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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Building Imaginary Worlds: An Interview with Mark J. P. Wolf (Part Three)

As you note, audiences often police the continuity of their favorite franchises, holding the creators accountable to seemingly impossible standards of consistency and coherence. What might your book tell us about the things that motivate this high level of fan investment in continuity?

Tolkien’s concept of “Secondary Belief” sums it up best.  It’s not so much a “suspension of disbelief”, as Coleridge supposed, but rather belief in the secondary world we are experiencing, that makes it compelling.  When one imagines the world, it needs a certain degree of consistency and coherence to produce secondary belief, and this is certainly not an impossible standard to achieve.  Once it is achieved, however, fans will attempt, and often work quite hard at, explaining away any consistencies that do occur; but of course these will be smaller ones that do not destroy secondary belief.

So how much consistency and coherence is enough?  And, of course, the amount of world detail is important as well; that’s why I argue that completeness (or, really, the illusion of completeness) is also necessary.  You can make a tiny world with very little invention or detail, and it will be consistent and coherent, but there won’t be enough there to evoke a sense of travelling to another place.  And the quality of the details matters as well; you can have huge amounts of detail, but still have an uninteresting world which no one will care about.

So if fans are making demands on a world and policing its continuity, it is a good sign, for it shows that they care about it enough to complain; world-makers should accept that as a compliment.  And world-makers should try to be clear as to what is canonical, and also try to be as consistent as possible; while this may hamper the growth of a world, I think it should be seen as a challenge to be met, and which can be met.  There are always ways of expanding a world that do not disrupt its consistency.

 You trace the origins of many of today’s fictional worlds back to the traveler’s tales of the ancient and medieval worlds. What might we learn about contemporary fantasy and science fiction stories if we were to know more — as you clearly do — about those earlier traditions? What changes when we move from a world where there are unknown spaces within the real physical world to one where we have to map radical difference elsewhere — in space, underneath the sea, at the center of the Earth? Are we still dealing with the consequences of that shift?


First, so many things have been done earlier than we realize.  Charles Ischir Defontenay’s novel Star (Psi Cassiopeia): The Marvelous History of One of the Worlds of Outer Space (1854), for example, is certainly ahead of its time in the world-building it does, with its alien cultures, world details, and story arc.  Second, it’s important to know your audience.  The Age of Exploration encouraged worlds to find new locations, and they did, but one can still find more traditional island worlds (like Isla Nublar in Jurassic Park (1990)).

The main difference is that today, audiences are geographically more savvy, and less likely to accept information that goes against what they already know.  A fictional island in the Pacific Ocean still works, since no one knows them all (or even how many there are; according to Wikipedia, there are between 20,000 and 30,000 of them).  But fictional U.S. states are much harder to believe in (at least for an American audience), because most people know them all.

Today, this extends even beyond the earth; most people know the planets of the solar system, making new planets in our solar system more difficult to propose, and conditions on these planets are well-known enough that earth-like civilizations on Jupiter or Pluto, for example, will be thought unrealistic.  Likewise, future settings set too close to our own soon become just alternate realities (for example, the worlds of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) or Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)).  General audiences have more scientific and cultural knowledge as well, so means of traveling to worlds, and the workings of the worlds as well, are under greater scrutiny.

Just compare the original appearances of the Star Trek galaxy to its later additions, and you can see changes in what is considered acceptable.  So the level of the general knowledge of the audience (and not merely geographical knowledge) have propelled world-makers to a higher degree of sophistication, detail, and consistency, while the greater (and increasing) number of secondary worlds has also established traditions and conventions which also shape expectations.


In my own work on transmedia storytelling, I keep coming back to the idea that most transmedial extensions are designed to serve one of three tasks: explore the world, expand the timeline, or flesh out secondary characters. As I read your discussion of different ways of structuring our encounters with worlds, you suggest a range of different devices — including maps, timelines, and genealogies — but they seem to me to fall back on the same basic functions. Would you agree?

Those three things you mention coincide nicely with the three basic infrastructures that I discuss in chapter three; that is, maps, timelines, and genealogies, which correspond the three basic things you need to have a world (space, time, and characters).  Along with these three, other infrastructures (nature, culture, language, mythology, philosophy, and of course, narrative) also have the basic function of organizing world information into a coherent form, by providing  contexts for, and connections between, pieces of world data.  And, these are the structures that all new world information is attached to, and that determine what new material can be added.  So, in that sense, they have a similar function.  Ancillary works can extend a single infrastructure without adding narrative content; a dictionary for an invented language, for example.  This would be an example of a transmedial extension of a world that does not deal with maps, timelines, or characters (although it may provide etymologies for place-names and character-names), but it would still serve the function of organizing world data into a structure.

Mark J. P. Wolf is a Professor in the Communication Department at Concordia University Wisconsin.  He has a B. A. (1990) in Film Production and an M. A. (1992) and Ph. D. (1995) in Critical Studies from the School of Cinema/Television (now renamed the School of Cinematic Arts) at the University of Southern California.  His books include Abstracting Reality: Art, Communication, and Cognition in the Digital Age (2000), The Medium of the Video Game (2001), Virtual Morality: Morals, Ethics, and New Media (2003), The Video Game Theory Reader (2003), The World of the D’ni: Myst and Riven (2006), The Video Game Explosion: A History from PONG to PlayStation and Beyond (2007), The Video Game Theory Reader 2 (2008), Before the Crash: An Anthology of Early Video Game History (2012), the two-volume Encyclopedia of Video Games: The Culture, Technology, and Art of Gaming (2012), Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation (2012), The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies (forthcoming), Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (forthcoming), Video Games Around the World (forthcoming), and LEGO Studies: Examining the Building Blocks of a Transmedial Phenomenon (forthcoming) and two novels for which he has begun looking for an agent and publisher.  He is also founder and co-editor of the Landmark Video Game book series from University of Michigan Press.  He has been invited to speak in North America, Europe, Asia, and Second Life, and is on the advisory boards of Videotopia and the International Journal of Gaming and Computer-Mediated Simulations, and on several editorial boards including those of Games and Culture, The Journal of E-media Studies, and Mechademia: An Annual Forum for Anime, Manga and The Fan Arts.  He lives in Wisconsin with his wife Diane and his sons Michael, Christian, and Francis.  [mark.wolf@cuw.edu]


Building Imaginary Worlds: An Interview with Mark J. P. Wolf (Part One)

This is the first of a series of interviews I am planning to run on this blog throughout the fall with authors, critics, and designers who are exploring the concept of world building through their work.


The concept of world-building (or world-sharing, as Derek Johnson recently described it) has a long and varied history with roots in the popular discourse of science fiction and fantasy writers and in analytic and aesthetic philosophy. Increasingly, the concept of world building has become foundational to discussions of transmedia storytelling. As one long time screen writer told me some years ago, when he started, he pitched a story because you needed to have a great story to make a great film; then, he pitched a character because a compelling character can extend across a series of sequels; and now, he pitches a world, since a world can support multiple stories involving multiple characters across multiple media platforms. Yet, even without the kind of radical intertextuality represented by transmedia practices, world-building is central to a great deal of genre fiction writing. Indeed, some have complained that science fiction and fantasy often lacks compelling (or at least rounded) characters or classically constructed plots because it is more interested in building and exploring worlds than dealing with individuals.


For an example of how the concept of a world gets used in conversations around contemporary media franchises, check out  Travis Beacham’s introduction to the graphic novel prequel to Pacific Rim:

“The story is in the world; not the other way around. That is to say, a world is big and hopelessly uncontrollable. It spills messily outside the edges of any one story. A world has books on its shelves and articles in its newspapers. It has ephemera and lore. It has slang and jargon. It has footnotes and obscure references to take for granted. It has a deep past and a far side. It has roads that fork away from the plot to some only hinted-at place. Just as ‘real world’ stories set themselves on this Earth, with all her richness and complexity, the challenge of genres like science fiction and fantasy is to not only spin a good tale, but to invent for that tale an imagined backdrop that seems to stretch clear into the horizon.”

One of my favorite descriptions of the concept of the world comes from Dudley Andrew’s book, Concepts in Film Theory:

“Worlds are comprehensive systems which comprise all elements that fit together within the same horizon, including elements that are before our eyes in the foreground of experience, and those which sit vaguely on the horizon forming a background. These elements consist of objects, feelings, associations, and ideas in a grand mix so rich that only the term ‘world’ seems large enough to encompass it….We step into a Dickens novel and quickly learn the type of elements that belong there. The plot may surprise us with its happenings, but every happening must seem possible in that world because all the actions, characters, thoughts and feelings come from the same overall source. That source, the world of Dickens, is obviously larger than the particular rendition of it which we call Oliver Twist. It includes versions we call David Copperfield and The Pickwick Papers too. In fact, it is larger than the sum of novels Dickens wrote, existing as a set of paradigms, a global source from which he could draw. Cut out from this source are anachronistic elements like telephones or space ships, and elements belonging to other types of fiction (blank verse, mythological characters, and even accounts of the life of royalty.) It should be clear that even such a covering term as ‘the world of Dickens’ has no final solidarity or authority. A young reader of David Copperfield and Oliver Twists might consider these texts to be versions of a world of education and family relations which concern him outside of literature. The Dickens scholar naturally would consider these texts to be part of the complete writings of Dickens. What they represented for Dickens himself, who lived within them during the years of their composition, no one can say. One goal of interpretation has always been to make coincide the world of the reader with that of the writer.”

Andrew’s comments already point to fault lines in our understanding of the concept of world-building. Mark J. P. Wolf’s new book, Building Imaginary Worlds, uses as its foundation J.R.R. Tolkien’s concept of “sub-creation,” an approach he explains below. This approach values world building which expands beyond the world as we currently know it, which creates an imaginary world from scratch. Andrew’s approach here sees all texts as building up worlds that help define what events may or may not occur there, what characters may or may not exist, what outcomes are or are not plausible, etc. Historical fiction or documentary fiction, by this definition, may require extensive amounts of research in order to build up a richly realized world and make it comprehensible to the viewer. I have, for example, been drawn into the world of women’s prisons as mapped and explored by this summer’s Orange Is the New Black: while this world looks very much like real institutions,  while this series is loosely based on a memoir, most of us knew little of this world before we started to watch the series, the author has gradually added more details and complicated our initial impressions of this world episode by episode, and we draw more and more on that expanded comprehension to make sense of what we are seeing. I often point to something like Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York as a fantastic example of the role of world-building in historical fiction, even if, again, this world is being reconstructed rather than fabricated from scratch. Andrew’s account suggests worlds are built as much by readers as by authors, that they emerge intertextually through the relationship between a range of different texts, and moving a bit beyond him, I would argue that worlds are performative — that is, any given text seeks to evoke a world in the mind of the reader and may or may not successfully achieve that project. Perhaps there is no real conceptual disagreement between these different senses of a world, only a matter of emphasis: Wolf, for example, acknowledges that works that remain closer to the primary world of real experience may still engage in activities of world-building, while his own emphasis is on works that are “sub-created,” that involve a higher degree of original creation on the part of their authors (and readers?).

