Mapping the Pragmatic Imagination: An Interview with Ann M. Pendleton-Jullian (Part 1)

Every so often, you are introduced to a person and by the time the first conversation is completed, you know you have met someone who is going to be a vital part of your intellectual community for years to come. This is what happened to me when John Seely Brown, AKA JSB (of Xerox Parc fame) introduced me to Ann M. Pendleton-Jullian.  Ann is an architect and urban planner, currently at the Knowlton School at Ohio State University, but she is so much more than that.

Like JSB, with whom she sometimes collaborates on research and writing projects, she has a profoundly interdisciplinary mind. They are both fearless about pursuing their interests where-ever they lead them and they consistently ignore divides between science/technology and humanities/culture in doing so. They are  also both people with a pragmatic approach — they want to identify the most compelling problems of our time and work with others to find innovative and meaningful solutions that make a difference on the ground.

In Ann’s case, problem-solving increasingly involves a design process grounded in the concept of world-building as it has been shaped by the realms of speculative fiction, production design, and participatory planning. Every time I meet her, Ann describes to me new projects she is undertaking around the world, all of it growing out of a belief that humans have the creative agency to make a difference in their own lives if they are given the freedom and resources to do so.

The two have  been working together to produce a profoundly important project, Design Unbound.  As I’ve discussed it with Ann across the past few years, this project  has taken a variety of different shapes — it is epic in scope, sprawling in content, and totally original in its bold synthesis of ideas coming from all different directions.   As Ann explains in response to my first question below, the project has required them to constantly reflect on what kind of thing a book is in the 21st century, what it means to read and publish such an object, and how a book can be the beginning as well as the end point of a creative and intellectual process. We still do not know the final shape this project will take, but along the way, they have put together what they are calling a “single,” a stand alone booklet-length essay on The Pragmatic Imagination.

Given that some strands of my own current research centers around what we call The Civic Imagination, I’ve enjoyed many conversations with Ann about the value of imagination in confronting real world problems and so I am using the publication of The Pragmatic Imagination as an excuse for an extended public discussion with her about those aspects of their project. The result was something unique — certainly not an interview in the sense I normally feature here.  She took each of my questions as a prompt for an extended essay which spells out many core aspects of her approach and along the way she provides us a vivid model for how she thinks and works. We might see the whole exchange as two polymaths thinking about thinking.  I am so excited to be able to share her responses with my readers over the next two weeks, hoping that they inspire others to think more deeply about the value of combining play/imagination/speculation/design with problem-solving.

You can learn more about The Pragmatic Imagination here. 

You describe The Pragmatic Imagination as a “single.” Can you explain a bit more why you are releasing this segment in advance of the book proper and how it fits into your larger project? What does it mean to think of Design Unbound as a “system of books” rather than as a self-contained volume?

Pragmatic Imagination is the last chapter – chapter 19 – of the larger project Design Unbound. Designing for Emergence in a White Water World. In a sense, it is the generative idea but we had to write the entire ‘book’ to discover that.

We began this work five years ago as a project to answer the challenge of a colleague of ours. We were at an Aspen Institute roundtable that was focused on how new technological tools could be used to influence diplomacy around the world. The dialogue ranged from conversations around drug wars to weaponized computer viruses. One participant, in a moment of exasperation said something like ‘the world has just come together too quickly to make sense of it,’ and our colleague John Rendon responded that the problem is we are using an old tool set and that it was time to develop a new one. We had already begun work on what would become Design Unbound, and JR’s challenge became an interesting provocation.

Design Unbound set out to define a new tool set for the world we find ourselves in – a world that is rapidly changing, increasingly interconnected, and where, because of this increasing interconnectivity, everything is more contingent on everything else happening around it – much more so than ever before. We characterize this as a white water world in reference to white water river kayaking, where navigation – often survival, even – depends upon understanding how to skill up for dynamic contexts in which things change and emerge without respite. One can see this as a difficult context or as an adventure. We chose the latter. The super interesting thing about whitewater rivers is that they are navigable, just not under the same terms. They require very different tools, skills, dispositions, and even epistemological frames.

Design Unbound is a tool set for having agency in today’s world, whether it is personal agency or agency to make progress on complex problems. It is about being able to navigate this white water world and/or to influence it – to work in it and even on it. The kinds of tools it presents are not the tools of a carpenter or coder but tools that are directly associated with a new kind of design that is an offspring of complexity science married to architecture.

We begin in architecture because principally architecture is about designing contexts in which things happen. It is an ambidextrous endeavor in which the social and technical come together to both hold and shape peoples’ relationships to each other and to the world. From a room, a house, a complex ensemble of buildings, cities, landscapes, and territorial systems of occupation, it is only one more level of abstraction to imagine design, unbound from its material thingness and from its disciplinary boundaries, set free to work on designing contexts as complex systems/ecologies.

These might be physical contexts (smart cities), institutional contexts (education), political contexts (making progress on networked terrorism), policy contexts (poverty, homelessness, environmental vulnerabilities), or cultural contexts (the ethics of data science). These contexts can accommodate well-practiced relationships and behaviors, or they can open up new possibilities of exchange, interaction and meaning creation.

Complexity science gives us a new lens through which to view the world – viewing that leads to action. It is an epistemological lens just as Newton’s and Darwin’s were. We don’t see it as replacing those first two (gravity still works, last time I checked, and species still adapt and evolve), but, instead, as adding a third way to make sense of things, especially today when simple cause and effect do not seem to give us answers that stick, or solutions that can adapt to emerging events.

This third lens or window draws deeply from complexity theory and specifically from the perspective of ecology science – from understanding the complex dynamics of ecosystems. A Newtonian window looks at the world as described by physics. A Darwinian window focuses on processes and optimization. The complexity/ecological window looks at the world as a context – not a thing – and that context is a space of dynamic exchanges between all of the components.

These exchanges can be material in nature. They can be social in nature – exchanges influenced by our social systems (like economics and politics). And then there are all those things that are bound up in the dynamic exchange of ideas – the ideas that motivate us, the stories we build identity and culture through. We think of these as three registers or ecologies for this new window: material, social and mental ecologies of exchanges.

This is where Design Unbound begins. It then uses case studies and reflection on those case studies to present a series of tools that can be used to understand the world today and act with agency in it, and for impact on it.

Beginning the project that would become Design Unbound five years ago, it has gone through a series of different ‘completions’. We actually thought it was finished twice before. The first soft publication was around 225 pages; the second just shy of 375 pages and this last – ‘last’, meaning it’s done – manuscript has just weighed in at 800 pages. But more importantly, design unbound from thingness and disciplinary boundaries became not only the framing concept but also the way we worked. As the book became its own project, it transgressed more and more into other fields. This means, first of all, that the audience for this system of books is going to be broad and diverse.

So we decided to divide Design Unbound into five books for two reasons. Firstly, people read differently today. Shorter attention spans and multi-tasking means that we are often reading several things simultaneously. I am certainly reading in smaller chunks and as I do so, something I am reading in one area might get stuck to something I am reading in another: global affairs with landscape ecology with fiction with . . . By stuck, I mean that they overlap on each other in my mind, creating interesting correspondences. So I see reading in smaller chunks as being full of possibility. Publishing five books of smaller size makes it easier to focus on one part of the larger work at a time; to come and go cognitively.

Secondly, because Design Unbound draws from a vast array of domains: from architecture, science and technology, philosophy, cinema, music, literature and poetry, the military, even, different books within the larger system of books will resonate with different reading audiences. DesUnbound aims to blend a polymathic reservoir of thought seamlessly with real life examples of successful design and action, but it does not expect all readers to be polymaths. So, from architects to people involved re-conceiving higher education to the public policy or defense and intelligence communities, each audience will find different books most relevant. Each of the five books has its own narrative arc within the larger arc of the full book. They each have a different framing chapter and a different set of inter-related tools.

For a while, we thought of Design Unbound a little like a manual, and we were using that analogy until a friend of ours called it a ‘system of books.’ We were having trouble describing succinctly what it was – more than a book and yet not a series in the sense of being ‘serial’ where coherence depends upon the way short installments or successive pieces of something follow one on another in a linear fashion.

Instead, DesUnbound’s coherence is dependent on the way the different books and their chapters interact with each other to create an aggregate whole. They can be shuffled and grouped differently, yet still do the same kind of work. If we think of systems: in biology, a system is an assemblage of organs or related tissues that are concerned with the same function – their coherence is given by the fact that they are all working towards the same thing. Similarly, DesUnbound is an assemblage of books and chapters (tools and lenses) that are concerned with the same function – designing for agency. In astronomy, a system is a collection of celestial bodies that act together according to certain laws of physics – our solar system, for example.

DesUnbound is a collection of books and chapters that act together according to certain concepts (not exactly laws) around the entanglement of agency and imagination. And In ecology, an ecosystem is an assemblage of components that form a complex whole by the manner in which they interact with each other and with their environment. They interact by participating in material and social exchanges. DesUnbound is an assemblage of books and chapters that are meant to interact with each other, through how different tools use other tools, creating new capacities that either tool alone does not hold. So calling it a ‘system of books’ began to work for us.


As a system of five books, DesUnbound can be read together or separately. Like a reference manual or a vinyl analog album, one can leave and return to it, picking up the needle and placing it in the groove of a specific tune or skipping around among songs. Different books will probably interest different people, although all of the books together create a rich integrated tool set. The five books present a set of ten knowledge-, skill- or method-based instruments for acting through design and two meta-tools that do work of a higher order, at the level of the ecology of the project.


These tools, separately, and together draw on Pragmatic Imagination’s conceptual framework. But they also instrumentalize the pragmatic imagination. They depend upon the imagination for fuel just as muscles working physical tools depend upon food as fuel. But they also convert the imagination into work in the real world, just as muscles convert energy from food into work. As the last chapter of DesUnbound, Pragmatic Imagination is a framework for the productive entanglement of imagination and action that supports agency in the world.

We have called Pragmatic Imagination a single in reference to the music industry. I am a great fan of the television series Nashville. It and real work on DesUnbound began around the same time. So I will admit that this influenced the thought at the time.

Like a single released before an album, Pragmatic Imagination is meant to preview the larger work, introducing concepts and themes that anticipate, but also encapsulate, the larger project. And also like a single, we feel it can stand alone because of the way in which it anticipates and encapsulates the larger project with a singular coherence.

At one point we called it a prequel but that made less sense because it is not a single part of a linear story. It is part of the whole story. It carries the critical themes. But I will say that, as a theory, the irony is that it is less like the tool-oriented chapters – the more pragmatic chapters. But it sets the stage for them. It is the foundation, the dna, the primary autotroph, of DesUnbound. The kind of world we are navigating now, the kinds of problems we want to have agency on, demand a new tool set in which imagination is a not an embellishment or adjacency to real work in the world, but the keystone capacity upon which all other work depends because it advances understanding (empathy even) and it drives novelty. As a muscle of agility, it is necessary in whitewater.


Ann Pendleton‐Jullian is an architect, writer, and educator of international standing whose work explores the interchange between architecture, landscape, culture, science, and technology within complex contexts. She is currently Full Professor and former director of the Knowlton School of Architecture at Ohio State University, distinguished Visiting Professor out of the President’s Office at Georgetown University, and periodically co-teaches world building studios at USC’s School of Cinema.

