Syllabi as Cultural Artifacts: MIT’s Introduction to Media Studies (Part Four)

What follows are Sasha Costanza-Chock’s reflections on teaching the most recent iteration of this class:

Sasha Costanza-Chock:

I feel honored to be part of this conversation! Reading everyone’s comments on the evolution of CMS100 provides such rich insight into the evolution of our field(s) as a whole; the unique institutional birth, struggles, and rise of CMS/W within MIT; broader transformations in our media system and in the paradigms that shape our understanding of media; and our own personal/political pathways as media scholars, makers, and activists. I taught the most recent instance of the course, in the fall of 2015; my syllabus is here (

This is my fifth year as a faculty member at MIT, but it was my first time teaching CMS.100. I really enjoyed reworking the syllabus and teaching the course, not least because it was the largest group of MIT undergrads I’ve had the chance to work with so far. They did amazing work last semester! Reflecting on my approach to the course in the context of this conversation about its history, I’ve organized my thoughts into continuities with the past, transformation in the present, and opportunities for the future.  


Still hands-on. I worked hard to minimize lectures and incorporate hands-on learning activities and workshops throughout the semester. I really wanted students to explore key concepts through making.

Over the course of the term, they shared media objects with one another and created their own collaborative Media History Timeline; conducted a mini-autoethnography during a 24-hour media fast; analyzed front-page newspaper attention using PageOneX; explored web-based remix tools like NewsJack, deconstructed and remixed ads; and produced an open-format final project that included a written component, but for those who preferred, could also include a media-making activity.

The hands-on workshops aren’t stand-alone; they’re tied to readings and discussions of key texts and serve to reinforce the diverse methodologies that media scholars employ (historical research, qualitative and/or quantitative textual analysis, interviews and ethnography, political economy, critical theory, and so on).  

For example, early in the semester there’s a hands-on workshop where we use the PageOneX tool ( to explore front page newspaper attention to media events; after that students write short papers around an analysis they conduct using the tool. This is after reading about the history of systematic content analysis as a subfield of media studies, including Chomsky & Herman’s well known polemic but also tracing ‘column-inch’ metrics of newspaper attention back over a hundred years. Several of the students chose to create visualizations of news attention to recent social movements. Their short PageOneX papers are here, with an example visualization by a student (below) of how Ferguson coverage shifted over time from framings of ‘unrest’ to ‘police brutality’ to ‘racism’:



Front page newspaper coverage of Ferguson over time

“In the above graphs (data compiled by [a PageOneX user]), blue corresponds with discussion of the events in Ferguson directly, purple indicates columns about police brutality, and green is general discussion of racism.” — From A CMS100 student paper


Still comparative across methods, theoretical frameworks, platforms, time, geography, still no canon. This seems to have been consistent in all iterations of the course. Although we all come from somewhat different intellectual trajectories, happily it seems like none of us have tried to insist on a single canonical set of texts for orienting students to media studies. How could we?

Although it does seem that the course content drifts back and forth between versions of ‘media studies’ that are rooted in literature, then branch out steadily to encompass other platforms, and those that begin from an ‘always already’ heterodoxy of theory & methods mobilized into the shared study of media as texts, objects, platforms, infrastructure, and in all the other ways described in this thread.


A shift towards civic media. I’m biased, because this is my wheelhouse, but I do think there’s been recent increased attention (both scholarly and popular) to the relationship between media and social change. In part, I believe this is because of the recent global cycle of struggles that kicked off with the Arab Spring, inspired Occupy, and now percolates through the steady pressure of #BlackLivesMatter. Students’ experience of the media ecology now includes the regular eruption of social movements into networked consciousness, through hashtag activism, transmedia mobilization, and transformative media organizing.

My version of the course includes a sustained, semester-long conversation about these dynamics. This includes classic approaches like public sphere theory, Nancy Fraser’s critiques of Habermas, a unit on civil disobedience in the information age that moves from Thoreau through Critical Art Ensemble and to Gabriella Coleman on Anonymous, as well as a discussion of networked social movements that draws from the Occupy Research network study of movement media practices.

I’m not arguing that all media studies can, or should, focus on activism, but I do see (and advocate for) a shift to recenter questions of the relationship between media and movements, civic engagement, and social transformation as fundamental to our field. Students are inheriting a world in crisis, and as educators we do have a responsibility to connect them to the many threads in media theory & practice that they can use to find possible pathways forward.



Connection with MIT’s history. Rereading this conversation and thinking more about the history of contributions to media in both theory and practice that have emerged from MIT, the next time I teach this class I’ll work harder to incorporate those contributions. Shannon, Bush, Chomsky, Leacock, Turkle … although I did manage to bring in Jenkins during spring 2015, both in the readings on convergence and in the flesh :)

A full reframing through the lenses of race, gender and gender identity, class, sexual orientation, disability, intersectionality. Although some of this happened, I feel like my first version of CMS.100 still suffered from a bit of ‘let’s do race this week, gender next week, class the next’ and so on. Much as in other domains, there’s a generational sea change in the ways that folks think about, research, and organize around a truly liberatory transformation of the media system, and it has largely to do with intersectional praxis rooted in Black feminist thought.

I feel like media studies as field(s), and CMS.100 as an introduction, needs to be remixed through that lens. I’ve tried to move in that direction, and I’m not sure exactly what it will end up looking like. I imagine it won’t be a process with an end point, but rather a steady ongoing re-evaluation of the key texts, writers, and makers across multiple dimensions of media studies.
Department-level intentionality about the work this course will do. Finally, I took a quick peek at the Spring 2016 version of the course, as taught by John Picker; here’s the list of textbooks. At the moment the syllabus seems to swing around pretty wildly based on the instructor that semester. I’m not sure that’s been an intentional decision, it may be more of an artifact of the recent institutional shift where CMS has gone from ad-hoc program to CMS/W as a department, a series of faculty hires, a still-pending review of our undergraduate and graduate curriculum by the Curriculum Committee, and so on. However, there’s plenty to be said for this approach, it allows flexibility and autonomy and diverse interpretations of what an introduction to our ‘field’ might mean. And as we’ve seen through this brief archaeology of CMS.100, there are literally endless possibilities!

Sasha Costanza-Chock is a scholar and media maker who works in the interrelated areas of social movements and information and communication technologies; participatory technology design and community based participatory research; and the transnational movement for media justice and communication rights, including comunicación populár. He holds a Ph.D. from the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California, where he was a Postdoctoral Research Associate. He is also a Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. While living in Los Angeles, he worked on a variety of civic media projects with community-based organizations, including the award-winning platform. More information about Sasha’s work can be found at

Syllabi as Cultural Artifacts: MIT’s Introduction to Media Studies (Part Three)

We reached out to everyone who has taught MIT’s Introduction to Media Studies through the years and we received responses from a few, describing their versions of the class:

Fox Harrell

My version is based in initially challenging their preconceptions that media forms are a matter of continuous progress over time. I also challenge them to reconsider any hierarchies they have that places one media form above another. So, we challenge great divide theories between orality and literacy and technological determinism. They complete a quick one-week project, relating this theory to practice (and allowing me to assess their interests, theoretical engagement, and production abilities).

There are then three units. First unit: they engage in comparative study of different media forms (e.g., the still image, the moving image, remix culture, and so on). Second unit: the interplay of media production and media consumption (communities and technological literacies). Third unit: how we represent ourselves in media (social identity and media).

The class has them building systems as a means of theorizing, writing theory to understand why and how media systems are used and built, and relating all of the topics to their own interests. A central feature is student facilitations during each class where they relate readings to topics of their own interests. I do an immense amount of offline scaffolding in that process, with write-ups due well ahead of presentations and ample back and forth feedback to ensure that their interests are tightly integrated with the core concepts from the readings. The students like this a lot and it makes it lively. They always say the course is challenging and they find it one of their most valuable experiences.

I pioneered the course before coming to MIT and adapted it to an introductory rather than upper division experience. So, it has a different lineage with its own pedigree of iterative improvement, but I think a lot of synergies with the CMS ethos. The different notions of comparativity on the CMS site as of when you were here resonates with me. So, I’ll leave it to you to relate my take to any notion of evolution of the field, but rather emphasize here the notion of complimentary perspectives that I find with others who have taught it.

I just mean that my version is based on my own take on media studies, including my interdisciplinary academic background, approach to theory and practice, etc. I developed the syllabus from a course I designed and refined over the years when I was at another institution.

This is in contrast to the course that Flourish taught, for example, because she was trained as a CMS graduate student — that’s an example of what I consider the CMS lineage. Similarly, other versions may have built more upon prior iterations of the CMS.100 course.

Flourish Klink

To be honest to me the primary goal of this class was to teach freshmen how to get out of a literature focused analysis mode and think about other ways of engaging with texts. This stemmed from the fact that it was a “writing intensive class,” so there were a lot of requirements that had to be fulfilled through essays. To me, though, that’s the foundational premise of media studies—that texts can be approached in lots of ways, and that finding insights about them and about their audiences doesn’t necessarily proceed from literary analysis (or not solely from literary analysis).

In practice, a lot of the strides students made were in improving their writing skills. The class also served as a first introduction to lots of thinkers in media studies—almost a survey course. (I’m sure lots of them got left out.) The hope was that students would take CMS 100 and be excited about some of the concepts, then follow those later in more intensive classes also offered by CMS, or just read more by the authors they were assigned in class. Who knows if it worked..

Fox Harrell is a researcher exploring the relationship between imaginative cognition and computation. His research involves developing new forms of computational narrative, gaming, social media, and related digital media based in computer science, cognitive science, and digital media arts. The National Science Foundation has recognized Harrell with an NSF CAREER Award for his project “Computing for Advanced Identity Representation.” Harrell holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science and Cognitive Science from the University of California, San Diego. His other degrees include a Master’s degree in Interactive Telecommunication from New York University, and a B.F.A. in Art, B.S. in Logic and Computation (each with highest honors), and minor in Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University. He has worked as an interactive television producer and as a game designer. His recent book is Phantasmal Media: An Approach to Imagination, Computation, and Expression (MIT Press, 2013).

Flourish Klink was educated at Reed College (BA Religion ’08) and MIT (SM Comparative Media Studies ’10). As a teenager she co-founded and helped to run the first Harry Potter fan conference (as well as many others in the same conference series). Later, she was a partner in The Alchemists Transmedia Storytelling Co. and a producer on the hit HULU teen telenovela East Los High. Today, she is a partner in Chaotic Good Studios, a franchise planning company, and co-hosts the podcast Fansplaining. She also has taught classes at MIT, including Introduction to Media Studies and Fans & Fan Culture.

Syllabi as Cultural Artifacts: MIT’s Introduction to Media Studies (Part Two)

Martin Roberts:

 Some of what follows is quite anecdotal but you guys are just triggering too many synapses (“HASS-D courses” gave me a Proustian moment).

Henry, you do a great job here of sketching in the larger institutional context out of which the course emerged, the constraints it was working under, and how it set out to make a virtue out of necessity from them. In so doing, it did provide a great sampler of the interdisciplinary work on media going on at MIT at the time outside the Media Lab itself at the time, with only Glorianna Davenport’s lecture on the Interactive Cinema group originating from there.

The main thing that seems lacking in retrospect, allowing for the context at the time, was a unit on digital activism and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which as you know in the ensuing decades has developed into a major field around all the work on Creative Commons – Siva Vaidhyanathan, Lawrence Lessig, et al. I recall that at the time Mike Fischer was teaching a course in STS called Ethics and Law on the Electronic Frontier, but am not sure why we didn’t invite him – perhaps because of the need to recruit Humanities/Literature faculty to the media cause, and the fact that Napster hadn’t happened yet and the piracy/intellectual property debate was still limited to the culture-jamming domain (Negativland). Little did we know then that only a few years later mp3 would make us all pirates…

Among several memories from my own lectures, one of the most interesting was the Culture Jamming one, during which a smart-ass student at the back of the class who’d plugged his laptop into an Ethernet port (no wifi then) started sending me live Zephyr messages (MIT’s instant messaging system) which kept popping up on the computer screen projected behind me—both a witty illustration both of culture-jamming itself and what we can now recognize as a primitive form of Live Tweeting.

