YPP Network Description

The MacArthur Research Network on Youth and Participatory Politics (YPP) formed out of recognition that youth are critical to the future of democracy and that the digital age is introducing technological changes that are impacting how youth develop into informed, engaged, and effective actors.

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Connected Youth and Digital Futures: A Conversation with Sonia Livingstone and Julian Sefton-Green (Part Two)

June 17, 2016 - 7:28am

Today, we continue a conversation between Sonia Livingstone and Julian Sefton-Green (London School of Economics), Sangita Shresthova and myself (USC) about our two books that launched the New York University Press/MacArthur Foundation book series, Connected Youth and Digital Futures:  By Any Media Necessary: the New Youth Activism and The Class: Living and Learning in the Digital Age. This time, we move beyond the goals and contexts that generated the books to focus on some of our findings.

If you live in or near London, you have a chance to watch this exchange continue in real time. I am flying to England this weekend and will be participating in an event being hosted around the two books at the London School of Economics’ Shaw Library, Old Building on June 22 from 4-6 p.m. In addition to myself, Livingstone, and Sefton-Green, the event will also feature University of Nottingham Professor of Education Pat Thompson. To reserve a seat please contact Svetlana Smirnova at s.smirnova@lse.ac.uk.

So what did we learn through our research?

Henry and Sangita write of By Any Media Necessary:

We got lucky: many of these groups and campaigns have gained visibility and influence over the period of our study. We were struck watching some of the early Democratic Party debates this U.S. presidential campaign season that many of the core issues — immigration reform, racialized police violence, income inequality, legalization of pot, among them — were issues that these networks had been mobilizing around. Kony 2012, a video produced by Invisible Children, broke all records for internet circulation during the period of our research. The Harry Potter Alliance successfully boycotted Warner Brothers to get them to embrace fair trade policies around the chocolates they produced and sold at their amusement parks. And Obama took executive action to promote the interests of the DREAMers, undocumented youth seeking greater citizenship and education rights. So, we sought success stories and those successes turned out to be more dramatic than we could have imagined when our research began.

Across this research, we identified some core principles shaping this new youth activism as well as some obstacles that are blocking these groups from achieving their full potential. First and foremost, as the book’s title suggests, these groups are seeking to make change by any media necessary. Yes, social media platforms have generated lots of press because they represent the newest technologies for mass mobilization and media circulation. But we also saw them tapping into  street protest and print culture as needed to reach a broad range of potential supporters. These groups had limited access to resources so they used whatever they could get their hands on, though often the most impoverished groups were among the most creative and thoughtful in learning how to use these platforms and practices in new ways.

Second, our work has led us to a focus on what we call the “civic imagination.” Any campaign for social change requires its participants to articulate a shared sense of what a better world would look like, the steps towards achieving this change, the political agency of participants, and often, some empathy for those whose experiences and perspectives differ from their own. Different cultures articulate what they are fighting for and what they are fighting against through different means. We were intrigued to see that, across these very different social movements, popular culture references played central roles in their rhetorical practices. Images from popular media — superheroes, wizards, zombies, and the like — are appropriated, remixed, reframed, and recirculated as a means of creating a common language amongst diverse participants.

Our book is cautiously optimistic about the ways these groups are impacting American politics. These movements model some ideal conditions for scaffolding young people as they transition into more active roles as citizens. These groups map ways that individual participation can add up to something larger. They direct attention to specific issues and propose ways that people can work together to bring about change. They train members to produce their own media and tell their own stories. They offer networks through which these media can circulate and reach an appreciative audience. Above all, they create a context where ‘talking politics’ is a normal, ongoing part of social interactions. In this focus on the conditions that enable meaningful connections between different aspects of young people’s lives, we are very much drawing on insights from the Connected Learning research. Young people are more likely to have both voice and influence when they connect with larger networks pursuing the same goals.

Of course, these networks are not open to all potential participants: there are systemic and structural biases in who can enter through these means; there is uneven access to technological infrastructure, mentorship, skills, and a sense of empowerment, all of which pave the way for new entrants. These groups do not necessarily breakdown on predictable class or racial lines: some of the most innovative and creative activism we’ve seen came from undocumented youth, many of whom lack access, on an individual bias, to the basic tools they need to do their work but have taken advantage of opportunities offered by libraries or community centers.

And these groups, themselves, struggle with core paradoxes as they think through the value of supporting broad participation as opposed to more centralized control over messaging and in particular an emphasis on process as opposed to results. These groups do not always command the respect of political leaders with the power to act on their concerns. They often face various forms of surveillance and intimidation. Participatory practices can be deployed by hate groups just as readily as by human rights groups.

The book coexists with byanymedia.org or BAM, a resource that includes a large collection of original and curated materials related to the themes that emerged through our case studies. When we initially started developing it, we thought that BAM would effectively be a companion reader, a place where people could encounter media examples featured in the book. We ended up with a much more expansive resource that pushes far beyond our initial research to feature media created by a broad range of youth organizations, curated media, and original educational materials created through sustained partnerships we formed with companies like Participant Media and organizations like the Harry Potter Alliance. While we anticipate that various visitors may find their way to BAM, we did specifically focus on educators who want to explore youth driven participatory politics with their students. This is why we piloted and eventually rolled out BAM through collaborations with educators affiliated with National Writing Project and the National Association for Media Literacy Education.


Julian and Sonia write of The Class:

It may be that when our class of British 13-year olds gets a bit older, they too will explore such civic possibilities as Henry describes above. But certainly when we hung out with them, they were taking only the most tentative steps towards the wider world – perhaps by joining Twitter to follow the adult worlds of news, sports or celebrity. For them, Harry Potter was definitely a focus for fandom but not yet a pathway to the civic.

Rather, our class was more concerned to sustain clear boundaries between home, school and peer group than to overcome these through digital or social networking. For example, the school devoted a lot of time being distressed by students’ use of Facebook, seeking ways to keep its “drama” out of the life of the school, just as students proved equally keen to protect their free time (not that there was much of it) and spaces (ditto) from prying adult eyes.

One of our driving questions was to understand how digital media were used at home and school and especially, given ever greater access to mobile digital technologies, whether this allows home and school to be connected in different ways. At school we noticed how the teachers’ appropriation of popular culture served to create shared values and norms within but not beyond the walls of the class. So in afternoon registrations the class often watched BBC News. A geography teacher used the model of voting from ITV’s X Factor to liven up math teaching. Role models from the media dotted the classroom walls. But rarely was there any discussion about how the media are produced or who controls them or how they are structured to convey particular messages. For example, films about slavery in Black History Month were tacitly treated as transparent “windows on the world”, seemingly unrelated to the mix of black and white faces of the students watching the screen.

High culture received more explicit prominence, by contrast. The head-teacher favored a boy (who had private music lessons) who could play Chopin when the year group filed into assembly. Activities involving Shakespeare or great works of art were given prominence by the school. Kids learned classical music in school music lessons while enjoying something completely different in the home, and those who learned non-standard music at home received little recognition at school.