ApJ’s projects range in scale and scope from things to systems of action. Notable projects demonstrating this range are: a house for the astronomer Carl Sagan and his wife; award winning prototypical bioclimatic houses – one for Tenerife; various winning or placing competition entries including a New Congress Hall in Valparaiso, Chile, and an urban design project for the Miguelete River basin sponsored by the Municipality of Montevideo. Much of her recent work focuses on empowerment and economic development through various projects including the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh and an eight-village ecosystem conceived around rural craft tourism in Guizhou province in China. Currently she is working on a new Jesuit University for Eastern Africa, including its pedagogical model, the future re-imagining of the Pardee RAND Graduate School of Public Policy, and a house in an environmentally sensitive part of the Pocono Mountains. ApJ has five authored books and portfolios, including: The Road That Is Not a Road and the Open City, Ritoque, Chile by MIT Press (’96); Games for Shanghai (’08) published by CA Press in Shanghai; and Design Education and Innovation Ecotones (’09).








Cinema and Life Interpenetrated: A Conversation with Anand Pandian (Part Two)

This is part two of a conversation between Ritesh Mehta, my former student, and Anand Pandian, author of Reel World: An Anthropology of Creation.


Cinema and Life Interpenetrated: A Conversation with Anand Pandian (Part Two) by Ritesh Mehta


RM: Going back to your table of contents, I think that one of the most valuable contributions of your book is the methodology and approach—which I also attempt to employ in my dissertation—of trying to see the phenomenon from the point of view of your subjects, but as you point out towards the end, return it to a universal sense so that the distinction between subject and object disappears. I found that extremely valuable. I wouldn’t be as drawn to your book if you had a table of contents that was more concrete.


AP: None of us would be drawn to any film if it insisted incessantly upon the subject-object distinction. Cinema as a mode of experience depends precisely on the confounding of that distinction between self and other. There would be no affective involvement in something like cinema if it were not possible to undo that divide. And the challenge with this book was to find a way of acknowledging that, and writing in a spirit of fealty or fidelity to that essential quality of the phenomenon, rather than, say, domesticating it or reorganizing it in the name of a knowledge that ultimately would have very little to do with the nature of the thing itself.


RM: There’s a way to do fieldwork where you subsume your observations under the tyranny of concepts, and I really appreciate that you haven’t done that. At the same time, I love how you’ve woven in a broad range of literature throughout every chapter. It’s not even literature as much as, seemingly, an inventory of influences that you’ve interwoven your observations with. They connect the daily life of cinema production that you observed with things that have already been written. I appreciate that.


AP: It was important to me to pass through the book with a certain spirit of naiveté. That is to say, could I sort of wend my way through the materials and through the story in a manner that would allow new possibilities of thinking and perception to emerge, moment by moment, rather than having everything determined too heavily from the outset? I am quite drawn to the idea of the essay as itself a kind of narrative mode of peregrination. There are many literary critics who have commented on the ways in which the essay as a narrative form might be understood as a kind of walking in writing. It was important to me to see if I could write this book in such a fashion. That is to say, could I disarm myself sufficiently with what I have at my disposal as a critic, as a knower, to really allow these circumstances to act on me, to provoke unexpected questions, associations, sometimes even leaps that may or may not be quite intelligible, again as a way of being responsive to the openness of the medium.


RM: That’s great and makes a lot of sense. But from an actual writing standpoint, though, how did you do it? You were writing throughout, I’m assuming. When you bring in Hirokazu Miyazaki [note: the anthropologist, not the Studio Ghibli founder], for example, in the chapter “Hope,” did you plan in advance that in this chapter you will bring in Miyazaki, or did you come across him unexpectedly? How did you decide to weave in the quotations you bring in from your inventory of influences?


AP: I would say that this was a very curious aspect of this process. The whole period of researching and writing this book was one in which I had to really confront my own tendencies to be overly controlling and to recognize that a lot of the charge of not only things like cinema but of these dimensions of experience—of Art, Rhythm, or even of Fate—has precisely to do with the sense of being caught up in something and you don’t know where it’s going.


So the process of writing this book was essentially a series of experiments in seeing to what extent I could allow this spirit to infect the way that I wrote. Could I set up some set of initial conditions and then just follow them through, regardless of where they led? Like that chapter on Desire, for example, I can’t even tell you how it struck me that it might be interesting to have a chapter as a sentence that never ended, a chapter like a scream. It felt intuitively like the right way of proceeding, given that the director that I was writing about here was like this. That in writing that way, I might be able to reach that idiosyncratic texture in that particular situation. A lot of the writing got worked out as I went along. I think one value in thinking about writing as a kind of walking or a kind of movement is that the analogy forces us to take seriously that with every step, with every movement, you can only work with where you are. And I think there is something liberating in that, in knowing that there are any number of things that we do, that unfold step by step, literally, rather than require everything be foretold at the outset. And indeed, that’s precisely the nature of the process as I found it here. It was an incredibly improvisational way of proceeding that I saw with these filmmakers.


RM: Is this improvisational style with initial conditions a new approach for this book, or have you tried that with your prior writing as well?


AP: I think I’ve probably always done it. I think at some level we do always do it. I think there are any number of circumstances in which we make the most of where we are. We really have no other better choice. But because in this circumstance I was writing about something that was so insistently made that way, so insistently of the moment, I wanted to try to do it more deliberately. I have learned through the process of writing that to try to work in this manner can actually deepen your insight into what you’re writing about.


Again, what are the initial conditions here? One is trying to make sense of an incredibly chaotic and improvisational process. How is it that things keep appearing in a non premeditated manner over and over and over again? This is such an open process that nonetheless results in finished films that, mind you, do fail a lot but then sometimes don’t. How do we account for the genesis or the production of order, of integrity, of unity through such spontaneity? John Dewey speaks of experience as qualitative unity. How do we make sense of the fact that things like cinema with a qualitative unity of their own can emerge from such apparently chaotic processes? Perhaps the whole book itself—I’m thinking now as you’re asking me—became a kind of experiment in trying to make sense of that problem through the very process of its writing.


RM: In which case I really admire your mind. I just find that if I had to write something like this, I don’t know if I could let myself improvise too much. If I were involved with my field notes, I don’t know if I could spontaneously work in quotations. I find it admirable that you were being experimental, writing with naiveté, as you said.


AP: This is a book that has about 110,000 words. That means that there are at least 110,000 spaces between words, any one of which is a point of entry, a point of insertion. The book as a medium is extraordinarily discontinuous. We invest books retrospectively with a kind of coherence and integrity and closedness that they actually don’t have because they are rife with openings. And that was again, one thing that was interesting about entering into cinema not from the standpoint of finished films but from the standpoint of bits and pieces, some of which were never finished. So I think that the process of doing the research was one of having to attune myself to the necessary unfinishedness of things.


RM: That’s wonderful because you’ve written this book very deeply from a personal methodological perspective. So I feel like your understanding of your own subject and your understanding of what you wanted your writing to be has been beautifully interwoven with your actual observations and findings. I have hardly heard people describe their approach your way.


I feel like people bring other frameworks to writing. For example, a lot of the literature that I cited in my dissertation was from the field of production studies, which can be described as an offshoot of cultural studies, which is very influential in communication. When these scholars talk about the film industry in Los Angeles or other parts of the world, the frameworks they bring are not about continuity, etc. They’re about difference, they’re about conflict, they’re about power structures. And those frameworks inform what they see in the field.


AP: That’s right.


RM: And I find that a little bit misleading, like putting the cart before the horse. If you are invested in being critical about the material conditions of labor and people “below the line,” which is a very legitimate concern, if you bring those frameworks and concepts with you to the field, chances are that you’ll find that. That’s been one of my critiques of production studies. Methodologically, I am also like you, invested in interpretation before critique, and I think that a lot of the work that I have seen, other ethnographies even—e.g., Vicki Mayer’s ethnographic study of television producers below the line—I found myself not being able to relate to that at all because Mayer brings with her the definition of labor as a sort of an exploitative surplus that benefits political economies. So I think that methodology determines a lot of what we’re going to write about.


AP: Yes, absolutely. I should emphasize that there is a critical project here. There are problems and it is important to be able to find our way around them, to find openings, to rework them, remake them, undo them. All these things are important. But there are some really interesting and important methodological questions around how it is we do that. My disappointment with some of the work in cinema studies has precisely to do with what you’re talking about. The problems are defined so tightly and so straightforwardly that the work can do nothing more but to reiterate the existence of those problems.


Whereas I think that one can approach the kind of texts that we write, the work that we do, as not simply representations of a situation that is out there that needs to be re-described as accurately as possible but instead perhaps as pragmatic interventions in their own right. As modes of imaginative storytelling, as occasions in which we take a set of conditions and find the right circumstances or lines that might confound them. That we begin with a structure and find a point where it begins to fall apart. I am really compelled by the idea—Deleuze and Guattari speak of it in terms of the molar and molecular—that anything can be conceived of in both overwhelmingly molar or block-like terms on the one hand and simultaneously in terms of those possibly infinite lines of flight that undo the consistency and integrity of those block-like formations. As a critic, and I do think of myself as one, as a critical observer of various dimensions of contemporary cultural life, I feel that what I can do best is to seize upon some of those lines of flight or escape, and ride with them a bit, and to show that something really isn’t as integral as its power-laden purveyors might make it out to be. That’s the kind of critical project this book pursues.


To put it very concretely, I try throughout the book to actually undo my own authority as a scholarly observer. I deliberately confound the clarity of my own analytical understanding of what’s happening, not to write a deliberately obscure book, not to write a book that puts forward deliberately confusing messages, but instead to ask the question: “Can we arrive at a more creative and possibly more radical form of critical practice by disarming ourselves a bit, and learning to think with concepts, ideas, circumstances, challenges that are utterly foreign to the ones that we take for granted”? If the purpose is to pluralize our modes of analysis, to open up our capacities of perception, to expand our critical vocabularies, that requires a more vulnerable observer. And a vulnerable observer is someone who must enter into a scene without the ability to wrap it all up with what they came with.


RM: I have a lot of empathy for that approach. For my dissertation, I was responding to the production studies scholars by trying to show that my subjects, who were student filmmakers in film school in Los Angeles, had more agency than what the critical scholars would deem them to have. But I had to go in with that hypothesis and try to see whether various instances of interaction and utterance during the filmmaking process confirmed, denied, or added another dimension to those mini hypotheses, which would then lead to my interpretation and grounded theory. However, if I went in thinking that student filmmakers are going to be churned out by film school into the media industries as future labor, then I would just be using one more set of subjects as an example that confirms production studies’ larger critical project. To me, that’s not the way to do things. That feels very disingenuous.


AP: When a commercial filmmaker says that so much of the force of cinema, so much of the action of cinema, so much of the pull or charge of cinema depends on the extent to which it can leave the viewer asking, “What comes next?”, “What comes next?”, “What comes next?”, what do we do with that? Do we see that as a straightforward moment of manipulation, of pulling the strings, of having these subjects of cinema come along with those strings? Or can we at all take seriously that sliver of indeterminacy that the question holds, the sense that we may not actually know what comes next. This is the value of thinking of cinema as something that is woven together, something that is full of gaps and fissures, moments when one truly does not know what comes next, rather than always anticipating and projecting forward to what will come next, the more conventional, analytical, suturing move that robs that moment and that question of any kind of potency.


