, ecology and new age (Seremet 2000), and not so much on material recreation of costumes and weapons.

Well documented and analysed, the development of Polish indianism is a fascinating story with truly legendary figures (see Sat-Okh). For readers of Polish, I recommend links available at http://www.indianie.eco.pl/. But with the limited word count, I will drop the thread here as nothing more but an interesting context.

 

The Boom and Flood of 1990s

 

In 1989, the Moscow-aligned socialist government was replaced by a more democratically elected one, and the People’s Republic of Poland lost its “People’s” component. The higher degree of freedom of speech allowed for independent discussion and reinterpretation of history, while freedom of association and assembly opened way for institutionalisation and professionalisation of NGOs. Organisations could now be created by the grassroots, independently of  state-run and state-funded bodies. The Polish borders were opened not only to the flood of Western goods, services and lifestyles, but also to contacts with reenactment communities from other countries. With loosened economic regulations, capitalism and free trade sparked thousands of private enterprises, including commercial historical events and the rebirth of traditional hand-made crafts catering to reenactors’s needs. The development of the public Internet since 1994 (Internet w Polsce) facilitated knowledge-sharing, community building, and large-scale international cooperation. All this has brought about fundamental changes.

In 1992, Brotherhood of Sword and Crossbow held the first tournament commemorating the 1410 Battle of Grunwald – not yet in Grunwald but in Stężyca (Nowiński 2012: 77). In the same year, Jarosław Struczyński inspired the town council of Gniew to reactivate the reconstruction of its medieval Teutonic castle (Historia twierdzy) and started what later became known as one of the most successful centers of medieval and 17th-century reenactment (see Vivat Vasa). The famous international Wolin-Jomsborg-Vineta festival of Slavs and Vikings was started in 1993. 1995 was the founding year of Museum Palace at Wilanów as an autonomous institution, and of Liga Baronów, “the first Polish tournament society,” as its members declare. The Palace and the Liga joined forces several years later to become a leading museum-with-reenactment. Influenced by the huge popularity of the Battle of Grunwald, the largest Teutonic castle in Malbork joined in, recreating its 1410 siege in 2000 and on.

Since 1990,new RH groups have sprung up all over Poland: Vikings, Slavs, knights, mercenaries, 17th-century armies, Napoleonic soldiers, units from both World Wars troops and from the most recent military conflicts (even Specnaz from the Russian-Chechen war of 1999-2009). Alongside military units, there are groups recreating civilians, much fewer in numbers. Along the way, these groups had to cooperate with local authorities, government bodies, private businesses, schools, museums, universities, army units, culture centres, community houses, mass media, other NGOs etc. Collaboration would go smoothly in some cases, or lead to struggles, conflict and rivalry in others. This is what I intend to focus on in this short paper: the dynamics of conflict-and-cooperation between grassroots and institutions.

 

Grassroots and Institutions Collide: Local/Regional Level

 

Szlendak (2012: 62) distinguishes between “fairs”, i.e. commercial festivals for  large audiences, and “time machines”, non-commercial events for insiders. Reenactors draw a sharp distinction between these two types. (32) This seems to be the largest bone of contention: local institutions, town / county officials and business sponsors prefer huge popular events dominated by lowbrow mass entertainment (beer, sausages, disco music etc.) where the role of reenactors is reduced to “monkeys at the zoo”.

The list of typical problems with institutions includes:

  • Sanepid (sanitary and epidemiological service) inspecting the condition of storing, making and serving food in historical camps. Law makes no distinction here: even if you cook food on the open fire, you should meet the same requirements as a top quality restaurant in a city (Szlendak 2012: 35).
  • Tax Offices looking for cash registers and financial documents for all small-scale trade (35).
  • The police and VIP security acting hostile against armed reenactors.
  • Unwillingness of institutions to collaborate with informal groups that are not officially registered as an NGO (36).
  • Local officials (mayors) trying to monopolize the “services” of local reenactors and turning against them when they dare to cooperate with an adjacent county (Nowiński 2012: 93).
  • Local officials seeing reenactors as dangerous rivals in the field of culture and entertainment as they can organize events of higher quality and at a lower cost than the town hall and its cultural institutions (Karwacki 124).
  • Analogically, museums tend to be jealous or condescending towards reenactors, who can set up interactive “temporary museums” seen by the audience as better than the traditional museum experience (Szlendak 2012: 61)
  • Local politicians using reenactment events for self-promotion, election campaign or propaganda, which evokes disgust and embarrassment on the part of  reenactors. (Szlendak 37)

On the positive side, there are many examples and spheres of grassroots/institution  cooperation:

  • Reenactors frequently appear in schools with “living history” lessons, usually without any financial gratification (Szlendak 2012: 48; Nowiński 2012: 100).
  • Jomsborg-Wolin settlement in collaboration with the local Employment Office offers temporary jobs and vocational training for the unemployed (Nowiński 2012: 87).
  • The idea of Jomsborg-Wolin reenactments had come from the business sector, with the Danish companies Danfoss and Grundfos “selling” the concept to the local authorities (Nowiński 2012: 87).
  • The medieval Grunwald March, with its route across several counties, has inspired the creation of an inter-county funding scheme uniting 8 jurisdictions (Andrzejewski, qtd. in Karwacki 2012: 133).
  • The immensely popular reenactment of the Grunwald Battle of 1410 has led to the establishment of the Battle of Grunwald Museum in ‟the middle of nowhere”: a very poor rural area with no significant institutions or businesses whatsoever.
  • A unit of winged hussars affiliated with the Gniew castle has long been officially commanded by marszałek (province marshal) of Pomorskie voivodeship, enjoying the support of the local government in the country and abroad (to be discussed under Inter/National below).

 

Generally speaking, small towns and villages (e.g. Wolin, Malbork, Grunwald, Kołobrzeg) tend to be much more interested and involved in cooperation with reenactors, making historical events a significant aspect of their promotional image (Szlendak 63). Cities with rich and diverse culture&arts background do not see reenactors as a valuable asset. Still, cooperation between reenactors, city halls and institutions happens, e.g. with the Warsaw Uprising Museum.

 

The 2000+ Upscaling

 

As of 2011, having analysed a number of reports and databases from scholars and practitioners (including the huge registry created by Robert Bagrit), Nowiński (2012: 78) estimates the number of RH groups at about 500, with the total number of reenactors at 100.000. He admits to wide error margins, but there is no doubt that active reenactors should be counted in tens of thousands, and spectators of RH events  in millions each year. In consequence, “thanks to mass commercial events and their media coverage, the audiences no longer perceive reenactors as weirdos, but as people doing a specific job” (Szlendak 2012: 32, translation mine).

