Playing the Piracy Card: An Interview with Aram Sinnreich (Part One)

Few topics generate such instant division in this town as the issue of media piracy. Half of my friends are deeply concerned that unauthorized use of media content is closing down opportunities for creative artists and the other half believe that the efforts to combat piracy are having a devastating impact on long-standing principles of fair use. Aram Sinnreich’s new book, The Piracy Crusade: How the Music Industry’s War on Sharing Destroys Markets and Erodes Civil Liberties plunges right into the center of that controversy, situating the current debate in a larger historical context. I had thought I had read and learned what I could around this question over the past decade plus of post-Napster analysis but Sinnreich took me to some new places and raises a number of important insights. You will get a taste for his perspective in the interview that follows.

I interviewed the author in 2010 when his previous book, Mashed Up: Music, Technology, and the Rise of Configurable Culture, came out. You can read that interview here. I wrote at the time, “The book deftly deals with the contradictory ways we think about the legal and aesthetic status of music which builds on borrowed materials, the ways that musicians are making sense of their indebtedness to earlier works, and the ways that audiences are making sense of the emerging practices of music production and distribution in a digital era.” His new book picks up where that one left off, updating his assessment of the ways that debates around intellectual property are impacting contemporary music-making– once again helping us to understand his topic from multiple angles, while leaving little question of where his own sympathies lie.

Let’s start with two words which are fundamental to the book’s project — “Piracy” and “Crusade.” Both are highly loaded, some would say inflamed, words, which give the debate around music downloading much of its moral charge. So, break them down for us. How are you using them here? What has been their history? How did they enter this debate?

I spend a fair amount of the Introduction and first chapter addressing this question. As it turns out, long before it was applied to intellectual property, the fundamental premise of “piracy” was highly politicized, and used cynically as a rhetorical tool and as a justification for political and military intervention into the commercial sphere (for an even more thorough treatment of this history, check out the excellent books by Daniel Heller-Roazen and Adrian Johns).

The concept of piracy relies on the delegitimization of certain actors, relegating them to the status of “pirates” in order to justify violence against them and to contest their claims of ownership over goods. By contrast, “privateers” who engaged in identical behavior (e.g. intercepting ships and seizing the goods they carried) operated under the aegis of sovereign states and were thus understood as not only legitimate but essential to promoting said state’s economic interests. Needless to say, in many historical cases, much like today, one person’s “pirate” was another’s champion.

One thing I learned from Johns is that the mantle of “piracy” as applied to information not only predates copyright and intellectual property laws, but was actually deliberately employed by early book publishers as a rhetorical conceit to justify their call for such laws to be passed. In other words, piracy didn’t arise in response to IP; to the contrary, IP was created in order to counter the phantom threat of piracy. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I use the term in the book’s title, and throughout the book, precisely in order to bring attention to the artifice behind this conceit. Today, as the result of a sustained, multi-century propaganda campaign by information oligopolists (e.g. record labels, print and software publishers, film studios), the conceit has taken root in public consciousness, and many of us take it for granted that sharing information without permission from rights holders is an act of piracy, plain and simple. I can’t critique this conceit without invoking it, but I do so very deliberately and carefully. Incidentally, copyleft pioneer Richard M. Stallman read some early chapter drafts, and adamantly disagreed with this tactic; to him, even using the term in a critical way gives it more strength and legitimacy. I appreciate his position, but I ultimately opted to use the term critically rather than to pretend it doesn’t exist.

As to the word “crusade,” I’ll admit that it’s a bit of a rhetorical flourish, but certainly not a novel one; according to a rudimentary Google search, it’s been used millions of times in reference to the music industry’s antipiracy efforts. And if you dig a little deeper, the reason for this becomes clear; a crusade is by definition an act of coordinated aggression draped in the mantle of righteous dogma, shaded with colonialist, or at least expansionist, overtones. In the introduction to the book, I offer a capsule history of the siege of Mahdia by the Genoese in 1390, and as I hope I demonstrate, the number of parallels to today’s “copyfight” are truly staggering.

Those of us who question current copyright regimes are often asked whether we would give our own content away for free. You have, in fact, taken some important steps to broaden access to this book. What are they and why have you taken those extra steps?

First of all, when I pitched this book to my publishers at University of Massachusetts Press, I asked them to release the full text under a Creative Commons license, which allows noncommercial redistribution without permission or payment. I’m not the first academic author to do this, but it was a new step for UMP, and I’m gratified that they trusted me enough try it out.

Once I had the CC license in place, I was free to share the text as I saw fit. I decided to post a live draft of the book manuscript as I wrote it; each day, another 300-1,200 words would be “published” to a blog site for the book hosted by MediaCommons Press. This turned out to be a great decision, because not only did I get thousands of readers before I completed the manuscript, but the scores of substantive comments I received via the site and via email allowed me to improve the book significantly. In a sense, the paperback/ebook version is the second edition. And while I’m the nominal author, each of the commenters played a role in shaping the text. All of the non-anonymous ones get a shout-out in the book’s Acknowledgments section. The first draft is still up at MediaCommons Press, in case anyone’s geeky enough to want to compare versions.

The CC license also means that the book’s finished version is available freely to anyone who wants to read it. Again, UMP went out on a limb for me and provided me with a fully laid-out PDF a few months after it was published in paperback and ebook formats. The file sharing software company Vuze contacted me and offered to put together a “bundle” for the book, which includes both the full PDF and three videos of talks I’ve given on the subject, then seeded the bundle to BitTorrent and promoted it to their users. No money changed hands. In the first two weeks after the bundle launched, the torrent file was downloaded over 50,000 times and my Amazon author rank climbed precipitously, from a summer doldrums low of 350,000 to about 69,000. Today, almost two months after the launch, well over a thousand peers are sharing the bundle at any given point in time, and my sales rank has continued an upward trend.

As to the “why” part of your question: First of all, given the book’s general thrust, I would have felt like a hypocrite if I hadn’t released the book freely online. Second, I genuinely believed it would improve my sales, and it seems to have done just that. Third, I want as many people to read the book as possible – both because I hope it will have an impact on policy and the overall conversation about IP, and because I believe people should have access to information that’s vital to their wellbeing. Finally, as you suggest in your question, I’m frequently challenged by critics who, believing I lack the courage of my convictions, challenge me to distribute my own work freely, and I love to see the look on their faces when I tell them I’ve done just that.

Throughout much of human history, one could make the case that music was understood in terms of the relationships which it facilitated — the communities it helped to bring together, the rituals it enhanced — and not the products it produced. Yet, having turned music into an industry rather than a social practice, is there anyway back? Is the music industry “too big to fail”?

No, I don’t think there’s a way back, but I do believe in a way forward. I devote some time in both The Piracy Crusade and in my previous book, Mashed Up, to exploring music’s pre-commodity past not because I want to eradicate it from the marketplace but because I think we need to appreciate its full role in human culture and consciousness, of which the market is only one small facet. As long as there is a marketplace, I’m confident that music will continue to be a commodity, because that’s precisely the role that music always plays – as a microcosm for larger social processes and a vector for social imagination. As long as there’s a church, there will be church music, and as long as there is a military, there will be military music, etc. etc.

All that being said, I don’t think at the music industry as we currently conceive of it (major labels and publishers, broadcasting cartels, etc.) is “too big to fail” in the same way the banks are. Without the banking system, we wouldn’t have credit or currency; without labels, publishers and broadcasters, we’d still have a thriving musical culture, though perhaps not a national or global “pop” culture. Any student of media history knows that the titans of the previous century are often humbled or eradicated in the next; there’s no conceivable reason that the same fate couldn’t befall a company like Universal Music Group or Clear Channel – though neither really needs to worry in the near term, as they’re both aggressively pursuing transitional distribution platforms and business models.

 

Aram Sinnreich is an Assistant Professor at Rutgers University, in the
Department of Journalism & Media Studies. His work focuses on the
intersection of culture, law and technology, with an emphasis on
emerging media and music. He is the author of two books, Mashed Up
(2010), and The Piracy Crusade (2013), and has written for publications
including the New York Times, Billboard and Wired. Prior to Rutgers,
Sinnreich served as Director at media innovation lab OMD Ignition
Factory, Managing Partner of media/tech consultancy Radar Research,
Visiting Professor at NYU Steinhardt, and Senior Analyst at Jupiter
Research. He is also a bassist and composer, and has played with groups
and artists including progressive soul band Brave New Girl,
dub-and-bass collective Dubistry, Agent 99, King Django, and Ari-Up,
lead singer of the Slits. Sinnreich holds a Ph.D. in Communication from
the University of Southern California, and a master’s in Journalism from
Columbia University.

It’s in the Paint!

The following is a guest post by film scholar and journalist John C. Tibbetts from the University of Kansas.

 

IT’S IN THE PAINT!
By John C. Tibbetts

My expectations run high for Mike Leigh’s new film, Mr. Turner, a dramatization of the last few years in the life of the great British landscape painter, J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851). During the first half of the 19th century, Turner attacked his canvases with a brutal and revolutionary zeal that virtually launched Modernism as we have come to know it. If Leigh’s other biopic, the masterful Topsy-Turvy (1991), about the creation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s masterpiece, The Mikado, is any indication of his gift for the historical/biographical recreation of 19th century England, then Mr. Turner should be something special indeed.

Meanwhile, mindful of Graham Greene’s dictum that the lives of artists are the most difficult of subjects, my thoughts turn to some of my favorite films that have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to dramatize the lives and works of famous painters. I am particularly fond of the Alexander Korda-Charles Laughton Rembrandt (1936), with its vivid dramatization of the controversy attending the unveiling of “The Night Watch” and, best of all, Laughton’s moving soliloquy on the virtues of his beloved Saskia.

Artemisia (1997), Agnes Merlet’s recreation of a scandalous episode in the life and works of the early 16th century artist Artimesia Gentileschi (Valentina Cervi), is a stunning meditation on the lamentable status of women in this patriarchal world—as well as a convincing recreation of the details and processes of contemporary fresco painting.

Albert Lewin’s The Moon and Sixpence (1942), is a respectable adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s novel about a fictionalized Paul Gauguin (George Sanders), and if nothing else, it pulls no punches in conveying the boorish, unrelenting self-centered aspects of this particular genius. And there is Martin Provost’s magnificent Seraphine (2008), about Seraphine Louis (Yolande Moreau), an illiterate, middle-aged housekeeper whose paintings propel her to unexpected fame, while her descent into madness leads to her demise in a lunatic asylum. Here, the blazing images of flowers, fruits, and trees, transcend her stark, grubby surroundings and lifestyle.

Not everybody shares my abiding interest in biopics of artists. For example, years ago, back in during an interview in 1991 with the late Roger Ebert, I broached the subject. Now, Roger knew a thing or two about painters and painting, was an amateur collector of British watercolors, and even wrote about it in A Perfect London Walk (1985). Hence, I was eager for his opinion. “Well, the problem is,” he said, “movies like this are almost always based on potted Freudianism, where two or three childhood, or adolescent, episodes are trotted out to explain the artist’s work. I think great art is kind of inexplicable. What the movies do is cater to kind of a vulgar impulse in all of us to know or to want to understand how an artist is great and why. And so if we can find out that his mother didn’t love him or he was abandoned by a cruel girlfriend or he didn’t perform very well in the Army or something, then we can nod and say, ‘Oh, that’s why he was so good!’ Nobody would be satisfied, I think, with an artist’s biography that told the truth, which is that apart from any human attributes of this person, he simply happened to be able to do what he did as well as he did.”
Yes, that sort of tin-can psychology all too frequently mars biopics of every description. Yet, Ebert went on to admit that two films he had just seen, Robert Altman’s Vincent and Theo (1990) and Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse (1991), had succeeded in conveying not so much a biographical but a dramatic, even artistic truth—the action of the creative process itself.

The best thing about the Altman, he explained, was that it did not attempt a psychological diagnosis. “We see Van Gogh [Tim Roth] at work, not because he wanted to but because he had to. There are no explanations. It explains nothing but feels everything.” Similarly, the Rivette, Ebert continued, a four-hour film about a fictitious painter (Michel Piccoli) painting a beautiful nude model (Emmanuel Beart), is essentially one long session at the easel: “There’s this extraordinary long, long sustained passage, where he’s simply drawing her. A lot of the time the camera is simply on the paper; and he goes through pen and ink and he goes through charcoal, he works with washes, he goes on to oil. The suspense involved in watching this process taking place is actually as exciting as a thriller, I’m telling you. It’s a really good film.”

Here, I should add, the hands of Actor Piccoli are convincingly “doubled” by those of painter Bernard Dufour. Too many times, however, in too many other films, we see an actor who obviously knows nothing about painting touching an obviously empty brush to an image that’s obviously already there. And think of Charlton Heston’s impotent brush flailing at the “pre-painted” frescoes in The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965). The effect is rather like watching an actor who is a non-musician pretending to play a piano—think of Cornell Wilde’s unconvincing miming of Jose Iturbi’s keyboard performances of Chopin in A Song to Remember (1945)—or Anthony Perkins’s clumsy attempts to play baseball in the Jimmy Piersall biopic, Fear Strikes Out (1957). Best to stick with the tight close-ups and prolonged shots in Peter Watkins’s Edward Munch (1967) of just the painter’s hands as they assault the canvas and the etching plate in an epic battle for supremacy, establishing a compelling graphic authenticity.

A particularly wry and compelling example is found in one of the finest films of this year, Tim’s Vermeer. We watch spellbound as amateur painter Tim Jenison actually creates a Vermeer painting, “The Music Lesson”—not a copy, but an original work on its own, crafted by means of optical devices and an elaborately recreated 3-dimensional set. We gain not only an insight into how Vermeer worked, but are granted enticing hints into the life, times, and circumstances of this particular painting. As a dramatic experience, the film crosses the boundary lines dividing documentary from drama, the amateur painter from the venerable master.