RM: Going back, again, to the Table of Contents (you see, I am obsessed), is there a blurring across the modes of experience? Is there interpenetration across these “modes of experience”? So, does your chapter on Desire, for example, about the screenwriting process, also contain examples of what you call Imagination?


AP: Of course.


RM: So how do you decide to frame one set of examples and experiences of production under Desire and others under Imagination? How did you make those decisions?


AP: Do you want me to make sense of why the chapters have the kind of framing that they do?


RM: Yes. So how is the chapter in which you talk about the idea of Dreams—coming up with story ideas—is that different from how you understand Imagination playing out?


AP: I knew for a long time, even when I was doing the research for this book, that it would follow the process. I knew it would have to begin near the beginning and end near the end. I knew I was invested enough in the trajectory of the filmmaking process as a process, that it would have to track these stages.


But I didn’t want these chapters to amount to nothing more than “this is how this is done.” For me, what’s at stake in this work is not simply how films are made but how their making comes to matter for how it is that we live. And what I found is that there is an organic relationship between the kinds of experience that occasion cinema and the kinds of experience that films make possible. So, what I was trying to do with the material was to find a way of moving across that line: literally moving from one side of the screen to the other. Can we say something about the way in which films work, the way in which they work on us, by trying to make sense of how it is that these materials become invested with those capacities?


So, why Dreams? Because this director is constantly talking about dreams. He was really very Freudian in his thinking. He was constantly interpreting dreams. And it turns out that there is a very dreamlike quality to his films. And it turns out that the whole process of writing for him and his crew was itself dreamlike in its unfolding. Why Time? Because there was something about that director being lost in the moment that stood out for me as more essential than anything else about his filmmaking practice. So in each case, I suppose, the conceit was to see if I could find a kernel of experience that would allow me not only to make sense of how these filmmakers were working, but to tap into the ways in which films work on us as well. Can we actually build out from the experiential openness of something like an immersion in time, of something like being lost in dreams, as a way of saying something about how a film can leave us with precisely those kinds of openings?


So, I think I landed on those particular ideas—of Imagination, Light, Color, and so on—because those were the ways I could move most effectively from the kinds of experience that were charging those processes as they were unfolding, and to the charge that the films themselves carried forward to viewers.


RM: I like what you said about moving across the screen from the production side to the side of life. That makes a lot of sense.


AP: As you said that, I was literally imagining, can you leap through a screen? Imagine standing behind a film screen and jumping through it. That’s the endeavor of a book like this.


RM: And that itself is a very cinematic proposition!



From the online companion Chapter on Rhythm – Editor interview

Rhythm3 from Anand Pandian on Vimeo.

From the online companion Chapter on Light – “Light invites an epic scale”

Light2 from Anand Pandian on Vimeo.

Cinema and Life Interpenetrated: A Conversation with Anand Pandian (Part One)

Ritesh Mehta, a recently minted Annenberg School PHD (My advisee) and a regular contributor to Movie Maker Magazine, pitched me recently about doing an interview for the blog with Anand Pandian, the author of  Reel World: An Anthropology of Creation, a work which Mehta feels represents a bold new experiment in academic writing and a ground breaking contribution to production studies. How could I refuse? Mehta’s conversations with Pandian runs over the next two installments. You can read Mehta’s review of the book here.

Cinema and Life Interpenetrated: A Conversation with Anand Pandian (Part One)

By Ritesh Mehta

The first thing you stop at when you leaf through Anand Pandian’s book Reel World: An Anthropology of Creation—other than its Foreword by the great American editor and sound designer Walter Murch, who finds another avatar of his filmmaking mantra of “closed openness” (p. x) in Pandian’s field sites in and around “Kollywood,” “the studios and byways of the Kodambakkam area of western Chennai” (but also on location in Switzerland and Dubai)—is its table of contents.


You glimpse and take in the chapter titles, “Desire” and “Fate,” “Light” and “Color,” “Pleasure” and “Wonder,” among others. You begin to hope that this ethnographic work on the production cultures of Tamil cinema is going to prove quite different from other ethnographies not just of Indian cinema and television but of various global media industries. You begin to entertain the notion of ethnographers and anthropologists being philosophers and novelists. You begin to think about how phenomenology works alongside ethnography both in the field as well as while writing. And you begin to wonder whether the experiences and utterances—discourse and practice—of Pandian’s subjects represent agency or forebode circumscription, or some glorious or god awful interpenetration of the two.


One of his most fascinating informants is Logandurai, whom the book opens with. A farmer who sings fragments of a song from a popular Tamil film even as he toils in an orchard far away from the rush of Chennai. Pandian juxtaposes the meanings of the lyrics in Logandurai’s imaginary with the humble material conditions of his life. In doing so, he sets the premise of his work in his general observation that “cinema here [in Tamil Nadu] bends itself towards ordinary life, while ordinary life hankers after cinema.” Thus begins his series of “experiments in cinematic experience: trials undertaken by certain Indian filmmakers and also by an anthropologist wandering and writing in their midst.” (pp. 10-17) I won’t elaborate further and instead will let our conversation attempt to grasp at Pandian’s own grasping of the unfurling entanglements between cinema and life.


Ritesh Mehta: Since we are approaching this exchange as a conversation rather than an interview, allow me to first gush just for a bit. I’ve been obsessed with this book the past couple of weeks. I read just a bit and have to set it aside, since it just fills me in the way movies fill me: I am in the mindspace of evocation and signification. In fact, I found it challenging to come up with a set of prompts because I’ve wanted to linger in the book’s lifeworld without further interpreting, critiquing or even reflecting on it. Thank you for allowing us to linger. In our conversation, though, I’d love to hear your responses to my proto-responses, so if anything, you can help me and our readers arrive at a sense of the incredible, unique work this book is doing.

For me, the book has been about “imponderabilia” and “heteroglossia,” and I don’t readily name drop Malinowski and Bakhtin. I see in your pages the inscription of the wagging of tongues of a smorgasbord of cinema creators, producers and workers, as well as your sieving through and shifting among and alongside their minds and bodies. So the book is as much about immateriality as it is about variegated materiality with regard to creating cinema. As I continue reading through your “experimental vignettes,” I get the sense that you have synchronized an anthropological orchestration for your big themes, which I think are Continuity versus Flux on the one hand, and Possibility versus Embeddedness on the other. I found these themes, these contradictory modes of living, to be getting work done for your cinema makers because they are in fact such heady and rooted contrasts. My immediate thought was: that’s India.

I love the ways in which you’ve wondered about this as well. How a screenplay that begins in Dreams (Chapter 2), themselves fluctuating but effervescing ultimately into a narrative with continuity, can end up completely at the mercy of Fate (Chapter 18), of a box office opening that might have seemed throughout the filmmaking process as full of profitable and pop cultural possibility but is ultimately embedded in the lifeworld of a myriad of throaty thrushes in theaters: Tamil audiences and their sansaara. You return your observations about Tamil film production to the eternal cycle of creation and destruction that is known from within life itself.


Going back to the table of contents, you’ve described what Rhythm, Voice, Space, and Art mean in different and useful ways throughout the book. For instance, you refer to them as “modes of experience” as well as the “formal properties of cinema.” But it strikes me they’re also what philosophers and metaphysicians call universals: mind-independent entities that are available for all of us to partake in, which make human beings similar if not identical to one another. The prospect of wrestling with universals in an ethnographic work about a regional cinema—a cinema you call “marginal” even—I find incredibly exciting. Thinking back to The English Patient, a film that not so coincidentally <strong>Walter Murch edited, what inspired me the most about the movie when I saw it two decades ago, was its depiction of the desert. Even though it was about a very particular desert—the one in 1942 Libya—it evoked the idea of being a desert in general, everywhere: the quality of being vast, the property of being without maps, the disposition of being wind. In the novel and later in the film, the desert was evoked as a universal that I could partake in. In your book, the particularly rhythms, voices, speed, and fate of Tamil film producers are evoked as universals that they partake in.

So thank you, once again for this work and for listening to me wax ineloquently.

My initial questions are what I think the book does not seem to be about, concepts that I would have expected but did not find–in a good way. I wanted to point these out and get your reactions.

I was provoked by one of your opening questions in the book: “What happens when everything begins to look like film?” Or when everything starts to look like a “cinematic scene.” On the flip side, I like how you point out that “cinema draws its force from the affective lives of its makers” and you quote Coomaraswamy in saying that “craftsmanship is a mode of thought.” One of the reasons I am running this on Henry Jenkins’ blog is because one of the first classes with Henry at USC was on medium specificity. Because of the way you describe the connections and interpenetration between cinema and life, would you say that your book bypasses the debate on medium specificity? Is your book about the medium neutrality of cinema? Or do you treat cinema as a medium in the way media scholars do?


Anand Pandian: There are certainly many moments in the book when I treat cinema as a medium in the way that cinema scholars do, because in part what I’m doing is thinking through these moments in Tamil cinema in relation to what media scholars have said. For example, if you think of Baudry’s ideas around the apparatus theory, or you think of Mulvey’s questions around the phallocentrism of cinema… there are many arguments that have been made with regard to this particular medium—cinema—that I found useful to think with, with regard to both the films that these filmmakers were making, and the way in which they were making them and how they were thinking about them. So on one level, certainly the endeavor here is to think with film studies and to ask the question, What can an anthropologist, approaching this thing we call “cinema” as an ethnographer, from the standpoint of an ongoing emergent production practice, tell us with regard to these essential questions around the ontology of the cinematic image; the relationship between image and spectator; the ways in which cinema can be understood to carry ideologies in its body, in its materiality; the relationship between thinking and feeling when it comes to spectation? There are any number of questions that scholars have posed with regard to the medium in particular that I try to reach as an ethnographer.


But having thought through that and having wrestled with those problems, what I kept finding time and again is that the questions that kept emerging in those production contexts seemed to blur the distinction between cinema and other kinds of things: the divide between cinema and other kinds of arts (painting, sculpture, or visual effects work in a digital setting, or the composition of music or dance), the distinction between cinema as a medium and these other media that we think of as contrary media of expression, that distinction begins to break down. But even more than that, because what one is dealing with when one is looking at the making of film are people who are positioned in a world that includes the film but exceeds the film, the world that contains that world in a sense, but is obviously much bigger, because that is a frame that is on a location or a studio somewhere, that is surrounded by ever so many other things, the more basic distinction between art and life, between creative endeavors and ordinary endeavors, itself began to break down… such that what I began to arrive at was a sense of the creative process that might even encompass the cinema, that might even assume particular forms in regard to the making of film, but certainly had resonances and relationships far beyond that particular domain.


RM: That’s why I think your approach refreshingly bypasses the debates that have happened on medium specificity. It seems as though you do address them but also step out, show the larger picture and how the distinctions that you mention above blur. You have a different way of talking about light, color and sound than some of the proponents of medium specificity.


