On Race and American Television: An Interview with Eric Deggans (Part One)

I wrote in the spring to share some of my experiences serving as a jury member for the Peabody Awards. One of the real pleasures of this process is getting locked in the room with a dozen really fascinating people from many different backgrounds who care passionately about television and who make arguments for and against programs. By the end of the process, you either feel very close to the guy across the table for you or you are not on speaking terms. In my case, for much of the time, the guy across the table from me was Eric Deggans, NPR's first full time television critic, and the author of the recent book, Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation. Not only did I find myself either agreeing with or convinced by Deggans' arguments throughout the process but I've also regularly been catching up with his journalistic work ever since.  I find him an essential voice as we see ongoing struggles over diversity within American media -- from last spring's #cancelColbert brew-ha-ha to  what it means that we are seeing some increase in the number of people of color on entertainment television this fall.

Deggans' book provides a big picture of a news and entertainment medium under change -- or in most cases, a medium that urgently needs to change and yet refuses to do so. His discussion of racialized politics in American media spans from talk radio and cable news to reality television and fictional programs. He not only goes after the usual suspects -- Russ Limbaugh, Fox News -- but also shows how some of the same logics and practices surfaces on networks such as MSNBC or even PBS which claim to be more progressive and should know better. This book should be required reading for every media student in the country -- both those who will be entering the media industry in some ways and those who are seeking to become better critics and more skeptical consumers. Deggans asks hard questions and doesn't back away from a fight, but he also brings an insider's perspective to help us understand what's taking place inside the news room and production studio as bad calls get made and offensive comments reach the air.

Deggans was nice enough to let me reverse the lens and interview him about some of the book's core themes and about some recent developments in American television. As we get ready for the start of the fall television season, not to mention this November's mid-term elections, I hope that his comments will give us plenty to think about.

Let’s start with the word, Race-Baiter, which is the title of your book. What do you see as the stakes in this term -- for you, for others who use it -- and what does it help us to see about the arguments you are constructing across the book?

The struggle over the definition of the term "race-baiter" is a microcosm of the way some media outlets and political movements have sought to redefine words to serve their current polemical and political interests. In the same way some conservatives managed to turn the word "feminism" into a derogatory term, even for women who clearly believe in the ideas of feminism, others have sought to re-define the word race-baiter from its early uses in describing white politicians who encouraged racial hatred among white people to further their political goals. Now, some idealogues use the term to refer to people of color and white liberals who make allegations of prejudice or racism; the presumption is that these claims are unfounded and unfair -- made mostly to gain political or economic advantage.
This is really a different struggle; a way to invalidate the idea of institutional racism or prejudice without ever really arguing the concept directly. Conservative media outlets such as Fox News generally behave as if the institutions of American society are currently fair and treat everyone equally. So, absent overwhelming evidence, they are severely skeptical of any claims that people of color have less wealth, are incarcerated more often, have a tougher time getting good housing or have a tougher time getting into good colleges because of institutional prejudice or racism.
If the term race-baiter can be successfully shifted to refer to people who try to raise questions about institutional racism, then they have created an effective tool for silencing people without ever arguing the concept directly. Because they create a situation where the argument begins with the assumption that American society is fair and people who talk about racism are simply doing so for selfish reasons.
I made it the title of my book because Fox News star Bill O'Reilly tried to silence me in exactly that way, calling me "one of the biggest race-baiters in the country" for my work as chair of the National Association of Black Journalists' media monitoring committee. It's a group which help develop suggestions of best practices when it comes to coverage of race by journalists and it also recommends nominees to the NABJ board for the group's Best Practices and Thumbs Down awards. Guess which news outlet won the thumbs down award the year O'Reilly called me a race-baiter?    

For me, part and parcel of resisting such media outlets is redefining the term race-baiter and refusing to accept the new focus conservative media outlets have tried to attach to it. and that will mostly happen by educating the public on how race works in America, how media works, how political speech works and how some media outlets convert these prejudices and stereotypes in big profits.


The second part of the title, “How the media wields dangerous words to divide a nation,” implies a strong sense of intentionality. To what degree do you feel that the various media organizations in this book are intentionally seeking to be divisive,to what degree do you think they are indifferent to the choices they make? And does intentionally matter, given the consequences of this divisiveness?

I'm not sure intentionality is possible to discern or even necessary. One of the big problems in analyzing race-based controversies and issues, is that people too often try to peer into the soul of the person at the heart of the controversy and conclude whether or not they are a bigot. But such determinations are often impossible, requiring mind reading of one sort or another. What you can do is look at the actions of a person or institution and look at the results of their actions. If a news outlet consistently features a pundit who compares a black female congress woman to Whitney Houston and tells her to put down the crack pipe because he doesn't like her political arguments; if another media outlet misidentifies a photo of a young, shirtless black man with his underwear showing flipping "the bird" to the camera, as slain Florida teenager Trayvon Martin -- and then has to admit the photo came from a white supremacist website -- then you have to question how those media outlets handle reporting on racial issues.
Different media outlets are superserving the interests of their target audience in order to build loyal followings. But when those tactics include spreading stereotypes and misinformation to reinforce the worldview of one race over the perspectives of others, you have a problem -- particularly in news coverage.  

You write early in the book about “the Tyranny of the Broad Niche,” suggesting that a key factor in how race gets depicted on television has to do with the ways some demographic segments are viewed as more economically valuable than others. Can you tell us more about how this “Broad Niche” logic works and what it’s consequences has been in terms of cultural diversity on American television?

Broadcast television in particular is struggling to maintain an audience and its advertising revenue. Advertisers pay most for audiences that are hardest to reach. So that means the most valuable audience in broadcast television per capita is young males, particularly young white males. That's because more women watch TV than men and people of color watch TV proportionally more than white people.
This means a great many TV shows are aimed at the broad niche of young white men. So most late night comedy shows on TV are now hosted by white men popular with young white male viewers. Seth MacFarlane is a huge force at the Fox network because his animated comedy Family Guy draws a significant number of young male viewers. Unequal standard of beauty exist for women and men on TV shows. There is a lack of diversity among lead roles for network TV shows. In fact,  BuzzFeed featured a story showing that men are 49% of the population, but 57% of characters on the top four broadcast TV networks. White men are 30% of the population, but 50 percent of characters. Asian and Latino men are 11 percent of the population but less than 2 percent of the characters (there are as many robots and magical creatures on TV as Asian and Latino men). The perceived desires of this niche affect programming that everyone watches, giving us all a distorted idea of who gets to have a starring role in real life society, as well.

Eric Deggans is NPR’s first full-time TV critic, crafting stories and commentaries for broadcasts such as Morning Edition and All Things Considered, along with an array of written contributions to NPR.org and the website’s blogs such as Code Switch, Monkey See and The Two Way. He came to NPR in September 2013 from the Tampa Bay Times newspaper in Florida, where he served as TV/Media Critic and in other roles for nearly 20 years. A journalist for more than two decades, he is also the author of Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation, a look at how prejudice, racism and sexism fuels some elements of modern media, published in October 2012 by Palgrave Macmillan. He guest hosted CNN’s media analysis show Reliable Sources many times in fall 2013, joining a select group of journalists and media critics filling in for departed host Howard Kurtz. That year, he also earned the Florida Press Club’s first-ever Diversity award, honoring his coverage of issues involving race and media. He received the Legacy award from the National Association of Black Journalists’ A&E Task Force, an honor bestowed to “seasoned A&E journalists who are at the top of their careers.” Eric also serves on the board of educators, journalists and media experts who select the George Foster Peabody Awards for excellence in electronic media.




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

Henry: At a time when schools are also closing their arts programs, it is striking to read about how much importance were placed on children’s arts education during the Cold War era. Can you share with us what the rationale for such programs would have been? Fred: It goes back to the notion that the personality of the individual mirrored and could actually shape the nation to which they belonged. The adults of the 1950s had seen a generation of Germans fall into line behind Hitler and many thought they were seeing the same thing in Russia with Stalin. Social scientists often explained these trends by arguing that these nations had inculcated authoritarian personality styles in their children. Authoritarian children were rigid, obedient, unable to reason or create independently, and above all, intolerant of those who were different from themselves. Democratic children were meant to be flexible, independent, reasoning, creative and collaborative.

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

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

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

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


Fig 4 Human Be In Hippie

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Henry: I was struck as I read your description of the aesthetic practices of the surround that you are evoking many categories that also shaped the aesthetics of new media -- including notions of interactivity, nonlinearity, immersion, multimodality, and transmedia. These links are implicit in the book, but I know you think about new media, so I wanted to see if you might be willing to speak about the similarities and differences in how these ideas operated in these two periods.  

Fred: Happy to. In many ways, the book is an effort to write a genealogical history of the categories you’ve named. In the time I’m writing about, the essential distinction was between immersing audiences and surrounding them. Walt Disney and his team, for instance, designed media to be like carnival rides. They tried to immerse their viewers not only in narrative, but in kinesthetic experiences that would cause them to disengage their critical faculties and just go with the flow. In 1958 they sent a movie about the United States to the World’s Fair in Brussels. It was shown in what they called “Circarama” – eleven film projectors showing the moving in 360 degrees just over the viewers’ heads. Journalists who saw the show were thrilled to see the bodies of the spectators all swaying in time together. To the Committee for National Morale or Herbert Bayer and his Bauhaus colleagues, people swaying together would have smacked of hypnotic fascism. The whole point of aesthetic experience in their view was to awaken the reason, to individuate citizens by creating aesthetic conditions under which they could have unique individual experiences, but together, as an egalitarian group. In that context, it wasn’t just what was on the screen that mattered; it was how viewers moved between the screens. In the propaganda exhibitions that Bayer designed for the Museum of Modern Art in World War II, visitors could see pictures overhead, at their feet, and at various heights along the wall. They came in all sizes and interspersed with text. They were quintessentially multi-modal media – and that was key. Bayer and his team wanted viewers to practice doing the linking work themselves. They were to engage, even interact with the whole pattern of images and not just any one message they might contain.   Fig 2 Cage Prepping Piano John Cage preparing a piano, circa 1960. Photograph by Ross Welser. Courtesy of the John Cage Trust.     The same thing was true later with John Cage’s soundscapes. You’ll remember that his most famous piece, 4’33”, features a piano player who sits down at the keyboard but never plays a note. Cage is asking his audience to see that they are surrounded by the sounds of their environment. He’s asking them to knit those sounds together in the way that would be most meaningful for them. No piano player, no conductor, no musical dictator demands their attention. The audience, like the sounds themselves, are meant to be free, interacting with one another on equal terms. In that sense, practices of interactivity, multimedia display and design, non-linear aesthetics – they were all tools meant to liberate and democratize the senses. They were meant to be alternatives not simply to commercial entertainment, but to the kind of media immersion that many – though not Walt Disney – still feared could produce authoritarians. The trouble is, these new modes for making liberated citizens also meant a new mode of management. In each case I’ve studied, a team of experts built an environment and selected an array – an often very rich array – of media for audiences to engage. Audience members moved freely, selected what mattered to them, congregated, dispersed – and based on all the archival records I’ve seen, many really did experience themselves as free in these spaces. But of course they weren’t. Or not completely. They may have had more control of their bodies and their senses and their reasoning faculties than, say, the swaying viewers of Disney’s Circarama, but the visitors to surrounds inhabited a thoroughly curated world. They could interact, but the terms of their interaction had been set for them, before they even entered the rooms. Even in Cage’s 4’33”, a designer hovered behind the experience – Cage himself. Today we’re surrounded by digital media and I think we’re just waking up to the quandary these experiences represent. On the one hand, we want the kind of individualized agency that surrounds seem to offer; on the other, simply entering those spaces opens us up to management and surveillance. Some of those modes are top-down – curators really can and do shape what we see, and some of those curators come from states and corporations with agendas that have little to do with democratizing our lives. Other modes are more psychological. If anything defines our historical moment, it’s the off-loading of the labor of production and self-management onto the individual citizen. You can see this in free-lancing and internships and any number of other places. But you can also see it in media. The modes of interactivity and multi-media storytelling that empower audiences to make their own unique sense of the media around them usually invite them to make sense of that media specifically – media which have often been pre-selected and pre-digested for them.   Fig 3 Moviedrome Interior of Stan VanDerBeek’s Movie-Drome, Gate Hill Cooperative, Stony Point New York, circa 1963-65. Photograph by Stan VanDerBeek. Courtesy of the Estate of Stan VanDerBeek.         You can see this to some degree online. But you can see it much more clearly in the ways that so many material environments are becoming multi-media experience machines. Think of airplanes, with TVs on every seatback. Or think of sports bars, with all the games on at once. Or think of the apps on your cell phone. We’ve entered a world in which the interactivity and multi-modality that once promised to free us from fascism has in fact brought us into ever closer relationships with large institutional forces. Now, just to be clear: I’m not at all arguing that corporations or states are necessarily authoritarian. I am arguing that we need to see that the terms of our media freedom these days are a lot more constrained than we may think.


Henry: The Democratic Surround explicitly seeks to push beyond some of the encrusted ideological critiques of the Cold War and the idea of domestic containment. You want us to understand that in many ways, the leading thinkers and artists of this period were pursuing a progressive, even multicultural agenda, for whatever blind spots or complicities they might seem to display. What do you see as some of the most significant misperceptions about American thought during the 1950s? What do you see as the value of rethinking this period?

Fred: The history of the Cold War that we’ve inherited has largely been written by a generation of scholars who grew up in the 1960s and came of professional age in the 1980s. They witnessed the Vietnam War, the recession of the 1970s, the rise of Reagan and Thatcher. Out of those times, their generation has carried a deep fear of the government, a faith in the power of self-organized networks, and a belief that personal expression, properly organized, represents the highest form of politics. These beliefs have made it harder for them to see the complexity of the 1940s and the 1950s and much harder for all of us to deal with the complexities of our own time. The canonical story runs something like this: After World War II, America settled into a pattern of ubiquitous repression in its foreign policy, its domestic race relations, and its family life. When a new generation realized how personal politics could be, they took to the streets, and only once they got there did political change begin. This story contains some large grains of truth, but it misses crucial distinctions. World War II, for instance, gave rise to the military-industrial establishment, but it also sparked a radical critique of American racism. That critique flourished not only among disenfranchised bohemians, but among elite intellectuals and public officials. By 1948 or so, large numbers of Americans supported a very radical vision of world government. It wasn’t the Communism of the 1930s, but it was a deeply collectivist vision of global unity. That vision has been read in recent years as an oppressive universal humanism, an effort to turn the entire world American, white and middle-class. In the 1950s, the United States would certainly leverage that vision in an effort to contain Communism abroad. But the vision itself, then and now, contained within it the seeds of our own celebration of human diversity. A second belief: that the personal only became political in the 1960s. This claim seems to have been born out by the host of identity-based political movements that emerged in the 1970s. But it’s not true. The effort to distinguish America from Germany at the start of World War II set loose a critique of racism, anti-Semitism, and even gender conformity – in the late 1940s and early 1950s – that has largely been forgotten. Figures like Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict believed that the personalities of a given culture made that culture what it was. Democracy in their view was always simultaneously a political and a psychological phenomenon. Freedom consisted in the ability to be oneself; a free society empowered individuals to fulfill their potential, together. What matters here is not only that the personalization of politics that we associate with the 1960s began a generation earlier. What matters is that it lived in the epicenter of American intellectual and political life. Writers who grew up during the Vietnam War, as I did, remain deeply suspicious of the state, for very good reasons. Yet governments are not monoliths. As I dug into the archives of America’s premier Cold War propaganda agency, the United States Information Agency (USIA), I found extraordinary arguments going on about the nature of democracy, about the degree to which Americans should impose their agendas on others, and the like. During World War II, members of the Committee for National Morale advised President Roosevelt and his cabinet; at the height of the Cold War, John Cage lectured at the same 1958 World’s Fair at which the USIA was promoting our national goals – and he spoke in terms that would have been entirely familiar and congenial to the most ardent American propagandists. I point this out to show that during the 1940s and 1950s, the American intellectual landscape had not yet been cordoned off into countries of ardent Cold Warriors confronted by equally ardent strivers after civil and human rights. Nor had the state as a whole become an exclusively oppressive force, internally or even internationally. I don’t mean to downplay the tensions of the time. I’m well schooled in McCarthy’s witch trials, the race riots of the 1940s, the very real gender re-segregation that took place after World War II, and the darkness of the Cold War closet. But I believe that if we can jettison the notion that only bohemian, expressive politics lead to social change of a personal kind, we can begin to see our own lives in a new light. In our moment, it isn’t our personal expression that’s under attack. On the contrary, we live in an era in which the mainstream mass media celebrate our array of sexual and racial identities. Think of the TV show Modern Family, for instance. Right now, it’s our institutions that are suffering. Have you looked up at a highway bridge lately? Have you popped into a public school and counted the number of kids in an average classroom? Have you looked at more than a decade of war and wondered how it is that the government has been able to keep troops in the field so long with nary a peep from the American public? And how has the left responded to these events? Well, we had Occupy – a movement organized around the collective expression of identity in public places and the building of mostly temporary networks. Meantime, the right has had the Tea Party – a movement anchored in already existing institutions, often churches, aimed at building new institutions, and it has already had an extraordinary effect on our government. Occupy has certainly framed the debate – it’s important know who’s part of the 99% and who isn’t. But it’s the Tea Party that has actually changed – or really, paralyzed – government policy. I’m hoping that if we can look back into the 1940s and the 1950s, we can see a world in which it is possible to work for radical political transformation within and around the most powerful institutions of our day – including the media and the government.

Henry: Anthropologists, Sociologists, and Psychologists (not to mention early Communication scholars) play key roles in shaping policies in the United States during this period. Why were these disciplines so central to the thinking of the American government during the war and post-war years? What factors have shaped a shift in the status of these humanistic fields in the subsequent decades? Today, many universities are closing down their anthropology programs, for example, and our educational policies are very much driven by a STEM agenda.

Fred: These are pretty tough questions! I’ll do my best. I think the answer to the first question has to do with the kind of country America was at the time. In the 1930s and 1940s, the United States was not yet a global hegemon. In a lot of ways, it was a somewhat backward place – largely rural, racially divided, and not yet even fully unified geographically the way it is today by the highway system. Within this world, anthropologists especially, but also psychologists and sociologists, seemed to offer a window on the world beyond our shores. They seemed to understand how things really worked – in far away Asia and Africa, in the urban jungles of our own cities, in the tropics of our minds. They also shared an understanding that individual personalities and cultures mirrored one another and that communication – mediated and interpersonal – shaped both. When World War II began, scholars in these fields seemed to have a uniquely sharp-eyed view of the international field in which the United States now felt compelled to play. They also seemed to understand how to motivate the American people to go to war. But that’s not quite enough to explain their appeal over time I think. For that, we need to acknowledge the technicist character of some of their analyses. Mead, Bateson, Allport, Fromm – they were humanists. But many of their colleagues committed acts of highly technicized social science – field and laboratory experiments for instance, quantitative content analysis, and the like. These sorts of scientistic activity produced the actionable results that government leaders needed. And even where they didn’t, they produced the image of social scientists as men of action (and yes, they were almost all men). How did such scholars lose their place at the table? Vietnam. One of the most painful moments I had researching this book came as I read through the history of the Center for International Studies (CENIS) at MIT. CENIS was a social science think tank funded partly by the CIA. In its papers, you can see social scientists like Walt Rostow and Ithiel de Sola Pool turning the pro-democratic tools of the 1940s into instruments for crushing Asian communism. It’s horrifying. I don’t think American intellectuals have quite forgotten what happened there. Some of the best and brightest social scientists of the 1950s and 1960s, working with the very best of intentions, helped mastermind a national atrocity. This is part of the reason that the historiography of this period remains so stark. The generation of scholars who grew up during Vietnam identified with personal liberation movements here and with post-colonial liberation abroad. Some even tended to conflate the two. This has created a slow-burning identity crises within several fields. If a field is designed to map more or less universal rules of social engagement and if the application of universal rules is an essentially oppressive, colonizing endeavor, then what is the proper job of a social scientist? You can see the legacy of Vietnam in the anxiety for scholars of culture, and particularly anthropologists of the 1980s and 1990s, to be “reflexive” in their work – that is, to so thoroughly disclose the biases of their own social position as to inoculate themselves against charges of intellectually colonizing the Other. For what it’s worth, I don’t agree that the social sciences have faded from view. I do see that the lion’s share of funding from the government now goes to STEM disciplines. I think that happens because the outcomes of training in those areas can be so clearly linked to things Congressman care about – jobs, profits, economic growth. But the power of STEM per se isn’t new. The space race and the Cold War drove research in that area to a level of funding and creative abandon that would be hard to imagine today except perhaps in the privately funded stratospheres of Google and Apple and Microsoft. Even with government funding down, the social sciences remain intellectually pretty hardy. Psychology in particular remains very strong. Communication has been reinvigorated by the rise of digital media. Anthropology’s role has certainly shifted -- partly I think because America has changed. After World War II, we became a much more cosmopolitan nation, and as we did, we no longer needed anthropologists to manage our first contacts with foreign peoples. Sociology has split I think into a more technicist, campus-bound wing, and a more public-facing style. Just think of the popularity of Malcolm Gladwell – not a social scientist, but certainly a purveyor of sociology.