Indeed, Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson” is the star performer of the show. Which brings to mind another star turn by Vermeer’s “Girl with the Pearl Earring” (2003), in Peter Webber’s film of that name. The conception and execution of the painting is positioned at the center of this beautifully realized milieu of 17th-century Amsterdam and the illiterate young servant girl (Scarlett Johansson) who poses for the painter (Colin Firth).

It’s amusing to think of other paintings as actors in their own movies. A slashed canvas is a mute “witness” to the identity of the murderer in Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929). Landscape Paintings and their real-life counterparts are counterposed in the “Van Gogh” sequence in Kurosawa’s Dreams. Likewise, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s images of Lizzie Siddal share screen time with actress Judith Paris’s impersonation of her in Ken Russell’s Dante’s Inferno (1967). No single image in the succession of sketches by the titular late 17th-century painter (Anthony Higgins) in Peter Greenaway’s edgy The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982) can reveal the mystery at the heart of the film; but taken together, like a succession of shots in a montage. . . they proclaim an awful truth—and lead to the demise of the hapless painter.

The colorful religious icons of the 15th century painter Andrei Rublev in Tarkovsky’s epic film (1971) are kept “offstage,” as it were, blazing forth only in a barrage of images in the final reel. Of course, not all paintings at the center of movies are A-list actors. The Technicolor portraits of Jennifer Jones in Portrait of Jenny (1949) and Hurd Hatfield in Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) are strictly B-grade performers—the first a tepid Hollywood visualization of one of Thomas Dewings’s turn-of-the century vapid women; the second a schlock nightmare straight out of Hammer Films stock company.

Sometimes just a blank canvas can speak eloquently enough. In the aforementioned Rembrandt (1936), Charles Laughton’s titular hero sits at the easel as he grieves the loss of his beloved Saskia. “I have to paint her,” he whispers to the empty chair where lately she sat, “before her memory fades.”
So we wait impatiently for the holiday release of Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner. It is the only biopic to date about England’s most celebrated painter. What, we wonder, will Leigh make of this prickly and decidedly eccentric loner, and of what Leigh describes as his “cinematic” paintings, such as the roiling “Rain, Steam, and Speed” and the furiously grim “The Slave Ship”?

 John C. Tibbetts is an Associate Professor in the Department of Film & Media Studies at the University ofKansas, where he teaches courses in film history, media studies, and theory and aesthetics. He is an author, educator, broadcaster, as well as an artist and pianist. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Kansas in Multi-Disciplinary Studies (Art History, Theater, Photography and Film).

As a broadcaster and journalist and scholar he has hosted his own television show in Kansas City, Missouri; worked as a news reporter/ commentator for CBS Television (KCTV) and National Public Radio; produced classical music programming for KXTR-FM radio; written (and illustrated) ten  books, more than 200 articles, and several short stories.  

His most recent books are Peter Weir: Interviews and Douglas Fairbanks And The American Century.   Other books include  The Gothic Imagination (Palgrave Mcmillan, 2011), Composers in the Movies:  Studies in Musical Biography (2005, Yale University Press), Schumann: A Chorus of Voices (2010, Amadeus Press), and the three-volume American Classic Screen (Scarecrow Press, 2010).

His current radio series are The World of Robert Schumann (currently being broadcast worldwide on the WFMT Radio Network) and Piano Portraits (A 17-episode series of interviews with world–class concert pianists). 

 

Comedy is Serious Business: An Interview with Rick DesRochers (Part Three)

 

There has been quite a bit of controversy surrounding the role of comedy news programs such as the Colbert Report and The Daily Show, with skeptics expressing outrage that young people may learn more about world events through such comic sources than from traditional journalism. Yet, you argue that Will Rogers performed similar functions for Americans in the 1920s and 1930s. How might these contemporary programs fit into a longer tradition of using comedy to work through change in American society?

Jon Stewart’s show uses a series of “senior correspondents” representative of women (Samantha Bee, Olivia Munn), Indians/Muslims (Assif Mandvi), black women, (Jessica Williams), black men (Larry Wilmore; Wyatt Cenac), that satirize the notion of any one person(s) as representative of any of these ethnic/racial/religious groups.

If you look at Laurence Sterne, Jonathan Swift, and Voltaire for example, satire as political critique has been with us. The sociopolitical has a long history in comedy since commedia, Roman Comedy, and Old Comedy of Aristophanes. The significant difference is that with global media platforms, this form of satire in the early twenty-first century, is accessible and readily available to anyone who can understand the English language, and has access to a computer or i-phone. It cuts across class, race, and gender lines in a universal way. And this “danger” that holding the “news” media’s feet to the fire has become a critique of American society and culture and its intervention around the globe, makes the mainstream news media afraid that they are irrelevant and only representing the interests of the corporations that own them and the advertisers who pay the bills. Therefore this satirical critical humor, as with Will Rogers and Fred Allen before them, keeps the media in check in the way that journalism was meant to at the turn of the twentieth century.

Personally, I am not a twenty-something or even a thirty-something, and I still get my news from Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. They are more scandalized and critical of the corruption of government, corporations, bigots, racists, and homophobes, than any legitimate “news” outlet. They also cover topics that the news media simply won’t. If news is tied to corporate profits then that will dictate what is considered newsworthy, and there goes freedom of the press and the public’s right to know out the window. Comedy only works when it expresses the freedom to satirize and comment on world affairs. It gets at the truth as Larry David and Ricky Gervais have noted.

 

You write in The Comic Offensive about the ways that Dave Chappelle was almost crippled by the fear that many whites were laughing at his comedy for the “wrong reasons” and that he was helping to keep alive a tradition of the black minstrel which many associate with earlier moments of racism. Is this necessarily a trap which contemporary black comics have to confront? Are there elements of the Minstrel tradition that can be reclaimed to allow other kinds of voices to be heard?

When I ran the New Theatre in Boston (we produced the work of playwrights and performers of color) in the mid-1990s, I went to The Strand Theatre in Roxbury to see a “chitlin” circuit show starring Laurence Hilton-Jacobs, who played the character of “Freddie Boom Boom Washington” on the 1970s sitcom, Welcome Back, Kotter. I was amazed at how the audience embraced the minstrel aspects of the show from racial and gender stereotypes, horny old men, lazy and indigent black men who could not take care of their children etc., and how the audience did not reject these stereotypes as offensive but the predominantly black audience of 2,000 or so brought the house down with laughter and call and response that a director/playwright colleague and friend, Lois Roach, said would happen.

I think blackface/whiteface comedy is quite powerful and anything that incendiary should still be used in comedy since it crosses the line of what is “acceptable” and that is what comedians claim they want to do if they are effective. So, if it offends, so much the better. Context is everything. As Spike Lee observed in Bamboozled corporate interests and the pursuit of fame and fortune has reduced black performers and sports figures to enact minstrel-like behavior are very clear representations of how minstrelsy is embraced in order to make money even today. So comedians have more control over the use and misuse of minstrelsy by enacting it. Dave Chappelle’s brilliant commentary on racism in which he portrays a black man who is a white supremacist – because he is literally blind to his own skin color – is still one of the strongest commentaries on how absurd and superficial racism really is in the end. If you “look” white you will be treated differently than if you “look” black. Again context is everything.

Since 9/11, we have seen more and more comics coming from the American Muslim community, seeking to use laughter as a means of challenging existing stereotypes and gain mainstream acceptance. What do you think these performers might learn by looking more broadly at the relationship between immigration and comedy in the American tradition?

Intolerance of immigrants is shockingly similar to the early twentieth century with the influx of over 13 million southern and eastern European immigrants. The rhetoric toward middle eastern (particularly Muslim) and Mexican and Central American refugees and immigrants, has replaced the southern and eastern European xenophobia of the early twentieth century but otherwise the condemnation of “amnesty” and “they will take away our jobs, our women, and our American dream” and that “real Americans” will be somehow denigrated and degraded by the influx of this new generation of immigrants is still very much with us. Identifying ethnic and racial groups as “all the same” is debunked when we see comedians take on race and ethnicity and religious identity as fluid and not fixed. The global world and mixing of race and ethnicity is creating a new world in which the younger generation is witnessing these borders and definitions as being fluid and more integrated. I think 9/11 put the US back into the rest of the world as not being separate from, but as part of, what makes human beings part of a global village. Tragically it takes an act of terrorism to bring Americans into the global community but it also was necessary in order to confront the notion that the “enemy” is subjective depending on where you stand.

Assif Mandvi of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart relates stories of always being cast in the role of Muslim terrorists in Hollywood (he was born in India and is a US citizen for the record), but in comedy he can confront this stereotype by satirizing the racial types that the willfully ignorant and bigoted take seriously. Mandvi in the New York Times has said “I’ve always said I’m the worst representative of Muslim Americans that’s ever existed, because I’ve been inside more bars than mosques. But I recognize this has nothing to do with me. There are very few people representing the moderate American Muslim voice on television, and I happened to fall into this thing. The fact that I get to do it is an unbelievable blessing for me.” (New York Times, April 20, 2012)

Comedians through their humor connect all of us when they “put it over.” We are all in on the joke, and those who don’t “get it” will always be offended, because their xenophobia, bigotry, and racism has been exposed. To finish with a comic callback, “Those who are offended by the characters onstage must be seeing themselves in those characters.”

Rick DesRochers is an Associate Professor of Theatre at Long Island University Post. He has served as the Literary Director of New Play and Musical Development for the Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival and The Goodman Theatre of Chicago, as well as the Artistic Director of the New Theatre in Boston. He holds an M.F.A. in stage direction and dramaturgy from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and a Ph.D. in theatre from the City University of New York, Graduate Center. He is the author of The New Humor in the Progressive Era – Americanization and the Vaudeville Comedian for Palgrave Macmillan, and The Comic Offense from Vaudeville to Contemporary Comedy – Larry David, Tina Fey, Stephen

The Problem of Peter Weir

My friend,  John C. Tibbets, described to me recently the challenges he has faced in getting people to pay attention to a new book he has published about the important international filmmaker, Peter Weir, and it is a plight many doing work in film studies might recognize. Research on new media can sometimes seem more sexy, more urgent, than work on more established media. But that does not mean we should not pay attention to more established art forms, the impact they have in our lives, and the creative and philosophical expression they enable. Film studies was my first love and every time I teach a film class, I fall back in love with that medium all over again. And Tibbets’ guest post here is a reminder of how many great experiences I’ve had at the cinema thanks to the work of Peter Weir.

 

 

WEIR WITH KU CAP

 

 

THE PROBLEM OF PETER WEIR

By John C. Tibbetts

University of Kansas

 

Despite the recent Criterion release of Picnic at Hanging Rock, the name Peter Weir seems not to be on very many lips these days. Yet, mention this film, along with The Truman Show, Dead Poets Society, and Master and Commander, and the man’s name comes up readily enough. It seems that Peter Weir has committed the unpardonable sin of taking too much time between films; worse, he has told me in a recent letter that he has no immediate projects in mind. Perhaps at age 68 he prefers to enjoy a well-deserved retirement. . . or just enjoy the luxury of taking his own sweet time before embarking on another project.

Only fourteen films in 38 years. Must we conclude that his four-year absence since The Way Back has engendered a kind of anonymity that renders him irrelevant to today’s film enthusiasts and scholars? Do we repeat the charge, “But what have you done for us lately???” Certainly it is true that my new book, Peter Weir: Interviews, published this year by Mississippi University Press, has garnered many enthusiastic readers so far, but has been ignored by critics. reviewers and journalists. Do we blame the book or the man? As David Thomson admits in his Foreword to the book, “He does not seem like a movie director. . . He has stayed away from the busy world of reputations while building the unquestioned status of one of the great directors at work.”

We might as well quench our interest and enthusiasm for other directors who have committed a worse sin, who have quit the public sphere because they, well, because they died. What use for yet another volume on Hitchcock and Hawks, Minnelli and Mann? Why another Life of Kubrick, who made far fewer films and took his own sweet time between them?

No, I must admit I am baffled at what seems these days a public neglect of the name Peter Weir. Add another riddle to the prevailing mystery that surrounds his best films.

Unless I deserve some of the blame. During my sojourn in Australia, while interviewing Weir, his cameraman Russell Boyd, and colleagues at the National Film and Sound Archives in Sydney, I discovered and attempted to reveal a man far more interesting in his own way than the riddles he propounds in Hanging Rock, The Last Wave, and The Truman Show. I encountered a man behind his mysteries who is deeply humane, modest, and articulate about his life and work. His modesty is all too real: “I am only a jester with cap and bells,” he told me, “who goes from court to court.”

I repeat, must his recent inactivity consign his name to the dustbin of film history? Or can we hope, at the very least, that his work, like the grin of Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat, will stay on after the rest of him has disappeared?

 

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 John C. Tibbetts is an Associate Professor in the Department of Film & Media Studies at the University ofKansas, where he teaches courses in film history, media studies, and theory and aesthetics. He is an author, educator, broadcaster, as well as an artist and pianist. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Kansas in Multi-Disciplinary Studies (Art History, Theater, Photography and Film).

As a broadcaster and journalist and scholar he has hosted his own television show in Kansas City, Missouri; worked as a news reporter/ commentator for CBS Television (KCTV) and National Public Radio; produced classical music programming for KXTR-FM radio; written (and illustrated) ten  books, more than 200 articles, and several short stories.  

His most recent books are Peter Weir: Interviews and Douglas Fairbanks And The American Century.  
Other books include  The Gothic Imagination (Palgrave Mcmillan, 2011), Composers in the
Movies:  Studies in Musical Biography 
(2005, Yale University Press), Schumann: A Chorus of Voices (2010, Amadeus Press), and the three-volume American Classic Screen (Scarecrow Press, 2010).

