Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Mark Deuze and Derek Johnson (Part I)



In 2018 I moved to the UK from the continent - apparently as one of the few - as most people seemed to be moving in the other direction. As I am still working in The Netherlands (at the University of Amsterdam), it is fascinating to witness the way the news media in both countries respond to the political crisis premised on a key form of participatory politics: Brexit based on a people’s referendum. Most attention is paid to the particulars of the political process (in a definitive horse race frame: who is winning, who is losing), supplemented with human interest stories about communities and families affected in particular ways. Dutch media uniformly adopt the EU stance, writing with mild disdain about the perceived dysfunction of the British parliamentary system, while the UK press - more diverse in the range of voices it represents - often stereotypes the EU for being a meddling bureaucracy governed by France and Germany (hardly mentioning any of the other countries represented).

In the UK, and particularly in the Northeast where I am located, people absolutely do not feel their participation has mattered at all - regardless whether they voted Leave or Remain. The Remainers feel cheated and watch in horror how their country’s economy is declining, how xenophobic sentiments seem to be legitimized through the Brexit vote, and lament how the British culture is turning inward. Leavers feel cheated by the political process and blame any politician - both in the British Parliament as well as in Brussels - for corrupting their vote. In the meantime, journalists and scholars fret over the role of data and micro-targeting voters online, the influence of social media, the consequences of filter bubbles and echo chambers, and so on.


This is surely one of the most important political crises in the contemporary moment, and I’m very interested in exploring how, as you say, the idea of participation proves central to political and cultural struggle, no matter what the position or the ideological perspective in question, where it be Remainders or Leavers.  I’m not an expert in electoral politics or journalism, however, so I approach these questions from a somewhat different angle, asking how the production--and just as crucially, reproduction--of entertainment content becomes a site of between amongst different communities and stakeholders who feel that their participation might shape the future course of culture.  In my first book, I developed a critical framework for trying to make sense of “media franchising” as a process of industrial struggle in which intellectual properties were extended over time and across the space of different production contexts defined by their own identities and claims to authority. My new book aims to dig into the temporalities of the ongoing production of entertainment content a little more, revealing how media industries develop “transgenerational” strategies to reproduce markets, labor, and consumer identities over time.  The projects I’m working on now try to match these questions about the future and reproduction back to media franchising, where the industrial promise of perpetual reproduction for major media franchises like Star Wars, Ghostbusters, and more attracts the attention of consumer activists who see this arc of reproduction as one that can be bent either toward change or the reproduction of the status quo.  

So I’m interested both in how popular feminism turns its attention to the franchising and merchandising of major entertain brands as a way of pursuing social change (often looking to Suzanne Scott for her incisive perspective here), but at the same time I consider how parallel forms of popular misogyny equally identify media franchising as a valuable battleground for protecting hegemonic white masculinity and other entrenched forms of cultural privilege.  This has included attention to men’s rights activists from the alt-right, but also everyday forms of fandom that work to intervene in the management of media franchises as a means of extending the past into the industrial future. What’s at stake in media franchising to make it a target for activism, in my opinion, is that it represents a set of industrial strategies in the present that orient cultural reproduction in the future toward either change or disruption of the past.  Media franchises by their very definition have a certain future, and these politics seek to direct the still uncertain political and cultural orientation of that future.

Both our approaches, then, refuse the idea of a utopian politics of participation that is purely progressive. I wonder, then, what you think Brexit tells us about the virtues or of participation?


Mark Deuze is Professor of Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam’s (UvA) Faculty of Humanities. From 2004 to 2013 he worked at Indiana University’s Department of Telecommunications in Bloomington, United States. Publications of his work include "Media Life" (2012, Polity Press), and most recently “Making Media” (January 2019; co-edited with Mirjam Prenger, Amsterdam University Press), and “Beyond Journalism” (November 2019; co-authored with Tamara Witschge, Polity Press). Weblog: Twitter: @markdeuze. E-mail: He is also the bass player and singer of post-grunge band Skinflower.

Derek Johnson is Associate Professor of Media and Cultural Studies in the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  He is the author of Transgenerational Media Industries: Adults, Children, and the Reproduction of Culture (Michigan, forthcoming 2019) and Media Franchising: Creative License and Collaboration in the Culture Industries (NYU, 2013).  His other books include the edited volume From Networks to Netflix: A Guide to Changing Channels (Routledge, 2018) as well as the co-edited works Point of Sale: Analyzing Media Retail (Rutgers, forthcoming 2019), Making Media Work: Cultures of Management in the Entertainment Industries (NYU, 2014), and A Companion to Media Authorship (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013).