Moreover, attempts to use the media across the boundary of home and school were carefully policed. The school’s information management system worked really well as a form of digital surveillance, but all too often the Virtual Learning Environment didn’t work or wasn’t properly understood by teachers or students. Mobile phones, which could be very useful for learning, were forbidden in school (for reasons of concentration and safety). For all the talk about living in a connected world, the students didn’t want teachers or parents to have access to their world; and the same was true of the adults.

Perhaps one of the most excruciating things to witnessed was the slow microscopic unfolding of misunderstandings, missed opportunities and social injustices experienced by the young people over the year. There was no shortage of high aspirations, good intentions and ambition but a lack of knowledge by the school about the actuality of the class’ day-to-day lives meant that the way the offer was organized, the way opportunities were constructed, were commonly at odds with how young people and families imagine what learning is good for. This led us to wonder: how would the school be different if teachers knew more about their students’ lives outside school? Why does the school choose not to know much about its students and why might they not want to reveal themselves to the school? In whose interests might greater, or lesser, connection across and between the social world of young people operate?

To return to the relation between our two books highlighted in this blog post, together they provide insights into both the extraordinary and ordinary nature of growing up in the digital age. While one book focuses on civic and political participation and the other on learning, together they capture the two key opportunities that adults hope young people will pursue, enabled by today’s digital and networked media. One book focuses on the exciting possibilities opening up, the other on how everyday realities favor practices of social reproduction that undermine the realization of such possibilities. It is surely now for society to work to bring more of the opportunities within the grasp of most, not just a few, of young people.




Categories: Blog

Connected Youth and Digital Futures: A Conversation with Sonia Livingstone and Julian Sefton-Green (Part One)

June 16, 2016 - 8:59am

I was proud that our new book, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism, (co-authored with Sangita Shresthova, Liana Gamber-Thompson, Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, and Arely Zimmerman) was selected to be one of the two launch titles for an exciting new book series being produced by the MacArthur Foundation and the New York University Press. As part of the launch of this series, I’ve been involved in a series of conversations with some of the other authors included in the series, including an event to be held next week at the London School of Economics. More details on that event next time.

Here, I am joined by Julian Sefton-Green and Sonia Livingstone. Sefton-Green edits the series and co-authored with Livingstone the other launch title, The Class:Living and Learning in the Digital Age. They both are faculty at the London School of Economics.


What’s the series all about? Julian Sefton-Green writes:

May saw the launch of the first two books in a new series Connected Youth and Digital Futures. Building on research supported by the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media & Learning initiative, it offers books about how the day-to-day lives and futures of young people are being reconfigured at the intersection of civil and political reform, transformation in employment and education, and the embedding of digital technologies across all domains of social and personal life.


We live in divisive and divided times where the futures that young people may inherit appear more fraught than in previous generations. As Western societies have become increasingly marketised, older forms of social contract – of conformity, working hard and aspiring high – can no longer fulfil the promises they appeared to offer:


  • Access to employment, housing and independent living has become increasingly competitive;
  • Generations are being lost from participation in conventional forms of civic activity and political action;
  • Traditional state institutions like schools and colleges seem more peripheral and excluding, and life pathways confused, complex and competitive;
  • Forms of social stratification seem to have become more acute as elites have reasserted their power and privilege.


All of these changes call into question the nature and purpose of learning in these uncertain times. At the same time, and somehow entangled with these changes, social life is increasingly mediated through forms of digital technology and the interpersonal and day-to-day life in neighbourhoods and communities have become increasingly surveilled and automated. Many of the claims advanced for the digital are now being tested around the world as institutions, families, and young people themselves negotiate, incorporate or transform in response to these changing possibilities.


In this blog post, the authors of the first two volumes in the series, By Any Media Necessary: the New Youth Activism and The Class: Living and Learning in the Digital Age explain why they were motivated to write these books, what we think they achieve and in what ways their themes relate to each other and fulfil the aims of the series.


Henry Jenkins writes:


Our book, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism, emerged from our participation in the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics Network. Chaired by Joe Kahne, this multidisciplinary network brought together philosophers (Danielle Allen), educators (Howard Gardner) Political Scientists (Jennifer Earl, Cathy J. Cohen), youth advocates (Lissa Soep, Elyse Eidman-Aadahl), and technologists (Ethan Zuckerman), all committed to research or interventions intended to shed light on the political lives of American youth.

Over seven plus years of conversations, we evolved a shared conceptual vocabulary for discussing what we call participatory politics, characterized as “interactive, peer-based acts through which individuals and groups seek to exert both voice and influence on issues of public concern.” Across diverse methodologies, the network was finding evidence that: “the participatory skills, norms, and networks that develop when social media is used to socialize with friends or to engage with those who share one’s interests can and are being transferred to the political realm.”

The network’s survey, involving more than 3000 respondents, was finding some compelling insights about young people’s civic engagement.

  • More than half (56 percent) of those contacted had not been involved in politics in any form over the 12 months prior to the survey. But roughly 40-45 had involved in some form of participatory politics across this same period.
  • Contrary to claims that online political participation decreased “real world” political involvement, the survey found that those who engaged in politics via social media were twice as likely to vote as those who had not.
  • There was greater racial equality in terms of participation in online political actions than in more institutionalized forms of politics. 43 percent of white, 41 percent of black, 38 percent of Latino, and 36 percent of Asian youth had participated in at least one act of participatory politics during the prior 12 months. By contrast, the difference in voting as of 2008 showed a gap of 25 percent between the most active youth (African-Americans at 52 percent) and the least active (Latino Youth at 27 percent).

Our research group’s task was to go behind these statistics and provide a portrait of what forms of participatory politics emerged when we looked at innovative organizations and networks that have been highly successful at getting young people involved in civic and political activities. We ended up selecting groups and networks organized around brands (Invisible Children), fan interests (Harry Potter Alliance, Nerdfighters), faith-based communities (American Muslims), identity politics (DREAMers) and shared ideological and philosophical commitments (Students for Liberty), resulting in an ethnically and ideologically diverse mix of organizations.

In practice, each of these groups blurs the categories we initially proposed and we learned the most by looking at what these groups had in common. Altogether, we interviewed more than 200 young activists who shared with us their “civic paths” (that is, how they were invited into the political process) and the ways that media platforms and participatory practices have informed their activities.

Sonia Livingstone writes:

In parallel with the Youth and Participatory Politics Network work focused on political participation, described above, in the Connected Learning Research Network we have focused on learning opportunities, exploring whether and how “connected learning taps the opportunities provided by digital media to more easily link home, school, community and peer contexts of learning; support peer and intergenerational connections based on shared interests; and create more connections with non-dominant youth, drawing from capacities of diverse communities,” as explained in the network’s research synthesis.

That report highlighted the case of 17-year-old Clarissa, an aspiring screenwriter whose friends introduced her to a role-playing site online where equally enthusiastic peers pooled their creative and critical resources to the point where Clarissa could use her new-found expertise to get into college. Relatedly, Mark Warschaeur and Tina Matuchniak wrote about how 14-year-old Max produced humorous videos and posted them on YouTube, gaining so much fan mail that his video aired on mainstream television. These and many other cases rightly serve to inspire adults and youth, tech developers and the public alike, as does the rise of young vloggers or the popularity of Minecraft communities. Yet these are celebrated precisely because they are exceptions, raising the question – how widespread are such activities, what everyday conditions support them and, more normatively, are these pathways that society wishes to prioritize for its youth?