Chris, I was part of the “dissident” group you mention for a few years, which was my main conduit to the Lab. For reasons I never quite understood, it was called the Narrative Intelligence group, and I believe was started by Amy Bruckman when she was working on her educational project MOOse Crossing. It also included some of the more interdisciplinary grad students at the lab who were interested in more humanistic approaches to media, whether in terms of narrative or “theory”: it was there that I met, in addition to Amy, Dave Tamés, Warren Sack, and Flavia Sparacino among others.

As you point out, the ML at the time behaved like it owned the term “media”, and the seminar was also attended by some who subscribed to the view of the upper echelons – I remember one student dismissing Chris Marker’s La Jetée that I’d just screened as “a slideshow”. Overall, though, the seminar was in retrospect one of the key interfaces between the ML and Humanities and was a great way to hear about upcoming events – I got to see Toshio Iwai presenting his new electronic instrument the Tenori-on there in the mid-90s, for example.  The other main interface, as you’ll recall, was the Communications Forum, where I invited Julian Dibbell and Randy Farmer (of Habitat) to a panel to discuss virtual communities and governance after Julian’s piece on LambdaMOO in the Village Voice.

CK: Remarkably for a class at MIT—we didn’t touch on hacking or the MIT subcultures of hacking at all. . . . Nonetheless the fact that Adbusters, the EFF, plunderphonics, EBN and negativland were part of the class at the time is a kind of triumph.

Yes in retrospect that was kind of amazing. This points to one of the major cultural shifts between 97 and today, which is the transformation of the figure of the hacker from the “Revenge of the Nerds” stereotype into almost a folk-hero figure. We did touch on it with the culture-jammers but could never have anticipated that hacking would turn into a lifestyle on the one hand (the lifehacker movement) and political activism on the other (Anonymous). In any contemporary iteration of the course, it would be interesting to trace that genealogy from 80s/90s-era hacker culture (zines like 2600, Processed World) to its contemporary mutations. Hacker Mutations. I like that.

CK: the german media theory/media history schools have become much more de rigeur than they were in 1997.  When we were teaching that class, reading Kittler felt like discovering a gold mine. Now it’s either old hat or canonical, but the Germans themselves have gone from Mediengeschicte and Medienwissenschaft to Kulturtechnik and Media Archaeology to hybridizing ANT and media theory (Akteur-Medien-Theorie) to god knows what else…  I teach some of this stuff but I don’t think most people (in the US) see it as central.

I remember us being quite dismissive of Kittler at the time, particularly his writings about code and software. I haven’t really followed his work since, but the concept of discourse networks still seems useful. Media Archaeology I think should be part of any contemporary curriculum. I still don’t know enough about Actor-Network Theory to know where/whether it would fit in – what do you think and what would be essential readings there?

CK: in anthropology and STS the undisputed keyword for this is “infrastructure”—which in ’97 was something I remember talking about with people but which there was no literature about.  Now I can’t imagine teaching the class without it being focused on platforms/infrastructure.

Definitely. I think Lisa Parks has been in the forefront of the media infrastructures movement since her book on satellites – the new anthology she co-edited with Nicole Starosielski, Signal Traffic, is a good place to start. I’m reading Nicole Starosielski’s book The Undersea Network right now, which is pretty interesting. It would be easy to see the infrastructures approach, perhaps, as a new form of technological determinism, but as I understand it the reverse is true: the point is that all media/communication technologies are themselves embedded within and shaped by geopolitical, social, economic, cultural, and discursive forces and conditions at particular historical moments – look at the relation of satellites and the first transatlantic broadcasts to the cold war and the Arab-Israeli conflict in ’67.

CK: Lastly there was a lot of Tamagotchi that year. There was also a lot of Bill Mitchell.

Bill was a wonderful man and I still miss him. His subtitle to E-Topia – “Urban Life, Jim—But Not As We Know It” remains one of my favorite subtitles and ST pop-culture refs of all time. I still have my old Tamagotchi somewhere: in 1997 I was showing TV clips about it in my intro to French culture class. Now of course we have this, aka Sherry Turkle’s worst nightmare (skip the ad):

Henry Jenkins:

I was certainly surprised that we did not make more of the MIT context — whether understood in terms of the hacking culture or in terms of the larger debates surrounding new media at MIT in those years. Such topics would become increasingly central to the work of the Comparative Media Studies Program through the years, and so retrospectively, I tend to read them onto this earlier period.

We faced so many questions about why a media studies program belonged at MIT that we ended up incorporating a larger history of media research at MIT into our introductory subjects. Keep in mind that one of the major meeting spaces at MIT is named after Vannevar Bush (whose essay, “As We May Think,” is now widely credited as a key influence on the early development of the web) and that the top faculty prize is named after Doc Edgerton (who is today best known for his work on strobe photography). There was the rich legacy of Building 20 which was built as a temporary base for radar research during WWII and subsequently became the building where the MIT Model Railroad Club developed “Spacewars”, one of the first computer games; the place where much cybernetics research took place; the long-time office for Noam Chomsky and Janet Murray, etc. And this is not to speak to the long history of artistic experimentation in photography and filmmaking (Ricky Leacock, for example) which has been part of the MIT environment. Many of these strands eventually got integrated into our teaching, though I have no idea how they filtered down into the Introduction to Media Studies class.

As for the narrative intelligence reading group, I was part of the founding group there. It was created by Marc Davis and Mike Travers though Amy Bruckman was one of the founding members and eventually took over the group The name reflected the interests in narrative theory and artificial intelligence, though rarely did we talk about the meeting point between the two.  It met once a week in the basement of the Media Lab, where students and faculty read through emerging digital theory together, shared reports on new media developments, and otherwise talked through the intersections between humanistic research and technological development.

The group of people who participated in those discussions was extraordinary. It had a huge impact on my own thinking, since I had just got an email account at the time I started going to those meetings. Gradually, as time demands on an assistant professor increased, I stopped coming, so I had no idea that Martin had participated in the group at a later stage.  In many ways, they were a model for what Comparative Media Studies became.

When we launched our first graduate class, we did not yet have any students of our own so all of the participants came from the Media Lab or STS. But the Lab leadership never valued such exchanges, and subsequent generations of MAS students were less interested in this kind of theory, less interested in grounding their work in actual communities, etc., and I became more and more disenchanted with what the Lab had become, which may be why there was so little crossover by the time we launched that class. Mike and Marc published an account of the group’s history which I found online — There have now been several books published on the topic of narrativ intelligence, which is starting to be recognized as its own subfield.

One of the things that amused me looking at the syllabus was that Martin gave a lecture about “reality television,” which at the time really was focused on programs like Cops. This was prior to the debuts of Survivor or Big Brother, which set today’s reality television phenomenon into motion. It was at the time a way of introducing some themes about surveillance as entertainment, but juxtaposed here with a lecture about propaganda, it was a way of asking questions about media power.

The lecture I most recall giving in the class was the one on the history of radio as a medium. Radio is still a medium that rarely gets discussed by media scholars (despite the impact of Michele Hilmes and the students she trained), but can be enormously informative in terms of its evolution over time. So, the lecture began with the early technological experiments, discussed the participatory buzz around early radio and the ways FCC policies helped to direct it towards more commercial networks, explored the aesthetics of radio drama and comedy and the ways they informed the early history of television, considered how the introduction of FM impacted the history of Rock’N’Roll and the ways this was tied to the shift from shellac to vinyl records, the people’s radio movement of the 1960s and its legacies in talk radio, and finally, the emergence of web-based radio (not yet podcasting). Today, I still draw on chunks of this lecture in my own introductory class, especially the ways that radio initially promised to be a much more participatory platform than it has ended up being and yet there remain various traces of that earlier history — including HAM radio, Podcasting, low-rez radio, and to some degree, talk radio.

Chris Kelty:

A few further thoughts on 21L015 1997 edition, looking back over well-preserved emails and the mostly scorched landscape that is my memory.

I was trying to remember how familiar/unfamiliar the class seemed to me at the time.  I had come out of UC Santa Cruz as an undergrad, with a literature degree (and a lot of Math and some History of Consciousness, go figure), so the literary/cultural studies focus dominated my horizon in a certain way.  So I think the class felt familiar, maybe a departure, but certainly something that seemed like a natural evolution out of and away from the way media was being treated in literary studies and its departments.  I had no real contact with communications in its classical form prior to this class, so that part, ironically seemed like the new part to me (McLuhan! Media Reform!).  Which is just a way of saying that I think the class was as much an expression of the evolution of literary/cultural studies in the 1990s as it was a foundational media studies class.

 I didn’t really experience it as programmatic in the way I’m sure Henry did, which was my prerogative as a PhD student from a different department.  But it was certainly, for me, far cooler and more intellectually satisfying than most of what I had to take in STS (the core courses there still emphasized a pretty boring Plato to Nato history of science, and I believe I was reading “Steamships on Western Rivers” and TAing a course on Darwin the year before).  So from the STS department at the time, Henry’s class seemed much more like what I wanted STS to become.  If I were 15 years younger I would undoubtedly have applied to CMS instead of STS.

But really, it was the design of the course, with it’s labs and movies and exercises of all sorts was amazing for me. I don’t think I’d experienced much beyond the standard readings + essays + discussion mode before Henry’s class. So now, like being bitten by a werewolf, every full moon I create a new course inspired by 21L015 that is much more ambitous than I have the capacity for, and tries to use all manner of games, technologies, creative assignments, etc.  I fail a lot, but I think it was 21L015 that showed me how much fun teaching a class can be.

We took so much grief from the undergrads at MIT for the website.  One student, after detailing all its flaws said “Overall, the web site makes a poor substitution for a well organized course information handout.” (a sentiment I increasingly think represents the future, not the past).  But not all the students were iike that—many were as unfamilair with the technology as we were and/or enthusiastic about its possibilities.  I imagine that hasn’t changed all that much at MIT.

The course reader cost $112.50. We encouraged students to make their own copy since it cost less to do so than to buy it.  I only mention this since I have spent the intervening 15 years fighting an open access copyright battle that I was only dimly aware of at the time (James Boyles Shamans, Software and Spleens was published that year, or the year before)…  At the time, there really were no “pdfs” or digital versions of reading, everything was photocoopied or books to buy, and the absurd cost was a function of the copyright clearances.   

These days if I can’t find a legal or illegal copy to give the students in my classes, I often skip the reading (although this is driven mostly by my sense of justice at a large public university where students are already being gouged by the textbook industry) unless I think its really important.  Even more generally, I find that giving students access to various media that they might manipulate (such as remixing youtube videos or even just playing a bit of music in class) requires me to break some law or find some illicit technological solution—or encourage students to do the same.  Pedagogy has obviously changed in good and bad ways since 1997.

One of my favorite emails:


From: Henry Jenkins

Subject: Some terms for exam


“The Medium is the Message”

Larry Flynt

Commodity Aesthetic

Amateur Radio


Consensus Narrative

Cultural Imperialism

“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”

Digital Photography

Oedipus as Detective

Leni Refienstahl (check spelling?)

Propaganda vs. Survalence

Manuscript Culture

Plato’s Arguments Against Theatre

Acting Vs. Performance

“Cinema of Attractions”

The Encyclopedic and Procedural Properties

The Freed Unit

Warner Communications Inc.

Culture Jamming



Bonus points for people who immediately know what the Freed Unit is (I had to look it up, obviously my 1950s musical cred just went out the window).  I also like the “check spelling” note… and I’m not sure what “survalence” is, but I think my next book will be about it :)

All teasing aside, the list is a good indicator not just of what the class was about but what we thought were good examples of culture to work with in order to communicate the theory to the kids.  I think it’s hard to overestimate the pleasure we all got out of blurring the high/low culture line at that time… Martin and Henry were both, in different ways, impishly excited about confronting the students with the unfamiliar.

I’d be interested to hear from others who taught the class how self-evident a list like this looks for media studies today, vs. how odd (or old) it feels.  Incidentally, There’s also a great note in which Henry talks about how to use a cereal box to explain Adorno’s commodity aesthetic. :)

Henry Jenkins:

Yes, today, we have much better spell-checkers on our computers, though I still have a hard time spelling that word for some reason. :-


Christopher M. Kelty is an associate professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment at ISG and in the department of Information Studies. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering.  He is the author of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

Martin Roberts studies the relationship between subcultures, globalization, and digital media, and has taught courses on global subcultures at The New School and NYU. His publications include articles on global documentary film, world music, and the J-pop genre Shibuya-kei. His current research focuses on subcultures organized around digital gaming and electronic music, including 8-bit or chipmusic, iOS music, and the revival of modular synthesizers. His article on the black MIDI subculture and Japanese dankmaku (bullet-hell) games will be published by G|A|M|E journal in 2016. He currently teaches digital media and culture at Emerson College and Dartmouth College.