His current radio series are The World of Robert Schumann (currently being broadcast worldwide on the WFMT Radio Network) and Piano Portraits (A 17-episode series of interviews with world–class concert pianists). 

The Value of Media Literacy Education in the 21st Century: A Conversation with Tessa Jolls (Part Five)

Tessa:   I like kicking the tires with you.  And I appreciate your independence of thought and your creativity, both hallmarks of a top R&D approach.  I’m happy to do potato salad and barbecue with you anytime!!  You have always been a man of your word and you have truly worked toward mutual understanding and lived your outreach and support for the media literacy field.

I confess, I am still challenging myself (and you) to think more about representation.  I take your points but I am thinking, thinking….for example, with your abstract art and lightbulb examples from earlier comments:  I don’t believe there is any “pure information,” as McLuhan characterized it.  Constructions always come from somewhere or from someone, and that automatically implies choices by the constructor on what to share or what not to share, what color to make the painting or the light…these decisions are driven by past experience or emotion or whatever intent there may be since there is always context to decisions.  The final product — the art or the lightbulb — is a construction based on these decisions and representative of these decisions. And there is context around the construction that affects the audience’s perceptions about the construction itself.  So for example, the lightbulb has shape and color and we may look at a single bare lightbulb hanging in a room from the ceiling very differently than we may look at a cluster of lightbulbs flashing and spinning like a disco ball from the ’80’s.

But neither do I think that the intent behind construction needs to be cynical or purely transactional just because there is no “pure information.”   I embrace the idea of a gift economy (digital or not) that you raised, and I illustrate this, ironically, with the idea behind MasterCard commercials that distinguish between the dollar value of a bicycle and the priceless value of parents riding bicycles with their children. Profit and power (with the word power used in the sense of having agency and a worldview, ideology or influence)  in themselves have no value. It is in the application and points of view around profit and power that individuals and society value them as beneficial or not. A case in point might be a Facebook campaign designed to encourage people to ride bicycles in a charity fundraiser to help eradicate breast cancer.  A beneficial use of profit and power, right?  But this entire scenario earns a different value if the Facebook page is a fraud, which represents a different author’s intent. Cynicism assumes the worst; our goal is to encourage skepticism through questioning.

I digress.  These are topics for the barbecue.  On the Core Concepts:  thank heavens you wish to uphold them and amend them in your own words and continue to refresh them rather than upend them!  (I like what you said about questioning them and we agree on that, too.)  I totally enjoyed your commentary on the Core Concepts because you have a broad and deep understanding of media literacy and it shows.  And though you see why I lamented that the Core Concepts weren’t included in your 2006 white paper, I want to emphasize that your 2006 white paper is a gift to our field, and we both agree that we need a paradigm shift in education (built on strong foundations).    This is why I am delighted that the Aspen Institute published an important policy report this year called Learner at the Center of a Networked World. This report calls for media and social/emotional literacies to be at the center of our education system — the paradigm shift that we have both been calling for.

And I totally understand your bristling at the idea that the Core Concepts and questions have taken on a “one true way” dogma.  Independence of mind is what the Core Concepts help inspire; I do NOT take issue with questioning.  In fact, what you cited in the your 2006 white paper was CML’s Five Key Questions for Deconstruction, that were designed in 2002 to introduce a pedagogy which is useful in teaching but not immutable or comprehensive.  The Questions pose a way to learn to apply the Concepts through a process of inquiry.  There are LOTS of questions that should be asked — but the Five Key Questions are a thoughtful way to begin inquiring.  In 2006, CML had not yet developed its Five Key Questions for Construction/Production, and so rightfully, a critique of the Deconstruction Questions in the 2006 report was that they were passive and  geared toward media consumption only.  Thank you!  This critique was helpful and CML now has an updated framework (developed in 2007) for critical analysis and inquiry based on the Five Core Concepts called Questions/TIPS (Q/TIPS):

Q_TIPS screenshot

 

Q/TIPS can be applied anywhere and anytime, to any content or any academic subject. Q/TIPS can be applied to construction projects or to any media message – digital or not — and in CML’s experience, students are highly engaged in the process.   Like having students bounce balls to learn about physics, students can undertake projects, and identify, label and learn the Concepts/Questions as they construct their projects or interact. In this way, students learn process skills experientially while they also acquire vocabulary for common understanding about media literacy.  Practicing over time helps students internalize the process and to be able to quickly apply the framework to analyze and evaluate their work and that of others, looking at both the construct itself and at the context surrounding it. “Content, in Media Education, is a means to an end.  That end is the development of transferable analytical tools rather than an alternative content,”  Masterman advised. Now, along with the theory and skills called for in your white paper, media literacy offers empowerment for people  on a scale that has never truly been available before, since our education system has focused primarily on content knowledge in a print-based world.

You mentioned that “to be scalable and sustainable we need to move beyond the culture of early adopters/adapters and reach teachers who will need more basic materials, more fully developed practices, in order to bring these ideas into their classrooms.”   We have long struggled with the issue of bringing the theory to the people in a way that is accessible, adoptable, sustainable and measurable in the education system, while still being credible theoretically.  This is why I have said that the Core Concepts are a base for understanding theory and the the Key Questions are a pedagogical practice. We want teachers to see that yes, they CAN get started to teach media literacy.  Q/TIPS is one of many approaches.   But in providing education resources and teacher training that can be replicated and scaled at the level we need, issues of consistency inevitably arise, because while we are trying to encourage understanding and training, we are also trying to measure effectiveness, and to increase vocabulary and communication on media literacy — globally.

While I realize that the theory is always evolving — and that is a positive!  — we also need some stability in how we approach media literacy theory in teacher training and program implementation. Otherwise we can never gain any traction to be able to scale, and we are always starting over again in trying to sustain media literacy basics into the pre-K 12 system. You mentioned that “CML’s Core Concepts and especially the Key Questions provide a framework that can serve as a template for designing classroom activities,” and I can say that we developed this framework with exactly that approach in mind.  I also must note that Q/TIPS is only one element of CML’s approach to media literacy, but it’s fair to say that it is central to our work, along with what we call the Empowerment Spiral of Awareness, Analysis, Reflection and Action.  And  I see no conflict whatsoever in joining your work with ours.   We welcome opportunities to work together and partner. 

There are rays of hope in the education world for media literacy’s being more accepted and understood.  The Common Core State Standards are hospitable to media literacy education.  National organizations such as the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards have called for media literacy education.  Reports such as the Horizon K-12 Report and the Future Workskills 2020 Report cite media literacy as important, and of course, the new Aspen Institute report I already mentioned, Learners at the Center of a Networked World, is outstanding. The more that media literacy is is cited as part of public policy initiatives, the better.

Our challenges are to continue the R&D,  and to explore the new horizons that are continuing to open up, while at the same time institutionalizing media literacy education.  It is my hope that our field can agree on some fundamentals and continue to fill in the substantial existing gaps so that we have a firm foundation for making progress with our education system.   Clearly, these explorations and conversations are essential for securing media literacy for future generations. Thank you for all you do, Henry.

 

Henry: Back at you, Tessa. I really loved discovering that you had taken some of the critiques in the white paper and used them to expand/retool your core questions. This is the kind of back and forth between research and practice that we’ve been talking about.

There is probably an interesting conversation the field should be having about how what we call participation may be more than consumption plus production or what it might mean to think about production as a collective rather than personal practice, but I think the recognition that today, in many cases, we are producers of the messages being discussed rather than consumers is an important step in the right direction.

 

In any case, I should have clarified much earlier in this conversation: we still live in a world where media produced by others exerts a very strong influence on our lives; Broadcast media institutions and practice still shape the media environment and we need to critically engage with their products now as we should have all along. But, we look at those products differently in a networked culture where we collectively have an expanded communication capacity including some ability to shape media production and circulation and some ability to push our concerns into a larger, many-to-many conversation. We look at them not as fixed texts, but as something to which we may respond, something we may appropriate and remix, something we might need to challenge and disrupt, etc.

 And notions of construction (and the choices and constraints that it implies) remain core to what it means to be media literate in this world. See, for example, Yochai Benkler in The Wealth of Networks: “What institutions and decisions are considered ‘legitimate’ and worthy of compliance or participation, what courses of action are attractive, what forms of interaction with others are considered appropriate — these are all understandings negotiated from within a set of shared frames of meaning.” or consider Chris Kelty in The Participatory Culture Handbook, “‘Participating’ in Facebook is not the same thing as participating in a Free Software project, to say nothing of participating in the democratic governance of a state. If there are indeed different ‘participatory cultures’ then the work of explaining their differences must be done by thinking concretely about the practices, tools, ideologies, and technologies that make them up. Participation is about power, and, no matter how ‘open’ a platform is, participation will reach a limit circumscribing power and its distribution.” And so, a model grounded in participation requires an informed and literate community: neither Benkler nor Kelty is explicitly advocating for media literacy, but for me, these arguments make media literacy a central element in any effective system for educating future citizens.

Now, back to the debate about representation. This last go around produced an “Ah Ha!” moment for me. I think part of the problem here is that neither of us are defining our terms and thus we are speaking past each other. So, a little time with a dictionary suggests where some of the confusion may be coming from. I am drawing on representation, first and foremost, to refer to a specific set of functions media may perform having to do with the depiction — the re-presentation — of something that exists in the world. This draws on such preferred definitions as “a painting, sculpture, etc., that is created to look like a particular thing or person” or “an artistic likeness or image.” So, an abstract painting by definition does not depend on its “likeness” to anything that exists in the world and a lightbulb is defined by what it does, perhaps what it allows us to see, but not by what it depicts — at least in most cases.

I also noted that the term representation has a political meaning and that the power of representation in media literacy, for me, has to do with the blurring boundaries between the two: when we depict a group, often in a stereotypical fashion, through media, we exert political effects because we impact the ways they are perceived by others, we shape what this group stands for, and so we are always locked in a struggle over representation. Representation, thus, is never simply about depiction or likeness; it always carries connotative meanings which need to be critiqued if we are going to understand the meaning or effects of a media message. Indeed, it is this layer which makes it a message in the first place.

I am not a hundred percent clear on how you are using this term, but my sense is that you are adopting a more expansive definition, such as this one from my dictionary, “something (such as a picture or symbol) that stands for something else.” This is what I might call signification, which is a much broader concept than representation in the ways I am using the word.  By that definition, you are right that an abstract painting could “stand for” the state of mind of the artist, even if it does not offer a “likeness” of anything that exists in the world.

So, if you told me that Media Literacy always involved construction and signification, we might come closer to agreement, where-as I would want to insist that there are many other functions that media can perform that are not best described in terms of producing a likeness. In many cases, representation is an appropriate word in either sense, but not always, and I am often interested in those functions of media that are not reducible to representation in that sense.

This is a great example of how lack of communication can create friction between different groups which are working for the same cause. As we shift between theoretical traditions, we often end up using the same words to mean different things, and so we read statements outside of their original meaning or context. I am hoping that a more open exchange between ML and DML researchers might diminish some of the misunderstandings and mutual misperceptions which exist between them. I think we’ve made a great start with this conversation, and I hope we can find other ways to expand the discussion in the future.

 

Tessa:  A start for sure!  Although I note that such conversations really start with attitudes of openness and mutual respect and the sense of common purpose that you noted earlier. The intellectual pursuit of knowledge is always exciting, but we must have common ground, emotionally and knowledge-wise, to communicate.

I agree with your AHA! moment — our vocabulary stands in the way sometimes.  Yes, I use representation in a very broad sense. Your word “signification” is an excellent one and more descriptive of the situation we were describing with the lightbulb, for example. I embrace signification!  But there’s another aspect at work here: there are different purposes behind using different vocabulary words.  A researcher may need to be precise to the nth degree; a practitioner may need to be only as precise as the situation calls for in introducing and then expanding on and exploring a concept or idea. Kindergartners may require a different vocabulary than high school students. Expandable words like representation, which can be interpreted from a more concrete level to a more conceptual level, are very useful words in an educational setting. Ultimately, for those who wish to push the boundaries of an exploration, expandable words lead to other more precise words. (Thank you for turning to a dictionary!)

And yes, I agree that we are sometimes using the same words for other things. The word mashup comes to mind:  some people may call a mashup making a collage, or some people may call it scrapbooking.  What is different here? And how important is it?   And so we confront the slippery slope — but in most cases, it is the effort of trying to confront together that is what counts, because we are aiming toward a higher purpose.

It is in this spirit that the field should definitely have the conversation you suggested about “what we call participation may be more than consumption plus production, or what it might mean to think about production as a collective rather than a personal practice.” You have been raising those questions and they are highly important ones.  And when we say field, we are saying BOTH the ML and DML communities, which I believe are the same overall community with the same overall purpose: media literacy education.  My mind is racing with ideas and and I am fueled with enthusiasm as I think about coming conversations for the field. I will only note that the reduction in cycle times between information exchanges has revolutionized the world we know, which has given us the urgency so needed to propel media literacy forward. Thanks to technology, we the people have more power, and our challenge is to exercise it wisely.

An informed and literate community is the basis for finding this wisdom, as you said.  And we can’t say it often enough:  media literacy is a central element in any effective system for educating future citizens.  I welcome working together towards this global imperative!

 

THAT’S ALL, FOLKS

 

Tessa Jolls is President and CEO of the Center for Media Literacy, a position she has held since 1999. She also founded the Consortium for Media Literacy, a nonprofit which provides research and a monthly newsletter publication. During her tenure at CML, she restructured the organization to focus, grow and change, preparing to meet the demand for an expanded vision of literacy for the 21st Century. Her primary focus is working in partnership to demonstrate how media literacy works through school and community-based implementation programs.