While research suggests that connected learning opportunities arise when the sites of home, school and other locations for learning are connected and supported, our project was inspired by the observation that few studies based in schools refer to children’s lives at home. Even the idea of spending a year with “a class” evokes a curious fascination, suggesting a closed, intense, yet fragile world of school that adults, especially parents, generally do not see into. Equally, most studies of life at home rarely follow children outside it, tending towards a perception of the home as equally closed, especially from the teachers’ perspective. Of course young people are themselves the link across sites of living and learning, so we designed our research to follow them and get closer to their experiences and perspectives to trace their connections and disconnections.

To do this, we capitalized on our complementary expertise as researchers, each trying to pay attention to what the other found surprising. As we explain in the book, Sonia has spent much of her career with families at home, seeking to understand their media lives and exploring the dynamics of gender and generation in the home. Julian has spent much of his career with students and teachers at school, exploring the conditions by which media use at school and elsewhere could enable creativity and knowledge. Our project was designed to bridge these perspectives.

By spending a year with a class of 13 year olds – at school, at home, with their friends, and online, we could begin to unpack questions such as:

  • Do today’s youth have more opportunities than their parents?
  • As they build their own social and digital networks, does that offer new routes to learning and friendship?
  • How do they navigate opportunities for formal and informal learning in a digitally connected but fiercely competitive, highly individualized world?
  • What is expected of parents, and what do parents actually do, when bringing up their young teens in the digital age?

(More Next Time)

Sonia Livingstone is a full professor in the Department of Media and Communications at LSE. She is author or editor of eighteen books and many academic articles and chapters. The past President of the International Communication Association, Sonia was awarded the title of Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2014 ‘for services to children and child internet safety.’ Taking a comparative, critical and contextualised approach, Sonia’s research asks why and how the changing conditions of mediation are reshaping everyday practices and possibilities for action, identity and communication rights. Her empirical work examines the opportunities and risks afforded by digital and online technologies, including for children and young people at home and school, for developments in media and digital literacies, and for audiences, publics and the public sphere more generally.

Julian Sefton-Green is an independent scholar working in Education and the Cultural and Creative Industries. He is currently Principal Research Fellow at the Department of Media & Communication, LSE and a research associate at the University of Oslo working on projects in London and Oslo exploring learning and learner identity across formal and informal domains. He has authored, co-authored or edited 12 volumes including: The International Handbook of Creative Learning (2011 Routledge); Learning at Not-School (2013, MIT Press); Learning and Literacy over Time (2014, Routledge). Recent volumes are The class: living and learning in the digital age (New York University Press 2016) and Learning Identities, Education and Community: young live in the cosmopolitan city (Cambridge University Press 2016). 

Categories: Blog

Tracing the Roots of Media Literacy: Raymond Williams and John Fiske

June 9, 2016 - 11:38am

A while back, media literacy educator and advocate Renee Hobbs approached me about contributing an essay to a new anthology she was editing: Hobbs asked some leading scholars to share personal essays about the people who have influenced their own thinking about media, popular culture, and learning. I was asked to contribute something about the role Birmingham cultural studies had played in the development of media literacy, and I was happy to agree.

We were supposed to describe our intellectual “grandparents”, and I ended up writing a deeply personal essay that discussed the relationship between my work on participatory culture and that of Raymond Williams and John Fiske. Along the way, I  also shared something of my biological grandparents — on my father’s side — and the ways I saw myself in some of William’s more autobiographical writings.

Hobbs’ book, Exploring the Roots of Digital and Media Literacy Through Personal Narrative, has just come out, so I asked her if I could share a bit of my essay as a way of whetting your appetites for this important collection.  Here are a few others who have contributed to this anthology, which offers a novel way to introduce students to the roots of the media literacy movement:

  • David Weinberger on Martin Heidegger
  • Lance Strate on Marshall McLuhan
  • Dana Polan on Roland Barthes
  • Cynthia Lewis on Mikhail Bakhtin
  • Douglas Kellner on Herbert Marcuse
  • Amy Petersen Jensen on Bertholt Brecht
  • Donna E. Alvermann on Simone de Beauvoir
  • Jeremiah Dyehouse on John Dewey
  • Renee Hobbs on Jerome Bruner
  • Vanessa Domine on Neil Postman
  • Peter Gutierrez on Scott McCloud

What follows is an excerpt from my contribution. There’s more where this comes from:

John Fiske can be described as the Johnny Appleseed of Cultural Studies, given the ways that his personal journey as an academic who worked in the United Kingdom, Australia, and finally, North America, helped to spread and reframe the cultural studies approach to new generations of scholars. Fiske also provides an important bridge between his mentor, the Welsh born critic and novelist Raymond Williams, and my generation, many of whom were Fiske’s students, who helped to adopt the British-based approach to deal with the particulars of U.S. culture. Read together, our story represents one trajectory in the relations between cultural studies and media literacy.

Starting with a strong belief in the critical agency of “ordinary” people, the multidisciplinary field of Cultural Studies documents the ways everyday people create meaning and pleasure through their everyday practices. Media Literacy as a movement has sought to insure that everyone has access to the critical literacies which allow them to meaningfully consume, critique, produce — and now participate within — media. One could argue that cultural studies is the theory, media literacy is the practice. We need look no further than NAMLE’s Core Principles of Media Literacy Education, which insist that the concept of literacy can be applied to a broad range of different forms of media and popular culture, that media content gets actively interpreted by individuals and groups based on local frames of reference, and that media literacy is fundamental to the promotion of active political and civic participation, all concepts that come — at least in part — from the British cultural studies tradition.

Along with the historian E. P. Thompson, the literary critic Richard Hogarth, and the theorist Stuart Hall, Williams is widely acknowledged to be one of the founders of the cultural studies approach. More than any other essay, William’s “Culture is Ordinary” (1958) set the tone for the British Cultural Studies movement. Williams offers a more inclusive model of culture, a concept Williams would described in Keywords (1976) as “one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language.” Here, Williams tells us, “Culture is ordinary: that is the first fact. Every human society has its own shape, its own purposes, its own meanings. Every human society expresses these, in institutions and in arts and learning. The making of a society is the finding of common meanings and directions, and its growth is an active debate and amendment under the pressures of experience, contact, and discovery, writing itself into the land.” (p.93) William’s conception of culture contrasts with that of Matthew Arnold, whose 1869 essay, “Culture and Anarchy,” had defined culture in terms of “the best knowledge, the best ideas of their times,” seeing the promotion of high cultural values to the general population as the best defense against what he saw as “harsh, uncouth” about modern industrial culture. Under Arnold, some aspects of human life—the most elevated or perfected aspects, those removed from immediate utilitarian value and from the harshness of a growing machine culture—were worth passing down to the next generation, while others were disposable. Those who embrace Arnold focus on the value they see as intrinsic to “great works,”while those who criticize the tradition focus on what it excludes–including most of what has been written by women, minorities, the developing world, as well as media and popular culture.