This potential disagreement aside,  Mark J. P. Wolf’s Building Imaginary Worlds is an extraordinary accomplishment –and a great starting point for an ongoing discussion of the concept of world-building.  Wolf starts with a core background in game studies and science fiction/fantasy and expands outward to develop an encyclopedic account of the place of imaginary worlds in contemporary narrative practice. I’ve known Mark for a long time and he’s been working on this book as far back as I can remember, and it’s exciting to see all of the pieces fall into place. He employs thousands of examples of fictional worlds to illustrate his core arguments, which include discussions of history as well as theory, going back to the earliest adventure stories and forward to contemporary experiments in transmedia storytelling. I have assigned this book for my Transmedia class this term and see it as essential reading for anyone interested in understanding the place of world-building in contemporary culture. Wolf is perhaps best known to my readers as a scholar who has written extensively about video and computer games, so games researchers may be interested to see how he uses theories of imaginary worlds here to revisit some of the core questions animating that field also.

The following conversation only scratches the surface. Today, we are going to try to map Wolf’s basic model of “sub-creation” and “imaginary worlds,” and over three more installments, we will get deeper into the implications of this model, looking at such contemporary examples as Star Trek: Into Darkness, Pacific Rim, and Defiance.

Let’s start with the key words in the book’s title. What do you mean here by “worlds” and how is it related to the concept of “subcreation”?

 As I explain in the first chapter, the term “world” is not used in the geographic sense (like planets), but in the experiential sense, meaning the sum total of a character’s experiences; therefore, an imaginary world could be a planet or galaxy, or more limited in scope, like a continent, a country, or even a city. The fact that it is an imaginary (or “secondary”, to use Tolkien’s term) world means that it is somehow set apart from the “real” (or “Primary”) world, with some boundaries between them, making the secondary world a thing of its own; and whereas some boundaries are physical or geographic in nature, such as mountain ranges, deserts, oceans, and so forth (or the surface of the earth itself, for underground worlds), some boundaries are temporal in nature (as in worlds set in the distant past or future, making them equally inaccessible to us in the present), or even conditional, such as in the alternate versions of the Primary world that some stories present. Tolkien separates the two by calling them the Primary world and Secondary worlds (borrowing terms from Coleridge’s discussion of the two types of imagination), and writes that the latter is dependent on the former, hence the term “subcreation” (literally, “creating under”); secondary worlds use material from the Primary world, reshaping and recombining elements from it, so that the end result is both recognizable but also new and different. So what the book examines, then, is how imaginary worlds depart from our world, and how they are created by authors.

Does the term, world-building, apply to works, such as, say, Gangs of New York, which reconstruct richly-detailed versions of actual historical worlds or does it only apply to works of the imagination?

 I would say the term “world-building” definitely applies, since in cases like Gangs of New York (2002) or Titanic (1997), the past is being meticulously built and recreated. But in both of these cases, and especially that of Titanic, it is something from the Primary World that is being recreated (even though some of the characters are fictional), whereas the kind of world-building that my book is mainly concerned with is the building of secondary (imaginary) worlds. So the term can apply to both.

Of course, it could be pointed out that even the version of the Primary world that each person carries around in his or her head involves a certain amount of imagination, since we fill in parts of the world we have not seen or have forgotten, so in a sense, both kinds of worlds involve the imagination; but secondary worlds are more clearly set apart from the Primary World.

As I point out in the book’s first chapter, there are varying degrees of what we could call “secondariness”, based on how much invention a secondary world contains; some, like the Star Wars Galaxy or Middle-earth, are very different from the Primary World, whereas others, like Lake Wobegon or More’s Utopia, have less invention but are still imaginary.

Then the question becomes, how much invention is needed to call something a “world”? Some fictional characters set in a real place isn’t really enough; to be a “world” you would, I would argue, need a fictional location as well, and one large enough that someone could live there (getting back to the experiential sense of “world”). So although it is a matter of degree, there is a point where you have enough that a secondary world can stand alone on its own, and that’s usually where most people would probably consider it a separate “world”.

In discussing Nelson Goodman’s Ways of World-making, Dudley Andrew argues that the works of a single author — his example is Dickens — may add up to a single world, even if the author never signals any connection between these works. Would you agree?

 I suppose it is possible, though if no connection is indicated, then one would not be forced to conclude that the worlds are connected. Such connections are often made clear by the author, sometimes retrospectively, like L. Frank Baum’s tying together the various lands his stories take place in, which he did to connect them to Oz. Certainly if an author has a popular world, it is in the author’s interest to do so, as this adds canonical material to a world that an audience may be interested in (and sometimes such a link is the only reason an audience is interested, at least initially).

Dickens’ works are all arguably set in the Primary world, so I think it would be difficult to make the case that he’s creating a secondary world; in such a situation, transnarrative characters could signal ways that individual narratives are connected, but they can still be set together in the Primary world without creating a secondary world (if the amount of invention is low enough). So one could have connected stories set in the Primary World, which make no reference to a secondary world, even though they contain fictional characters and events. On the other hand, two or more series can take place in a linked universe in such a tenuous way that for all practical purposes the series are considered separately; for example Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom series (about Mars), his Amtor series (about Venus), and his Tarzan series all arguably take place in the same universe, but each has a different main character and occurs on a different planet, with only a little overlap between them.


Mark J. P. Wolf is a Professor in the Communication Department at Concordia University Wisconsin.  He has a B. A. (1990) in Film Production and an M. A. (1992) and Ph. D. (1995) in Critical Studies from the School of Cinema/Television (now renamed the School of Cinematic Arts) at the University of Southern California.  His books include Abstracting Reality: Art, Communication, and Cognition in the Digital Age (2000), The Medium of the Video Game (2001), Virtual Morality: Morals, Ethics, and New Media (2003), The Video Game Theory Reader (2003), The World of the D’ni: Myst and Riven (2006), The Video Game Explosion: A History from PONG to PlayStation and Beyond (2007), The Video Game Theory Reader 2 (2008), Before the Crash: An Anthology of Early Video Game History (2012), the two-volume Encyclopedia of Video Games: The Culture, Technology, and Art of Gaming (2012), Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation (2012), The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies (forthcoming), Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (forthcoming), Video Games Around the World (forthcoming), and LEGO Studies: Examining the Building Blocks of a Transmedial Phenomenon (forthcoming) and two novels for which he has begun looking for an agent and publisher.  He is also founder and co-editor of the Landmark Video Game book series from University of Michigan Press.  He has been invited to speak in North America, Europe, Asia, and Second Life, and is on the advisory boards of Videotopia and the International Journal of Gaming and Computer-Mediated Simulations, and on several editorial boards including those of Games and Culture, The Journal of E-media Studies, and Mechademia: An Annual Forum for Anime, Manga and The Fan Arts.  He lives in Wisconsin with his wife Diane and his sons Michael, Christian, and Francis.  [mark.wolf@cuw.edu]

“Sorry for Disturbing: We’re Trying to Change Brazil”: Brazilian Youth, Civic Media, and The Protests

This spring, my Civic Paths Research Group was lucky enough to be able to host a visit by Carla Mendonça, a journalist and a Doctoral candidate at the Research Center and Graduate Program on the Americas at the Institute of Social Sciences of University of Brasília in Brazil. Her primary research interest is in drawing comparisons between the roles new media is playing in the political lives of American and Brazilian youth. She sat in on our weekly research meetings and also participated actively in a PhD seminar I was running focused on Civic Media and Participatory Politics. She arrived back home just in time to see some significant political rallies across her country and she has been sharing via our group’s discussion forum some of the kinds of new media practices that have been a part of this protest and reform movement. This story has been under-reported in the U.S. media, compared to really important stuff like what’s been said inside the Big Brother House. :-) So, I wanted to share with you today her account of what’s been happening on the ground there and her selection of some key examples of the memes and videos being produced and circulated by this mostly youth led movement.

“Sorry for disturbing: we’re trying to change Brazil”:

Brazilian Youth, Civic Media and the Protests –

by Carla Mendonça 

Brazil is known for its cultural diversity. We have exciting music and spectacular dances. Our media is recognized for its tela novellas and advertisements. Nowadays, we are the second largest community – behind the United States — on Facebook. We are known for our creativity, our warmth, and our diversity.

Throughout the last decades, Brazilians have also made progress in achieving formal democracy, in creating more jobs and providing better wages, and in expanding access to the education system.  For many, the World Cup and the Olympic Games represented the promise of increased global visibility and of bringing more foreign investments into our country.

This winter — it’s winter in Brazil now –  we have also gained visibility as another country which has used network communications to inspire a grassroots movement for social change. What’s happened in cities across Brazil show strong parallels to the Spanish Indignados, the Occupy Wall Street movement, the various Arab Spring uprisings: protests across our country have some of the same spirit as the world saw displayed in Egypt’s Tahrir Square.


As these protests have moved forward since June, we are seeing Brazilian youth demonstrate a great understanding of how to use the internet and transmedia for civic engagement purposes. As Henry Jenkins contends, civic media is “any use of any technology for the purposes of increasing civic engagement and public participation, enabling the exchange of meaningful information, fostering social connectivity, constructing critical perspectives, insuring transparency and accountability, or strengthening citizen agency”.

The polling institute Datafolha Research found that most of the protesters in the streets are 26-35 years old and don’t have any political party preference. More than 80% of them follow the movement through Facebook.


(Leave the couch and come to protest)


The movement started in March in the southern town Porto Alegre: the initial action was directed against a proposed increase in the public transportations’ fares. In June, 14th, in Sao Paulo, after weeks of tentative protests for the same reason, students tried again to protest in a main street of the biggest Brazilian city, where the buses’ fares had increased R$ 0,20 – about US$ 0,10. Police violently repressed the protesters to make the traffic free.