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

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

I was lucky enough to have gotten to know the social-cultural-technological historian Fred Turner during some time he spent at MIT at the start of his academic career, and we have stayed in touch off and on ever since. I have lost count of the number of times I have taught chapters from his landmark book, From Counterculture to Cyberculture, or the number of times that I have ended up citing this book in my own research on participatory culture and politics. It came out in a moment when there was so much focus on new media that it was as if the world had developed amnesia -- discussing everything as if it had been invented yesterday rather than understanding the ideologies and cultures that had led up to the digital revolution. Turner's book helped to place the utopian rhetoric I was hearing at MIT around "new media" in a richer, more nuanced, and more historically grounded perspective. It quickly became essential reading in the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT, which I headed at the time, and indeed, it has been core reading at programs all over the world. Turner's new book, The Democratic Surround:Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties expands the terrain even further, showing us how the counterculture itself emerged from the theories of media, culture, psychology, and political persuasion that took shape during World War II and achieved their greatest impact during the Cold War Period. As with the first book, Turner offers what might once have been considered intellectual history -- a focus on key thinkers, who in this case, include anthropologists, psychologists, artists and art critics, musicians, communication scholars, photographers, curators, policy makers, and many others -- but combines it with social, technological, political and cultural history. The book is full of fascinating people -- from Margaret Mead, John Cage, Buckmeister Fuller, to Andy Warhol and Marshall Mcluhan -- and he not only reminds us of their own contributions to society, but shows the strong connections across their work.

He shows us how the media (and especially museum and World's Fair installations of the period) reflected larger aesthetic theories about the forms of perception required to foster a democratic personality, which were in turn shaped by new models of psychology and anthropology, all of which were put in the service of the Cold War. Beyond that, through, he transforms how we think about the politics of the period, pushing through the encrusted critique of the Cold War and the domestic containment of the 1950s, to identify the liberal/progressive impulses that inspired these thinkers, showing how they were more open to diversity, equality, and freedom than had been acknowledge by many recent writers. He doesn't ignore the blindspots and complicity in their thinking, but he does help us to appreciate why Family of Man, say, was seen as such a transformative work at the time that it commanded the attention of audiences around the world. He challenges assumptions about the propagandistic use of media during the Cold War to focus on what people at the time understood as a more "democratic" approach to spectatorship and in the process, implicitly at least, he suggests some of the roots of the focus on interactivity, nonlinearity, multimodality, immersion, and transmedia in our own times.

Because of his journalistic background, he is an engaging, vivid writer, one who tells compelling stories, but he is also a first rate archival historian and a world class theorist and critic of media practices. His work is at once programatic -- in that he now takes us on a history of media and politics from the World War II to the present -- and also boldly original -- constantly forcing us to look again at things we thought we already knew. I have no doubts that The Democratic Surround is going to be as important a book as From Counterculture to Cyberculture.  Everywhere I have traveled this summer, people have been reading and talking about this book, but if you have missed it so far, you are in for a treat.

I am proud to be presenting the following interview with Turner about the book and its implications for those of us interested in the contemporary media environment.

Henry: Let’s start with the title, The Democratic Surround. Can you explain this concept? In particular, can you speak to the connections your book makes between a political concept -- democracy -- and an aesthetic approach -- the surround? How did these two concepts come together during the period your book documents?

Fred: Well, the book stretches from the late 1930s to the late 1960s and across that time, the thing I’m calling the “surround” took three forms: It was an actual, existing genre of mediated communication; a tool for producing more democratic citizens; and a model of how to organize a well-run democracy. To their promoters, surrounds could help Americans experience a deeply liberating alternative to totalitarian systems. Fifty years later, we can see that surrounds also gave rise to a new mode of management, a mode of self-regulation through media that dramatically shapes our lives today. To see how the aesthetic and political came together the way they did, we have to go back to World War II. The story takes a bit to tell, but it’s worth it.

In the late 1930s, many Americans were terrified – and baffled – by the rise of fascism. Hitler had taken over Germany, Mussolini had grabbed Italy, Franco had overrun Spain, and Imperial Japan had invaded China. Everyone wondered: How had so many sophisticated nations fallen under the sway of dictators? And particularly Germany – despite World War I, Germany remained a beacon of culture for American intellectuals and artists. How had the home of Goethe and Beethoven fallen for Adolf Hitler?

A surprising number of Americans argued that it must have been mass media that had brought Hitler to power. First, Hitler had taken control of the German media and dramatically restricted what his citizens could see and hear. Second, many believed that the one-to-many dynamics of broadcasting and the print press themselves could turn people into authoritarians: Just being one of the many, tuned in to a single leader, forced you to practice being part of a faceless crowd.

If the problem was mass media itself, many feared could America go the way of Germany – especially because by the time Hitler invaded Poland, fascism had visibly metastasized in the United States. To take just one example, in February, 1939, twenty-two thousand Americans rallied in Madison Square Garden to support German-style fascism here. They cheered under a giant banner that read “Stop Jewish Domination of Christian America.”

Fig 1 Bund Parade 10 30 39

German-American Bundists parade swastikas and American flags down East 86th Street, New York, October 30, 1939. Photograph from the New York World-Telegram. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, NWT&S Collection, LC-USZ62-117148.

All of this left American leaders with a dilemma at the start of World War II: How could they use media to stir their citizens to take arms against fascism without turning them into fascists?

Two groups actually set out to answer this question, starting about 1941. The first consisted of about 60 social scientists who called themselves the Committee for National Morale. They were really a Who’s Who of American social science at the time -- Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, Gordon Allport, the list went on and on. Together they believed that every country drew its strength from the individual personalities of its citizens. And if mass media had produced authoritarian personalities in Germany, Americans would need to develop a kind of media that would that would produce a democratic personalities here.

In the Committee’s view, authoritarians were psychologically fractured, unable to reason, bigoted and obedient. Democrats, they argued, should be highly individuated and highly collaborative. They should reason and choose, and above all, embrace the diversity of American society.

To produce such personalities members of the Committee proposed creating exhibitions at museums and in other public halls, surrounding individuals with images and sounds, and freeing them to move among them. These aesthetic environments would give Americans a chance to practice doing the individual work of making meaning of the world around them, but they would do these things in person, together. Surrounded by images, they would collaborate in forming their own democratic personalities and at the same time, a mode of being together that was unified, not massified, American not German.

The members of the Committee didn’t know how to build these environments. But in the late 1930s, a generation of Bauhaus artists had just fled to the United States from Germany. They carried with them very sophisticated designs for multi-screen displays and immersive theaters, and they were more than happy to apply their skills to promoting American democracy. Throughout World War II people like Herbert Bayer and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy designed museum exhibitions and media to promote the war effort. They created the spaces that the American social scientists had dreamed of – spaces in which Americans could practice moving their bodies individually together, looking high and low at the world around them, and arriving at a new mode of political unity in the process.

Once the Cold War began, the exhibition designs they created became cornerstones of two seemingly contradictory developments: American anti-Communist propaganda abroad and avant-garde art here at home. In the 1950s, America built a series of multi-media exhibition spaces abroad with the explicit intent of turning the psyches of potential allies and enemies in more democratic (meaning, pro-American) directions. The most famous of these was probably the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow, where Nixon and Khrushchev had their Kitchen Debate. At the same time, artists such as John Cage opened up the soundscape and the world of performance, with an equally explicit desire to engage their audiences in a world of aesthetic democracy – a place in which every sound, no matter how lowly, would be equal to every other, a world in which the European hierarchies of the symphony no longer held sway. By the late 1960s, Cage’s experiments in particular had helped transform the pro-democratic propaganda aesthetics of the 1940s into the Happenings and the Be-Ins of the counterculture.

Henry: Many of my readers will know your groundbreaking work, From Counterculture to Cyberculture. In many ways, this new book represents that infinite regress that historians are prone to do. In many ways, you could have called it From the Cold War to the Counterculture. How do you explain the relationship between the two projects?

Fred: I hope the historical regress here won’t be quite infinite! I began The Democratic Surround as a way to solve a puzzle I first saw when I was writing From Counterculture to Cyberculture. I’d always been told that the generation of 1968 had rejected the culture of the 1940s and the 1950s. But when I was researching the Whole Earth Catalog crew, I saw that they were steeped in ideas and books from those periods. When they headed out to build their communes, the New Communalists of the 1960s tucked books by their parents’ generation into their backpacks. They read Norbert Weiner, Buckminster Fuller, Erich Fromm, Karen Horney, Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson – and I wondered why. When I went back to those books, I saw the appeal. These thinkers were far more radical than we remember. They and other leading liberal intellectuals of the period challenged the prejudice that ran through American society. They called for the United States to become much more egalitarian, diverse and accepting than it was. Some, like Mead’s teacher and friend, anthropologist Ruth Benedict, called loudly and publicly for racial equality in America more than a decade before the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s. Mead herself gained national renown in part by urging American women to become sexually liberated. And all of these figures saw the personal as political in a way would suffuse the countercultural movements of the 1960s.

By going back to these figures, I’ve been trying to do a few things. On the historical front, I want to de-mythologize the sixties. We’ve labored for too long under the illusion that hippies represented a break in American history and an alternative to mainstream American life. As I hope my last book showed, the New Communalists were in many ways an opening wedge for the hyper-individualized, tech-centered ways many of us live and work today. On the contemporary front, I want to decouple our claims about the social impact of digital media from the dreams to which they’ve become attached. Those dreams flowered in the 1940s, and not only in the technical worlds that brought us computers. They flowered in social science, politics, propaganda – all across public life. Today, we inhabit a multi-screen world in which we manage our lives in terms set by any number of organizations that remain invisible behind the screens. We often imagine that it is somehow digital media that have brought us this world. But they didn't, or at least, they didn’t do it alone.

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

Transforming Television: An Interview with Denise Mann (Part Three)

We both agree that the Writer’s Strike represented a key battle in the struggle to define digital extensions as part of creative content and not simply as part of the promotion of a series. Some years out from the strike, what do you see as its lasting impact on the way the industry operates? What won what in these struggles? The honeymoon period during which creators were given carte-blanche to experiment with the media corporations’ IP was short-lived. In the period leading up to the strike, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) stubbornly refused to acknowledge the creative labor involved in these short-form, content-promotional hybrids. The WGA strike of 2007-8 signaled an important response by the exploited members of the writing community that their creative digital labor needed to be rewarded with credit and income.

Disney launched the first volley across the bow of the WGA’s minimum basic agreements by engineering a deal with Apple iTunes to stream its TV series online; however, they failed to arrange an appropriate compensation package for the writers whose original work was being replayed on a new distribution platform. To make matters worse, the networks placed ads inside this digital content, which allowed them to earn additional revenues, thereby undermining their claim that this content constituted promotions.

In the period leading up to the strike, Cuse and Lindelof were able to use their considerable leverage during the making of Lost to negotiate on behalf of not just the WGA members, but also the other talent guilds to ensure that all creators received payment for their work on derivative content such as “The Lost Diaries” webseries. This precedent helped the WGA negotiate terms for all digital content created by guild-represented writers; however, the sanction lacked teeth, as more and more studios formed their own in-house social media marketing groups to oversee these “content-promotion hybrids” going forward.

While the WGA achieved a symbolic victory—an agreement to pay writers for their creative labor regarding digital content, they have lost out in two ways:  first, writers are still earning “digital pennies” for creating derivative content given the uneven measurement system associated with online entertainment; secondly, the big media companies are shoring up the infrastructural walls surrounding digital content by creating in-house social media marketing divisions and limiting creator involvement.

In many ways, transmedia is playing a secondary role in the industry’s current thinking to the idea of second screen content. What do you think is motivating this obsession with the Second Screen? What functions does the second screen perform for the industry? for audiences? Why is the second screen easier to comprehend and implement than the more ambitious ideas about wired television so many industry leaders have been promoting?

As Jennifer Holt and Kevin Samson explain in the introduction to Connected Viewing: Selling, Streaming, and Sharing (2014)  “connected viewing” practices eschew the top-down, bottom-up binary that has governed so much media industry scholarship around digital, in favor of what Michael Curtin has called “a matrix era”—namely, “a transition from the one-to-many distribution strategies of the broadcast networks to a moment ‘characterized by interactive exchanges, multiple sites of productivity, and diverse modes of interpretation and use.”  While one could argue that these interactive systems and multiple sites of productivity engender enhanced creative exchanges between production cultures and audiences, the industry’s current focus on “second screen” over “transmedia storytelling” experiences seems designed to help studios manage consumer data more efficiently via their infrastructural strengths: marketing and distribution.

Furthermore, by controlling marketing and distribution, the media companies are able to facilitate a disturbing trend—developing sophisticated analytics designed to harvest consumer preferences via algorithms and other, digital measurement strategies. In the last decade, Hollywood has fallen far behind their Silicon Valley counterparts—Google, Facebook, and Netflix—when it comes to managing the sale of big data to advertisers through products such as Adsense and Adwords. The latter, in combination with tools like Google Analytics, provided publishers with access to a composite portrait of consumer behavior designed to help advertisers deliver targeted online ads.

In contrast, transmedia storytelling strategies were creator-dependent activities designed to empower creators and audiences via “multiple sites of productivity” and “diverse modes of interpretation and use.” Teasers, trailers, and interstitial video already circulate between broadcast TV series; now, via second screen experiences, all of these new forms of online promotions and branded entertainment can be enlisted to access a composite of consumer information. By bringing these digital production activities in-house—hiring low-paid creative labor to execute all this digital, promotional churn—big media companies will be able to navigate the online advertising space more effectively, unimpeded by talent guild restrictions.

Denise Mann has been the head of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television’s Producers Program since 1996 and is an Associate Professor in the Department of Film, Television and Digital Media. In that capacity, she teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on contemporary entertainment industry practices as well as critical studies seminars on film and television history and theory. She is the editor of Wired TV: Laboring Over an Interactive Future (Rutgers University Press, 2014) and the author of Hollywood Independents: The Postwar Talent Takeover (University of Minnesota Press, 2008). Previously, Professor Mann co-edited Private Screenings: Television and the Female Consumer (University of Minnesota Press, 1992).

Why Co-Creation Matters: An Interview with John Banks (Part Four)

Early on, you quote Lucy Bradshaw from Maxis as saying that her company has “a real respect for the player community” and the term, “respect,” runs across the book. What do you think these companies mean by “respect” and how does it relate to the value they place on fan labor?  

The term respect came up in a good few interviews with various developers and it especially seemed to be a part of the Maxis ethos – their attitude to the gamers participating in these co-creative relationships. This respect had different dimensions and was expressed in different ways by different developers.

For some developers respect meant their appreciation for the creativity and innovation evident in the player created material. Following from this it meant supporting the players to express and realise this creativity through the quality of the tools that they provided and the support implemented around those tools. Many commented on how what the players achieved often surprised them.

Respect also meant how they communicated with the player community and valued their input and feedback about various aspects of a game’s ongoing design and development. Respect, in the terms Bradshaw raises in her interview with me, also meant recognising the value that the players’ co-creative practices contributed, including economic value.


Now as the various accounts of these co-creative relationships detail in the book, what this respect meant and the limits of it were often contested and debated among the developers. Some designers and lead producers raised dilemmas around the extent to which it is possible to include gamers fully in the design process, commenting on problems of ‘design by committee’ in which the committee now includes the unruly and very diverse views and opinions of online gamer communities. In sorting out the limits of respect and what this meant the developers and managers also struggle with the ambit and boundaries of these co-creative production relationships.

I think you see these struggles emerge in the discussions about the economic value of these various forms of participation (for example in the interview you refer to with Lucy Bradshaw, but also in the interview with Will Wright in the book’s conclusion). They don’t dismiss the value of, for example, the content created by players. But they do contextualise this with all of the professional labour, materials, technologies and infrastructure that the developers and publishers provide to enable and support this player creativity. Bradshaw uses the image of a ‘handshake kind of relationship’ that enables player creativity but also benefits from that creativity. I don’t think the developers (or the players) fully come to terms with the nature of this relationship and the exchanges of value that are occurring. But that is to be expected, as they are still very emergent and evolving.


You found yourself embeded inside the games company for part of your research process. How did this experience color your understanding of the corporate motives and assumptions shaping co-creative labor?


I was employed by Auran from 2000 to 2005 as an online community manager. I think this experience colored my account by influencing my decision to foreground the professional labour and craft-skills that contribute to co-creativity. I also wanted to emphasise the diversity of developer understandings of co-creativity and indeed the conflicts and differences among developers that shape these relationships. I’ve tried to describe the diversity of these motives and assumptions shaping co-creative labour rather than reducing all of that to something like a logic of capital or even a singular developer identity or position on all of this.

Here I hope this account might also contribute to illuminating developer studio culture for fields such as games studies – a topic that I think is underexplored. Other researchers including Casey O’Donnell (who has a forthcoming book, Developer’s Dilemma, with The MIT Press) are also doing important work on this . But in pursuing this have I unhinged my account from important structural or systemic conditions such as overarching corporate interests and agendas that characterise capital.

By emphasising the diverse understandings and motivations of developers and gamers do I risk overlooking the extent to which these very understandings are shaped by such structural conditions, which is different from determined by them. Even if these understandings are canny and knowing am I perhaps avoiding dealing with the conditions of capital that contribute to all of this?

Perhaps – these are good questions. They came up for me in a rather different context recently while reading Dana Boyd’s It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. In this book Boyd tackles many of the myths and moral panics surrounding teens and social media by making room for their voices and experiences, including the diversity of that experience. In the process she establishes that it is indeed complicated.

My book kind of reaches a similar conclusion about co-creative production – it’s indeed complicated.

One of Boyd’s key points is that the social behaviours she explores among teens are adaptive. In my book I’m very interested in these emerging, adaptive practices in the context of the networks of co-creativity. In the introduction to her book Boyd also acknowledges the “capitalist logic that underpins American society and the development of social media…” but then comments that … “although I believe that these assumptions should be critiqued, this is outside the scope of this project”. Is that just a cop out? If this is so then how can you consider the implications of teens’ use of social media without tackling such an assumed logic?

An interesting point to consider here is that perhaps the adaptive behaviours and practices that she describes so well just cannot be understood in terms of “the capitalist logic”. Not in the sense that they escape or oppose such a logic, but more that the dynamics and processes involved don’t quite make sense in terms of such a singular logic. At least this was my sense as I undertook the research for my book and also in my experience working in the games industry. Such frameworks (political economy critique) and assumed logics just didn’t provide the explanatory traction that I wanted to understand these kinds of adaptive and emergent behaviours and dynamics.


How does the concept of co-creation challenge older logics that have governed cultural studies work, such as resistance and co-optation? How might we characterize the ways these fans/consumers/produsers relate to the corporations which are acting on their collaborative designs?


The logics that you mention – ideas of resistance and co-optation - are often framed by a quite specific political economy derived understanding of a logic of capital – a structural or systemic understanding of capitalism and a critique of that system. This is the context in which the question of labour is also often raised, as labour provides the ground for critique of that system.


The way I approach co-creation is to start with the participants’ understandings, practices and behaviours. I don’t start with assumptions about broader capitalist logics and then ask well are these practices coopted by or opposed to those logics.

For many of the co-creative practices I describe these ideas of resistance and cooptation just do not provide explanatory traction and they aren’t the frameworks or terms in which the participants themselves generally understand the practices.


I’m interested in the microfoundations (following an emic approach), the social interactions and behaviours, which constitute co-creativity. I’m not rushing to explain co-creation in terms of macroeconomic outcomes or in terms of general logics of capitalism. Instead, as developed in the book’s final chapter, I’m drawing from fields such as economic sociology and cultural sociology, through the work of David Stark (Sense of Dissonance) especially.


My approach is that the kinds of capitalist dynamics playing out around co-creative production (so concerns around commodification, emergence of markets, labour, innovation, and so on) emerge from and through these interactions. By working at this micro level I seek to understand the dynamics of capitalism (changing conditions of cultural production around co-creativity) from the actors’ perspectives. But by drawing from work in economic sociology such as Stark’s I also seek to avoid the problems associated with rational actor theory.

My argument is that this micro perspective is crucial – describing and analysing these emerging phenomenon from the perspective of the actors themselves and the decision or choice problems they grapple with. This is very much the model and approach I develop, especially in the book’s final chapter in collaboration with Jason Potts.


When you ask how we might characterise the ways these co-creative gamers / consumers relate to the developer companies and publishers I emphasise that it is diverse and I foreground in the book their understandings of this. Some view it as a rewarding opportunity to have their views and opinions influence design and development. Others at times are suspicious and skeptical about the commercial motivations driving the developers. Others view it as an opportunity to learn more about game development and gain skills in this area. For some it is about the quite intrinsic rewards that come from contributing to an online game fan community.

In my research I’ve seen individual gamers move through a spectrum of attitudes and behaviours towards the developers – from warmly embracing and appreciative of the work the developers put in participating in and supporting these relationships through to outright hostility. But in describing and understanding this diversity I’m trying to get a handle on the micro foundations of co-creativity.


The next problem to tackle though and which I don’t pursue in the book, is how do these capitalist dynamics, the macrophenomena if you like, operate when approached from the perspective of the actors’ understandings, interactions and behaviours. This is the meso problem of linking or articulating the micro to the macro. I start setting up an approach to this by drawing from evolutionary economics and ideas emerging from network theory. A lot more work needs to be done here with thinking that through and figuring it out. This concerns the emergence of novelty: how new organisational forms, behaviours and identities emerge. But in all of this I also try to maintain the ethnographic commitment to the lived experiences and understandings of the participants’ themselves.

There is a tension there in those aims and I think that tension is there in the book and I hope it works as a productive tension. For example, there is material in the ethnographic description and interviews that rubs up against the model of co-creativity I develop in the later chapters. They certainly don’t align seamlessly.


John Banks is a senior lecturer and researcher in the Creative Industries faculty, Queensland University of Technology.  He researches and publishes on co-creativity, innovation and social media in the creative industries, especially videogames and interactive entertainment. He has a special interest in organisational and workplace culture.

His past decade of research on the topic of co-creativity in the videogames industry culminates in the recently published book Co-creating Videogames (2013 – Bloomsbury Academic).  Banks is currently lead investigator on an Australian Research Council (ARC) industry linkage research project investigating the sources and processes of innovation in the Australian interactive entertainment industry.