William’s approach is expansive, embracing the arts and sciences, the exceptional and the ordinary, the traditional and the emergent. For Williams, culture is at once the stuff of learning, an acquired set of skills and appreciations, and the stuff of experience. Perhaps, the essay’s most radical element is the way Williams pits his own lived experience growing up working class in the Welsh countryside against what his own mentors were teaching him at Cambridge: “When the Marxists say that we live in a dying culture and that the masses are ignorant, I have to ask them, as I did ask them, where on Earth they have lived. A dying culture, and ignorant masses, are not what I have known and see.” (p.96) Cultural studies commits itself to better understanding the ongoing struggle over what counts as culture and who gets to decide what culture matters.

Williams is at his most moving when he describes what reading and writing meant for his family: “My grandfather, a big hard laborer, wept while he spoke, finely and excitedly, at the parish meeting”, (p. 92) he tells us, while his father, a labor organizer, read through the lines of news stories to identify entrenched economic interests. He talks about the value his people placed on library books and tell us many more would have gone to college except for the financial responsibilities they bore to their family and their communities. He describes a visit home after time in college and discusses the tension he felt within himself as he looked at their culture through eyes shaped by formal education: “Now they read, they watch, this work we are talking about: some of them quite critically, some with a great deal of pleasure. Very well, I read different things, watch different entertainments, and I am quite sure why they are better…But talking to my family, to my friends, talking, as we were, about our own lives, about people, about feelings, could I in fact find this lack of quality we are discussing? I’ll be honest — I looked; my training has done this for me. I can only say that I found as much natural fitness of feeling, as much quick discrimination, as much clear grasp of ideas within that range of experiences as I have found anywhere.”(p.99) He contrasts this sense of a community eagerly engaged in conversation with the snootiness of the tea shop just outside his university, which taught him in the most painful way possible that some see culture as “the outward and emphatically visible sign of a special kind of people.” (p. 93) Williams suggests, “If this is culture, we don’t want it.” (p. 93)

Through such images, Williams conveys his discomfort with the policing of cultural boundaries, the ranking of cultural products, and the dismissal of other people’s culture. While himself critical of the “cheapjack” quality of the new industrially produced culture, Williams articulates a great distrust of the “directive” impulse in the Cambridge intellectuals who seek to “impose” their cultural assumptions on the unlearned masses. “There are no masses, but ways of seeing people as masses,” Williams writes (p.96). And he also distrusts the anti-intellectual impulses in his own background, the ways that working class critics dismiss “culture vultures” and “do gooders”, even when doing so cuts them off from resources that might improve the quality of their lives. Something vital is at stake in these struggles over culture, and his goal as an educator was to help people to better articulate their own cultural politics.

“Culture is Ordinary” was published in 1958, the year I was born. I never knew Williams, never heard him speak, never got to talk with him, but I would first encounter “Culture is Ordinary” when doing a directed reading for John Fiske at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. When Williams writes about the experience of taking a bus through the mountains to go off to college, I have come to trace my own drive across the Blue Ridge mountains to go to graduate school.   I have come to see myself as perhaps several generations further into the process of cultural, economic, and technological change that Williams describes there. I had been raised in Georgia, the son of a construction company owner, the grandson of a sheet metal worker, and the great-grandson of a dirt farmer. Across three generations, my family had left the farm, moved to the city, and then, to suburbia, and our class status had shifted along the way. As an upwardly mobile middle class youth, I had experienced with distaste the trappings of “redneck culture” which still found their way into my home: I wanted nothing to do with that “shit-kicking” bluegrass music my grandparents listen to and I cringed when they used earthy language to describe themselves and their values. Yet, I was also starting to make my peace with my roots. When I was heading off to graduate school, my dirt-poor grandfather gave me some money — a small amount for most, but a kingly fortune for him — to take with me on my journey. As I stood in his workroom, surrounded by rusty wire and scrap metal he had salvaged by the roadside, not to mention wooden crosses he had carved by hand, he told me about his own first steps away from the family farm when he went away to France during the first world war. Despite having only a fourth grade education, he had marked in the front of his King James Bible the number of times he read it cover to cover. And alongside it, in his desk, could be found his union card, a book of the collected speeches of FDR, and a postcard depicting Will Rogers, each a marker of a particular form of grassroots politics that had shaped his world view. I’ve come to hear some of that progressive politics as it gets expressed through the bluegrass music I once held in disdain and now, the twangier, the more atonal, the better. I’ve come to appreciate that my grandmother, who made quilts, was a remix artist, who took patches of leftover cloth from the local textile mills and working with other women, made them into something artful which could be used to express their shared joy when a new couple got married or a new baby was brought into the world.

I don’t think I ever felt so “southern” as I did when I left the south to pursue my education. And so, when I first encountered Williams’ account of his struggles to reconcile what he had learnt at the family dinner table with what he was being taught at Cambridge, I recognized myself in his conflicts, and through his eyes, I came to a deeper appreciation of who I was and where I had come from.

As a graduate student, I also felt a strange disconnect from what I knew as a fan about the ways that everyday people might critically and creatively engage with media texts and what I was being taught by my own professors, at a time when prevailing forms of media theory stressed the power of media texts to suture their readers into a powerful ideological system which always worked against their own interests.

And this is the moment when John Fiske entered my life. The first time I saw him, I was struck by his broad toothy grin, the crinkle of his leathery skin, the wicked sparkle in his squinting eyes, and the Akubra hat that he was wearing in the frozen wastelands of Iowa City. He entered our lives as “the Man From Down Under” — something exotic, something wild and untamed, yet it did not take long to discover his gentleness, his modesty, above all, his care for his students.

When Fiske came to the University of Iowa, he sparked a degree of intellectual excitement I have not experienced since. Every week, more students were showing up at his seminar, eager to learn what for us was a new conceptual framework, drawn from cultural studies that informed his work. Like Williams, Fiske offered us a way to see the world that was critical of inequalities of opportunity and the imposition of cultural hierarchies, yet which was hopeful about the prospects for meaningful change and respectful of diverse forms of cultural experience.

Raymond Williams had been Fiske’s personal tutor when he was pursuing his BA and MA in English Literature at Cambridge, and so it would be hard to imagine a better guide to the British cultural studies tradition. I was lucky to have studied under Fiske twice — first when he was a visiting scholar at the University of Iowa and then when he was a faculty member at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Like any great mentor, he empowered me to find my own voice, to draw on my own knowledge and experience, and to make my own original contribution to the field. I soaked up everything I could learn from this man, and in the process, absorbed vocabulary, concepts, philosophies, and ideological commitments, that have become so deeply enmeshed in my own world view, that I am still surprised to come across phrases in his writing that I had thought entirely my own. And, my own commitment to media literacy is deeply bound up with the things I learned from him and through him, from Williams.

When I wrote to Fiske, now long retired, and asked him about his relationship to the concept of media literacy, he stressed that the term was one which he never used directly, but that in retrospect, he now realized that he had been working through ideas about media literacy across his entire career: “I learnt the close reading skills of New Criticism while studying English literature at Cambridge, and soon realized that I wanted to apply them to popular media, television in particular, rather than literature. I had two interlinked aims. One was to show that TV was as multi-layered as poetry and thus worthy of equally serious attention, and the other was to equip ‘literate’ TV readers with the analytic skills to protect themselves against the hegemonic thrust of mass TV. My later work on the active audience grew from evidence that teaching this defensive literacy was less necessary than I had believed. Audiences were already literate in their viewing and had little need of academics like me. They were using their literacy not just defensively but actively in a way that turned a hegemonic text into a subordinate pleasure. They taught me what actual media literacy was all about.” (Personal correspondence with the author, 2013)

To read the rest of this essay, check out Hobbs’ exciting new book.

