Where Fandom Studies Came From: An Interview with Kristina Busse and Karen Hellekson (Part Two)

With your new book, your focus is looking backwards, tracing some of the earliest works to address fan fiction, as well as their impact on today’s scholars. What led you to this focus on forming a canon of sorts around the study of fan fiction? Why the focus on fan fiction as opposed to a more inclusive notion of fan cultural production? After all, you have also been involved in promoting more scholarship around fan vids, for example.

KB: Both of us are really traditionalists. We were both trained in English literature. Karen is now a copyeditor and I teach in a philosophy department. All of these fields relate to sources, quotations, terms, and ideas. We are heavily diachronic in an age where both culture itself (and with it fandom) and academia (and with it fan studies) often focus on the synchronic. It seemed important to us to share where we are all started. Really, we’d have loved to include Leslie Fiedler’s “Come Back to the Rat Ag’in, Huck Honey!” (1948) in our slash section, but clearly we had to pick and choose. The fascinating thing about going back to the original texts is how very different they are from how they get represented now in hindsight.

We had made a few decisions early on: (1) We would stay with fan fiction, because even though other fan works were discussed here and there early on, the nexus of different approaches and disciplines and the majority of academic work was on fan fiction. (2) We would stay with “media fandom,” because, again, that was where a lot of the early work was focused on and that was our own background. We felt that we would do better to strive for comprehensiveness rather than inclusion where one essay or two would stick out and not be representative of anything. (3) We would keep it in the early years and represent more recent essays with a very inclusive bibliography. That last one was basically a numbers game. For every current essay, we’d have to drop one of the more foundational texts, but those were the ones we wanted to share. Moreover, as we said above, fan studies exploded in the mid-2000s, and deciding on one particular text out of the many on a given topic with a given approach would have become even more impossible.

KH: Part of the impetus was to create a single text that would collect the things that we wish people had read. As editors of TWC, we see essays that don’t engage with the literature—that don’t seem aware that they are in dialogue with something, or that cite your Textual Poachers but don’t seem aware of the stuff that came after that critiqued and expanded those ideas (including your own work!). In addition, we’d heard from college-level teachers that they would like such a book. When we ran the draft table of contents by scholars in the field for their feedback, we got several “I would assign this right now!” comments. I am hopeful that master’s and PhD students coming up in the field will find it a good resource. I’m actually not uncomfortable with being in on some canon formation: I figure I have invested a lot of time learning about the field, and what I have to say is perfectly valid. Plus the good thing about canon is that someone will come along and bust it. (Yes!)

The Fan Fiction Studies Reader brings together foundational essays while also pointing to trending ideas. We worked hard on the headnote contextualizing essays that precede each of the reader’s sections, but of course the essays could be swapped around and reconfigured at will to form new topic blocks. Our choices were forced on us because of the difficulty in getting reprints; some were shockingly expensive, others too long. As editors of reprint anthologies everywhere know, “best of” doesn’t mean “best of.” It means “what we could get that we could afford and that was the right length, with certain key authors represented.” It’s not the ideal table of contents that we pitched to the press! However, that may be a feature, not a bug. We had to think outside our “best of” box. The press insisted on the Fan Fiction part of the title, in part because we couldn’t fit in everything we wanted to for it to be truly representative of the field in its broadest sense. However, although the words fan fiction are in the title, it could easily be used as a more general reader. Fan fiction is one kind of text and vids are another, yet the strategies for reading/assessing them are the same. I encourage teachers who assign the book to broaden “fan fiction” to mean “fan-created texts in general,” and to mess with the blocks we created to find new connections.

You reproduce in the introduction an increasingly widespread distinction between affirmative and transformative fans: “Affirmative fans tend to collect, view, and play, to discuss, analyze, and critique. Transformative fans, however, take a creative step to make the words and characters their own, be it by telling stories, cosplaying the characters, creating artworks, or engaging in any of the many other forms active fan participation can take.” I’ve also used this distinction—in Spreadable Media for example—but I am becoming more and more uncomfortable with it, going back to an earlier formulation which talked about all fandom as born of a mixture of fascination and frustration, and suggesting we look case by case at the different ways any kind of fan cultural production moves between these two polls. There are no forms of fan production by definition that are purely resistant, but they may also be none that reflect uncritical fascination without other factors entering the picture. You can make an argument that many forms of fan speculation and critique are also already transformational in that they encourage new ways of thinking about the fictional world and in the case, say, of a mystery series, they often construct quite elaborate explanations for why something is occurring which may, in their own right, be deeply transformational. Thoughts?

KB: The spread of this terminology is actually a perfect example as to why we should always read the original source. Obsession_inc, the person whose blog post pointed out this dichotomy, actually prefaces the definitions with the following: “I see both sections as celebrational fandom, first and foremost, and that there is a lot of joy and effort and creativity put into both, and that there is a certain amount of crossover.” It is useful to acknowledge the motivations as much as the results—that is, a critical, resistant, frustrated affirmational response is possible, just as a noncritical, fascinated, loving, transformational one is. (Let’s say, the first one is reblogging from the official Tumblr pics of a neglected character, the second one writing a missing scene that completely supports and expands the accepted/intended/TPTB-supported canon interpretation.) The two spectrums are maybe less in competition with one another and more perpendicular, creating a two-dimensional space.

For us, the dichotomy was useful because we wanted to look at resistant/critical/creative transformative fan works, and the essays we included all addressed this. Clearly, other approaches may need different distinctions. Yes, the term has been used a lot recently, but we are already beginning to complicate it—not just you, but also Matt Hills’s recent essay in TWC on “Mimetic Fandom and the Crafting of Replicas“, in which he studies fan works whose very “value” more or less rely on their mimetic accuracy.

The original articulation remains useful, especially when considering when and why Obsessive_inc coined it. The essay is a belated response to Racefail ’09 and other creator/fan conflicts: “in all of my fandoms, there have been battles between creators (backed up by their affirmational fanbase) and their transformational fanbase.” When looked at it from that perspective, the term transformative takes on yet another meaning that is neither fully about being oppositional readers nor about the “purportedly feminine cultural spaces of many media fandoms and fan studies,” as Matt Hills describes it. Instead, it is more closely linked to the notion of transformational works that are implied in the names of OTW and TWC—transformation in the legal sense. For better or worse, we are stuck with US copyright law and fair use exemptions.

You are of course correct that we shouldn’t fall into false binaries, and the sexier a shorthand is, the easier it is to fall into it. I love my “Man Collect; Women Connect,” but I certainly know that fan cultures are much more complicated—as are genders! Likewise, we are increasingly realizing that even generalizations, such as “straight middle-aged women” about the writers and readers of fan fiction zines, may not be as accurate as we used to think. But this is why it is useful to actually go back and reread the early texts—to know our intellectual antecedents, and maybe to realize that their arguments were already more complex and differentiated than we remember.