Brazilian protests are brutally dispersed by the police

The following day, videos, photos and testimonies about the confrontation between undergraduate students and soldiers were spreading across the internet and social networks. The content was shocking, and even people that were not participating in the events started to support the movement. Police tried to control the protests, especially, in Sao Paulo, Rio and Brasilia, while the biggest Brazilian media corporation – Rede Globo – called the students “delinquents”.  To work around those obstacles, activists deployed transmedia practices to report what was happening in the streets and mobilize the public.

In the eye of the storm

That weekend, protests expanded from the South to the North. Millions of people went to the streets in big cities. Police retreated and media started to call the students “protesters” instead of “delinquents”.



A meme

(Sorry for disturb the traffic, we’re trying to change Brazil)

The increase of the public transportation’s fares was the trigger, but other issues are being brought to the streets. Protesters are asking for change. They want better public services on education, health and public transportation, the jailing of corrupt politicians, and they don’t accept the huge amounts of public money that are being spent on the World Cup. People are saying they would prefer that money be focused on education and health systems rather than on stadiums.

No, I’m not going to the World Cup

A meme

(Kick Fifa – Mr. Politicians, the party is over – The State is made by the people, with the people and for the people)


As with other decentralized protest movements that have sprung up around the world, the absence of a strong leadership within the movement has made it difficult for them to negotiate with government authorities. On internet, some attempted to consolidate their agenda and make clear proposals.


19 de Junho de 2013 04 38


We will be simple and direct!

The radio and television media say that we don’t have a specific cause.

It can weaken the movement.

The decrease of the public transportations’ fares is not enough for us,

but actually we need to know how to start a new Brazil.

So we are raising five straight causes without religious or ideological inferences,

without political parties’ flags or subjectivities.

We are going to raise moral causes that are unanimous accepted.

And we are going to raise few of them for a while in order to keep them strong.

We will call them The Five Causes!

The five causes are:

1)         Not to PEC 37 (an amendment to the Brazilian Constitution).

2)          The quick renunciation by senator Renan Calheiros of the presidency of the National Congress.

3)          Quick investigation by Federal Police and District Attorneys and punishment of illegalities in World Cup’s constructions.

4)           A law that defines corruption as a heinous crime.

5)          The end of the privileged forum for politicians because it is an offense to our Constitution.

Repeat, shout, retweet, and share.

Download this video and post on your social networks accounts before it is deleted from internet.

You will see that your son don’t give up the fight (sentence from the Brazilian anthem).


Despite some criticism of the movement by journalists and political analysts, all local governments decided don’t raise the public transportations’ fares anymore. Even so, protesters kept engaged, demanding better health and education systems, less corruption, and bringing more and more issues to the streets.


A Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff`s meme

(The Queen of the Cups)


A Congress meme (it is the Brazilian Congress shape)

(Don’t re-elect any congressman – The democratic way to give dignity to the Brazilian Congress)


After three weeks under pressure, the main political institutions started to announce some propositions. President Dilma Rousseff, for example, announced the intention to start a process to reform the country’s political institutions. Some of the quick answers from the political institutions included:

-       Mayors of 104 cities in 17 states (Brazil has 27 states) canceled increases in public transportation fares.

-       Federal Government: 1) called a meeting with mayors and governors to discuss an agreement for education, health and urban mobility; 2) called a meeting with some movements’ leaders; 3) announced the intention to start a political institutions’ reform process in the country.

-       The Congress: 1) voted and didn’t approve an amendment to the Brazilian Constitution (PEC 37) that has been proposing restrictions to Ministério Público, an institution similar to the District Attorneys; 2) approved a law that defines corruption as a heinous crime; 3) approved that 100% of the money from oil royalties will be invested on education and health; 4) canceled the July recess.

-       Supreme Court ordered the arrest of a congressman judged guilty of corruption in 2010.

Signs are that the government is responding to this popular movement, and more is yet to come.

Brazilian Spring – Enough! Brazil is of the Brazilian people!

Things did not fall from the sky

The movement was organized by young people, creatively, via internet, working in networks, adding a Brazilian face to this global phenomenon. Young Brazilians used the communication via internet and transmedia exchanging meaningful information, they fostered social connectivity, they constructed real critical perspectives, and they strengthened citizen agency. Thus, they strengthened their social bonds and created a strong sense of civic engagement and collective empowerment.

Civic action is essential for democracy. Those young people have shown that they can know how to deploy civic media to push for a more democratic society and for policies that better represent their values.


Carla Mendonça is a journalist and a Doctoral candidate at the Research Center and Graduate Program on the Americas at the Institute of Social Sciences of University of Brasília, in Brazil. Last semester, Carla worked on her Doctoral dissertation research at Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at University of Southern California thanks to a grant from Capes Foundation, an agency under the Ministry of Education of Brazil. She is comparing how young Brazilians and Americans use technology for civic engagement and participatory politics.

While we are on the subject of participatory politics, I also wanted to share with you today a powerful video on the George Zimmerman verdict, produced by the Black Youth Project. Cathy Cohen, who is a fellow member of the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics Research Network, was hosting a convening of more than 100 black youth activists this weekend and they collectively decided to issue a statement about the Trayvon Martin Case and the issue of violence directed against black youth. The video is simple, direct, and poignant: it carries the moral weight of a new generation of political leaders as they grapple with some of the most difficult issues of our time. You will want to watch this.

“Same Old Shit!”: Fan Resistance at Wrestlemania 29 (Part One)

Two weeks ago, my son and I flew to Newark, New Jersey to attend Wrestlemania 29. My son first became interested in professional wrestling when he was nine, and I ended up accompanying him to a range of local and national events. Together, we saw some of the great performers of the 1980s – from Hulk Hogan to Andre the Giant, from Jake the Snake Roberts to Hacksaw Jim Duggan and Rowdy Roddy Piper; we also saw early matches by then-emerging performers, such as The Undertaker, Shawn Michaels, Bret “The Hitman” Hart, and Triple H; and as he grew older, we even made it to a live ECW event (a rival league that has since taken on a mythic reputation). I wrote an essay about the ways that professional wrestling constituted a site of masculine melodrama, “Never Trust a Snake,” and my son published his own account of his experiences as a young wrestling fan for Nick Sammond’s Steel Chair to the Head: The Pleasures and Pain of Professional Wrestling. My son has remained actively interested in wrestling through the years; my interests have shifted elsewhere, but when my son asked if I would travel with him to Wrestlemania, I jumped at the opportunity.

My son brought me up to speed for several weeks before we left, even preparing a PowerPoint to help me keep the various characters and their storylines straight. We bought into the whole package – the Hall of Fame induction ceremony at Madison Square Gardens, the fan Axxess event at the Izod Center, and floor seats for Wrestlemania 29 itself at Met Life Stadium. What follows is an exchange which the two of us wrote reflecting on what we saw and what we feel are some of the defining traits of the contemporary wrestling world. Here, we hope to share some insights the WWE’s often-feisty relationship with its hardcore fans.

Since many of my readers may know you best from the wrestling article we co-wrote ten years ago, would you like to update them on your life since then?

I graduated from The University of Arizona and immediately interviewed to become an assistant staff writer with the WWE. I got to submit a short script, which Stephanie McMahon and the writing team read out loud and discussed. I wrote a scene in which “The Rated R Superstar” Edge, who was known for his reckless lifestyle, found out he had a teenage daughter and had to reevaluate his life choices.

I didn’t get the job, so I moved to the one-stoplight town of Alamance, North Carolina and became an apprentice promoter for an independent wrestling federation. It was my crazy way of showing I had the gumption to go for my dreams. I got to hear a lot of wrestling’s trade secrets from the athletes themselves and I got to know the real people behind the gimmicks. Mostly I spent a lot of time lugging brutally heavy steel poles and wooden planks around in order to build the wrestling ring at each venue. But I had a really bad time overall, for reasons it wouldn’t be polite to go into here, and I ended up deciding that I didn’t want to work in wrestling.

I became a transmedia writer and content producer instead. I now work for The Alchemists, a Hollywood transmedia production company. Most recently I was the primary author of an elaborate second screen experience for the CW television series Cult. Despite going in a different direction professionally I’ve stayed a fan.

One of the great things about growing up is that you get to make your own dreams come true. Specifically, I’ve made attending Wrestlemania and Comic-Con my two annual traditions. I’ve now followed the WWE around to seven Manias (in Boston, Orlando, Houston, Phoenix, Atlanta, Miami and North Jersey.) I always spend weeks making signs, which almost never actually end up being very visible on TV. I’ve gone with friends, girlfriends and a professor. But I’ve never forgotten how much it meant to me to go to the shows at The Garden with you when I was a kid. I really wanted to go to one more show with you.

Why don’t you set the scene for us? You’ve written about the periodic shifts in the core vision of the WWE and especially its ongoing attempts to balance its hardcore fans with the family trade. What do you see as the current state of the WWE and how did this help to shape what was in the program in New Jersey?

Fans describe the current moment in wrestling as the PG Era. The McMahon family, who runs the WWE, has become consumed by the desire to become a respectable corporate brand. ‘Rasslin has always resided in the cultural ghetto, just a little more respectable than monster truck racing but not as respectable as NASCAR. The WWE achieved its highest ratings in the late 90s and early 2000s when they fully embraced their wild image. The major pro wrestling series were rated PG-14. Characters cursed like sailors. Women’s wrestlers dressed like cheerleaders, Catholic school girls or French maids. They swatted each other on the butt with paddles. Male and female wrestlers alike performed death-defying stunts. The soap opera storylines took a dark turn. Triple H infamously raped his opponent Kane’s dead girlfriend’s corpse in her coffin. Wrestling became mainstream among 20-somethings precisely because it irresponsible and excessive. It provided a carnal thrill you couldn’t find anywhere else on television.

The company reigned in their crude content because they wanted to have their cake and eat it too. They wanted to be ultra-cool, but they didn’t want to be seedy. Vince McMahon saw the WWE as a publicly-traded entertainment studio on the level of Marvel or LucasArts. He produced theatrical films starring their performers; he opened a restaurant in Times Square; he founded a pro football league to compete with the NFL; he even cut rap albums.

