Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Jonathan Gray and Paul Mihailidis (Part I)

Opening Statements


For a while now, I’ve been working on a book project about dislike and media. Media, communication, audience, and fan studies have asked a lot of questions about how and why people like or love the media they do, and what this can tell us. But we’ve asked comparatively much fewer questions about how and why they have impassioned dislikes, and what those tell us. So that’s what this new project is about. And that’s also therefore from whence I’m coming in this discussion.

I’ve been excited to see, over the last decade, not only more fan studies work on politics, but it’s also cool to see more political communication and/or journalism scholars also realizing the degree to which questions about affect in politics may profitably be answered by studying how affect works in the realm of fandom. Thus, even though my book project is less explicitly political per se, a guiding force has been a desire to nuance and improve media and communication studies’ understanding of how negative affect works, in the hopes that this too may establish structures of meaning that we can apply to questions about dislike, anger, alienation, disavowal, and annoyance in the political realm. On one hand, there’s a whole lot of hate and bile out there in the political realm, such that we might be tempted to retreat all the more decisively to more “positive” expressions of political purpose. But respectability politics have long been used to bludgeon society’s most marginalized and to shut them up. It’s too easy to devalue the experiences of the oppressed by asking them to please state their objections in a calmer, “more rational,” more positive, upbeat tone, preferably while smiling. Anger, dislike, and disgust can make us uncomfortable to the point of not engaging with what’s being said, or to concentrating entirely on tone over substance. And thus as much as, yes, the world is worryingly filled with outright hate spew, we need also to be willing to listen to what’s being said through other forms of dislike, even (especially?) when its tone is disruptive, its speaker isn’t calm, or it’s not being voiced in what we might deem an “appropriate” venue.

Fandom and discussions of popular culture are a great place to go looking for such expressions, some individualized, some very much participatory and group-based. And whereas I’ve used the term “anti-fan” in the past, I’m gravitating away from that word, given the risk that it suggests a diametric opposite to the fan, when in fact fandom is full of expressions of dislike, disappointment, and alienation. By mining those, and by moving beyond what has become a media and cultural studies Pavlovian response of applying Bourdieu to any and all statements of dislike (seeing all dislike as snobbery), I hope to contribute to a larger project of appreciating the many ways in which dislike can be a wonderfully generative space for creating political action, political ethics and objectives, and group identity that isn’t just about Othering and hate. I really do mean “contribute,” since it’s cool to see how many people are engaging such work now (see Melissa Click’s superb edited collection, Anti-Fandom: Dislike and Hate in the Digital Age, for example).


There’s admittedly a very fine line to walk here. I don’t want to sound like I’m pleading for us to really, really listen to the angry privileged old white dude. That dude is President, so he has his listeners already. But when we hear expressions of intense dislike, they’re not all from him and his frat brothers; a lot are from marginalized viewers, and a lot are from people who might not otherwise be speaking in the language of fandom, love, and like. Even fans aren’t “only” and always-only fans. We all speak in a variety of modes, and some of those modes are more readily available to some of us – as gestured to by fan studies’ binary of affirmational and transformative fandoms that regularly sees a similar binary of privilege and under-privileged mapped onto it – and as much as I highly value the work of fan scholars who’ve explored how affect and love map onto the political, I want us to add to that picture an awareness of how affect and dislike/disappointment map onto the political. And before we get to the more politically volatile topics of why people dislike Trump, Hillary, or Nigel Farage, maybe there’d be a lot to learn by asking what’s going on when people share impassioned screeds of dislike about popular television, film, celebrities, and so on.


In my recently published book Civic Media Literacies, I spent considerable time exploring the conditions that motivate young people to actively engage in their communities, and the media-environments that are needed to support their engagement. In the process of discovery and research for this book, I uncovered what I call agency gaps between people’s willingness to share concern and how they envision their capacity to act. These agency gaps are fueled by two phenomenon of digital culture. The first is spectacle. The concept of spectacle, introduced by critical philosopher Guy DeBord, and central to the situationist movement, uncovers the role of representation and imagery in the space of human dialog and social structures. Spectacle today drives much of young people’s daily information and communication routines on platforms. This is largely because the platforms themselves are designed to prioritize that which is most shareable and spreadable, which is oftentimes that which is spectacular.

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Alongside the re-emergence of spectacle has been an increasing distrust in public institutions, and in particular media institutions. Distrust, we found, emerges largely because young people are increasingly distanced in their connection to media institutions, and trust in peers has long outweighed trust in institutions. Platforms that prioritize homophilous peer group engagement render institutions less core to one’s daily information and communication routines. Those things that we are less reliant on or familiar with, we trust.

How do these phenomena support agency gaps. Agency gaps have emerged in a digital culture that promotes sharing of things the inspire, disgust, or agitate. This is particularly the case with issues of political and social significance. The platforms themselves, thus, promote caring about, which is to signal affiliation with a topic of concern. What the platforms don’t promote is caring for, which is the relational work that one must do to move beyond the expression of disgust. The dichotomy of caring ethics was made popular by education scholar Nel Noddings, and seems to fit nicely with the reality of many of our disaffected youth today.

In the conclusion to this work, and in follow up research, I’ve been exploring the concept of civic intentionality. As a scholar exploring media literacy over the past decade, civic intentionality is something I think about more and more in light of what Arthur Brooks calls our culture of contempt.[1] In my work I’ve noticed that a focus on skills and competencies to prepare people to better critique and create media, has served to polarize our society as much as help to reform it. Civic Intentionality can shift the focus from media to what our goals are with media use to what values we want to prioritize in media use for civic purposes. Of course I’m not speaking about all media use, but media uses for the purposes of civic and political engagement.

With regards to participatory culture and fandom, I think there’s a lot to learn about the ways in which people engage with and support popular culture, and how that relates to how they choose to engage with local issues that matter. I’ve seen again and again that those who use media to advocate or participate meaningfully in civic life do so from personal identity and affinity with the issue. And popular culture is a strong way to find pathways of connection. Henry and his colleagues have shown this in their work over the last decade. Media literacies need to be more connected to the motivations and values that guide people’s media use and intentionality. Without that, we may be continuing to provide skills for critical engagement with media, but without the context to situate these skills into a strong civic frameworks. Perhaps we’ve been focusing on the how and not the why for too long. Maybe it’s time for us to think about what values guide people’s media preferences and uses, and not just about smart and responsible consumption of media.



Jonathan Gray is Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is author of Television Studies (with Amanada D. Lotz), Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media ParatextsTelevision Entertainment; and Watching with The Simpsons: Television, Parody, and Intertextuality (Routledge, 2006; and co-editor of books including Keywords for Media StudiesA Companion to Media AuthorshipSatire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era, and Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World. He also co-edits NYU Press’ Critical Cultural Communication series, and is Chief Editor of International Journal of Cultural Studies.

Paul Mihailidis is an associate professor of civic media and journalism in the school of communication at Emerson College in Boston, MA. He is founding program director of the MA in Media Design, Senior Fellow of the Emerson Engagement Lab, and faculty chair and director of the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change. His research focuses on the nexus of media, education, and civic voices. His work has been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Slate Magazine, the Nieman Foundation, USA Today, CNN, and others. Mihailidis holds visiting professorships at Bournemouth University in England and the Catholic Univesity of Argentian in Buenos Aires. He co-edits the Journal of Media Literacy Education, and sits on the advisory board for iCivics. He earned his PhD from the Phillip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park.