KH: I find the dichotomy useful, as it handily categorizes two perfectly valid forms of fan activity. More scholars are problematizing it than not, which is all to the good, but we also have to acknowledge how true Obsession_inc’s point feels. The gender issues inherent in her critique show that all the scholarly work in the world may not help the fan on the ground. Her essay is interesting not only for what she says and the impetus that caused her to write (as Kristina describes so well), but for what it reveals about fannish engagement, not to mention the terms of engagement she chooses. Power, appropriation, award, context—all these are inherent in her argument, and it may be useful to spend less time figuring out why the point is wrong and more time about why she made it.

Fifty Shades of Grey gets referenced often in your introduction as a text which has helped to change the public’s perception of fan fiction. Now that the dust has settled a little, what are your thoughts on Fifty Shades of Grey? Has its impact been largely positive, negative, or mixed? (As they say in the news, “Good thing or bad thing?”) And has its impact been short-lived or lasting?

KB: If nothing else, Fifty Shades‘s success now allows any fan scholar anywhere to point to it to explain what we do. Even my 90-year-old German grandmother has heard of it. Seriously, though, it feels like the publication was both the culmination of a general mainstreaming and mainstream acceptance of fans and fan fiction, and by its sheer overwhelming success, it is a watershed in ultimately settling whether fan fiction can become a commercial success.

Of course, given this specific text, I take its “success” with some ambivalence when we look at fan fiction communities and at erotic women’s writing in general. The fact that it so clearly is removed from its contextual cultural community ties (as Anne Jamison argues in her great essay in Fifty Writers on Fifty Shades of Grey, 2012) makes it ultimately less interesting as a work of fan fiction. (The seeming rejection of the fan community, unlike other fan fiction-turned-pro writers, doesn’t help much either.) Its mere existence as an explicit erotic work, as “pornography by women for women, with love” is crucial, but enough ink has been spilled about its problematic feminism and contentious portrayal of BDSM culture.

As for how lasting it will be: Let’s hope a generation from now, the “inner Goddess” will go the way of the “zipless fuck”, an interesting historical footnote rather than a perennial classic.

KH: The whole Fifty Shades thing fills me with weariness that is quickly becoming annoyance. Nonfan friends now have this whole idea about what I read and think and do that doesn’t reflect my lived reality. Something about the “nonnormality” (scare quotes intended!) of BDSM makes fans seem even more fanatic. Many books written by fans have had the serial numbers filed off and then were published professionally; it’s not like she did anything new, and she really did throw her fannish community under the bus, as Bethan Jones argues in an essay in TWC . However, the book has definitely highlighted fan fiction as a literary form and as a cultural phenomenon.

I have no idea if the impact will be lasting. It’s too soon to tell. Certainly many best sellers of yesterday are not remembered today. If Fifty Shades is remembered, I predict it will be cited (by people who do not go back to read any of the books in the series!) as the text that changed the publishing landscape for fan-written texts.

 

Kristina Busse has been an active media fan for more than a decade. She has published a variety of essays on fan fiction and fan culture and is, with Karen Hellekson, founding coeditor of the academic journal <em>Transformative Works and Cultures</em>.

Karen Hellekson (karenhellekson.com) is, with Kristina Busse, founding coeditor of the academic journal <em>Transformative Works and Cultures.</em> She has published in the fields of alternate history, science fiction literature, and fan studies.

Where Fandom Studies Came From: An Interview with Kristina Busse and Karen Hellekson (Part One)

Much has been written in recent years about 1991-92 as a kind of moment of birth for Fan Studies, a year in which key texts by Constance Penley, Camille Bacon-Smith, Lisa A. Lewis, and myself, helped to establish the study of fandom as a distinctive research project, emerging from the study of subcultures, readers, or audiences, all paradigms with a longer history in British Cultural Studies and elsewhere. I was flattered that the Journal of Fandom Studies published a special issue recently considering the impact of my book, Textual Poachers, on the field, and you can read my own reflections about the origins and potential futures of fandom studies in the current issue of that same journal.

But today’s post is intended to challenge this framework in two different ways. First, I would make the case that 2006-2007 was an equally important period for the development of the field, marked by the publication of two key anthologies — Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse’s Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet: New Essays and Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss and C. Lee Herrington’s Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World. For there to be a field of Fan/Fandom Studies, there must in fact be not simply a few singular contributions but a large group of people doing original work in that space. While there were certainly new writers (Nancy Baym and Rhianon Bury being key figures) emerging in the decade plus between these two historic moments, there had also been a tendency for many other writers to fill in the broad outlines which had been mapped by the 1991-92 wave of publications. Often, there was still a cycling through of various justifications for studying fans and then a few quotes from our writings coupled with a new set of examples, arriving at more or less the same conclusions.  These 2006-2007 collections represented the arrival of a new generation of scholars who were coloring outside those lines, who represented important new voices and new perspectives, who pushed the field forward, and who established it as an ongoing academic pursuit.

I remember my excitement reading through these two books, my head spinning, and feeling like I was learning something new on every page. The works represented distinctive visions of what this field would look like — one doubling-down on the female-centered fan writing community as the locus of study even as it dealt comparatively with other communities from which transformative works were emerging, and the other expanding the scope of what kinds of fans we studied to bring together global and historical perspectives as well as a conversation between those who studied fans of cult media, popular music, sports, and even news and politics. There’s been some tension between these two approaches ever since. Almost a decade later, Gray, Sandvoss and Herrington are in the process of updating their collection while Hellekson and Busse have released their own second edited anthology, The Fan Fiction Studies Reader, which seeks to map key influences on the field of fan fiction studies.

And that brings us to the second thing that the focus on 1991-92 as the birth of fan studies may get wrong. The Fan Fiction Studies Reader is focused in expanding this time line in important ways, calling attention to the kinds of writing on fan fiction that existed prior to Enterprising Women or Textual Poachers, work that often came out of the second wave of feminism and was also embedded in the fan community itself. Many of these essays have been out of print or scattered across obscure journals so there is an enormous contribution in bringing them together again, reframing them for contemporary readers, and reappraising their contributions to the early development of this field.

There’s been an unfortunate tendency, which I have probably contributed to in some later interviews, to dismiss the work of earlier scholars as patronizing and pathologizing. There is certainly much such work to be found. But there was also work that was celebratory, seeking to understand fan fiction as forms of women’s writing, seeking to debate the ways fans were remixing pornography or erotica to reflect female tastes and interests. If you look closely at Textual Poachers, NASA/Trek and Enterprising Women, we cited and engaged with this work, but it has since been largely neglected by later generations of researchers. And this collection shows us that there is much to be regained by reconnecting with this past.