All of that went off the rails in 2007 when one of the stars, Chris Benoit, murdered his family and hung himself. The most common theory is that his insanity was brain damage he suffered headbutting opponents during his career. Other past and current stars, such as Eddie Guerrero, Mister Perfect, Miss Elizabeth, Sensational Sherri, Bam Bam Bigelow, The British Bulldog, Pitbull #2, Road Warrior Hawk, Demolition Crush, Crash Holly, Test and Umaga – all died of overdoses and drug-induced heart attacks over a seven year span. Big corporate sponsors dropped their support. Local athletic commissions refused to grant the WWE the licenses necessary to perform in certain markets unless they adopted tougher drug testing. Ratings dropped. I was one of the many long time viewers who stopped watching. It was getting downright difficult to give these people my money. I felt like I was supporting something evil.



The WWE has been obsessed with cleaning up its image ever since. All of their shows are now rated PG. The company does a substantial amount of charity work. This weekend’s Wrestlemania broadcast alone included tributes to Hurricane Sandy relief, the Be A Star anti-bullying campaign, the Special Olympics, Make-a-Wish kids and saluting America’s troops – all campaigns the WWE consistently promotes throughout the year. As a result, top sponsors have returned, and a host of respected figures ranging from Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to Arnold Schwarzenegger, Hugh Jackman, Sean “Puffy” Combs and The Muppets have appeared on WWE television.

Fans who started watching because they loved wrestling’s rebellious excesses have become alienated. Many continue to watch because they love what wrestling was, or what they believe it could be again, but they hate what wrestling is today, and they understandably feel like they didn’t change. Wrestling did. They don’t want to be preached to. They find the anti-bullying PSAs hollow coming from a company that allows wrestlers to make homophobic comments. They want the best athletes and biggest personalities to be successful, not the performers who present the cleanest corporate image.

I basically agree with those fans, even if I feel like they can sometimes paint things as more black and white than they are. As I wrote in Steel Chair to the Head wrestling tried so hard to be shocking in those days that it just got gross. But the energy was much rawer then. I liked how wrestling let its hair down. I will still maintain that both from a creative standpoint and a business standpoint the blood, sex and sock puppets weren’t the problem. The rash of drug related deaths were caused by the relentless 320 day a year work schedule and the lack of company health care, which prevented people from recovering naturally from injuries without abusing pain killers. Management has also always had an expectation that wrestlers achieve unrealistic body shapes, which led the stars to abuse steroids. None of that has really changed. Going PG did help the WWE attract more sponsors and celebrity involvement, which was good for their bottom line. But it also made them a lot less cool, and their ratings are now half of what they used to be. Sanitized wrestling is a buzz kill.

Today’s viewers feel that they are the custodians of wrestling. They still remember what wrestling used to be about – what made them fall in love with it – and they intend to keep booing the good guys, chanting “boring” and sitting in stony silence at live events until they force the WWE to change. But the WWE is seemingly willing to lose those fans if it means they can stay respectable. The gulf that separates the viewers and the corporate executives was never more obvious than at Wrestlemania this weekend.

I’ll say! We observed some real tensions all weekend.

Take the Hall of Fame ceremony. Before the event even started, the WWE announced that late 90s star Mick Foley’s Hall of Fame speech would not air on their trimmed-down television broadcast. He would be cut for time. Instead viewers would see Vince McMahon honor Donald Trump, who owned the buildings that several past Wrestlemanias had taken place in. It was a recognition that most of the web fans saw as politically and commercially motivated. After some behind-the-scenes discussion, the WWE extended the broadcast to allow Foley’s lifetime achievement award to be broadcast.


When Foley went onto the stage, the auditorium went wild and Mick seemed genuinely touched by the fan response. His remarks were playful and funny, telling stories of his blood and glory days in the ring, He emphasized the match where he lost a sizable chunk of his ear, and he ended by staging a few moments of rough-housing with Chris Jericho, who he had always wanted to beat in the ring, heinous villain CM Punk broke character in order to referee the fight.

When The Donald entered, he was resoundingly booed and the relentless jeers continued throughout his remarks. The Donald got booed again when the Hall of Famers were reintroduced at Wrestlemania.


The fans also jeered, booed, and hissed when former Today show host Maria Menounos went into an overly-long and overly-flattering introduction of Bob Backlund, another featured part of the program that went terribly wrong. Backlund came out and seemed to be shouting at the fans. Then the fans shouted back. After a while, it seemed like Backlund was trying to perform as the heel character he adopted upon his return to the WWE late in his career (a senile man in a bathrobe who believed he was running for president), but by that point, no one was quite clear what was going on, as the speaker was raspy and red in the face, and telling people to shut up.

We were both struck when they showed a segment from the Hall of Fame ceremony during the Wrestlemania broadcast which had been carefully edited to suggest a much saner, more sentimental Backlund, and it looked like it was redubbed to strip out the audience response. Then, Backlund got on the stage and went bat shit crazy all over again, making it even less clear than before if he was trying to perform in character or simply outraged over the fan response. Maria Menounos also chastised the fans in a blog post about the event.

By contrast, the fans seemed to sit on their hands during the heavily billed matched between the Rock and Cena….

The Rock and John Cena epitomize corporatized wrestling. I have been watching since January of 1991 and I can’t remember ever seeing this kind of across-the-board nerd rage towards a Wrestlemania main event. The Rock left wrestling in the prime of his career years ago to focus on his movie career. He claimed that his return to wrestling three years ago was motivated by an enduring love for his fans, but it just happened to be timed to coincide with the marketing push for the movie Fast 5.

Since then he has left several more times, only returning on occasions when he has another movie to promote. Yet the WWE has now pushed aside all of the wrestlers who work for them day in and day out in order to let The Rock main event the biggest show of the year the past three years in a row. Fans see it as a soullessly calculated bit of corporate back scratching arranged by Hollywood agents and executives who aren’t overwhelmingly concerned with what the core audience would most like to see.

Cena and Rock
John Cena has won 13 world championships since the PG era began, which makes him the face of the moment. He’s constantly seen shaking hands with politicians or ringing the bell at the New York Stock Exchange. But those aren’t credentials fans care about. They’re liabilities, because they make him look like a square, a corporate puppet. Apologists say that Cena is the most popular wrestler on the planet with casual fans, families, women and children, who simply aren’t as rowdy as the adult men in the audience. But he gets booed out of almost every stadium he performs in. Fans verbally rip him to shreds with chants like “You’re a loser” and “Fuck, you, Cena!” They’re not playing around. They hate him.

Last year’s Wrestlemania main event was The Rock vs. John Cena, and the marketing tagline was “Once in a Lifetime.” But the writers knew the whole time that it was false advertising. They were setting the stage for a rematch, which fans dubbed “Twice in a Lifetime.” They’ve been chanting “Same old shit” every time it’s promoted.

I thought the match itself was thoroughly mediocre. I purposefully didn’t make any noise for it, because I think the WWE management even perceives booing as a passionate response. I didn’t even pay that close attention. I just didn’t care. But from what I observed, The Rock is out of shape. No sooner had they started than he got exhausted and needed to rest. That’s been the case with every time he’s wrestled since he came back. It’s hard to keep up with the younger wrestlers when you only get in the ring once or twice a year.

The outcome of this year’s Mania main event was utterly predictable to most fans, with Cena winning and The Rock raising his hand. I rolled my eyes. The WWE hopes that if The Rock tells the audience to respect Cena we’ll all do as he says. I do respect Cena, but not because The Rock shilled for him.

In many ways, getting a glimpse into WWE fan culture through your eyes was the most interesting aspect of the trip for me. As I see it, we are watching a collision between fans and corporations that is unfolding across multiple media. The WWE has fully and obsessively embraced social media, with constant prods throughout their broadcasts to follow along on Twitter, and even recommended hash tags. The fans have also long used a diverse range of blogs, podcasts, and other online forums to coalesce their own opinions, to share insider knowledge, to formulate their opinions – often in ways, as we are seeing here, which run contrary to the dominant narrative the WWE wants to construct.

At the same time, the WWE seeks to stage a spectacular broadcast, that reaches viewers all over the planet. As a scripted program (i.e. “sports entertainment”), they have enormous control over what happens in the ring, yet they have far less control over what the fans do at ringside. Some of the first generation of scholars writing about the WWE stressed the nature of this fan performance – the ways fans perform for each other and for the cameras in ways that help everyone to suspend disbelief and lend credibility to the staged spectacle. When wrestling fans resist, they do so in a highly public manner: they chant, they shout, they hold up signs, they often become so loud that they get heard on the broadcast even if the management doesn’t like what they have to say.

Yes, the announcers have some ability to re-narrate the fan pushback, to re-inscribe it into the narrative. As you say, above all, the WWE wants to generate “heat.” They want to provoke strong emotions, and so, they can always describe the fans as “rowdy” or “raucous” or “out of control” or “going crazy”, even when the response does not seem to support the preferred storyline. Wrestlemania and Raw are going out via a live feed so they can only do so much to control the fan reaction. We saw with the Hall of Fame ceremony, which was taped for later broadcast, that they were almost Orwellian in re-sculpting the experience, cutting out awkward moments, reducing the sound of the crowd so you can’t quite understand what they are shouting, editing it so that it looks like one happy family. Bob Backlund comes across as sentimental in the edit for television, but he came across as crazed and angry for those of us at the live event.

And, of course, the fan’s engagement with the events can shift pretty dramatically from match to match. My nostalgia draws me back to the generation of wrestlers who were performing when you were little, the ones I wrote about in my original “Never Trust a Snake” essay. So, I was perhaps most engaged by the Undertaker/C.M. Punk match. We saw the Undertaker fight some of his early matches and now, he has a 21-0 lifetime record at Wrestlemania. He is an aging lion, who only rarely fights, and who has been rumored for several years to be on the verge of retirement. Yet, the guy knows how to sell the melodramatic dimensions of the storyline. Leading into this match, they did everything they could to make Punk a despicable figure. Paul Bearer, the Undertaker’s long-time friend and supporter, had passed away, in real life. The Undertaker was paying tribute to him on Raw when Punk snuck into the ring and stole the urn which, for storyline purposes, held Bearer’s ashes. We saw broadcasts where he was casually tossing the urn around and then, on the eve of Wrestlemania, he dumped the ashes in the Undertaker’s face and bathed in them himself.

What they delivered at Wrestlemania was an old fashioned “slobberknocker,” full of melodramatic twists in fortune, two counts and kick outs.

My sense is that the fans were eating it up. Sure, there were plenty of people rooting for Punk, who has a strong cult following, but they were also being earnest when they chanted “this is awesome” at several points during the match. And it was fun to me to see that the WWE still knows how to play upon those classic elements in their performances.