The Value of Media Literacy Education in the 21st Century: A Conversation with Tessa Jolls (Part Four)

TESSA: First and foremost, I totally agree your statement that there needs to be a process of continuous questioning of core assumptions and frameworks as we work through what, if anything, is different in the media environment today than at the time some of the founding work in media literacy was first produced — that is the essence of R&D.  But my caution is that R&D’s purpose is not to reinvent the wheel or throw the baby out with the bathwater (to use cliches that are also representations!) — it is to build upon what has come before, expand it and sometimes upend it.

My other caution is that pedagogy and practice generally fall well behind in teaching the new theories engendered through R&D —  your example of the state of the pedagogy at the time your wrote your white paper is certainly accurate! And this earlier pre-occupation with mass media in the practice was well behind the R&D of that time, because people like Masterman,  Barry Duncan and Kathleen Tyner had long envisioned media literacy education as going beyond mass media deconstruction and production. Definitely media literacy, in your words, should have “an expansion of concepts to be able to more fully capture the roles that these new media platforms and processes play in our lives.”  The cycle times between R&D ideas being discovered, disseminated, adopted and practiced are shrinking but still discouraging.

 

But theory and practice are two different arenas, and media literacy has NOT been taught. This is a major problem for R&D because this pedagogical omission has made it difficult for even researchers to distinguish between what is new and what has come before, and what is important to query as a foundation, and what is not.  So, for example, you are rightly questioning the role of representation — “about whether representation can stand in for the totality of the communication process,” as you said.   I agree, that is a highly important question to me as a person interested in R&D.  But just because researchers may be asking that question, does it mean that Pre-K-12 students shouldn’t be learning about representation and its role in media literacy?  Should we deny students learning about an idea that we ourselves have gained wisdom from?   I ask these questions as a person interested in both R&D and in pedagogy and practice. In the case of whether representation should be discussed in media literacy education, I happily agree with your saying “Absolutely!”

 

These basic questions of course lead to others:

  • How far into the R&D questions do everyday people want to go?
  • What might be useful and accessible to people in understanding their everyday relationship with media?
  • How much can people reasonably take in as they explore media literacy in formal and informal settings (keeping in mind that everyone is on a continuum in terms of their learning and their desires and abilities to understand and apply ideas).
  • How might teachers be taught to help students explore these ideas?

 

We must also note that while we are primarily addressing construction and participation, media literacy concerns itself with other arenas, which include:

  • The media diet (how much media users use and produce, what content, what quality, etc.)
  • Safety, privacy and security
  • Intellectual property use, copyright, etc.
  • Identity and consumerism
  • Issues like health, news, privacy/data and citizenship
  • Various frameworks like Paulo Freire’s empowerment spiral of awareness, analysis, reflection and action
  • Media effects
  • Media reform

But for our discussion, I think exploring the vocabulary and media literacy ideas around construction and participation may be most useful, since you agree with the idea (minus my inclusion of representation) that I stated earlier, “Construction must take place before participation is possible.”  As noted earlier but worth repeating, construction is a HUGE idea since even the universe and culture and our brains are constructed (though there’s lots of disagreement and speculation through the ages about who or what may be responsible for this phenomena).  But for those of us who like to understand how things are constructed, how they work and why they might be compelling for human beings, there are deconstruction processes that we can apply to the internet or to a fashionable dress.  There are MANY frames through which to explore construction, but in our case, we are exploring human relationships with media constructions and I agree with you that having relationships with media means engagement with media, and by extension participation with other human beings, directly or indirectly.

 

I like your (and Lisa Gitelman’s) example of a telephone call.  Using our construction vocabulary, a phone call is a construction that is facilitated through media, that has an audio “construct” or “text” that may or may not be captured in print or recorded  (I would also argue that the verbal and audio texts represent the callers at that moment in time) and that requires participation by humans who go through the process of constructing the call. I agree that other elements may be communicated between the parties besides words — the voice itself is a medium — the timber of the voice, the volume of the voice, the pacing of the words also provide evidence that may lead to inferences about emotion and other contextual elements surrounding and influencing the call.    Besides being a construct unto itself, the call has other outcomes — perhaps a decision about some action to be taken, like going to a movie,  or perhaps the callers feel more emotionally bonded — or maybe more emotionally distanced from each other.  After the call is completed, if we could roll back time or see a text or better yet, hear a recording, we could step back to formally analyze or deconstruct both the textual and contextual elements present during the call. We could see what media literacy elements are at work during the call and use this knowledge to construct another call differently, if we choose. On an informal level, people highly skilled in deconstructing messages automatically deconstruct calls — consciously or unconsciously — as they construct and engage using the telephone, and they interact accordingly to achieve their purposes in initiating the call.  High media literacy skills also call for high emotional and social literacy skills. — we need to “read” the whole context of the mediated experience while we are also constructing it.

 

With this scenario in mind, each of the Five Core Concepts of media literacy for media construction apply to this interpersonal communication/construction — the phone call:

 

CML’s Five Core Concepts of Media Literacy

 

1.  All media messages are constructed. (the construct or the call itself, using telephone media technology)

2.  Media messages are constructed using a creative language with its own rules.   (the “protocols,” terms or social norms such as “Hello” that Gitelman refers to;  the characteristics of telephone technology; and characteristics and use of the voice)

3.  Different people experience the same media message differently.  (each person will have different perceptions about the call  — or groups may or may not arrive at a consensus)

4.  Media messages have embedded values and points of view. (the “framing” of the call — what is included and what is excluded in the construct)

5.  Most media messages are organized to gain profit and/or power.  (the purpose of the call, with the caller exercising agency or power to achieve a purpose such as close bonding)

 

By necessity, I am being brief and I acknowledge that there could be many parsings in this example (a strength of media literacy education is acknowledgement that while people have individual skills, their understanding is often enhanced exponentially through participation with others).

 

CML’s expression of the Five Core Concepts are rooted in work by Masterman and Canadian media literacy pioneers including Barry Duncan and John Puengente in the 1980’s.  They are as relevant to telephone calls and mass media as they are to new media.  These concepts describe how media — any media — operate as a symbolic system.   When your white paper was published in 2006, I wondered whether these Concepts needed to be expanded. And from some of your comments here, it sounds like you are also questioning when you said ”What I would argue for is not the displacement of media literacy’s historic focus on representation but an expansion of concepts to be able to more fully capture the roles that these new media platforms and processes play in our lives.”  Your white paper certainly was groundbreaking and quite descriptive about new media literacy skills needed. Unfortunately, these Core Concepts — which have served as a foundational frame for media literacy in numerous parts of the world — were not cited in the 2006 white paper and this may be continuing to cause confusion and unintended consequences, even now.

 

As researchers and developers in the field, we must constantly test the Core Concepts to see whether they are still universally valid and descriptive of all forms of media.  It is this basic description of a global media system at work that distinguishes media literacy from other communications fields, and they provide a rallying point around which institutionalizing media literacy becomes possible.  The Core Concepts capture the fundamental understanding that has long been missing in our culture and in the Pre-K-12 +++ education system (I might add that I have spoken to many graduate students who have no idea about what the Core Concepts are or how to apply them, which is highly disappointing and also telling). The Concepts provide the basis for pedagogy that can be built around them. It is important to emphasize this distinction between describing how media operate as a symbolic system — the theoretical description of media embodied in the Five Core Concepts — and how individuals and groups use and experience the media — the practice, the skills, the applications of the theory. There are many frames, especially in the pedagogy and practice arenas, that may apply and further media literacy.

 

Before he died in 2012, the great Canadian pioneer Barry Duncan (founder of the Canadian Association for Media Literacy), called for action in his 2010 Voices of Media Literacy interview:

 

“You get all of these competing literacies, and that is not a bad thing…but there needs to be a way to bridge these and that has not successfully happened. Critical pedagogy has a lot to offer…I want to see (it) having a major role in bringing the key ideas both of traditional media and new media — of bringing them together and making all of these things as meaningful in the curriculum. The so-called convergence and the culture of connectivity — all of the new directions — all of that has to be reconciled with the traditional. And if we do a good job at that we will be successful.

“If you look at the … Key Concepts — there are groups out there that are doing some aspect of it. But the danger is that the richness of the aesthetic, ideological, commercial — if they are not explored then we leave the major things out of the model(s) that are needed … to acknowledge the complexity.”

 

 

Henry: First, let me say how artful I think you were at showing how the core concepts of media literacy apply to the telephone call. I would not disagree, though as I said before, I am not sure that they capture everything that is going on there. We’ve, for example, found it very generative to look at our NML skills alongside the research on emotional intelligence, which has helped us to really focus on the interpersonal and affective dimensions of social media, and there are issues about social norms around privacy and disclosure, which can be characterized in terms of conventions of communication, but perhaps not, of representation per se. So, I am always going to be the guy who kicks the tires.

Part of what I admire about the Core Concepts — and there is much to admire here — is that they represent a compromise or coalition between different generations of theorists and activists who were advocating media literacy. I have always loved the quote from Bob McCannon, which Renee Hobbs shared in her “Seven Great Debates in the Media Literacy Movement” essay: “Whenever media literacy educators get together, they always circle the wagons– and shoot in!”

If we look closely, we see in those core concepts aspects of semiotics (“All media messages are constructed,”) McLuhanism (“Media have embedded values and points of view”), film appreciation (“Media messages are constructed using a creative language with its own rules,”) British Cultural Studies (“Different people experience the same media message differently”) and Critical Studies (“Most media messages are organized to gain profit and/or power”). As a political document, a truce of sorts, it is brilliant. As an intellectual document, it also is incredibly valuable as a starting point for defining media literacy and explaining why it is an essential set of concepts for our times.

 I would personally qualify or modify some of these phrasings — for example, my work stresses the collective dimensions of meaning-making rather than the individual and for me, the focus on “different people” rather than “different audiences” here tends to focus more on idiosyncratic interpretations (always good as conversation fodder) rather than socially-embedded interpretations. I would argue that as forms of social and mobile media become more central to the field, we need a broader array of different motives to consider beyond power and profit or we will end up with a very cynical (rather than skeptical) understanding of the role media plays in human relations.  You turned to social bonding above in addressing what happens when we look at telephone calls, and it is important to think about those dimensions of digital culture that function more like a gift economy than like commodity culture. I might add something that stressed the ways that media mediates different kinds of social relations between people who participate in its exchange, which might cover much of what I was arguing for above in terms of pushing beyond representation as a category or I might stress the ways that media impact each other in a more systemic way, which is to my mind at the heart of what I call comparative media studies. These are areas where we have seen new theoretical breakthroughs since the five core concepts were formulated. I would describe such questioning as aimed at renewing and refreshing the core concepts, not overturning them. But, as a starting point, sure — great concepts and ones that should ideally inform our work.

 

I am sorry that you felt the exclusion of the core concepts in the white paper may have led to such unintended consequences. I can see your point and suspect you may be right. At the time, I had imagined the white paper being read by people who already were immersed in the ML movement, but I had not anticipated how many others would come to ML work through that document. And that goes back to your larger statement that ML skills are still NOT being taught in schools, so how can we take them as granted in the subsequent work we do. I had meant for our statement to be that we needed traditional literacy, media literacy, technical skills, and research skills NOW MORE THAN EVER, but that there were ALSO now other skills we should be working to achieve and that this document was primarily identifying what those skills were, why they were important, and how they should be taught. This goes hand in hand with my sense that what we need is a paradigm shift and not simply adding a few more things to an already crowded curriculum.

 

You are right that educational practice will mostly lag behind research, except in this case, we’ve discovered that teachers have recognized the need to respond quickly to the changes they were seeing in young people’s lives, that many of them were hungry for research that addressed the impact of digital media, and that there have been large numbers of early adapters and adopters out there who were ready to respond to the call. What the DML movement is now recognizing is what the ML movement understood all the time: that to be scalable and sustainable we need to move beyond the culture of early adopters/adapters and reach teachers who will need more basic materials, more fully developed practices, in order to bring these ideas into their classrooms. We need to turn the early recruits into mentors for other teachers, but even this, will not make media literacy something that is embedded in the educational system as a whole.  In our own work, we are seeing the best way to achieve that goal is to work with people who have much more experience working in schools than we have, and so we find ourselves exploring partnerships with groups like Facing History and Ourselves, the National Writer’s Project, Project Look Sharp, or your organization. Your Core Concepts and especially your Key Questions provide just such a framework which has been adapted easily as a template into the design of classroom activities, which can be used by teachers who are not necessarily interested in designing and developing their own lesson plans or even delving too deeply into the theoretical nuances. This would seem to be the point where these worlds are going to rejoin again.

 

You raise a key point above when you suggest those of us who are doing advanced research and development sometimes take these core concepts for granted, forgetting how hard we worked to achieve this understanding, or how empowering it was when we did.  My worry is that within the ML world, rather than being under constant revision, as you suggest above, these core concepts and questions have sometimes taken on the quality of articles of faith and on a knee-jerk level, that makes me bristle, since I was raised a Southern Baptist and have worked hard since to clear my mind of any and all kinds of  “one true way” dogma. I’ve certainly felt pressure to swear allegiance to these collective statements, and I have resisted doing so, not because I disagree in any fundamental way with this framework, as my comments above suggest, but because I want to be free to test, challenge, and question the core tenants of a field as the media environment changes.

The minute these become a set of answers rather than a set of questions, the ML field starts to rigidify and part of what is exciting about the DML efforts is that they are bringing new energy, new passion, and new intellectual curiosity into this space as they sort through competing ideas about how schools should prepare young people for participation in the new media landscape. So, we can expect more pushing and pulling on the basic frameworks that come before us, but that puts a burden on those of us in the DML world to learn and understand that work, and I would agree there are many who have not become familiar with those concepts. My co-authors, Tara McPherson, Jane Shattuc, and I wrote in the Introduction to Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture, about another field — cultural studies: “If change in the academy has often been likened to an oedipal conflict in which the sons and daughters kill their parents in order to make room for their own accomplishments, we are hoping for something closer to a family reunion where squabbles may surface but where a strong sense of community and tradition is reaffirmed over potato salad and barbecue.”  I am hoping our exchange has made some progress towards that kind of mutual understanding here.