This week, I am interviewing Kristina Busse and Karen Hellekson about the two books, their contributions to the field of fan/fandom studies, and their perspective on some of the key issues being debated by fans and fan scholars in 2014. Busse and I have not always agreed about the directions that fan studies should be taking and some of our exchanges have been heated and public but I have always had deep admiration and respect for the leadership that Busse and Helleckson have brought to this field, not only through these two collections, but also through the publication of Transformative Works and Cultures, a scrupulously peer-reviewed and highly influential online journal which has kept alive the project of their first anthology in terms of identifying new authors, new topics, and new approaches to the study of fandom.

Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet came out almost a decade ago and looking back on it, it has turned out to be a watershed book in many ways. For one, you helped to bring together a generation of newer writers who represented the next wave of fandom research and we are now starting to see full-length books emerge from many of these scholars. Can you share with us how that book came to be and what brought this particular group of writers together?

KH: I initially pitched the original-essay book myself, without Kristina, to a press that had published a previous book of mine. However, just putting a call for papers out there does absolutely nothing. You have to solicit. I did some of that, but I quickly realized that the book as I had envisioned it wouldn’t come to be unless I brought in a coeditor. Kristina has a wide network, and I have the knowledge and contacts for book production. We’d met at International Conference of the Fantastic in the Arts in 2003 and had chatted, and once I asked Kristina to come on board, the project finally took off. That division of work is one we have maintained since: Kristina does front-end stuff, like solicitation, and I do all the scheduling, paperwork, copyediting/proofreading, and back-end stuff related to actually getting it into print.

I wanted the book to reflect my wishes for scholarship in the field: something timely, something that reflected changes in consumption of fan-written texts (i.e., the Internet), and particularly something where the writer didn’t have to justify herself. Fan studies was like the field of science fiction literature studies (my original field) all over again: writers were expected to spend time explaining why they were bothering with a low-culture trash genre, and they also had to position themselves in relation to the field—in particular, if they were fans, this needed to be disclosed and scholars had to distance themselves. SF had discarded these conventions, in part because writing about it became more mainstream and in part because SF scholars created venues dedicated to the field, such as academic journals, where background and justification could be dispensed with. I wanted the edited volume to reflect this. It seemed to me that fan studies scholars kept having to have the same conversation over and over again: justification, distance, and then lit review. We needed to create a space where we could dispense with that and use the words to have an actual conversation.

However, we did think that we needed to create a common vocabulary and a common—well, I guess the word would be canon: texts we’d all read and agreed were relevant. Our introduction provided these elements, which were common to all the papers we collected. This allowed us to create a good bibliography, which the press agreed to let me put up on my Web site. The contributors were thus able to use their words for their ideas, not for context or lit review. At the time, this was a major win. I think we moved the field forward in this regard: we just assumed this was all important, and by framing the book as we did, we made it so.

KB: We were at the International Conference of the Fantastic in the Arts in 2005, and we were having these amazing discussions there and on LiveJournal and people were writing amazing essays, and we weren’t seeing any of those folks getting published or any of those ideas explored. I don’t think there was a single essay out yet that had dealt with the change in fannish infrastructures, like the switch from Usenet to mailing lists and archives to blogs and LiveJournal. Most of us—me and Karen and the contributors—had met or knew one another through mailing lists or through LiveJournal.

We were very clear early on that we were tired of essays starting with definition of fan fiction and basically looking at a given text and saying, “Look, there, homoerotic subtext and SLASH!!!!” We agreed that we needed a framing introduction with all the terms and the history so that the essays could start within the discourse rather than spending half the time getting to their argument. But we also wanted the history and a shared resource so that everyone else could look at what had come before and where we were heading now and be on the same page. We were standing in a hotel hallway with Francesca Coppa, debating whether we should do it as two volumes, one with new essays and one a reprint anthology. It took us eight more years to finally get the second half out.

We got the majority of the essays via direct solicitation. Most—nine of the 13—were people I was friends with on LiveJournal. A few essays didn’t work out, which is par for the course; the RPF popslash essay wasn’t supposed to have been mine but we needed to fill a hole. We decided that these were all topical essays, and given that production would take a year, we imposed a deadline of less than a year for essay delivery. From having the idea to having the book in our hands took about two years, which is very fast for academic publishing. But all these acafans were giving papers that they couldn’t find a venue to publish. The ideas were just there to be caught. We had a lot of grad students and unaffiliated folks among the contributors—I think only four of the 13 were tenure-track scholars. But that’s where there often are the most interesting and novel ideas.

The other thing that made this collection different and that we thought was really important was the fact that we all self-identified as fans. You had already brought in the fact in Textual Poachers (1992) that a central part of your identity was being a fan as well as an academic, and Matt Hills did his long autoethnography in Fan Cultures (2002). We decided to take that for granted. A lot of us had been fans and active in media fandom long before we were academics, and many of us came to fan studies through fandom rather than through media studies. We wrote our love into these essays and displayed our fandom affiliation in every sentence. That seemed to be different to a lot of the research that was happening at the time.

Beyond the individuals involved, the book also helped to reframe fan studies, opening up some important new paradigms—such as Francesca Coppa’s focus on fan fiction as performance or Gail De Kosnik’s focus on fan fiction and “the archive”, some reconfiguration of how this research related to gender and sexuality studies, a new focus on the literary dimensions of fan fiction, but also an engagement with the conditions of cultural production within fandom. I still find great value in your reminder that fan fiction is by its nature always a “work in progress” and that it is hard to understand fan fiction outside of the social relationships it helps to facilitate. Looking back, what do you see as the lasting conceptual impact of the book on our field?

KB: One (of the many) things that fandom and academia share is the ability to have many things be true at the same time. Collectively, we write hundreds different versions of what goes through our characters’ minds during a given crucial scene, and we give ever new interpretations of Hamlet during his major soliloquy. We (well, many of us :) can simultaneously ship Tony/Steve, Steve/Bucky, and Bucky/Natasha, and there’s this great Bedford St. Martin’s series that presents a given literary text with about a dozen different theoretical approaches (like Marxist, feminist, psychoanalytic, postcolonial, queer readings of Heart of Darkness). And even as they are sometimes mutually exclusive, they are also ALL VALID. If our collection has had any conceptual impact, we hope it is that understanding of WIP not only for fandom and academia, but also for fan studies in particular. We are realizing that there are huge gaps in areas we have not paid enough attention to, such as Critical Race Studies, Transculturalism/Transnationalism, and Marxist Labor Theory, to name just a few, and if the collection was ever supposed to be anything, it was a snapshot of that moment.