It was awesome. Most of the blogs I follow gave the match 4 ½ to 5 stars, and I agree. It was the highlight of the night. In that instance, yes, at least ½ the fans were rooting for the bad guy, CM Punk, but the point wasn’t to disrupt the broadcast. It was to show their love for a great performer. Chanting Punk’s name is very different from chanting “same old shit” towards John Cena and The Rock.

In baseball they would call Punk a five-tool player. He’s a charismatic speaker. He can emote very nuanced reactions for the TV close-ups. He can gesture broadly to get a response from the live audience in the balcony. He’s graceful in the ring, and he knows a broad variety of tactics to make each match feel unique. He can play an identifiable good guy or a despicable bad guy more or less equally well. He’s just got the total package.

Two other wrestlers, Dolph Ziggler and Daniel Bryan, lose more often than they win, but the decibel level for their brief appearances can often exceed those for the better promoted stars. Fans create elaborate signs on poster board and fabric to waive in tribute to them. I think in all fairness they’re probably not quite as charismatic as guys like The Rock or Cena, but they’re better natural athletes and great performers just the same. The fact that they so often draw the short straw when it comes to wins and losses just makes fans respect them more for paying their dues.


Thinking Critically About Brand Cultures: An Interview with Sarah Banet-Weiser (Part Two)

Your central premise is that the logics of branding are now complexly interwoven with all aspects of our everyday lives, that we adopt its principles in shaping our social relationships with each other and defining our identities in the world, and that notions of “authenticity” are less and less meaningful for describing our culture at a time when politics, religion, self-esteem, personal expression, are all bound up with the logics of branding. So, how are you defining branding?

In the book, I’m actually more concerned with what I call “brand culture” than practices of branding (i.e. the design and implementation of specific brand campaigns). For me, brand culture refers to the relationships between consumers and the commercial world, and the way in which these types of relationships have increasingly become cultural contexts for everyday living, individual identity, and affective relationships. Of course, there are different brand cultures, that at times overlap and compete with each other, so in the book I talk about the brand culture of street art in urban spaces, religious brand cultures, the culture of green branding with its focus on the environment, and so on. The practice of branding is typically understood as a complex economic tool, a method of attaching social or cultural meaning to a commodity as a means to make the commodity more personally resonant with an individual consumer. But I’m arguing that, in the contemporary era, brands are about culture as much as they are about economics.

So I try to show this transition in the book, and I argue that we need to think about differences between commodification and branding in order to understand some of the cultural dynamics occurring right now. That is, because a brand’s value extends beyond a tangible product, the process of branding—if successful—is different from commodification: it is a cultural phenomenon more than an economic strategy. Commodification implies the literal transformation of things into commodities; branding is a much more deeply interrelated and diffused set of dynamics. To commodify something means to turn it into, or treat it as, a commodity; it means to make commercial something that wasn’t previously thought of as a product, such as music or racial identity. Commodification is a marketing strategy, a monetization of different spheres of life, a transformation of social and cultural life into something that can be bought and sold. In contrast, the process of branding impacts the way we understand who we are, how we organize ourselves in the world, what stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.

So, I’m trying to make an intervention in the conversations about commodification, branding and identity. Again, I’m not making the argument that we just apply a business model onto the ways we construct our personal identities—it is not the case that business strategies merely get plucked from the realm of economics and mapped onto the realm of culture.

But I’m also not using “economy” or “market” as mere metaphors. In the book, I think about a more nuanced adoption of the logics and moralities of both economics and culture as a way to understand how we are constructing identities within brand culture, and to think about what is at stake in this kind of construction. What’s at stake for individuals and for culture in adopting brand logics and moralities?

In both Authentic and your new anthology, you talk about “commodity activism.” Explain this concept. To what degree does commodity activism still represent a meaningful form of activism? How has our notion of commodity needed to change to incorporate activism into the branding process?
 I’ve struggled a bit to think about the similarities and differences between what you are calling “commodity activism”, what I am calling in my current work “fan activism,” and what our mutual friend Stephen Duncombe would discuss as “ethical spectacle.” For me, there are some core differences between “purchasing Starbucks coffee to support Fair Trade,” tapping into the collective identity of Harry Potter fans in order to push Warner Brothers to move their chocolate contracts to Fair Trade Countries, and using the Guy Fawkes mask for Occupy Wall Street, yet from a certain frame of reference, all might be described as using “branding” to promote their political agendas. So, can we make meaningful distinctions in terms of how activists deploy brands in their efforts to promote change?

Roopali Mukherjee and I, in our co-edited volume, Commodity Activism: Cultural Resistance in Neoliberal Times, define commodity activism as the process by which social action is increasingly understood through the ways it is mapped onto merchandising practices, market incentives, and corporate profits. We look at different forms of commodity activism—the Dove RealBeauty campaign, the branding of green activists, the work of celebrities for progressive causes such as development and the diamond trade, and so on— and think through what social action and cultural resistance mean in a context that is increasingly defined by ideas about self-branding, entrepreneurial individualism, and economic responsibility.

I think that commodity activism can be an important form of social activism, if the goals of such activism are not primarily organized around the accumulation of profit or building a corporate brand (so, for example, consumers may act politically by buying, say, green products, but we need to also attend to the ways in which consumer behavior builds brands by buying products, etc.). In lots of forms of commodity activism, the goal is the identity of the consumer or brand of the corporation, not the activism itself or what it might yield. So much commodity activism, rather than challenge existing structures in the social, economic and cultural realms, those structures that create and sustain inequalities, is dedicated to furthering the recognition of the corporation, its self-brand. This then often becomes the end goal of the activism, and it is this that I think we should challenge as “activism.”

So, to answer your question: yes, we can make meaningful distinctions in terms of how activists deploy brands. We can also make meaningful distinctions in terms of different kinds of activism. So, for example, activism about girls’ self-esteem is hot right now—a whole industry has been built around it. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t an important context for activism, but it does mean that we need to carefully attend to what sort of politics aren’t so easily branded, and thus made visible.

Your first extended example is Dove’s “Real Women” campaign, which Unilever very much wanted us to experience as a break with the ways women had been marketed “beauty products” in the past. To what degree did this embody the new branding logic you are describing? Yet, you are also arguing that it needs to be understood as part of a larger history of Dove’s alternative marketing to women. What might we learn by placing this ad into this expanded historical context?

Well, I think that all cultural forms of activism need to be understood historically, as dynamics of power that shift and become something new, but also because we need to attend to the ways in which historical forms of power continue to be crucial in how we structure our lives and our politics. This is important because history matters—in my work I try, in every chapter, to historicize the specific brand culture I’m examining, so that we can see how there are cultural dynamics that seem quite new and different share similarities with historical processes and patterns. At the same time, there is something shifted at this moment, for some of the reasons I’ve detailed here: the rise of commodity activism, the difference between commodification and branding, the way consumers interact on multiple media platforms, etc. So with the Dove case, the RealBeauty campaign, it is the case that the company encouraged a sort of “co-production” with consumers, and did call attention to the exclusionary (and often racist and classist) norms of beauty culture.

It also has a history of helping to create that very same beauty culture. One doesn’t cancel the other out, nor is this a simple case of hypocrisy. Rather, this kind of contradiction defines brand culture, and also defines how consumer culture can be the site for a kind of activism. The power of capitalism, as we know, has been in its capacity to not just protect existing markets but to be expansive, to create new markets. This happens, though, in the context of a relationship to activism and resistance, and it is this hard-to-define terrain, where we think about what counts as activism, that comprises brand culture.

Sarah Banet-Weiser is a Professor in the School of Communication at USC Annenberg and the department of American Studies and Ethnicity. She had two books published in 2012, most recently Authentic™: The Politics of Ambivalence in a Brand Culture (New York University Press), which examines brand culture, youth, and political possibility through an investigation of self-branding, creativity, politics, and religion. Also published in 2012 was Commodity Activism: Cultural Resistance in Neoliberal Times (New York University Press), co-edited with Roopali Muhkerjee. Her first book, The Most Beautiful Girl in the World: Beauty Pageants and National Identity (University of California Press, 1999), explores a popular cultural ritual, the beauty pageant, as a space in which national identities, desires, and anxieties about race and gender are played out. She has also authored a book on consumer citizenship and the children’s cable network: Kids Rule! Nickelodeon and Consumer Citizenship (Duke University Press, 2007), in addition to her co-edited book, Cable Visions: Television Beyond Broadcasting, co-edited with Cynthia Chris and Anthony Freitas (New York University Press, 2007). She co-edits, with Kent Ono, a book series with New York University Press, “Critical Cultural Communication,” and is the editor of American Quarterly.

Filipino Theater and PostMillenial Pop: An Interview with Lucy Mae San Pablo Burns

I am just back from the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference, held this year in Chicago, where for the first time, we were able to display on the New York University Press table the books which we are publishing as part of the Postmillenial Pop book series, which I co-edit with my USC colleague Karen Tongson. Here’s how we describe the series on its website:

This series strives to publish work that reimagines scholarship on popular culture in the age of transnationalism, convergence and globalization. How does “spreadable” content, as well as media innovations and practices still in formation, reanimate critical approaches to a vast array of popular forms like music, television, video games, comics and movies, as well as emergent forms of popular discourse like blogs, micro-blogs and social networking sites? Conversely, how does the analog (in form and concept) persist, resurface and reinvent itself despite the fascination for “the new” or the “not yet”?

While the series focuses on contemporary popular cultures, the designation “postmillennial” is not meant to be a historical proscription. Instead, Postmillenial Pop encourages approaches that considers contemporary forms and popular practices within a broader matrix of political, cultural and affective histories of race, sexuality, gender and class. Furthermore, the series seeks to publish work that engages the ephemeral and interstitial archives of previous forms of global “re-structuring” and domination, including work that contextualizes the effects of empire, immigration, diaspora and labor movements on popular cultures.

For us, Post-millenial refers to a specific moment in time (and the cultural materials that come out from that moment) but it also describes an intellectual stance — one which is conscious of the multiple identities that we occupy as critics at this particular cultural moment, one which is committed, for example, to bridging across media and across disciplines, one which sees the importance of engaging in conversations that extend beyond the academy, and one which is aware of the importance of linking together different cultural communities in a conversation that looks towards future possibilities.