Categories: Blog

From Media Matters to #blacklivesmatter: Black Hawk Hancock Discusses John Fiske (Part Five)

June 7, 2016 - 7:51am

I was struck re-reading parts of the book by how central “family values” were in the debates of this period. Today, I would say that the culture wars are more apt to be fought in terms of protecting the American Nation, “bringing our country back,” “making America great again” vs. “making America whole”, etc., and around notions of citizenship (whether Obama’s birth certificate or the issue of undocumented immigrants)  rather than in terms of protecting traditional conceptions of the family.  First, would you agree and if so, how might a Fiskean analysis help us to understand why this shift has occurred?

A Fiskean analysis would take us directly into the change in the “structure of feeling” of society and into the change in discourses that are a result of that shift. Thinking through the “structure of feeling” is a way to bridge our own personal experiences in relation to the social structures and historical formations within which we are situated today. In this sense, the feeling—the meaning, values, and practices lived and felt by those who are caught up in them—has a structure that pulls together people’s social experiences and articulates them in terms of shared outlooks and values.

But what has caused such a massive shift in our outlooks and values to bring us to the point we are at today? What is this new set of discourses that is marked by a “crisis” in the Nation. As you point out, there is a dominant undergirding theme here—the insecurity of the nation and the need for protection—the loss of our identity and place as the center of the free world that needs to be restored—the loss of our international status and the need to regain that feeling of international dominance—but I think the most important phrase you picked up on is “making America whole.” This is the lynchpin to the current state of mind or the collective consciousness of the country.

To me this is a true indicator of the status of the structure of feeling. I have an Peter Baker New York Times article from 2014, “A Steady Loss of Confidence,” that I still use in the classroom today. Baker argued that when Pres. Obama took office he “set out to restore society’s frayed faith in its public institutions, saying that the question was not whether government is too big or small ‘but whether it works’ (Baker 2014: A1). He goes on to report:

A 2009 Gallup poll shows that in the heyday of the Obama presidency, public confidence in virtually every major institution of American life has fallen, including organized religion, the military, the Supreme Court, public schools, newspaper, Congress, television news, the police, the presidency, medical system, the criminal justice system and small business. The only institutions Gallup tested that showed slight improvement from 2009 to June 2014 were banks, organized labor, big business and health maintenance organizations. Even so, all four of them had the confidence of just roughly a quarter of the population or less. (Baker 2014: A3)

Whether in everyday interactions or in the public’s collective consciousness, it is clear that collective faith in the structure of feeling as shared values and outlooks is one that is eroding to the point of crisis. This sort of Fiskean work of unearthing the structure of feeling is the first part, and then understanding the discourses that are circulating through society is the next layer of analysis.

In terms of undertaking a Fiskean analysis, several questions need to be posed: What are the dominant discourses that intersect and work to legitimate the current “crisis” of the nation? In addition, we need to ask what has become legitimated as practices through them? Finally, to what political ends do they lead? While there are more, I will stick to the dominant four that stand out for me—all of these are discourses of insecurity, discourses that instill fear, resentment, anger and distrust throughout society.

First, is the discourse of economic insecurity. The financial crisis of 2007-2008 and the global financial crisis of 2008, both devastated the U.S. and led us into a four year recession. Many talked about this as the worst economic situation since the Great Depression. The huge bailout of major financial institutions by the government helped them, but it simultaneously created complete distrust of the banking system, where credit availability tightened, and the stock market suffered as investors lost confidence (and their money).

In addition the unemployment, which led to evictions, foreclosures, etc.…All of these factors created a deepening economic insecurity with what was a complete breakdown of public trust. Economic instability, which leads to economic insecurity, primes the pump for other discourses that reciprocally serve to reinforce economic insecurity, which in turn legitimates extreme responses to that and other forms of insecurity.

Second, the discourse on terrorism as one of complete social insecurity. The overall notion of the “war on terror” in the post 9-11 world has fundamentally reorganized our understandings of safety and vulnerability. From 9-11 followed the Patriot Act, the founding of Homeland Security, the hyper-escalation of military spending, and the centrality of national security as a state of insecurity. From colored warning codes disseminated in airports, to stop and frisk procedures, the discourse on terrorism became the fulcrum to legitimate people giving up their civil liberties for the sake of security. All of this links to our ongoing military presence in the Middle East, the invasions and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the fight against the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, and of course the ongoing struggle to locate ISIS. As a result, we have a seen an escalation in hatred towards Muslims, all of whom are now branded as terrorists.

The entire discourse on the war on terror, which of course can never end since it is framed as a mode of constant vigilance and alert, affords the government the opportunity to constantly tap into responses of anger and vengeance, and fervent patriotism, as opposed to thoughtful and more rational thinking around these issues. Furthermore the ongoing media propaganda, sensationalism and sound-bites have minimized debate and make most claims made by governmental officials and pundits unchallengeable. The war on terror creates a permanent state of insecurity with no end in sight.

Closely linked to the economic insecurity is a third discourse on immigration and illegality. Homeland security enacted massive spending in order to strengthen border security. In addition, all the media representations of immigrants as illegal aliens and threats serve to naturalize illegality as the reason that people can go ineligible for citizenship, defend the rightlessness of those categorized as such, and to neutralize any dissent. As the discourse on immigration-illegality intersects and overlaps with the discourse on terrorism, Mexican immigrants get mixed in with Arab and Muslims, making terrorism-immigration-illegality all part of the same rhetoric. All of this is wrapped in a racialized discourse of the nation, specifically a nation under siege.

These racial threats are also spun into cultural and economic threats as justifications for their eradication. We have gone so far out, as we racially profile “suspects” of either illegality or terrorism to force them into compliance as “patriots” of the state, thus interpellating them into the very discourse that serves to subjugate them. In the end, the discourses of immigration-illegality-terrorism, all serve to criminalize and justify unchecked governmental, police, and military interventions. As public fear and resentment are fostered by politicians (The Donald being a prime example of cultivating xenophobia) we may truly be in Carl Schmitt’s state of emergency, or worse yet, Giorgio Agamben’s “state of exception” where government can suspend people’s rights and the rule of law for the “benefit of the public good.”

A fourth discourse would be the ever-increasing surveillance of social life. With whistle blower Edward Snowden, we were introduced to the massive surveillance by the NSA intelligence agency who was intercepting email, phone calls, and all forms of communication. The information collected is far beyond anything we can imagine, to such a degree that PRISM was set up as a dragnet to pull in al sorts of information.. This surveillance was justified by the war on terror, yet they found nothing having to do with terrorism. In addition we see the ever expansion of video cameras, both for running red lights, as well as blue light police cameras monitoring our streets, as well as satellites and drones monitoring our skies. Google, Facebook, Comcasst record data, as now do retailers who analyze consumers purchases. Our smartphones have GPS pinpointing our location 24/7. Bank cards, credit cards, debit cards, bus passes all track times places location and purchases. At the same time social media platforms, Facebook and Instagram being two particularly popular venues today, provide people the opportunity to openly publicize images of themselves, as well as document their own lives for others to see.