Maybe the most lasting impact of the book ended up being more logistic than conceptual: we were asked to found and edit the OTW’s academic journal, Transformative Works and Culture, which publishes its 17th issue in September for a collective of around 300 essays. Doing Fan Fiction and Fan Communities together gave us experience, credibility, and an acafannish community. You can see most of the contributors to the collection pop up again as contributors, editors, and peer reviewers. In a way, it is TWC that should be seen as the ever-expanding archive of the book itself. It’s a snapshot on so many levels: in terms of the fandoms that are used, such as Harry Potter, LOTRips, poplash, or even just in terms of interfaces, such as two essays focusing specifically on LiveJournal.

Moreover, as we already said, part of the intention of the collection was to create a text where everyone started from the same fannish and academic point to a degree. Our introduction is quite different from Gray, Sandvoss, and Harringon’s “Why Study Fans?” (2007), but that makes sense, because we start from such a different point and have a slightly different focus. We never really question why we should study fans, because we think we are important :) But also, our focus is somewhat narrower, for better or worse. We clearly don’t subscribe to the large “everyone is a fan” definition, and we are primarily focused on what Coppa has termed in her overview in the book “media fandom,” i.e., creative fan works for Western live-action shows and connected fandoms. That means that we purposefully limited ourselves, but it also means that we can focus on a given field and explore it in all its facet and with all these different approaches. And we can go deep and far, because we don’t need to explain what beta readers are or why Mary Sues are a highly contested genre.

KH: I’m glad the book helped reframe fan studies. I knew the book filled a hole in scholarship, if only for its acknowledgment of new modes of fannish consumption. However, what we did was simply let scholars be free to work in their field, combined with fan studies. Its lasting conceptual impact is merely that fan studies is not an offshoot of media studies. Rather, fan studies is a multidisciplinary field that can easily integrate other -isms and other disciplines: feminism, Marxism, sociology, anthropology, close analysis of a fan-created text, reader-response theory, affect, performativity, deconstruction, posthumanism, queer theory… Further, it’s an interesting site for application of theory, be it Schechner or Derrida.

Another important conceptual impact is that we are unapologetically fans ourselves. I write fan fiction and maintain a fic archive; I have helped create content for a fan-created informational wiki; I ran few multiauthored virtual seasons after my show was canceled. I don’t just read about this stuff; I live this stuff. The connection with the fan community has led us to do certain things, like (as for TWC) not hotlinking directly to spaces that fans perceive as private, or checking with a fan before we publish a link to a story in case the author wants us to hotlink to some other space, or not hotlink at all.

I am not interested in expanding the notion of the fan to include all aspects of what may be termed fannish behavior. Fans of stamp collecting or sports may engage in a sort of fandom, but they don’t tend to call it that. They may also configure their engagement and their passion differently. The word fandom may properly be applied to these activities, but to my ear, the connotation isn’t right. Broadening fan studies to all aspects of “fanatic” behavior merely because the activities match what the term denotes is certainly a valid point of view, but it’s not my point of view because I am interested in what it connotes and how fans work to build that connotation. The term also comes out of SF literature fandom, which I have studied, and in some ways I want to acknowledge fan studies’ outgrowth from SF fandom. Media fans adopted fanzines, apas, and other modes of dissemination from SF fans.

 

Kristina Busse has been an active media fan for more than a decade. She has published a variety of essays on fan fiction and fan culture and is, with Karen Hellekson, founding coeditor of the academic journal <em>Transformative Works and Cultures</em>.

Karen Hellekson (karenhellekson.com) is, with Kristina Busse, founding coeditor of the academic journal <em>Transformative Works and Cultures.</em> She has published in the fields of alternate history, science fiction literature, and fan studies.

Digital Youth with Disabilities: An Interview with Meryl Alper (Part One)

Meryl Alper’s new book, Digital Youth with Disabilities, releases shortly via the MacArthur Foundation’s distinguished series of reports on Digital Media and Learning, published by MIT Press. Alper is currently one of my PhD Candidates at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, where she is writing a dissertation under my supervision sharing what she’s learned through interviews and observations of the families of youth in Los Angeles who use adaptive technologies to help them deal with speech disabilities.

Alpert came to me a few years ago having already had a distinguished career working in and around children’s media, including having worked with the Sesame Workshop’s Education and Research Department where she had done field work investigating the potential for developing an animated series focused on media literacy, with Northwestern University’s Children’s Digital Media Center where she worked directly with Barbara O’Keefe (a legend in the space of children’s media) and most recently, with the research division of Nick Jr. where again she did work with preschool aged children.

Since coming to USC, she has been part of a team at the Annenberg Innovation Lab which developed a white paper in collaboration with the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, T is For Transmedia, which I have featured here before. She has increasingly been focusing her attention onto the roles new media play as adaptive and assistive technologies for families who are living with disabilities. Her work, as you will see, emphasizes the social contexts within which these technologies are situated, a topic she writes about with enormous nuance and empathy; she explores the processes by which youth and their families develop voice and assert control over their lives, while negotiating with powerful institutions, especially schools but also the medical establishment, over access to and control over these technological resources.

I am so proud of what Alper has accomplished during her time at USC and know that she is going to become an outstanding professional as she enters the academic job market this year. I wanted to use this post to call attention to her book.

You begin the book with some of the ways that the concept of disability has been rethought through critical/feminist disability studies. To what degree have these insights been translated into terms that can be understood by educators, policy-makers, and parents? Is there a gap here between theory and practice?

Before diving in, I’ll give a brief overview of some of the key intersections between disability studies and critical studies, before discussing how these theoretical developments translate to the U.S. context of education and learning.

Disability is a constantly evolving concept, and my book partially captures it at one particular moment in history. It is a dimension of human difference, while also containing a multitude of differences. For example, while some disabilities are more visible and permanent (e.g. Down syndrome, paralysis), other conditions are less immediately apparent and fluctuate in severity more frequently (e.g. chronic fatigue syndrome, multiple chemical sensitivities).

Two broad ways of thinking about disability initially grew out of the field of disability studies: a medical model of disability, in which disability is understood as undesirable, individualized, and defined by deficit; and a social model, which distinguishes between impairment (as bodily difference) and disability (as the social and structural environment that disables different bodies).

A critical approach to disability studies challenges both models. While the medical model offers needed medical solutions for pain, discomfort, and fatigue, political and social transformations are also needed to make the world more accessible and safe for individuals with disabilities, their families, and caregivers. The social model does not account for the ways that disability is experienced on an individual level, the ways that impairment and disability mutually shape one another, and how these social constructions shift depending on time and place.

Critical feminist/queer disability studies scholars (including Robert McRuer, Alison Kafer, and David Serlin) offer ways of looking at disability as political that question overlapping status quos of power and privilege. It is important to note that people with disabilities are the largest minoritized group in the U.S.—19% of the population according to the U.S. Census. Critical disability studies is engaged with other disciplinary traditions that also challenge systems and structures of oppression, such as feminist studies, queer studies, ethnicity and race studies, and indigenous studies. To study any form of institutionalized discrimination in 2014 necessitates disentangling interactions between class, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, nationality, language, age, and especially disability.