Why Co-Creation Matters: An Interview With John Banks (Part Three)

You are arguing that respect must be paid in thinking about co-creation to the multiple motives shaping the various participants. How would you characterize those motives?  

The argument about how multiple and diverse motivations and incentives shape co-creative practices is central to the book and I develop this out fully in the final chapter with my colleague Jason Potts (an evolutionary economist). Our argument here is that these participants aren’t acting from just economic or cultural (extrinsic or intrinsic) motivations but often from both simultaneously. Too often, as we criticise in the chapter, co-creativity is approached as an opposition between commercial and non-commerical domains. You see this for example in Yochai Benkler’s work, which privileges and valorises a gift economy grounded in intrinsic motivations and incentives.


Our contention is that co-creativity might be more helpfully approached as co-evolving relationships. Co-evolving market and non-market contexts that draw in the complex interrelationships between multiple contexts, incentives and motivations. Throughout my account of co-creativity the non-market and non-pecuniary motivations (a gift economy if you like) are very clearly evident. People undertake these projects for a range of intrinsic motivations, including values associated with altruistically contributing to the gamer community. But to then valorize these emerging networks as necessarily or in some sense inherently non-market is a mistake.


I try to account for the motivation and incentive diversity that I encounter in my research. Yes this includes the business bottom line of games developers and publishers achieving profits. But the developer side here also isn’t just constrained to these incentives – I hope the account that I provide sufficiently foregrounds the motivations around craft-skills and professional identity in which developers have a sense of intrinsic reward from contributing to these co-creative networks.

Among the players themselves some headed in an entrepreneurial direction, what started out as nonmonetary hobbyist practice developed into pursuing entrepreneurial opportunities. Others provided accounts of how their participation in co-creative communities helped them gain skills that became job opportunities, for example as online community managers.

Co-creative production cultures then rather than being approached as distinct and incommensurable economic and cultural domains, with their related incentives and motivations, is more a site of dynamic and emergent relations between markets and non-markets. But in saying this I’m not suggesting that these activities should simply be reduced to their market or economic value.


The perspective developed in the book’s final chapter is that both market and non-market relations may be occurring simultaneously with analysis then focused on how they mutually affect and continuously transform each other. In my ethnographic research participants often did not display evidence of neatly or sharply compartmentalising different aspects of these contexts and then resolving them into actions that reflected say straightforward trade-offs between commercial and non-commercial interests. Rather, they sometimes behaved as if these multiple contexts and distinct tensions were characteristic of the situations and decisions they encountered.


When does co-creative labor become exploitation? Is there a sharp line that can be drawn between the two or are things necessarily blurry at a time when new paradigms are emerging?


My approach has been to try and identify when the participants themselves are grappling with this – what do they understand as exploitation and the contexts in which it occurs. How do they deal with the blurriness that you mention?

For example, in the chapter, ‘Co-creative Labour?’ I provide an extended account of a gamer content creator reflecting on the value of an item of content he had created and the use made of this content by the company, Auran. In an email exchange with me the content creator, Marlboro, observes that ‘… frankly my feelings towards Auran were always mixed…. On one hand I admired the guts to approach a niche market, the concept of customer communication, support, innovative ideas etc. On the other hand I thought to see through a thin veil the attempt to exploit the community’. Marlboro’s analysis here is quite sophisticated and canny. This approach to working through these relationships and value exchanges with the games developer was not uncommon; many of the gamer content creators had very similar discussions with me.


What occurred here is that his understanding about how Auran would distribute and use his content was not entirely clear and indeed the norms this community had developed on this, especially norms of transparency, had been infringed by Auran. But keep in mind this same content creator was often very supportive of Auran’s approach to player created content. As he put it, his approach to this was ‘mixed’. He doesn’t identify these practices as necessarily or inherently exploitative, but he was prepared to call Auran on practices that he felt were unfair and exploitative. So this was very much about emerging norms around the nature of the value exchange occurring between the players and the company. This involves adapting and adopting norms for dealing with the dilemmas arising from these complex exchanges characterized by multiple and mixed motivations and incentives.

As companies such as Auran seek to engage their consumers as co-creative participants consumers’ expectations of how companies will participate and the terms and conditions of that participation also transforms. When the player co-creators consider that these norms or implicit contracts are infringed they then start to question the practices in terms of fairness and exploitation.


An area that is unfair is the formal legal instruments that purport to govern these relationships and here I’m referring to EULAs. These agreements (if you can call them that), seldom if ever fairly acknowledge or reflect the nature of these relationships and the value players are creating. The agreements are generally totally one-sided.

Co-creative consumer rights if you like and the duties or obligations of corporations around this are just not reflected in current consumer protection. But on this, at least in the case of Auran games, I found the ways in which they managed their relationships with the player co-creators was just not at all reflected in these legal agreements. Essentially the developers’ practices, at least in this case, were generally far more reasonable and equitable than formally expressed in these agreements. But that’s no excuse – and these agreements really need to be more reflective of the reality of these co-creative production relationships.


A significant issue for the players was transparency. They wanted to know what the developers were intending to do with the co-created content and they also wanted detail on decisions made by the developer that impacted on these co-creative relationships. There were norms and expectations forming around this communication. This was along the lines of ‘we know you are using our content in various ways and gaining value from that, but we want you to inform us of this and give us an opportunity to express our views’.

Sometimes Auran mismanaged this communication. At times the communication was very sophisticated and respectful at others it was very clumsy. Part of this I think was to do with the company and its staff figuring out how to manage these relationships effectively and fairly. There were also challenges around adequately resourcing and staffing this area of game development. This required Auran managers coming to terms with the fact that it was integral to their development activities, not just an ancillary activity of marketing and communications that could be left to the publisher. But when players thought that these norms and expectations around transparency and communication were infringed they would then start considering the practices to be unfair or exploitative.


In the book and indeed in this interview I emphasise the importance of the players’ understandings of these relationships and their capacity to form canny judgments about all of that. But this does depend on a certain level of knowledge and transparency so that they can make informed decisions. There is a definite power differential here in terms of the developers’ control over that and their willingness (or not) to share that information with players.


From the perspective of the developers – the producers, programmers, community managers, and designers – they often struggled with meeting the players’ expectations around all of this. They sometimes felt that they were inadequately resourced, especially in terms of scheduled time, to fulfill and follow through on the commitments that had been made to the players. This was particularly a concern among those developers who were committed to supporting these co-creative relationships. And it is important to note here that this commitment was very uneven across the development team at Auran and indeed the extent to which the developers should contribute to these co-creative relationships as part of their jobs was debated among the developers – there was not a singular developer position on all of this. Nevertheless, there was a sense here that meeting player expectations often added just more work to their already full schedules and that this was sometimes unreasonable and unfair.


These co-creative production practices are still emergent and unclear. So the norms around the nature of the value exchanges (these markets if you like), what’s fair and when exploitation occurs, are still somewhat if not necessarily blurry. My interest here is in how the participants themselves negotiate and coordinate to resolve these dilemmas.



John Banks is a senior lecturer and researcher in the Creative Industries faculty, Queensland University of Technology.  He researches and publishes on co-creativity, innovation and social media in the creative industries, especially videogames and interactive entertainment. He has a special interest in organisational and workplace culture.

His past decade of research on the topic of co-creativity in the videogames industry culminates in the recently published book Co-creating Videogames (2013 – Bloomsbury Academic).  Banks is currently lead investigator on an Australian Research Council (ARC) industry linkage research project investigating the sources and processes of innovation in the Australian interactive entertainment industry.

Why Co-Creation Matters: An Interview with John Banks (Part Two)

You’ve been studying co-creation in the games industry over an extended period of time. Can you describe some of the changes you’ve observed over this period? What was the status of co-creation when you started your research and how would you characterize its status now?  

When I started studying co-creation in the games industry back in 1997 I was actually uncertain as to what was going on here, what was I looking at. As were the participants themselves. I recall approaching it, from my disciplinary perspective coming from cultural studies and media studies, as possibly a case of active audience and/or fan community practices. My reference here included your book, Henry, Textual Poachers. That book was in my backpack when I undertook my initial fieldwork and first interviews in 1997 with games developers and gamers.

What struck me at the time was a sense of the developers, including those in senior management, trying to figure out the nature of these emerging relationships with the players and why they would invest in them. Greg Lane, Auran’s CEO, on a few occasions when I discussed this with him, mentioned he wasn’t sure if they would gain any direct financial or commercial benefit from their activities with the fans, but the fans and some of the developers seemed to enjoy it and it was therefore worth exploring. He viewed it as an investment in the player community that he hoped might also eventually gain a commercial return. But he was also committing time to supporting that and the time of developers because he gained a sense of intrinsic value and satisfaction.


From that point back in 1997, at least in the context of the central ethnographic study in the book, this co-creative activity grew – from involving the players in design and development feedback, through to online and offline marketing initiatives, through to the quite extensive reliance on user generated content. As I suggest in the book, this was no longer an ancillary or marginal activity -  it was becoming core. This content and the gamers’ co-creative practices were contributing directly to the commercial viability of this product – a train simulator in the case of the book’s central ethnographic case study.

This shift was captured for me in a key moment when I worked at Auran as a community manager in 2001. I shifted my desk from sitting with the marketing and web team to in with the development and design team. This was because a big part of my role had become liaising between influential content creator members of the gamer community and the core Auran development team. Before that, although requiring some contact with the developers (the programmers, designers and artists), my position was viewed as more of a marketing and communications role I guess. This definitely shifted.

Part of my decision to move the desk was also about getting a closer ethnographic insight about what was going on. But it was also about being able to do my job better as an online community manager. Figuring out the implications of this shift across the next few years as I saw it play out at this workplace and as it was negotiated between the developers and the gamers was a big focus of my research and of the book.


The most recent shift I’ve seen is around how big data and data analytics contributes to games development and indeed if this can be approached as co-creative at all. I first encountered this in 2007 while undertaking research on Auran’s development of Fury (a failed MMOG). At the time there were disagreements among the core team of developers, the Fury gamer community (especially those involved in the play testing) and the online community managers about reasons for the games problems and the quite critical reception it was receiving from the gamers participating in the testing.

At a particular meeting one of the developers dropped on the table a print out of data taken from that past weekends play testing. He used it to support his view that many of the players making arguments on the forums were “uninformed” and that the data proved (captured from their interactions with the game) something very different from the players’ views as expressed on the forums.

Now the community managers contested his interpretation of that data, but at the end of the day, as my fieldwork journal noted, ‘we just got trumped’. At the time this provided a quite telling case of game developer studio culture and the various forms of expertise and craft involved in that. As I discuss in the relevant chapter 5, ‘Co-creative expertise’ co-creation is very much about how these diverse and conflicting forms of knowledge and expertise (both amateur and professional) interact and converge.


What I didn’t quite see back then was the shift here in the way the gamer was being figured or represented in these exchanges - as data traces really. For me questions were also raised about the power of that form of knowledge and around how it was being mined.

Is this co-creative? I guess that depends on how that data is used and how transparent all that is to the player.

In the book’s conclusion I include material from an interview I did with Will Wright (designer of games such as The Sims and Spore) in which Wright touches on how designers can increasingly capture metrics about players’ behaviours and then potentially feed that back into the game to change the game experience. He mentioned how ‘… we’re just kind of scratching the surface of that now’. In more recent research I’ve undertaken over past few years with Halfbrick (Brisbane, Australia based developers of Fruit Ninja) this issue of data analytics has very much come to the fore. But there isn’t a single developer perspective on these issues around data analytics. Programmers, lead designers, producers and so on often have very different opinions and approaches on, for example, how big data might inform game design.



In the academic realm, the major push-back against co-creative production has come from critics writing about “free labor.” What does that critique get right and what does it get wrong about the kinds of practices your book discusses?


The labor question is incredibly important in the context of co-creation. A central focus of my book is how developers grapple with the challenges and opportunities of co-creative production at the coalface of their everyday workplace – the game development studio. Co-creativity is not just about the bottom up, peer-to-peer participation of gamers and fans. Co-creativity requires the craft skills and knowledge and commitment of professionals and experts.

So in the book I seek to describe the lived experiences and understandings of these professionals and citizen consumers as they together explore together the opportunities and challenges of co-creative production. An important point here that I mentioned earlier is paying close attention to their understandings of all this. This is the ethnographic impulse I guess that orients much of my research.

These understandings are diverse. For example, professional videogames development teams are often far from united in their support for co-creative production or for the value that these engagements offer. Throughout my now well over a decade research on this one of the clear points coming through again and again is that producers, designers, programmers, artists, CEOs, marketing and community managers all have very different understandings of these co-creative relationships.


The ‘free labor’ argument going back to Tiziana Terranova’s work and others such as Andrew Ross is that through these kinds of co-creation activities we see significant value generated that creative industries rely on. Following from this the argument is made that this extraction of surplus value is unfair and exploitative. Furthermore, co-creative production practices may also contribute to the precarity of creative professionals working lives. The concern here is that this ‘free labor’ may replace the jobs of media professionals. This political economy critique questions accounts that emphasise the empowering and potentially democratizing, participatory potential of these activities.


What does this critique get right? For me what it gets right is foregrounding questions of work and labour. In the book my approach to this is to focus on the participants’ (both users and game developer professionals) understandings of these topics. In ‘Chapter 4: Co-creative labour?’ with Sal Humphreys, we approach all of this as a question. Indeed, there are a lot of questions posed in the chapter. Should we approach these co-creative activities as a form of labour? What are the impacts of these practices on the employment conditions and professional identities of videogames developers? If we accept that labour is a helpful category then should we approach this as a case of exploitation in which surplus value is extracted by capital in such a way as to reduce costs and potentially displace paid workers?

We suggest that co-creative media production may sit uncomfortably with such political economy critiques. I guess I’m open to criticism here that in doing this I become an apologist for, or at least complicit with, the interests of business and capital. In this book I’ve tried to avoid what I find to be quite unhelpful and polarising polemic around these issues.

I don’t think my book is especially valorising or celebratory of co-creativity, at least I hope not in any panglossian sense. I most certainly have concerns about market excesses and exploitative labour practices that can characterise the videogames industry. Nevertheless, the argument I develop is that co-creative production should not necessarily be approached as cheap content or unpaid and therefore exploited labour.

One of the keys for me here is that the participants themselves (the gamers and the developers) do not often approach it or understand it in these ways. Sometimes they do – at moments in the ethnographic research participants do raise the concern that the practices are becoming exploitative or unfair.

The way I’ve approached it then is to try and understand co-creativity as a dynamic and often contested mechanism for coordination and change in which the participants are adaptively experimenting with these opportunities for mutual benefit and endeavouring to figure out what that mutual benefit looks like and how best to realize that. Yes exploitation can occur and yes work practices and employment conditions are at stake. But I’m just not convinced that the language and framework of exploitation and extraction of surplus value necessarily explains what is occurring here.


The co-creative relationships cannot easily be reduced to corporate exploitation of the gamers and the professional developers. I try as much as possible to take my lead from the often quite nuanced understandings of the participants themselves. I struggle with the assumption that there are social forces (exploitative and manipulative) at work behind the actors’ backs as it were.

I question this ‘unknowingness’ by suggesting that the players and professional developers often do know what they are producing and the conditions under which this is occurring and they often do not understand this in terms of exploitation. They are usually quite canny and indeed competent participants in the shaping of these relationships. They make informed judgments about the nature and conditions of the value exchanges and transactions that are occurring.

I question an assumption that academic critics are in some sense blessed with an ability to see through manipulative or exploitative practices that the participants themselves are blind to. However, in making this point I’m not saying that exploitation and unfair practices don’t occur. The ethnographic description in the book includes extensive coverage of participants (including the gamers) identifying such occurrences and working through their understanding of this.


I’m just not convinced that political economy critique adequately grapples with the flows and exchanges of value characterizing co-creativity. These flows can be very different from say a displacement of professional labour by unpaid creative labour. Instead we need approaches and models that grapple with how economic outcomes and incentives sit alongside and co-evolve with social and cultural outcomes. But in all this yes the question of labour is crucial. We need to keep posing the difficult questions about sustainable and rewarding livelihoods in these industries, as does for example Gina Neff in her important book Venture Labour.


As an aside on this, I’m also interested in how the kinds of workplace and labour issues I’ve seen in games development also occur and are experienced in other areas of media production. For example, in Marvel Comics: The Untold Story (2013 Harper), Sean Howe vividly describes the experiences of comic book writers, artists and editors in the ‘Marvel bullpen’ as they weathered the turbulent boom and bust cycles of the comics market. In reading this book I was struck by the similarities to videogames development and it raised for me questions about sustainable and rewarding livelihoods in these volatile industries.


John Banks is a senior lecturer and researcher in the Creative Industries faculty, Queensland University of Technology.  He researches and publishes on co-creativity, innovation and social media in the creative industries, especially videogames and interactive entertainment. He has a special interest in organisational and workplace culture.

His past decade of research on the topic of co-creativity in the videogames industry culminates in the recently published book Co-creating Videogames (2013 – Bloomsbury Academic).  Banks is currently lead investigator on an Australian Research Council (ARC) industry linkage research project investigating the sources and processes of innovation in the Australian interactive entertainment industry.


Why Co-Creation Matters: An Interview with John Banks (Part One)

The other day, I received a question -- via tweet -- from a reader: "New practices that are emerging in cyberspace: Is it more of the same? Is it capitalism in new bottles?" This is a fundamental question which anyone who has been paying attention over the past two decades of media in transition has found themselves rethinking again and again. For me, the way this question is so often framed suggests an either-or logic: either everything has changed or nothing has changed as a consequence of the process formerly known as "the Digital revolution." And the clear sense here is that "nothing has changed" as long as the structures of capitalism remain in place. My own belief is that changes can be local, gradual, and particular, and still matter in terms of the quality of life, the diversity of culture, or the democratization of governing institutions. Let's stipulate, as lawyers might put it, that economic systems, understood on a grand level, are surprisingly resilient. There are relatively few models that have emerged around the planet over the course of human history and they are slow to change. So, whatever we want to say about the current economic context in the United States, it's still capitalism.  Let's also stipulate that within those larger models, all kinds of local changes are occurring all the time in response to other shifts on the social, cultural, political, legal, and technological levels. We have changes, say, in terms of the mode of production or the systems of exchange or the conditions of labor that matter. Some are describing the current moment as one of Neoliberalism, but I am not convinced this framing fully captures everything that is going on.

And in order for these changes to occur, there are all kinds of localized experiments through which we collectively explore other alternatives and see how they work out in practice. Many of us hoped that the web would be a place for such experimentation, exploration, and speculation, where at the local level, other alternatives might emerge. Many of us wanted to see what would happen if we expanded dramatically who had access to the means of cultural production and circulation, if we explored what would happen if more people had a creative say in the cultural institutions and practices that impacted their everyday life, if we experimented with what a more diverse and participatory culture might look like. All kinds of amazing and all kinds of deeply disturbing things have emerged as a consequence of those ongoing experiments. How could it be otherwise? And the results of these experiments have been unevenly distributed across the culture, some moving rapidly, some slowly, towards wide-spread adaption.

If we look back over those twenty plus years, what has emerged has been a mixed bag -- not simply "more the same."  I don't think the rewards of all of these experiments can be reduced to the language of the "free labor" critique: new forms of exploitation with no real gain for the communities that are seeking to shift the conditions of their existence. Yet, I also don't think what has emerged has been as "revolutionary" as some of us might have hoped.

One of the people I know who has reflected most deeply about these issues is John Banks, who has spent more than a decade exploring the concept of co-creation and traced its impact  within the games industry. In Convergence Culture, I had pointed towards the games industry as a key example of a creative sector which has adopted a more collaborationist relationship with its consumers, often encouraging them to build freely on its products to see what might emerge from such grassroots experimentation, and in some cases, reaching out to core groups of consumers and bringing them more directly into the production process, seeking their advice on new products and their suggestions for design decisions. Banks was a graduate student at the creative industry program at Queensland University of Technology, a program led by Stuart Cunningham and John Hartley, and out of which have come such key thinkers about digital matters as Axel Bruns, Jean Burgess, Joshua Green, and Alan McKee, among many others.  Wanting to understand how this co-creative labor worked, Banks embedded himself as a community manager inside an Australian games company, Auran, placing himself at the point of contact between consumers and professional creators. Through this research, he has yielded some core insights into what changes -- and what doesn't change -- when companies embrace co-creation as part of their production process.

In the interview which follows, Banks looks back over that decade of research. He reflects on his recent book, Co-Creating Games, but also looks beyond it, to try to assess the complexities and contradictions which have surfaced through some of these experiments. There is a degree of nuance here which we rarely see in discussions of emerging labor and business practices, a refusal to accept "either-or" answers. I think his comments provide the clearest explanation I can offer as to why co-creation is more than "capitalism in new bottles" but also not quite as revolutionary as some people might have once believed. All those we enter here, be prepared to think (and rethink).


You titled the book's introduction, “Co-Creating Matters.” Let’s break it down. How are you defining co-creation and what are some of the ways that co-creating matters?


Co-creation concerns the practices through which users and consumers take an active role in generating value in the domain of cultural production and consumption. In the context of the videogames industry I propose in the book’s opening sentence that gamers do not just play videogames; they also make them. The boundaries between playing, producing and consuming blur as player consumers collaborate and cooperate with each other and with professional developers to design, produce, circulate and market compelling videogames. So this is about shifts in the conditions of cultural production. My starting point definition in the book is that co-creativity occurs when consumers contribute a non-trivial component of the design development, production, marketing and distribution of a new or existing product. Here I’m drawing on others work, including yours Henry on participatory, convergence cultures and colleagues such as Axel Bruns on ideas of produsage.