MORE TO COME

 

The Value of Media Literacy Education in the 21st Century: A Conversation with Tessa Jolls (Part Three)

Henry: I really appreciate the work the CML does in translating research into awareness and action, in trying to build a more sustainable and scalable movement for media literacy. As someone who sees themselves first and foremost as a researcher, I am deeply committed to translating our research into language that can be broadly accessible and providing resources which can be deployed within important conversations; I see this blog as part of the work I try to do to broker between different groups of people who should be talking to each other.

My team through the years has done a fair amount of applied work with educators, trying to get our materials out in the field. We’ve come to the same conclusion you have that media literacy is at least as much about rethinking education as it is about rethinking media. We found very early on that developing resources were never enough unless you also helped to train the teachers who would be using those materials. This took us down the path of developing and running teacher training programs in New Hampshire and California, and then publishing a series of white papers which dealt with what we saw as best practices in fostering participatory learning, practices that both dealt with how to integrate the new media literacies into school curriculum but also how to couple them with progressive pedagogies that are very much in line with those that Masterman describes above — pedagogies that are very much informed by thinkers such as Dewey and Freire. See, for example:

 

http://henryjenkins.org/2012/12/play-participatory-learning-and-you.html

http://henryjenkins.org/2012/12/shall-we-play.html

http://henryjenkins.org/2012/09/designing-with-teachers-participatory-approaches-to-professional-development-in-education.html

 

We are back in the trenches again with the latest phase of our work, this time emerging from extensive research (interviews with more than 200 young activists) about the political and civic lives of American youth: We’ve now built an archive featuring videos produced by young activists around a range of causes, many of them appropriating and remixing elements from popular culture, many of them using tools and tactics associated with participatory culture. This time, we are testing these materials in collaboration with the National Writing Project, and working with their teachers (as well as the organizations we study) to develop activities and lesson plans which might allow educators to integrate our materials and insights into their teaching. One thing we’ve learned through the years is that our core strength is ultimately in cultural theory and research and thanks to my move to USC, coupled with media production capacities; we have some understanding of core pedagogical issues; but we do better working hand in hand with classroom teachers to develop the actual activities that make sense in the public schools. And we count on the power of various networks — including both the Media Literacy Movement and those folks involved with the DML world — to get word out about what we’ve created. This is why I place such a high priority in building partnerships which can help us work together to achieve our shared goals.

 

The issue of whether representation remains the core of contemporary media literacy is a complex one, it seems to me. Representation is a powerful principle, one which helps to explain the ways we use media to make sense of ourselves and our lives, and it remains very pertinent in a world where we are encouraging young people to develop a stronger sense of their own public voices, to tell their own stories, to create their own media. Looking critically at existing representations, thinking ethically about the choices they make as they create their own representations as media producers remain core to any understanding of media literacy, but young people are also participating in media which are more focused on social exchanges and personal interactions in which the creation of texts is secondary to the cementing of social bonds.  If we were developing media literacy in response to the telephone rather than television, would we be asking different questions, have different priorities?

 

Representation is itself a process, to be sure, but we also often use it to refer to a product or text: a representation. The disciplines which do much of the heavy lifting on media literacy education — especially language arts but also arts education — tend to focus heavily on texts, and so as the term representation gets translated into their vocabulary, it is not surprising that it comes to circle around texts. This focus on texts can lead us to think in terms of readers and writers/producers but not in terms of participants in an ongoing communication process. And this is a key reason why my vocabulary tends to place a greater emphasis on notions of participation than on notions of representation.

 

TESSA:  Ah…and so down the rabbit hole we go. And we are going on a slippery slope because as you said, it’s complicated.  I’m enjoying the ride!

Which universe are we describing? The physical world that surrounds us and that we perceive on a local and physical level — the world that surrounds us with physical media like logos and traffic signs and billboards and movies and music and candy wrappers — or the alternative global village or digital media that we access only through the assistance of hardware and software media like the internet in general or Instagram or Facebook or games?  In each case, the media are man-made, which means that men (and oh yes let’s be sure to be inclusive and say women too) construct these media messages and devices. Construction always calls for decisions on the part of the creator(s), who sets the initial limits and boundaries through which we may experience his or her creation — media construction, whether digital or not, is a physical representation of the creator’s intention.

So fundamentally, construction and (implicitly) representation must take place before participation is possible.  And participatory culture (whether we participate online or off) is both an input to and an outcome of construction/representation — and the fusion constantly changes the nature of and the expression of the construction, which always has emotional, social and cultural implications. There is a chicken-or-egg quality to the cultural issues and their intersection with media, but it can also be argued that an individual’s mind and group culture itself are also constructions/representations.

But back to media…As an example, let’s think about video games.  The games are media constructions and they provide a software “box” in which players operate, and this software box is constrained by the hardware platform.  The creator of the game designed the game intentionally — to share a worldview and/or to profit from game purchases. Players engage with the game text itself and interact with each other to experience the game in a myriad of ways — visual, verbal, social, emotional — and often players invent new ways of experiencing the game through mods or hardware and they amplify their experiences together.  But because the construction itself is constrained, there are inevitably frames and experiences that are included and excluded.

So much depends on how we parse the world we live in!  But at the same time, to take a scientific approach towards media literacy, we need boundaries and concepts that define and describe a specific field of inquiry — that of media, in this case. While the cementing of social bonds through media use may be a primary goal for youth or adults, media are still the means toward an end, while also acknowledging that digital spaces (constructions) multiply possibilities for and the nature of social engagement exponentially.

I agree with you, Henry, that the focus on the word “texts” — because of its traditional association with physical media — generally limits people’s perceptions about participating in an ongoing communication process that digital media enable.  In today’s context in the global village, the notion of text expands so that “text” may become the entire “box” that encompasses the digital world itself, and the cultural representations within the box and outside it. We now have the physical world and the digital world and their intertwining and as Steve Jobs famously espoused, we need to “think different.”

 

Henry: Your phrase above, “construction and (implicitly) representationmust take place before participation is possible,” hints at the core hesitation which I am trying to flag here. I absolutely agree on the term construction in this sentence and with your discussion of the many different ways that construction takes place on the level of technological constraints and socio-cultural conventions. I have always been drawn to Lisa Gitelman’s definition of media: she argues that a medium is a technology that enables communication and also a set of associated ‘protocols’ or social and cultural practices that have grown up around the technology. She writes, “Protocols express a huge variety of social, economic, and material relationships. So telephony includes the salutation ‘Hello?’ (for English speakers, for example) and includes the monthly billing cycle and includes the wires and cables that materially connect our phones…And protocols are far from static.” These features change over time, work differently in different cultural contexts, and are influenced by the other media that intersect with them at any given moment. So, our models of different media and of the media ecology have to be very nimble to respond to those transitions. But, all of this can be described in terms of the construction of media messages, audiences, and contexts. I would just expand contexts to include not simply forms of production but also the terms, the social norms, that shape our participation.

 

However, I do have some questions about whether “representation” can stand in for the totality of the communication process. We might start with the distinction art critics might draw between representational and abstract art: surely, an abstract painting is a media text, but does it fall under the category of representation. Sure, in an abstract or “implicit” way, such a painting represents the artist’s vision  but at some point, we need to agree either that representation is not the only thing going on here or that the word representation has been stretched so thin that it no longer serves a useful purpose.  So, I would absolutely agree that representation is an important concept to draw into discussions of media literacy, especially given the links between representation (as a mimetic process) and representation (as a political concept) so that we can speak of the struggles of marginalized groups to gain media representation as a struggle that impacts their power in society.

 

But, if we go back to my earlier question about what would have happened if media literacy had taken shape in response to the telephone rather than radio, film or television (depending on which strands we are discussing), we should think about the properties of the telephone (as Gitelman invites us to do here). We do not talk about telephone calls as texts — unless of course we are talking about transcripts or recordings of them. We might ascribe to phone calls a broader range of motives besides power and profit. We do not talk about telephone calls in terms of authors and readers — but rather in terms of participants. There are certainly all kinds of representations involved in telephone calls — from Goffman’s performance of self in everyday life to the narratives we are recounting with each other — but we might well argue that the call allows for communication that operates on other levels and that perhaps the most important thing going on through the call is the establishment of interpersonal relations between the participants. When we say to each other, “I just wanted to hear your voice,” we are speaking about the telephone call as something much closer to pure expression — like the abstract painting — than representation (in much the same way that Marshall McLuhan argued that the light bulb was a medium of “pure information”). Not quite, of course, which is why this is complicated.Yes, there is interpretation involved in the telephone call and definitely construction. In no sense do I mean to imply that the telephone call is somehow transparent. But the media literacy skills we need to understand the telephone call may focus much more on the social relationships being performed and the ways they are embodied through Gitelman’s protocals than they have to do with any notion of texts or audiences which seems to go hand in hand with representation as it is being discussed here.

 

As we turn towards digital media, some of it does generate texts in the classical sense of the term — a podcast or a YouTube video or a blog post, though it matters that these are forms which we can directly engage and respond through the same medium to the same audience and that these tools enable many-to-many forms of communication. Some forms and uses of digital media are much more important because of the communication processes they enable than they are in terms of the product of that communication — text messaging, for example, or Twitter, come to mind, as having more in common with the telephone than with television. So, what I would argue for is not the displacement of media literacy’s historic focus on representation but an expansion of concepts to be able to more fully capture the roles that these new media platforms and processes play in our lives.

 

I know in doing this I am edging back towards the idea that you are obejecting to, the idea that media literacy has historically been framed in terms of mass media literacies — and this is somewhat unfair on the conceptual level. Yes, media literacy covers a broad array of different media in theory but the fact remains that if I went to a media literacy conference at the time that our white paper was first published, the over-whelming majority of talks would have centered around various forms of mass media, including film, television, advertising, and print based media, with some noteworthy exceptions. What gave Media Literacy its urgency throughout most of its history was the pervasive role of television in American culture just as the digital is what gives new media literacies their urgency. When I looked at the production projects being proposed, most of them were modeled on the public service announcement, itself a product of the one-way communication practices of broadcast media, rather than the kinds of dialogic production practices we are finding on Youtube or Tumbler. I like Jessica Clarke’s term, “public-moblizing media”, which stresses a different dynamic between those participating in these media exchanges.  This has changed dramatically over the past decade, we are seeing more work done on the participatory dimensions of media, we are seeing more projects that involve remix practices, though there is still a tendency to think about media in terms of texts rather than process, practices, or to use your word above, relationships that are being mediated through various kinds of communication technologies. Organizations like NAMLA have more than caught up with the changing media environment, but I would argue there needs to be a process of continuous questioning of core assumptions as we work through what if anything is different about the media environment today than at the time some of the founding work in media literacy was first produced.

Transmedia 202: Reflexiones adicionales

Last year, I was happy to share the translations of some of my blog posts on transmedia into Spanish done by Mike Morell / Miguel Bernardo Olmedo Morell. You can see them here. Mike has returned with another translation — this time of my Transmedia 202 post. If you want to see the original in English, you can see it here. Thanks, Mike, for all of your efforts to make some of these ideas more widely accessible in the Spanish speaking world!

 

 

1 de Agosto de 2011

Transmedia 202: Reflexiones adicionales

Por Henry Jenkins

Translated by Miguel Bernardo Olmedo Morrell

El vídeo de arriba fue grabado por Scott Walker durante una de mis presentaciones en la Comic-Con de San Diego, en la cual hablé acerca de algunos de los puntos más controvertidos que ha habido alrededor de la definición de transmedia durante los últimos seis meses, más o menos. Me he mantenido, en su mayor parte, alejado de estas conversaciones, aunque puedes encontrar un muy buen resumen de estos debates aquí.

Me he estado centrando en otros proyectos, y también me he interesado más en las formas que toman estas discusiones, en lugar de intentar intervenir en ellas directamente, pero durante el verano, en varios campos, he estado en un tira y afloja con mis propias definiciones para intentar capturar mi propia concepción cambiante de qué es lo transmediático, especialmente porque estoy preparando una clase renovada sobre el entretenimiento transmediático en la USC. Hoy voy a intentar poner por escrito parte de este pensamiento aún en evolución con la esperanza de que ayude a otros a aclararse en este tema.

Gran parte de estas cuestiones están cubiertas en el vídeo introductorio, así que, si eres de los que procesan mejor el contenido audiovisual que el escrito, siempre tienes esa opción. He escuchado algunos rumores de que Jenkins iba a mostrar una “nueva definición” de “transmedia”: la verdad es que el cambio que propongo no es ni de lejos tan dramático, tan solo propongo algunas clarificaciones y rectificaciones en las definiciones. Esta definición aún cubre, más o menos, a lo que me refiero como narración transmediática:

La narración transmediática representa un proceso en el que los elementos integrales de una obra de ficción se esparcen sistemáticamente a través de muchos canales de distribución con el propósito de crear una experiencia de entretenimiento unificada y coordinada. Lo ideal es que cada medio proporcione su propia contribución original al desarrollo de la historia.

Así pues, considera lo que sigue como Transmedia 202, en honor a mi post anterior, Transmedia 101.

Dado el elevado nivel de gente que ha adoptado (¿y se ha aferrado, incluso?) lo transmediático, no nos debería sorprender que:

  1. Diferentes grupos de personas están definiendo un concepto aún emergente de forma diferente con diferentes propósitos para públicos diferentes en contextos diferentes.
  2. Algunos de aquellos que hablan de transmedia están menos sumergidos en los escritos y pensamientos anteriores de lo que sería deseable y por tanto pueden empañar en cierta medida el concepto.
  3. Algunos grupos están fuertemente motivados a expandir o difuminar el alcance de la categoría con el fin de autopromocionarse y alcanzar sus propias metas.