The insights of critical disability studies are far from fully incorporated into educational practice and policy in the U.S. On a macro level, the U.S. education system is centered on the “normal” student, sorting and measuring ability through the big business of standardized testing. The system is designed to prepare students to make a “productive” contribution to society. However, this model of productivity is based on narrow ideas about what it means to contribute, primarily by adding economic value to the workforce. The ideal graduate of the U.S. educational system is nearly always able-bodied and able-minded. Critical disability scholars push back against a society that seeks to cure, rehabilitate, or make disability go away, and seeks alternative models of community and coalition building.

Another area where a critical disability studies intervention is needed is in addressing disparity among youth with disabilities. Black males are overrepresented in the high-incidence disability categories of intellectual disability, emotional disturbance, and learning disabilities (Aud et al., 2013; Ford, 2012). Though youth with disabilities comprise 13% of all U.S. students aged 3-21 (according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics), they make up 25% of students receiving multiple out-of-school suspensions, 23% of all students getting a school-related arrest, and 19% of expelled students (Lhamon & Samuels, 2014).

If any group has done the most to translate the insights of critical disability studies for parents, policy makers, and educators, it has been students and individuals with disabilities (who may also be parents, policy makers, and educators themselves). Unlike most people in the field of disability studies, I do not currently identify as an individual with a disability, and I am not the parent, sibling, or partner of someone with a disability. I have to work very hard to see things from a point of view that I cannot fully understand. I personally look towards organizations such as the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism and disability rights activists such as Lydia Brown for their leadership in bridging theory and practice.

 

You also were one of the co-authors of T is for Transmedia, which advocated for transmedia play and learning. In what ways would the multimodality associated with transmedia enhance or detract from the media experiences of youth with disabilities?

A small but growing body of research suggests that emerging readers and writers with physical, cognitive, and intellectual disabilities may benefit from expanded opportunities to draw on their experiences with popular culture and leverage their multimodal text-making abilities (Flewitt, Kucirkova, & Messer, 2014; Peppler & Warschauer, 2012). However, the benefits or drawbacks of transmedia play for any one child depends not only on their specific set of abilities and disabilities, but—taking a more ecological approach to human development—also the social, cultural, and political context that underpins the child’s learning experiences in and out of the classroom.

I’ll provide an example from my dissertation research that illustrates these possibilities and limitations. Kevin is a non-speaking, 13-year-old mixed-race autistic boy from a lower-middle income family. While he is unable to articulate his grasp of the English language through embodied oral speech or handwriting, his mother, Rebecca, indicated that he demonstrated strength in print literacy and an array of new literacies including technological fluency and visual literacy.

She drew heavily on instances of her son’s media use to talk about his verbal abilities. For example, Rebecca told me that Kevin used the letter tile game Bananagrams to spell “‘Indiana Jones’ before he could spell his own name.” The Harry Potter DVD menu in particular provided rich seed material. Said Rebecca, “He would spell ‘prologue.’ Prologue was his word. Prologue, prologue, prologue. Then he would spell ‘quidditch pitch.’ He would spell ‘Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour.’”

Kevin’s wordplay with the language of DVD menus provided an opportunity for learning. However, clinicians, behavioral therapists, and sometimes parents tend to pathologize repeated viewing of movie credits by autistic youth (Liss, Saulnier, Fein, & Kinsbourne, 2006). Though Rebecca described Kevin’s transmedia play as a positive pathway to spelling, certain kinds of play by disabled children often gets promoted or prevented depending on the various institutions in which their learning is embedded (Goodley & Runswick-Cole, 2010).

 

Meryl Alper is a Ph.D. Candidate in Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.  She studies the social and cultural implications of networked communication technologies, with a particular focus on disability and digital media, children and families’ technology use, and mobile communication.  Prior to USC, she worked in the children’s media industry as a researcher and strategist with Sesame Workshop, Nickelodeon, and Disney.  She can be found on Twitter @merylalper and online at merylalper.com

“I am Handmade”: Crafting in the Age of Computers

The following piece is contributed by Samantha Close, one of my PhD Candidates in USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. She shares here some work she has been doing about crafting in a networked culture, work which has so far yielded a very compelling short documentary about the people who make the things we like to buy on Etsy, and which she believes will become the focus of her dissertation.

“I Am Handmade: Crafting in the Age of Computers”  Samantha Close I wasn’t prepared to fall in love with crafting. It was a brisk January in Boston, 2013, and I was at the Modern Language Association annual conference engaged in the serious business of academic talk about comics. But in the breezeway between the official conference hotel and the convention center, where more or less every academic in the United States (and beyond) who does work related to literature was presenting papers, lay the most fortunate Barnes and Nobles bookstore in the world. For the occasion, the store had moved everything related to classic and contemporary highbrow literature to front and center.

As a student of popular culture who had presented on Spider-Man adaptations the year previous, I sighed a bit at the bookstore’s idea of what academics would find interesting. Still, books are books. And sometimes, books are next to knitting magazines featuring fan-written patterns from which to knit items that Jane Austen’s characters might have worn at various points in her novels. As a fan of Jane Austen in general (Pride and Prejudice in specific) and an enthusiastic cosplayer, I was delighted. That I had no idea how to knit was a minor, insignificant detail.

A year and a half (and two shawls, three hats, and innumerable attempts at socks) later, my dissertation research has centered itself around transformations in the communities, economies, and meanings of creative work, with artists and crafters who sell their work on Etsy as my major case study. I made the documentary short “I Am Handmade: Crafting in the Age of Computers” as part of that research.  Throughout the film I’m exploring what it means to be handmade.

For some, it’s all about their hands and their materials. Physically crafting objects tends to involve repetitive motion and immersion in the feel of things, the flow. Others delight in tinkering, working out what merino fiber, silver poly clay, and broken metal sextants can become with some patient trial and error.

In the larger cultural context, I’d argue there’s more similarity than first meets the eye between spinners meeting up in a New York mall food court comparing fibers, techniques for making thread, spindles, and wheels, and athletes converging on the American Ninja Warrior obstacle course comparing training regimens, costumes, course-building techniques, and methods to get through Cannonball Alley. They’re both examples of embodied participatory culture.

However, as regular readers of this blog are no doubt aware, access to the materials of participatory culture is often contested. Many of the crafters and artists I spoke with are fans, who create their own patterns, jokes, items, and designs by riffing on and re-mixing popular culture. Fans have gradually won acceptance for this kind of work as legitimately creative and share-able, but the economic systems for exchanging fan crafts are still extremely murky. As Francesca Coppa points out, “In the past few years, the nature of the arguments I have been having as a fandom advocate has changed: In the past, I found myself arguing for the legitimacy of our works; now, I find myself arguing against their exploitation.”