In 2000+, the ever-growing numbers, experience, level of organisation, and massive public appeal have raised the RH movement from local to regional to national and international level. Large-scale events are now attended by MPs and government officials, with the most high-profile celebrations are visited by  Prime Minister or President of Poland. Reenactors are invited to TV shows with nationwide broadcasts. TV and film celebrities are hired by reenactment events to play the roles of central historical figures (e.g. Daniel Olbrychski as King John III Sobieski in the Battle of Vienna /1683/ celebration held in Kraków in 2008). Lobbying organised by reenactors has brought about changes in gun control legislation, and is very likely to to influence the ceremony of receiving foreign guests by President (see below). On the other hand, the most successful and prestigious events are being taken over by political or corporate powers, completely sidelining the reenactors, some of whom no longer want to participate.

 

Grassroots and Institutions Collide: Inter/National Level

2010 was a milestone: huge reenactments celebrating the 600th anniversary of Battle of Grunwald in which Polish and Lithuanian forces had crushed the German-Teutonic knights and their allies, and 400th anniversary of Battle of Kłuszyn (Klushino) that had been an amazing victory of Polish winged hussars over a huge army of Russians supported by Western mercenaries. This time, both reenactments had a strong support from the state, including the government and president, the National Bank of Poland, and public TV stations. What had started in Stężyca in 1992 as grassroots activity with about 20 knights and a small local audience has grown to the 400.000 of visitors to the fields of Grunwald in 2010 (Nowiński 2012: 78).

A similar evolution can be seen around the largest fortress built by Teutonic knights, the Malbork (Marienburg) castle. It had shunned reenactors throughout the 1990s, but since 2000, the 1410 siege of Malbork became an annual event. In 2010, its popularity was heavily boosted in conjuction with the 600th anniversary of Battle of Grunwald. In 2011, it was part of Wielki Teatr Historii (Grand Historical Theatre), the most expensive grant project ever funded by National Center for Culture, coordinated by famous host of historical TV shows Bogusław Wołoszański, and broadcast nationwide.

Nevertheless, both these events suffered from institutional hegemony, with control over management and battlefield taken over by state-run administration, TV channels and corporate sponsors. Many medieval groups no longer attend the Malbork or Grunwald events, feeling that it is not “theirs” anymore, as reenactors have no real influence on what the event looks like. They still remember the speech of Jerzy Buzek, who talked about the 600 years of Grunwald and 30 years of “Solidarity” (political movement he had been part of) in a single breath (Szlendak 2012: 68). Even Szymon Drej, the head of the Malbork castle which is the main organiser of the siege, says he is not happy with the way things have turned, but does not see a way out (as cited in Nowiński 2012: 88-89).

On the other hand, we have examples of reenactors’ lobbying that have influenced decisions of the parliament and President. A bill passed on 5 January 2011 modified the Act on Weapons and Ammunition, specifically addressing the phenomenon of historical reenactment and permitting the use of gun replicas and blank shots. Also grant programs released by government bodies (e.g. the National Center for Culture) now list reenactment events among those that qualify for public funding. A grassroots campaign “Hussars before the Palace!”, initiated by winged hussar reenactors in 2012 to officially introduce armor-clad hussars to stand guard before the presidential palace at public ceremonies, scored a one-time achievement on the Flag Day, 2 May 2013 (Kresy.pl), and according to its leader, Marek Jakubiak, is likely to succeed in establishing it as a tradition.

The famous and uniquely Polish cavalry, winged hussars, has made a few international appearances with a political undertone:

  • Jarosław Struczyński and the Gniew hussars made a humorous public appeal to the Swedish king, asking him to return all goods plundered in Poland during the Swedish 1655-1660 “Deluge”, now remaining in Swedish museums.
  • These same hussars visited the EU parliament in Brussels on 22nd November2011.
  • Two hussar groups were at the center of Polish Days in Vilnius (Lithuania) in November 2012.

In the summer of 2013, the 330. anniversary of the glorious victory of King John III Sobieski over the Turks was to be celebrated by the ride of 20-30 hussars from Kraków (the former capital of Poland) to Vienna (Austria) followed by participation in the Vienna celebration. The plan failed: not enough funds had been raised, and Vienna authorities did not grant permission for a parade on horseback. Still, small-scale rides and coordinated hussar events took place across Poland (www.wieden330.pl).

 

The Closing Story

I would like to end this report with the story (told by Szlendak 2012: 9) of cpt. Tełowski of 63. Infantry Regiment, who was posthumously decorated with the Order of Virtuti Militari (the highest Polish award for heroism on the battlefield). His wife, having emigrated to Australia, on her deathbed decided that the Order should be returned to Poland, to the same 63. Regiment stationed in Toruń. However, such a unit no longer exists in the military. But there is a reenactment group related to it. With the involvement of the Polish Ministry of Defense and the Australian embassy, not to mention local officials and the Tełowski family, the order was transferred to the reenactors, and is now displayed by their commander on public occasions. This is how the heritage of the Polish army lives on in a reenactment group, with official recognition and endorsement from state institutions and descendants alike.

Such was the journey of Polish reenactors: from the first medieval tournament set up in 1977 by a local tourist organization to the winged hussars standing guard before the presidential palace in 2013. Szlendak (2012: 10) contends: “This movement is going to transform from hobby-driven volunteers into a full-fledged professional group”. I have no doubt that this has already happened.

Sources:

 

Karwacki, A. 2012. ‟Ewaluacja rekonstruowania.” In: T. Szlendak (ed.). Dziedzictwo w akcji. Rekonstrukcja historyczna jako sposób uczestnictwa w kulturze. (109-140). Narodowe Centrum Kultury: Warszawa.

 

Nowiński, J. 2012. ‟Rekonstrukcje jako instytucje.” In: T. Szlendak (ed.). Dziedzictwo w akcji. Rekonstrukcja historyczna jako sposób uczestnictwa w kulturze. (71-108). Narodowe Centrum Kultury: Warszawa.

 

Placek, M. 2003. Dominanty światopoglądowe w polskim ruchu indianistycznym. MA dissertation: Uniwersytet Śląski.

 

Seremet S., 2000. Spotkania na indiańskich ścieżkach. Asymilacja duchowości Sun Beara w Stowarzyszeniu Żółwi. MA dissertation: Uniwersytet Warszawski.