In this book though I’m less interested in a static definition of co-creation than I am in describing the processes and practices that constitute this phenomenon. My approach is ethnographic and I’m very much led in my research by that ethnographic commitment to describing the lived experiences of media industry professionals (in this case game developers) and gamers (consumers and users) as they explore and negotiate the opportunities and challenges of co-creativity. So the micro behaviours and practices are very much my focus. In the book’s introduction I refer to ethnographer Paul Rabinow’s comment in his study of a biotech company (Making PCR: A Story of Biotechnology 1996:17) that ‘the anthropologically pertinent point is the fashioning of the particularity of practices’. This has been a guiding aim throughout the research that informs Co-creating Videogames – to describe the particularity of co-creative practices.


You ask what are some of the ways that co-creating matters. I guess that is one of the things I’ve been trying to figure out over the decade or more in which I’ve undertaken this research. The starting point is that it does matter – it is significant culturally and economically. Value is being generated through these practices – both cultural and economic. But what struck me very early in the research was the quite diverse ways in which these practices come to matter and the dynamic and conflicting relations among these ways of mattering.


I’ve tried to avoid assuming how co-creating matters and to explore how it comes to matter for and among the participants (both professionals and amateurs / users) and to describe how this mattering is negotiated. I guess this is the inquiry that orients this research, by not starting out knowing what I’m looking for or looking at. Part of all this is also seeing or trying to see the materiality, the technologies and materials, that contribute to shaping co-creative practices. This struck me very early in the research; in my first visits with the videogames developer, Auran games, and involvement with the gamer fan community forming around their games, this question of technology and tools came to the fore. The developers talked to me about game engines, code, servers, tools and so on. Their daily work practices involved all of this.

In one of my early contacts with a member of the Auran fan community (this was back in 1997), the company had just released their hit real-time strategy game Dark Reign) a member of that community, VR_Bones, contacted me. VR_Bones got on a train with his PC box and visited me at my home. It was a good 30 minutes or so train journey for him and he then walked to my home (another 10 minutes or so from the station) lugging his PC game rig. He wanted to show me some content, user created content, he and a few other members of the community had made for Dark Reign (these included user created maps and some AI routines that would modify the behaviour of in game units - so mods).

He spent a good while walking me through the challenges they were confronting in using the tools Auran provided to make this content. He also raised concerns about how Auran was not quite providing the level of support and information they needed to continue with this work. At the same time he praised Auran for the fact that they were engaging with the player community and listening. As he put it, ‘hey they are listening isn’t that great, each week they have a chat session online with us. And some of the guys, the devs, on the team, they provide us with helpful information and answer our emails and stuff when they have the time’.


Shortly after the visit from VR_Bones I went into the Auran studio to have a crack at my first interviews with the developers. I sat with a young programmer who was hunting down bug fixes in the final stages of a game project. He was very focused on that screen and the conversation was kind of stilted and uncomfortable. He was trying to describe stuff to me, the core of his job really, which I just didn’t get. When I raised the developers’ relationship with the online gamer fan community and the work they had been doing with them he got a little more animated, but kind of dismissed me gesturing at his screen and commenting, ‘I should be getting back to it’.

Understanding what that “it” was for him and his fellow developers and how all this played out in relationship to the activities I was seeing with the gamer fans, I wanted to understand that. This meant figuring out how to get better access to the studio, how to spend more time with the developers and so on. Back then I didn’t have a term for it, the kinds of interactions I was seeing and participating in between the developers and the players, I certainly wasn’t calling it co-creation back in 1997. I was trying to frame it then in terms of ideas of active audience and fan cultures. I first used the terms co-creation to start grappling with all of this in a book chapter I wrote back in 2001, published in 2002 (‘Games as Co-creators: Enlisting the Virtual Audience – A Report from the Net Face’).


I think there’s a lot about mattering in this brief vignette from the early ethnographic research that I’ve been trying to unpack ever since.


There’s the technology question that I pursue as a theme in the book, including a dedicated chapter, ‘Co-creative Technologies’ that explores this in the context of a dialogue with actor-network theory and others who take up this question of technologies and materiality such as Ian Bogost. There’s the question of the nature and characteristics of the value being generated through these co-creative practices. For VR_bones and his fellow gamers it mattered to them, they had a lot invested in this activity and in the materials they were collectively making and sharing. For him it was also about learning by participating in these networks – learning about games development and AI.

There is also an exchange of value here between the developers and the community of players – what are the terms and conditions of that exchange, the expectations, understandings and indeed misunderstandings about these transactions. This concerns a dynamic and at times volatile and uncertain relationship between economic and commercial motivations/incentives and other non-commercial motivations and incentives.


At its heart this book is about the participants’ diverse understandings, motivations and incentives that collectively contribute to making co-creativity. These participants include technologies – so humans and non-humans. What also matters in this, in the negotiation of these co-creative relationships, is the different forms of knowledge and expertise.

I address this in chapter 5 ‘Co-creative expertise’. Co-creativity relies on if not requires networks of amateurs and professionals, experts and non-experts. This blurring of the professional-amateur divide, however, is never easy or straightforward. It is often contentious and conflictual. I think that comes through in the ethnographic accounts of co-creativity as it plays out in the game developer workplaces. But nor are these complex and at times quite fraught relationships necessarily an impediment to co-creativity. They are the very conditions through which co-creativity plays out.

This also brings out another issue that matters here. The everyday work practices of professional media workers are at stake in these co-creative networks. Co-creativity can unsettle the expertise, employment and identities of media professionals. The question of labour and work conditions matters in all of this as well. It is a thread that I think runs through the entire book and has a chapter dedicated to it – ‘Co-creative Labour?’. Finally another aspect of matters concerns the debates and discussions among academics as we attempt to grapple with, analyse, understand and explain emerging phenomenon such as co-creative production.



John Banks is a senior lecturer and researcher in the Creative Industries faculty, Queensland University of Technology.  He researches and publishes on co-creativity, innovation and social media in the creative industries, especially videogames and interactive entertainment. He has a special interest in organisational and workplace culture.

His past decade of research on the topic of co-creativity in the videogames industry culminates in the recently published book Co-creating Videogames (2013 – Bloomsbury Academic).  Banks is currently lead investigator on an Australian Research Council (ARC) industry linkage research project investigating the sources and processes of innovation in the Australian interactive entertainment industry.

A Race So Different: A Conversation Between Joshua Chambers-Letson and Karen Tongson (Part Two)

We've just learned that Joshua Chambers-Letson's A Race So Different: Performance and Law in Asia America has just been been awarded the 2014 ATHE (Association of Theater in Higher Education) Outstanding Book Award! Karen and I are so proud to be working with such outstanding scholars for our Postmillenial Pop book series at New York University Press. KT: Your chapter, “The Nail That Stands Out: The Political Performativity of the Moriyuki Shimada Scrapbook” offers some very personal, very moving first-person accounts of your own childhood experiences with your mother as a “mixed” racialized subject, and about your own struggles with legibility coming to the fore as you confront the parable of “the nail that stands out.” Could you explain a little more to our general readership about your own relationship to performing one’s own story in work that is explicitly about racialization? How is the personal, biographical, or anecdotal a part of your methodology? And how might it stand in concert or at odds with the logics of narration in legal discourse as well as performance studies?

JC-L: I feel deeply ambivalent about the place of the personal/anecdotal in this book. The “I” in this book—with the exception of that one passage in chapter four and the dedication to my grandmother—remains at a critical distance throughout A Race So Different. I’m Japanese, Black, and white, and in some ways my relationship to the question of racial justice is shaped by this accident of autobiography, as Gayatri Spivak might call it. How could it not be?

Being a person of color can give one a particular perspective on the experiences of racialization and racism. These experience and perspectives are often ignored or debased by a dominant culture that still refuses to accept that racism continues to play a critical role in shaping of US American life. As critical race theorists like Mari Matsuda have taught us, personal narrative can be an important and useful way of disrupting the legal discourses of the dominant culture. But it also has its dangers.

Rey Chow has done perhaps more work than anyone to show us how the seeming liberation promised by the minoritarian scholar’s personal reflexivity and self-referentiality can become a cage that traps this scholar within identitarian coordinates. So while one must sometimes respond to the dominant culture’s elision and erasure of minoritarian lives by articulating and telling the stories of our lives as they are lived, I also believe that we must be strategic in how we do so. And, perhaps more importantly, we shouldn’t give everything away: I want to protect certain secret forms of survival and intimacies that structure minoritarian lives from a culture that so often takes such knowledge, appropriates it, distorts it, or guts it of its operative and insurgent potential.

If there’s anything I might say about my turn to the anecdotal that isn’t ambivalent, it’s this: the story I tell in chapter four is about something that my mother, Shadi, taught me as a kid in order to help me survive the racist and homophobic environment of Colorado, where I was raised. And I wanted to honor my mother, who is as much a theorist of race, sex, class, and gender, and a practitioner of minoritarian survival, as any of the famous philosophers, scholars, and artists that I engage with in the book.

KT: Finally, what are some of the broader stakes for you of doing a book like A Race So Different and situating it in a series about popular phenomena using contemporary methods in a contemporary moment? Who are some of the broader audiences you hope to reach, and what would you like some of your project’s “takeaways” to be? To what extent is this first project the foundation for some of your new work on Marxist theory and minoritarian performance?

JC-T: It was important to me to show how cultural forms (including, especially, the popular) should not be divided away from legal or political forms. This is because, as I argue throughout the book, they are inextricable from each other. When I disaggregate the parts of a system (e.g., separating the law and aesthetics from each other), I lose a more comprehensive vision of that system and become less capable of taking the system apart in order to build something better.

In this way, the mode of ideology critique that undergirds this book is largely inspired by Marxist theory. For me, Marxist theory is both an interrogation of system, capital, and labor as it is a philosophy of emancipation. It felt like a logical extension to explore more fully the relationship between Marxist theory and minoritarian performance in the next project. The law, too, will be present in that project because law plays a key role in the reproduction of the conditions of production.

As to the question of audience: On a deeply personal level, José Muñoz was and always will be the primary audience of this book. It began as a dissertation under his care and he read it and supported it, challenged it, and thought through it with me at every stage. The fact of this book is now difficult because it is part of a conversation with and inspired by him that is left incomplete by his death.

But, obviously, one doesn’t write a book for only one person. So perhaps it would make the most sense to say that it was written for the subjects of the brown commons. It was written for all of us who are struggling to make this world better because we cannot abide the insufficiencies of the here and now. And it was written for those of us who still believe that aesthetics will play an important role in this coming transformation of our conditions of existence, as they always played a role in revolution and transformation throughout all history.

KT: Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us, and, of course, for sharing your project through our book series. And I, personally, find your closing words about the brown commons and José—a dear friend and mentor to me as well—an especially apt, and moving way to frame our conversation, and our own scholarly intertwinement.

Joshua Chambers-Letson is an assistant professor in the Department of Performance Studies at Northwestern University. His first book A Race So Different: Law and Performance in Asian America was published by NYU Press in December of 2013. He is currently working on a second book project, The Coming Communism: Marxist Theory and Minoritarian Performance, which theorizes minoritarian performance practices (by artists including Félix González-Torres, Yoko Ono, Michi Barall, William Pope.L, Tehching Tshieh, and the Knife) as rehearsing and anticipating concrete forms of actually existing Marxist sociality.

Karen Tongson is Associate Professor of English and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California, and the author of Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries (NYU Press, 2011). Her work has appeared in numerous venues in print and online, including Social Text, GLQ, Nineteenth-Century Literature, and Novel: A Forum on Fiction. She is currently, with Henry Jenkins, series editor for Postmillennial Pop at NYU Press, and recently completed a multi-year term as co-editor-in-chief of the Journal of Popular Music Studies. Her current book project, Empty Orchestra: Karaoke. Critical. Apparatus. critiques prevailing paradigms of imitation in contemporary aesthetics and critical theory, while offering a genealogy of karaoke technologies, techniques, and desires.

A Race So Different: A Conversation Between Joshua Chambers-Letson and Karen Tongson (Part One)

The following is another in a series of interviews with the authors of books in the Postmillenial Pop series which I co-edited with Karen Tongson for New York University Press. In this case, Karen Tongson did the interview and wrote everything below.

Among the most recent titles in our Postmillennial Pop series at NYU Press is Joshua Takano Chambers-Letson’s ambitious first monograph, A Race So Different: Performance and Law in Asian America. Chambers-Letson brings together a range of cultural phenomena in the “long twentieth century”—from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly to, Ping Chong’s Chinoiserie, to the contemporary, L.A. based indie band, Dengue Fever—in order to illuminate how the legal histories of Asian Americans, in the U.S. are deeply intertwined with genealogies of performance. More specifically, the law itself becomes a genre of performance in Chambers-Letson’s work, as it shapes, defines and calls into (legal) being Asian American bodies through exclusion, relocation, extradition and rendition. Trained as a performance studies scholar, Chambers-Letson is interested more broadly in how we find performance practices beyond the stage, and in the genres of the everyday, including popular culture. He took the time to speak with me about how he imagines his work on Asian American law and performance in a much broader political and scholarly context.

KT: Allow me to begin with a simple “chicken or egg” question, since our readers are always curious about what inspires the eclectic projects that have appeared in our series. In other words, when you first began to conceptualize the project, did you begin with the legal archives and debates, or did the specific case studies and performances inspire you to look deeper into the legal and archival materials?

JC-L: Rather than a sequence, I usually began with the question I wanted to explore and then followed the question to the right place. The book is trying to offer a theory of the state that makes a simple point: the law has an aesthetic dimension and aesthetic forms often mediate and transmit legal knowledge. Court opinions have their own narrative conventions (including wit and humor, rhetoric, tone and style) and court cases are often staged in a theatrical fashion or through legal ritual. In turn, a show like Law and Order is one of the prime ways that many people gain access to the law and (sometimes manipulated or mutated) legal knowledge. As such, the main thing I wanted to address was this conjunction of law and performance.

Because I was approaching the project in a fashion that blurred the line between law and aesthetics, there wasn’t really a sequence to the way I gathered material. You know, the last thing the world needed was another chapter on how racist Madame Butterfly is; so that’s not the chapter that I wrote. Instead, I started with the question: how can I think through the ways that popular works about culture mediate and disseminate legal discourse. Since so much of Madame Butterfly is concerned with questions of law, and since the legal discourse in Butterfly so neatly lines up with legal narratives that were being produced about Asian and Asian Americans in US courts at the time, it seemed like the right place to go to answer that question.

From there, I shuttled back and forth between the legal archives and the cultural site. This is cheesy, but my favorite comfort food is oyako-donburi, which is basically a rice bowl with simmered chicken and egg. There’s no sequence to it, they all happen at the same time.

KT: Not cheesy at all (I also love a good donburi), but definitely delicious! Moving on…I’d like to follow up a bit about your interest in the law and legal studies, especially since your graduate training was in performance studies. The relationship between the two can be traced to the moment when “performativity” (viz. Austin, Butler and others) entered conversations about “performance” in the late 1980s, early 1990s. And yet your work does so much more to expand the category of performance in relation to the law, since it moves beyond the speech acts that “declare” certain legal statuses into being. What were some of your larger objectives in bringing together the two categories and approaches, and how did you come up against some resistance to the idea that the “law” is in many respects, also a “stage”? I think this will be of interest to some media scholars who are also invested in the legal and political economy of their objects and how they’ve been legislated.

JC-L: By exploring the conjunction between law and performance, I was interested in exploring questions raised by Austin and Butler, as well as questions posed by Thomas Hobbes, Carl Schmitt, Louis Althusser, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and José Muñoz. There’s a funny moment in Leviathan where Hobbes makes fun of Aristotle. He goes on to lambast people who believe in the idea of a government that is ruled by law rather than by men. This is because in the final instance the law is only as good as the people that execute or perform the law’s commands.

Schmitt does a similar thing in his attack on legal positivism when he reminds us that all law is situational and it is precisely because law has interpretive gaps that it is a political—and I would also say performed or embodied—art.

Althusser asks us to consider how it is that our own everyday performances of life come to realize the ruling ideology as it is transmitted through ideological apparatuses such as the law. From Sedgwick I learned that the distinction between performativity and performance, or say law and aesthetics, is a false distinction and that we should be suspicious of the binarization of these two.

And Muñoz taught me in Disidentifications that the operative fictions and apparatuses of the dominant culture, in this case the law, can be played with through performance in order to survive hostile conditions and even survive them.

By asking these kinds of questions, I hoped to show how it is that we can better understand how the law works, how it lays claim to our bodies, and how we might be able to disrupt this claim. I also wanted to press home the point, one more time, that cultural production is as much an ideological apparatus as the law and that the conjunction of the two is central to the reproduction of our conditions of existence.

KT: As you know, our book series is interested in popular cultures and phenomena broadly defined. We were of course captivated by the expansiveness of the cultural archive in A Race So Different, moving as it does from Puccini’s (popular) opera, Madame Butterfly, to the contemporary So. Cal “Cambo-rock” of Dengue Fever. How do you feel your book implicitly and explicitly provides its own definition of popular culture? How do the objects in your book exceed their contributions to “Asian/American” performance (as some are wont to isolate texts featuring Asians/Americans) into a broader, transcultural, transmedia framework for the popular?

JC-L: My friend C. Riley Snorton recently released a beautiful book about the discursive circulation of the “down low” within popular culture. I see his project as being very much in conversation with my own. In that book he returns our attention to Raymond Williams’ three-part exploration of popular culture as being “low” or “base,” work that is meant to appeal to the masses, and work that is simply consumed in mass. I followed an impulse similar to Snorton’s approach, which was to break down the distinctions between a work of “high” art (like opera) and more popular forms (like melodrama or rock music), to show how they bleed together.

I also wanted to show how the daily rituals that structure our lives should be included within the sphere of the popular, as with my studies of the taking of personal photographs for a scrapbook, the mounting of a high school play, or the schoolroom performance of the pledge of allegiance (all from within the Japanese American concentration camps of World War Two).

I’m not sure if the book provides a definition of popular culture so much as it asks whose agenda is being served when we carve out certain forms of culture as “high” (opera or avante-garde performance) from the “low” material of popular culture (scrapbooking, rock music, community theater). The division between “high” art—which is often the work associated with the economic and cultural elite—and “low” or popular culture is one that we should be suspicious of insofar as it reifies a division of intellectual and cultural labor that contributes to the reproduction of class and social hierarchy.

The book focuses on Asian America in order to ground and illustrate these larger points. My hope is that it does as much work for helping us to think about the specific conditions under which racial meaning comes into being for the Asian American body as it does for thinking about the way cultural practices within the popular realm shape all of our broader material and social realities.

Joshua Chambers-Letson is an assistant professor in the Department of Performance Studies at Northwestern University. His first book A Race So Different: Law and Performance in Asian America was published by NYU Press in December of 2013. He is currently working on a second book project, The Coming Communism: Marxist Theory and Minoritarian Performance, which theorizes minoritarian performance practices (by artists including Félix González-Torres, Yoko Ono, Michi Barall, William Pope.L, Tehching Tshieh, and the Knife) as rehearsing and anticipating concrete forms of actually existing Marxist sociality.

Karen Tongson is Associate Professor of English and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California, and the author of Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries (NYU Press, 2011). Her work has appeared in numerous venues in print and online, including Social Text, GLQ, Nineteenth-Century Literature, and Novel: A Forum on Fiction. She is currently, with Henry Jenkins, series editor for Postmillennial Pop at NYU Press, and recently completed a multi-year term as co-editor-in-chief of the Journal of Popular Music Studies. Her current book project, Empty Orchestra: Karaoke. Critical. Apparatus. critiques prevailing paradigms of imitation in contemporary aesthetics and critical theory, while offering a genealogy of karaoke technologies, techniques, and desires.

Breaking Down the Rhetoric of Education Reform: An Interview with Elizabeth Losh (Part Three)

You write in the book about feminist uses and critiques of online learning technologies. What might the tradition of feminist pedagogy have to teach us about the limits of the current fascination with MOOCs? The FemTechNet white paper http://femtechnet.newschool.edu/femtechnet-whitepaper/ emphasizes the fact that appeals for open access to education have a long history that go back to the settlement house movement, and this history continues through various cyberfeminist projects, so open education certainly didn’t begin with Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs, and feminists aren’t hostile to openness, although they do value how the embodied “live” classroom can serve as a safe space to explore uncomfortable issues.

The problems begin with the fact that the “course” part often reinforces traditional power structures, because a – usually – lone white male expert – unchallenged by any dissenting opinions and divorced from dialogue with others – transmits information as gospel to a passive audience unable really to answer back.  It’s really time travel back to the pedagogy of the nineteen fifties from before the free speech movement.  At such a “massive” scale it’s also impossible to form interpersonal relationships with students and to be accountable to their personal needs.


One of the more provocative passages here centers around Tim Gunn’s performance on Project Runway and its various online extensions. What might academics learn about the construction of their public personas by studying how Gunn has presented himself through this series?


There is a lot of talk about trying to be the “guide on the side” rather than the “sage on the stage” in the pedagogical literature and also about project-based learning in which students need to iterate, experiment, revise, explore, deliver, and reflect.  It is hard to miss these aspects of education if you like to watch episodes of Project Runway.

It’s also the rare reality show where the hugs for a disappointed student look genuine.  I tend to like the early shows the best, from when fashion mentor Tim Gunn was still an administrator at Parsons with a much more professorial personality.

I like the fact that he displays a sense of humor – as well as empathy and high standards.  It’s a spirit that I aspire to bring to my own academic appointments, although I am a much less natty dresser.


You argue that the current fascination with badges often confuses notions of “earning” and “learning.” Why is this an important distinction to maintain? Why do you think badges have been so appealing to educators and funding organizations? How do they illustrate some of the limits of thinking about education in terms of gamification?