Fans—and crafters more generally—should have the right to keep their work within the gift economy as well as the right to benefit economically from their work if they so choose, without ludicrously high licensing fees. The film’s larger narrative tracks several crafters who do seek to turn their passions into full-time jobs. This is harder than it sounds, and winning the fair use battle isn’t even the half of it.

When what you love to do, you also ought to do, and ought to do for eight-plus hours a day, your body and mind can both rebel. It’s a dilemma that I’m intimately familiar with as an academic. Particularly as one who broke down and bought a ridiculously expensive ergonomic chair set-up when the simple act of sitting at my desk computer to edit this film became overwhelmingly painful. But I’m still glad I made the film. Ultimately, this is the larger meaning of what it is to be “handmade.”

People need different balances of work, play, and overlaps there-between, and we’re going to struggle to find them. We can and should build structures and communities of support, places where people can be real about the difficulties they’re facing and find some answers, and we must respect people who have found the amount and arena of struggle that works for them. You can’t make a silver origami cat without the kiln.

For those local to Southern California, “I Am Handmade” will screen at the CSU Long Beach Human Cinema Film Festival on Thursday, November 13. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with Samantha Close.

Samantha Close is a doctoral student in Communication at the University of Southern California.  Her research interests include fan studies, critical theory, theory-practice, new media, gender, and race. She focuses particularly on amateur media production and transforming models of creative industries and capitalism.  Her writing has recently appeared in the Sampling Media anthology published by Oxford University Press.  She also likes cats and knits.  A lot.

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

You write in the book about the “anti-piracy agenda.” What kinds of policies have emerged from the music industry’s anti-piracy efforts and what do you see as their “collateral damage”?

I’m glad you asked, because this is really the point that the book aims to make. Once we accept that the well-worn story of Napster-killed-the-music-industry is at best debatable and most likely pure bunk, we can take a closer look at the laws and policies that have been developed in the name of combating “piracy” and evaluate their broader social and economic impact, which is significant.

The general trend for copyright laws, treaties and policies over the years has been towards expansion: a broader range of cultural expression has been covered, for a wider set of uses, for longer periods of time, with harsher penalties for infringement. In the interest of pursuing infringers, American government offices ranging from the DOJ to the Department of Homeland Security to new, specialized ones like the Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator (a/k/a the Copyright Czar) are being called upon to police and enforce infringement on behalf of private rights holders. And corporations ranging from ISPs to email providers to social media platforms are being asked to track their users’ behaviors and share information about infringing communications and about infringers themselves with one another and with government offices. Congress has even tried, at least twice in the last few years, to pass laws giving the federal government the ability to flip an internet “kill switch,” pulling the plug on every single user, in response to a vague list of “cybersecurity threats,” which definitively include IP infringement.

Some of these laws and treaties have been ratified, others are in progress, and others have died on the vine. Together, they represent a well-planned, comprehensive wish list concocted by the music industry and its allies in Hollywood and Silicon Valley, purchased with literally billions of dollars in above-the-table lobbying and campaign finance contributions, to say nothing of other modes of inducement, such as the threat of economic devastation by the US Trade Representative against foreign sovereign states that resist participating in IP law “harmonization” via secretly-negotiated trade accords. This might sound like the plot of a lesser Alan J. Pakula paranoiafest from the ’70s, but thanks in part to whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning, as well as the tireless efforts of public advocates at organizations like EFF and Public Knowledge, I can confidently present these claims as factual, and support it with a wealth of documentation (my book has 34 pages of endnotes, and I could easily have doubled that figure).

The “collateral damage” from this antipiracy agenda spills into nearly every facet of our society, from the marketplace to the political process to the public sphere. On the commercial level, market titans including the major labels have wielded IP laws like bludgeons to crack down on competitors and innovators, using the threat of costly litigation and costlier damage awards to coerce startups into agreements that consign them to permanent insolvency, or to shutter the few that resist. Criminals and unethical actors ranging from phishing scammers to patent trolls to “copyright monetization companies” like RightsCorp and BayTSP have exploited the laws’ contours and complexities to cheat and extort untallied billions of dollars from small businesses and blameless individuals, while music and film companies have sued hundreds of thousands of their own best customers. Our courts are clogged with baseless litigations, the marketplace is littered with the remains of once-promising commercial ventures, and hundreds of thousands of families have faced economic hardship above and beyond the privations caused by our sputtering economy.

Even worse, however, are the threats posed by these laws to democratic self-governance and civil liberties, both in the US and elsewhere around the world. Relatively tame copyright laws like the DMCA have already been exploited successfully to remove viral presidential campaign videos from YouTube, to quell dissent and silence criticism, and to limit citizens’ access to online newspapers and public forums. The new breed of copyright laws promoted by today’s piracy crusaders aim to upgrade these powers, compelling businesses to spy on citizens without a warrant and report on their behaviors to governments agencies, and giving both commercial and public institutions the legal power to disconnect individual users, surveil their communications, and take down entire internet domains based on unproven allegations of infringement, all without transparency, accountability or easy recourse to appeal for those affected.

I wrote the bulk of this book in 2012 and early 2013, before the earth-shattering revelations of government overreach exposed by Edward Snowden, but even at that point it was easy to see that such powers would inevitably be used at best carelessly and in all probability corruptly, and that once they were granted, it would be nearly impossible to revoke them. To me, Snowden’s leaks only confirm this suspicion, and should give us further pause before we bestow such legal powers on either governments or corporations, especially given that a) they clearly possess the technological capacity to exploit such powers to the fullest, and b) they lack the organizational rigor and/or political will to prevent such powers from being exploited maliciously and anti-democratically. In the final analysis, is it really worth taking such risks to ward off a phantasmagorical boogeyman, and ineffectually at that?

You offer a strong critique throughout the book on the music industry’s position. What are you advocating as alternatives to the current system?

This is, of course, the trillion-dollar question. In the book, I don’t conclude with a specific set of agenda items; instead, I discuss a range of different solutions and amendments to intellectual property law proposed by critics and scholars across the political spectrum, both inside and outside the government, in the US and elsewhere around the world. There are some great ideas out there, some of them radical and some merely ameliatory, and I was more interested in reflecting this diversity of opinion than in furthering my own.

But since you ask… At the very least, I would support the following agenda items:

- Shorter copyright terms. Currently copyright lasts for an author’s life plus 70 years – an order of magnitude longer than the 14-year term originally applied when the law was created. In a recently leaked draft of the secret TPP treaty, Mexico proposed that all signatories extend copyright to author’s life plus 100 years (I wonder where they got that idea?). Even our own Register of Copyrights, Maria Pallante, has suggested that we revert to life plus 50 years. I think the term should be even shorter, maybe in the range of 20-30 years; beyond that point, I believe it functions more to protect entrenched economic interests than to incentivize new creative production.