Syllabi as Cultural Artifacts: MIT’s Introduction to Media Studies (Part One)

Last fall, I spent a portion of my academic leave in Cambridge, MA. I was a visiting scholar at Microsoft Research New England’s Social Media Lab, where I was able to spend time with Mary Gray, Nancy Baym, Tartleton Gillespie, Nick Seaver, Lana Swartz,  Kevin Driscoll, Sarah Brayne, Andrea Alarcon, and many other amazing thinkers (all of whom I miss as I am writing this). I want to be clear that I was not back at MIT, but the Microsoft offices are right across the street from the outer edge of the MIT campus, and I had a great view of Senior House, the Media Lab, and Building 14 (where my office was for 20 years) out the window. I thought of myself either working with my back to MIT or looking down on the Institute, but either way, it gave me a certain pleasure.

But it also meant that I spent time hanging out with various old friends and colleagues affiliated with MIT and even, gasp, Harvard. At a cocktail party hosted by William Uricchio, I got into a conversation about teaching with Sasha Costanza-Chock about an undergraduate course he was teaching, which turned out to be Introduction to Media Studies. I had helped to develop this class with Martin Roberts in 1997, and it had been one of the first steps we made towards developing the framework for the Comparative Media Studies program.

Later that same week, I had lunch with Martin Roberts, who happened to be passing through town, and we had so much fun recalling our experiences together developing and teaching the class, including memories of Chris Kelty, now a distinguished faculty member at UCLA, who was our first TA for Intro. From these conversations, we came up with the idea of publishing through this blog some reflections on how this core class, central to the undergraduate experience of Comparative Media Studies at MIT, evolved over time.

As media scholars, we often explore other kinds of texts in relations to the times in which they originated, in response to various institutional imperatives and constraints, and especially how they evolve over time in response to new audiences and their demands. But we rarely look at our own teaching practices through this same lens — why do we make the choices we do, what agendas do courses serve, what do we miss even as we are trying to capture the key aspects of a phenomenon. MIT’s Introduction to Media Studies offers us a rich text to consider in this way — given its location and given its ambitions — but I would encourage others to trace through the archeologies of the key courses at their institutions.

In this segment, I am sharing a conversation between Chris Kelty, Martin Roberts, and myself. Later, I will share some reflections by the current instructor, Sasha Costanza-Chock, and along the way, I will share a few thoughts from a few of the folks who have taught the class in the intervening years.

Here are a few links to help you follow the discussion (assembled and with commentary from Martin Roberts)

The original syllabus, faithfully preserved for future media archaeologists (i.e. us) in digital amber:

Minimalist late-90s hand-coded HTML design by yours truly – thank you very much.

My lecture page is here:

Even the BBS is still intact:

Here is Sasha’s most recent version of the syllabus

So, let the conversation begin. (By the way, we would love to hear thoughts and reflections from any of the students who took the class or from others who have taught it through the years. If I receive any, I will republish them here along with these other materials).

Martin Roberts

The first thing that strikes me is how the very language that we use to talk about digital and network technologies has shifted: consider, for example, how laughably antiquated anything with the prefix cyber- now sounds, even though at the time terms like cyberspace, cyberpunk, or cyberculture made you sound like the academic equivalent of William Gibson.

Much the same is true of interactive and, to a lesser extent perhaps, virtual: does anyone still use the term virtual communities anymore? Why would that be? Given that the term historically applies to text-based (MUD/MOO) communities rather than graphics-based ones from Second Life to WOW etc., it’s worth considering why the term seems to have dropped out of use, or at least been displaced by the unpronounceable MMORPG (as in, you can’t actually say it as you can “MUD”).

Other terms  like Web 2.0 have come and gone in the meantime. Today, of course we live in the world of  the cloud, platforms, and participatory culture, but if the earlier examples are anything to go by, this world seems destined in its turn to have faded into the past by the time we hit the singularity (I believe the current ETA is 2029).

From Hypertext to Transmedia

One interesting example of the shift I was talking about is in the domain of narrative. In the ‘97 course, as I recall, the discussion of narrative in digital environments was still pretty rudimentary, and largely monopolized by the George Landau school of hypertext and lots of refs to Borges’ garden of forking paths and postmodernist fiction trickery (Cortázar, Calvino et al.). Now the word on everyone’s lips is transmedia – referring to narratives that extend across multiple platforms, in turn producing new kinds of guided “user flow”- again very different from Raymond Williams’ sequential (and I would argue, largely obsolete) early-70s concept.

From Text to Object?

One last point: other than narrative, I would suggest that today the very concept of the media “text” has become problematic in ways that it didn’t seem so in ‘97. Yet we continue to work with the notion that media studies’ basic unit of study is the media “text”, even though the boundaries of that text have become increasingly difficult to define. Here’s an example I used in a class last year: try defining The Lord of the Rings as a “media text”. Of course, we have the original novels themselves as the ur-text (although even then the idea of a clearly-bounded text became problematic, with all the appendices, sequels/prequels etc.). Now, consider this LOTR-themed Air New Zealand flight-safety video:


Is this part of the Lord of the Rings as a “media text”? I would say absolutely, but as you can see, that text has now expanded to include the entire cinematic cycle of Peter Jackson movies and, even more improbably, the nation of New Zealand itself. And this is just the tip of the iceberg – it’s easy to see that LOTR today is a “transmedia” narrative, but it is so in many more ways than may be apparent. Let’s not even mention Doctor Who… ^_^

So the question then would be, if the very concept of the media “text” as the unit of analysis is increasingly problematic today, in terms of identifying where it begins and ends, then what is to replace it? My answer would be that text is now being displaced by object as a central analytical unit – I’m thinking of the platform studies series, 3D action figures of Guy Debord, Lego adaptations of Minecraft, Minecraft adaptations of everything. I also wonder whether the concept of transcoding might be a useful counterpart to transmedia to refer to the increasingly porous boundaries between digital and material objects.

The arguably obsolescence of the “text” paradigm in media theory can be radicalized further by extending it to the viability/utility of the very term medium itself today as an analytical category, in contrast to the increasingly ubiquitous platform (it’s revealing, if depressing, that my students typically use the two terms interchangeably). This question is of course an even larger one than the one about the status of the media text.

With hindsight, I would say that one of the problems with the course in 1997 was that its analytical horizons were still very much defined by literary theory – notably, of course, the ubiquitous notion of the “text” – even at a time when literary theory had for some time been in the process of debunking it. (It’s a little like the earlier irony of the Cahiers du Cinéma critics coming up with the theory of the auteur at pretty much the time Roland Barthes was declaring the “death” of the auteur.)

The Afterlife of Virtual

One key term I’ve mentioned but haven’t discussed is the notion of the “virtual” – again, big in the mid-90s, today not so much. But still we have the latest generation of VR technologies starting with the Oculus Rift, which is slowly inching closer to the fantasy of the early 90s. As you know, the term “augmented reality” was big a couple of years back but my sense is that this is also already sounding dated.

Anyway, hope these thoughts help to start the ball rolling; I’ll doubtless have more to say later when I’ve looked through the ’97 syllabus in more details. Chris? Any thoughts on commodified dissent, recursive publics, or actor-network theory (ANT)? What would be indispensable in any contemporary iteration of the ’97 course?

Chris Kelty

The first thing to say is that the ’97 class was the first in which I gave a lecture I wrote myself— I don’t know if I ever properly thanked Henry and Martin for letting me do that, but my cup runneth over: so thanks to both of you!

I have no idea why I chose the media concentration stuff—or whether you guys encouraged it, but it certainly led me down a very interesting path.  I wonder how I would do that lecture today? I think the “transmedia” stuff that Henry is on to represents a major change in the industry… and the debates about race in Hollywood are so much more present today… but really much of what I said in ’97 probably could still be said today, sadly.

– the ’97 class had a classic Walter Ong/Jack Goody feel to it in some ways: from Cave Painting to Photography to Radio-TV-Film to Internet.   I wonder whether that is a still a standard starting point?

For me, the work of folks like Lisa Gitelman (When Old Media Were New) has become the de facto way of introducing the historical component of my class, and nothing like the grand historical narratives of Goody or Ong.  

Indeed, thinking internationally, the German media theory/media history schools have become much more de rigueur than they were in 1997.  When we were teaching that class, reading Kittler felt like discovering a gold mine. Now it’s either old hat or canonical, but the Germans themselves have gone from Mediengeschicte and Medienwissenschaft to Kulturtechnik and Media Archaeology to hybridizing ANT and media theory (Akteur-Medien-Theorie) to god knows what else…  I teach some of this stuff but I don’t think most people (in the US) see it as central.

Predictably my classes derived from the ‘97 experience (which I tend to call “intro to software and networks” or “intro to the internet,” instead of media) focus on intellectual property, the politics of software, standards and hacking, and the rise of new social movements.  I was particularly enthused to revisit the ‘culture-jamming’ and intellectual property aspects of the ’97 class—I probably owe a much larger debt to Martin for clueing me into this stuff than I ever realized <tips hat again>.  At Rice I ended up teaching a class with a classicist (Scott McGill) that was called “Piracy across the Ages” which was full of much of the same material, complemented by ancient mashups (Centos) and accusations of plagiary by Seneca and Virgil.  Scott went on to write a whole book about plagiarism in the ancient world.

Remarkably for a class at MIT—we didn’t touch on hacking or the MIT subcultures of hacking at all.  I think I was only just discovering them at that point, so it’s not shameful or anything, but nonetheless, Stewart Brand and Stephen Levy were all over it 15 years earlier—but it was not something that media studies or STS took as central.  The only person in our orbit who would have really cared about it was Sherry Turkle, and she was on to other things.  Nonetheless the fact that Adbusters, the EFF, plunderphonics, EBN and Negativland were part of the class at the time is a kind of triumph.

A propos of Martin’s message, platforms have since become key to be sure, both in the Montfort/Bogost sense but also in terms of the actual political economy (e.g. Tarleton Gillespie’s diagnosis) of things like YouTube/Facebook as “platforms” instead of sites, media or texts—in anthropology and STS the undisputed keyword for this is “infrastructure”—which in ’97 was something I remember talking about with people but which there was no literature about.  Now I can’t imagine teaching the class without it being focused on platforms/infrastructure.

An obvious addendum here is the rise of “digital humanities” and its discontents, which I find totally baffling, since it feels on the one hand like substandard technological skills, and on the other substandard theoretical sophistication (not high praise, I realise, but I’m not attacking it, I just don’t understand where its momentum came from).  I don’t teach this stuff, and wonder how much of it has crept into the CMS curriculum, or Annenberg, or elsewhere— but I am “officially” a digital humanities faculty member at UCLA.

Lastly there was a lot of Tamagotchi that year. There was also a lot of Bill Mitchell.   I’m just saying.

Henry Jenkins

I want to step back and reflect a bit about the institutional context that this course came out of. Keep in mind that this was the first step, curricular-wise, in terms of paving the way for the launch of the Comparative Media Studies Program just a few years later.

That program took shape in the particular context of humanities at MIT: the reality of the situation was that we were trying to create a master’s program which would tap the knowledge and expertise of a range of faculty who came from traditional humanities fields, with little to no chance of hiring people who were specifically trained in media studies. So, we needed a definition of media studies that was humanistic to its core and expansive in its understanding of what constituted media.

In many ways, the design of that syllabus was rhetorical — addressed as much to the faculty who were going to be guest speakers as it was to the students being introduced to the field of media studies for the first time. They needed to grasp the role they could play in something bigger and they had to understand what the stakes for them were in contributing to the growth of that field. We had already been involved in a series of multidisciplinary conversations designed to identify common ground and common themes that might bring the faculty together. This class was designed to embody some of those common themes in practice. This is why it is so reliant on guest speakers and why it is perhaps as text-heavy as it is.