Assessment is always a challenge to educators, so I understand why instructors are desperate to find methods other than high-stakes testing at which so many talented students who are good at revised work fail or alternatives to the grades that serve as a source of so much conflict and so much labor in justifying grades rather than providing feedback that actually enlightens or changes behavior.  (However, as a rhetorician I actually enjoy reading grade complaints, because they tend to be quite well-written; students have a strong sense of purpose in approaching the task of writing a grade complaint.)

I argue that badges don’t necessarily get us out of the problems that we have with grades, and they work against holistic assessments that are easier for multiple audiences to interpret.  But, as they say, “never say never.”  Right now I am working with my colleague Wayne Yang on an interesting project that might involve badges.

In the book I criticize the general trend toward gamification in education, and I would also recommend the forthcoming volume from MIT Press that is edited by Sebastian Deterding on the subject.  Like many educators interested in digital media and learning, it’s irritating to see game formats adopted very superficially without much consideration about how people learn more deeply from interacting with the rule-based systems of games.

I also have a more specific gripe about emphasizing the goal of happiness rather than the goal of understanding when thinking about how games serve as a model for learning.  Games can be a very effective way to explore the procedural character of concepts like injustice, which is important in a well-rounded education, and I don’t have much patience for advocates for positive psychology who emphasize what I think are much more simple-minded and self-centered personal rewards.


In the book’s conclusion, you ask: “How can we influence the digital university to be more inclusive, generative, just, and constructive?” In many ways, this is the central theme of the book. What do you see as some approaches to digital media and learning which might satisfy those criteria?

In the final chapter I propose six general principles, so if someone wants to give a copy of the book to a university president as a not very subtle hint about how to chart a new course when it comes to instructional technology, there’s essentially an executive summary with a list of recommendations.

In general, I think that “technology” is imagined too narrowly to mean only brand new digital technologies to be used only for formal traditional instruction that need to be purchased from instructional technology vendors.  But in our Culture, Art, and Technology program, we remind students that technology can encompass many things.  After all, windows that let in light or chairs that move are also instructional technologies.

I also think that we define learning far too narrowly to focus only on objectives from courses listed in catalogues and ignore all of the other things that students learn not only in college but also in many other contexts in which people interact and communicate. In Sixth College we emphasize “experiential learning” and encourage students to learn from faculty in settings other than the classroom, such as laboratories, field sites, clinical settings, or community centers.  That’s the place for exercising all those so-called “soft skills” valued by employers that higher education can develop.

If we don’t take a one-size-fits-all approach to digital technologies, experiment ethically, pay attention to failures, avoid fetishizing novelty, and most of all listen to our students, I think there is actually tons of hope for doing great work generating new knowledge together in the university setting. 

Elizabeth Losh directs the Culture, Art, and Technology program at the University of California, San Diego.  She is the author of Virtualpolitik: An Electronic History of Government Media-Making in a Time of War, Scandal, Disaster, Miscommunication, and Mistakes (MIT Press, 2009) and The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University (MIT Press, 2014). She is also the co-author of the comic book textbook Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing (Bedford/St. Martin's, 2013) with Jonathan Alexander.  She writes about the digital humanities, institutions as digital content-creators, the media literacy of policy makers and authority figures, and the rhetoric surrounding regulatory attempts to limit everyday user practices.


Breaking Down the Rhetoric of Education Reform: An Interview with Elizabeth Losh (Part Two)

You reference two different analogies which are commonly used to describe the “crisis” in higher education -- that of the health care system and that of the newspaper industry. All analogies foreground some factors and mask others. What do these metaphors allow us to see or prevent us from seeing about higher education today?

I think both of those analogies involving how traditional institutions are being transformed by so-called “disruptive” technologies emphasize different aspects of the college experience, since faculty both nurture and inform students.  In the case of newspapers, technology supposedly lowers costs, while in the case of healthcare, technology (and patients’ dependence on increasingly specialized expertise) raises them.  With the rise of telemedicine and smart phone applications for health, supposedly technology can lower costs as well, but we aren’t yet seeing any reductions.

Many of the arguments both for and against technology that I deconstruct in this book rely on metaphors and logical comparisons of various kinds.  For example, Henry Eyring and Clayton Christensen go on and on about the “DNA” of innovative universities.  Anya Kamenetz has so many metaphors per page in DIY U  that I couldn’t even analyze them all.

My general rhetorical strategy tends to be to emphasize narrative rather than metaphor to persuade my audience to think critically about the instructional technology movement.  I tell stories with descriptions and plots and characters that I hope can counter some myths.    


What are some of the ways that classroom practices that claim to increase student engagement and provide opportunities for greater participation actually limit student voice and agency?

Student engagement is a buzzword often used by vendors to mean command and control.  The idea is that students are disengaged because they are multitasking with texting or web surfing, and we need to keep them busy with relevant tasks that are so demanding that they are forced to pay attention to the instructions from the podium.

The technology that I probably loathe the most is the clicker.  Certainly, these handheld response systems provide short-term behavioral rewards to students who click in the right answer promptly in large lecture halls, although I wonder if they can apply that knowledge to real world situations or retain it for a lifetime.

I will admit that really good teachers know how to use clickers as a way to stimulate discussion and explore assumptions and raise questions.  But if you have really engaged students by learning their names and recognizing their faces, you can get the same results by just asking them to raise their hands.

Certainly just giving students an identifiable serial number tied to a device that can be tracked instead doesn’t do much to reduce lecture hall anonymity.  Being surveiled is different from being validated.  At their worst clickers can push the idea that higher education is just a matter of choosing the right answer on a multiple choice quiz.


Throughout, you take a strong stance against those who want to “blow up the schools” or advocate various forms of unschooling practice. What do you see as some of the core arguments against this recurring theme in popular discourse about pedagogy which seems to want to abolish formal instruction?

I am particularly concerned about how already constrained community colleges that do an amazing job with very limited budgets could receive even fewer public dollars when taxpayer money gets diverted to service loans for distance learning at for-profit institutions or gets spent on gizmos destined for the dustbin.

I am a big advocate for community colleges.  They respond to the concerns of local citizens.  They offer courses at night.  They educate high school students and senior citizens.  They serve students planning to transfer to research universities and those needing vocational education.  I used to take a course or two at a community college every year.

James Paul Gee also makes a great argument in The Anti-Education Era about what he calls the problem of “the school of one.”  If we only have autonomous learners racking up their college credits like points in a video game from home, they may not develop the collaborative and communicative capacities needed to solve really complex problems collectively.

The Kansas Board of Regents recently imposed new restrictions on the use of social media by their faculty. How might the debate around this policy shed light on some of the fault lines you discuss in your book -- particularly around assertions of academic freedom and efforts by universities to shape public perceptions?

In the book I argue that part of the reason that faculty have been slow to advocate for their students when it comes to their informal learning practices and online knowledge networks is that faculty have been much less coerced than students by administrative efforts to police their computer use.  Faculty bloggers might come under pressure for disclosing information that colleges don’t want shared, but they have been such a tiny minority that not many people took notice.  Faculty hacktivists might be threatened for acts of electronic civil disobedience, but they are an even smaller contingent.

Twitter users like David Guth at the University of Kansas, who was suspended for an anti-NRA Tweet, are also still relatively rare among academics, but faculty see Twitter being used at conferences, and they know Twitter is part of a continuum that includes Facebook, which they might use to communicate with friends and relatives, so I am hoping that the water is finally getting hot enough that the frog might finally jump out and protest in good faculty fashion.

We’ll see.  It probably depends on getting scholarly professional associations interested, which they already are to promote new forms of communication, particularly when so many academic presses producing print monographs are unsustainable.

Elizabeth Losh directs the Culture, Art, and Technology program at the University of California, San Diego.  She is the author of Virtualpolitik: An Electronic History of Government Media-Making in a Time of War, Scandal, Disaster, Miscommunication, and Mistakes (MIT Press, 2009) and The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University (MIT Press, 2014). She is also the co-author of the comic book textbook Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing (Bedford/St. Martin's, 2013) with Jonathan Alexander.  She writes about the digital humanities, institutions as digital content-creators, the media literacy of policy makers and authority figures, and the rhetoric surrounding regulatory attempts to limit everyday user practices.


Breaking Down the Rhetoric of Educational Reform: An Interview with Elizabeth Losh (Part One)

On paper, Elizabeth Losh and I can sometimes look like polar opposites: she's definitely much more of a skeptic, much more rooted in the Critical Studies side of Rhetoric,  more likely to point to issues of corporate exploitation and government manipulation, than I am. Indeed, when we appeared together a few years back at the Mobility Shifts conference at the New School of Social Research, for what was billed as debate, Losh's partner created two sets of race car jackets for us, demarking Team Critical Studies and Team Cultural Studies, so we could perform the culture wars which sometimes divide these frames of reference.

In practice, where education is concerned, we both end up somewhere much closer to each other, as we've discovered to our delight since I have moved to California and gotten to know her and her work much better. She's someone who works closely with classroom teachers and has a firm belief in the importance of public education, someone who is invested in debunking corporate claims about new tools and platforms in favor of promoting forms of education which allow more expressive freedom and creative participation for students, and someone who is ultimately a pragmatist in terms of trying to figure out how we can change the current system from within rather than engaging in rhetoric about blowing up the schools and starting over.

We've written a piece together about the challenges of bringing participatory culture and learning into the schools, and so I was excited when I saw that she had a new book coming out on education to grab another chance for us to talk together about some of these mutual concerns and interests. Her new book, The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University, comes out in just a few more days and deals with the ways that new media is having an impact (real and imagined) on higher education.

Losh draws here on her own classroom experiences as someone who is constantly experimenting with new teaching methods and cutting edge toolkits, but she also looks at a range of national controversies and alternative imaginings (Project Runway!) through which we can think about what the university classroom might become. She examines all of these topics with the critical eye of a trained rhetorician, debunking many myths and false claims, but also articulating some ideals we as pedagogues and mentors should embrace if we are serious about making our classrooms into more participatory environments.

Here's what I say in the blurb I wrote for the book: "Elizabeth Losh's The War on Learning makes an invaluable intervention into current debates about the role of digital media in higher education by adopting an approach that is at once hopeful and skeptical, that rejects technological euphoria and moral panic alike, that challenges the promises made by corporate vendors but also those made by educational reformers, and that insists that core principles of inclusion and mutual respect should govern the relations between faculty and students."

I meant it!

Throughout the book, you challenge some of the rhetorics which are used to describe the introduction of new technologies into the classroom. What would the Rhetorician Liz Losh have to say about the author Elizabeth Losh's use of “war” as the central metaphor in her book’s title?

As a rhetorician, I am always interested in how people use language to characterize different aspects of public policy debates.  Using “war” in the title – along with “gaining ground” in the subtitle – to characterize how social computing is disrupting higher education was a very deliberate choice.  When I started to look at how faculty (and the media) talked about using instructional technology systems like Turnitin.com to monitor plagiarism in student writing, words like “weapons” and “arsenal” began to jump out at me, and I started to notice how much of our discourse about these issues is driven by military metaphors, either because we needed to stage a revolution in the university or because we need to defend our battlements against uncouth invaders. Well, we all know how the “war on poverty” or the “war on drugs” turned out, so I also wanted to make clear that adopting either a strategy of command and control or one of mob rule wouldn’t take us very far.

I also wanted to make learning the focus of my intervention.  So it’s really two titles: it’s about the “war on formal learning” coming from social media and other distributed knowledge dissemination systems and about the “war on informal learning” being waged by campus administrators who don’t want students subverting or gaming the system.

I proposed a book that would be a “scholarly polemic,” and then I found in writing it that my engagement with this subject matter – as an instructor myself – is much less abstract and more personal and more complicated than the binaries of an antagonistic argument, so there are also a lot of my own stories about negotiating conflict in the classroom or the lecture hall or the residence hall.  I claim that far too often people assume that a radical generational division between the “digital generation” and everyone else makes communication between students and faculty impossible when technology is involved.  Certainly the traditional system of disciplining students isn’t well suited for some of these emergent phenomena.  And then there is the weird fact that some of this conflict may even be manufactured by interested parties with an agenda for sowing discord.  Some of the most dramatic scenes of conflict – such as viral videos of professors destroying laptops or cell phones – are actually staged.


You begin the book by identifying some common mistakes or misunderstandings that often shape digital learning initiatives. What do you think we most often get wrong when universities seek to bring new media technologies and practices into higher education?


As I say in the opening, the material features – as well as the human aspects of technology that involve standards or values or design choices – are frequently underestimated, so that people have very idealized conceptions about technology in which technology exists without the mess that seems to compromise and contaminate everything else in the world.  Technology is presented as something that manifests itself as a liberating force that is characterized by its youth and radical novelty, and it isn’t supposed to be constrained by physical barriers or historical baggage.

Most famously Nicholas Negroponte, of One-Laptop-Per-Child fame, spent significant time in Being Digital differentiating between “bits” and “atoms.”  Of course Matt Kirschenbaum loves to point out that computational media depend on material components and that you can actually see bits on a surface of a hard drive.  (I also like how Paul Dourish points out that digital signals have signatures that are actually a lot less mathematically perfect, because they always depend on technology that is analog at some level.)

So universities tend to assume that digital technologies only involve shiny new gadgets combined with intellectual property – pure code to be licensed from vendors – and not physical property that institutions have to continue to maintain with labor.  Because technologies are always new we also don’t have to think about them aging or dying or about things like the infrastructure needed for support.

I particularly love the assertion that technologies are inevitably labor-saving devices and that teaching online or with a course management system will always reduce labor so that teachers can teach more efficiently.  Part of this is a mistake about misunderstanding the nature of pedagogical labor and the assumption that the affective labor of managing students’ feelings doesn’t matter because teaching is simply a logical process of transferring content from one party to another that process can be divorced from emotions or conceptions about one’s identity.

I say all this as a technophile, as someone who loves experimenting with new technologies in my teaching, as a person actively involved with initiatives like Digital Media and Learning Central, Reclaim Open Learning and FemTechNet.


You direct many of the book’s strongest criticisms against the “acceptance of shortsighted commodity solutions from corporate vendors.” Why do you think such “solutions” have gained such a toe-hold in the modern university and what are the consequences of thinking about digital media and learning in terms of products and services? Do such practices further a tendency to think of education in terms of consumption rather than participation?

Well, we live in a commodity culture, and I tend to be a pragmatist about how much the university can really transform our society by reshaping the individuals who participate in higher education.  In education-speak we talk about the “zone of proximal development” that describes the area of activity where intervention is most effective and the process of trying to meet people near to where they are as learners.  I might argue that the same principle holds true when we talk about a politics of public resources and common values.

The tendency to think about students as consumers that we want to keep happy with dazzling media or brand-named stuff is certainly understandable, because unhappy students might become unhappy alumni who won’t be very likely to become generous donors.  Gadget-distribution programs, such as handing out an iPad to every registered student, make for good headlines . . . until things begin to go wrong, as they did rather spectacularly for the Los Angeles Unified School District that will probably never recoup its investment.

I am often astonished at how naïve administrators can be and how susceptible to pseudo-scientific pitches from instructional technology companies with as much research to support them as a typical soda commercial.  I actually think the best strategy is to play the capitalist and to appeal to the logic of consumption by at least arguing for lower cost solutions. The thing that I find most exasperating is that treating the educational enterprise as a marketplace for experiencing high-tech goods and services is that it is really prohibitively expensive.

Elizabeth Losh directs the Culture, Art, and Technology program at the University of California, San Diego.  She is the author of Virtualpolitik: An Electronic History of Government Media-Making in a Time of War, Scandal, Disaster, Miscommunication, and Mistakes (MIT Press, 2009) and The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University (MIT Press, 2014). She is also the co-author of the comic book textbook Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing (Bedford/St. Martin's, 2013) with Jonathan Alexander.  She writes about the digital humanities, institutions as digital content-creators, the media literacy of policy makers and authority figures, and the rhetoric surrounding regulatory attempts to limit everyday user practices.

Who Do Humans Tell the Stories They Do: An Interview with Lily Alexander (Part Six)

You ended the book with some speculations about the future of storytelling, including a discussion of the singularity as an emerging story about the “possible symbolic communities of the future.” 2014 will see the release of several new films and television shows focused on the Singularity. What roles do you think stories written by humans can play in helping us to understand the implications of what some are predicting will be a post-human world? By singularity we mean a fusion of the biological with the technological, in the evolution of the human race (as per Ray Kurzweil’s interpretation). The outcome may take any form within a spectrum from bliss to horror.

Like everybody else, I am addicted to my gadgets, and suffer a withdrawal headache when forced to go without my email, my mac, my playlist, or my Netflix. They have become part of my Self. As Michio Kaku suggests in his new book The Future of the Mind, there will be no limits to what we will be able to do in the centuries to come. We will be able to send each other our dreams-movies by sheer will and through our brainwaves. I am all for it! (We can save a lot of money on cameras, actors and props. Note to Self: everybody will still need screenwriting manuals and storytelling instructors).


The warm and fuzzy picture of humans of all races and ethnicities, no longer endangered animals, aliens, cyborgs, and robots living happily ever after, telling each other stories, and peacefully sharing the universe, sounds good to me.

But, if in this bio-techno-utopia someone will intercept our brainwaves and manage to reprogram us, making us his servants, it will be a dystopian brave new world that is coming. Thus I think there are several issues to discuss.

First, what are the irreducible, non-negotiable traits of humanity, without which our species no longer exists? Perhaps this short list includes: a free and resilient person, a bond between two individuals, a family and a community, as well as the ability to feel empathy, to respect the Other, share experience and collaborate.

Conceivably, we won’t be able to preserve these qualities and connections. There may be a limitless number of scenarios of how we could be turned into brainwashed cyborgs; and there will be a lot of resistance on the part of our species. An army of Sci-Fi writers and media philosophers will then step in, in advance of such a nightmare future, to explore defense mechanisms humankind can utilize to prevent this dystopia from happening. Between now and then, when it might occur, there will be millions of us who will try to find a way out. The battle hasn’t been lost yet.

Freedom, choice, social bonds, and social responsibility for consequences are perhaps what else makes us human; these qualities are constantly reinforced by storytelling. Drama examines and propels ideas of opportunity and choice, as well as cause and effect. To be human is to have variable paths, the freedom to choose one, and the responsibility for the outcome. That is why debates on how we use technology and how we socialize in the age of technology are crucially important.

Perhaps it’s my naïve optimism, but I’m not concerned about humankind fusing with machines and losing itself in radio waves or digits, at least not any time soon. Freedom is what is really important. The dangers of dehumanization and enslavement have creped up on humanity in many forms before, such as: cannibalism, slavery, religious and class oppression, fascism and chauvinism, Stalinism and Maoism. In essence, the forces behind these dangers tried to turn humans into robots (slaves, zombies, gulag laborers, sex slaves, child miners, soldiers, etc.). There have been many temporary successes in this route toward dehumanization and exploitation, before, and outside of, technology. And those who conceived and executed these ideas were not robots. They called themselves humans.

We can’t stop the march of technology. But it is the degree to which we’ll be able to maintain our passions, bonds and communities that will define our survival. Concerns for the techno-future are not about researching genes or accessing phones. They are about who wants to use science, technology and the media to subdue and control others; and what we can proffer as counter measures and solutions – alternative outcomes.

And this is the ultimate question: regardless to whom we might lose our freedom (new dictators, techno-humans, robots, aliens), how will we maintain the balance between individual freedom and the collective good that is optimal to our species? Will our Hamlets be able to ask the question “to be or not to be,” make decisions, take responsibility and choose to act independently? Or will dependence on technology take key choices away from us, leaving us with only “consumer choices” – this tablet or that?

It is especially important to clean house and have order at home in our social world, when the Other – friend or foe? – the technological future, is at the gates. In order not to lose our humanity, we need a highly effective “anticipatory reflection” (Anokhin), and “action-reflection” (Turner’s theory maintains that any steps taken must be adequately processed). Speedy examination of every emerging and foreseeable change must be discussed and profoundly reflected upon by society. Keeping an eye on the road is our only option. Choices regarding where to turn, or when to stop, must take place within the social community.Many individuals and communities may stimulate discussions about our future. And do it with a speed that matches our technological march, while trying to maintain a profound level of examination. Consider for example, the cultural figure of the public intellectual. He or she is a person who has an agenda and the ability to disperse new knowledge and discuss it with the public, bypassing slow routes of established or bureaucratized channels (academic hierarchies, and the publishing industry’s profit-driven goals and slow production cycles). The Public Intellectual is a cognitive factor and a facilitator of “anticipatory reflection” processes that ensure that an accurate set of “templates of the future” can evolve.

While employing a range of modern media, including the Internet, the Public Intellectual demands and hopefully provides a thorough exploration of issues through opinion-sharing and open forums; and does so as exhaustively as required by the complexity of looming problems. In other worlds, s/he is the “planner-coordinator” of the community’s future, and an inborn catalyst of a self-organizing system.

By means of public debates on the utopian and dystopian scenarios of the future, current media thinkers and writers engage us in collective forums. Emerging stories help us to understand the implications of the many directions we might take, which would lead to alternative outcomes of the future. Storytellers-seers alert us, at the “crossroads,” to wisely choose our paths.

To sum up, your book’s title signals its focus on “fictional worlds.” How are you defining worlds and what role do fictional worlds play within the book’s argument?

Fictional worlds are a framework for the symbolic construction of community, for the behavior-shaping genre system, and for the many story formulas, which propel humanism, as explored in my book. They serve as testing grounds for human actions and for ideal relationships we imagine and would like to implement. Fictional worlds are also the templates, by which we, as a species, explore our “possible futures” and paths toward survival and advancement. Aristotle’s “astonishment,” or the “wow” factor, suggests that we always have elements in fictional worlds, which stretch our imagination, thus leading us toward innovative solutions. Fictional worlds represent imaginary realities with definitive organization, laws – natural and social – and a unique aesthetic regime. Different genres and story types require their own distinctive fictional worlds, within which they may fulfill their cultural functions.