- A digital citizens bill of rights. We need to make sure that, IP infringement notwithstanding, all citizens can communicate privately and securely, that they have guaranteed access to communications networks and the public sphere, and that they can express their political opinions and share their cultural ideas freely and openly without fear of censorship or recrimination. Ron Wyden and Daryl Issa tried to pass a law like this called the OPEN Act a few years ago, and it went nowhere. More recently, Brazil successfully passed a law with some of these provisions, called the Marco Civil da Internet. Ironically enough, it was Snowden’s whistleblowing that gave the Brazilian government the momentum it needed to get the bill passed.

- Protection against copyright and patent trolls. In recent years, the number of US patent cases has skyrocketed, and last year over two-thirds of them were initiated by “trolls,” or companies whose only economic stake resides in their ability to litigate. This is widely agreed to be a serious problem (President Obama himself raised this as a key issue in his most recent State of the Union address), but thus far our legislators failed to pass the potentially effective Innovation Act of 2013, and the watered down TROL Act of 2014 has yet to be voted on in the House.

- A right to remix. Our musical cultures and industries have thrived for decades because we have a compulsory right to cover songs. Once a composition has been recorded, anyone is free to make their own version of it, paying a statutory rate to the rights holder for the privilege. It’s hard to imagine how much more impoverished our musical landscape would be if that hadn’t been the case – if you had to ask permission and negotiate with publishers and composers every time you wanted to record or perform one of their songs. Yet that’s exactly how it is today with sample-based music like hip-hop, mashups, EDM and techno; if you want to sample even a millisecond of a recording, you’re at the mercy of the rights holder (most likely, a major record label) and licenses are often priced high enough to make sure that only other major labels can foot the bill. This is not the result of any clear statute, but rather due to a couple of dicey court decisions over a decade ago. As others have argued, this not only effectively stopped the evolution of hip-hop in its tracks, eviscerating its politically subversive and culturally resistant potential, but has also helped to turn us into a nation of criminals, as each of us carries the capacity to cut, paste and redistribute audio around in our pockets. Thus, we need a statutory right to remix akin to the right to cover compositions, and it needs to be affordable enough so that innovative artists in emerging genres distributing their own music or working with a smaller label can afford to do so and stay on the right side of the law.

- Small claims court for IP infringement. Currently, the statutory maximum penalty for “willful” copyright infringement in the US is $150,000 per work, and litigation attorneys bill upwards of $500/hour. These high stakes mean that the system only works for those with deep pockets, like major labels and publishers. Meanwhile, according to the Copyright Office, the median cost to litigate a copyright suit with less than a million dollars at stake is $350,000. This hurts independent artists and small businesses, whether they’re plaintiffs or defendants. A small claims court with lower damages, shorter litigation cycles, simpler processes and no precedential power would allow everyday people to pursue their rights and interests without risking economic catastrophe.

- Reduced risks and penalties for noncommercial infringement, and reduced secondary liability. One of the major victories of the piracy crusaders has been to elevate noncommercial infringement to the level of a felony, potentially punishable by hundreds of thousands of dollars fines and jail time. Given that it’s nearly impossible to use the internet without committing some form of noncommercial infringement (ever forward an email or post a page to Facebook? Gotcha!), this is an absurd and potentially dangerous state of affairs. We need to reaffirm that there is a substantive difference between those who mass-produce bootleg movies and CDs for sale in retail shops and those who distribute free mixtapes to their friends (yes, I realize there’s a lot of gray area, but I’m trying to be brief). We also need to reverse the encroachment of “secondary liability,” a legal doctrine that holds someone accountable for infringement if they played a role in a third-party’s infringement, often tenuously. For instance, even though Congress tried and failed to pass an act making it illegal to “induce” a third party to infringe copyright in 2004, that didn’t stop the Supreme Court from using exactly that standard to find Grokster liable for the actions of its users in 2005, a precedent that was applied to Limewire in 2010 (full disclosure: I served as an expert witness for the defense in both cases). This vague standard, and other similar ones, create a dangerous “chilling effect” in which blameless parties choose not to undertake actions that are well with their rights for fear of guilt by association with a third party.

My full list could probably fill up an entire book on its own (hm, sounds like a worthwhile project, but I guess Bill Patry beat me to it), but for the sake of your readers, I’ll stop here.

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

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

You see the recording industry and radio as complexly intertwined institutions which follow somewhat different logics. Can you outline that relationship for us and explain why it is key for understanding the current copyright wars?

Radio networks and record labels both evolved as natural “frenemies” in the early 20th Century. This dynamic was partially due to the technological breakthroughs of pioneering inventors like Edison, Tesla and Marconi, but it was also shaped in large part by political and economic forces. For instance, until World War I, most radio transmissions in the US were peer-to-peer, with hundreds of thousands of individual hobbyists sharing their music and commentary freely with any who cared to listen. There was no such thing as a broadcaster or a receiver; every device was capable of both sending and receiving information. This only changed after the federal government began regulating radio in the 1920s, as part of a larger quid-pro-quo deal with commercial interests.

The larger point is, neither radio networks nor record labels were necessary given the affordances of the technologies they use; they developed in contradistinction to one another, and in response to larger social forces. Record labels evolved around a retail model, controlling the distribution of music through material channels, and radio evolved around an advertising model, monopolizing the right to distribute music through intangible channels. Record labels provided royalty-free content to fuel radio listenership, and radio provided free promotion for the goods that labels sold. There were tensions over the years (for instance, periodic “payola” scandals), but this system held for most of the 20th Century, and sustained itself through legal, technological and economic developments that reinforced the initial, largely arbitrary, distinctions between the two sectors.

Given this history, it’s easy to see why the Internet poses such a threat to this complex and delicate media ecology – by altering the technological playing field and challenging longstanding legal and economic norms, it essentially erodes the wall that separated radio from retail throughout the decades. Without tangible records and dedicated broadcasting towers, how can we know whether a song file, consisting of 1s & 0s, zipping from server to client or peer to peer, should be treated more like radio or retail? We’ve developed technological formats, which we call “downloading” and “streaming,” to emulate the limitations of 20th Century distribution platforms, and developed laws, like the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, to enforce these limitations, but without the complex and expensive physical infrastructure of traditional radio and retail, the old media ecology is coming to seem increasingly arbitrary, and impedimental to innovation. To put it simply, the only thing holding the old music industry ecology together at this point is a thin veneer of copyright law, enforced (literally at times) at gunpoint.

Given the history of exploitation they have suffered at the hands of the Labels, you could have imagined the interests of performers/composers and fans/audiences being aligned against the labels as these new systems of production and circulation rolled out. Why have we seen such conflict between the interests of music producers and consumers?