For this to work, we needed to enlarge the canvas, which is why there’s some reliance on “grand narratives,” such as orality and literacy or cave paintings. We were staking out a claim for an approach to media that would be comparative across a range of axis — across different media systems, across different historical periods, across disciplines, across theory and practice, and across academia and the larger public sphere.

So, first, what I see when I look at this syllabus is the goal of expanding the period covered by media studies. Cinema Studies at the time was barely reaching back prior to 1895 (and even those first few decades were still being contested, as notions of “pre-cinema” or “primitive cinema” were giving way to “cinema of attractions” and a bit later, “media archeology.”) So, going back to earlier moments, such as the emergence of written language or the introduction of the printing press, to think about the processes of media change would have been innovative. I recall experimenting with bringing in Pauline Maier, a historian of the American Revolution, to think about committees of correspondence as early examples of networked communications — a move not fully understood by anyone involved but part of an exploration of how we might engage with a broader historical scope.  

You are almost certainly right that Gitelman’s approach would probably be how we would approach some of these same topics now, but there are losses as well as gains in shifting towards that model.  I drew on Gitelman in my introduction to Convergence Culture, which I ended up writing just a few years later.

More recent versions of introduction to media studies class often narrow their scope to focus too much on the current moment of digital media and do not pay enough attention to how we got here, to forms of communication that shaped human history on a broader scale. I would argue that the best way to combat digital exceptionalist or technological deterministic arguments is precisely to read the “digital revolution” in relation to earlier moments when the communication infrastructure underwent profound change.

There would have been a push for each of those speakers to bring these older moments into conversation with contemporary media practices: so I recall incorporating Spaulding Grey’s Swimming to Cambodia into our consideration of the shift from orality to literacy, so we could see how some of the same rhetorical structures and performance practices persisted in the work of contemporary storytellers.

This broader conception of media becomes all the more important if we are thinking now in terms of “transmedia” or “convergence”-based models of the contemporary media landscape. As we do so, we need to be able to think about print culture (including comics, missing here to my regret), theater and other forms of live performance (including bardic orality), and of course, cinema and television, alongside digital media. The cave painting — as a multimodal experience, which combined visual images, live performance, and new evidence suggests, a strong awareness of the sonic — seems like an ideal place to start thinking about what it means to tell a story through a range of different media and their affordances. This gets lost when we focus too precisely on the digital moment, which means that we rarely go much before World War II.

The focus on the literary and thus, texts here also emerges from another institutional factor. The first time this class was taught, it was a subject in the Literature Section, and the faculty there were somewhat reluctant to see us add an introductory level subject, which pulled so far away from what they saw as the core of their field. We did not yet have any academic unit which would allow this class to be identified as a media studies class: so, one of the defining traits of the newer syllabi for me is that it is now CMS 100 and that CMS is now part of its own academic unit at MIT.

This version of the class was so successful at redefining people’s understandings of media studies that there was a certain amount of trauma at extracting it from the Literature curriculum when the time came for us to do so, in part because they still wanted those high enrollment numbers, even though some of the same people had balked at creating the class in the first place. And Literature at MIT has since embraced a much more inclusive definition of the literary that starts to sound rather a lot like what this course tried to achieve:


Literature at MIT embraces an expansive vision of literary study. We are linked by a common interest in problems of narrative, aesthetics, genre, and media, but our curriculum explores a broad array of written, oral, and visual forms, ranging from the ancient world to the 21st century. We teach poetry, drama, and prose fiction, and also film, television, comics, memoirs, and folk music. We represent a variety of methodologies but share a common dedication to close reading and historical reflection. We are interested in both the established masterpieces and the most recent cultural productions of the digital age.

The class was also seeking to position itself as a HASS-D subject — that is, as part of the distribution of courses in the core Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences curriculum, as something that students could take to meet the General Education requirements of MIT, and this also pushed us to make our peace with a broader, more humanistic tradition.

So, some of what seems conservative to Martin and Chris today have to do with the politics of how you introduce a new subject into the curriculum, but I also want to caution people from assuming that an approach too grounded in the present, too focused on the digital, too dismissive of the role of history or of these older frames for thinking about media and communication, are necessarily the right way to go.

A final observation about the context from which the class originated: being at MIT, we wanted to create a subject that would have a strong hands-on component, that would give students a chance to make media, or at least, experience different kinds of media. So, this is why you see some of the assignments here that are a bit more applied, and I am happy to see that tradition of applications and experiential learning continues down to the present incarnation of the class.

All of this is to say that as faculty, we can rarely push further in our teaching than our institutions will allow us, that all of our class designs reflect the contexts within which we work, and that these negotiations were especially strongly felt in this case because of the institutional weight being placed on creating the first true media studies class in the humanities at MIT (as opposed to medium specific subjects).

Chris Kelty

Just a small additional context thought:  at the time the presence of the Media Lab had a major confounding effect on what we could claim was “media studies” and also on what it meant to have a hands-on feel.  There was no humanities there, but they nonetheless dominated the concept…

I vaguely remember there being a “dissident” group of media lab people focused on narratology that met under cover of night to discuss “humanistic” things…but the nascent CMS class was really trying to stake out ground in relation to that fact as well as the claims of the humanities. I think that continues today. I’d be interested in what the more recent issues at MIT are, to be sure, but the proliferation of the “media lab” model around the world has set up a force field of confusion that affects media studies everywhere I think…

Christopher M. Kelty is an associate professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment at ISG and in the department of Information Studies. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering.  He is the author of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

 Martin Roberts studies the relationship between subcultures, globalization, and digital media, and has taught courses on global subcultures at The New School and NYU. His publications include articles on global documentary film, world music, and the J-pop genre Shibuya-kei. His current research focuses on subcultures organized around digital gaming and electronic music, including 8-bit or chipmusic, iOS music, and the revival of modular synthesizers. His article on the black MIDI subculture and Japanese dankmaku (bullet-hell) games will be published by G|A|M|E journal in 2016. He currently teaches digital media and culture at Emerson College and Dartmouth College.


Unpacking the traveler: Authority and expertise in Lonely Planet and Parts Unknown

The following is the third of a series of blog posts written by the PhD students currently enrolled in my seminar, Public Intellectuals: Theory and Practice.

Unpacking the Traveler: Authority and Expertise in Lonely Planet and Parts Unknown

by Stefanie Z. Demetriades

For many of us, the first recourse when we travel for pleasure is the tourist guidebook. Equipped with a comprehensive guide, we can meticulously plan out a “perfect trip” from start to finish – where to go when and how, what to see, what to eat, and what to avoid – before we ever set foot on foreign ground. Look, for instance, at the best-selling and ubiquitous Lonely Planet destination guides and we find an emphasis on “accurate, practical information” curated by experts that promises that ability to smoothly navigate through a space of difference with maximum autonomy and minimal discomfort or anxiety.

But what are the assumed common-sense standards that such an expert resource is built on? And what are the implications of such an expertise for how we construct a role for ourselves as travelers and how we relate to the places, people, and cultures we encounter?

Lonely Planet guides promise clarity and certainty for maximum autonomy and minimum discomfort.

Lonely Planet guides promise clarity and certainty for maximum autonomy and minimum discomfort

For the most part, the expert authors of these guidebooks are authorities by virtue of their own non-native position. That is to say that, like the reader/hopeful tourist, the authors generally tend to be foreigners, travelers themselves. But they are travelers-plus, more experienced, made expert by virtue of their more frequent and/or more extended stays. As readers we trust them because of this parallel position to us, and we will quite literally follow in their footsteps through sites and sights they have vetted ahead. In this sense, the authority of Lonely Planet is very much the authority of the formalized, outside expert, and the narrative voice of the guide is the voice of this expert – a single guide book may have seven or eight contributing writers, but they are undifferentiated and blended into a single voice, which appears unified and objective.

From this vantage point, the experience of travel is parsed into lists and grids of expert reviews that map out the worth of sites and sights. In a pragmatic calculation of cost (financial and logistic) versus benefit, value is heavily weighted to the exceptional, in the literal sense of the out-of-the-ordinary: festivals and monuments are celebrated destinations in themselves, while everyday experiences are to be passingly enjoyed en route to the primary attractions.

A faceless representation of traditional dress in Lonely Planet Thailand

A faceless representation of traditional dress in Lonely Planet Thailand

The “authentic” is the ultimate prize, and is bound up most closely with history as a largely self-contained, static past. The guides may include reviews of nightclubs, resorts, art galleries, and five-star restaurants – but the stamp of “authentic” is reserved primarily for the pastoral, the “simple,” the “old,” and the “forgotten:” In this pragmatic quest we gain clarity and certainty, but the overall effect is to construct an eerily uninhabited, museum-like space of appraisal where personal agency and dynamic interaction haven’t quite made it to the page.

Do we accept this as inevitable product of the genre, or as a necessary compromise of form and function? Or are there possibilities of alternative visions of the tourist in the travel genre?

Enter Anthony Bourdain and Parts Unknown. With its tagline of “Get Hungry. Get Lost.” the CNN travel show hosted by the notoriously grouchy chef, author, and TV personality immediately turns the premise of the travel guide paradigm inside out, promising to embrace everything the guidebooks are designed to guard against.

Unlike the “everything you need to know” thoroughness of the guides, Parts Unknown makes no attempt at offering a comprehensive study of the subject destination, and covering ground certainly does not seem to be a goal in its own right. (Most of the Thailand episode, for instance, takes place in a single night of barhopping in Chiang Mai). A major draw for the show has been its episodes in politically tense and notoriously risky destinations (Iran, Myanmar, Congo), but the show also covers popular getaway destinations and unsettles the exotic, “off-the-map” narrative with destinations familiar to the American audience (Massachusetts, Detroit, New Jersey).

Here Bourdain is not the autonomous guide but the very much dependent traveler, and his local hosts are clearly positioned as the primary sources of authority. “I arrive in this country spectacularly ignorant,” he says in the South Africa episode, “I will leave spectacularly ignorant.” Where popular guidebooks in the vein of Lonely Planet turn on an authority branded as studied expertise, authority in Parts Unknown is personal and subjective. The language of the show is that of the first person – the voices of the local hosts and Bourdain’s own self-reflexive monologues, which serve as the voiceover narration in each episode and are very much personal reflection rather than assured description.

Bourdain’s first-person voiceovers and candidly political personal conversations are characteristic of Parts Unknown

The effect is to anchor knowledge and authority in an individualized context, so that even when generalized statements are made about, for instance, national character, it is not a disembodied, assumed fact but a personal perspective consciously laden with bias and baggage. As Bourdain himself notes in a 2015 interview:

I should be trusted and mistrusted as much as anyone. I’m a guy with a point of view who goes to a place, looks around, comes back and tries to give as honest an account of my experience as I can, but it is my experience.

Bourdain appears – at least in the visible narrative that makes it to the screen – to happily concede autonomy to his local hosts, who whisk him between their personal favorite sights, sounds, and tastes. Occasionally the point will be driven home by the risk of a particular situation – often culinary (a potentially poisonous blowfish dish), sometimes situational (a growing crowd angered by the presence of the cameras). In these cases risk is managed not by independence but rather by increased dependence. “You have to relax. Nothing will happen to you,” says his South African host as Bourdain follows him down the street. “I invited you to have this dish. We are not going to die,” says his Brazilian host, and with a winking nod to a bottle of beer, “that will protect you from the poison.” And Bourdain? “I am confident in this cook I don’t know, and in this man, my host and aficionado of this dish.”

Perhaps as direct result of this emphasis on the authority of lived experience the metrics of value and authenticity are shifted in Parts Unknown. Here the exceptional recedes to becomes a backdrop for the everyday. Monuments and festivals might be glimpsed as part of an edited montage, but faces and conversations get far more airtime. Meaning becomes something that is created and grounded in the practices and experiences of ordinary life rather than abstracted and held apart. Bourdain is explicit in this conscious orientation towards the personal:

Ideally I’m looking to learn what it’s like to live in that country, what people who’ve lived there their whole lives like, what gives them pleasure at 2 o’clock in the morning after they’ve had a few drinks. The details. The typical things. Not the sites, not necessarily the most important things … I go in, I try to talk to people about ordinary thing, and in doing that, they often say extraordinary things back to me.