 

Szlendak, T. 2012. ‟Uczestnicy, odbiorcy i miejsca, gdzie się spotykają.” In: T. Szlendak (ed.). Dziedzictwo w akcji. Rekonstrukcja historyczna jako sposób uczestnictwa w kulturze. (7-70). Narodowe Centrum Kultury: Warszawa.

 

Michal Mochocki: Non-digital game researcher and designer, holds Ph.D. in Literature and works at the Faculty of English Studies at the Kazimierz Wielki University in Bydgoszcz, Poland. Founding member and managing board secretary of the Games Research Association of Poland, and Advisory Board member in the Homo Ludens scholarly journal. Co-authored Dzikie Pola RPG 2nd ed. (2005), authored tons of game content for this and other RPGs, and has been writing historical larps since 2001. Also engaged in historical re-enactment and game-based learning. At his university, he is in charge of a B.A. degree programme in Game Studies and Design, and actively promoting gamification in higher education. Currently researching the activation of heritage in reenactments and non-digital roleplaying games. WWW: michal-mochocki.pl   Blog:mmochocki.blogspot.com 

Participatory Poland (Part One): Participatory Poland — An Introduction

This past May, I received an email from Agata Zarzycka, Assistant Professor of Literature at the Department of English Studies, Wrocław University:

“We are writing to you on behalf of a team of academics and doctoral students from the Department of English Studies, University of Wrocław, Poland, inspired by your words from the foreword to the Polish edition of The Convergence Culture, where you wrote about your specifically American focus and range of experience, but also about the impossibility of ignoring the mutual exchange between medialized cultural movements across the world. You also mentioned your potential interest in supporting a dialog between participants and commentators of American and Polish popular culture, which has encouraged us to ask for your opinion about the general concept and the possible collaboration potential of the combined didactic and research-oriented project aimed the cultivation of ”new media literacies” among high school students – an enterprise that, to the best of our knowledge, no one has yet ventured to launch in the academic context. “

I was well aware that there was growing interest in my work there: the very first translation of my work, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, was into Polish and I shared this account of a visit my wife and I made to this country several years ago in this blog: Part One, Part Two, and more recently, I featured a report by Polish researchers on the intellectual property struggles in their country. There are dramatic cultural changes taking place in Poland, which has also been a key pillar in the Creative Commons movement.

As our correspondence continued, and as they shared with me the curriculum they were developing, I was impressed by the thoughtfulness with which they were seeking to translate some of my ideas about participatory culture and new media literacies for the Polish academic setting, but I challenged them to think even more deeply about what the concept of participatory culture might mean in contemporary, Post-Communist Poland, and about what kinds of lived experiences Polish students might be having with these practices.  After all, part of the goal is to have students bring their own expertise and passions into the educational setting. In response, they launched a remarkable project, which brought together key scholars and aca-fan from Poland, to write a series of overview essays describing different participatory practices in their country. I was blown away by this response, and even more so, by the depth and richness of what they produced. I am very honored to be in the position to share these reports with readers around the world via this blog.

I hope you will learn as much from the Participatory Poland series as I have, and I hope that it will inspire scholars in other countries to consider producing similar accounts of what participatory culture might mean in their national contexts. I would love to see proposals from elsewhere which might fill similar gaps in our understanding of traditional and contemporary cultural practices.

This first piece, broken down into two installments, provides the context through which to understand this series, an account of the dramatic cultural and political changes which have impacted Poland over the past few decades.

PARTICIPATORY POLAND: AN INTRODUCTION

 

Agata Zarzycka and Justyna Deszcz-Tryhubczak

Department of English Studies

University of Wroclaw

Poland

 

 

THE SCOPE AND GOALS OF THE REPORT

This essay introduces the “Participatory Poland” report: a series of essays in which Polish aca-fen analyze several branches of Polish participatory culture and try to locate their specificity by considering the historical context in which it has so far developed. While we are aware that the factors involved in this phenomenon are numerous and complex enough to become a material for at least one book, which makes our Introduction selective and imperfect by definition, we have attempted to characterize the background for the discussions to follow in the subsequent blog entries and show their shared relevance as facets of the contemporary “participatory Poland”.

Undoubtedly, a groundbreaking feature of the Internet-boosted participatory culture is its globalized character, resulting in what Henry Jenkins calls “pop cosmopolitanism” (Fans 155-156) and providing common cultural and civic “languages” connecting people from all over the world. Because of that, however, we find it even more interesting to see how the “local color” of fan-based practices can be shaped by the heritage of national, historical and political factors that are seemingly detached from the fandom community, whose traditions, in their most influential form, have originated in the English-speaking, and specifically American, cultural sphere.

In Poland, the emergence of fandom as we know it was belated by several decades. Nevertheless, the cultural and social potential for participatory entertainment proved powerful enough to quickly bring about a whole spectrum of movements that continue to evolve. The preliminary edition of the report is composed of close-ups on just a few samples from various parts of that spectrum: speculative fiction as the core inspiration for the contemporary participatory culture; historical reconstruction as a movement closely connected to the local context; role-playing games as a form of entertainment which, once adopted by Polish practitioners, have proved flexible and responsive to various, more or less nationality-dependent activities; comics as possibly the most directly subversive and politically involved phenomenon; manga as an example of a genuinely foreign factor that has become a noticeably nationalized element of the participatory landscape in Poland; and finally bra-fitting, which, while inspired by prosumerism rather than fandom activity, constitutes one of uniquely successful Polish grassroots movements. While participatory culture is most often associated with digital media or fandom centered around cult pop cultural works, its crucial aspects as defined by Jenkins et al. in Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century (2009), underline also other aspects of participation – the collectivity of the experience, the appreciation of the input of others, the experience of belonging to a community supporting the activity, and the development of a grassroots organization based on more experienced participants introducing and guiding newbies etc. (Jenkins e. a. 7). Thus, although not all movements discussed in the report can be traced back to fan activity inspired by some originally offered official material, they share those features of participatory culture that make it a prominent phenomenon in the sphere of contemporary civic activism.