These worlds may be fantastic or “realistic,” and different in various genres (fairytale vs. film noir vs. screwball comedy). Even within the same genre, authors’ original creations may vary widely. For example, the worlds of screwball comedy differ vastly in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Lope de Vega’s The Dog in a Manger, Chekhov’s The Bear, as well as in Roman Holiday and Sex and the City.

Fictional worlds may transcend their own textual borders, including on-screen, reappearing in sequences, and reflected in intertextual content by other artists. The creations of human imagination, fictional worlds channel our dreams about a better tomorrow.

Media’s fictional worlds are intrinsically linked to the actualization of possibilities. They may be understood as narrative subjunctive clauses, hidden emerging tendencies, as well as all sorts of “what ifs” – “could be, would be, and should be” dimensions that are the inner realms of fictional world-building, and the modalities of its relations with reality.

Fictional world-building is an activity as ancient as culture itself: no myth, ritual, or any form of narrative communication took place without the creation of imaginary worlds (believed to be faraway, yet “real”). Someone – a hero? A world traveler? One “returning” from the dead? – had to testify about the existence of Otherworlds and vividly describe their landscapes, fantastic beings, and ways of life; thus helping his community to visualize and also, symbolically, “visit” them.

At the dawn of a new era – that of City Culture, industrialization, the rise of mass society and visual culture – additional factors led to an explosion of world-building activities: in art, literature, on-screen; with mixed, often tragic, results in social reality. On one hand the rise in literacy, in the means of transportation intensifying cultural exchange, and a new accessibility to world literature, exposed the reading public to the brave and imaginative fictional worlds of the past, and across cultures. On the other hand, new technologies, enhancing languages of communication via the screen, made acts of visualization (“proving” the existence of imaginary worlds) and actualization (making them desirable and almost really “possible”) easier.

Above all, a cultural need for world-building emerged, stemming from the conditions of mass society. Social space was becoming increasingly too crowded, too regulated, and too programmed. The suffocating conditions of the early industrial era and of societies close to totalitarian rule made world-building almost imperative for personal psychological survival. “Far and away!” from city streets and walls, and from an over-regulated social order, was Mass-Man’s plan; often implemented within the new lands of possibility he created.

World-Building is conceivably a new ritual-cultural function, linked to the growing opportunities and stresses of civilization. The increase in: formal social interactions, often in humiliating loneliness; requirements of strict submission to law and order; control and surveillance; separation among new casts, by class and income; limits on personal space and decreases in social mobility – all of these factors are counter-balanced by the freedom, the bonding with the like-minded individuals, and advanced knowledge, endowed by created worlds of “wonder,” limited only by the human imagination.

This concludes our interview. Lily Alexander wants to share with my readers her essay, "Storytelling in Time and Space,"which uses the concept of the Chronotope to explore the storytelling techniques and practices of filmmakers Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni and Andrei Tarkovsky.

Lily Alexander has been teaching film, literature, media and screenwriting for fifteen years; the last ten years in New York, at NYU and CUNY. She received her masters in drama and film, and defended a dual doctorate in anthropology and comparative cultural studies, with an emphasis on narrative, in 1998. Alexander teaches her brand of courses, which uniquely combine theories of culture and storytelling with creative writing, hoping to enthuse new Tolkiens and Rowlings. Her most recent classes, at Hunter College, focus on world fairytale, folklore, myth, novel, short story, and science fiction as part of the framework of past and present storytelling practices. Alexander’s new book Fictional Worlds: Traditions in Narrative and the Age of Visual Culture was published in October 2013 (available on amazon.com). This text is also available in digital formats, as a set of Kindle books, and forthcoming as a set of iBooks for the apple platform. The four books of the digital sets are titled, Fictional Worlds I: The Symbolic Journey & The Genres System; Fictional Worlds II: Dramatic Characters & Dramatic Action; Fictional Worlds III: Tragedy & Mystery; and Fictional Worlds IV: Comedy & the Extraordinary. Her website is storytellingonscreen.com. Email: contact (at) storytellingonscreen.com. Comments and questions are welcome.

Why Do Humans Tell the Stories They Do: An Interview with Lily Alexander (Part Five)

Throughout, you draw examples across a range of different media forms, including oral stories, literary texts, films, television shows, and drama, among others. To what degree is the art of storytelling (and its classic functions) indifferent to medium? At what point does the affordances of media enter into your analysis?

The more I think about it, the less I believe that “the media is the message.” Frankly, I think the message is the message, and content is king. There is a set of vitally important ideas that facilitate our advancement and survival. It is the responsibility of the artists working in various formats to find unique ways to convey the wisdom of life continuation.

In fact, it is the uncritical acceptance and superficial understanding of this well-know maxim that leads to embracing the inevitability of our gadgets becoming more important than our stories. This implies that we should not “bother” with content. We must resist the idea that the story is “out there, anyway, inside the machine.”

I was a graduate student in the 1990s, and of course this was the motto of the day. McLuhan’s paradoxical revelation was profound and timely. It also resonated with a similar one, “form is content,” proclaimed prior to McLuhan, as a new theoretical paradox and paradigm by the Formalists in the 1920s. This idea meant to explain to the confused contemporaries of emerging modernism that all these crazy paintings and poems had profound meaning and that their form functioned as content, and already had embedded and encoded ideas within visual and narrative representation.

The logic behind the idea that “form=content” aligns with the belief that “medium=message,” and is very familiar from the study of art theory. The most valuable insights of the Formalists’ and McLuhan’s maxims are the degree to which form/medium affects and defines content/message. The Formalists’ ideas were later developed by the Structuralists, who looked into the overall complex dynamics between form and content, which generate multilayered messages that affect us on conscious and subconscious levels.

When McLuhan’s maxim is not invoked as an excuse to abandon content, we may find some truth in this approach. In fact, in Fictional Worlds I followed the Formalists, the Structuralists (who effectively complicated this formula) and Turner, in detailing how each genre, and many story formulas, already have – or have encoded – a powerful content found innately within their construct.

The writer can unlock this symbolic content to achieve great impact on the audience. This embedded architectonics, when learned, can free a writer because the iron carcass of the “story form” allows the creator to experiment. Providing a structural “safety net,” the story form enables the author to go in any direction, employ fantastic beings, travel to distant islands/planets, as well as unleash on the fictional world dangerous crises and enlist diverse heroes with problem-solving skills. The logic of the form will make the Journey balanced and powerful. Yet, a certain amount of freedom remains in the hero’s journey formula, allowing even radical experimentation with “story logic.”

The influential and wise screenwriting guru Robert McKee, whom I highly respect, noted that he teaches form but not formula. I think it is his response to the “get-rich-quick” superficial use of the Hero’s Journey.” This trend, triggered by the success of Lucas’ Star Wars, has been evident among some aspiring screenwriters in Hollywood.

In fact, I argue that a thoughtful approach toward both the logic of “the ritual story” and the logic of “the dramatic arc” are very important for writers, and are interlinked. I explain these profound connections and propose creative writing methods based on formula and form in chapters 3-6 of Fictional Worlds.

The crux of teaching the dramatic arc is Fictional Worlds’ “golden rule of the three Cs” – encouraging writers to take maximum advantage of every decision-making situation and moment of choice (correct or flawed), at each dramatic crossroad. This, incidentally, is what unites drama and games. Extensive discussions of these issues in my classes led to the conclusion that dramatic form must boost the trajectories of choice in any story, while games will develop in the direction of multiple choices and roads (more forking paths). Instead of a “right” or a “wrong” move by a gamer, transmedia can offer a spectrum of crossroads and trajectories which may lead to many “right,” but diverse, approaches to the successful Journey. This is what the new generation wants, and this is what makes sense to me.

A fandom is often described as a community which self-organizes around their shared engagement with a story (or storyworld). What similarities or differences would you draw between contemporary fan communities and the older forms of“symbolic communities” you write about in the book.

There are many ways of looking at this phenomenon. I would highlight three angles: fandom as a spontaneous ritual-symbolic activity, as discursive communities, and as a social movement. These modes overlap.

If there is any “master theory” of fandom to be found (to refer to your dialogue with Mark Duffett), I suggest it will be in anthropology, in ritual theory. Symbolic anthropology also explains why “performed identity” is inseparable from “transformed identity” within the ritual framework, as I also argue in Fictional Worlds.

As a ritual-symbolic activity, fandom signals that many people seek transformation, adjustment and belonging to a new group. Since ritual activity per se is not practiced by modern societies and the media is only partially effective in meeting these cultural needs, the numerous un-initiated and un-adjusted take matters into their own hands and create networks in which they try to achieve initiation, transformation and social adjustment.

In fan communities, the divine Donor of New Knowledge is the Author who creates the environment of the transformative Journey in which adjustment is possible. The Initiating members of traditional rituals took the Initiands into imaginary mythic-symbolic lands. Many modern stories transcend textual boundaries and expand into fandom activities that come closer to such promise. Consciously or subconsciously, spontaneous fandom communities are, in essence, “initiating themselves.”

There will be mixed results because each fan group’s choice of Great Book or Cult Movie boxes them in, limiting “new knowledge” to that contained in the text. Similarly, “new values,” essential for the sacred Journey, may be defined by the “Initiators,” the leaders of this fandom group. Sort of “masters of ceremonies,” keen on seeing opportunities for power, they may advance themselves within the local fandom hierarchy. Despite such possible power games, fandom indicates that the need for ritual structures and rites of passage of all kinds is great, and the void is not filled.

Discursive community is one which is typically organized around a text. The fandom unit is a form of discursive community, focusing on a particular Book/Movie. While on the path to initiation, such fandom groups employ their chosen “sacred” text in place of the sacred myths which used to be communicated to Initiands within traditional ritual. Unlike the traditional Hero’s Journey with its thresholds at which the hero confronts ordeals and tests, fandom units select and reenact scenes from their Book/Movie for such threshold experiences.

As a social movement, fandom signals that there are a considerable number of people who are determined to seek new knowledge within a variety of “possible worlds” and to explore them as templates for social development. This also signals that they have more trust and interest in fictional worlds than in their familiar reality (the current state of society, law, ethics, politics, etc.), as exploratory fields for the future. Avoiding arguing with, or openly criticizing, society, “fandom crowds” turn to new, albeit fictional, side roads to examine possible futures.

On the dark side, there are pitfalls. I recall a student in my Writing for the Media class, a graduate course in which students were expected to produce an episode for television in any genre, with an option to write it as a pilot that they could submit to the networks. Most students elected to do a pilot, which meant that the quality must be better and the story more persuasive in order to entice a network to consider such a new series. After two months of studying the nuts and bolts of storytelling, the students submitted their screenplays.

One student chose a fan convention in a hotel as the setting of the assignment. Her screenplay project featured a fashionable bunch of Medieval-Gothic-Aliens, or something like this, drawn from a variety of comics, movies, and TV shows. Her play was about the protagonist (her alter ego) changing costumes – I can imagine! – and visiting different hotel rooms where others would comment on her costume and “like it,” and “accept her.” Then she would then go back to her room to change her clothing, and “repeat, repeat.”

There was no action and no story, just suitcases with costumes. I offered this student all kinds of storylines that might happen in such a (weird) “crossroad” place (in the tradition of the movie Grand Hotel). I explained that the play did not exist without a story, and she decided to choose one of my suggestions: that eager, costume-changing young parents do not notice that their toddler walks out of the hotel room and vanishes. This plot provided an instant chill, imagining how she wanders alone surrounded by the Medieval-Gothic-Aliens, each one scarier than the next. Then the crowds rush to find the girl; they are dressed accordingly and are unaware “who is who” (friend or foe; we have mixed elements of mystery, tragedy and farce). But, “our” glorious protagonist turns out to be courageous and smart enough – she’s the one who finds the little girl and saves her from the clutches of… (enter your villain type here). The student liked the idea and promised to make it work (a cliché really, but at least drama: a quest to find a missing child, peppered with some macabre visual irony and options for interesting quirky scenes).

Imagine how stunned I was when at the end of the semester the student removed all the elements of the story and turned everything back to “she changes costumes and people like her;” because “this was good enough,” she said. For her, just as in ancient rituals, this “mystic” changing of skins was a magical entrance into a mythic world. The rest was irrelevant.

Of course, some attitudes within fandom are not about the self or others, transformation, or even belonging. The focus is on a pageant or “ceremony,” a popular culture phenomenon already mocked many times, as in Little Miss Sunshine, Miss Congeniality, etc., where showing costumes – fashion – is the goal. Even the delicious monsters of this student’s story setting – such a rich resource for any magic tale! – were not employed to shape the story. They served as decorations. This is an example of fandom as a rather superficial activity. Yet, I do think that the author-protagonist really wanted the Heroine’s Journey, but she did not yet know it.

I was pleased, however, to recently discover a website which highlights fandom as a transformative activity: http://transformativeworks.tumblr.com/

Across cultures and eras discursive communities have always been present. They were organized at first around a sacred story, and later around a book, film, or artist. Some discursive communities moved beyond their chosen text, developing higher goals, new communal ethics and worldviews. They also fueled social movements, becoming effective symbolic communities and advancing their societies.

In the book, you argue that horror does not actually constitute a genre in the sense you are using the term here. Explain.

There is no question that horror abounds in screen culture and the media. But is horror a genre? If one accepts the functionalist approach of Fictional Worlds toward genre, and its anthropological genre theory, the answer is no. There is no cultural need behind, nor community-building or life-asserting function featured in, horror.

I argue that horror is a narrative “fragment” of something else (perhaps the “ritual story,” the one embedded within the structure of ritual); as asteroids are pieces of an exploded planet. Horror has many of the same elements featured within the ritual story such as “symbolic death” that ritual has, including pain, torture, murder and evil beings. However, a horror story abandons its characters and audience, as its “curtains fall,” just before the upward curve, while a ritual structure ensures rebirth and enlightenment. Horror originated from an incomplete ritual of “symbolic death-rebirth.’

Take a horror movie, find the hero – maybe a victim coming alive from paralyzing fear – give the screaming cornered prey guts and a sword, s/he will awake from victimhood, and defeat the deadly powers with panache. S/he will stop evil, fight to the death, survive and gain wisdom. You have a new adventure story.

Alternatively, take any good adventure or Journey story, stop it half-way – and it turns into horror. Take away from the hero the inner strength and determination necessary to avoid being a victim, and s/he will end up in the horror of the “dragon’s intestines.” Horror is an adventure with the hero deprived of power and courage. It is the storyline of the ritual of initiation broken in half. Thus death occurs and becomes a permanent condition; while death-rebirth will never take place, as it should in any mythic-ritual adventure story.

In horror, the antagonists, the dragons or other dark forces, “reverse” the story structure to become its evil-protagonists. (Consider the empowered vampires, who now demand every role in every story, from the lovers to the teachers of life). The focus is on the winners, whoever they are – zombies, serial killers, or the walking dead. And we accept their dominance, because they so convincingly win in the story.

These forms – adventure vs. horror – are mutually “convertible.” The question becomes where do screenwriters stand – are they trying to scare their contemporaries, or teaching them to overcome fear and grow? The writer endows his hero(ine) with courage, or takes it away. Similar elements are in place, but they are compositionally reconfigured and serve different social purposes.

Lets play devil’s advocate for a moment and suggest that perhaps horror stories are an early alert system, and their pessimism is therefore constructive. Indeed, in reality where a cheerful tone is set by Triumph of the Will, I’ll take the gloomy The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari anytime.

However, there is a “but.” First, the historically tried and tested genres of tragedy, mystery, crime drama, and recently film noir, though full of dark shadows, terrible twists and horrible events, do just this – provide an early alert – more effectively and in a balanced, reflective manner. They contain the mechanisms of revelation of the truth, dramatic resolution, the villain’s self-inflicted wounds, and unexpected endings that, as a whole, facilitate our contemplative response to the painful outcomes of the story.

Second, there is the notorious Kracauer question. In his seminal book From Caligari to Hitler, Siegfried Kracauer, German film scholar and refugee, asks the core question: whether the expressionist cinema, and Dr. Caligari in particular, was a warning to the Germans regarding the terrible things that were to come – the rise of Fascism – or did it “condition” them for submission to power? German expressionist cinema was about fear, but was it fear that leads to action or to passivity in accepting one’s fate?

For several years I taught a full-year Film History class, during the course of which the students in the filmmaking program and I had enough time to investigate the relationship between cinema and politics within world cultures. Among the topics proposed for the students’ course essays I included the Kracauer question. Many students chose to investigate it. Time and time again, individual students and I came to the same conclusion. The cinema of fear may serve a warning, but it also teaches surrender. And so does horror.

So horror may be an ineffective response to anxiety and crisis on the part of the audience. They flock to see it again and again, eagerly hoping for “death-rebirth” and catharsis; yet waiting in vain. On a social level, the troubling consequences of horror movies is that they create spellbound self-sufficient fictional worlds of masochistic pleasure, in which this horror world’s distorted meanings become the measure of all things, including reality. With one foot in this horror-world, there is no will left to fight when facing a real problem.

Horror’s “no-future” model is adverse to the exploration of possibilities. What happens with a self-organizing system when it creates an inquiry-model of the possible future?  It must internalize it to act on it. And what if this model responds in a robotic voice, “There is no future, only death”? Such a powerful signal, a signal system actually, would send the “structural order” to its end; it is a “stop being” command. Stop living.

To sum up: there is no cultural need behind, nor community-building or life-asserting function featured in, horror. If there is latent content that this form structurally conveys – it is a message “Surrender! Resistance is futile.”

Lily Alexander  has been teaching film, literature, media and screenwriting for fifteen years; the last ten years in New York, at NYU and CUNY. She received her masters in drama and film, and defended a dual doctorate in anthropology and comparative cultural studies, with an emphasis on narrative, in 1998. Alexander teaches her brand of courses, which uniquely combine theories of culture and storytelling with creative writing, hoping to enthuse new Tolkiens and Rowlings. Her most recent classes, at Hunter College, focus on world fairytale, folklore, myth, novel, short story, and science fiction as part of the framework of past and present storytelling practices. Alexander’s new book Fictional Worlds: Traditions in Narrative and the Age of Visual Culture was published in October 2013 (available on amazon.com). This text is also available in digital formats, as a set of Kindle books, and forthcoming as a set of iBooks for the apple platform. The four books of the digital sets are titled, Fictional Worlds I: The Symbolic Journey & The Genres SystemFictional Worlds II: Dramatic Characters & Dramatic ActionFictional Worlds III: Tragedy & Mystery; and Fictional Worlds IV: Comedy & the Extraordinary. Her website is storytellingonscreen.com. Email: contact (at) storytellingonscreen.com. Comments and questions are welcome.


Why Do Humans Tell the Stories They Do: An Interview with Lily Alexander (Part Four)

How might a reliance on mythic structures be vital in a world of transmedia stories?

I suggest that as part of the ritual-mythological system, itself a component of symbolic and modeling processes, mythic stories are useful in facilitating the adjustment of individuals, families, groups, and society at large. By means of storytelling, they provide exciting “settings” and “characters,” timeless and wondrous landscapes, and a bountiful choice of magic beings. Mythic-ritual structures can be very powerful in aiding the meaning-making process – our construction of current symbolic maps of the world – by employing, recombining and reinterpreting familiar mythic images.

However, an “evolution” of terms would be helpful. What used to be termed (and rightfully criticized as) “mythic structures,” was renamed and redefined by Turner and his school of symbolic anthropology as dominant symbols (as a result of collaborative field work, rather than the work of armchair philosophers), and later as dominant symbolic processes (Turner’s functionalist approach redefined all symbols as processes), and even more precisely as a system of ritual-symbolic processes. Mythology is part of such processes.

If we were to consider myths as a set of static or “frozen images” (as Eisenstein suggested could be employed to underscore visual irony), unrelated to specific time, they would have merely a “decorative” or “entertaining” effect on new stories or games, hence a quite superficial significance. Even worse, they could be used to fool us and “pretend” to be part of a true adventure.

In the study of “mythic structures” I argue that outdated approaches must give way to newer methodologies developed over the last sixty years. I consider myth as part of a symbolic process, change, functionality in/for society, and never-ending activities of re-interpretation and meaning-making. I suggest that myths may even be the substance of which our templates of hypothetical realities are made; they may have a biosemantic significance.

If we grasp the relationship between myth and process/change – viewing mythological symbolism in the context of society, how it can function to mediate the needs and conflicts of one’s historical time, and how societal crises affect the interpretation of key symbols – then we can make mythic structures work in full force for us in storytelling media, optimizing society and its ever-changing challenges and needs.

Much recent writing discusses the tensions which occur between the activities of world-building and traditional forms of storytelling. What relationship are you positing between worlds and stories?

These are relationships of mutual dependence, of a Mobius band type. I understand that media scholars today may emphasize the “autonomy” of world-building from the story. I accept this as a polemical stance, a hyperbola meant to attract attention to a new phenomenon. Yet, while world-building exists today in novel forms and on a new scale, it is not a new phenomenon, but an activity rooted in ancient cultural practices of humankind. I strongly believe that there can be no effective use for a fictional world without a story. A story is a call for “Action” for the “world”-screenplay (to use a movie set metaphor). The story is what activates the world, and lets it unfold.

Consider the entrances and the trigger-points of some notable fictional worlds. From the moment of their introduction to us, these worlds experience a loss of balance because of a disastrous event. In The Odyssey, a young husband is drafted into the army and must leave his family, perhaps forever. Alice loses equilibrium and falls into a wonderworld, through the “underworld.” So does Dorothy, but by means of a violent twister, propelling her through the air. Harry Potter leaves home for a school of magic – his risky adventures are fated. In The Lord of the Rings, evil forces threaten to rob various human and human-like species of their shared Homeworld. The Enterprise is always crossing boundaries into dangerous Unknowns, where “no man has gone before.”