AP: If I could also add one thing, this has also to do with the way I came into cinema. I didn’t write this book because I have had a lifelong fascination or even love for cinema in particular. It’s that I was deeply involved in the ordinary life of rural people in South India over the course of a few years for my dissertation research and turning that research into a book. I found that I couldn’t think about that life except in relation to these bits and pieces of cinema that were slipping into it constantly. My entry into cinema as an object of investigation was through these fragments that permeated ordinary life in India, that were of a piece with ordinary life. What is the medium then? The medium there was the countryside, and cinema was just one means by which that medium found a certain kind of expression.


RM: That makes complete sense to me. Growing up in Mumbai, I had a similar sense of how for many people for whom cinema may not be an important part of their everyday experience, it’s impossible not to engage with the fragments. You’re constantly surrounded by these fragments: they are hurtling at you when you live in a city like Mumbai. So I imagine it’s similar in many parts of Tamil Nadu as well.


You brought up the word “ordinary”— on page 2, you talk about cinema being “ordinary.” This reminded me of one of my favorite articles that I read as a PhD student: Raymond Williams’ 1958 piece, “Culture is Ordinary.” The first four paragraphs remind me of your writing. He describes a bus ride from an urban area to an industrialized countryside where he grew up. He talks about how the countryside changes as he goes higher and higher into the mountains, and about culture is woven into the landscape and the meanings into the land. It’s in a way a Marxist exploration without being Marxist upfront. His thesis is that “culture is ordinary” in that it is about a whole way of life. It represents old meanings that we are born into and use as well as the new meanings that we express. But what interested me was that I didn’t find too much direct talk about the word “culture” in your book. Many readers who know that you’re an anthropologist might find that intriguing. I was wondering if you could comment on that. Is this a valid observation?


AP: It’s a very interesting question. One of my favorite books by Raymond Williams is “The Country and The City,” which in some ways is an account of the changing relationship between culture and cultivation in British literature that is an investigation of the image of the British countryside, and in particular of the agrarian countryside as it comes in and out of focus as a site of desirable life over the course of a lengthy period of time in English literature. Williams is quite helpful in thinking through the materiality of something like culture, of reminding us that culture is a mode of practice, that it involves not only the ascription of certain ideals and attention to certain kind of symbols, but the way in which those ideals, symbols, those venerated qualities, are tied into concrete ways of living in, engaging and working to transform the world that one finds oneself in, which is his materialism, as an analyst, as a thinker.


So, certainly, yes, “culture” as an object of analysis may not be explicitly present in this book. But I would say that there is no question that the practices of certain kinds of filmmakers are essential here: what holds together the way in which an editor thinks and works with cinematic material as opposed to the way a camera man thinks and works with cinematic material, as opposed to the way a musician or composer thinks and works with cinematic material. Those differences are essential to the way the book is organized, the way it’s written.


And there is, in a way, an argument the book is making that we cannot make sense of the ways in which these different elements of cinema work on us if we don’t adequately understand the way they are put to work through the practical engagements of these different technicians. Perhaps not culture then in the sense of “high culture,” culture in the sense of “ideology,” but perhaps culture in the sense of poesis, of a practical work of creative activity, is essential to the way the book is organized.


RM: Right. My point in bringing up these two questions is simply to say that in a way it’s liberating to not use those words. Because people who have written a lot about “culture” and who have certain understandings about culture, or medium specificity for that matter, if they see those same terms in the book, that might imply a different way to process the book as opposed to when you talk about them indirectly and not label them as such. I think that’s useful and productive.


AP: This is the reason why the book is organized the way that it is, the reason why it has these rather abstract elements—like desire or light or sound—as organizing rubrics rather than the studio floor, or the recording booth… Obviously, the table of contents could be much more concrete than it is. It’s because as an anthropologist, I have come to recognize and try to acknowledge the value of thinking with the concepts that come out of the experience of others. That is to say, rather than trying to apply my own concepts, or concepts that I am attached to as an analyst to these different situations, I try to allow my own thinking to bend itself to the ideas and concepts of the people that I encounter, those that the ethnographic experience seems to be organized around.


So when one is working with, say, a camera man, you can make sense of his or her experience in really any way you want. We have all kinds of tools at our disposal to say what it is they are doing. But the interpretive effort with this book was to think as closely to the grain of their own thinking as it is embedded in the way in which they work with this material, whether it’s light or sound or color or time, and to see how far one could run with these thoughts that emerge from a practical milieu.


RM: I’m writing this post for Henry Jenkins’ blog, and Henry is your premier fan studies scholar. Let me read to you a paragraph from one of his chapters currently under review, and I’d like to get your reaction in relation to your chapter on Imagination, where you talked a bit about Tamil cinema fans.

“I’ve long argued that fan cultural production was born from a mixture of fascination and frustration. Fans engage closely with texts because they are fascinated. They continue to rework them because they are frustrated with some aspect of the original. Yes, fans poach. They take what they want from texts they did not create. And fans resist. They often rewrite stories so that things come out differently. But fans also engage with the text on terms not of their own choosing, so that the process looks very much like what cultural studies calls “negotiation.” (Jenkins, forthcoming)

I was wondering about your understanding of how Tamil fans negotiate based on Henry’s description, and how does that connects to your idea of “imagination” as a phenomenon.


AP: I appreciate the attention to openness and indeterminacy in what you read and in Henry’s thinking. I might still ask the question, “Fans of what?” What if we were to set aside the assumption that a film is first and foremost a text and instead ask the question, “What form or what body does the film assume or in what form or body does the film become most significant for its fans?” Here, the body of the hero becomes essential. Because in Tamil cinema, you have fans, you have cinephiles who are fans of particular actors and directors or even editors for that matter. You have technicians who have their own legion of fans. But the way in which those technicians are venerated is almost a reflex of how those heroes are venerated.


So the question of fandom brings us back most centrally to the hero’s body and how that body is conceived. The thing that is important to keep in mind here is that body is both this-worldly and other-worldly. It taps and channels energies and forces of devotion and attachment that aren’t entirely secular, that partake of the divine, that bring practices and rituals of worship and veneration into play, that occasion modes of engagement that may be more about devotion than about negotiation. That is to say, less about carving out a space for myself than about submitting myself to a force that is bigger than me. Power assumes different forms and faces in different contexts. Certainly one way to understand fan clubs as they operate in India is as domains of politics and political engagement, and there are ways in which these clubs devoted to one star as opposed to another star operate and allow for the expression of the political ambitions of those who run them. I did meet quite a lot of fans as well and I talk about them in that chapter. But I think to reduce these clubs to that kind of politics is to rob their experience of its essential texture. Because their mode of engagement is, in fact, religious.


RM: One of the core themes across Henry’s work, not just in fan studies but also in media literacy, in industry studies, is “remixing.” Henry has found a plethora of examples of remixing and appropriation practices by fans. Is that quite different from devotion?


AP: That’s a fascinating question, actually. Because as we know, the body of the god in Indian Hinduism is not a unitary body, and there are ever so many ways in which that body travels: it moves through the space of the city; it possesses people. There are ever so many ways in which one can participate in divinity. Now, we could call that remixing. It’s interesting. To call that remixing, for me, lends a little too much value or attention to the cleverness of the remixer. If you look at these videos on YouTube, you’ll see these videos of people acting out these scenes in films of their favorite actors—I’m not sure if the idea of remixing captures enough that sense of fidelity, of participating through a certain kind of corporeal practice in the power and aura of this other being.

From the online companion Chapter on Imagination — Fan reception at a film release

Imagination2 from Anand Pandian on Vimeo.

From the online companion Chapter on Art – an action sequence

Art2 from Anand Pandian on Vimeo.

Fostering Civic Engagement in a Networked Era:An Interview with Eric Gordon and Paul Mihailidis (Part Three)

A real strength of this collection is a movement between theoretical pieces proposing conceptual models for thinking about civic media and engagement and more case-study based pieces which document specific design practices or implementations of civic media within local communities.  You are trying to bridge the theory-practice divide, in other words. What value do you think the conceptual work brings to design practices and applications? And conversely, what insights do you see emerging through design that modifies or challenges existing conceptions about civic engagement?

It is remarkably difficult to combine theory and practice. The more we do this work, the more we realize that it’s about juxtapositions, not hybridity. The book aspires towards theory-informed practice and practice-informed theory. But it’s not necessarily looking for a hybrid form.

Too often, we see attempts at hybridity as just being bad practice or bad theory. But we both live that tension. We are primarily academics, trading in research and writing. We were each granted tenure at an academic institution based on this work. But we are also both practitioners, building programs and tools designed for immediate social impact. Each of us can say, unequivocally, that our academic work has deeply informed our practice, and vice versa. But the worlds of scholarship and practice are still quite separate. When we work across domains, we are engaged in a kind of rapid switching.

The poet Charles Baudelaire wrote about the flaneur, the urban wanderer, who sat in a Parisian café looking out at the crowds of people on the sidewalk. He was both of the crowd and apart from it, a spectator and a participant. But to gain that critical perspective, Baudelaire wrote, he needed to remain alienated from both.

In many ways, this theory/practice divide is similar. It’s a place of anxiety, of being detached from both worlds, while also knowing that the greatest insights come from that detachment. So, we are deeply invested in bringing together scholarship and practice, but we don’t want to remove the anxiety that defines the in between space.

We want practitioners to understand the histories and theories of civic media, and we want academics to feel the messiness of social reality and practice. But we actually want them both to never get comfortable with habits of mind or practice. The main benefits of bringing theory and practice together might just be that it destabilizes both, creating a possibility space that remains fluid.

One of your projects here is to bring work about media literacy towards the center of the study of civic media. Why is it important to understand civic engagement in relation to media literacy? What would it mean to bring a Civic Media perspective into the classroom?


For a long time, the field of media literacy has struggled to articulate a vision beyond the teaching of critical thinking and production skills. It has focused on teaching young people how to critically analyze and critically produce the media. But how these skills and dispositions translate from the classroom to the real world has not been clear. Civic media is clarifying in this regard.

The process of making and participating in civic media represents a media literate subject. It requires a level of critical thinking and production that is, by definition, beyond the classroom. In fact, in a recent article on civic media in liberal arts education, we make the argument that civic media transforms the project of higher education from the dissemination of knowledge to the sharing of “usable” knowledge, wherein critical media skills are applied directly to matters of public impact.  Our project in this book, and elsewhere, is to consider the ways in which knowledge in education translates into social action.

Eric, much of your early work had to do with the development of games as a particular form of civic media, and you were a key figure in the serious games movement. I know you’ve started to shift your focus from games to play more broadly defined. Why?

Games are systems that structure players’ interactions typically with a goal, and specific rules and mechanics for progressing towards that goal. I spent a lot of time making and thinking about games that foster civic engagement by creating meaningful interfaces between public institutions and individuals.

The games I studied and even the games I made, taught me a great deal about how civic systems work. They taught me about the motivations people have (or don’t have) for engaging in civic process and civic life more generally. I am still deeply invested in the possibilities that games have to meaningfully structure civic life.

But what I’ve come to realize is that what’s important about the game is not the game, but the kinds of interactions it enables. Games ask people to play towards achieving a goal. They present a logic whereby a player might feel a certain freedom to experiment or explore towards achieving a goal that is decidedly separate from everyday life. They also present a logic of human systems whereby quality is not measured by efficiency of moving through it, but in fact how meaningful the system’s inefficiencies are. Games present us with unnecessary obstacles that motivate play and increase interest not only in achieving the goal, but in the act of playing itself.