 

POLITICAL AND HISTORICAL CONTEXT

 

The boom of most movements explored in this report could be observed either in the 1990s – the first post-communist decade in Poland – or in the young capitalism of the first decade of the 21st century. In the U.S., the time between the 1960s and the end of 1980s, though far from peaceful in terms of social and political issues, brought a natural growth and formation of core fandom phenomena which together with the digital media revolution were to bring participatory culture to the level of a new cultural paradigm that we experience now: J. R. R. Tolkien’s writings spiraled up to the status of cult texts, reinforcing on their way the development of role-playing games; movies and TV shows such as Star Wars and Star Trek triggered large-scale fan communities; and the comic-book underground flourished. In Poland, the growth of popular culture in the same period, though enjoying some highlights, especially in the 1970s, was marked and limited by political and cultural isolation from the rest of the world, oppression, poverty, political infiltration and resistance, propaganda, censorship and fear. Obviously, this is not to say that American fandom developed in a socio-political void. It was the post-McCarthyist reaction that implicitly led to the cultural revolution of the 1960s, fuelled by the hippie movement and accompanied, among others, by a boom of American interest in Tolkien. Fandom-related phenomena and cultural practices have on a regular basis been scrutinized for their supposed moral harmfulness and psychological threats, as exemplified in the 1950s by the famous Senate activities inspired by Fredrick Wertham with regard to comic books in the 50s, the Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons activity in the 80s, or the post-Columbine media panic leading to Henry Jenkins’ 1999 intervention in defense of Goth and gaming cultures in Congress in 1999. In 2010, a politically loaded TED performance of Lawrence Lessig, who considers the copyright issues in the Internet remix culture from the perspective of Right – Left conflicts, underlined the political dimension of contemporary fandom-related practices on the structural level (http://www.ted.com/talks/lessig_nyed.html).

Still, regardless of the unquestionably dynamic bonds of American participatory culture with broader social and political contexts, one of the factors that make the growth of similar movements in Poland significantly different is the position and functions of grassroots and otherwise informal collective activity in general. Two stereotypical images of community actions as shaped throughout the socialist period might be compared, however remotely, to the American distinction between grassroots and astroturfing. On the one hand, the so called “czyn społeczny” (subbotnik) practice in frames of which communist authorities forced people to carry out unpaid work for the “common good,” as well as the general pressure on the society to manifest fake enthusiasm for the imposed ideology, negatively affected the concept of collective activity and laced most such initiatives with a political undertone unwanted by the participants. On the other hand, it is exactly through the more or less spontaneous grassroots resistance movements as reflected by the very name of “Solidarity” that the most serious and effective campaign against the regime was waged until its successful conclusion in 1989. In the social reality so heavily conditioned by one or another aspect of the nationwide political conflict, it was difficult to set up any kind of shared activity that would not have to, at some point, position itself somewhere in its spectrum. That is why the discussion of the development of Polish participatory culture necessitates historical contextualization.

The 1945 intervention of the Soviet army in Poland resulted in the establishment of the communist government, which in turn meant that the country soon became a socialist state following the Soviet model. Poland, or rather the People’s Republic of Poland, as it was officially known from 1952 to 1989, remained under that influence until 1989 but open social opposition to the communist rule existed throughout the period, assuming a variety of forms and guises, including initiatives inspired by popular culture. In the late 1940s and early 1950s Poland had its share of Stalinist rule, such as strong censorship, ideological manipulation and persecution of the Roman Catholic Church. A short interval of “thaw” came after Stalin’s death in 1953 and resulted in bloodily quenched worker protests in 1956. In October that year Władysław Gomułka became first secretary of the PZPR (the Polish United Workers’ Party), proclaiming that Poland was to follow the Polish way to socialism, defined by the specificities of the country’s traditions. Nevertheless, the years 1956-1980 were marked by a progressing economic crisis and the growing dissent on the part of the Church, workers and the intelligentsia.

Of particular importance in that period was the Warsaw Pact of 1968 (a mutual defense treaty between communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe during the Cold War), students’ protests against the lack of intellectual and cultural freedom in March 1968, and widespread strikes in shipyards and factories on the Baltic coast in 1970. In 1970 Gomułka was replaced by Edward Gierek, whose idea to assuage social discontent was to introduce moderate liberalization and boost the economy by massive borrowing from the West. The latter resulted in another crisis, the increase in food prices and social unrest. Simultaneously, the Helsinki Accords in 1975, the growing influence of the Catholic Church under the leadership of Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, and the papacy of Cardinal Karol Wojtyła (1978) as well as his visit to Poland in 1979, culminated in the formation of Solidarity, the free national trade union. Solidarity’s growing membership and its unrelenting opposition to the regime on the one hand and the pressure of the Soviet Union on the Polish government to deal with the turbulent situation on the other led to the declaration of Martial Law in December 1981 by general Wojciech Jaruzelski.

Everyday life became difficult. The borders were closed and travelling in the country was drastically limited. Moreover, curfew was introduced between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Also numerous Solidarity activists were imprisoned without court sentence, and Solidarity itself was officially dissolved. Nevertheless, the communist regime was weakening. In 1989 the Polish Round Table was formed as a forum for discussions between the government, Solidarity and other opposition groups. The first democratic elections took place in summer 1989, sweeping communism away, and the Catholic intellectual Tadeusz Mazowiecki became prime minister. The post-communist era in the history of Poland began.

Unfortunately, despite the triumphant victory of democracy and capitalism over communism, for many Poles the transition from the predemocratic Poland to a liberal economic system, democracy, as well as the integration into the European Union, has proved difficult and disillusioning. As Leszek Koczanowicz puts it,

[c]ommunism in Poland as well as in other European countries led to the total absorption of the public sphere by the state apparatus. Communist ideology adapted almost the whole field of traditional thinking, reformulating it in collective terms. In the fight against “bourgeois” ideology, stress was put on the deficiencies of the concept of individualism as a useful tool for understanding and organizing social reality. Instead, communist ideology proposed a collective solution which was embodied in the idea of the Communist Party. (43)

Therefore it is no wonder that the mentality of Homo sovieticus – a type of a human being who is enslaved by the system but who is also glad to have his or her basic needs satisfied by it (Tischner 125) – cannot be smoothly replaced by a radically new national identity stemming not only from the sense of responsibility for oneself but also from a conscious exercise of one’s civic and personal freedom in a plural society. Simultaneously, as Elżbieta Matynia points out, Polish social and cultural life remains to be shaped by the romantic salvational paradigm of Poland as torn by foreign powers (153-154). For Matynia, its most significant elements are “the general preoccupation with history” and “the recounting of a heroic past”; the idea of a persecuted nation, typically linked with the Catholic religion; and “in the absence of a satisfying reality, a life within symbols and allegories, a community of the spirit, nurtured by family memories of the resistance experience and shared by each generation” (154).