While we may leave in a world of hyper-surveillance, it may not matter, since the self-surveilling effect of the panopticon has come true in new and more insidious self-subjugating ways.

All of these discourses intersect with each adding layer upon layer of fear, and insecurity. If there were ever a time for a Fiskean analysis of notions of nationhood and citizenship in a post-911 era, the time is now.


Baker, Peter. 2014. “A Steady Loss of Confidence.” New York Times. October 22.


To me, one of the best discoveries in your introduction was to learn more about Fiske’s concept of the work of the public intellectual. I certainly have always looked to Fiske as a model for the way an intellectual might relate to the larger society, but I had no idea he had articulated such a clear vision for this kind of intervention. What insights should we take from his theory of intellectual labor as we think about the role of Cultural Studies at the current moment?


We have to see or think about how Media Matters is a book of public Sociology or public Cultural Studies. It was written for a wider audience and is very accessible, the most accessible of all of Fiske’s works, despite the fact that the issues he is grappling with are highly complex. He consciously wrote the book for the general public with the idea that these issues had to be conveyed in a way that everyday people can understand without sacrificing the rigor of the analysis. That is not to say that Fiske held an elitist position, that everyday people couldn’t grasp the big theoretical ideas, but that it was urgent to get this into people’s hands, into their heads, and hopefully into their actions.

I thought that was the goal of the new introduction was to reconstruct the implicit theory or the theoretical framework that is in the background, which allows us to see these events. I felt it important to highlight the particular lenses that Fiske offers, so as to pass on his wisdom to future generations of cultural scholars, students, activists, and everyday people who are invested in social justice and social equality.

The most important aspect of Fiske’s kind of intervention is that he refused to accept that people were duped by some form of ideology, though they certainly could consciously identify with hegemonic positions, but that people in general were creative and far more aware of their circumstances than those who focused solely on political economy. This runs throughout Fiske’s work.

Now Media Matters is a very public oriented book, whereas Power Plays Power Works is much more oriented towards the sphere of the academy, but even if you go back to Understanding the Popular, what was the dominant idea? People are more resilient and aware of their conditions than we as scholars who study them may often think. So he wasn’t changing his position, he was shifting registers if you will. He never took an elitist approach, which is why the question of “how does one learn how to Fiske?” one that I am still grappling with 16 years after his retirement.

It  is important to remember as well that Fiske never felt he was right on all occasions, or that he was ever in any way dogmatic; to the contrary, he was always open to rethinking, and reworking ideas. I raise the issue to be consistent, whether he was addressing the general public or PhD students at the University of Wisconsin, everyone was treated with the same respect. Even if the people Fiske was engaged in dialog with were radically different than himself, for example see the chapter on Back Liberation Radio in Media Matters, he was collaborating in the production of knowledge.

Fiske was someone who saw himself as part of a collective, that together we could help each other understand the world with greater nuance, greater sensitivity, and with the aim of the greater good. The working class was never so driven by necessity that they don’t understand their own material constraints, of course they are aware of them and better aware than anyone else.

I don’t mean for that to sound sentimental, it certainly was not. Fiske thought intellectual labor was a hard painstaking undertaking and never to be considered lightly. That’s why his views on politics shifted from the major revolutionary idea to the Gramscian war of position; one where small victories (or losses) are what one is fighting for in the end. That small social changes could matter and that those very victories proved what he stood for—that everyday people could make a difference.

In the end, I really think Fiske’s intellectual weapons were the most important, since they were all forged for the greater project of social change. This is the importance of theory; theory is what links the individual experience to the collective, the isolated to the community, the disenfranchised to the relevant, such that each encounter could possibly link people to a greater collective consciousness about ourselves, our communities, and the world we want to live in, not just the world we do.

Perhaps it was redundant for me to argue that theory contextualizes the specificities of everyday life and illuminates the often latent political dimensions within those contexts, providing new perspectives and opening up new possibilities; or that theory provides a shared conceptual language to speak across different social formations and social positions.

For Fiske, we must remember, intellectual work can both cultivate a collective consciousness and be put into service for informing social practices and to interrogate, to transform, and to overturn them. As I have said before, the most important lesson about theory in the work of Fiske is to remember that theory was never used for the sake of theorizing; rather it was always used to figure out “what’s going on.”

Fiske embodied the public intellectual in his scholarship, teaching, mentoring, and friendship. All of these were merely facets of the same approach—ways to provoke us and to make us aware that interventions into the public sphere were of necessity, not just academic performances.

Furthermore, Fiske never let us succumb to the “detached ivory tower perspective” of intellectual life; he took the role of the intellectual and the intellectual labor one produced to be important contributions to society. For Fiske, the production of knowledge was not just to understand our social conditions, but to work to improve them.

The corpus of Fiske’s scholarship works to promote such a democratic advancement. For Fiske, this is never about changing people’s consciousness alone; rather it is provoke people to examine the material conditions of their lives where inequalities are experienced most viscerally.

Intellectual labor, for Fiske, must take on all areas of society, from the political, to the economic, the educational, and the industrial. Fiske always cautioned us to remember that the politics of everyday life are never sufficient on their own to create social change. However, everyday life is political, and those politics can be, and often are, possibilities for progressive change.

Fiske always encouraged us to see the potential or progressive elements within popular culture and the possible political ends to which people put it to use. While he cautioned that popular culture alone would not produce radical change in society, it was always a resource that could aid in transforming one’s control over their everyday lives. As such, the power of popular culture was always in its possibilities, possibilities without guarantees.

All of this leads me to think about the current state of Cultural Studies. I think that it is important for us to remember in the wake of Fiske’s work that we need to be vigilant about what Cultural Studies can still do and what directions we need to take it. Given that universities, where of us work, are more than ever, subject to marketization, the commodification of knowledge, and the disappearance of state funding. In addition, changing requirements for tenure and promotion, where as journal articles and other professional writings strictly targeted to academics, take precedence over other forms of work make the challenge today even greater.

We need to collectively think about the role and relevance of Cultural Studies today, as public intellectuals, for the defense of civil society itself. This is the most critical issue on the table today. Given the conditions within which we work, and the ways that we are often dismissed or ignored by the general public, we must really work at coming up with new strategies, collective strategies of political intervention, new strategies of connecting to other publics, lest we wind up cultivating their own obsolescence.

How we do so is the big question, of course, but to just say we educate our students and they go out into the world and may make changes is not enough, nor is simply publishing a trade book or writing an op-ed piece alerting people to some issue or another. These things all help, but they are not enough. We need to connect across disciplines and areas of expertise, we need to be having wider conversations, not locked in our offices like silos. his is the challenge for all liberal arts and social sciences today, as colleges and universities cut programs, we must collectively work towards rethinking the place of the academy in society, in a way that makes it valuable to the wider society.

Again these are big questions that I don’t think any one individual can answer. Our only hope lies in coming together, and that is a massive, yet not impossible undertaking.