Así pues, empecemos desde el principio con el tema de la convergencia, que describo en mi libro Cultura de la Convergencia como un paradigma de pensamiento sobre el momento actual de cambio mediático, uno que está definido a través de la división en capas, diversificación, e interconectividad de diversos medios. La convergencia está en contraste  con el modelo de Revolución Digital, que asume que los medios antiguos se verían sustituidos por los nuevos medios. Ciertos aspectos de este modelo de convergencia están dando forma a las decisiones de los productores de medios, publicistas, tecnólogos, consumidores y creadores de normas, y por tanto la convergencia tiene muchos aspectos y consecuencias diferentes.

El concepto de transmedia, usado por sí mismo, tan solo significa “a través de diferentes medios”. Transmedia, a este nivel, es una forma de hablar de la convergencia como un conglomerado de prácticas culturales. Ten en cuenta que Marsha Kinder, en Playing with Power, escribía sobre “intertextualidad transmediática”, mientras que yo fui de los primeros en popularizar el término “narrativa transmediática”. La narrativa transmediática describe un tipo de lógica para pensar sobre el flujo de contenido a través de distintos medios. También podemos pensar en marca transmediática, representación transmediática, ritual transmediático, juego transmediático, activismo transmediático, y espectáculo transmediático, como otro tipo de lógicas disponibles. El mismo texto puede interpretarse desde distintas lógicas. Así, por ejemplo, podrías tratar a Glee como una narrativa transmediática en la que seguimos a los personajes y sus circunstancias a través de distintos medios, pero, más a menudo, las estrategias transmediáticas de Glee enfatizan una representación transmediática, ya que sus canciones se pueden encontrar en Youtube, iTunes, conciertos en vivo, etc., que podemos consumir conjuntamente para dar sentido al fenómeno Glee.

Hay gente que piensa que transmedia es una forma de expandir una marca: yo más bien diría que expandir una marca es algo que puedes hacer transmediáticamente, pero cuando hablo de narrativa transmediática, este no es el foco central de mi interés. Me estoy centrando más bien en las formas narrativas emergentes que aprovechan el flujo de contenido a través de los medios y las redes de reacción de los fans.

Alguna gente argumenta que transmedia es tan solo otro nombre para el franquiciamiento. Esto consiste en una estructura empresarial de producción mediática que tiene una larga historia y que, a través de dicha historia, ha intentado mover iconos y marcas a través de canales mediáticos, pero no necesariamente en un intento de extender la narrativa en formas que expandan su ámbito y significado. La mayoría de las franquicias mediáticas anteriores estaban basadas en la reproducción y redundancia, pero las obras transmediáticas representan una estructura basada en un desarrollo más a fondo del mundo narrativo a través de cada nuevo medio. Si quieres consultar una buena guía de la historia y las prácticas del franquiciamiento, espera atento al próximo libro de Derek Johnson, que ha estado investigando este tema en profundidad.

Gran parte de este franquiciamiento se ha establecido a través de los permisos de concesión, que dificultan el que los productores mediáticos añadan o cambien cualquier cosa más allá del texto primario. La narrativa transmediática auténtica es capaz de emerger a través de estructuras que fomentan la co-creación y colaboración, pero, tal y como apunta Johnson, cuanto más se mueva un productor mediático en esta dirección, mayor será el desafío de coordinación y consistencia.

A veces he hablado de la distinción entre adaptación y extensión como de algo fundamental para entender estos cambios. Básicamente, la adaptación toma la historia en un medio y la cuenta de nuevo en otro. Una extensión busca añadir algo a la historia ya existente al trasladarla de un medio a otro. Christy Dena desafía esta distinción tan clara. Las adaptaciones pueden ser altamente literales o profundamente transformativas. Cualquier adaptación representa una interpretación del trabajo en cuestión y no simplemente una reproducción, con lo que todas las adaptaciones, en mayor o menor grado, añaden nuevos significados al abanico que ya tiene la historia original. Tal y como señala Dena, los cambios entre medios significan que nos enfrentamos a nuevas experiencias y aprendemos cosas nuevas. Trasladar Harry Potter de un libro a una serie de películas conlleva pensar mucho más profundamente en qué apariencia tiene Hogwarts y, por lo tanto, el director artístico/productor de diseño ha expandido y extendido significativamente la historia en el proceso. Quizá sea mejor pensar en la adaptación y la extensión como parte de un continuo en el que los dos polos son tan solo posibilidades teóricas y en donde la mayor parte de la acción tiene lugar en algún punto intermedio.

El tema que pretendía abordar al hablar de la distinción entre adaptación y extensión es la comprensión aditiva, un término prestado del diseñador de juegos Neil Young, para referirse al grado en que cada nuevo texto aumenta nuestro conocimiento de la historia en sí. Así, la novela gráfica Falling Skies es una precuela que nos habla de la desaparición del hermano intermedio y, por tanto, ayuda a mostrar el trasfondo de los motivos que mueven a los personajes de la serie de televisión Turner. En este caso, la comprensión aditiva toma la forma de historia de trasfondo, pero la misma novela gráfica también nos ayuda a comprender mejor la organización del movimiento de resistencia, que podemos ver como parte del proceso de construcción del mundo ficticio. La mayor parte del contenido transmediático sigue una o más de las siguientes funciones:

  • Ofrece una historia de trasfondo
  • Delinea el mundo
  • Nos ofrece la perspectiva de otros personajes sobre las acciones que ocurren
  • Profundiza la interacción de la audiencia

Me ha resultado perturbador encontrarme con escritores que quieren reducir el concepto transmedia a la idea de múltiples plataformas mediáticas sin ahondar más profundamente en las relaciones lógicas entre dichas extensiones mediáticas. Así pues, si tienes que llevarlo a la práctica, es muy importante que tengas una definición que determine cuántos medios se pueden emplear, pero para mí, como académico, este no es un punto central. Cuando pensamos en definir lo transmediático, pues, debemos volver a las relaciones entre medios y no limitarnos a contar el número de plataformas mediáticas. Así pues, de nuevo, imaginémonos un continuo de posibilidades.

Podríamos empezar con la noción de serialidad. La serialidad implicaría el desarrollo de una historia a través del tiempo, normalmente a través de un proceso de despedazamiento (crear pedazos significativos de la historia) y dispersión (dividir la historia en entregas interconectadas). Un concepto central de este proceso es la creación de una historia con gancho o cliffhanger que motive al consumidor a volver para conocer más de la misma historia. Históricamente, la serialidad ocurre dentro del mismo texto.

Así pues, hemos visto a la televisión americana evolucionar con el paso del tiempo desde estructuras muy episódicas (más o menos autoconclusivas) a estructuras mucho más serializadas. La mayoría de programas, sin embargo, combinan elementos episódicos (una trama procedural que se puede resolver en un solo episodio) y seriales (la evolución de la relación entre personajes, una mitología que se desvela, una trama mayor en medio de la cual los episodios individuales funcionan como capítulos). El cambio hacia la serialidad en la televisión americana juega un gran papel en preparar al público para la narrativa transmediática. La mayoría de las historias transmediáticas son muy seriales en estructura, pero no todos los seriales son transmediáticos. Así, Bones, por ejemplo, es un drama parcialmente serializado que, en su mayor parte, permanece en un solo medio.

Pero podemos pensar en ejemplos en los que hay un movimiento entre textos o a través de estructuras textuales dentro del mismo medio. Describo esto en términos de “intertextualidad radical”. Así, por ejemplo, los universos DC y Marvel crean docenas de títulos que se ven como interrelacionados. Los personajes se mueven a través de ellos. Las tramas se desarrollan a través de ellos. Periódicamente, puede haber sucesos que se extienden a través de múltiples títulos, y parte del placer de leer algo como Marvel Civil Wars reside en ver el mismo evento a través del punto de vista de distintos personajes, que pueden tener perspectivas diferentes sobre lo que está pasando. Asimismo, Battlestar Galatica se desarrolla a través de varias series de televisión, mini-series, y películas autoconclusivas. Si Battlestar se limitara a un solo medio, la televisión, entonces sería otro ejemplo de intertextualidad radical. Pero, debido a que Battlestar extiende este proceso para incluir webisodes [episodios en la red] y cómics, que se entienden como parte del mismo continuo, decimos que se trata de una historia transmediática.

Así pues, llamemos a este nivel superior multimodalidad — un término acuñado por Gunther Kress para hablar de cómo el diseño educativo trata sobre las affordances [acciones posibles] de distintos medios instructivos, pero Christy Dena las aplica para hablar de narrativas transmediáticas. El punto central aquí es que los distintos medios requieren distintas formas de representación – así pues, Linterna Verde presenta apariencias distintas en los cómics, una película, un juego, o una serie de televisión animada. Cada medio tiene distintos tipos de affordances – el juego facilita formas diferentes de interactuar con el contenido que un libro o una película. Una historia que se desarrolla a través de distintos medios adopta modalidades diferentes. Una franquicia puede ser multimodal sin ser transmediática – la mayoría de aquellos que repiten los mismos elementos básicos de la historia en cada media formarían parte de esta categoría. Para mí, una obra necesita combinar intertextualidad radical y multimodalidad con el propósito de tener una comprensión aditiva para ser una historia transmediática. Por ello, reducir el término “transmedia” a “una historia a través de distintos medios” no logra más que distorsionar la discusión.

Hasta ahora, nada de esto implica que se deba usar ningún medio en particular para que algo se convierta en transmediático. Uno puede construir un sistema transmediático de alto calibre (una gran película taquillera o programa de televisión y sus extensiones) o un sistema transmediático de bajo calibre (una película de bajo presupuesto y/o independiente, un cómic o serie en línea que sirva de trampolín para algo que pueda incluir representación en vivo o narración oral…). Algunos han intentado argumentar que los videojuegos son un componente central de lo transmediático, pero no quiero priorizar extensiones mediáticas digitales sobre otras formas de práctica mediática.

Por este motivo, es posible encontrar antecedentes históricos para lo transmediático que anteceden a las redes computarizadas y el entretenimiento interactivo. No me preocupa la novedad de lo transmediático. El empujón actual de ello ha emergido gracias a los cambios en las prácticas de producción (moldeadas por la concentración mediática, en algunos casos) o prácticas de recepción (la emergencia de la Web 2.0 y los medios sociales), pero también procede de la emergencia de una nueva comprensión estética de cómo funcionan los textos populares (moldeados en parte por el alzamiento de los geeks y fans a posiciones de poder en las industrias del entretenimiento).

Las opciones disponibles para un productor transmediático hoy en día son diferentes a aquellas disponibles hace algunas décadas, pero aún podemos señalar a los antecedentes históricos que experimentaban con nociones de creación de mundos y estructuras narrativas modeladoras de mitologías en formas que pueden incluir tanto intertextualidad radical como multimodalidad. Desde este punto de vista, se podría decir que Frank L. Baum (en su enfoque en la creación de mundos a través de distintos medios), Walt Disney (en su enfoque en creación de marcas a través de medios) y J.R.R. Tolkien (con sus experimentos en intertextualidad radical) son los antecedentes de las prácticas transmediáticas.

Asimismo, he defendido que Obama es una figura tan transmediática como Obi Wan. No quiero decir con esto simplemente que nuestra vida diaria se guíe a través de múltiples plataformas mediáticas, aunque esto sea cierto. También quiero decir que tendemos a conectar estas piezas de información dispersas entre sí para formar una historia, que la historia que construimos depende en qué extensiones mediáticas nos basemos (Fox News vs. The Huffington Post), y que hay arquitectos que buscan coordinar y construir un abanico de significados que se adhieren a esa historia. En este sentido, la historia de Obama, construida a través de su campaña, incluye tanto intertextualidad radical como multimodalidad.

Cuando escribí Convergence Culture, me centré en la discusión transmedia sobre The Matrix, al tiempo que incluí una barra lateral que trataba sobre The Beast como un Alternate Reality Game [Juego de Realidad Alternativa]. Asumía que los ARG son transmediáticos, y que en ese campo es donde han ocurrido algunos de los debates más acalorados en los últimos años.

El modelo transmedia basado en Hollywood asume una historia contada o un mundo explorado a través no solo simplemente de múltiples medios, sino también de múltiples textos, que se pueden vender al público separadamente y que representan múltiples puntos de contacto con la marca. (Debe resaltarse, para aclarar mi definición, que no importa realmente si el texto forma una sola narración o múltiples historias situadas en el mismo mundo, ya que, en la práctica, la mayoría de las narraciones transmediáticas incluyen múltiples líneas argumentales que se pueden dispersar de distintas formas a través de las distintas entregas). El modelo ARG, sin embargo, asume que distintos medios pueden contribuir a una sola experiencia de ocio. Así pues, es más probable que hablemos de The Beast, I Love Bees, o The Lost Experience como textos completos por cuenta propia (así como, en los tres casos, como parte de franquicias de ocio mayores). Cada grupo tiene motivaciones diferentes a la hora de trazar líneas que distingan e integren estos dos modelos. Es importante entender qué están intentando conseguir cada uno, pero no me resulta tan importante definir en profundidad uno u otro modelo. Tan solo pienso que este es un espacio que merece un trabajo conceptual más profundo que el que ha recibido hasta ahora. Ambos podrían participar de mi  énfasis en la intertextualidad radical y multimodalidad y ambos pueden ser prometedores para alcanzar una mejor comprensión.