As the series has taken shape, it has come at the intersection between the different networks through which Karen and I travel, and as such, it is marked by what we hope are provocative and unexpected juxtapositions of different critical and theoretical traditions. We have, as of now, four books published in the series with more coming out in the current year. I hope to feature interviews through the blog with the series contributors as their books start to appear. Today, we are featuring an interview that Karen did with Lucy Mae San Pablo Burns, the author of the series’s first book, Puro Arte: Filipinos on the Stage of Empire.

The other books in the series so far are:

Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green, Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture.

Michael Serazio, Your Ad Here: The Cool Seel of Guerilla Marketing

Derek Johnson, Media Franchising: Creative Licensing and Collaboration in the Culture Industries

And forthcoming books include:

Aswin Punathambekar, From Bombay to Bollywood: The Making of a Global Media Industry

Mark Anthony Neal, Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities

And there are more in the pipeline.

Puro Arte explores the emergence of Filipino American theater and performance from the early 20th century to the present. It stresses the Filipino performing body’s location as it conjoins colonial histories of the Philippines with U.S. race relations and discourses of globalization.

KT: First and foremost, we’re thrilled to have published Puro Arte: Filipinos on the Stages of Empire as our debut title in the Postmillennial Pop series at NYU Press. I think the book does tremendous work in reconfiguring how we define “performance” in a contemporary, purportedly “post-imperial” age, at the same time that it taps into archives that may be more broadly understood in Filipino Studies, American Studies and Filipino American Studies, but not as widely considered when it comes to discussions of representation and embodiment in other popular and national contexts–though they are most certainly relevant to other transnational notions of “theatrics,” as you call them. I’m wondering if you could begin our conversation by sharing more about the origins and different implications of the book’s organizing phrase “puro arte” (literally, “pure art,” but in Tagalog, used as a way to describe “putting on a show” in many senses of the expression)?


LB: Thank you for having the vision to include this book as part of the new book series.  I didn’t realize this book is the first in your series. I feel honored.

 The book’s organizing concept, “puro arte,” finds its inspiration in several sources: through vernacular usage, through creative interpretations of Filipino languages by Filipino artists, and last but not least, through the tireless work of Filipino American artists struggling to create a community for themselves. I draw also on a poem by joel b. tan that plays with a series of Spanish words, including “puro arte” and “seguro,” whose meanings shift as they became part of spoken Filipino. From Spanish puro arte’s pure art moves to Filipino’s pure theatrics; from Spanish “seguro’s” surely shifts to Filipino’s “maybe.” I was really inspired by this creative “flippin” (to reference a collection of Filipino creative writing anthology Flippin, specifically as it foregrounds the play of the vernacular even as it embodies colonial histories.

I also owe much to my co-organizers of Puro Arte, a gathering of artists, community organizers, and academics in San Francisco focusing on the relationship between artists and community-based organizations. Alleluia Panis of Kul Arts, Inc, Professor Christine Balance (UCI, Asian American Studies), joel b tan (community liason, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts), and Olivia Malabuyo (Gerbode Foundation), were my kulaborators back in 2003 and have since then continued to help me explore these linkages.

Most importantly, I am particularly drawn to the worlds of potentiality within forms of puro arte, as places  of radical transformation and creativity, despite or because of colonial/postcolonial histories of violence..


KT: You do some wonderful work with photographs of Filipinos taken for, and made available on display at, the 1904 World’s Fair and other “exhibition” contexts. I’ve always been very moved by the work you’ve done with Filipino Taxi Dancers in central California and beyond, most noticeably as a means of crafting a historical genealogy for why Filipinos are regarded as “splendid dancers” specifically, and as consummate entertainers in a more general sense. Of interest to various media scholars who read this blog will be how you, as a scholar, transpose these images that proliferated globally in various mediated and colonial forms into an account of the “Filipino performing body’s” status as a moving archive of colonial relations, influence and discipline. Could you tell us more about your own process in choosing these images, and reconsidering them through the trope of “puro arte?”


LB: You’re right that the US colonial archive is replete with such provocative images. Equally invested in archiving these materials are Filipino/American communities. The images I discuss in the book are in some ways hegemonic images. The spectacularized photographs of Filipino performing bodies, of Filipino men dancing with white women in the chapter you’re referring to, have been made to represent this kind of social contact as one that transcends colonial violence and racism. I was definitely interested in choosing iconic images because part of what I work through in the book are the ways in which Filipino Studies/Filipino American Studies grapple with the rich afterlife of U.S. empire. Specifically, the images of white women and Filipino men at the 1904 World’s Fair are reproduced (in function and performance) in the photograph of a Filipino taxi dancehall patron and a white taxi dancer. By staging these two sets of representations side by side, I was attempting to gesture to the connections between the project of Filipino masculinity and the struggle for suffrage and emancipation of white women and migrant women.


KT: Martial Law was such a defining event for the production of Filipino art and performance; paradoxically, as you argue, the regimes of discipline and control that emerged in that dictatorial moment of Marcos’ extended reign became an incredibly generative, oppositional one, for numerous artists in literature, performance, and digital art. In this chapter, you also tackle the stage adaptation of Jessica Hagedorn’s celebrated novel, Dogeaters. Could you tell us a little more about how you decided to re-frame previous discussions of Martial Law and art through an adaptation like Dogeaters? What were your own encounters with the different productions of Dogeaters like? And to what extent did you, as a dramaturge as well as a scholar, become involved in that process or other productions related to this topic?


LB: Where to begin with Martial Law? It’s probably one of those moments I’ll keep returning to since I’m one of those Martial Law babies—I was born just as Marcos was conceiving Martial Law and I left the Philippines just as the Marcos regime was desperately crumbling, and the martial regime was lifted.


Here, I wanted to put in conversation theatrical projects that engage robustly and even belligerently with the violence of Martial Law. The chapter first looks at the social protest plays staged by a U.S.-based radical Filipino American political organization, the Katipunan ng mga Demokratikong Pilipino (KDP/Union of Democratic Filipinos). Through plays performed in various community settings, KDP grappled with its anti-Marcos political agenda and its anti-racist politics in solidarity with other people of color in the U.S. By juxtaposing the work of Sining Bayan with Dogeaters, I wanted to highlight histories of anti-Martial Law activism by Filipino Americans through cultural work, especially because culture was such a battleground during the Martial Law.


Salamats to Jessica Hagedorn’s generosity and friendship, I had the opportunity to sit in on the first (and only thus far) production of Dogeaters in the Philippines, in Manila, in 2007. Because I was able to sit in during the creative process through the opening performances, I had the privilege of talking with the cast and the rest of the creative production team. I asked them directly what they thought of the play, what they think it brings to stories about the Martial Law. Some of them have created their own Martial Law performances, including a performer who is an Imelda impersonator. Of course all of them lived through the Martial Law. In many ways, it was these difficult and yet energizing conversations as well as the experience of going back to the Philippines through the writing of this book that compelled me to ask questions that push from a different set of concerns than ones that have previously framed Dogeaters productions in the U.S.


As I mentioned earlier, this is a period in Philippine history I will keep returning to, for personal reasons. Just this past summer I co-curated two nights of performance for Kul Arts, Inc. entitled “Make Your Own Revolution.” This event featured staging fiction and performance works engaging with state violence. I had the opportunity to translate a Martial Law classic protest performance, Ilokula II,, a Filipino street play written by UP Peryante (anti-Martial Law theater group in the Philippines). 


KT: Finally, I think one of the signature “crossover” chapters of your book is the final section on the musical smash, Miss Saigon, especially with all of they hype and hullabaloo surrounding the cinematic adaptation of the same French songwriting duo, Boubil and Schoenberg’s best known musical, Les Miserables. Audiences will be keen to learn more about how something like a stage musical fostered an entirely new set of economies, as well as performance practices in the Philippine provinces[lb1] . Could you share more with this audience about the “Saigonistas” and “Saigonista” training programs in the Philippines, and perhaps even speculate, at the end of your comments about how we might contextualize what happened with and through Miss Saigon in the Philippines, as a potential transmedia phenomenon now?

LB: Like any colonial undertaking, the search for Kim is well-documented, and ironically by the (colonial!) enterprise itself. The search for the lead Kim brought out many Filipino musical performer hopefuls not just in the Philippines, but also in cities in Canada and the U.S. The training programs, in varying formal and informal capacities, were set up to prepare Filipinos for the performance demands of a eight to nine shows per week, including two shows on some days. Though the Philippines has a long history of theater-making, it does not have the same economy that can support 8-9 performances per week, in a run that could last for ten years.

Miss Saigon produced a community of performers, who refer to themselves as Saigonistas, those who have been part of Miss Saigon productions world-wide. They attribute their skills that cross over to the global entertainment complex to their training as Saigonistas. In puro arte fashion, I consider this phenomenon as a site where dreams of the Filipino nation and dreams of the Filipino people converge and diverge.

Charice Pempengco, Arnel Pineda, and others may be more recent “discoveries,” but like any other “discovery” narratives, once you look into them, it’s not quite as original and isolated as claims make them out to be. I imagine such kinds of phenomenon will continue as various technologies of social media provide more opportunities to come into being, to seek out intimacy, and to express one’s dreams. Our friend Christine Balance’s forthcoming manuscript (Tropical Renditions) is really the source to go to for the kind of speculation of transmedia phenomenon you are looking for.

What is most interesting to me about these artists are the choices they make after having been a part of the global entertainment complex. I think about someone like Monique Wilson, one of the first Saigonistas, who has been head of an acting training program in England, who started New Voices, a feminist theater company in Manila, and is a vocal advocate of Filipina women’s rights. She comes to mind because even though she is not visible in the mainstream entertainment industry as some of her peers and even those who came after her, the choices she continues to make as an artist I find refreshing and inspiring.


Lucy Mae San Pablo Burns is the author of Puro Arte: Filipinos on the Stages of Empire. She is an associate professor in the Asian American Studies Department at UCLA. She is also a dramaturg.
Karen Tongson is a cultural critic, writer and associate professor of English and Gender Studies at USC. She is the author of Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries (NYU Press, August 2011), co-editor of the book series, Postmillennial Pop (with Henry Jenkins), and co-editor-in-chief of The Journal of Popular Music Studies (with Gustavus Stadler). She is also the events editor for the journal, American Quarterly. Tongson’s latest book project, Empty Orchestra: Karaoke. Critical. Apparatus. offers a critique of prevailing paradigms of originality and imitation in aesthetics and critical theory, while exploring karaoke cultures, technologies, techniques and desires.