Black Hawk Hancock is an Associate Professor of Sociology at DePaul University. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in Sociology, and his B.A. from the University of California at Berkeley in English and Philosophy. He is both an ethnographer whose work focuses on issues of race and culture, as well as a social theorist. His first ethnographic monograph, American Allegory: Lindy Hop and the Racial Imagination was published with The University of Chicago Press. His next book, In-Between Worlds: Mexican Kitchen Workers in Chicago’s Restaurant Industry, is currently under contract at The University of Chicago Press. His theoretical work includes two books with Roberta Garner, Social Theory: Continuities and Confrontations, 3rd edition (The University of Toronto Press), and Changing Theories: New Directions in Sociology (The University of Toronto Press), while his articles have appeared in such journals as The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, and History of the Human Sciences.





Categories: Blog

From Media Matters to #blacklivesmatter: Black Hawk Hancock discusses John Fiske (Part four)

June 2, 2016 - 9:04am



Fiske had much to say about the role which pirate radio played in the 1990s in transmitting and encoding counter-knowledge and counter-history. He had less to say about digital media, even though it was taking shape at this same moment. How might this framework help us to understand the role which social media is currently playing in today’s civil rights struggles?

When I think back to the historical context of Media Matters, I can’t help wonder if the media event of Rodney King, (the chase, the beat down, and the arrest), was truly the first moment whereby the camera was turned back on the police. That event to me was like a tectonic plate shifting in society. It took the country, or at least parts of it by surprise, and validated other parts of it that this was everyday life for them. I raise this in particular because my students today were not born then, so to get them to think about the significance of this, the role that media played at the time was crucial.

In the chapter “Technostruggles” in Media Matters, Fiske had already mapped out the ways that information technology both circulates discourse and produces and applies power. For Fiske, at the time of Media Matters, it was surveillance, the top down Foucaultian panoptic gaze, that was becoming the most efficient, totalitarian, and hardest form of power to resist.

If Fiske were writing today, he would be writing against the domination of the surveillance society, documenting all the new ways that media platforms have proliferated since the first edition of Media Matters—with the development of smart phones, the internet, social networking sites, blogs, Tumblr, Instagram, Twitter, tablets, mp3 files, streaming, YouTube, and virtual information storage—and how this diverse forms of media are now more pervasive through out society than ever.

This shift in the social landscape, or as Fiske would argue, a shift in of “structure of feeling,” through new forms of technology opens up ever-new possibilities of expressing identities, communities, perspectives, and most importantly as weapons for engaging in political struggles. These “weapons of the weak” to borrow James Scott’s terminology become the very tools of resistance.

In fact, Fiske would be having a field day with his critics! He was right all along! I can’t help to remark about the responses to his essay “The Culture of Everyday Life” in the Cultural Studies book. It is just too good of an example not to mention. If Fiske ever reads this interview, I hope he revisits that just to have a laugh at how obtuse those people were and how WRONG they got it!

In writing this review I had to revisit that. I didn’t mention it in the new introduction, but that was not the place for assessing the worthlessness of his critics, but this forum is precisely the place since I’m the one making the critique. These are exactly the types of developments that no one could predict, thus being exactly the kinds of resistance Foucault himself would have pointed to—to make sure we remember where there is power, there is always the possibility of resistance—making them unable to be completely interpellated back into the hegemonic power bloc.

Not only do they provide weapons, they are new modes of documentation, new modes of constructing counter-knowledge and counter history through turning the lens back on those surveilling. It is not simply the documentation with video from smart phones, as one example of use, but the speed and breadth one can circulate that knowledge. People can post videos instantly and they can circulate globally, connecting people and informing people from all different sorts of communities.

We can take any number of examples of African American men killed by police that have been documented through a multiplicity of video devices—from Jason Harrison documented on a police-worn body camera, Jerame Reid documented on a Dashboard camera, John Crawford III documented on a Walmart surveillance camera, to Kajieme Powell and Eric Garner documented with a bystander’s cellphone. These can be immediately uploaded and used by citizens to challenge authority and hold authorities responsible for unauthorized use of violence—and in these cases all ending in death.

People are now turning these devices into weapons to fight back, protecting themselves through the innovative uses of these new technologies. While racial domination and police brutality continue, the speed and intensity of making visible what might have gone invisible, as well as the ability to connect across vast physical distances with other social networks, social movements, community organizations, and activists, has opened up a new form of politics we are just beginning to explore.

As you discuss in your introduction, Fiske’s own politics underwent a change from a focus on Macro-level politics (overturning capitalism) towards micro-level change (“change from within … a gradual shifting rather than a revolution.”) Is this distinction still useful in making sense of contemporary models of cultural politics?

Yes, I absolutely do, but the challenge is immense. With Neoliberalism seemingly unstoppable in its expansion around the globe, along with the privatization of social services and infrastructure, I think micro-level politics are all we have. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I heard the word capitalism, except if someone were teaching Marx. I think the erasure of the term capitalism or the euphemism of neoliberalism has made capitalism all but invisible and no longer something on the table to discuss.

People, politicians, etc., discuss the economy, job disappearance, unemployment rates, but none of these issues are linked to structural inequality, directly to capitalism itself. If this is even hinted at, conversation automatically stops because you must be a heretic or a socialist. This conversation goes nowhere. So in terms of macro-level transformation, I just don’t see it as a viable strategy. I don’t see social change happening through the grand revolution, nor do I see it occurring within the confines of a two party political system.

I think as intellectuals that we need to focus more on connecting with the people, communities, institutions, organizations we study, offering our expertise while coming to better understand their perspectives in relation to our own. The idea of that we can affect changes in our communities or our local institutions on a much smaller scale, doesn’t diminish the larger ideal. Rather, we should focus on how small shifts or small accomplishments of change could be connected, such that small changes cumulatively add up, perhaps eventually adding up to enough to challenge the bigger picture.

In addition, I think we need better networks, locally, nationally, globally, to create what Pierre Bourdieu referred to as the “collective intellectual“ where collective research, collaboration, and the cultivation of a community of intellectuals could foster more effective research with an agenda for social change. We could certainly step out of our discrete disciplines and begin to communicate and coordinate this sort of community. While requiring a great deal of effort, the payoff may be worth the labor.

This is a great challenge for intellectuals today. We may reach our students, and they are an important public to reach as they go out into the world, but perhaps there has to be more. Given how marginalized intellectuals are in the US, this makes it problematic from the start, but I think in many ways we have let that occur. We need more optimism, less pessimism, but it is hard to remain optimistic when we continue to see the fraying of the social fabric day in and day out.

As universities have become ever more subject to marketization, the commodification of knowledge, and the disappearance of state funding, which in turn necessitates alternative modes of financing through private corporations or public-private partnerships. The escalation of these trends over the last 15 years has served to cut wages and benefits, and shifted the labor market away from tenure-track and tenured faculty to adjuncts and part time lecturers, all of which undermine the autonomy and intellectual mission of higher education. These dynamics have shifted the terrain on which ethnographers pursue their craft.

Two issues arise from these new conditions. First, time, given the duration that good research takes, it becomes more and more challenging to conduct long-term fieldwork. Second, ironically, given tenure and promotion concerns, intellectuals may have to conduct more “professional research” as opposed to “public research” in the end.[1]

I’m not say that we should give up scholarship and all become activists. But given that we need to consider doing research that connects with people beyond the walls of the university, tearing down those walls may be our best start.