Otro debate que merece la pena observar aquí tiene que ver con el tema de la participación del público en el desarrollo de la propiedad transmediática. Estos debates se pueden resumir en dos puntos centrales. El primero tiene que ver con las diferencias que muestra en Convergence Culture entre interactividad y participación. Para mí, la interactividad tiene que ver con las propiedades de la tecnología y la participación tiene que ver con las propiedades de la cultura. Evidentemente, en la práctica, ambos pueden aparecer en el mismo texto. Así, por ejemplo, un juego de ordenador enfatiza la interactividad y, por tanto, experiencias de entretenimiento preprogramadas. La cultura fan tiene altos índices de participación, ya que los fans toman los recursos ofrecidos por un texto y los empujan en todo tipo de direcciones que no son ni preprogramadas ni autorizadas por los productores.

Cuando la gente afirma que la interactividad es un elemento central de la experiencia transmediática, me gustaría asegurarme de que están usando el término de la misma forma. Podemos imaginar un abanico de diferentes relaciones que los fans puedan tener con la propiedad transmediática. En un extremo estarían las prácticas de caza y recolección para encontrar las piezas de información dispersas y averiguar cómo se pueden juntar entre sí para formar un todo con sentido. En el otro extremo, podemos tener el jugar a través del nivel de un juego, superando diversos obstáculos, matando jefes, y recolectando objetos. Pero también podemos pensar en distintas formas de representación de los fans—desde el fan fiction hasta el cosplay— que son más participativas y abiertas y menos dependientes en las elecciones de diseño de los productores transmediáticos.

El segundo punto tiene que ver con la dicotomía continuidad vs. multiplicidad. La mayor parte de las discusiones sobre lo transmediático ponen un gran énfasis en la continuidad—asumiendo que las narraciones transmediáticas requieren un alto nivel de coordinación y control creativo y que todas las piezas tiene que estar cohesionadas en una narrativa o mundo consistentes. Ésta es una práctica bastante difícil de llevar a cabo a través de las múltiples divisiones del mismo equipo de producción, y resulta difícil para los fans contribuir directamente al desarrollo de una narración que pone un gran énfasis en la continuidad. De hecho, muchos proyectos que afirman emplear “contenido generado por los usuarios” lo hacen en formas que protegen la “integridad” de la continuidad a expensas de permitir múltiples perspectivas y una participación más abierta. Hacen que el autor o algún agente designado se convierta en un árbitro de lo que se considera canónico. Por otra parte, hay formas de transmedia producida comercialmente que celebran abiertamente la multiplicidad que surge de ver a los mismos personajes e historias contados de formas radicalmente diferentes. Este centrarse en la multiplicidad nos deja abierto un espacio para que veamos medios producidos por los fans como parte de un proceso transmediático mayor, incluso si entonces queremos intentar aclarar cómo diferentes elementos se marcan como canónicos o alternativas de los fans.

Siento que esto haya acabado volviéndose tan complicado, pero creo que parte del problema surge de que mucha gente está buscando fórmulas simples y una definición que sirva para todos los casos, intentando así delimitar lo que se considera como transmediático. Pero aún estamos en un período de experimentación e innovación. Nuevos modelos surgen a través de prácticas de producción y debates críticos, y necesitamos estar abiertos a un amplio abanico de variaciones de lo que significa el término transmedia en relación a distintos proyectos. Escribí en Convergence Culture que las prácticas de convergencia, en el futuro previsible, no serán más que soluciones torpes, intentos hechos con prisas para conectar distintos medios entre sí, mientras intentamos averiguar qué está pasando y qué funciona correctamente.

No existe ninguna fórmula transmediática. Transmedia se refiere a una serie de elecciones que se hacen acerca de cuál es el mejor enfoque para contar una historia particular a un público concreto en un contexto determinado conforme a los recursos disponibles a unos productores concretos. Cuanto más expandamos la definición, más rico será el abanico de opciones que tendremos disponibles. Esto no significa que debamos expandir lo transmediático hasta el punto en que cualquier cosa pueda valer, sino que necesitamos una definición lo suficientemente sofisticada para tratar con todo tipo de ejemplos totalmente diferentes. Lo que quiero excluir de esta definición son los proyectos “típicos” que no están explorando el potencial expandido de lo transmediático, sino que están simplemente adhiriéndose la etiqueta transmedia en las mismas prácticas de franquiciamiento que llevamos viendo durante décadas.

Para promover conversaciones sobre este tema, por favor enviadme vuestras preguntas, críticas, y otros comentarios a hjenkins@usc.edu, e intentaré responderos en futuras publicaciones.

The Democratic Surround: An Interview with Fred Turner (Part Three)

Henry: At a time when schools are also closing their arts programs, it is striking to read about how much importance were placed on children’s arts education during the Cold War era. Can you share with us what the rationale for such programs would have been?

Fred: It goes back to the notion that the personality of the individual mirrored and could actually shape the nation to which they belonged. The adults of the 1950s had seen a generation of Germans fall into line behind Hitler and many thought they were seeing the same thing in Russia with Stalin. Social scientists often explained these trends by arguing that these nations had inculcated authoritarian personality styles in their children. Authoritarian children were rigid, obedient, unable to reason or create independently, and above all, intolerant of those who were different from themselves. Democratic children were meant to be flexible, independent, reasoning, creative and collaborative.

In this context, the arts offered an ideal venue for producing the kinds of children who would grow up to be democratic citizens. The Museum of Modern Art in New York, for instance, not only created arts programs for local children, but took those programs to trade shows and fairs around Europe – particularly in formerly fascist Italy. They built these odd, aquarium-like rooms into which only children and a teacher or two could enter. Parents waited outside, watching their children make art together, through portholes. Foreign and American journalists who saw these environments thought they were marvelous examples of the ways that the next generation could escape the authoritarianism that haunted their parents’ childhood.
Henry: You close the book with the line, “the children of the 1960s did not only overthrow their parent’s expectations. They also fulfilled them.” Explain. What did they overthrow? What did they fulfill? Are there some senses in which the 1960s counterculture was less radical than its parent’s generation?

Fred: For a long time, I think we’ve imagined the years after World War II as a single, long episode of Leave It To Beaver – a colorless world, racially segregated, emotionally repressed, blind to the myriad differences between people, cultures, nations. And we’ve imagined that it was only in the 1960s that Americans freed themselves from its shackles.

As I hope this book shows, that story is at best half-true. The social movements of the 1960s and 1970s had an extraordinary impact on American life. But they could not have happened I think without earlier calls for sexual liberation from Margaret Mead, or for aesthetic democracy from John Cage and Herbert Bayer, or racial diversity from Ruth Benedict. These figures called for the very society that the counterculturalists of the 1960s tried to create: a creative, collaborative, individual-centered polity, designed to help every member achieve personal fulfillment. They also called for kinds of media that would help create that society. The New Communalists in particular knew these calls well and took them to the communes with them. So did the makers of Happenings and Be-Ins.

Along the way though, they also lost track of the radical political vision that animated so many in their parents’ generation. For the members of the Committee for National Morale, the Bauhaus refugees, and even key figures in the Cold War USIA, the goal was not simply to increase individual self-fulfillment. It was to build an America and a world that celebrated its diversity – racial, sexual, religious, political. And it was to do it by bringing together the power of the state, the power of the university, and the power of the corporation.

 

Fig 4 Human Be In Hippie

Hippie at the Human Be-In, January 14, 1967, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Photograph by Gene Anthony©www.wolfgangsvault.com. Used by permission.

 

Within the New Communalist movement at least, the children of the 1960s turned away from embracing racial, sexual, and political difference. And they turned away from the state and to some extent, the university, as well. They turned toward personal style, a politics of expression, and to the world of business. There, I’m afraid, far too many pursued self-fulfillment as if self-fulfillment alone constituted social change. In that sense, the most expressively radical movements of the 1960s helped set the stage for the conservative neoliberal society we inhabit today.

Henry: What could today’s intellectuals learn from their counterparts during this post-war period? Are there virtues we as scholars have lost that are worth reclaiming?

Fred: Courage! And faith in the power of ideas.

I think that one of the legacies of the Vietnam era for our generation has been a fear that engaging with state policy or trying to directly influence public life will somehow harm either our ideas or the state itself. Having seen what happened at CENIS in the 1960s, I very much understand that fear. But I think we’ve taken it too far.

Our ideas, even our most academic ideas, can have a far wider influence that we think. In the 1940s, professional anthropologists’ belief that cultures had modal personality styles became the basis of very popular campaigns for creativity and democracy across the United States and Europe. The idea itself emerged within the research world; it travelled beyond thanks to the determined efforts of figures like Margaret Mead to speak to the wider world in a public idiom.

But it also travelled because Mead and others like her were not afraid to mix it up with people in power. Today we need to do two things I think: first, campus-based writers like you and I need to keep trying to speak outward, to the world beyond the walls, in plain English. Second, we need to work with and if necessary build new kinds of institutions to support the kind of society we want. New social networks, new peer-to-peer collaborations are nowhere near enough. What we need are places where people who are unlike one another can gather and work together, slowly, over time. We are far too entranced with the power of networks today. What we need are not better ways to contact others like ourselves, but better ways to work across our differences. What we need are not better networks, but better institutions.

With that said though, I’m hopeful. If the kind of civic imagination I’ve chronicled in The Democratic Surround could have flourished at the height of the Cold War, it can certainly come back to life today.

 

Fred Turner is an associate professor of communication at Stanford University. He has written several books about media, technology, and American cultural history, including the widely acclaimed From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism.

The Steampunk Scene in Brazil: Strategies of Sociality

One of the pleasures of running this blog is the chance to engage with readers all over the world, who are able to share with me  what’s happening in their countries. The phenomenon I discuss here — from participatory culture and politics to new media literacies to transmedia entertainment — are playing out right now on a global scale. Thanks to these contacts, I have been able to share with my readers new developments in Russia, China, India, Poland,  among many other examples, and I look forward to sharing other such cases in the future. Recently, I have corresponded with Éverly Pegoraro who has been researching the Steampunk scene in Brazil. And after some back and forth, I am happy to be able to share with you today some of his findings — in words and images.

By the way, readers in Brazil may be interested to know that there is now a Portuguese edition of our most recent book — Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture (with Sam Ford and Joshua Green)– which is published there as Cultura  da Conexão: Criando Valor e Significado por Meio da Mídia Propagável. You can learn more at the Aleph website. Thanks so much to our friend, Maurico Mota, for his hard work to make this book approachable to our friends down in Brazil.

 

Steampunk scene in Brazil: strategies of sociality by Éverly Pegoraro  

What motivates steampunks? For some, just nostalgia. For others, daydreams. Amid fans and critics, the fact is that steampunk and other retrofuturistic movements extrapolate elements from the literary imagination as the basis for generating creative urban experiences. A meaningful example of this process may be perceived in Brazil. The steampunk “scene” in Brazil has already a substantial number of participants, spread across 13 states. Steamers, as they are known here amongst fans, participate in many activities.

Each Brazilian state holds a different group of steamers. For the past three years, I’ve had the opportunity to follow one of the most active steamer . groups in Paraná state in southern Brazil, Steampunk Council of Paraná Lodge. In this space, generously provided by Professor Jenkins, I will share some impressions about the research, which is part of my doctorate thesis.

Unlike other countries, Brazilian steamers are organized in lodges (a Masonry inspiration) in each State, which are administered by local councils. All are supported by Steampunk Council. The Steampunk Council’s mission is summarized on their official web site:

The Steampunk Council was conceived with the central idea of ​​democratization, flexibility and sustainability of steampunk movement. It is less an organization and more a concept, on which representatives of steampunk community can create their lodges, as the cells are called from the concept of the Council. [ ... ] The Steampunk Council‘s mission is to provide mechanisms for the dissemination of steampunk culture, provide reference material, promote all sorts of related events, encouraging cultural production of this sort of subjectivity and paying tribute to all those who create and produce material of Steampunk culture in all possible forms. (Available at http://www.steampunk.com.br/conselho-steampunk/)

Each regional group is autonomous to develop their own activities. The Steampunk Council of Paraná Lodge has existed for about four years and is managed by a group of the most active founding members. Besides them, there are many participants, some more regular and active (about 25 people), others only occasional visitors. Adopting the fluid, ephemeral and diversified characteristics of neotribes characterized by Maffesoli (1987), they form a heterogeneous group, across genders, ethnicities and ages (ranging from 14 to 50 years). Members are from different social classes, studying and/or working in many areas, such as writers, musicians, housewives, professors, and service providers.

As organized groups, they have the opportunity to create more permanent social ties than the relative ephemerality of the neotribos. This is a strong characteristic of Paraná’s group. The several proposed activities during the year encourage face to face interaction amongst the participants and create spaces where each discovers and develops artistic, literary, media production skills.

The Steamers’ creations blend the imagery of the nineteenth century, the individual preferences of media culture and the creativity of each participant. The Victorian aesthetic is strongly present in this urban culture, especially in the costumes and in the context of the stories. But steampunk enables a wide dimension of contextualization that are not directly inserted in Victorian Era.

Therefore, the selection of this period is not exclusively due to the visual. Steamers say they seek values ​​from the Victorian imaginary. They want more romanticism, sensibility and personal investment — in other words, less mechanical and utilitarian relationships.

[Steampunk] refers to a time when people cared more about delicacy, gentleness, there had been a different culture, a more educated one. I find it interesting to extrapolate the technology of this period and advance it as if it had been nothing after, to increase the capacity of a technology that actually has not developed much. I find it interesting to explore more things that sometimes were not explored in the past. (Brazilian steamer)   What fascinates me is the Victorian aesthetic, the well done style, with the smallest details, it has the seriousness of the men, the femininity of the women, the clothes […] the court society, the social rules. And there is also the convenience of the technology how we have today, the clothes are not made ​​by hand, not everything is very expensive, we have the benefits of communication, medicine, entertainment, movie theaters. (Brazilian steamer)

 

We see the old aesthetic is beautiful, more farfetched. A time when people had more free time to take care of themselves, but the values ​​were different. It’s interesting you deal with an older aesthetic, but with current values​​, especially for women. The corset is nice, but nobody wants to live as it was before. So, it’s cool to have that aesthetic, an aesthetic that people will look strange, for it’s old, but with values […] the female steampunk characters are not housewives, all professions in steampunk can be applied for men or for women.(Brazilian steamer)

The interviewees’ statements above indicate an attempt to retrieve the values ​​and behaviors of an idealized past. Such desires suggest the search for a less rationalist and mechanical subjectivity and the need to invest more deeply in relationships.