Bartłomiej Radziejewski identifies a unifying and potentially more empowering root of Polish traditional rebelliousness in the “Sarmatian spirit” echoing the nobles’ democracy of the 15th and 16th century, which affirmed individual independence and the distrust of government (n.p.). Throughout the 1990s, however, a radically different, but equally influential element of Polish post-totalitarian mentality has developed in the form of “communist nostalgia” (Koczanowicz 8), which stems from people’s sense of uncertainty in the new political situation. As Koczanowicz comments, Poles “who got used to living in circumstances defined by communist bureaucracy came to feel lost in the new situation of market economy” (8). Moreover, as he continues, for many the previous system was ideal just because it was predictable and secure, as well as enabling people to assume a clear moral stance (8): “Freedom became for most of them [people] too much of a burden” (52).

One of the most recent phenomena shaping contemporary Polish identity is post-post-communism, which could be defined as a sense of anxiety about “losing identity in the face of globalization, immigration, and the power of international institutions” (Koczanowicz 149). Hence, as Koczanowicz argues, Poles desire the restoration of traditional values on the ideological level and the strengthening of the role of state perceived “as a system of organizations” (149).

As can be concluded, Poland in the first decades of the 21st century is to a large extent driven by the longing for the past. As Koczanowicz explains, “[t]he social time of the Polish society (the ontology of expectations) is predominantly colonized by the attitude toward the traditional national and religious values. People imagine that traditional values should serve as a point of reference in the changing social reality for the long time” (150-151). The significance of such philosophy and past-oriented sentiments may be expected to decrease in the relatively younger generations of today’s 30- or 20-year-olds, not to mention teenagers. Still, the unease connected with the lack of a coherent and optimistic alternative, combined with the general challenges of existence in the late capitalist reality, are reasons why the imprint of the socialist period remains relevant.

In terms of Polish participatory culture development, the experience of socialism not only induced the fundamental fandom initiatives with a subversive undertone, but also inspired some politics-focused initiatives. A spectacular example of the political employment of participatory techniques is Orange Alternative movement.

 (MORE TO COME)

 

Dr. Agata Zarzycka is Assistant Professor of Literature at the Department of English Studies, Wrocław University. She has authored a monograph on role-playing games, Socialized Fiction: Role-Playing Games as a Multidimensional Space of Interaction between Literary Theory and Practice (2009). Her other publications deal with role-playing games, fantasy literature and participatory culture. Her current research project is devoted to Gothic influences on popular culture. She is also interested in remix, game studies, fandom and subcultures, as well as broadly understood speculative fiction.

Dr. Justyna Deszcz-Tryhubczak is Assistant Professor of Literature and Director of the Center for Young People’s Literature and Culture at the Department of English Studies, Wroclaw University, Poland. She has published a monograph on Salman Rushdie, Rushdie in Wonderland: “Fairytaleness” in Salman Rushdie’s Fiction (Peter Lang 2004). She has also published articles on Salman Rushdie, Angela Carter, fairy tales, YA fantasy, and Polish children’s literature, for example in Folklore and Marvels & Tales. She co-edited Towards or Back to Human Values? Spiritual and Moral Dimensions of Contemporary Fantasy (Cambridge Scholars Press 2006), Considering Fantasy: Ethical, Didactic and Therapeutic Aspects of Fantasy in Literature and Film (ATUT 2007), and Relevant across Cultures: Visions of Connectedness and Earth Citizenship in Modern Fantasy for Young Readers (ATUT 2009). Her research interests include children’s literature and culture, reader response, utopianism, ecocriticism, and intermediality. As Director of the Center for Young People’s Literature and Culture, she organizes and coordinates numerous creative workshops and courses for children and young adults. Since 2012 she has been on the editorial board of Filoteknos: Children’s Literature-Cultural Mediation-Anthropology of Childhood, the first Polish academic journal in the field. In 2003 and 2004 she was awarded the Scholarships of the Foundation for Polish Science for young scholars. Her expertise was recognised internationally in 2004 through the Study Fellowship at the International Youth Library in Munich and in 2013, through Kosciuszko Foundation Fellowship and Fulbright Senior Advanced Research Award to work at the Institute of Effective Education and the Department of Childhood Studies, at Rutgers University.

Chivalry is Dead: SUBA51′s Killer Is Dead, Gigolos, and The Status of (Virtual) Women

This is another in a series of blog posts written by students from my Public Intellectuals seminar in USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism.

Chivalry is Dead: SUBA51′s Killer Is Dead, Gigolos, and The Status of (Virtual) Women

by James B. Milner

 

I usually don’t purchase video games without doing my homework. This could take a number of forms. I tend to stick to companies which have produced the games I have loved the most in the past. I closely read reviews from sites like IGN and GameSpot, even though I often take the reviews with a grain of salt. In the buildup to the release of a new title, I will watch any number of video clips to get a sense of whether I will enjoy playing the game, and whether or not it would be worth $60 to get it when it comes out. All of this, and also I keep in touch with the associates at my favorite game store, who let me know what people with tastes similar to mine are reserving.

Ignoring most of my usual tricks, I bought Killer is Dead brand new knowing very little about it. I was informed that it was an indirect sequel to Killer 7 (which I had not played, but had heard good things about) and was by the same Japanese developer (SUBA51) who was behind the No More Heroes franchise. I had played No More Heroes and enjoyed it: I thought it a bit simplistic, and a touch repetitive, but stylish and fun and even a little challenging at times, and overall weird and unique, these last being right up my alley game-wise. And it was a limited edition, which again appealed to me as a collector (I haven’t recreated the shrine since I moved to California, but in Michigan I had all of my boxed sets, art books, stuffies, and other assorted paraphernalia on display on a series of bookcases). So I plunked down my $60 and took it home with me.

And then I read the GameSpot and IGN reviews. Mind you, this post is not a review, nor is it even about the game’s reviews, strictly speaking. It concerns, in large part, a debate about sexism in the game that takes place in the comments on the reviews. It is, however, important for the sake of the discussion to spend a little time on the reviews themselves. And the reviews were—mixed. And consistent. The major knock on the bulk of the action in the game, the fighting, boiled down to this: all you have to do to succeed is alternate between A) simply mashing on the buttons and then B) pressing the dodge button when an enemy attacks. And then I watched gameplay footage, to see if, reviews notwithstanding, I might still enjoy the game, and this criticism seemed to be borne out. Take a look and you’ll see what I mean:

And the only other piece to the puzzle for this game, the only other thing to do in it that doesn’t involve this circuit, are the unfortunate Gigolo Missions.