This is a really interesting question, though its premise is a bit reductionist. In point of fact, a great many recording artists have expressed vocal support for increased consumer power, and have embraced technologies and business models that presuppose consumers’ ability to copy and share music at no cost (examples in the book range from seeding P2P networks to crowdfunding campaigns to giving away CDs with the Sunday paper). And, conversely, a great many consumers have expressed support for paying artists, and have put their money where their mouths are, via an ever-expanding range of channels.

Yet, as you point out, there is an increasingly urgent strain of public debate that claims that artists and other creative professionals are being asked to “give away” the fruits of their labor because “consumers demand it.” While this is a mischaracterization of the actual situation, it is based around a grain of truth — namely, that it is unclear whether or how the “new economy” or “sharing economy” can compensate every creator for their work to the degree that it will subsidize the time and resources spent producing the work.

This debate is partially fueled by creative professionals who are genuinely uncertain about their career prospects. They may have developed certain forms of expertise (e.g. playing the cello, composing a photograph) under an old economic model, and perhaps even managed to eke out a living doing creative work under that model (though most did not). Now they are being told their old skills are devalued, and that they are expected to develop new additional ones (e.g. garnering social media followers) to compensate. That’s a very real problem, and should be taken seriously.

On the other hand, a great deal of the most vitriolic debate is being fueled somewhat cynically by the interstitial organizations that used to exploit creative labor in the old economy, from record labels and publishers to performing rights organizations and management companies. These organizations want to protect their cut of the money generated by creative labor, and wave the flag of artist rights in order to do so. Yet, historically, these interstitial organizations soaked up the lion’s share of the wealth, leaving only crumbs for creators – analysis by industry guru Donald Passman, for instance, has shown that for every $1,000 consumers spent on music via traditional retail, recording artists were only paid about $24 on average.

What’s happening now is that, because the shape of the music industry is in flux, not only does every stakeholder want to preserve its historical percentage, each one is also jockeying to increase its piece of the pie. Labels and recording artists want to be paid for radio – a privilege previously enjoyed only by songwriters and publishers. Songwriters and publishers want royalties for retail distribution and subscriptions equivalent to those garnered by recording artists – a far cry from the much smaller cut they previously enjoyed. Online webcasters want to pay the same royalties as terrestrial radio providers (currently their rate is much higher). Everyone wants more, more, more, and somehow it’s the consumers’ fault that they can’t grow the pie fast enough to accommodate all the larger slices. In the meantime, the Internet has drastically expanded the “shelf space” and “air time” available to recording artists, which means that instead of a few dozen or a few hundred musicians sharing the pittance that trickles down to them, now the tens of millions of recording artists available on iTunes, Spotify, Pandora and iHeartRadio each require adequate compensation for their contributions. Is the local niche artist with 1,000 streams per month any less deserving of a percentage than the megastar with millions of streams?

To make matters worse, or at least more complex, some of the new gatekeepers (mostly Google and Apple) are actually making money facilitating the flow of music across digital networks, and all the aggrieved parties count these gains directly against their own perceived losses. Never mind that whatever percentage of the music economy Google garners is minuscule compared to the labels’ and broadcasters’ traditional stake. Never mind that Spotify and Pandora are swimming in red ink from royalty payments and iTunes has always been a break-even business. Never mind that musicians have always been exploited by the very industries posing as their new BFFs, and that being a professional artist was always a risky career choice. It’s much simpler just to blame consumers and tech companies for ruining everything.

One of the key paradoxes for me here is that it is often the same Parent companies — Sony, say — which are selling us the tools to rip and remix music and also going to war to prevent us from using those tools on their own properties. Any insights on how people live with these contradictions within those companies?

The short answer is that large, vertically-integrated companies like Sony are labyrinths of contradiction. Different links in the “distribution chain” are natural competitors, and housing them under a single roof is like having both cats and dogs as pets. To make matters worse, these companies are increasingly beholden to shareholders who want to see immediate financial results (requiring that they privilege short-term tactics over long-term strategy), increasingly ruled by their legal departments (who seek to justify their own existence through litigation), and increasingly prone to executive turnover (partially as a result of the first two factors).

One of the things many of us think we know is that the music industry has suffered enormous losses as a consequence of the rise of digital music sharing. You offer a more complex picture in the book. What are some of the other forces that impacted the music industry during this period and why do they complicate our efforts to understand the impact of “digital piracy”?

For one thing, there isn’t a researcher on the planet who can honestly claim to understand what the “impact of digital piracy” is on music industry economics. Well-researched meta-analyses by scholars who have spent years examining P2P are inconclusive, acknowledging that, despite the significant volume of studies on the subject (including my own, dating back to 2000), there is no consensus. Essentially, the research serves as a kind of Rorschach test, allowing those who want to see a positive effect, those who want to see a negative effect, and those who want to see no effect at all each to cite multiple credible sources to support their preferred positions.

Another factor is that it’s not entirely clear whether and to what degree the music industry – or even the major labels – have suffered financially. Obviously, the overall sales figures are down (although by the recording industry’s own tallies, now conveniently forgotten, this trend began years before Napster). Yet there are multiple other revenue streams that have grown during the same years, from synch licensing to digital performance royalties to live events, all of which add to major label coffers, as well as other growth areas, such as independent and used music sales and device sales, which mostly don’t. And, of course, costs have been cut significantly at the majors, which means that even flat revenues would represent higher profits. As music industry ledgers are notoriously opaque, there’s no way to simply throw back the curtains and let the sunlight clear things up.

Even if we just focus on retail sales of new, major label music, there are multiple factors that have contributed to the economic transformation of the industry over the past 15 years which have nothing to do with online music sharing. These range from economic trends (two recessions, shrinking household incomes) to the transformation of the music retail industry (driven by rising real estate costs and shrinking margins from “big box” underselling) to the eradication of a nationwide price-fixing scheme at the hands of federal and state regulators, to the end of the “CD replacement cycle” which led everyone in the 1990s to replace the cassettes and LPs they already owned with shiny new CDs of the same albums, to the “unbundling” of music, allowing people to buy 99-cent MP3s of their favorite songs without also subsidizing the “filler” content on the albums they belong to. Ultimately, as I discuss in my book, an unprecedented “perfect bubble” for the major labels in the 1980s-’90s was followed by a “perfect storm” in the 2000s. Again, this had nothing to do with online sharing per se, although they share some common contributory factors, such as the digitization of content, and the evolution of consumer music listening habits and tastes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

It’s in the Paint!

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Problem of Peter Weir

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

 

 

WEIR WITH KU CAP

 

 

THE PROBLEM OF PETER WEIR

By John C. Tibbetts

University of Kansas

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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