And if it doesn’t entirely abolish the notion of the authentic, Parts Unknown certainly takes a much more expansive approach to it. The word “authentic” itself is rarely heard, and indeed if it is mentioned it tends to be in a context challenging its relevance, as in the Morocco episode:

You can well imagine the American guy who’s lived in Tangier for 30 years. OK? He comes in and there’s a flat screen TV on the wall, he’s like, what the … You’ve ruined the authenticity and the integrity, but the Moroccan guy at the next table is like, wait a minute, wait a minute, asshole, do you have a flat screen TV at home? I want one, too. What’s wrong with that?

Authenticity is prised away from the tradition/modernity dichotomy that dominates much of the travel genre. History and context are still important, and Bourdain speaks with respectful awe of dishes and traditions that have been passed down for centuries, but history here is integrated into dynamic formations of the present, not a static relic of abstract purity. And so a trip to Libya includes a meal at Uncle Kentucky’s Fried Chicken as well a traditional coffee house and a family barbeque, and meals in South Africa include Iftar with a Muslim family as they break their Ramadan fast as well as an array of dishes from across the African diaspora. Intertwined with tradition, pleasure, and everyday practice, authenticity is not a binary state but an ongoing and creative performance.

So does Parts Unknown truly represent a different logic, or underneath the new packaging do we find the same fundamental assumptions as our travel guides?

Bourdain’s reflexivity does not immunize Parts Unknown from much-needed critique

Bourdain’s reflexivity does not immunize Parts Unknown from much-needed critique

Parts Unknown is hardly an empty vessel, free of agenda or control. A long preproduction process plots out the logistics of the trips as well as the narrative theme for each episode. Local hosts are carefully selected to match. There is little question that Parts Unknown is no less curated an experience than the “create your perfect trip” promised by Lonely Planet. Likewise, local knowledge and voices are granted more play, but at the center of the show is still a white male in a privileged position who shapes the narrative and presentation. Echoes of exoticism and Orientalism persist – “Once you experience some of the sensory pleasures of the East, your previous life just isn’t adequate anymore,” Bourdain reflects in Chiang Mai. His hosts are predominantly (though not always) male, and “other Others” remain largely invisible, or else a source of half-joking anxiety, as with the ladyboys of Thailand:

So, I woke up in a state of confusion and deep concern after making out with Ernest Borgnine last night. I have spiraled into some identity crisis. Inadvertently making out with Ernest Borgnine, I would like to say. It was very dramatic. I need to go to a strip club and watch a football game, mow the lawn and barbecue all at the same time.

Power asymmetries are also still very much at play, with Bourdain’s privilege of access and resources often thrown into relief as Bourdain is framed as guest rather than client: for all his meals at restaurants and food stalls he is rarely seen paying for anything, and when sharing meals in homes and villages there is a definite discomfort in knowing that, even if there is some kind of compensation, Bourdain as privileged guest is sharing food that is not always in boundless supply for his hosts.

There is plenty of reason to be cautious, therefore, about an uncritical celebration of Parts Unknown as a complete break away from many of the problematic tendencies of the travel genre. But with all that in mind, what is striking about the program is its insistently reflexive subjectivity, so different from the studied objectivity of Lonely Planet. Bourdain consistently expresses a self-awareness and ambivalence of his own position and role as host and traveler, and in conversations with his guides and in his monologue voiceovers he acknowledges both the uncertainty and the genuine discovery of travel, and both the genuine joy and the intense discomfort that can entail.

The very form and style of the show also emphasize subjectivity: editing and directorial styles vary from episode to episode, so that the form and aesthetic choices never quite feel assumed or matter-of-course. The show often adopts a personal point-of-view perspective in the composition and editing of a scene: the picture wavers and distorts as Bourdain gets increasingly inebriated through an all-night bender in Chiang Mai, for instance. So when the lens camera lingers on scantily clad bodies in Brazil as Bourdain comments that “the colors of the city are amazing…the colors of the people are amazing, and the way they move,” this charged representation is so inextricably linked with Bourdain’s own gaze that it nevertheless works to challenge notions of the objective, dispassionate expert observer, reinforcing instead the emotional and subjective position of Bourdain as author-observer-participant.

Is it patently unfair to compare a text-based guidebook and a visual entertainment program? Perhaps. After all, they perform different functions through different mediums; their usefulness, accessibility, and appeal are measured by different metrics. Nor are Lonely Planet and Parts Unknown mutually exclusive competitors – no doubt there is a significant overlap in audience. Nevertheless, to consider these two representations together is to look critically at the assumptions of authority and value that underpin how we imagine and construct ourselves as travelers.

Is Parts Unknown entirely unproblematic from a critical perspective? Of course not. But the show seems to at least begin to unsettle some of the assumptions and commonsense standards of the travel genre with greater attention to local voices and knowledge, and, crucially, with greater recognition of how powerfully and inherently subjective the form really is. If there’s a cautious hope we can eke out of watching the show it’s that the travel genre is not inevitably fated to an endless cycle of reproducing the same patterns and ruts, that there are alternative frames, visions, and logics through which we can imagine ourselves as tourists.


Stefanie Demetriades is a doctoral student at the University of Southern California studying media and communication.

Keep Calm and Enjoy the Silence: On the Pains and Pleasures of Doing Research in Egypt

This is one of a series of blog posts created by the students in my PhD seminar, Public Intellectuals: Theory and Practice. Each student was asked to construct a post which shared some core insights from their research.  I will be running them on my blog over the next few weeks.

Keep Calm and Enjoy the Silence:

On the Pains and Pleasures of doing Research in Egypt

By Y. Elsayed

In the fall of 2006, I walked down Tahrir Square alone, after naively showing up to a protest that never took place. All I could muster was a look of silent disdain at the tens of security officers who showed up instead. Perhaps others showed up too, yet walked by when they did not see a crowd. This was one of the many moments when I realized that practicing politics in an oppressive regime required a different understanding of politics and its stakes than what we learned in books; taking part in a protest, for example, was not as simple as showing up to it; it required collective tactics, great flexibility, and organizational support to ensure, if you are caught that someone knows and can campaign for your release.

At the time, I admit to reaching a point, where I thought Egyptians were perpetually subordinate. I did not know, nor could I possibly predict, that four years down the road, this square will be packed with more than a million protesters, and that those walking about their lives disinterestedly would unpredictably display the highest levels of engagement and creativity.

Image of Egyptian Security Forces surrounding a protest

In the Mubarak era protests were heavily secured (courtesy of


In 2009, I left Egypt to join my husband who was doing his PhD at the time in the US. In those six years, a lot has changed not only in Egypt but in the personality of Egyptians themselves My longtime friend, who left Egypt right around the same time in 2008, to pursue a PhD degree in Canada, makes sense of this period by sharing Facebook memories of the last four years: memories, many of us did not have the capacity to make sense of or process at the time (The 18 days, the first referendum, clashes with the military council, Mohammed Mahmoud clashes, Bassem Youssef, parliament elections, the election of Morsi, rise of Islamists, the state crackdown on Ultras, June 30th, the military coup, Rabaa’, then they were too many to keep count). Perhaps sharing those memories and inviting us– confused as we are– to comment, was her way of managing them.

I, on the other hand, resorted to making these events the object of my research, thinking that a researcher’s distance would protect me from being emotionally invested in the political and social turmoil. However, with the intensifying onslaught on dissent, I was deprived of my object of study: the public practices of mobilization and protesting. Traditional means of expression such as protesting and petitioning have mostly been stunted, following the crackdown on Rabaa square (see Amnesty’s Egypt’s darkest day) which resulted in hundreds of victims and injuries, The “Jailed and bailed” scenario for protesting, has been replaced with the far grimmer threat of “disappeared and tortured to death”, not only to protesters but to researchers as well (See End of Research in Egypt? The murder of my friend Giulio Regeni is an attack on academic freedom and AFTE: Banning researchers from entering Egypt threatens academic freedoms). How can I conduct interviews freely when I could be questioned for names of participants, or worse, for speaking in English in public! (See I was arrested for chatting in a Cairo café, and American Arrested for talking about Egypt’s January 25th revolution in English). How can I make claims about Egyptian youth, when I cannot conduct a reliable national survey without being flagged for asking a tad-political questions? The surveying agency itself is scrutinized by state security which reviews surveys, question by question. Even if I manage to get it through, how can I ensure truthful answers by self-censoring respondents? Consequently, my original plan of studying processes of social change was crippled.

Carlus Latuf Caricature on Egyptians and the Army

Carlos Latuf on Egyptians supporting the military. Courtesy of




On the personal level, my life and the lives of many Egyptians in and outside of Egypt were affected by the ripples of what was taking place on ground: continually forced to make adjustments not only to travel and study plans but to things as personal and intimate as who we are. It occurred to me that something has altered permanently in Egyptians. They became partly desensitized and at the same time traumatized by the daily blood scenes of state brutality, and state corruption. In their urge to lead a “quasi-normal” life while battling the effects of a declining economy, many, especially the older generation, pushed away these incidents by dehumanizing the victims thereby reducing sympathy for them, or at best remaining apolitical. This lead to polarization in Egyptian society between those who justify violence for the sake of a fictitious sense of security and those who uphold human dignity and aspire for change (the majority of which were youth). Polarization reached a dangerous point where discussion seized between friends and even close family members.

Furthermore, even though I could no longer ask my macro-research questions concerning processes of social change, the questions themselves failed to capture what I was witnessing on a daily basis this Summer, my first time in Cairo since six years: riding the metro, or walking down the streets of down town Cairo and its old districts, listening to people’s side-talks, their jokes, while observing their facial expressions and body language — the daily acts of resistance that are building up for a … movement?

The answer came to me reading James Scott’s (1990) Domination and the Arts of Resistance, all while working as a research assistant for the MAPP project which follows and documents the work of activist groups practicing politics by any media necessary ( In his study of peasant, serf and slave cultures, Scott notes that not only does resistance exist, but it can also be studied, just by living and navigating through the right spaces. This is what Scott describes as the study of “infrapolitics”, where in contrast to “the open, declared forms of resistance, which attract most attention”, it is “the disguised, low-profile, undeclared resistance” (p. 198). He calls it the “Hidden transcript”, in contrast to the public transcript: a decorous respect exhibited by subordinates in the presence of authority. This hidden transcript is often disguised in “rumors, gossip, folktales, songs, gestures, jokes and theater of the powerless where critiques of power can be advanced behind the innocuous understandings of their conduct” (Scott, 1990, p. xiii)


Courtesy of


It occurred to me, that perhaps we are doing social change a disservice by focusing on the moments of the uprising, rather than the cultural build up for this moment. As Hakim Bey (2002) notes, “the vision comes to life in the moment of uprising – but as soon as ‘the Revolution’ triumphs and the State returns, the dream and the ideal are already betrayed” (p. 116). I hence shifted my research from the study of big actors to the study of the daily subjects, whose collectivity formed the millions in Tahrir Square and tipped the scale of power, even if temporarily to the side of youth. I turned to the “analysis of the hidden transcript” which Scott argues, “can tell us something about moments that carry the portent of political breakthroughs” (p. 202-203)

Five years following the 2011 uprisings and the celebration of the role of both social media and activists in mobilizing protesters, social media is still present and so are the actors (though some are in jail or abroad), yet the subjects are missing; they have been alienated by the polarization of political parties, which in turn resulted in a lack of leadership. In this highly charged political atmosphere, social media became of tool of polarization rather than mobilization (See Ghonim’s TED talk on designing social media that drives real change). Ghoneim who optimistically announced that “if you want to free a people, give them the internet” is now resorting to a more balanced view that social media is what people make of it.

At these times of polarization and social conflict, resistance can manifest itself culturally through arts and comedy as important tools in tracing our sources of conflict and deconstructing them without openly challenging strong held beliefs. Hugh Duncan in his Communication and Social Order, insightfully notes that through comedy and “safe disrespect”, we can uncover the ambiguities and contradictions which beset us as we seek to act together”. This ambiguity can extend to all works of art, which not only carry the portent of subversiveness but do so in the safety of ambiguous artistic interpretations, where you can always claim to be passing a joke for example. Mary Douglas in her 1968 essay, notes how jokers “lighten the oppressiveness of a social reality”: a ‘ritual purifier’ performing a cathartic function for both him and society”.