Homi K. Bhabha (2011) offers some interesting clues to consider the social articulations that occur in these inter-spaces of difference and minorities, in which there are complex processes of negotiation and cultural hybridisms. He conceives such cultural hybridism as a third space that enables new positions of meaning and representation. The negotiations that take place in these spaces allow hybrid agencies that do not seek cultural supremacy. Such movements are articulated in the “arts of the present”, defined by the author as the performances by which different minority group elaborates strategies of survival, identity formation, political contestation, social relations, and aesthetic manifestations. The steamers below talk about why they participate in this urban culture:

We’re putting a question to rethink who we are, it’s not to think who we may be in the future, it’s to rethink who we are today. Which were our real choices in the past that brought us here, and based on which choices we could have made. That’s what draws me into steampunk. (Brazilian steamer)

 

I think it’s a fascination for a time that is chronologically so close, but so radically different from our reality. (Brazilian steamer writer)

 

I do not think the nineteenth century so far, not so different. […] Over the past 200 years, more things happened than between 1400 and 1600. […] The planet got smaller because of communication technology, for better and for worse. […] The nineteenth century, for being so close, is a rich context to be described and to criticize the current moment. What is science fiction? It’s to put into perspective our reality through the accentuation of problems and defects from that historical moment. (Brazilian steamer writer)

Freedom of expression […] It’s a hobby to get away a little bit of our ordinary everyday, encouraging people to do something different. It’s for the pleasure [...] to meet different people, search new experiences. (Brazilian steamer)

Brazillian steamers’ strategies of visuality and sociality are acts of resistance to contemporary spatiotemporal compressions, providing an inter-space of temporality and hybrid culture, which combines different historical periods. However, steampunk hasn’t derived from a pure and simple import of Europeanised customs, which, in turn, would result in similar actions to the Brazilian Belle Époque. Neither has it intended to celebrate a tradition originated from English distant past of ladies and gentlemen.

Besides the fascination with the Victorian imaginary, what unites Brazilian steamers, no doubt, is the science fiction in its various products, questioning the inventions that marked the transition to the modern world, especially in science and technology. This identification is made clear in the narratives constructed individually and collectively by the steamers. Some seek to insert elements of  history and Brazilian literature, as in the following example:

I tried to imagine how it would be a world in which the Baron [Mauá – Brazilian historical character] was even more influent, decisive to the directions of our country. So, I thought that the Abolitionist Campaign would be more successful with, let’s say, not only the prohibition of the slave trade in the 1850’s, but with the release of all slaves and with the attraction of foreign and specialized labor and, most importantly, a world in which there had not been the Paraguayan War, what would’ve stopped the waste of lives and money we had in reality. (Brazilian steamer writer)

The events that promote steampunk and encourage sociality among the participants are the main feature of the Brazilian group. Aiming to give visibility to their initiatives, steamers often attend events of other youth cultures, such as Victorian picnics (an event that has become a reference there). Each activity promoted by Steampunk Council of Paraná Lodge has a specific theme, in honor of historical characters and events, often from a specifically Brazilian context. They do not have a fixed schedule, but each event usually involves music, dance, literature and individual performances. The three major events promoted by Paraná steamers are named as the Steampunk Picnics, Steam Coffee (In Portuguese, Cafés a Vapor) and the workshops to learn how to customize clothing and objects.

The Steampunk Picnics are annual events held at parks in Curitiba, capital of Paraná state. The steamers enjoy the sunny Saturday or Sunday afternoons to do the “steampunk scene”, where they go dressed in their costumes, play games and participate on sweepstakes, gymkhanas and photographic sessions.

Convescote Steampunk, março de 2012. Curitiba, Paraná, BrazilConvescote Steampunk, março de 2012. Curitiba, Paraná, Brazil  

 

Convescote Steampunk, março de 2012. Curitiba, Paraná, Brazil_2 The customization workshops occur every two or three months (there is no strict regularity) in Curitiba. They are also used as a shop window for steamers to exhibit their artistic abilities. They are artisans, designers, stylists and photographers who take the opportunity to promote their work and, in some cases, sell them.

After posting on their blog (http://pr.steampunk.com.br/) and on the group’s profile on Facebook (in Portuguese: Loja Paraná do Conselho Steampunk), the interested ones meet on a Saturday afternoon to learn basic techniques of steampunk styling. The workshops are taught by the older group members or by some guest who has a specific skill that can be useful in customizing clothing and accessories. During an afternoon, someone is highly unlikely to finish the process. But the steamers themselves make clear that the workshop will explain the basic technique. It is up to each person to develop (and even enhance) what was taught.

During workshops, Brazilian ......During workshops, Brazilian steamers discuss alternatives to materialize their imaginative ability

The workshops are characterized as a meaningful moment of sociality among the steamers, because there is sharing, exchange of ideas and interaction among them, while they discuss alternatives to materialize what they imagine. Tutors seek to encourage creativity by presenting a variety of objects made at home. The “students” identify themselves with these possibilities and discuss alternatives to adapt them to their purposes. Tutors share the difficulties to develop the techniques, aiming to ease the situation for those who are beginners.

Workshop to Make Mini and Top HatsWorkshop to make mini and top hats

Customizations are used in the practice of steamplay (adaptation of the term cosplay to the steampunk universe), when steamers perform their steampunk character, constructing their identities and embodying their clothing and accessories as well as their historical and social context. Public performances happen in the events that Steampunk Council of Paraná Lodge promotes or participates. Several factors influence the character creation, such as preferences and hobbies of each participant or their ability to afford the steamplay.

Steam Coffees are evening events. As an example, the night of Steam Coffee: The steampunk evolution (Tribute to Charles Darwin) began with the performance of a traditional tribal dance, created by two dancers for the event. According to one of them, the ethnic tribal dance joins elements and techniques of folk dances from around the world. The steampunk concept appears on the mix of industrial music and the aesthetic of the costumes.

 

Musical performance at Brazilian steampunk eventMusical performance at Brazilian steampunk event

Steampunk Event in CuritibaSteampunk event in Curitiba, Paraná, Brazil

Performance of a a Traditional Tribal DancePerformance of a traditional tribal dance, created to a Brazilian steampunk event  

Participants of a Brazilian Steampunk EventParticipants of a Brazilian steampunk event    

During the event, the participants had fun with a steampunk musical repertoire of a steamer DJ who shared music videos. Some steamers shared a steampunk tale written by one of the participants of Curitiba’s group, who is also a writer. Indeed, the practice of writing tales, editing magazines and creating all kind of steampunk media products (even if they’re not mainstream, but only released on the internet) is common among steamers. As pointed out by Jenkins (2010), these informal learning communities encourage participants to develop writing skills and styles as well as to build confidence in their own abilities before entering in the professional market.

Members of Steampunk Council of Paraná Lodge share a wide range of cultural interests drawn from the content of media culture products over which they claim a sense of ownership and mastery. Practices similar to those discussed by de Certeau (1998) and Jenkins (2010) in terms of bricolage or “poaching.” Steamers appropriate different science fiction books, movies, comics and RPG games, but giving them new meanings, expanding the stories, deepening their interpretations of the characters and reimagining the story world. The creations may even suggest impossible mixtures through the insertion of fictional or historical characters from different periods in the same narrative.

Similarly to what Jenkins (2010) describes, such practices involve a form of aesthetic perversion of the traditional limits imposed by the dominant cultural hierarchies which outline the desirable and undesirable cultures. Thus, they build a cultural and social identity through appropriation and modification of cultural products.

The first Brazilian steampunk photo roman – Curitiba’s steamers are pride to point out it as the first one – is a striking example. Steampunk Carnivale[1]photo roman (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ehm8RJ8KVwo) is a collective production involving performances by the various members of Steampunk Council of Paraná Lodge, who customized their costumes and accessories and collaborated to generate the plot. The work – which combined science ficton and intrigue — was shared via Youtube.

Despite the understandable limitations of an amateur production, this photo roman can be characterized as contributing to an urban culture that has taken shape around a common interest in steampunk retrofuturism with the production and exchange of such products acting as part of what Thornton (1995) describes as a micromedia circuit. What matters here is not so much the aesthetic merits of the community’s productions or their comparison with more mainstream cultural products but rather the social and cultural dimensions of participants interactions with each other.

The cultural products that emerge from the steamers’ appropriation and remixing practices do not always fully cohere. Participants continually negotiate their relationship to the genre and to pre-existing culture materials according to their most immediate interests. As an example, note the following explanations of two steamers of Curitiba:

I really like gothic, so I wanted to make a gothic steamplay. I’ve brought a little bit of everything: I have keys, the belt that has potions, also weapons, which were made in the workshops. [ ... ] I’ve watched the movie The Crucible (and also read the book), and I’ve been writing the story for me. [...] Harry Potter has also influenced a little bit, so that my wand is from Harry Potter, it is not customized, I did not want to change it. (Brazilian steamer)   One of my ideas is inspired by Assassin‘s Creed games, which there are murders [...] it is like a secret society, fighting against the old Knights Templar. (Brazilian steamer)

This is how steamers – between pirates and nomads (Jenkins, 2010) – create their performances and products in an experience that is both individual and collective, within a vast network of connections that constitute this participatory culture.

 

Brazilian steamer at Steam Coffee. Curitiba, Paraná, Brazil, 2012.Brazilian steamer at Steam Coffee. Curitiba, Paraná, Brazil, 2012

 

Brazilian steamersBrazilian steamers

Steamers start from the media culture products that most interest them and become producers of new texts including fictional narratives, photo romans, illustrations, photographic essays, customized objects, crafts, dance and music performances, fashion and accessories, magazines, events. These acts of cultural expression are informed by two competing logics: the Do It Yourself (DIY) aesthetic from the punk movement and the contemporary conception of Do It Together (DIT) as it has taken shape around the Maker movement. One emphasizes individual, the other collective production. Thus, even though DIY logic prevails, the premise is surrounded by a mutual aid policy: each steamer helps the others with his skills in making products and accessories, embodying the DIT logic of participatory culture.

This idea is summarized in the interview with one of the forerunners in Paraná, Carlos Alberto Machado:

People sometimes send e-mail asking: ‘do you sell steampunk clothing?’. ‘We are not selling, what we do is teach you how to do,’ I say. [ ... ] Paraná is the state that is promoting more workshops. And the workshops are bringing a lot of people and a lot of good things. There is the shyest person who ends up getting more outgoing, and makes friends. [ ...] We do not call it as a class, the idea is not to teach you the ‘abc’. The idea is to encourage the participants to bring things and the group teaches the group. [...] They bring this knowledge and show them what they do to encourage the participants to try to do something similar. (Brazilian steamer)

Thus, the interest in steampunk by Curitiba’s group is structured through the desire to interact and be part of a community that shares broader cultural and social interests. Sociality grows from mutual interests, reflecting the group’s particular interpretative conventions as they are shaped by individual and collective acts of story telling, performance, and cultural production. While there is a strong emphasis here on self-creation, we should recall that all of this activity occurs within a consumerist context, where critical interactions between man and technology coexist with leisure, hedonism, and consumption. Their retrofuturist imaginings emerge from a particular local context and get circulated through a micromedia circuit.

Brazilian steampunk reinserts questions that turn away from traditional political participation. Steampunk encourages its participants to return again and again to the core question: “what if had it been different?”. Besides, creating a story of an invented past is a way to discuss current and relevant issues. It’s not an attempt to return to past, not about engaging with an exotic foreignness, but an inter-space that mixes criticism, socio-temporal concern, hedonism, entertainment. More than the fascination for the historical period of Victorian Age itself, what prevails is the will of the steamers to recreate their own fictitious historical memory, which is strongly impacted by media culture.

 

Éverly Pegoraro is a Brazilian university lecturer and PhD candidate in Communication and Culture at State University of Midwestern Paraná, Brazil . His doctoral research deals with the relationship between visuality and sociality in steampunk. He is the leader of the Communication and Sociocultural Interfaces research group. Contact:everlyp@yahoo.com.br ou https://www.facebook.com/everly.pegoraro.

 

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Certeau, Michel. de. (1998). A invenção do cotidiano. Artes de fazer [The practice of everyday life].(3rd ed.). Petrópolis, Brazil: Vozes. Conselho Steampunk. http://www.steampunk.com.br/.

Deleuze, Gilles; Guattari, Felix. (1995a). Mil Platôs. [Thousand Plateaus]. Vol. 1. São Paulo: Ed. 34. ______. Mil Platôs. (1995b). [Thousand Plateaus].Vol. 2. São Paulo: Ed. 34.

Jenkins, Henry. (2010). Piratas de textos.Fans, culturaparticipativa y televisión.[Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture]. Barcelona: Paidós.

Maffesoli, Michel. (1987). O tempo das tribos.O declínio do individualismo nas sociedades de massa. [The time of tribes.The decline of individualism in Mass Society]. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Forense—Universitária.

Thornton, Sarah. (1995). Club cultures: Music, media andsubcultural capital. Cambridge, England: Polity.

 

[1] Although the name of the photo roman refers to Carnival, one of Brazil’s major festive periods, the theme has no direct reference to the subject. Curitiba is not known for its Carnival tradition. Besides, in the days of this festivity, there is an alternative event for those who do not enjoy Carnival: Zombie Walk. As the organizers of the event use to say: “in Curitiba, Carnival is a horror”.