Besides planting flowers in gardens along diligently-mapped rivers of newly-built worlds, something should happen so that this picture-perfect world comes alive and gears up for defense. In the most influential cases, we are invited into fictional worlds when change is about to threaten their foundations. We are astonished, feel sympathy, and eagerly look for solutions alongside their anxious populations.

Fictional worlds are rarely invented out of leisure, perhaps only in poems. A “harmonious” wonderland would hardly sustain a story. Wonderworlds are created to underscore trouble within Homeworlds, and to explore their symbolic “loss of balance.” Fictional World-Building is a Homeworld Improvement, inseparable from World-Saving. Such a feat often begins with one hero on a journey, who must transform himself in order to understand a problem and rescue his world.

A fictional world is a template of a possible future. We can only assess such a hypothetic reality by testing it in action, giving it a stress-test. We must observe what is happening within it at moments of conflict/crisis; what the outcomes might be; and what resources such a template possesses for problem-solving. Only then can we determine the essence of this fictional world-model, and decide if it provides a “good future” for us.

Fictional worlds are also dramas: the need to “build” them is an “alert response” to social breaches and other emerging forms of dangerous disequilibria, to hidden troubles which even wise elders cannot foresee. Fictional world-building is always a reaction to (latent) crisis. Dystopia – a form of tragedy displaying not merely a hero’s peril, but the entire community on the edge of survival – is a “negative” model showing outcomes we must avoid. Our dystopian world-building insists that we must try to fix a problem in the present, so that we may heal the future.

When it comes to the stories of ordinary people, whether in realism or fairytale, fictional worlds are always realms of survival. They are invariably wonderlands of possibilities and infinite choices. The more constrained social conditions are in reality, the more imaginative, intricate and unapologetic are the gifts of “second chances” in Wonderworlds. These much-needed fictional worlds are also very “motherly,” as if the she-goddess Mother-Nature is in charge; expectedly they are empathetic and compassionate. Assisted by all sorts of magic helpers – from Fate, smart aliens, strange coincidences, and the Fairy God-Mother with cooperative mice, to the art of pathos and reverse pathos provided by ritual wailers and modern-day storytellers on-screen – fictional worlds emerge as a support system and a template for the future, created by people like us, mass-men and women.

Unsurprisingly, these magic carpet-like fictional worlds are woven out of lanes and crossroads of infinite chances. Any pit can be avoided by pulling oneself up by the bootstraps; jails have tunnels leading toward the outside world of freedom; underdogs and orphans get lucky and become useful and proud women and men. Such stories/parables always close with hard-earned happy endings, and with justice and everyone’s dignity restored.

While I highlight the fact that the connection between worlds and stories is profound, the variable dynamics between them is very interesting too. The fictional worlds can be viewed as sites of “forever interaction” – places with no end in time, into which new visitors/heroes can step, and where their new stories can take place. This is clearly a mythic timeless dimension.

Conversely, a story is a segment, based on the cause-and-effect principle, happening in linear time, with time progression, which demonstrates a phase transition with some sort of reversal (Aristotle’s “from bad to good” or “from good to bad”). We expect to witness the transformation of a character, and of a (social) situation. In the process, some in the cast of characters change, so too do some in the audience.

What do these two systems – worlds and stories – have in common? Cycles. These are temporary segments with endings, which always repeat themselves. So it is expected that into fictional worlds ever-newer protagonists will go, repeating the hero’s journey and feats, embarking on new adventures and acquiring new wisdom. However, each individual story-event is different and each heroic feat is not a feat/shift if it does not “change the world.”

Even when we have a cycle of hurricanes, each season is different, causing diverse effects; as is the summer harvest – one year is more fruitful than another. While cycles are repetitions, they also ensure a shift; the fictional world must gradually change, experiencing the impact of each Journeying hero and his/her team. The story/world dichotomy, at the very interesting junction between conceptions of linear and non-linear time, affects many phenomena of interest to narratology, anthropology and media theory, such as storytelling on-screen and on-stage, fandom, videogames, and transmedia.

Much contemporary writing on world-building emphasizes the act of imagination involved in building worlds from scratch, but your approach would seem to focus on the ways that storytellers rely on a shared vocabulary drawn from their culture’s pasts. Would it be better to think of this process in terms of rebuilding fictional worlds?

The current “age of adaptation” (Linda Hutcheon) signals our need to interact with, and re-build, worlds already in place in our collective imagination. This activity was already noticeable in the Renaissance (the word means “re-birth, reviving, restoring”), as well as in Romanticism and Modernism. Perhaps earlier: the Romans re-configured Greek culture in their own mythology, switching names, i.e. Zeus to Jupiter and Aphrodite to Venus. Even strikingly original contemporary worlds are subconscious responses to, and debates with, worlds of the past.

Nesting dolls – nesting worlds – emerging one out of another, created by previous eras’ imaginations are an interesting image-model. People may think they are designing fictional worlds “from scratch” because they don’t consciously acknowledge their own ancient stories and myths; yet their subconscious selves remember – and so it seems “from scratch.” Usually re-combinations of already known image-symbols are mobilized in new bold fusions (emerging from as early as the imagery of lullabies, as the magnificent animation Tale of Tales by Yuri Norstein suggests).

There is nothing wrong with the new creation having an umbilical cord connected to “forgotten” myths. Such work can still be groundbreaking and effective for a new era. Compare two stories of metamorphosis, for instance (one of myth’s typical plots). Both “remakes” are tragic-ironic. In one a man dies in an ass’s body (becomes a donkey), while another is turned into a giant insect (Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, or The Golden Ass versus Kafka’s The Metamorphosis). The difference is that one restores his human identity after numerous adventures, while the other has no adventures, just suffers a shameful isolation and never comes back as a man. A universal story of metamorphosis is rooted in early myth; but how differently do these remakes speak to their contemporaries, commenting with bitter sarcasm on the declining world of Antiquity and the Roman Empire, and later on Europe between two world wars.

In sum, I think nothing in culture can be made from scratch anymore. Consciously or not, we retrieve the memories of our favorite tales, which have “grown” out of previous mythic narratives, re-configured by new generations, with the composition altered, and the story elements recycled. I’d suggest that what is at work envelops an entire spectrum of combinations between the old and the new: we are in a state of the never-ending (ritual-symbolic) process of recreating, honoring, re-interpreting, rebuilding, fusing, making parody of, and creating – albeit from the same bricks – amazingly original, previously inconceivable, new worlds.

Examples of marvelously re-configured mythic worlds include some of my personal favorites: Roddenberry’s Star Trek: Next Generation; Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy; J.K. Rowling’s playful take on Celtic mythology and British literature in Harry Potter; Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, and Pan’s Labyrinth – multicultural neo-myths of the Spanish and Latin American traditions; the Japanese masters Akutagawa, Kurosawa and Miyazaki, with their brave insights on world narratives; and Ireland’s Joyce linking together Homer, Dante, Peter Pan and Modernism. Amadeus, Taxi Driver and Fight Club were “written” by the Russians Pushkin and Dostoevsky; while Hitchcock borrowed heavily from Shakespeare, the Baroque, the Romantics and the Expressionists. Such masters as Gogol, Kafka, Bulgakov, Borges, Marquez, and Cortazar generated an endless vibrant stream of magic realism. These re-configuring practices will become even more daring in the era of globalization, as storytellers increasingly borrow from each other’s national traditions.

It is not a question of how much old and how much new is in each emerging fictional world, or if it is created by the collective (oral tradition) or an individual (great author), but what elements and vital building blocks of imagery we need to make our “models of possible futures” be functional and effective. And in what order they should be linked together, to maintain life-asserting architectonics.

Thus, I would prefer “world-building” rather than “rebuilding,” because regardless of the building blocks, any original and effective fictional world is a unique “possible world” or template of a “hypothetical future,” a new and necessary addition to modeling systems. Each fictional world, if it is to be compelling, has its own unique function in fine-tuning and optimizing a specific society at a given historical time, addressing a new set of unresolved problems.

Lily Alexander  has been teaching film, literature, media and screenwriting for fifteen years; the last ten years in New York, at NYU and CUNY. She received her masters in drama and film, and defended a dual doctorate in anthropology and comparative cultural studies, with an emphasis on narrative, in 1998. Alexander teaches her brand of courses, which uniquely combine theories of culture and storytelling with creative writing, hoping to enthuse new Tolkiens and Rowlings. Her most recent classes, at Hunter College, focus on world fairytale, folklore, myth, novel, short story, and science fiction as part of the framework of past and present storytelling practices. Alexander’s new book Fictional Worlds: Traditions in Narrative and the Age of Visual Culture was published in October 2013 (available on amazon.com). This text is also available in digital formats, as a set of Kindle books, and forthcoming as a set of iBooks for the apple platform. The four books of the digital sets are titled, Fictional Worlds I: The Symbolic Journey & The Genres SystemFictional Worlds II: Dramatic Characters & Dramatic ActionFictional Worlds III: Tragedy & Mystery; and Fictional Worlds IV: Comedy & the Extraordinary. Her website is storytellingonscreen.com. Email: contact (at) storytellingonscreen.com. Comments and questions are welcome.

Why Do Humans Tell The Stories They Do: An Interview with Lily Alexander (Part Three)

Much has been written about “the hero’s journey” as an underlying structure in contemporary storytelling -- one that is explicitly evoked by many working in the industry, from George Lucas’s open acknowledgement of the insights he drew from Joseph Campbell to the use of these concepts in many of the most widely used books on screenwriting. What do you see as the use value of “the hero’s journey” as a tool for authors in structuring contemporary stories? As a means for audiences to interpret and make sense of contemporary stories?

The “hero’s journey” is both a tool for the authors in structuring the story and a means by which the audience can interpret this narrative formula and benefit from it. It is through the use of this tool, the “journey” – essentially a ritual mechanism – that the two groups meet, as the Initiating and the Initiands (to borrow Turner’s terms). Both the former and the latter need the knowledge encoded within this narrative paradigm.

It was Campbell who coined the phrase “hero’s journey” to represent what is one of the most effective dynamic templates in human culture. Rooted in ancient initiation rituals, the symbolic journey facilitates transformation, adjustment and growth. Its purpose is to aid a male youth in his transition from boy to man. Over time, this ritual-mythic narrative has expanded to embrace and stimulate a range of transformative experiences for people of all ages and genders.

Joseph Campbell wrote a magnificent book bringing attention to this timeless mythic-ritual narrative. Victor Turner too wrote about the Sacred Journey as a core of a ritual structure. The Journey remains capable of influencing contemporary societies, but does so by means of such genres as action-adventure, fairytale, fantasy, science fiction, and recently magic realism. As highlighted in Fictional Worlds, the symbolic journey has many goals; most importantly, the leapfrogging of knowledge.

The ritual-mythic Journey Story, with its balance between centrifugal (toward the World’s Edge) and centripetal (Homebound) movements, is proposed in Fictional Worlds as a modeling system of crucial importance to the symbolic construction of community. On the outward trajectory, the Hero explores the Unknown, encounters a boundless diversity of species and types of consciousness, and must grow rapidly in order to survive the journey-ordeal. On the Journey’s inward path, as the “reborn” and enlightened Hero makes his way back home, to unite with family, s/he must process these new experiences, extract vital information and evaluate how this new knowledge will impact the Homeworld. Essentially, fictional world-building is an attempt to fix the Homeworld, improving the life of its inhabitants by means of acquiring advanced knowledge obtained only through traveling the far-reaching external path.

While I admire Joseph Campbell’s books and always recommend them to my students, along with Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, I added quite a lot to their interpretation of the Journey. Campbell based his books on the studies in folklore and myth that were contemporary to him. His conceptions can now be effectively updated, given developments in anthropology, semiotics and narrative theory. I had an opportunity to add some vital ideas from a spectrum of thinkers to the Journey formulas, and proposed a 10-step breakdown of the Journey script (defending my ideas as a doctoral thesis in 1998).

Incidentally, in addition to The Odyssey and Alice in Wonderland, my personal favorites on-screen are Spirited Away, Pan’s Labyrinth, and The Lord of the Rings. More experimental “drawings” on the Hero’s Journey narrative on-screen, which often avoid a simplistic “happy ending,” include: Port of Shadows, Casablanca, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Passage, as well as Antonioni’s The Passenger, and Tarkovsky’s Andrei Roublev and Solaris.

Three points are highlighted in the approach towards the Journey paradigm in Fictional Worlds: (1) its transformative capacity; (2) its “astonishment” value, manifested in the unpredictable richness of the Wonderworld and its limitless opportunities granted through: magic, discoveries in Sci-Fi, or the journeying Hero’s wise choices; its alien-magic inhabitants; beguiling and maze-like landscapes; mysterious conscious or subconscious workings of the mind; fantastic, yet to be discovered, “natural laws”; and the many ways one can connect with the Unknown. And finally: (3) advanced knowledge as a story goal: both a gift to the community and a catalyst of progress.

While in Fictional Worlds I put a lot of effort into explaining a step-by-step script for an effective journey, a surprisingly large number of readers conveyed to me their acute interest also in the sections on failed journeys. Such “failures,” or stories falling flat, occur because of the flaws or mistakes of the hero, his author, or even their Homeworld.

Readers are aware of the fact that popular culture is overpopulated with fake heroes and recognize that media is oversaturated with cheap imitations of the Journey story. Dragons and zombies have been overworked and lost their evil appeal. Software makes it a breeze to create assembly lines of unimaginable beings (Men in Black), but often neither the monsters nor the authors know what they are doing in the story. The Initiands, sword-wielding or shooting from the hip, promptly destroy their enemies, but gain no wisdom and return without a message for community. The visual candy of special effects has been widely accepted as “the key points” of the story.

In the not-so-merry chaos of popular culture today, we need to step back and ask ourselves, “What are the vital and irreducible steps of the virtuoso transition from youth (Initiand) to responsible adult (the Initiated), embedded in the Heroic Journey myth?” Aspiring artists and game developers want to know what is missing from their scripts, what “can go wrong,” and which missteps to avoid in designing an innovative yet true to its purpose Journey World of their own. Writers and videogame designers, who are making scriptwriting choices and searching for effective narrative forms, will be rewarded by the audiences’ attention.

While watching stories or participating in games, modern-day audiences are already invested in the transformative journey. To make sense of contemporary stories, which employ the Hero’s Journey in open or subtle ways, audiences consciously or subconsciously focus on the story structure and its embedded transformative arc. In the best media examples, their identification with the Initiand is empathetic and profound. The hero could be an undercover agent, or a youth in a road movie, while the confusing circumstances and hard-to-read strangers may substitute for the symbolic maze of the Wonderworld and its magic populace. The crux of the matter is that the hero must face the unknown, be insightful and diplomatic, face pain, confront fears; then win and return as a transformed grown man, or an empowered confident woman; so too does the audience.

Many of my readers will associate myth-analysis with an approach which is timeless (ahistorical) and universal (not attentive to cultural differences). In what ways do you see your book as responding to these critiques of earlier mythic approaches to understanding contemporary media? What roles do history and cultural specificity play in your approach?

Yes, I agree with these critiques. The “dated” approach toward mythological symbols preceded many useful developments in functionalism, structuralism, and poststructuralism, which began to examine myth as a dynamic system, connected to historical change and manifesting diverse worldviews. I follow this set of methods.

Mythological symbols are a database, while ritual is like hitting the “enter” button and activating the system. Whether through performance, dance or storytelling, it was ritual action that had the capacity to set mythological images in motion. Ritual activates and reinforces mythic structures, while the latter empower ritual with their symbolic weight.

Take the Sun, for example. As soon as people viewed it as a mythic symbol, they asked: “Where is it going?” Action was needed. Humans said, “The Sun-god is moving across the sky to marry Mother-Earth and create life.” Thus we had a mythic narrative. As soon as we crystallize a key mythic symbol, we want to know: what is it doing; what is it good for; and what is its story. Behind any emerging symbol is a story need – to explain and empower the story; and so it comes.

Diverse cultures and eras would have their own take on the mythic symbol of the sun and the “sun story.” The Egyptian pharaohs and Louis the XIV would call themselves “the Sun.” Hence within these historic-symbolic systems no one would dare to make a mistake as to who the sun was. In Bolshevik Russia the revolution was the Sun. Japan called itself the Land of the Rising Sun, considering itself “closer” to this divinity than any other nation. In Fictional Worlds I discuss how solar worship influenced Homer’s Odyssey. All core mythic images of symbolic nature have the potential of “unfolding,” a latent narrative power.

Odysseus is also a mythic-symbolic character – the quintessential Journeying Man. In my book I show his reincarnations in literature and on-screen of many eras and cultures, conceived via their historic-symbolic systems. Fictional Worlds features dozens of versions of “Odysseus-Ulysses,” so different that some won’t even shake each other’s hand, should they meet. As these many portrayals of Ulysses demonstrate, mythic characters don’t remain the same through time. This is also true for myths themselves, which are not frozen symbols but defined by action/story and constantly changing meanings.

Mythological symbols change, and may be reinterpreted or altered. (Lotman opined that symbols unfold into stories). We may add that all (good!) stories tend to fold into symbols. Each influential story, i.e. those from the Bible, contains something dynamic: it crystallizes story into meaning.

Our (neo) mythological comprehension of the world has moved from the rational/conscious into the domains of culture: art and storytelling, including fictional world-building. We may find new root-metaphors as we learn more about how the world is made. We may choose to add new key mythic symbols – such as (devouring) Black Holes, neighborly or unfriendly Parallel Universes, or blissful Reversible Time – to the repertoire of established ones, which will generate numerous new stories.

Yet symbols are not merely symbols, but symbolic processes (Turner); often polysemantic and multi-directional, but in all their manifestations they are part of an up-to-date map of the world, a mirror of their time. In sum, I employ “myth” in Fictional Worlds as a part of a ritual-mythological mechanism, a symbolic process manifest through ritual narrative or performance. Each myth can have multiple interpretations, historically determined by socio-political circumstances and diversified when viewed through alternate cultural lenses. Comparing representations of the same or similar myths can be enriching as we can see how cultures create multiple “templates,” some of which lead their respective societies in the right direction to a new, productive historical phase.

Lily Alexander  has been teaching film, literature, media and screenwriting for fifteen years; the last ten years in New York, at NYU and CUNY. She received her masters in drama and film, and defended a dual doctorate in anthropology and comparative cultural studies, with an emphasis on narrative, in 1998. Alexander teaches her brand of courses, which uniquely combine theories of culture and storytelling with creative writing, hoping to enthuse new Tolkiens and Rowlings. Her most recent classes, at Hunter College, focus on world fairytale, folklore, myth, novel, short story, and science fiction as part of the framework of past and present storytelling practices. Alexander’s new book Fictional Worlds: Traditions in Narrative and the Age of Visual Culture was published in October 2013 (available on amazon.com). This text is also available in digital formats, as a set of Kindle books, and forthcoming as a set of iBooks for the apple platform. The four books of the digital sets are titled, Fictional Worlds I: The Symbolic Journey & The Genres System; Fictional Worlds II: Dramatic Characters & Dramatic Action; Fictional Worlds III: Tragedy & Mystery; and Fictional Worlds IV: Comedy & the Extraordinary. Her website is storytellingonscreen.com. Email: contact (at) storytellingonscreen.com. Comments and questions are welcome.


Why Do Humans Tell the Stories They Do: An Interview with Lily Alexander (Part Two)

You open your book with a focus on “the symbolic construction of community.” Explain this concept. What roles do stories play in shaping the life of communities?

“Why can’t we all get along?”

With naiveté, yet tenacity, stories continue to ask the same question. The answers to this question can make us burst into laughter… or tears. Though countless ripostes are embedded in global narratives, storytelling never gives up searching for answers.

With that question, and mankind’s unceasing efforts to find the answer, Fictional Worlds introduces a theory of narrative as a symbolic construction of community. This theory also extends to media studies. The symbolic community is a path toward an ideal: an imaginary perfect unity of human beings. Exploring optimal ways of collaboration is one of the meta-goals of storytelling. Symbolic community-building can be also defined as the timeless ritual-symbolic practice that manifests itself in all forms of storytelling, attempting to find optimal communication in every conceivable social situation. Stories serve as the symbolic construction of community and facilitate the optimization of society by implicitly deliberating on matters of “ideal” partnerships and social problem-solving.

By its nature, symbolic community-building through storytelling is an experimental activity: it explores a range of utopias, social hypotheses and make-believe embedded within storyworlds. These include “unlikely bonds” of friendship or love, in which individuals reach out to each other across social boundaries, defying hostility and wars. Some of these buddies may even come from different species – we love comforting tales of friendship between man and animals/aliens. (Such stories also pose the question of who indeed “belongs” or “is not one of us”). The “symbolic construction of community” represents the most effective forms of human cooperation, which have been proposed, and tested, via narratives and drama, throughout centuries. Such vital themes as love and friendship, family and brotherhood, teams and partnerships, villages and nations constitute the cultural universe of symbolic community.

Stories not only ask questions, but actively propose answers to social misunderstanding and dysfunction. These solutions may be naïve, idealistic, comic, dreamy or outrageous. Heroes always do something crazy in a narrative: dare to love when their families are at war (Romeo and Juliet), or choose to mate with an Other, i.e. an older solder of a different race and questionable origin (Othello). The unlikely bonds, in fictional tales, are meant to build bridges in reality.

The process of the symbolic construction of community generates dynamic templates of the future with a focus on social organization. Building these templates – or the helpful utopias of fictional worlds – is, as Fictional Worlds argues, the main goal of storytelling.