Make ‘Em Laugh: A Conversation About Film Comedy (Part Three)

Two decades ago, many of us were pushing for a more historically grounded account of film comedy, one which moved beyond the texts themselves to focus on the contexts of their production and consumption, one which might be grounded in notions of historical poetics. What progress has been made towards these goals in recent research on film comedy?

Rob King: I never fail to remind my students that the history of laughter is the history of the changing social patterns that produce and permit laughter. This to me is a watchword.

Still, if we are to insist on the value of historicization, we need to be aware of what that value is. Nothing is to be gained simply by insisting on history for history’s sake, nor in turning historicization into an exercise in comedic relativity (i.e., the banal lesson that what people laughed at then is different because society was different then).

To my mind the value of history is this: that it is only through a close, historical analysis of the contexts of comedy’s production, circulation, and reception that we approach a sense of comedy’s promise as a mode of social and cultural practice. That it is only through a historical reading of the whos, wheres, and whys of comedic expression that we can understand humor a mode of innovative reasoning that tends to thrive in conditions of social crisis. Comedy’s transformative promise is not often realized, true; but, without history, we can’t even begin to comprehend its conditions of possibility.

Leger Grindon: I applaud the effort to offer a more historically grounded understanding of film comedy. I have tried to contribute to such an understanding in chapter 2 of Hollywood Romantic Comedy, “History, Cycles and Society” pp. 25-66 in which I argue that the Hollywood romantic comedy genre can be understood as going through 9 cycles or clusters from the coming of sound until the present. These cycles and clusters are grounded in the particular historical circumstances, both in the film industry and society at large. For a further consideration of such an approach see my essay, “Cycles and Clusters: The Shape of Film Genre History” pp. 42-59 in Film Genre Reader IV (2012) edited by Barry Keith Grant.

I noticed across a number of these essays an increased emphasis on the impact of the soundtrack (both dialogue and noise) on the nature of film comedy. The term, slapstick, itself, refers to a noise-making device. So, how central is sound to film comedy?

Celestino Deleyto: Obviously very important, but I also think that we are also learning to accept the importance of dialogues in comedy. In the past, purist film critics and theorists would discard anything that was not visual as “uncinematic” and this attitude did a particular disservice to comedy. The combination of the scripted dialogue and actor performance is central to any account of comedy and it seems to me that we have moved a great deal in that general direction, a shift that can only be welcome.

Leger Grindon:Sound is very central to film comedy and has been since sound film was introduced. Obviously dialogue is central to the romantic comedy genre. Before Sunset, for example, is nearly one long conversation. Of course, noise and music are also key factors.

David R. Shumway: It is odd that the name we give to the dominant genre of silent comedy comes from a device that makes noise. Of course, sound, in the form of musical accompaniment was essential to silent comedy, but the coming of recorded sound changed film comedy radically, ushering in the dominance of romantic comedy, including its subgenres, screwball and farce. At this point, dialogue is much less often the chief source of laughs in film comedy, but sound remains indispensable, if only because the we no longer have performers who are able to carry the film by their physical performance alone the way Chaplin and Keaton could.

How do you assess the current state of screen comedy? Who do you see as important contemporary figures working in this space and why?

Rob King: I think we’re currently experiencing one of the most significant upheavals in comedy as a mode of representation in some time. The odd thing is: none of this is really originating in film, at least not in English-language film comedy.

In my opinion, all of the truly significant transformations in comedic representation seem to be generated either online or in the continuing mutations of the twenty-first-century sitcom. Take such “comedy verité” sitcoms as The Office (UK and US) or Curb Your Enthusiasm; or consider the new “auteur” sitcom, as spearheaded by Louis CK’s Louie and subsequently Lena Dunham’s Girls. These are shows that refuse the “vaudeville aesthetic” that has defined the sitcom since its earliest days in favor of a more realist mode – including some notable examples of shows that exploit the docusoap as a new comedic format, e.g., The Office and Parks and Rec.

On many fronts, there is, then, an impulse these days to relocate comedy within reality. In fact, this is true not only of the changing aesthetic of the sitcom, but also of all those shows in which the comedian stages direct interventions in reality: the interviews of an Ali G or a Borat, of a Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart; c.f., also the reenvisioning of Candid Camera in the UK’s Trigger-Happy TV or, more recently, NBC’s Off Their Rockers. Viral humor counts here, too, since virality more readily accrues to a kind of “found-footage” sensibility (e.g., “Charlie Bit My Finger,” “Double Rainbow,” etc.) than to the more formalized sketches circulated at funnyordie.com.

These, at any rate, seem to me the really interesting trends in contemporary comedy. And they’re really not happening in film.

Leger Grindon: Certainly film comedy remains one of the central contemporary genres both in terms of box office income and critical attention. Talent discussed in this book like Woody Allen, David O. Russell and Charlie Kaufman are good examples of important filmmakers working in this genre.

Claire Mortimer: In Britain Chris Morris made a searing satire of post 9/11 British culture in Four Lions – this low budget film was radical and provocative in terms of balancing empathy, horror and stupidity. It seemed an incredibly brave attempt to take on the taboo and actually engage provocatively with the issues faced by our society. This was brave and intelligent comedy, which really challenges the audience.

David R. Shumway: The current state of Hollywood comedy is very bad. While the occasional well-made comedy still appears–e.g., Friends with Benefits (2012)–most of the stuff released by major studios is designed to capture the same mentality as most other Hollywood product, that of the 14 year-old male. Even apparently intelligent filmmakers such as Judd Apatow still have to build their laughs around bathroom humor and adolescent attitudes toward sex.

Despite some work that deals with the movement of stage performers into film or more recently, the interplay between live action and animated comedy, we still have limited amount of scholarship that looks at comedy across media. What impact do you think television, recorded sound, or digital media, to cite a few examples, have had on contemporary screen comedy?

Celestino Deleyto: Apart from input from all these new media, contemporary animated comedy has not received much serious scholarly attention, in spite of its obvious cultural and industrial importance. Even though comedy theorists are well used to working with a frowned-upon genre, it seems that we ourselves still frown upon certain popular comic forms.

Leger Grindon: I would draw attention to the influence of stand-up comedy and stand-up comics on motion pictures. Certainly I’m one of many to note this influence which must go back at least to Woody Allen if not to Bob Hope and W.C. Fields. But it seems one of the most important cross media influences on contemporary film comedy.

Andrew Horton is the Jeanne H. Smith Professor of Film and Media Stuies at the University of Oklahoma, an award-winning screenwriter, and the author of 24 books on film, screenwriting, and cultural studies, including A Companion to Film Comedy, which he co-edited with Joanna E. Rapf.

Celestino Deleyto is Professor of Film and English Literature at the Universidad de Zaragoza (Spain). He is the author of The Secret Life of Romantic Comedy (2009). His essay in Companion is “Humor and Erotic Utopia: The Intimate Scenarios of Romantic Comedy.”

Leger Grindon is Professor of Film and Media Culture at Middlebury College. He is the author of Hollywood Romantic Comedy: Conventions, History and Controversy (2011). He wrote “Taking Romantic Comedy Seriously in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and Before Sunset (2004).”

Rob King is an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Cinema Studies Institute and Department of History, where he is currently working on a study of early sound slapstick and Depression-era mass culture. With Tom Paulus, he wrote Slapstick Comedy (2011). He contributed “‘Sound Came Along and Out Went the Pies’: The American Slapstick Short and the Coming of Sound.”

Claire Mortimer teaches film and media studies at Colchester Sixth Form College and his written Romantic Comedy (2010). Her essay is “Alexander Mackendrick: Dreams, Nightmares, and Myths in Ealing Comedy.”

David R. Shumway is Professor of English and Literary and Cultural Studies and Director of the Humanities Center at Carnegie Mellon University. His most recent book is John Sayles (2012). He contributed “Woody Allen: Charlie Chaplin of New Hollywood.”

Before and After Mickey: An Interview with Donald Crafton (Part Three)

You write in the opening of the book that animation created a new kind of film performance, and you suggest throughout that it may seem radical or counterintuitive to discuss animation as a kind of performance. In what ways must performance studies be rethought in order to apply to animated film? And conversely, what might the study of film animation contribute to our understanding of live action performance in films?

So many questions, Henry! Good ones, too. I maintain that theatrical animation is a version of cinema and not some completely different form of expression or medium. As you know, it’s trendy now to claim that all cinema is a subset of animation and now that cinema’s dead, animation has made a phoenix-like return as digital fx and CGI.[1] I don’t think so. There have always been uses of animation techniques outside of cinema—for instruction, for avant-garde expression, scientific imaging, advertising, etc.—but for me “cinema” is a constellation of things. Things like a social experience (especially in the twentieth century), an entertainment enterprise (in the business sense of the word), storytelling and spectacle, a cultural barometer, and potentially an art, to name the most obvious. Borrowing an excellent term from Thomas Lamarre, cinema has always been a multilectical performance, capable of many readings and participating in various social orders. CGI may be subsumed inside that performance in films like The Life of Pi, or it may enable performances outside the cinematic experience as a video game, Internet avatar, or whatever. I really don’t see a conflict here.


The discipline known as performance studies is almost unknown to most film studies specialists. And most performance studies scholars seem to be oblivious to or in denial of the possibility that movies, television, video games, virtual reality, etc. are also performances. (There are some enlightened exceptions, like Noël Carroll.) One of the devious schemes in Shadow of a Mouse is to break down the disciplinary walls between these two pursuits of knowledge. I’d like us to consider media performances and stage performances using the same tools and criteria. For example, I insist that human actors on stage or on film and toon actors in media are all fictive and imaginative constructions, and whatever can be said about one class of performer may be said about the other. I provocatively claim that toons are as “live” as any other movie actor. After you read it, I know you’ll be convinced!

In Before Mickey, you suggest that the trope of the hand of the animator played important roles in explaining and foregrounding the process of animation for early film audiences. Yet, your examples throughout the book suggest that the relationship between the animator and his characters remains a central concern well in the 1930s. What kinds of meanings get attached to this relationship in these studio era works?

When I first conceived of animated cinema as a performance art (it was in a talk I gave at DreamWorks Animation about a dozen years ago), it became clear to me that the “hand of the animator” trope was much more pervasive and persistent than the rather short shelf life I originally had ascribed to it, and that it was best understood as a performative gesture and not some vague anthropological or psychological expression (although those are performances too). Actually, “the hand of the artist” is a figurative performance because it casts the animator or artist as a conventional symbol of the act of creation that is manifested in all cultures and times. Although the image of the hand endowing its creation with “life” has religious connotations, the trope doesn’t have to be mystical or theological. Usually it’s just a convenient artistic device, a stock way of starting a film. As a performance it serves two functions. It says, “I, the animator, am creating this toon being for your edification and so you should assume that I have godlike or artistic mojo.” And it says, “Imagine that you, the movie watcher, are also an animator and you are bringing this being to life.”