So, as I continued to work in this unlikely intersection of games and civics, I started to ask how these meaningful inefficiencies found in game systems are being practiced in civic life in all sorts of unexpected ways. From playful performances in public spaces to methods of public management that integrate unorthodox feedback loops, or even, when games get designed and played to facilitate public process.

So, quite distinct from gamification, which has become a business trend wherein game mechanics are used to efficiently motivate people to achieve stated goals, meaningful inefficiencies are the elements of civic systems that prompt play for play’s sake. It is a way of maneuvering around the traps of commodified engagement, to motivate a system’s thinking that is generative, as opposed to limiting.

Paul, you’ve been the leader of the Salzburg Academy of Media and Global Change for a decade. In some ways, this Academy represents an experiment in bringing people from around the world to live, learn, and work together. How have these experiences informed your work on this book and other projects? Why is it important to test our ideas about civic media in a global context rather than one that is grounded in national particulars?


For a decade now, the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change has gathered young media makers from around the world to explore how media can respond to global social problems. We’ve had over 750 young people and 150 faculty and scholars come through the program, all of whom have sought to make connections across borders, across cultures and across divides.

The Salzburg Academy is indeed an experiment–one that has informed much of our thinking about the intersection of media, activism, and social change. The Academy has focused on topics as wide ranging as terrorism, migration, rights of journalists, and freedom of expression. Each year, as people from around the world gather in a learning community, we are reminded about the importance of human connections in media.

As the flow of information is increasingly fluid across national borders, these gatherings are reminders that human connection requires more than digital connectivity. The importance of people coming together to face challenges as a cohesive unit cannot be underestimated, where diversity is embraced, and where differences become assets. At the Academy we bring students from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Pakistan, Argentina, Mexico, South Africa, Palestine, Canada, England, China, Slovakia, Sweden, Kenya, and the United States, among other places, and ask them to think about media as a tool for inclusivity, equity, tolerance, and justice.

To this end, what the Academy has taught us about the need to experiment in a global setting is that as populations continue to move, and cultures continue to integrate, media-based initiatives need to embrace global diversity. When we engage on a human level, we can think expansively about media and its application in the world.

We’ve seen so many alumni go on to engage in social change work that is often guided by their experiences in Salzburg, and sustained by the network that still supports them. The Salzburg Academy offers the space and time to articulate those processes with a group of devoted, passionate, and diverse people, devoted to striving for common good with the media as their tool.

We spent three weeks together thinking about the current crises around refugees and migration. What roles might civic media platforms and practices play in helping to work through the cultural shock produced by these massive population shifts?

Our work this summer in Salzburg was focused on media, migration and the civic imagination. We explored how the media too often rely on distant and de-personalized stories to explain (and exploit) the issue, ignoring its nuance and deeply personal nature. In order to combat the “objectivity bias,” students at the Academy were asked to make personal the issue of migration by reimagining narratives through the lens of personal stories and popular culture. The goal was to overcome some of the xenophobic sentiments and harmful stereotypes perpetuated by and through the media.

This work was shared in an online publication called Move: Media, Migration and the Civic Imagination. The site highlights over 20 multimedia essays, created by diverse groups of students, working across their own unique understanding of the topic to reinvent how migration is portrayed.

Our work at the Academy sought to put civic media into action by mobilizing young people’s critical analysis and production of media. The civic media lens enabled us to think beyond the tools and specific applications of media, and to consider how individuals, groups and entire communities can actively reshape the stories they consume and produce, especially on matters of global import.

This was not about the informed global citizen, it was about the active and critical global citizen able to use and reuse the media tools at their disposal to effect social change.



Fostering Civic Engagement in a Networked Era: An Interview with Eric Gordon and Paul Mihailidis (Part Two)

There was an early discourse that read digital media in terms of “virtual communities” largely unmoored to physical geographies and unrelated to the locations where we live, work, and vote. To what degree is this book part of a larger move to reintroduce “location” and “locality” into our understanding of how online communities operate?

To a large extent, we want to mobilize civic media to look across online or offline divides. In 2011, one of us (Eric) wrote a book called Net Locality: Why Location Matters in a Networked World. The reason for writing this book was to do precisely that.

While one of its chapters was on civic engagement, it was more concerned with the qualities of urban environments. The book critically addressed how locality or location-awareness (both human and machine) was impacting urban form. What cities look like and how people interact within them was being impacted by the increasing amount of located data found within them.

In Civic Media, we pick up those arguments again. But instead of focusing on questions of urban form, we focus on how people are coordinating and cooperating to get things done with media, in space and across space. We focus on how the texture of located communities influences online interactions, and vice versa. We question how power, through access, digital literacy, and institutions, defines who uses the media and to what ends. The concept of civic media necessarily interrogates false binaries of physical / real, online / offline, and located / distributed. This is the generative work of the term.

Many early conversations about civic media assumed a fairly simple link between the ideal of the “informed citizen” and the emergence of information technologies. Yet, many of the examples running through your book are focused less on civic engagement as a structure of knowledge and more as a structure of feeling. So, what place should there be in the study of civic media for more touchy-feely concepts like community or empathy or the imagination?

We wouldn’t call a structure of feeling “touchy-feely.” Indeed, we see this move away from the informed citizen as a move towards the affective, and/or experiential aspects of civic engagement.

Knowing does not necessarily lead to acting. What motivates young people, for example, to participate in civic life is not primarily the understanding of an issue, but the experience, or promise of the experience, of acting on that issue.

Creating or sharing memes, connecting within a social network, even playing a game—these can all be civic actions disconnected from work-a-day rational self-interest or interest in cause. These actions can be motivated by the desire to “act with” and “to feel a part of,” and in some cases have no connection to a particular knowledge base.

This is what is inspiring about the range of civic media forms; knowing is only one piece of experience. The frame of civic media has the potential to unlock civics from its long dependence on rationality.

To some degree this book represents an attempt to define or at least solidify a field of researchers focused on civic media, many of whom are appearing together here for the first time and who reflect a broad range of different disciplines. What can you tell us about the tribes you are bringing together here? What disciplines have had the most to say on these topics? To what degree does the interdisciplinary conversation a book like this represents add something that would not exist if everyone remained in their disciplinary spaces?

Academic disciplines are not designed to solve problems in the world. They are designed to create generalizable knowledge, disciplined by methodologies and theories. Applied social research is often difficult, because the social world, with all of its complexity, does not easily succumb to disciplinary structures. So the promise of interdisciplinary work is prioritizing problems to be solved over knowledge to be made.

Civic Media brings together scholars and practitioners from a range of disciplines, including Philosophy, Sociology, Communications, Media Studies, Computer Science, Urban Planning, Art, Government and Law, to answer the question “What can civics be?” While the media scholar might ask “how is civic life mediated?” and the sociologist might ask “how are the structures of civic life changing?” and the artist might ask what are the forms that civic life can take?” when each speaks only to those asking similar questions with similar methodologies, knowledge refines, instead of generates. We see civic media as a generative project, made possible only by the cross pollination of intellectual perspectives and traditions.

“Engagement” has been described as a buzz word of our times, one as likely to be used by commercial industries (“fan engagement”) as by governmental agencies set up to increase citizen engagement. So, what do you see as the relationship between these two discourses about engagement or indeed, are they two separate discourses? To what degree do commercial understandings of engagement spill over into the work of governmental agencies or nonprofit organizations?

You’re right, engagement is an annoyingly “buzzy” term. But we still find it to be productive. We run a lab called the “Engagement Lab,” where we investigate the interfaces between individuals, communities and institutions and we strongly believe that “to engage” is a transitive verb. People engage in nouns: people, places and things. They are typically not engaged by nouns.

In other words, engagement is relational, it just doesn’t happen to you. When commercial industries invest in customer engagement or fan engagement, they are looking for a way for engagement to happen to people. And sadly, even when public institutions use the term, they are looking to “do engagement,” to make people engage with a service or process, but not to enable people to act together.

But just because the term is overused, we don’t believe we should abandon it. Engagement means caring; and there is a difference between attentiveness to a product or service and caring. One way of understanding that difference is that caring is relational. We take care because of how others perceive our actions, or we care for others through some structured reciprocity. Engagement in the business and (sometimes) government sectors has come to mean extreme attentiveness, but the frame of civic media places it back into the realm of caring.



Fostering Civic Engagement in a Networked Era: An Interview with Eric Gordon and Paul Mihailidis (Part One)

In spring 2015, I ran a series of guest posts on this blog to celebrate the launch of The Civic Media Project website, which Eric Gordon and Paul Mihailidis, the Co-Directors of Emerson College’s Engagement Lab,  had developed in anticipation of their MIT Press book, Civic Media: Technology, Design, Practice.

Well, that book is finally out and in the world.

The new book includes essays by some of the key thinkers on contemporary media and politics, including W. Lance Bennett, Beth Simone Noveck, Beth Coleman, Renee Hobbes, Roman Gerodimos, Elizabeth Soep, Molly Sauter, Ceasar McDowell, and Joseph Kahne, among many others. My research team contributed an essay exploring superheroes, the civic imagination, and contemporary youth activism — an extension of the argument we developed through By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism.  The book moves between conceptual statements about the current moment in the development of civic media and more focused case studies of projects in the U.S. and around the world.

Here’s how Gordon and Milhailidis described their understanding of the concept of Civic Media:

Civic life is comprised of the attention and actions an individual devotes to a common good. Participating in a human rights rally, creating and sharing a video online about unfair labor practices, connecting with neighbors after a natural disaster: these are all civic actions wherein the actor seeks to benefit a perceived common good. But where and how civic life takes place, is an open question. The lines between the private and the public, the self-interested and the civic are blurring as digital cultures transform means and patterns of communication around the world.

As the definition of civic life is in flux, there is urgency in defining and questioning the mediated practices that compose it. Civic media are the mediated practices of designing, building, implementing or using digital tools to intervene in or participate in civic life.

This past summer, I had the privilege to spend time with Eric Gordon and Paul Mihailidis at the Salzburg Academy for Media and Global Change. Paul has directed this summer program for the past decade and Eric regularly participates as part of the affiliated faculty, engaging students with both theoretical and design-focused workshops. This past year, they brought together undergraduate and graduate students from thirty different nations to reflect on the changing media landscape, to develop a deeper understanding of the mechanisms for fostering social change and political mobilization, and to put their emerging grasp of media literacy to work by collaborating to produce an online magazine, Move, which explored the current refuge crisis and global migration more generally. I was proud to be the keynote speaker at this program and to have my research group run a series of workshops and seminars with the students concerning our work on the civic imagination.

You might also want to check out this essay the two wrote for the current issue of the Journal of Digital Media Literacy dedicated to how we help students make the transition from voice to influence.

What became clear to me from my time with these two remarkable scholar-practitioners was how deep and original their thinking was about the future of civic media.  They both knew how to create a collaborative environment where original thinking and creative experimentation took place, and they both pushed everyone involved to dig deeper and question established thinking about the nature of civic engagement in a networked culture.