For example, idealistic-experimental scripts include the Cinderella story and “underdog wins” scenarios, tales in which the vulnerable members of society challenge hierarchies and convey new wisdom (e.g. ideas of social acceptance and beating all odds). The “hardboiled” detective never ever loses a case, but we are happy to believe in the story and cheer him on, because we, as the audience, believe he is a “good man,” and the truth should be found. To paraphrase Fox Mulder, we all “want to believe” in love, empathy and collaboration, and are holding our breaths when a new tale begins – not only for suspense and clever twists, but also for a chance to experience true humanity.

A symbolic community, a foundation of a living community, cannot be realized without narrative, which helps to test, analyze, optimize, and model human relationships. In all its complex and diverse manifestations, encompassing narrative and media culture, the symbolic construction of community is a search for an ideal in social organization and a mode of optimization of society.

Media culture and storytelling practices thus represent a testing ground for positive social change. Some stories can be too naïve and simplistic, allowing the hero to easily win – this is not a learning experience. The more realistic, elaborate and psychologically founded story is, the more useful it is in the symbolic construction of community. In the process of writing this book, I noticed that most stories passed from generation to generation, regardless of how “tragic” could be a storyline, tend to be optimistic.  The uplifting nature of storytelling involved in the symbolic construction of community is explained by its inborn role in supporting society as a self-organizing system.

With a careful consideration of these issues, Fictional Worlds explores the dynamics of family and search for community within a spectrum of genres – focusing on action-adventure and fantasy, drama, tragedy, mystery and crime drama, film noir (I argue that it is a genre), and comedy. Exploring main genres and a score of well-known story formulas, Fictional Worlds attempts to distill the key narrative mechanisms that serve most effectively to facilitate the symbolic construction of community. The book finally proposes 20 story types, which toil persistently and humbly, like ants and bees, throughout the centuries, to optimize societies and aid life continuation.

Your book discusses genres not simply as narrative formulas or sets of storytelling conventions, but as different ways of structuring societies. Explain. To what degree do you see the genres that are central to today’s popular culture as inheriting a set of beliefs or rituals associated with more classical tales?

“Grow up already!” Who has not heard this reproof?

One of culture’s key roles is to provide adjustment (psychological and social) to individuals, families, groups and societies. This process “never stops”: at all times each of us must adjust to our age-appropriate roles in society. It is a highly complex process, with diverse rhythms; its success results in the synchronization and advancement of society. Thus, the genres’ functionality is, or what they “can do for you,” for all of us – is the key to their social significance and cultural essence. Genres are powerful behavior-shaping modeling systems. The apparatus of genre is a contributing factor in the evolving of society as a self-organizing system.

Most theorists define the notion of film genres as a means of categorization of stories on screen – enabling a viewer to immediately recognize certain types of visual storytelling, for example, the musical, or the Western. While these genre theorists look at visual codes, the author of Fictional Worlds points instead at the social codes and models of social behavior operating within narrative culture. This book emphasizes genre’s function as a biosemantic protocol, and a tool for organizing and optimizing social behaviors, community building and the maintenance of society. Fictional Worlds proposes an anthropological theory of film genres.

Genres are rooted in rituals. Rituals emerged from the need for a framework used in society’s fine-tuning and advancement. Genres are the mechanism that responds to the cultural needs of society; addressing specific needs is each genre’s primary function. Each “guards” a certain area of social life, ready, for example, to open a forum on marriage, crime prevention, or coming of age. In tandem, all genres act as a system “overseeing” the entire spectrum of social life.

Genres provide storytellers the framework within which they create templates for experiences that inevitably guide participants toward new wisdom. These experiences are both “hypothetical,” expressed using symbolism and imagination, as well as real that the audience lives through, while identifying with the protagonist, and absorbing emotions leading towards profound reflection upon “what happened” and “why” in the story. The audience seeks out these answers, because through the narrative, it has happened “to us.” By means of the genre framework storytellers shape their messages of social responsibility and collaborative behavior.

What “necessary communal adjustment” means may vary from society to society. It is a subject to debate, within and across societies. In some cultures, the “fitting” young men and “proper” young women are those who do not ask any questions. This “conception” of adjustment benefits groups in power (father knows best) but not the entire society, in particular when seen “from the future.”

If media narratives/performances do not facilitate a healthy adjustment, they don’t do their job. They may be offered by flawed “ill-adjusted” practitioners, or are distracted by goals external to their vital core, including “entertainment” and “profit.” Or media narratives may be influenced by politics, promoting the status quo while pretending to transform community.

So, is there bad storytelling, ineffective in its adjustment role, even harmful? Of course. If there are “right steps” toward the future, precious to its outcome, there must be “wrong steps” that should be avoided. “The harm is done” for example when: stories demonize minorities; fallen victims or accidentally shot bystanders are not given second thought; dramatic conflict resolution is replaced by explosions/violence; and especially when the cause-effect is not traced throughout the dramatic arc, thus robbing audiences of valuable growth in the realm of consequential logic.

Specific cases of harmful or helpful narratives can be debated, but the question “how good is this movie to our species” is a vital one. As the same film can be part of more than one genre framework, it may offer adjustment mechanisms on several levels. Most of us will probably agree that action-adventure, love story and social drama Casablanca teaches lessons that benefit us all, as does coming of age / science fiction E.T.

Fictional Worlds examines numerous books and screen stories with this question in mind: are they biosemantically and anthropologically beneficial? If so, the exploration continues “What is their impact?” and “How do they do that?”

You are also reclaiming the concept of “ritual” to discuss our relationship as consumers to the fictions produced by mass media. In what sense is watching television a ritual practice? How do we reconcile this focus on shared cultural rituals with the concerns many raise about the (sometimes covert) motives that shape decision-making within corporate entertainment culture?

Turner defined rituals as a type of “transformative performance.” The purpose of ritual is to create scenarios that facilitate the social adjustment of the individual – to his or her new age, family and communal responsibilities, level of knowledge, and role in society. Rituals are intended to help everyone’s adjustments, albeit asynchronously – when his/her time comes – so eventually the entire heterogeneous society is in synch. The vital messages encoded in rituals – which are activated by performing them – make them timeless “building blocks of culture,” as Turner put it.

Ancient rituals were participatory activities: there were no actors or spectators – everyone was part of the transformative ritual circle. Gradually the art of theater replaced ritual performance, and the stage was separated from the audience. Now spectators had the freedom to walk away. The physical passivity of the audience had to be counter-balanced: how was one to keep them interested and make them stay? Theater had no choice but to “try harder.” Drama had to create a mechanism with invisible “strings attached,” to keep the audience “hooked.” This freedom of the audience and the efforts of drama resulted in the development of a dramatic form encoded in the dramatic arc – a step-by-step conflict build-up and resolution, as well as the demonstration of a vivid consequential logic of events.

This resulted in the powerful emotional scenarios of drama, ensuring that everyone was invested in the action and would not walk away. So, participation in the new ritual circles (stage and screen) was based on the profound psychological involvement and emotional connection between the audience and fictional characters, who were suffering, reuniting, or fighting for their cause. We identified with them, and dramatic events became our “personal business.”

While we no longer dance together in the ritual circle, the transformative power of ritual performance, with all its social implications, new knowledge, and messages of collaboration and responsibility, are now encoded in the dramatic form, ensuring the emotional bonds established with audiences.

The more rituals are latently embedded and symbolically encoded in modern narrative forms, the more the screenwriter needs to know in order to activate the hidden power of ritual in his or her script.

Complex society no longer has enough Initiating gurus for the millions to be “initiated.” Ritual adjustment activities just had to be picked up by the (mass) media. So it happened that our media practices become best suited for this job, having the ritual-narrative tradition to lean on and the technological capacity to reach society at large.

While our physical presence is no longer necessary in the types of “rituals” conducted in modern societies by means of “media experience,” successful screen arts ensure that the emotional impact remains unchanged, if not amplified. The new “high impact” medium of drama was achieved by the efforts of many prominent “developers” of playwriting craft, such as Euripides, Shakespeare and Chekhov. Thus, even in front of the TV, as we sit watching The Lord of the Rings or The X-Files, we may undergo profound socio-psychological change facilitated by ritual structures. The emerging seriality of the TV drama as a dominant narrative form on-screen serves and further enhances this connection, making the continual fictional worlds more “real” and near-tangibly present in everyone’s living room.

With the audience’s freedom to walk away (“it’s just entertainment!”), it becomes the screenwriter’s responsibility to use the dramatic form to the fullest, mobilizing all ritual powers encoded within it. This is what Fictional Worlds is all about, teaching practitioners how to empower their work, not only for the sake of art, but for the sake of society as well. A writer must understand what ritual has in common with the play/story/movie, and, most importantly, how to activate the wisdom of consequential logic and the uplifting mechanism of drama. Fictional Worlds shows how to set in motion the step-by-step “phase transition” and dynamic templates of powerful (ritual) transformation in a modern-day screen story.

It goes without saying that specifically profit driven TV programming has neither goals of, nor skills for, creating profound ritual-like experiences. There are several types of media products in relation to ritual: 1) powerful, of near ritual scale; 2) watchable but lacking a transformative structure and message; 3) weak as a craft, and not “good enough” as either ritual or entertainment; 4) political propaganda posing as a story, usually blunt; 5) an insidious and “pretending-to-be a ritual” spectacle that promotes power rather than community. (See more on the politics of the interaction between ritual and media, Fictional Worlds, Chapters 2 and 8).

Instead of one big show (ritual), our media can collaboratively produce around the clock, all year long, manifold and multidirectional content suitable as a ritual system of adjustment experiences. Thousands of teenaged boys around the world watching The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, at their times of choice, grow up a little, and perhaps change their perspectives on life. Does this type of social fine-tuning become entirely effective or work every time? Of course not. But it could, becoming even more important as we grow into the global community. Some of our best stories and movies, intentionally or not, fulfill these functions.

Miyazaki, for example, in his interviews stated that his goal is to help his audiences (especially girls) discover the rich inner resources they did not know they possessed. This is the Initiating speaking. I suspect that the authors of The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and Pan’s Labyrinth were conscious of their ritual goals as well. Many other writers simply pen good stories, trying to make their work as engaging and meaningful as possible. But undeniably, in these cases, ritual adjustment becomes a by-product that the authors did not expect, but society can utilize.

The modern media is not “usurping” ritual functions. Ritual was effectively the media of the past. The word “media” refers to a medium, a mediator between the people and their spirits or gods. S/he, called oracle or shaman, was believed to have a capacity to communicate on a larger scale than mere mortals, and be heard by the beyond.

Finally, it is important to note that the participatory media has been making a comeback over the last hundred years or so, primarily through parades, happenings, and, recently, interactive media. The “holodeck” trends of transmedia show potential for meaningful participatory dramatic art, and ritual transformation.

Lily Alexander has been teaching film, literature, media and screenwriting for fifteen years; the last ten years in New York, at NYU and CUNY. She received her masters in drama and film, and defended a dual doctorate in anthropology and comparative cultural studies, with an emphasis on narrative, in 1998. Alexander teaches her brand of courses, which uniquely combine theories of culture and storytelling with creative writing, hoping to enthuse new Tolkiens and Rowlings. Her most recent classes, at Hunter College, focus on world fairytale, folklore, myth, novel, short story, and science fiction as part of the framework of past and present storytelling practices. Alexander’s new book Fictional Worlds: Traditions in Narrative and the Age of Visual Culture was published in October 2013 (available on amazon.com). This text is also available in digital formats, as a set of Kindle books, and forthcoming as a set of iBooks for the apple platform. The four books of the digital sets are titled, Fictional Worlds I: The Symbolic Journey & The Genres System; Fictional Worlds II: Dramatic Characters & Dramatic Action; Fictional Worlds III: Tragedy & Mystery; and Fictional Worlds IV: Comedy & the Extraordinary. Her website is storytellingonscreen.com. Email: contact (at) storytellingonscreen.com. Comments and questions are welcome.

Why Humans Tell The Stories They Do: An Interview with Lily Alexander (Part One)

This week, we are going to be exploring the fascinating realm of myth, ritual, storytelling, genre, and world-building. Our guide is going to be Lily Alexander, who I have gotten to know through her engaging presentations at MIT's Media in Transition conferences, which often tap into her encyclopedic knowledge of stories, old and new, from around the world. Her work deals with contemporary forms of storytelling -- films, television series, games -- but she views them through an anthropological, mythological and biosemiotic perspective, and thus she is aware of the strong links that exist between traditional and emergent understandings of expressive culture. I invited her to contribute to this blog because she recently published a book, Fictional Worlds: Traditions in Narrative and the Age of Visual Culture. You can learn more about this book at her website. Alexander told me, “I suggested initially that this project would envelop the discussion with an anthropological perspective, and the focal point would be the dynamics between narrative and society.”

Yet, Fictional Worlds is also “how to” book. It is a guide for storytelling practices, intended to help any writer, filmmaker, or game designer to fine-tune his/her craft. It is full of creative ideas, generously shared by the giants of storytelling, and meticulously collected by this author for aspiring writers and all intellectually curious readers. Fictional Worlds invokes hundreds of powerful stories from diverse cultures and eras. Tales of journeys, love, deception, transformation, survival and escape are com-passionately retold and explored. Dozens of time tested, winning storytelling techniques, tips and timeless wisdom are shared with the readers of Fictional Worlds illustrated using the great workings of writers, filmmakers, and media artists." Alexander threw herself into writing this rich and engaging book, even designing its cover to suggest something of the hero's journey.

In the conversation which follows over six installments, she will share some of her core insights and discuss the conceptual models she draws upon for this analysis. Today, we will start with what turned out to be a fairly in-depth consideration of one of her key methodological commitments to the ways that what she calls "biosemiotics" might help to explain the function of storytelling.



You begin the book with biosemiotics. How does it relate to the art of storytelling?

While I began my book project with film and media studies, I then journeyed through the “wonderland” of anthropology and had to inevitably stop at biosemiotics, as some answers may be useful at its level of inquiry. Biosemiotics, born a century ago, at the dawn of the modernist movement in the arts, is the study of nature’s signals. It is about how plants, animals, and nature as a whole, talk, and what that has to do with us. This field’s range of interests envelops communications in all forms of life: from plant metabolism to birds’ mating songs, and from subsonic calls among the elephants that vibrate the ground to our storytelling media. Biosemiotics provides rich unexpected contexts and allows new insights into familiar issues of culture. Fictional Worlds explores storytelling as part of our species’ signal systems.

Culture is expressed through the myriad stories and narrative frameworks, which discover new social ties and build connections. The signal systems and symbolic processes operating in narrative culture often underscore a transition from a family per se (nature) to a symbolic family (community), highlighting larger issues of ethics, politics, and social coexistence.

After introducing the significance of human families and communities for the study of narrative culture, I begin the discussion of how our own societies and animal “tribes” organize themselves. We have learned a lot from animals. The first ritual performances were likely recreations of hunting experiences. Ritual masks emerged to signify and “channel” powerful animal spirits. Before the Aesopian “fables” there had been illuminating “animal tales” in every national mythology, perhaps serving as the first “bibles” – summations of acceptable and unacceptable actions across the borders of species, as observed by our ancestors. Humans learned the behavioral patterns of their neighbors and examined themselves in the mirror of animal “worlds.”

Our first fictional worlds were densely populated by animals with whom we communicated intensely. These animals provided man with food and clothing – our main means of survival. The animal spirits of animism were the earlier form of religiosity. In some cultures man believed he descended from those same creatures, regarding them as sacred or “totem” animals. One can say, half-jokingly, that our first “singularity” was with the animal world.

In Fictional Worlds, I examine society as a self-organizing system: media and storytelling serve as the inherent and crucial components of its self-optimizing mechanisms. A self-organizing system is a natural phenomenon that demonstrates its development and efficiency while being driven neither by an external will (of a god, for example), nor by random factors. It is most likely governed by logical/coherent internal growth based on a combination of natural factors.

Recent research shows that even plants “plan” – having the ability to chemically protect themselves from perceived threats. Nature reveals itself to be a self-organizing system. In that vein, “anticipatory reflection” – a built-in inquiry into the future and the actions taken to “envision” and model it – is central to all living forms, as proposed in the 1920s by Petr Anokhin. He was a neuroscientist and a student of Ivan Pavlov – a famed physiologist and Nobel laureate.

It may very well be that any self-organizing system operates by periodically creating such templates for the future, as it needs a “plan” of how to grow. If something intends to develop, there must be a structural concept of the “next steps.” These templates differ: as a biochemical process in cells; a longer neck, wings or disposable tail for an animal; a brainstorming meeting in a business; or a screenplay that society looks to learn from through media storytelling.

Humankind, as part of nature, is also engaged in projecting and testing possible futures. In our species these mechanisms were provided by storytelling and the media in general. Society, a self-organizing system, much like life in general, has always used the mechanism of projection – creating imaginary worlds and other semi-symbolic realities. Our storytelling is integral to this process, which facilitates our survival and the success of our species.

Since all self-organizing systems must make inquiries about the future to help ensure survival, society must develop efficient and smart mechanisms of building templates of possibilities. This entails questions of Choice (how self-organizing systems choose which step to make, and which way to go-grow?). This brings us to the biosemiotic importance of such issues as the protagonist’s choice-moment (“to be or not to be?”), dramatic arc, and narrative/dramatic resolution.

Decision-making, a key theme of any narrative, implies an integrated “means to an end” or “cause-and-effect” logic, and the anticipatory reflection on consequences. These, of course, are the key attributes of the dramatic form, both on-stage and on-screen. We know that our species is unique in its degree of abstract and symbolic thinking, use of imagination and, also its continual production through storytelling of new templates for possible worlds.

Our media practices may have evolved as an efficient mechanism to swiftly test developing possibilities: both the external – what environmental changes are likely to occur, and the internal – how our own responses will affect our future(s). Any self-organizing system must always factor in multiple possibilities and react toward the “branching of the future.”

My conceptions of narrative, stemming from my background in the theater, as well as semiotics and symbolic anthropology, were initially suggested in my Ph.D. thesis (1998). Recently, I found out that new attention has been focused on the idea of life as a self-organizing system, proposed by a physicist. Jeremy England at MIT suggested that inorganic substances may – by means of electromagnetic resonances with the existing fields described by physics – “build themselves” into organic form. I am delighted to hear that there is support for his idea and many scholars are cheering on his work, hoping that he will be able to prove his hypothesis. I am among those cheering along his path.


From Jeremy England’s website:

“Living things are good at collecting information about their surroundings, and at putting that information to use through the ways they interact with their environment so as to survive and replicate themselves.  Thus, talking about biology inevitably leads to talking about decision, purpose, and function.”

Decision, purpose and function are, unsurprisingly, the key words here; they are also central to dramatic arts because these concepts point at the very core of the mechanisms of system (self)optimization. Self-organizing systems represent a developing interdisciplinary field of inquiry.

One may say that the will to survive, wise decisions and “lifting oneself by the bootstraps” or having auto-catalytic processes (awakening growth or turning a deadly stagnation into a new development – death-rebirth), may be concepts taken from narrative studies to best explain self-organization. If life at its core is a self-organizing system, then society is likely to follow suit. All self-organizing systems must factor in an outcome and look “one step ahead.” As Fictional Worlds highlights, our best storytelling practices focus on the explorations of “steps” – the embedded phase transition within the dramatic arc and narrative logic. That is why for the craft of screenwriting the “transitional units” are so vital: we talk about writing a story beat-by-beat and scene-by-scene – there are action, counter-action, progression and consequences that we must investigate.

Even if living systems are not, to put it bluntly, “aware of the future,” they nonetheless must have a profound interest in “what the future holds.” This embedded mechanism of inquiry as a “plan” or a template for growth thus promotes the built-in mechanisms of modeling and examining “possible futures.”

These templates are vital: they are like the steps of a staircase – mini-bridges representing where to safely land at the new phase. It is conceivable that we are “programmed” to continually build models of “possible futures” and we have been effectively doing that by means of myth, stories, dramas, fictional world-building and, most recently, science fiction and transmedia.

Because we are a self-organizing system, we need the core of our template-making mechanism; it is conceivable that what we call storytelling media has always been at the heart of this optimization function of our social species (in addition to other modeling systems, such as those of science, philosophy and law). World-building is a related process; each world is a template or a modeling system (as the structuralists would call these intriguing fictional worlds). We look at them all together, then buzz, discuss, and, consciously or not, select a model to follow at every turn of our historical path. This is important for our collective future. Just as my students say: “no more feeling guilty for talking about movies and stories.”

In order to win the evolutionary game, we need to build many models, and then many, many more, so we can factor in a wide range of possible developments. We need to diversify our prognoses and maintain a volume of such activities. Mistakes have been made in the past, particularly when tyrants were the ones who made choices. All of the above may explain the ever-increasing collaborative activity of fictional world-building.

Lily Alexander has been teaching film, literature, media and screenwriting for fifteen years; the last ten years in New York, at NYU and CUNY. She received her masters in drama and film, and defended a dual doctorate in anthropology and comparative cultural studies, with an emphasis on narrative, in 1998. Alexander teaches her brand of courses, which uniquely combine theories of culture and storytelling with creative writing, hoping to enthuse new Tolkiens and Rowlings. Her most recent classes, at Hunter College, focus on world fairytale, folklore, myth, novel, short story, and science fiction as part of the framework of past and present storytelling practices. Alexander’s new book Fictional Worlds: Traditions in Narrative and the Age of Visual Culture was published in October 2013 (available on amazon.com). This text is also available in digital formats, as a set of Kindle books, and forthcoming as a set of iBooks for the apple platform. The four books of the digital sets are titled, Fictional Worlds I: The Symbolic Journey & The Genres System; Fictional Worlds II: Dramatic Characters & Dramatic Action; Fictional Worlds III: Tragedy & Mystery; and Fictional Worlds IV: Comedy & the Extraordinary. Her website is storytellingonscreen.com. Email: contact (at) storytellingonscreen.com. Comments and questions are welcome.