In the earliest films the hand of the artist-animator or his performing body often was shown literally making the film. Think of Winsor McCay and his Gertie, or Max Fleischer and Ko-Ko the clown. But this seldom happened during the classicizing of the cartoon that I mentioned earlier—although the literal hand motif never went away altogether. Instead the interventionist filmmaker became either an implied absence (invisible but making us aware of him/her) or a symbolic creative presence in the narrative. Quick examples would be the adaptation of the mainstream cinema convention of voice-over narration, as when the animator-narrator explains the faux-travelogue locales in Avery’s The Isle of Pingo Pongo, or Bug’s off-screen hanky panky in Duck Amuck.

As I read your book, I found myself thinking about the role of personification and anthropomorphization in 1930s animation. There are scenes in the Fleischer Brothers films where it seems every element on the screen has agency. How might our inability to separate figure from field impact an understanding of animation as performance?


This is very perceptive. As I think about it, your idea of universal agency in cartoons is another reason for regarding these films as performative. Unlike a non-animated film shot with actors before a camera, in animation nothing is an accident. Everything is motivated, even if its motive is to create the impression that it’s unmotivated or accidental. The jokes in cartoons that the frame has slipped in the projector or that there’s a hair in the film gate are carefully scripted and executed “accidents.” So yes, everything has agency and participates in the show, even the reporter’s pen in Betty Boop’s Rise to Fame that grows a butt and starts dancing the hula along with Betty. That also suggests that everything has the potential to be anthropomorphic, which is another way of saying to perform as if human.


There is non-anthropomorphic animation to be sure, like industrial films showing how to assemble a motor let’s say. But it’s hard to imagine what a non-anthropomorphic cartoon or animated feature would look like, isn’t it? As the great Robert Benchley short The Sex Life of the Polyp shows, even simple animated squiggles can be personified as human.


You write, “If Hollywood cartoons have a soul, it is vaudeville.” What does screen animation take from vaudeville? Why do you think vaudeville images were so pervasive in studio-era animation?


My historical research revealed that vaudeville and studio animation were deeply intertwined. There were material connections. Cartoons, especially Paul Terry’s Aesop’s Fables series (which were funded by a vaudeville circuit), were regularly screened as “acts” on live programs. And vaudeville acts were frequently represented within cartoons. Mickey’s early appearances often depict him as a stage entertainer. And the Fleischers filmed actual vaud performers such as Cab Calloway and the Royal Samoans.

But the connection also extends to animation’s adherence to a vaudevillesque aesthetic (a concept I borrowed from you when you discussed early sound comedy. Thanks!). The short films pack a punch, they are structured like stage business (sometimes but not necessarily on an actual drawn stage), with repartee between figurative character types, slapstick, singing and dancing, and a “wow finish.” The films assume that their viewers had either contemporary experience with vaudeville forms or a memory of them (perpetuated by the movies and radio as much as by studio cartoons).

A specialist in film history and visual culture, Donald Crafton earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan, his master’s degree from the University of Iowa, and a master’s and doctorate from Yale University. He was the founding director of the Yale Film Study Center, and served as director of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research. Crafton chaired the Department of Film, Television, and Theatre at Notre Dame from 1997 to 2002 and 2008-2010, and the Department of Music from 2004-2007.

Crafton’s research interests are in film history and visual culture. His most recent publications are Shadow of a Mouse: Performance, Belief, and World-Making in Animation (2013) and The Talkies: American Cinema’s Transition to Sound, 1926-1931 (California, 1999). He was named Academy Film Scholar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2000 and was the recipient of an NEH Fellowship for 2003-04. The World Festival of Animation presented him in 2004 with an award for his contributions to animation theory. He received the University of Notre Dame’s Presidential Award in 2007.

Before and After Mickey: An Interview with Donald Crafton (Part Two)

Tell us more about the distinction you draw in the book between figurative and embodied performance. What assumptions about the nature of acting and spectatorship are implicit in these different styles of animated performance? What accounts for the shifting popularity of these different models over time?


Whether a performance is figurative or embodied stems from how the behaviors were intended by the animators and understood by the viewers (which often are not the same experience). They aren’t opposites; they are registers that may overlap, like bass and treble adjustments. Figurative performances are given by cartoon characters (which I call toons, as used in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) whose interest derives mainly from their exaggerated physical traits. These could be a funny walk, caricatural references outside the film, or a distinctive way of talking (like Goofy’s “Uh-hyult, uh-hyult”).

Think of early Mickey or early Bugs. They were beings who were types (small-town boy and slick trickster, respectively). Their behavior was hostage to the collections of attributes, quirks and attitudes that constituted their actions. So Mickey was a caricature that blended recognizable traits borrowed from Charles Lindbergh and Buster Keaton; Bugs was hyperactive and nutty. Several have pointed out that he’s a schnorer, a friend or guest who takes excessive liberties. The repetition of their singular mannerisms was part of the humor. The figurative performance mode wasn’t limited to animation. Comedians like Harry Langdon, Jacques Tati, Roberto Benigni, Jerry Lewis, and Woody Allen in his first films exploited it too.


Embodied performance reflects animators’ Stanislavskian goals and their expectations (or hopes) that viewers’ empathetic understanding and belief in the temperament and uniqueness of the character would understand, accept, and “complete” it. The later ‘thirties Mickey, say in Moose Hunters, integrates him into a believable environment. He responds to it as the viewer or any individual might, with some degree of unpredictability. He engages in banter and give-and-take with Donald and Goofy, who are foils with their own individuality. The animators and we spectators readily imbue them with characteristics that go beyond their simple existence. We care about the fate of the chums and the outcome of the story.


It may be too complicated to explain the mechanics of the change here, but the figurative and embodied modes complemented and competed all through the 1930s and 40s. Although Disney took his filmmaking far in the embodied direction, Langer shows that the figurative New York style could intrude even in that studio, as in the “Pink Elephants on Parade” number in Dumbo. Most of the Disney princes are figurative too—necessary placeholders in the plots in need of some “princeness” to redeem the princesses.


For various reasons, the public and critics grew tired of the embodied approach. The popularity of films from Warner Bros., MGM, and later from UPA avoided the embodied style or actively parodied it (Avery’s Screwy Squirrel, Jones’ What’s Opera, Doc?).

It also became clear that the enormous investment in hardware (such as multiplane cameras) and the immense animation infrastructure of the Disney studio was not necessary to achieve empathetic characters. There’s Wile E. Coyote, naturally, but UPA’s Gerald McBoing Boing might be the best example. Jones’ geometric romance in The Dot and the Line, seen in this light, tested the minimal graphic investment needed to “embody” character.


Today there are plenty of examples of embodied acting in animation—Disney/Pixar’s Up or Brave, for instance, which have a retro feel because of it, and despite their sleek digital surfaces.

The vast majority of animation, though, is figurative and exists in work for television and video games. These are stock characters in conventional roles doing conventional things. The personality is supplied imaginatively by the viewer/user, or programmed as a combination of preselected attributes.

Your titles call attention to the degree to which Walt Disney has dominated our understanding of American animation, even as your books make a concerted effort to discuss a much broader range of animators and studios. Why do you think animation history still remains so deeply under the shadow of the Mouse?


Having just done some holiday shopping at the Disney store, I’m inclined to say that it’s all about character. The Disney formula for “toons” always has and continues to emphasize a certain definition of personality. There’s limited individuality, meaning that certain expressive behaviors are allowed—let’s say Ariel’s rebellious actions—but never exceed the tightly enclosed limits of the character as a figure—those defining the role of “princess” in the mermaid’s case. Another aspect that makes Disney characters eternal, to borrow the marketing lingo for a moment, is that they are believable versions of people, acting out childlike behaviors. We all know (or maybe are) someone like that. Peter Pan is one of those types. Disney films also are full of adolescent folks playing at being grownup—Ariel, Tiana, Wendy, and Snow White (and Remy, if rats have adolescence). But even that is regressive, since their behaviors are clearly childish. They’re playing house. They are not believable performances of adulthood (which can be relatively boring).


Cartoon characters, Disney’s especially, succeed because they are designed to invite consumers to complete them imaginatively and to fully embody them. These characters often are diminutive versions of imagined selves. The possibilities are endless—aggressive, passive, maternal/paternal, sexy, smart, and even plush avatars. There was a stuffed Pumbaa in the store that I found particularly sympathetic…. Now conglomerate Disney enters our lives at some level almost daily, and whether these entertainment commodities are cinematic, or athletic in the case of ESPN, or the transcendental fantasies of the theme parks and cruises, or the plastic princesses, the company’s in the business of selling mediatized bodies performing, whether real, simulated or virtual.


Of course, Mouse, as Variety calls Disney, has been perfecting the machinery for bringing this concept to consumers by way of various points of retail merchandizing for about 80 years. As for the animated films, the studio during its successful periods has been adept at anticipating and reacting to consumer interests. The immediate embrace of Winnie the Pooh as a collectible object and then the gradual acceptance of “Princess” as a desired existential category. On the contrary, we could cite the lack of traction for other franchises like Merlin and King Arthur (The Sword in the Stone), or “Kevin Flynn” (Tron). This suggests that animated filmmaking is like other Hollywood enterprises in the sense that box office trends ultimately are unfathomable because consumer response remains largely unpredictable.


A specialist in film history and visual culture, Donald Crafton earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan, his master’s degree from the University of Iowa, and a master’s and doctorate from Yale University. He was the founding director of the Yale Film Study Center, and served as director of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research. Crafton chaired the Department of Film, Television, and Theatre at Notre Dame from 1997 to 2002 and 2008-2010, and the Department of Music from 2004-2007.

Crafton’s research interests are in film history and visual culture. His most recent publications are Shadow of a Mouse: Performance, Belief, and World-Making in Animation (2013) and The Talkies: American Cinema’s Transition to Sound, 1926-1931 (California, 1999). He was named Academy Film Scholar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2000 and was the recipient of an NEH Fellowship for 2003-04. The World Festival of Animation presented him in 2004 with an award for his contributions to animation theory. He received the University of Notre Dame’s Presidential Award in 2007.