I say unfortunate—I of course haven’t played the game, which is why this isn’t at all a review, and although from here on out I will be referring to the GameSpot and IGN reviews of the game, it’s really not about those reviews either. But what I found there was enough to make me question whether I could in good conscience play the game and get any enjoyment out of it. Both Marty Sliva of IGN and Mark Walton at Gamespot reported an uneasy relationship (to say the least) with the Gigolo Missions. But what are the Gigolo Missions?

Basically, the goal is to have sex with a virtual woman. How is this accomplished? First, you sit down at a bar next to a woman and order a drink. Then, you ogle her, looking at the appropriate places on her body (you’ll know what you should be looking at, because the area under your gaze will light up if, say, you should be staring at her chest, legs, or crotch). Stare at her enough (without saying anything, mind you), and she’ll ask you for a gift. Gifts are found or bought elsewhere in the game, and, if you bought the limited edition of the game or downloaded some extra content, you got special Gigolo Glasses which will give you a hint as to what she wants (and, of course, give you X-ray vision). Give her the right gift, and you’ll get to sleep with her. And then you’ll be rewarded with a special item. Mission accomplished.

Lest you think I’m making this up, here’s a clip:

The Gigolo Missions are optional, but not strictly so: sometimes the reward item can only be obtained through a Gigolo Mission, and playing the game without these items makes the game more difficult or less interesting in terms of the action. So that you can skip them and still complete the game, but you may make it much harder on yourself if you do. And I had to ask myself whether I could suffer through this aspect of the game to keep it interesting in the action sequences, or if I could skip them as I would have liked to have been able to do without suffering through even more repetitive fights. My answer was a resounding “no” on both counts, so I returned the game unopened and unplayed. The discomfort expressed by the reviewers over the Gigolo Missions, combined with my own disdain for game content which turns virtual women into hollow sexual shells, made it impossible for me to consider keeping it.

Where this really gets interesting is not in the two (male) reviewers’ accounts of their discomfiture as playing the Gigolo Missions, who describe these missions with phrases like “digital creeper” and “filth” and expressed how these missions “felt weird” to play. What is really interesting for me is the discussion that springs up in the comments, and how some participants in this discussion took an antifeminist stance based on a few lines of criticism of the Gigolo Missions in the reviews.

The reviews pointed out misgivings about the misogyny and objectification of women in the Gigolo missions, but in larger part they pointed out technical flaws that contributed to the low scores of the game. This didn’t stop a subset of commenters from focusing on the former criticisms. Some of these comments were what is (unfortunately) pretty standard anti-feminist fare in gamer circles:

GasFeelGood: “People are tired of seeing Internet Feminists forcing opinions as facts and pushing the politicizing of what is imaginary entertainment. This has turned into a cult and this crap operates like organized religion now.

“We want to play games and discuss games, not pseudo-intellectual philosophizing political and social crap that has no significance whatsoever.

“There is no place for subjective political opinion in professional reviews.” To which KillaShinobi replied “They are like Nazis except not intelligent enough to get everyone in on their cause but surely misguided.” (GameSpot)

Atalalama: “It’s gotten to the point anymore that ANY time a “professional game reviewer” (ie: Panders to what’s Socially Fashionable of The Hour, Blathers Gender-Fascism, and/or Comes with a Creamy Undercoating of Purityranical Tropes) slams a game for “degrading women” in some imaginary way, I go out and buy it.” (GameSpot)

IceVagabond: “Here we go again with the neo-feminist nonsense… can we go back to having reviews that critique the actual game more than promote a spiteful (and moreover completely irrelevant) ideology?” (GameSpot)

In these comments, one gets an equation of feminism with Nazism and fascism, as if feminism were concerned with a dogmatic imposition of a coherent and simplified ideology, rather than the breaking down of an entrenched dominant ideology of male privilege. Feminism is multiple, with a variety of aims and a variety of means to achieve these aims, and while there is general agreement that the degradation of women is something to be fought against (rather than a selling point for entertainment media) and that women should be treated equitably, just what this means and how this plays out is so multifaceted that one should hesitate to call it an ideology. But if even if it is granted that it is an ideology, it is not a “completely irrelevant” one that has “no significance whatsoever”: if pointing out that the act of scoping out a virtual woman’s body for sexual favors makes one a “digital creeper” leads to charges of Nazism then clearly the movement has a lot of work to do. And if a culture of virtual objectification doesn’t seem relevant enough, one can get a sense of the broad context of gamer misogyny and anti-feminism by looking at sites like Not in the Kitchen Anymore, Fat, Ugly or Slutty, Kotaku, or The Mary Sue to find an alarming number of disturbing stories of harassment and threats, including threats of rape and other sexual violence, made by male gamers against female gamers, both generally speaking (almost, apparently, as sport) and particularly when speaking up about these very threats or sexism in gaming generally.

Then there are those who downplay the significance of this type of depiction of women:

Christoffer112: “blablabla femenism bla bla bla, who cares.. it”s a game.” (GameSpot)

rnswlf: “ I’m sorry that you are seemingly too intimidated by the female form to appreciate a little light hearted fun.” (GameSpot)

1983gamer: “Also am I the only one who is tired of all the politics and Hippocratic bull crap that is going on in the gaming community? Really reviewer are complaining about bi-gist sexism in games? Really have we forgotten that video games are a art form? Gamers and reviewer alike. First dragon crown now this?? Its really sicking. The Hippocrates that condemn these games are the worse. No one complains when james bond has sex with a random woman..or halie berry having sex. So if you are one of these people male or female, stop using double standards and review or play the game based on how good the game is. Oh and maybe grow up and not watch sexiest movies or play sexist video games.” [33 votes up, 3 votes down] (IGN)

Kratier: “next time you see an attractive male portrayed in a video game you should call it sleazy as well. unless you know, you’re a hypocrite “ (GameSpot)

AugustAPC: “I mean it’s not like I’m going to pretend these are real women or anything. Seriously, why should anyone give a f*ck if women are portrayed as hypersexual whores in a game that doesn’t take itself seriously? It’s in all kinds of media. Shut your brain off and enjoy it or don’t play it. There are plenty of male tropes that are just as negative in video games. Why can a man-slut blindly f*ck any chick he wants in gaming, but girls can’t do the same? Double standards.” [18 votes up, 0 down] To which Ultimatenut replied: “Because in this particular game, the sex missions are just plain weird. You stare a girl in the eyes and when she’s not looking, you stare at her tits and legs. Then you use your X-ray glasses to look under her clothes. And, apparently, as a result of doing this, she goes home with you.” [3 votes up, 0 down] (IGN)