The value of comedy is amplified at times of polarization not only between political parties but within circles of families and friends. A significant part of the political struggle of the Arab Spring is essentially generational, where the older generation generally favors a stable status quo without regards to demands of democracy (see Harrera). In a widely circulated tweet, Hamdy, who has over 30K followers tweeted “Someone tell Sisi, that we can now criticize him in front of our parents and relatives and they would remain silent, a year ago they used to get mad, yell and curse at us”.

Recently, Shady Hussein, a TV anchor for Abla Fahita – a widely watched TV light comedy show– was heavily criticized and threatened for posting a video in which he (independently) distributed Balloons made out of condoms to Egyptian police officers on January 25th of 2016. Ironically, the day was officially celebrated as the “Day of the Police” four years after the revolution and countless victims. In an interview with Shady, he said

January 25th should be the day for the revolution, the Egyptian police pages are filled with threats such ‘as let them go down, we will show them’… Okay we are not going to protest, and we will not chant, for with one bullet they can take us out, but we will stay here to laugh and ridicule you

This was all an indication of how the forms and forums (Windt, Jr., 1972) for practicing politics were changing. And, so the researcher who was stuck with an empty Tahrir Square was granted an infra-googles (to go off Scott’s infrapolitics) by which I could trace out occurrences of everyday resistance, the hidden transcript in people’s mundane lives, their jokes, side-talks, arts and music.

It was a couple of days following Sisi’s grand opening of a Suez Canal branch, which was touted as a monumental achievement comparable to the digging of the Suez Canal (which itself has a history of slave exploitation). Partly disheartened by the Orwellian public transcript which was jubilant with propaganda songs played in Radios and speakers of metro stations and flags hung in balconies (see Sarah Carr’s President Sisi’s Canal Extravaganza), I began to entertain my old thoughts about Egyptians’ subordination. I decided to escape to the old, partly uncontaminated parts of historic Cairo, Al Ghoureya and Khan El Khalily, to replace the sounds of propaganda with the bustle of Egyptians’ lives. Inhaling an air loaded with the aroma of spices instantly brought back memories of the countless times I prayed in its historical mosque, Al Ghoury. Just two blocks away from the famous Al-Azhar, I preferred to climb up the worn out stone steps of this forgotten mosque to admire its ancient stone walls, its colorful glass and brass chandeliers, but also secretly hoping to catch a glimpse of the hidden transcript in a less official space.

The Inside of AlGhoury Mosque

The Inside of Al Ghoury Mosque (Courtesy of

Outside of AlGhoury

The outside of Al Ghoury Mosque (Courtesy of

After praying, I went down to Khan El Khalily, the narrow alley and touristic attraction famous for its Pharaonic and Islamic art souvenirs. I wanted to purchase some of these souvenirs to bring back with me, but I also wanted to melt in the crowds again, to rub my shoulders against actual struggling Egyptians, and enjoy discussing politics with my mother as we walk down the aromatic alley. Lightly tapping her shoulder so she can go easy in her price bargaining with the already impoverished street vendor trying to sell me a 2$ (15 L.E) piece of jewelry for 5$ (35 L.E), we heard someone yelling, “THE LAUGH OF SISI”

Khan El-Khalily

Khan El Khalili (Courtesy of

Small Shop owners on the sides of Khan El Khalili

Small Shop owners on the sides of Khan El Khalili (Courtesy of )

We turned our heads to see a street vendor passing through the alley while pushing her worn-out newsstand. She was calling at the top of her lungs, with probably the headline of a newspaper she proudly adopted and supplemented with prayers for Sisi’s success in “conquering Egypt’s enemies”. Yet, I could hear too, to my secret happiness, the disgruntled murmurs of the small shop owners and other street vendors, negatively affected by Sisi’s repression and economic policies, as they cursed, and urged her to leave. Now all of a sudden, the request of my affluent aunt to watch the “Sisi extravaganza” on our TV during her visit, no longer upset me that much.

Y. Elsayed is a doctoral student at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. She studies forms of cultural resistance and processes of social change in post-Arab Spring countries; Elsayed particularly focuses on mapping out non-traditional means for practicing politics in non-democratic settings, through the study of youth’s satire, sports fandom, arts and music.

Celebrate #BlackHistoryMonth with #28DaysOfBlackCosplay

Across the next few weeks, I will be sharing blog posts written as an assignment for the students in my PhD seminar, Public Intellectuals: Theory and Practice. Each reflects a student’s efforts to find their own voice and share some of their research. Any comments or suggestions would be most welcome, and can be posted publicly here or can be sent to me at

Celebrate #BlackHistoryMonth with #28DaysOfBlackCosplay

by Joan Miller

February and October seem to be the two most fraught months of the year for black geeks. October of 2013, for me, was the first time I ever attempted a cross-racial cosplay. I was a graduate student, living and studying in New York City and excited to be attending New York Comic Con, but filled with anxiety about how my cosplay would be received, would I be singled out and ostracized like many black cosplayers before me?

Despite my fears, I headed to the Jacob K. Javits center dressed as Harleen Quinzel, the woman who later becomes Harley Quinn and went, for the most part, unrecognized (unless my partner, dressed as the Joker’s alter-ego, was standing next to me), a disappointing, but not uncommon reaction to black cosplay of white characters.

Incidentally, I firmly believe every cosplayer has a take on Harley Quinn — her fun-loving quirky attitude and crazy antics make her a great joy to embody, while the simple logo and color scheme of her traditional costume are easy to reproduce and lend themselves to endless variations and reinterpretations, like any good meme should.

The author and partner as Harleen Quinzel and Jack Napier.

The author and partner as Harleen Quinzel and Jack Napier.

Later that October, I encountered another cross-racial cosplay that got a lot more attention than mine. Kira Markelejc, a German cosplay and The Walking Dead fan, followed in the footsteps of many a Halloween party goer and opted to practice blackface in constructing her costume of Michonne a character originated by Danai Gurira. I was impressed by the vitriol and passion in the conversation from both Markelejc’s supporters and critics and couldn’t help but compare my own recent cosplay.

Luckily, I had been casting about for a research topic to focus on in a class on Black Performance taught by the inestimable Dr. Tavia Nyong’o. In working with Dr. Nyong’o to refine and unfold my research on the topic, I discovered the work of Chaka Cumberbatch, well known in geek circles for her cosplay of Sailor Venus of the Sailor Moon transmedia property.

Sailor Venus of the Sailor Moon transmedia property.

Sailor Venus of the Sailor Moon transmedia property.

In this instance, Cumberbatch presents a version of Venus that is identical to the source texts in every way — except for the color of her skin. This detail was too much for some audience members. Shortly after Cumberbatch posted photos of her cosplay online, she was inundated with racist comments, including epithets like N— Venus” and “Sailor Venus Williams”:

“My nose was too wide, lips were too big, I had a ‘face like a gorilla’ and wasn’t suited for such a cute character, because I am black. My wig was too blonde, my wig wasn’t blonde enough, or, my wig was ghetto because I was making it ghetto, by being black and having it on my head.” (Ibid).

After deleting what she describes as thousands of comments, Cumberbatch decided to respond publicly. Her piece, for, rejects the criticism from certain audience members that she should “stick to her range.”

After noting that this restrictive ideal limits plus-sized cosplayers as well, Cumberbatch criticizes the idea of “range” by pointing out the extremely unequal representation of black characters in media and therefore the lack of options for black cosplayers who would be limited to these roles. Her sentiments would be echoed later by numerous advocates for better representation, including Viola Davis after her 2015 Emmy win for How to Get Away with Murder.



Cumberbatch continues to write on race in cosplay for sites including and, however, her latest and most visible form of activism is of a more participatory bent.

#28DaysofBlackCosplay is a hashtag movement originally conceived by Cumberbatch in January of 2013. The cosplayer was anticipating the upcoming Black History Month and the slew of racialized comments that were about to hit social media. She laments: “we spend the entire month arguing online with people… October and February are the worst times to be black on the internet” (Black Girl Nerds).

#28DaysofBlackCosplay was an attempt to get out ahead of the wave of negative dialogues and vitriol with an explicit effort to celebrate and appreciate black cosplay. The movement originated on Facebook as a group composed of Cumberbatch’s personal contacts in black cosplay, hastily called to action through emails, tweets and messages. The group came together and shared cosplay photos of themselves with short profiles about who they were and who they were cosplaying. Later Cumberbatch cross-posted some of the photos to Twitter whose users “took it and ran with it” (Ibid).

For Cumberbatch #28DaysofBlackCosplay is about visibility. She says, “I needed to see us represented, and that’s what #28DaysofBlackCosplay is all about, it’s about representation.” Her comments evoke the political philosophy of Jacques Ranciére who states that political speech requires a moment in which the invisible subject has an opportunity to become visible (1999). If we could imagine Rancieré to be speaking of black cosplay he might say that “It makes visible what had no business being seen, and makes heard a discourse where once there was only place for noise…” (30:Ibid).

Certainly, not all cosplay achieves the level of speech that he would call political. In order for speech to be recognized as such, and not noise, it has to be legible to the person hearing it. My Harleen Quinzel cosplay, sadly, didn’t quite achieve politics, since no one knew who I was and thus couldn’t make sense of what I was trying to “say.”

Other cosplays fail politically when they don’t present an opportunity for the invisible subject to become visible. In my research I discussed the phenomenon of “white Katara,” — a popular brown-skinned character who is often cosplayed by white women. White Katara can’t be an example of political speech because instead of increasing visibility for black and brown characters, it forcibly decreases visibility by rewriting a previously brown character as the hegemonic default — white.

However, some cosplays, under the right circumstances and in front of the right audience, do begin to beg the question of “Who gets to be an American?” or, “Who gets to be a hero?”

Above, a young “black girl nerd” or “blerd” and participant of #29DaysofBlackCosplay gives us her rendition of Rey (Daisy Ridley) from Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens. The character of Rey also marks an important moment for representations of women in media. Of the top 10 highest grossing film protagonists, Rey is only the second female. However, she far exceeds the reach of her colleague, Anna (Frozen) in 9th by, A.) being a live-action character intended for general audiences that include the coveted “male 18-24” demographic, and B.) climbing all the way to 3rd place (though she still has time to beat out Jack of Titanic fame and claim 2nd)*. Rey proves that not only can a female protagonist carry a film, she can also bring in box office dollars, exploding the common knowledge that female-led films don’t sell. Notably, the film also expanded black representation in the Star Wars galaxy through the strong supporting performance of John Boyega as Finn, a Stormtrooper who defects to the Rebellion. Boyega’s and Ridley’s performances and roles offer opportunities for speech and visibility.  However, intrepid and courageous cosplayers find opportunities for self-expression and possible political speech through negotiations between their own identities and those of the fictional characters they emulate. Below, Bishop cosplay rejects Batman’s and Robin’s hegemonic whiteness while embracing a love for the character that we might interpret as an embracing of Batman’s core principles of justice, ingenuity and respect for life. In his work, named after the theory it explains, Jose Muñoz might describe this negotiation as a Disidentification.

Muñoz understands disidentification as a way of relating to material where the individual neither fully embraces nor fully rejects it’s ideals. Disidentification exists as a third position in which one neither “ buckles under the pressures of” nor “attempt[s] to break free of” the dominant mode of thought, rather, they:

“… tr[y] to transform a cultural logic from within, always laboring to enact permanent structural change while at the same time valuing the importance of local or everyday struggles of resistance. … To disidentify is to read oneself and one’s own life narrative in a moment, object or subject that is not culturally coded to “connect” with the disidentifying subject” (Ibid: 11-12).

Still other cosplayers operate in different modes. Like any artistic endeavor, cosplay can be a rich field for practicing different forms of self-expression. The Storm cosplayer below maintains iconic links to the source material through her dark skin, and white eyes as well as the black/white/gold color scheme employed in several official versions of the character.

However, Cupcake Ninja incorporates her own details and stylings in the costume — her hairstyle, the steampunk-esque elements — which serve to make it uniquely identifiable and uniquely hers.