Returning to the book today, I am struck by the ways that its project is an extension or amplification of what they brought to the students during this summer program.  I can’t wait to introduce this book to my students at USC; it provides resources that can help redefine how we teach civic and political life.

While we were there together, we hatched the plan to do an interview with Eric and Paul about the Civic Media book. Across the following three installments, we criss-cross the core themes that animate the book and suggest further developments in their thinking.

You begin the book with a core question: “What does civic engagement look like in a digital age?” I can imagine some traditionalists having issues with this formulation, since it assumes a link between media/communication infrastructure and civic engagement/practice. So, what’s the case for thinking about civic engagement through the lens of civic media more generally and digital media in particular?

We start the book with a question about appearances. What does civic engagement look like when people are connecting to their various communities online? When people gather in public squares or head to the voting booth, the meaning of such actions appear to be clear. They are civically engaging. But when people connect to each other via their phones or computers, independent of the reason or purpose of such connection, the actions might appear more like self-indulgent distractions than civic engagement.

So, at the start of the book, we don’t assume a link between media/communication infrastructure and civic engagement/practice; we actually assume a distortion in appearances, and we encourage a certain comfort with that distortion. From there, we seek to reframe civic engagement using the lens of civic media. Without claiming that civic engagement in democratic cultures is fundamentally different, we claim that when you expand the frame of civic engagement to include a myriad of practices previously ignored, the practice field of civic engagement changes. And, inevitably, as you expand the field of practice of any domain, you will slowly and empirically expand the definition of that domain.  

How are you defining “civic media” in this book? To what degree can we describe particular media platforms as “civic” as opposed to specific media practices? How do we decide that something is NOT civic media?

We define civic media as the “technologies, designs, and practices that produce and reproduce the sense of being in the world with others toward common good.” We offer this intentionally broad definition to accommodate what we see as a growing range of civic practices. And we hope that the term is generative, not restrictive – that it sparks the imagination about what it might include. But this isn’t simply a casual investigation.

There is urgency in defining the term, as there is danger of these emerging practices of civic engagement simply getting lumped into larger media trends, or on the flip side, getting written off as anomalies narrowly defined. The term civic media suggests an “acting with” as a means of achieving a common good. It is inclusive of the range of intentional actions that people take with and through technologies, designs, or practices (aka media).

As for what the term excludes: media with civic content that is passively consumed and media actively consumed that stands to benefit only the individual actor. So, on one hand we would likely exclude an effort like iCivics, which is a great example of classroom games with civics content for middle school kids, and we would exclude something like Pokemon Go, which is a highly interactive, place-based game, but playing it (at least as it most commonly used) stands to benefit only the individual actor.

In both cases, however, there can be emergent uses that would move them into the civic media category. There is something unique about civic media – not in the technologies or the tools themselves, but in the ways people are using them.

Some would argue that many of the core platforms of the web are profoundly anti-civic or non-civic (or at least anti-social) in their effects. You will find plenty of critics of Youtube, Twitter, Facebook, and other sites in terms of damages done to civic life. Can we reconcile such critiques with the idea that at least some uses of these same technologies may actively contribute to civic engagement?

Absolutely. Tools facilitate actions. YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, etc. are tools that can be used for a range of activities. Just as a hammer can be used to build a house and to knock someone over the head, social media can be used for mobilizing a social justice campaign and bullying a peer with hateful speech.

But, as Marshall McLuhan said, technologies are not valueless: their form has implicit or explicit meaning. For example, the design of Facebook values broad connectivity over intimacy. And while it might be used for intimate conversations, one could argue that the tool predisposes its users towards particular outcomes. Such is the case with civic media.

While tools are malleable and multi-functional, they do carry with them certain values that compel users towards particular outcomes. Consider the domain of civic technology. The tools designed and implemented by government are meant to facilitate or streamline government processes, from paying parking tickets to providing input on urban plans.

These tools are designed for particular purposes in particular contexts and while they can be misused or appropriated, the technology largely shapes social interaction. The category of civic media is inclusive of these single function technologies, but is not limited to them. It is not a descriptor of tools. Instead, it provides a context to analyze the intentional actions that people take with tools, designed or modified for civic outcomes.



Comics and Canons: An Interview with Bart Beaty (Part Three)

You make an interesting point that R. Crumb has been at a disadvantage in contemporary value judgements because he produced short stories rather than graphic novels. In literature, we can think of authors such as Edgar Allen Poe or Flannery O’Connor who have entered the canon as short story writers, and certainly playwrights can enter the literary canon and not simply novelists. So what might this suggest about the ways that the canon may be limiting our understandings of the range of options within comics as a medium?

To me, the Crumb example shows how much more narrow the comics studies canon is than the literary canon, because I don’t think that there are as many opportunities for Crumb as there are for Poe or O’Connor. The primacy of the novel in literature departments is a late arriving phenomenon – literature departments focused on poetry and drama for decades prior to the turn towards the novel, so there are obvious spaces for writers in other forms.

Comics studies has championed the graphic novel nearly to the total exclusion of all other types of comics (consider how little comics studies focusses on comic strips, despite their much longer lineage and higher general cultural visibility). So Crumb risks being left out of a lot of current discussions simply because he does not fit the norm of what we do. That to me is a real problem with how we approach the study of the field because it writes out almost all of the work that was produced in the first fifty years of the comic book format, and, frankly, the majority of it in the second fifty years as well.

Jack Kirby poses a different set of issues in your account, as do other superhero creators, because his reputation is grounded in popular and commercial criteria more than in the art world. Thinking about comics in terms of canon formation raises issues about the relationship between academic judgements and those constructed by fans or other more populist institutions.  How might we describe the criteria fans have used to identify the most important artists and how do they differ from academic criteria? One could argue that a similar split exists between novels that are taught in literature classes and “classics” that generations read and like but do not get much respect from literature professors — Anne of Green Gables, Treasure Island, the Wizard of Oz, etc. Or we might think of the role which westerns and their directors played in the early emergence of film studies (or later, melodramas) seeing an exploration of the tension between genres and authors as a central issue defining the field.

There is a really big gulf growing between comics scholars and comics fans, or at least between certain types of scholars and certain types of fans, and I do wonder how much of that will close over time. While we’ve been talking a lot about graphic novels, the fact is, as we point out in The Greatest Comic Book, there is a really substantial emphasis on superhero comic books in contemporary comics scholarship.

It too can be somewhat narrow in its interest. I’ve heard or read maybe a dozen papers on Ms Marvel, for example, a very recent comic book with a Muslim teenager as the protagonist. There are a lot of scholars who want to talk about this title and the way it addresses important cultural debates, and that seems very natural and very relevant. For the most part, the vast bulk of superhero comics goes unremarked upon by superhero scholars and the scholars set up their own canon, and Jack Kirby occupies the top space there.

What is interesting to me about superhero artists is that each generation will develop their own favourites and the turn-over is extremely rapid. It is a very star-driven industry, and stars can fade quickly. John Byrne and Frank Miller were the most popular comic book artists when I was a teen, but by the time I was twenty it was Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld – artists that I personally felt little connection to. The change was quick.

Kirby has endured better than most others, partly because he has a large cadre of supporters proclaiming him the “King of Comics” and who explain his importance to later generations of fans. The criteria that seem to most drive Kirby to the top is the sense that he generated all of these incredible characters who are still popular to this day, and that he completely revolutionized comic book storytelling.

That latter is striking for me, because it is the type of thing that becomes less self-evident to readers over time. Kirby’s dynamism is most striking in contrast to the staid comics that DC was producing in the 1960s, just as Godard’s cutting was shocking in comparison to the traditions of French cinema of his day. In an era, half a century later, where those advances have been internalized by everyone that followed they become harder to see. I think this is one of the great losses that occurs when we focus only on a very small canon – the breakthroughs are less evident and need to be accepted on faith. Many of my students, who weren’t even born when Jack Kirby died, have a lot of trouble seeing what is so different about his Fantastic Four because they have no exposure to anything else from that period to compare it to.

You write about avant garde comics, comics which are understood within an “aesthetic of difficulty”, a standard they inherited from the modernist tradition in film and literature. What does it mean to read comics through an avant garde lens when so many people conceive of it almost exclusively as a popular art form?  How are artists and readers negotiating those contradictions?

When I was writing Unpopular Culture, which is about this tension, several of the cartoonists that I write about in that book got angry with me when I referred to their work as “avant grade” or “unpopular”. I mean, really viscerally angry with me. I thought one was going to hit me.

It seems to me that comics is one of the few art forms that modernism forgot. Yes, there was George Herriman, but there were very few other examples of cartoonists drawing on modernist traditions. Certainly in the American comic book modernism seems to have had almost no influence at all. Meanwhile, film, painting, literature, music, drama – all of these forms went through a modernist phase. I think that this is one of the reasons that comics were looked down upon – there was almost no one working in the field who sought to cultivate a serious readership. When Michael Chabon writes about comics and modernism in Kavalier and Clay it really does seem like a fantastical element.

Nonetheless, there are a small but growing number of cartoonists who are interested in these issues. In the US we might go back to Raw as the beginning of that, and you can see this level of difficulty in the work of an artist like Gary Panter. That tradition has continued through Paper Rad, the artists involved in Kramer’s Ergot, and so on. To a large degree this is the fringe of the alternative comics scene. A lot of it is that rare form of comics that is highly influenced by contemporary art practices, and a lot of it seems more at home in a gallery than in a bookstore.

I think that there is still some resistance to this tendency – some people get their backs up about it because what they like is the idea that comics is a less judgemental space, one that is more open and accommodating. When Kramer’s Ergot did their issue that had the retail price of about $100 a lot of readers got upset about that; they argued that it was exclusionary to produce a huge oversized and expensive limited edition comic book. Avant gardes have always put some part of the audience on edge and they are genuinely exclusionary and that sits poorly in the comics world because it is relatively small.  I don’t think that the average cinema-goer gets angry about the films of Jonas Mekas – they simply ignore them. In the smaller and more insular comics world it may be more difficult to ignore these kinds of provocations and interventions.


Some of the sharpest critics of the literary or art world or cinematic canons have been women and minorities who argue that their contributions have systematically been dismissed or marginalized within existing practices of canon formation. And, sure enough, your research shows that their contributions have been undervalued within comics studies as well. So, what’s the best path forward towards a more inclusive and diverse understanding of comics? Are we better off rethinking the criteria by which canons are formed or rejecting the idea of canons altogether?


There is a part of me that believes that comics studies does a little bit better than some other domains in thinking about gender and racial difference simply by virtue of the fact that it is so focussed on the past thirty years, which has been a time of greater – but insufficient – inclusiveness in the field. In this way the historical myopia of comics studies can actually be reconfigured as a feature rather than as a flaw.

Moreover, there is a clear push in these areas. I could cite Hillary Chute’s book about women who do autobiographical comics, the anthology The Blacker the Ink, Carolyn Cocca’s new book on gender and the superhero, and Cinema Journal’s roundtable on diversity and comics studies to name but a few. If one is inclined to be positive of canons and canonicity in comics you can note that, because the field is still so relatively new, that there is a great deal of flux and that it is still easy to make space. Marajane Satrapi is an excellent example of this. Persepolis was one of the most taught and most studied comics within only a few years of its translation into English.