The charge of “double standards” when there is outcry over the objectification of women in games but not the same outcry when men are objectified is a classic argument (both Kratier and AugustAPC go to this well), but of course ignores the power differential between men and women. Men never lose their fundamentally dominant position in society even when they are objectified, while women are consistently subordinate, objectification being a constant aggravation of this. During the making of Animal House, Karen Allen expressed misgivings about showing her bare behind on screen, so John Landis added a similarly gratuitous shot of Donald Sutherland’s rear end, as if this balanced it out. Allen was apparently put at ease, but maybe she shouldn’t have been: as a young, particularly female actor, her half-nude shot risked her being pigeonholed into “beautiful ingénue who does nude scenes”, while Sutherland’s shot risked nothing. His shot was safe both because he was a well-established actor at the time but also because, as a man, he had little fear of not being taken seriously when he needed to be. In other words, for Sutherland, it was “a little light hearted fun”, but for Allen it was a risky career move. The double standard is not in the criticism of objectification, but in society as a whole. For AugustAPC, the fact that the women are virtual “hypersexual whores” removes them from the sphere of reality, where such things would matter, to the sphere of representation, where they (supposedly) don’t, and that the fact that Karen Allen is a real woman negates my analogy since we are discussing the virtual. But the double standard remains even in a virtual space. A “man-slut” is hardly ever referred to pejoratively, but is more often called a “stud” or, tellingly, “the man,” while negatives like “whore” or “slut” are the weapons of choice for referring to women who “get around.” This means that virtual “hypersexual whores” are a problem in a way that “man-sluts” are not because this trope perpetuates in a virtual space the very real inequality that separates the positive connotations of a sexually active man from the negative connotations of a sexually active woman. Representations draw their content from reality, and as such they have the power to perpetuate this type of inequality or to seek to transform it. Killer is Dead sticks closely to the former. The idea that sexism is innocuous when found in something that is “just a game” ignores the fact that such representations reinforce the reality of sexism pervasive in the broader culture, and in doing so help make it seem natural and inevitable.

Two comments in particular are worthy of note, one from each site, since I think they get at the heart of the problem. The first commenter, pseudospike, seems to be attempting to dismiss the charge that the Gigolo missions would be off-putting or offensive to female gamers by posting the following video of professional gamer Jessica Negri playing the missions:

His comment is: “What’s this then, double reverse backwards misogyny!?” (GameSpot) He seems to be trying to play up Negri’s apparent enjoyment of the mission she plays in the video and suggesting that women (as a varied set of individuals) shouldn’t be offended by them because this one woman (Negri) was not, and in fact seemed to have fun while playing. Of course, one can’t decide finally on the basis of the video whether Negri really enjoyed playing the Gigolo Missions or if she was forcing it because she was getting paid to do so. Offering Negri as a representative for women enjoying playing the Gigolo Missions is therefore problematic at best. The idea that one woman’s view negates a flood on the other side is short-sighted and fallacious, and ultimately damaging to the discussion, since it dismisses out of hand the very real concerns of those women (and men) opposed to this type of depiction of women and sexuality. And it is similarly fallacious to point to a woman who is being paid to enjoy what she is doing. Thus, without the irony, this video, or at least its use in the comment thread, may indeed be “double reverse backwards misogyny.”

And then there is DrakeNathan: “It is way too fashionable for game reviewers in the California area to be offended by sexual depictions of women. Honestly, it’s so nauseating listening to these guys try to get a piece by showing how sensitive they are. I know, I shouldn’t assume motives, and I do apologize for doing it, but it’s certainly trendy in game reviewer circles for dudes to be offended by things most girls aren’t offended by. […] There’s a reason I don’t watch certain shows or play certain games, and that’s because they aren’t made for me. I shouldn’t review them.” [19 votes up, 5 down] (IGN, my emphasis)

The point that DrakeNathan misses is that he is basically telling female gamers not to play games at all, because, as numerous gamers and theorists have pointed out, games, especially those for consoles, are almost exclusively made for men. Female gamers must choose from among the games that exist, and since the video game industry has been extremely reluctant to produce gender-neutral or female-oriented games, this means dealing with misogyny, hypersexualization, and objectification to do something they love to do. When a game goes beyond the pale, and introduces gratuitous fantasy sequences such as the Gigolo Missions where women literally ask to be compartmentalized into their most sexually charged body parts, where they want to be gazed at without being spoken to, and where an expensive gift is all that is required for sex, of the one-night stand variety no less, one has to wonder if video game companies are making any progress at all.

 

The ultimate irony is that while a lot of the comments on the reviews defended SUDA51’s artistic vision in the released version of Killer is Dead, he himself did not:

 

Kiaininja: “Suda never intended to make KID into a Weaboo eroticism. KID originally was supposed to have a clean deep story of Mondo being a family man surviving to protect them but Suda’s boss ordered him to sexualize and add gigolo to the game and as a result fucked up the story and the game’s original vision.” (GameSpot)

Here is the interview the user cites:

So why did I feel the need to reject Killer is Dead? Couldn’t I just get past the parts I found offensive and play it for the lighthearted and tongue-in-cheek game that it is? Isn’t it “just a game”? Or can it be read as a sign of a tendency of the video game industry to pander to a subset of the audience that likes its virtual women shallow and easy? Can one see it as an indication that the representation of women in video games remains highly problematic? And, in that light, can’t one understand that the defensiveness of those comments I have singled out here against any call for change to this trend of problematic representations is itself a big part of the problem?  In the end, even the game’s developer thought that the Gigolo Missions were unnecessary and detracted from the game, but commercial interests won out over artistic vision. As it turned out, maybe SUDA51’s company was right—the controversy over the missions probably sold more copies of the game out of sheer curiosity (or, as in some of the comments, spite) than it lost sales due to disgust or outrage. Sex sells, and so, apparently, does sexism. But to allow sexism to remain an inevitable part of the industry is not acceptable, for at least two reasons. First, for some of the reasons I outlined above, representations in media have real consequences, and reactionary representations that reinforce an unacceptable status quo have a naturalizing effect which stifles progress. And second, because I suspect that those who desire sexism in their games are far outnumbered by those who tolerate it or suffer it, so that in the end it is unnecessary to sell games. The broader issue remains—sexual and gender equality is a far off ideal, and in many ways it seems farther than usual when looking at the games industry and gamer culture. But Killer is Dead is just one game, and the comments I selected are representative of one side of the argument over sexism in games, a vocal and fairly coherent side but still not the only game in town. It would seem to me that the way forward would be for all sides of the argument, everyone with a stake in the discussion, to voice their concerns in open forums where they can be heard. The real problem with this rather rosy solution is that, as one gets a taste of in a few of the comments I have quoted, there is a real sense in which civil discussion is not everyone’s goal—and this not only on the side of the argument I’m trying to counter here (dismissive terms like “troglodyte,” “ogre,” “moron,” and “idiot” crop up in responses on the other side). But civility is an attainable ideal, at least on a personal level, and I have tried to treat the commenters I’ve quoted here with respect even as I disagreed with them. Hopefully I have succeeded, at least in a small way, in pushing forward a civil discussion.