Ultimately, black cosplay in general and #29DaysOfBlackCosplay in particular, opens up a space of possibility for the underrepresented fan — the invisible subject — to make themselves visible by negotiating their own identities through creative reinterpretation of a character. When thinking about black cosplay, it’s important to understand its position in the constellation of media available to us, especially when we think about issues of representation. Cosplay can be both the motivation and the call for embracing difference in media and encouraging creators to tell stories about the sorts of people we want to see. One black character in a sea of white faces — whether she be a Nichelle Nichols or a Chaka Cumberbatch — can have a surprising effect on the futures of those who come after (like Whoopi Goldberg, for example). Take the opportunity to celebrate Black History Month and black representation by enjoying, sharing and participating in black cosplay, courtesy of Cumberbatch and #28DaysofBlackCosplay. Starfleet Officer Olevia Chavez@ComicConHouston 2015#29DaysOfBlackCosplay #OpenHailingFrequencies

For more on #29DaysOfBlackCosplay or (#28DaysOfBlackCosplay), find the hashtag on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram. Joan can be found at @a_wild_acafan and Chaka Cumberbatch at @princessology.


*In case you’re curious, the rest of the female protagonist cohort in the top 50 highest grossing films are:

  1. Alice of Alice in Wonderland(2010)
  2. Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
  3. Joy of Inside Out (2015)
  4. Bella Swann of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn— Part 2 (2012)

The other 44 films feature male protagonists. That’s 88% male and 12% female.


** This year it’s #29daysofblackcosplay, however, Cumberbatch has stated that she will be checking both hashtags regularly.


Joan Miller is a doctoral student at USC Annenberg. Her research focuses on pop-culture fandom at the intersection of critical race and gender studies. Joan is happy to connect with readers on twitter or reddit where she is @a_wild_acafan.

Who Are Millennial Fans: An Interview with Louisa Stein (Part Three)

You describe Glee as “ideologically uneven,” suggesting some of the contradictory pulls in terms of its commitments to equality, diversity, and community. Often, the rough spots in texts, the contradictions and gaps, are what fans have built upon as they have ideologically reconstructed popular television series. Is this the case with Glee or are these ideological unevennesses reproduced within the fan culture that surrounds the series?

 Yes Glee’s ideological unevenness spurred fandom creation, and yes, Glee’s ideological unevenness gets recreated in fan culture. On the one hand, Glee’s ideological unevenness prompted a wealth of fan response, sometimes in the form of virulent critique or media literacy campaigns like the Glee Equality Project, sometimes in the form of somewhat more subtle critiques via long form fan fictions that seek to right Glee’s ideological wrongs (for example, Sugarkane_01’s “Come Here Boy) or to more substantively engage issues of diversity sidestepped by the series (for example, Herostratic’s “No Objects of Lust.”)

But some of the TV series’ unevenness gets reproduced, and new ideological contradictions get introduced. In Millennial Fandom, I talk about the fan fiction series Steal a Heart, which simultaneously makes up for Glee’s lack of depiction of queer sexual intimacy with long passages describing sexual intimacy for multiple non-straight couples, but at the same time the series arguably reifies Glee’s gay white male focus, and also introduces new celebration of consumerist millennial culture with significant emphasis on Disneyworld as millennial fantasy ideal.

What’s important to me for us to take from this is not only that fandom has the capacity for subversion and critique, but that fan cultures contain and author multitudes. Fan culture is, like Glee, at its core spectacularly uneven; it looks different from every vantage point; it’s always multiple, and it’s always changing, and it’s full of dynamic contradictions.


Much discussion of transmedia has centered around masculine audiences and male-centered narratives, but as you note, transmedia extensions play important roles in relation to these female-centered franchises. How might our understanding of transmedia aesthetics and practices shift if we fully incorporated these productions into our understanding of the concept? 

I want to first coopt this question to talk about an example close to my heart at this moment. So rather than thinking about how transmedia aesthetics and practices could shift, I want to dwell for a moment on how TV practices might shift if TV producers took fully into account the potential of the fandoms for female-centered franchises.

I mentioned above the TV series Supernatural’s ambivalent depictions of female fans over the years. Supernatural is a series that has a dynamic and rich transformative fandom, and the majority of those participating in the fandom are women. Supernatural fans, while expressing love for the series and its characters and potential, have long been critics of its gender and racial politics, and have spoken out at times about how they have felt misrepresented and even attacked by the series and its metatexts, for example, in response to a preview that declared the teenage girl the “ultimate monster.”

Having entered into its 11th season, Supernatural has made more than one unsuccessful attempt at creating a “back door spinoff,” introducing characters and scenarios into an episode that the producers hope would be able to carry their own series. Meanwhile, in recent years the series has introduced several compelling female characters, and a few have even been lucky enough to escape the series’ penchant for killing off its supporting female characters to push forward the narrative arcs of its central male characters.

Supernatural fans have used various transmedia channels—Twitter, Tumblr,, Thunderclap—to campaign for “the spin off fans want to see,” a series concept they have dubbed Wayward Daughters Academy. They’ve coordinated their efforts with the support of and in conversation with the actors playing the characters involved, and rallied fan support at conventions as well as online. While the fans admit that they may not have the power to “create a spin-off,” they argue that “we do have the potential to send The CW and Supernatural producers a message about their treatment of women and female characters.”

As the Wayward Daughters Academy campaign demonstrates, transmedia fandoms can voice their preferences strongly, sometimes in unison, and sometimes in what may seem like cacophony. But there’s power there, even in the cacophony, and a vision of a future politics of media representation that would move us forward into new audiences, new forms, breaking free of old and outdated representational tropes and production systems.

This brings us to your question about what we might learn from the practices of the transformative fandom for female-oriented franchises. Yes, these transformative fan communities can reveal critical perspectives and activist potential, but more importantly those perspectives exist within a fluid whole that encompasses multiple perspectives and practices, which are at once complementary and contradictory, and which flourish together despite—or even because of—their contradictions.[1]

Much of the previous thought about transmedia production has emphasized the pursuit of harmony, unity, and order, with clear hierarchies for transmedia relationships that wouldn’t threaten narrative coherence, or, more conservatively, that would not threaten the supremacy of the central broadcast media. But in transformative fandom, contradictions thrive and fans thrive on contradictions, or at least on the robustness of the culture that contains and celebrates contradiction.

That is, a culture that celebrates multiplicity and diversity must flourish on the contradictions that will emerge from that multiplicity, and this is a key strength of fandom that could shift, as you put it, our understanding of transmedia aesthetics and practices. Transmedia doesn’t need to be unified and clean; it can ride the waves of multivocal investment and authorship.


You use Misha Collins to illustrate the ways that certain performers are using social media to forge stronger alliances with their transformative audiences, even as they seek to draw them into an even more supportive relationship with the “mother ship” series. Yet, the recent example of Orlando Jones and Sleepy Hollow suggests that the producers and networks do not always value the kinds of relationship building such performers do for a series.  These performer-fans clearly have a different relationship to the core text than the “fan boy auteurs” that Suzanne Scott wrote about a few years ago. Might we also understand them as part of the “powerless elite” as John Tulloch famously described science fiction fans? 

There are echoes of celebrities as a powerless elite in my study of Misha Collins’ on-again-off-again status with the CW, or the fact that Orlando Jones is no longer on Sleepy Hollow. Yet in the bigger picture, I see a shift toward decentered communities of authorship that bridge producer and audience, and celebrity and fan. In these evolving interrelationships there are new forms of power, power to create, to entertain one another, to support one another, to create new media forms, to disrupt, to raise money, to organize, to create new trends, and to chart the directions of future media culture.

Misha Collins is readable as a powerless elite only if we define power as the power of broadcast media. Certainly, part of Collins’ online persona initially involved poking fun at the powerlessness of the perceived elite of celebrity, as he satirically tweeted about his close friendships with various heads of state and referred to his followers as his minions. The humor there lay in the fact that while people saw him as powerful, he was in actuality anything but.

But as Collins’ minions gathered and worked with him and with each other to form the charity organization Random Acts, we saw reflected a truth in fan and celebrity power, a truth that perhaps also lent power and new humor to Collins’ performance. Because together Collins and minions are powerful.

GISHWHES (The Greatest International Scavenger Hunt the World Has Ever Seen) takes this shared power further. The collectivity there, the collective dedication to creating anarchic art and spreading it in “real life” and online, demonstrates the power of the creative collective. Collins and collaborators Miss Jean Louis and others have created in GISHWHES a frame that fosters multiple communities of creativity and social action, with 14,000 participants in 2014. But the power here is not in celebrities as elite or fans as elite, but both together as expansive and diverse collective.

But there’s yet another dynamic here I would point to, more visible in communities built on the microcelebrity of young professionals working to build their careers as creative producers. I can think of no better example than Team StarKid, the theater troupe famous for A Very Potter Musical and sequels as well as Starship and Twisted (among others). While StarKid founder Darren Criss has arguably shed the “micro” side of microcelebrity, for the most part the various stars of StarKid model their own professional journeys to their fans, all of whom (fans and celebrities together) fall under the banner of Team StarKid.

Likewise, web series producers and stars who participate in fan-favored social media experiment with self branding along side fans, many of whom also position themselves creative producers, commercial or otherwise.[2] What’s key for me here is the larger collaborative picture, where stardom is understood (by fans and stars and star-fans) as one potential element of one’s creative production and participation, constructed, produced and reproduced by visible labor. Fandom offers communities of support for that labor and the challenges that may come with it. The power then is in the shared communities of knowledge, practice, and support fostered by celebrities and fans together. 

[1] Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse describe this shifting contradictory whole of fan authorship as the “fantext,” a concept I’ve found quite compelling and useful over the years. Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet (McFarland, 2006), 7.

[2] On fans who cross over into celebrity, I’d recommend Matt Hills’ “Not Just Another Powerless Elite,” in Su Holmes and Sean Redmond’s edited collection Framing Celebrity: New Directions in Celebrity Culture (Routledge, 2006), 101-118.

Louisa Stein is Assistant Professor of Film and Media Culture at Middlebury College. Her work explores audience engagement in transmedia culture, with emphasis on questions of gender and generation. Louisa is author of Millennial Fandom: Television Audiences in the Transmedia Age (University of Iowa Press, 2015). She is also co-editor of Sherlock and Transmedia Fandom (McFarland, 2012) and Teen Television: Programming and Fandom (McFarland, 2008). She has published in a range of journals and edited collections including Cinema Journal and How to Watch Television. Louisa serves as book review editor for the Transformative Works and Cultures and Cinema Journal. You can find Louisa on Twitter at @l_e_s and on Tumblr at

Who Are Millennial Fans: An Interview with Louisa Stein (Part Two)

Many of the shows you write about as Millennial programs are also shows with strong female leads and targeted at female consumers — Friday Night Lights would be a notable exception on your list. So, what happens to the gendering of fandom as we move towards Millennial fan culture? 

Issues of gender permeate millennial culture, fan culture, and the relationship between the two. Masculinizing—or feminizing—fan culture has been one way industry interests tame fandom’s perceived unruliness. Seemingly masculine forms of fandom (and I would emphasize that these areas, like gender itself, are social constructs) have already been categorized as industrially legible and profit friendly. The fanboy stereotype has its share of taboo associations, going all the way back to the “Get a Life” bit on Saturday Night Live that Textual Poachers opens with; but the fanboy position has since been spun into industry heralded narratives of superfans and fanboy auteurs (see Scott, Kohnen), with the lines toward brand support and profit already clearly delineated.[i]

Obsession_inc (and many others citing her) have termed this divide “affirmational fandom,” versus “transformative fandom,” with the latter perceived as more the practice of female consumers who transform media texts into art and fiction, often in so doing significantly changing their meaning. In Millennial Fandom, I actually argue that transformational and affirmational fandom are more deeply intertwined than we might at first assume, but nevertheless, at a discursive level, the distinction helps us to see why and how transformative (perceived “feminine”) practices have been and continue to be treated as suspect, marked as taboo, and policed.


But we know this is beginning to change, as various attempts by industry interests invite fan transformative authorship, if on industrial terms. So we have industry efforts to coopt fan transformational practices like Amazon Kindle Worlds and FanLib; we also see hash tags emblazoned on episodes designed to elicit and shape fan discourses and twitter authorship; likewise, we see TV source text mimicking the form of fan videos. We also see producers (especially digital producers of web series) naming “ships” and their associated fandoms, reposting fan art, and participating in fandom themselves. What this means is that industry interests are now courting and celebrating modes of fan engagement perceived as feminine, and, as a result, new and more nuanced games of co-creation and control begin to play out.