The flip side would be that we still have an awful long way to go on the diversity front, and we risk arriving at a very constricted sense of diversity that simply tries to integrate difference into the existing structures without actually stopping to reflect on how practices of exclusion have historically operated in the comics industry and within comics studies.


You talk about the concept of “world comics” as a way of developing a more encompassing understanding of the medium. How might we define a “world’s comics” approach? What kinds of works would this allow us to discuss that are excluded from current understandings of the medium? Are world comics necessary understood as the graphic novel equivalent of the international arts cinema or is there a way to create such a category that would include works from both avant garde and popular culture traditions?

One of the things that I find most frustrating about comics studies is the geographical and cultural blinkers that exist on all sides. I think that the easiest way to be an unread comics scholar is to write about foreign language works. If you write about works that haven’t been translated yet, you can really expect few people to read you. I think that one of the best recent monographs on a single cartoonists is Fabrice Leroy’s Sfar So Far, but because it is written in English and Sfar is best known in France I’m not sure that it has been widely read (even though Sfar’s comics have been reasonably well translated into English).

I’m right now working on an article about two books that are unlikely to ever appear in English (one of them is by Sfar, ironically) and part of me wonders if anyone will ever read the piece. The same is true about work on certain forms of manga, and even more true about comics from the global south. We can be extremely parochial. Of course, this is a complaint that is common across the board. My colleagues in Comp Lit will make the same observation about world literature.

Today I think that comics studies lacks a strong comparative tradition, and one of the reasons for this is that I think a lot of us worry about lacking the competency to do that work. One of my favourite cartoonists is Jiro Taniguchi – I have dozens of his books in French and English that I’ve read multiple times. If you asked me to write a book simply to express my admiration for a cartoonist, I would pick him. I am somewhat reluctant to write about him in depth, however, because I am acutely aware that I lack the cultural understanding to talk about him in the context of Japanese cartooning.

A lot of the writing on Satrapi that I don’t like is the writing that misses obvious connections between her work and that of many of her French contemporaries, and I am keenly aware that that is likely the type of work that I would produce about Taniguchi. So I wind up saying nothing, and, unfortunately, for the most part nothing gets said about him.

I really don’t think that “world comics”, if we can call it that, mirrors the art house, however, because it is often some of the most popular foreign language comics that wind up translated. Manga is a great example of this, where blockbuster after blockbuster have arrived in English but far fewer indy-style comics have been translated.

That said, certain blockbusters are unknown. I think few Americans would have any idea about how unbelievably popular Zep and his character Titeuf are in French-speaking Europe. Those books have sold more than 16 million copies but have never appeared here. I mean, Titeuf has an asteroid named after him, and the character is almost completely unknown here.

The logic of translation is incredibly hit and miss in comics, and it makes comics studies tricky. When I translated Groensteen’s The System of Comics I was acutely aware that a lot of readers of my edition of that book were going to be lost by the casual way he drops in references to works that are exceptionally well-known in France and completely unknown here. When I worked later with Ann Miller on The French Comics Theory Reader we were much more attentive to footnoting those kinds of things.

The other project that I’m working on at the moment is really addressed to a lot of these questions. With Frederik Køhlert I have a grant to research the trans-national reception and discussion of Charlie Hebdo. That magazine is an example that raises all kinds of questions and issues about cross-cultural competencies. There are literally moments where Frederik and I would sit in my office reading old issues of Charlie Hebdo and ask ourselves “what does that even mean? Who is that?”. I mean, at the basic denotative level we don’t know the references to French politicians in the 1970s, let alone what the specifics of the jokes might be. So far it has been some tough slogging, but it’s also the kind of work that both agree needs to get done in comics studies.


Comics and Canons: An Interview with Bart Beaty (Part Two)

Archie would probably end up on nobody’s list of the “greatest comics,” but it may well be one of the most pervasive comics in that many comics readers pass through an Archie phase at one time or another, at least those who start reading comics in their childhood.  Is Archie a “plausible text” in the sense you are discussing here and if not, why not?

I chose to work on Archie Comics precisely because I thought it was “implausible”. Indeed, I thought it might be the most implausible text that I could have suggested, and that was the reason that I suggested it!

The series that Twelve-Cent Archie appears in from Rutgers is focused on each volume highlighting an important text. It is an avowedly canon-building publishing program. When I was invited to contribute one of the first books to that series I was quite reluctant to do so, because I really didn’t want to help build that kind of enterprise for many of the reasons that we lay out in Greatest Comic Book (which is a bit of a deliberate expansion of Archie, and a comment on the series). I quite clearly remember saying, “A series like this would never include a book on something like Archie Comics”. To his eternal credit, the series editor, Corey Creekmur, immediately responded that it would and that he wanted me to write it. So my big mouth got me in trouble.

The problem then was obvious: how do I make Archie plausible? I knew that I wanted at least one of the arguments of the book to be a critique of notions of greatness, of importance, but I wasn’t sure exactly how to stretch that out to 80,000 words. The fact is that Archie Comics are very standardized – that is a huge part of their appeal for their readers – but that made them a challenge to approach. So much of that book was determining how to talk about innovation within standardization and the subtle differences that become apparent only in routines.

Twelve-Cent Archie is very much a book that only a full professor would write. If one of my own graduate students had suggested it to me I would have counselled them against it. I have chaired a lot of hiring committees and I have seen how tough it can be for scholars working on non-traditional topics to get past the initial screening; this would have been a career killer for an early career academic. I think it’s notably also the only book that I have written that I didn’t receive research funding for – I didn’t even ask, really, because I could see that writing on the wall.

Why might such a work be worthy of serious study and what can it tell us about value judgements in comics more generally?

After the Archie book came out, it was widely reviewed – particularly here in Canada. I wound up winning my university’s research prize for it and I still recall sitting on the side of the stage with my university’s senior leadership sitting in the front row of the auditorium as my dean talked about my book about Archie. The other recipients were all trying to cure cancer, or end homelessness, and there I was getting the same award for a semiotic analysis of Betty Cooper’s hair. It seemed to me that I had taken the idea that is so common in the natural sciences – that humanities scholars are frivolous – and turned up the dial all the way to eleven.

That said, I get almost an email a week about that book, almost all of them from people who have never read any other scholarly work. Archie Comics have a profound resonance for millions of readers, and they are amazed to see someone take it seriously. Of course, I also get weekly emails from people accusing me of being an obvious drain on the public purse…


You noted in Comics vs. Art that comics have not necessarily benefited from a general tendency in the arts to think about hybrid forms as “particularly complex works that unite disparate elements, thereby accruing values attached to each.”  Perhaps comics have, instead, been evaluated according to somewhat older arguments about medium specificity which distrusted hybridity. See, for example, Rudolph Arnheim’s critique of talking films as “unnatural” and “mongrel” because “two media are fighting with each other” and no consistent set of aesthetic standards can apply. Artistic distaste for comics dates back to the early 20th century where these ideas about artistic purity were dominant and they have been hard to escape. In many ways, the attempt to read graphic novels through a post-modernist frame would seem to be an attempt to rethink those judgements, with mixed results. So, how might we think about the aesthetic value of comics in relation to this older tradition of seeking medium specificity?

More than any other question I think that this is an issue that my work has always been grappling with. From the beginning, some of the most important and influential comics scholarship has been interested in this question: what do comics do that other media don’t? And how do they operate? We can think of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and Thierry Groensteen’s The System of Comics as key exemplars here, but there is really a whole host of scholars who turned to this question very early on in the history of comics studies. This isn’t surprising: medium specificity was the subject of a lot of early film criticism as well, from Eisenstein to Bazin and so on. It seems to be a stage that most fields go through.

One of the books that I had hoped to write would have taken this topic head on. I tentatively called it “Comics Off the Page” and I was interested in examples where cartoonists worked in non-comics media. I was inspired by seeing “Happy Hooligan is Still Moving”, the dance that Art Spiegelman choreographed with Pilobolus Dance Theatre in New York. I thought I could shed some interesting light on how comics work by examining how they interact with things that people don’t think of as comics. Unfortunately, that project really bogged down. I couldn’t find an interesting way to talk about it without simply getting into long descriptive passages of the works, most of which aren’t available to readers. I think that it works well as a lecture – I’ve had a lot of success presenting some of the preliminary thoughts – but it falls apart on the page. Ironic, given my proposed title.

My new project, with Ben Woo and Nick Sousanis, seems to be working better. It’s called What Were Comics?, and last year we received a really sizeable grant from the Canadian government to do the work. We’re interested in looking at the history of what comic book were over time. This has helped lift the discussion out of abstraction. Instead of thinking “comics could be this or they could be that”, which is an area where Nick particularly excels, we’re a lot more focused on dealing concrete shifts and showing what actually did happen.

One of the things that I’ve learned in talking about these projects is that most people view comics in a more restricted way than I do. A lot of people seem to regard comics as what you draw on bristol board and then publish in comic books. Webcomics has shifted this a bit, but it hasn’t shifted it to the point that comics are seen to be really in dialogue with other art forms. Painters borrow freely from comics, much more it seems than cartoonists borrow from contemporary painters. I think some of this has to do with the way that MFA programs teach (or, more accurately, don’t teach) comics, but it is striking how isolated comics can still be in the world of arts.

Across several of your books, you note a number of attempts by authors and artists — most directly in terms of Art Spiegelman —  to promote their own legacy. What strategies do you think have been successful for comics creators as they have sought to demonstrate their status as auteurs worthy of entry into the canon of graphic storytelling? How do these approaches resemble or differ from those deployed by artists working in other media — painting, cinema, literature?

I think that the institutions of the comics world are much weaker than they are in other art worlds. The steps towards becoming an important painter seem to be really clearly laid out: get a degree, get a gallery, and so on. There are so few examples of cartoonists becoming successful that it is not so clear what the route is.

Once upon a time it was clearly: get a commercially successful daily strip. All of the “greats” from the first half of the twentieth-century, in the United States, were strip cartoonists. Many were beloved, and many were household names – real superstars in the culture. Obviously that route is vanishing quickly.

Spiegelman showed a very different path, which was create “one great work”, and a number of people have successfully followed that model. It’s a model that is very akin to literature.

The flip side would be Lynda Barry, who struggled in semi-obscurity for a long time to the point that she considered quitting before Drawn and Quarterly shone a new spotlight on her amazing body of work. That’s also very akin to literature, unfortunately. A critical hit will provide a foundation for future work, and then the issue becomes follow-up.

Interestingly, in the more mainstream area of comics production reputation building seems to be more similar to contemporary filmmaking. The ideal trajectory might be to self-publish and build a reputation, get hired to write or draw a low-level superhero title, turn that into a success and do higher profile work until your name is more important than the characters you write. Then you jump to Image, launch your own title and cash in, I guess.

I think that there remains a bifurcation that we used to refer to as mainstream and alternative, and the collaborative and (generally) solitary approaches that are favoured by each indicates different pathways to longevity.