James Milner is a Ph.D. student at USC Annenberg whose research lies at the intersection of video games, philosophy, and education. He is also interested in issues of gender and race within video games themselves and in the broader gamer culture. He is an avid gamer, but never seems to be able to find the time anymore to play anything except FarmVille 2.

The Other Media Revolution

This is another in the series of posts from students in my PhD level seminar on the Public Intellectual, which I am teaching this term through the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. 

 

The Other Media Revolution

by Mark Hannah

 

I’ve long blogged about the so-called “digital media revolution.”  Yet, deploying digital media to praise digital media has always struck me as a bit self-congratulatory.  Socrates, in the Gorgias dialogues, accuses orators of flattering their audiences in order to persuade them.  This may be the effect, even if it’s not the intention, of blogging enthusiastically about blogging.

To be sure, a meaningful and consequential revolution of our media universe is underway.  This revolution’s technological front has been well chronicled and analyzed (and is represented) by this blog and others like it.  The revolution’s economic front – specifically, the global transformation of media systems from statist to capitalist models – has, I think, been critically underappreciated.

 

What Sprung the Arab Spring?

How attributable is the Arab Spring to Twitter and Facebook, really?  After a wave of news commentary and academic research that have back-patted western social media companies, some observers now question how much credit digital media truly deserve for engendering social movements.  It’s undeniable that the Internet does, in fact, provide a relatively autonomous space for interaction and mobilization, and that revolutionary ideas have a new vehicle for diffusing throughout a population.  But the salience of these revolutionary ideas may have its origin in other media that are more prevalent in the daily life of ordinary Arab citizens.

With limited Internet access but high satellite TV penetration throughout much of the Arab world, the proliferation of privately owned television networks may, in fact, have been more responsible for creating the kind of cosmopolitan attitudes and democratic mindset that were foundational for popular uprisings in that region.

Authoritarian regimes are sensitive to this phenomenon and, as my colleague Philip Seib points out, Hosni Mubarak responded to protests early on in the Egyptian revolution by pulling the plug on private broadcasters like ON-TV and Dream-TV, preventing them from airing their regular broadcasts.  Of the more than 500 satellite TV channels in the region (more than two-thirds of which are now privately owned!), Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya are two news networks that have redefined Middle Eastern journalim and enjoy broad, pan-Arab influence.

The Internet, which represents technological progress and individual interaction, may have emerged as a powerful symbol of democratic protests in the Arab world even while “old media,” with their new (relative) independence from government coercion may be more responsible for planting the seeds of those protests.

 

America Online? Cultural Exchange On and Off the Web

Is YouTube really exporting American culture abroad?  The prevailing wisdom, fueled by a mix of empirical research and a culture of enthusiasm for digital media, is that the global nature of the Web has opened up creative content for sharing with new international audiences.  Yet, in light of restrictive censorship laws and media consumers’ homophilic tendencies, we may be overstating the broad multicultural exchange that has resulted.

What has signficantly increased the influence of American cultural products, however, is the liberalization of entertainment markets internationally.  As international trade barriers loosen, Hollywood films are pouring into foreign countries.  Just last year, China relaxed its restrictions on imported films, now allowing twenty imported films per year (most of which come from the United States).  This freer trade model, combined with the dramatic expansion of the movie theater market in China (American film studios can expect to generate $20 – $40 million per film these days, as opposed to $1 million per film ten years ago) is a boon for America’s cross-cultural influence in China.

It’s true that rampant piracy, enabled by digital technologies, further increases the reach and influence of American movies and music.  To the extent that the demand for pirated cultural products may be driven by the promotional activity of film studios or record labels, this practice may be seen more as an (illegal) extension of new international trade activity than as a natural extension of any multicultural exchange occuring online.

The cultural influence of trade doesn’t just move in one direction though.  As Michael Lynton, CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment, insisted in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, economic globalization is as much responsible for bringing other cultures to Hollywood as it is for bringing Hollywood to other cultures.

Put otherwise, media systems are both the cause and the effect of culture.

 

The Cycle of Cultural Production & Consumption

To use a concept from sociology, media are performative. They enable new social solidarities, create new constituencies and, in some cases, even redefine political participation.  Nothing sows the idea of political dissent like the spectacle of an opposition leader publicly criticizing the a country’s leader on an independent television channel.  And, on some level, nothing creates a sense of individual economic agency like widespread television advertisements for Adidas and Nike sneakers, competing for the viewer’s preference.

Sociologists also discuss the “embeddedness” of markets within social and political contexts. From this angle, the proliferation of commercial broadcasters and media liberalization are enabled by the kind of social and political progress that they, in turn, spur.

Despite the above examples of how the media universe’s new economic models are transforming public opinion and cultural identity, we remain transfixed on the new technological models, the digital media revolution.  It’s perhaps understandable that reports of deregulation and trade agreements often take a back seat to the more trendy tales of the Internet’s global impact. The Internet is, after all, a uniform and universal medium and the causes and consequences of its introduction to different parts of the world are easily imagined.

In contrast, the increased privatization of media, while a global phenomenon, is constituted differently in different national contexts.  The private ownership of newspapers in the formerly Communist countries of Eastern Europe looks different than the multinational conglomerates that own television channels in Latin America.  Like globalization itself, this global phenomenon is being expressed in variegated and culturally situated ways.

Finally, the story of this “other” media revolution is also a bit counterintuitive to an American audience, which readily identifies the Internet as an empowering and democratizing medium, but has a different experience domestically with the commercialization of news journalism.  We haven’t confronted an autocratic state-run media environment and our commercial media don’t always live up to the high ideals of American journalism.  To a country like ours, which has grown accustomed to an independent press, it’s not always easy to see, as our founders once did, the potential of a free market of ideas (and creative content) as a foundation for independent thought, democratic participation, and cultural identity.

 

Mark Hannah is a doctoral student at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication, where he studies the political and cultural consequences of the transformation of media systems internationally. A former political correspondent for PBS’s MediaShift blog, Mark has been a staffer on two presidential campaigns and a digital media strategist at Edelman PR.