But it goes further than a grudging acceptance that feminine modes of fan production might be woven into profit too. Perceived feminine excesses are also being celebrated for their creative energy as representative of what is new and different about contemporary youth audiences. It’s part of the millennial discursive construct: all seeming threats can be recast as positives.

The potential unruliness of the millennial generation—especially the seemingly more illegible, excessive, feminine practices—are themselves being celebrated and marketed in millennial-directed texts and paratexts, and this means we are given lead female characters like Blair Waldorf, Veronica Mars, Charlie Bradbury (sob) and all five Pretty Little Liars leads, or most recently Clary Fray from Shadowhunters, whose transgressions and excesses are celebrated as strengths. This then means we have a dialogue between fan cultures that celebrate affective transgressions and series/characters (and especially female leads) that do the same.

You describe in some details how ABC Family developed its image as a network, but we’ve recently learned that the network is rebranding itself. Has the moment of millennial television already started to pass, and if so, what will take its place?

Thanks to a timely coincidence I am writing this response on January 12th, the day that ABC Family officially became Freeform. This rebranding not only changes the network’s name, but also its professed target audience. Freeform labels its intended imagined audience not millennials but “Becomers,” what they term a “life stage” rather than a specific generation.

According to various press materials, Becomers span life experience from “first kiss to first kid,” age range 14-34. But just as the millennial category did for ABC family in 2007, Becomers offer an expansive category seeking to unite teens and young adults, this time linking them by their shared processes of “finding themselves” rather than by a shared generational ethos.

ABC Family had to walk a fine line in its 2007 rebranding—it strove to maintain its family friendly and even conservative leaning Disney roots and while also positioning itself as fresh, cutting edge, and tapped into the concerns of contemporary young people. The discourses of social conservatism (what I talk about as “millennial hope”) surrounding millennials became a useful tool in this branding dance. But since then, ABC family has contributed significantly to the alternate depictions of millennials as transgressive, risk taking, and independently-minded (what I call discourses of “millennial noir.”)

The new Freeform/Becomers rebrand sheds the limiting generational discourse and the conservative associations that go with it. According to a press release announcing the rebranding in April 2015, current Becomers (or at least the younger ones) “live on the cutting edge of technology… have never experienced content without a smart phone, streaming, or social media.” In turn, according to another press release in Fall of 2015, Freeform will reach Becomers by encouraging audience interactivity: “Freeform is inspired by the interconnection between content and audience, media and technology, interactive and linear, life stage and life style and the way Becomers interact with all of them.”

Many of these strategies were already in place with ABC Family’s prior address to millennials. The moving away from the term millennials distances ABC Family from both the dated and more conservative dimensions of the brand. The hyped new programming on Freeform leans toward fan-friendly and female-centric representations of diverse experience, such as in The Fosters, Becoming Us, and Shadowhunters.

So all of this is to say that the label millennials has indeed begun to shift and pass (new articles describe millennials parenting tendencies!) and perhaps generational discourse itself is falling temporarily out of fashion, but many of the strategies put in place during the reign of the millennials will persist, if rebranded and somewhat reshaped.

Throughout, you suggest ways that the book, Millennials Rising, has informed industry practice and discourse as it relates to this particular generational cohort. What factors account for the impact this particular book had? Why was it so widely embraced? What have been some of the consequences of this book’s influence?

Millennials Rising not accidentally depicted a vision and definition of millennials that was advertiser and industry friendly and that helped ease concerns and anxieties about the impact of digital technologies and cultural change on media marketing models. Authors of Millennials Rising, William Strauss and Neil Howe were founding partners of LifeCourse Associates, a consulting, publishing and speaking company that “serve(s) companies, government agencies, and non-profit.” This reach across profit and non profit sectors has been felt, as reports from the Pew Research Centers and media companies like ABC Family reified the vision of millennials originally constructed by Strauss and Howe, limited and contradictory as it might have been.

In other words, Strauss and Howe defined the millennial generation in part with industry concerns in mind, and then industry interests glommed on, reified, and reproduced this definition, a self-fulfilling generational prophecy with far reaching impact. To return again to the Freeform example, the impact is still felt, even as ABC Family sheds the term millennial, it still constructs its expansive collapse of teen and young adult markets and spins a hopeful narrative about the power of community built on digital authorship communicating individual experience.

[i] Suzanne Scott, “Who’s Steering the Mothership?: The Role of the Fanboy Auteur in Transmedia Storytelling,” The Routledge Handbook on Participatory Cultures (New York: Routledge, 2013), 43-52; Melanie Kohnen ‘The power of geek’: fandom as gendered commodity at Comic-Con,” Creative Industries Journal, 7:1 (2014), 75-78, DOI: 10.1080/17510694.2014.892295

Louisa Stein is Assistant Professor of Film and Media Culture at Middlebury College. Her work explores audience engagement in transmedia culture, with emphasis on questions of gender and generation. Louisa is author of Millennial Fandom: Television Audiences in the Transmedia Age (University of Iowa Press, 2015). She is also co-editor of Sherlock and Transmedia Fandom (McFarland, 2012) and Teen Television: Programming and Fandom (McFarland, 2008). She has published in a range of journals and edited collections including Cinema Journal and How to Watch Television. Louisa serves as book review editor for the Transformative Works and Cultures and Cinema Journal. You can find Louisa on Twitter at @l_e_s and on Tumblr at

Who Are Millennial Fans?: An Interview with Louisa Stein (Part One)

Louisa Stein is part of a generation of fan researchers who first came to my attention through the 2006 publication of Fan Fictions and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet which was a groundbreaking collection of essays, one that opened up a range of new theoretical perspectives and introduced many new voices. I have had the pleasure watching Stein’s scholarship take shape over the past decade — including her co-editorship of Sherlock and Transmedia Fandom (with Kristina Busse) and her contributions to the reissue of my own Textual Poachers.

Soft-spoken in person, Stein writes with real passion, as someone who is deeply grounded in the fandoms she discusses through her writing, and as someone whose sense of social justice is shaped by various forms of fan feminisms. She also has been consistently attentive to the ways fandom has changed as it embraces the potentials and works through the challenges of new media and as it struggles to maintain its own identity in the face of various industrial strategies that seek to incorporate and contain its transformative practices.

This past fall, Stein published an important new book — Millenial Fandom: Television Audiences in a Transmedia Age. Here, she discusses young fans of such programs as Gossip Girl, Veronica Mars, Glee, Lizzie Bennett Diaries, Vampire Diaries, Pretty Little Liars, among many other series, and in the process, she expands the critical vocabulary of fandom research — especially as it concerns the shifting relations between producers and consumers in the era of social media. She writes in complex and compelling ways about the “mainstreaming” of fandom and who gets left out when the industry embraces some fans and not others. She doesn’t simply celebrate fandom as a space that transgresses or reimagines the ideologies of these popular fictions, but she also explores how fans reproduce and  in some cases,  deepen the problematic ideological contradictions at the heart of their favorite programs. I am sure that this book is one which will inspire and inform the next generation of fandom research.

We tackle many of these issues in this three part interview with Stein about her book and about some cutting edge issues impacting young fans today.

In many ways, you see the millennial audience as emblematic of the “mainstreaming” of fan culture within a networked culture. You write, “Millennials have made fan practices more socially acceptable by action, word, and image, if not name.” To what degree is this something Millennials have done and to what degree is this something the industry has done as it has constructed millennials as a particular kind of fan?

First, I want to emphasize that I mean millennial as an imagined category, one co-created by industry and (the cultural participants we refer to as) millennials in an ongoing negotiation. Likewise, the depiction of millennials as modified fans is an ongoing joint creation: industry marketing, advertising, network positioning, programming, scheduling, and digital paratexts together construct a vision of millennials as modified fans; but millennials’ (and/or fans’) own performances of self, responses to one another, and collective interactions also shape this picture. Advertising campaigns and paratextual strategies (like officially coordinated hash tags or programming embedded with fan reference) may hail a modified fan position—one that is invested, created, and interactive up to a particular degree and in certain industry-accepted modes. But fans created many of these practices in the first place, and choose when and how to respond to industrial hailing, when to play along the designated lines and when to transgress.

I’ve been thinking recently about the power of fan self representation, the impact of what fans choose to broadcast, so to speak, about their own engagement—what narratives of self and community they (and we, including scholar fans) choose to tell. To me, this set of performances is crucial. Even as fan self-representations may seem to echo industrial discourse, they transcend those too simple portraits.

The notion of “socially-minded millennials,” for example, is a thin industrial construct in comparison to the lived coordination and action of millennial fan campaigns such as the Harry Potter Alliance, Random Acts, The Glee Equality Project, and Wayward Daughters Academy. Likewise, the millennial noir transgressions of Gossip Girl characters in no way encompass the celebration of the excess of emotion in millennial feels culture that flourishes on Tumblr, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

The mainstreaming of fandom into millennial culture is a chosen stance of fans to represent their modes of engagement as more than only niche and subcultural. Fans choose to post about their fan engagement in the public spaces of Tumblr rather than the locked communities and friends-only journals of the late 1990s and early 2000s. They may perceive these fan spaces as intimate publics, as I’ve written about elsewhere, yet they choose to allow for the possibility of visibility, for a default public culture, albeit one with intimate semi-private pockets. Indeed, the social activism of, for example, what some refer to as Tumblr feminism is part of—or at least deeply connected to—this fan performance of fandom as an expansive mode of engagement with something important to share and spread.

Many have seen the “mainstreaming” of fandom in largely negative terms as a form of co-optation or enclosure, yet throughout the book, there are suggestions that it may also be a positive force for change. In what senses? What is gained and what gets lost as fandom gets greater acceptance, as it moves from a niche or cult phenomenon and into the mainstream?

We can’t and shouldn’t ignore the dimensions and experiences of fandom that have become sidelined, censured, erased, deemed unimportant or inappropriate, or even ridiculed because they do not fall within industrially or culturally approved fannish modes. For example, the increased visibility of fandom has led to a gendered battleground when it comes to representations of fans, seen recently in the whiplash ambivalence of the series Supernatural’s representation of fandom  and female fannish characters. (See also) The mainstreaming of fandom does police and punish certain fans, modes of fan engagement, and modes of fan production, while heralding others.

But at the same time, the mainstreaming of fandom can give visibility and voice to those vital parts of fandom even as they’re being censured. Nowhere was this more evident to me than at the 2013 LeakyCon, which I write about in my book’s conclusion. (I’ve also written about it with Allison McCracken and Lindsey Giggey on Antenna.) At LeakyCon, young millennial fans came together into a supportive multifandom community that they saw as an extension of their online engagement.

I attended one panel that focused on parents of LeakyCon goers. As the parent of a budding fan myself (my daughter just finished reading book 7 of Harry Potter this week!), I was struck by the way parents spoke about how much fandom had meant to their kids, how knowing that there is this larger community of folks that share their concerns of identity and self-expression, articulated through their engagement with media communities, has empowered their children to become authors, creators, community participants, and sometimes community leaders in ways that their parents (many of whom had grown up as fans) could never have imagined for themselves when they were young.

The increased visibility and sense of pride and public-facing community has transformed access to fandom, its breadth, and in turn the tenor of the fan experience. Fandom still can provide an escape from a more constricting daily life, but fandom is no longer necessarily hidden and walled. Instead it infuses fans’ everyday and shapes the communities fans build in “real life” and online or, more to the point, as these categories dissolve.

Louisa Stein is Assistant Professor of Film and Media Culture at Middlebury College. Her work explores audience engagement in transmedia culture, with emphasis on questions of gender and generation. Louisa is author of Millennial Fandom: Television Audiences in the Transmedia Age (University of Iowa Press, 2015). She is also co-editor of Sherlock and Transmedia Fandom (McFarland, 2012) and Teen Television: Programming and Fandom (McFarland, 2008). She has published in a range of journals and edited collections including Cinema Journal and How to Watch Television. Louisa serves as book review editor for the Transformative Works and Cultures and Cinema Journal. You can find Louisa on Twitter at @l_e_s and on Tumblr at