Comics and Canons: An Interview with Bart Beaty (Part One)

Comic Studies is one of the areas of research which have really captured my attention and imagination in recent years.  We are seeing comic studies panels included in more and more academic conferences, ranging from the Modern Language Association to the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, not to mention comic studies panels as a featured element at San Diego Comic-Con (and other such gatherings around the country). Comic Studies has been the focus on special issues of many established journals as well as several journals focused fully on this topic. There has been a record number of new publications about comics over the past few years coming from many of the most distinguished university presses.  There are distinguished research facilities such as the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at Ohio State University, which is a mecca for anyone wanting to research this topic. There are a growing number of college courses focused around comics and graphic novels, including my own here at the University of Southern California.

Bart Beaty, a professor at the University of Calgary, has been a major force behind many of these efforts. To date, Beaty has published 13 books on comics and graphic storytelling, including major translations of French comics theory and original research in comics history, theory, and criticism. He has been one of the most thoughtful writers about the cultural debates around comics (UnPopular Culture: Transforming the European Comic Book in the 1980s; Frederic Wetham and the Critique of Mass Culture; Comics Versus Art). His most recent books include Twelve Cent Archie and with Benjamin Woo, The Greatest Comic Book of All Time: Symbolic Capital and the Field of American Comic Books.  Here, Beaty and Woo share their thoughts about the emergence of a canon in comic studies and specifically about how faculty decide which books to study and teach, given the emergence of a new academic field around what was once seen as a highly disreputable medium. The authors offer compelling case studies of a range of different candidates for consideration as the best or most important work to emerge from graphic storytelling, using each to illustrate different principles around which canon-formation might occur, but also raising questions about what’s being left out, what’s not being given the consideration it is due. This is an important book for anyone who wants to understand how cultural hierarchies emerge and shape our relations with media.

This interview can be seen as a continuation of that project, as Bart and I circle back through some of the key exemplars from that book, and ask some further questions about cultural capital and the value of studying comics within an academic setting.

Some have worried that a core canon (Spiegelman, Ware, Bechdel, Satrapi, Gaiman, Crumb, Moore, Sacco) has emerged in comics studies prematurely — that too much of the early writing defining the field circles around a small number of writers and works and as a consequence, we are constraining our methodologies and theories to reflect that limited sample. Would you agree?


This is the subject of so much of what Benjamin Woo and I wrote about  in our book The Greatest Comic Book of All Time!, and I absolutely do agree. In our first chapter we attempted to put some data behind what seems to be a pretty common understanding about comics studies: that it has been thoroughly concerned with a small handful of creators and works published over the past thirty years. In the book we surveyed the field of scholarly publishing on comics in order to demonstrate just how narrow the work being done can be. What we found is that comics studies is disproportionately concerned with a very small handful of creators and texts in comparison to cognate fields. So, yes, I absolutely agree with that.

I also think that you touch on something more important here, though, which is the theoretical and methodological restriction that are currently being applied to comics. I think I would first say that to my mind there is a much greater theoretical diversity within the field at present than a methodological diversity. Consider empirical approaches to comics. While there is an increasing amount of work being done using empirical methods it is notable that most of the key players in that area can be brought together at a single conference next year in Bremen. To take another example, if we consider how much work is being done on comics that would require an ethics application because it relies on human subjects, I think the number of projects would be extremely small.

The vast majority of comics studies work being done in the English-speaking academy stems from faculty and students trained in literature departments, and it relies on the kind of interpretive close-readings that are still so paramount within those departments. That seems to have had a tremendous impact on the shaping of the canon: it is much easier for a graduate student to convince a committee that the work of Alison Bechdel or Chris Ware is “sophisticated” enough to be akin to contemporary literary fiction that it would be a credible subject for a dissertation.

How might we encourage comics scholars to move beyond such a canon?

For me that is the million dollar question. When I was asked to give the keynote address at the International Comics Arts Forum in Columbus two years ago part of me wanted to call my talk “Comics Studies: You’re All Doing It Wrong”. Needless to say, I didn’t do that, but I’m sure that subtext was picked up by many in my audience.

One of the things I argued in that talk was a paraphrase of Fredric Jameson’s famous dictum that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. I quipped that it was easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of the dominance of literary methods in comics studies.

Given that the vast bulk of comics studies occurs in departments of literature, and faced with the reality that a literary canon exists and that it structures the way that those departments teach and research, we really are faced with two choices. The first is to simply accede to the logics of canonization while pushing the boundaries. We can argue that Art Spiegelman, Alison Bechdel, and Marjane Satrapi are every bit as deserving of serious study as Phillip Roth, Toni Morrison, and Zadie Smith and try to force those authors into the discussion.

In a lot of ways, this is what film studies scholars did in the 1960s – they demonstrated that Bergman, Godard, and Kurosawa could be studied in a manner that was akin to the study of literature. This is a perfectly valid approach and it has gained us, as comics scholars, quite a bit. I think that to the extent that courses in comics studies even exist today in many universities is a testament to the work that was done to advance this particular way of thinking.

The other option is the much more difficult one – possibly an impossible one. When we argue that our understanding of notions of inherent quality are simply ideological constructs that have obscured our understanding of how culture operates is more vexed, and to suggest that we fundamentally reshape our curricula, indeed the very basis of our disciplines, is just a non-starter for most people. It is an almost impossible task. In my own department the suggestion that there are not certain writers who “have to be” taught makes people think that you’re completely naive.

Your own work has been expansive in its choices of objects for study — ranging from a strong focus on Eurocomics to a book centered around Archie. How do you personally decide which comics are worthy of your scholarly attention?

It’s my sense from talking to my colleagues and working with my students that many of them come to the work that they want to talk about first and foremost. So many of the Honours students that I supervise come to me and say “I want to write my thesis about Blankets” or “I want to write about Jessica Jones”. It’s only after some discussion that they step back and arrive at the theory that might structure their analysis, or the method that they might best use to illuminate these works. The concern I’ve always had with this approach is that I think it tells me more about the critic than the text under discussion.

Personally, I’ve not yet written a book because I was interested in the comics themselves. With Unpopular Culture, which was about European comics in the 1990s, I wanted to talk about the way I saw the comics cultures of Western Europe evolving in real time. I thought that there was a remarkable transformation taking place, and that was what interested me. I wound up talking about certain comics because of the way that they highlighted certain tendencies. Some readers have suggested to me that I must really like the work of Lewis Trondheim because he is the only artist who gets his own chapter in that book, but the reality is that he is just so unbelievably prolific that he made the easiest case study with which to summarize the themes of the book (though I do enjoy a great deal of his work, if I’m being honest).

Twelve-Cent Archie is really the only one where I picked the topic before figuring out what I would say about it. Indeed, I was really worried that when I sat down to do the research I wouldn’t find sufficient material to proceed. Generally, though, I’m not that interested in promoting certain comics with my work. I don’t read the work of Rob Liefeld much (though I did read some Deadpool around the time the film was released), but Ben and I thought he was the best example of the a certain type of commercial comics, so we wrote about him in Greatest Comic Book. I will say, also, that that chapter shocked some people. Two of our anonymous referees thought it was self-evidently pointless to include a chapter on such an “insignificant” creator, which is a perfect example of how ideologies of quality obscure the field and the kinds of questions that we allow ourselves to research.

Art Spiegelman has talked about the process of reading comics as graphic novels as “a Faustian deal because the medium gets tainted by its aspirations towards legitimacy.” Would you agree with that assessment? What is gained or lost when comics are read through such a strong literary lens?

I absolutely agree. When I moved to an English department in 2010 (I had previously taught in a Media Studies department) I indicated that I could teach courses on “Comics” and my department chair wanted me to teach on “Graphic Novels” instead. I objected that that wouldn’t permit me to teach, for instance, comic strips and I was met with some departmental resistance. We settled on “Comics and Graphic Novels”, which strikes me a bit as “Ice and Frozen Water”, but the concession got the course on the books. Six years later I was able to get “and Graphic Novels” dropped.

The central gain of the graphic novel for cartoonists has been the ability to get them into bookstores and before a broader public, and, really importantly, to get them reviewed in The New York Times and The Guardian and The New Yorker. I do agree that without the success of Maus, and the creation of the graphic novel as a publishing category, that comics would be in a much weaker space reputationally. The graphic novel allowed us, as comics scholars, to shoehorn our work into the curriculum over time. That is a huge advantage.

When I began working on comics as a graduate student in the mid-1990s there were literally no peer-refereed journals in the field. There was a single scholarly conference (ICAF). No professional organization. Few courses. No programs. Moreover, we had active resistance from groups like the MLA and SCS. If my memory is correct, the first SCMS comics panel didn’t occur until the one that you were on in London. That was in the early-2000s.

In the late-1990s the MLA routinely rejected proposals for comics panels out of hand. Today, both of those organizations, and others, have growing comics studies areas and interest groups. So much of that is because of the graphic novel as a gentrifying idea. No matter how problematic the term can be, it has allowed us to win a number of tactical battles and advance our cause. At this point I’m very much in favour of winning any tactical battles that we can.


Digital Dreamers: A Conversation between Jose Antonio Vargas and Henry Jenkins

Last week, I participated in a plenary conversation at the Digital Media and Learning 2016 conference at the University of California-Irvine. My thinking partner for this exchange was Jose Antonio Vargas, the founder and CEO of Define American, a non-profit media and culture organization that seeks to elevate the conversation around immigration and citizenship in America; the founder and editor of #EmergingUS, a digital platform that lives at the intersection of race, immigration, and identity in a multicultural America; and a filmmaker.

I was thrilled to have this chance to reconnect with Vargas. As we both note at the start of the conversation, we had developed a special relationship a decade or so ago, when he was starting as a reporter at the Washington Post and I was often consulted as a source for his stories about video games and about the role of new media in the 2008 presidential campaign. We lost touch with each other, so I was surprised, along with everyone else, when Vargas came out as undocumented in a cover story in Time magazine and have watched with close attention and distant admiration as he has emerged as a key figure in the debates around immigration reform in America over the past few years.

During this same time, I have moved to California and found myself more and more writing about issues of race/racism and social justice, after spending the first part of my career largely avoiding such topics. So, in this exchange, we both share something of our personal journeys and then talk about the role of media — old and new — in creating the context where today’s debates around immigration reform, Islamaphobia, and racialized police violence have been taking place, and we engage with the diverse audience of researchers, educators, and community leaders drawn to the MacArthur Foundation sponsored event. Since the conference organizers have made a video of the event available, I wanted to share it with my regular readers here.

If you would like to read more of my own recent writings about growing up as a white southerner and how this has impacted the way I think about race, see this piece about a family photograph and this one about the debate around the confederate flag.

Below is another video produced in association with the DML conference — in this case, Howard Rhinegold interviews Sangita Shresthova and Gabriel Peters-Lazario, my frequent collaborators, as they describe a workshop they ran focused on world-building and transmedia for social change.

GeekOut Interview: Transmedia Worldbuilding for Civic Engagement from Connected Learning Alliance on Vimeo.

If you have not already registered to attend our Oct. 21 conference, Transforming Hollywood 7: Diversifying Entertainment, please do so. Tickets are going fast, and we think this is going to be a really significant discussion about how we may produce a more inclusive culture both behind the camera and on screen. I will be sharing videos of the event here sometime down the line, but you will want to tell your grandchildren you were there when it happened. 🙂