[1] For a slightly different version of this same argument, see Fine, Gary Alan and Black Hawk Hancock. “The Ethnographer at Work” Qualitative Research. Forthcoming

Black Hawk Hancock is an Associate Professor of Sociology at DePaul University. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in Sociology, and his B.A. from the University of California at Berkeley in English and Philosophy. He is both an ethnographer whose work focuses on issues of race and culture, as well as a social theorist. His first ethnographic monograph, American Allegory: Lindy Hop and the Racial Imagination was published with The University of Chicago Press. His next book, In-Between Worlds: Mexican Kitchen Workers in Chicago’s Restaurant Industry, is currently under contract at The University of Chicago Press. His theoretical work includes two books with Roberta Garner, Social Theory: Continuities and Confrontations, 3rd edition (The University of Toronto Press), and Changing Theories: New Directions in Sociology (The University of Toronto Press), while his articles have appeared in such journals as The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, and History of the Human Sciences.




Categories: Blog

From Media Matters to #blacklivesmatter: Black Hawk Hancock discusses John Fiske (Part Three)

May 31, 2016 - 3:02pm

In some ways, the Rodney King video set the stage for many subsequent debates about racialized police violence. Here, as now, the incident was caught on video and shown to the nation, yet then as now,  the police faced no legal sanctions for their action and public outrage boiled over into the streets. What conceptual tools might Fiske’s account of these events contribute to the current debates around Ferguson, Baltimore, etc.?

I’d like to focus on the last part of the question, on the conceptual tools that can contribute to the current debates around Ferguson, Baltimore, etc. Before fully responding to this question, I should point out the other animating force behind the new introduction to Media Matters is what Berkeley Sociologist Michael Burawoy refers to as “public sociology,” whereby we as intellectuals intervene in the political debates and social problems of our time in the multiple publics or social spheres in society. [1] Public sociology takes on two dominant forms, the traditional public sociology, which disseminates information and attempts to stimulate debate in traditional media venues, such as popular trade press books, newspapers, magazines, and the organic public sociology that engages the particularistic interests of more circumscribed publics —community organizations, hospitals, schools, trade unions, etc. Public sociology, in either form, seeks to take information beyond any specific community and circulate it as widely as possible.

UNITED STATES – AUGUST 14: Demonstrators march on W. Florissant Ave., in Ferguson, Mo., August 14, 2014, during a gathering to show concern over the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed teen killed August 9th by a Ferguson police officer. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Fiske is doing a bit of both forms of public intellectual labor in Media Matters. I argue that what runs throughout Media Matters, and specifically captured in the excellent chapter on Black Liberation Radio, are the critical tools of constructing “counter-history” and ”counter-knowledge.” I find these to be of critical importance in our struggle for racial equality. These two approaches to documenting social life serve as correctives or alternatives to the official history and knowledge, or the history and knowledge that has been institutionalized by the dominant groups in society (the power-bloc) in order to create competing ways of interpreting the world as well as reposition and reinterpret the facts of the dominant knowledge. Counter-history assembles experiences and historical events in order to reveal the workings of power relations in society and how those power relations structure societies in inequalities. Counter-history illuminates the effects of those power relations upon bodies, revealing how those bodies have been subjugated, exploited, excluded, marginalized or silenced. In addition, counter-history reveals the social formations and social positions to which those bodies have been relegated. The focus on the body emphasizes how power relations are not simply conceptual, regulating the mind, but are also physical in that our socialization is also always embodied as well. Counter-history is the embodiment of past experiences that serve as a reservoir of knowledge that has been omitted from the official record. Counter-history gathers those past experiences and articulates them, connecting the past to the present, in effort to affect the present. Counter-history challenges the production and legitimacy of truth and knowledge by calling into question what official history erases, represses, denies or excludes. Counter-history is “effective” in that it is functional in giving articulation to a multiplicity of voices, understandings, and experiences that official history tries to silence in its homogeneity. Counter-history reveals the embodied experiences and truths of the disempowered that have been omitted from the official record. As such, it highlights the ways in which events, objects, statements, are never self-evident, but are always interpreted, articulated, and put into particular contexts. In doing so, the objectivity of official history, as the production of institutionalized knowledge, is undermined and shown to be the ideology of the dominant groups that govern society. Counter-history not only reveals alternative ways of knowing and subordinated experiences, it also illuminates the material, economic and technological disparities for circulating information between groups. Counter-history is never as strong as the dominant history, nor does it seek to replace the dominant history as the only truth of the world; rather counter-history works to be “effective” as it is constructed and operates to provide documentation and testimony to subjugated positions in society. As a result, the contestation between official history and counter-histories is one which always one that cuts across social, cultural, and political-economic realms of society.

The formation of knowledge or counter-knowledge, the ways that people understand themselves and their social relations, is always a matter of constructing a set of meanings. Since facts are never self-evident, knowledge is always a process of production in the interests of a group situated within a social system of power relations. Facts are resources that are linked together—articulated—within specific social contexts for particular ideologies, politics, and practices. This process requires a constant and ongoing articulation, disarticulation, and re-articulation of facts in the construction of knowledge. Since facts are always open to disarticulation and re-articulation, we can see how the classes that dominate social relations attempt to dominate the production of meaning/knowledge. Writing a counter-history/counter-knowledge requires “stealing” or the re-articulation of facts for the interests and effectiveness of a group’s social location. Groups that challenge those dominant meanings and rearticulate them in a counter-knowledge is what enables those groups to assert and attempt to preserve identities of their own self-definition and self-understanding.

By thinking about how constructing these alternatives are both intellectual and political endeavors, we can then start to think of strategic ways of deploying this information, as we forge alliances across different groups and publics who are invested in collective social change and social equality.

[1] Burawoy, Michael. 2005. “For Public Sociology.” American Sociological Review. 70(February): 4–28)

For Fiske, change in entertainment media and change in news media both help to shape the “structure of feeling” and the political climate of the country. As you note in your introduction, “According to Fiske, culture is always political.” So, the current debates around race are taking shape alongside struggles for more inclusion and diversity in the entertainment industry, not to mention real breakthroughs in terms of the representation of race — From Scandal to Empire, from Fresh Off the Boat to Master of None. So, what tools does Fiske offer us for thinking about the interplay between news and entertainment?

I think there are two parts to this line of questioning. First, the debates around race and diversity, and second the interplay between news and entertainment. As Fiske argued, culture is political, in that the production of meaning is always a contested site of social struggle through which the social order can be reproduced, but also questioned, critiqued, challenged, and changed. This is central to Fiske’s intellectual project of cultural critique.

The current debates around race and representation, both in terms of the ways that racial identities are portrayed and presented, and in terms of the sheer numbers of people of any particular group that are represented. So in this sense, I would see Fiske as pointing not just to the content of the performance, whether or not the character reinscribes some stereotype, but rather to the pressing political shift in terms of recognition. The Oscars were a breakthrough in terms of social and political pressure applied to the awards in a way that is unprecedented. Issues of diversity are not new, but the shift in our culture, such that they are now part and parcel of movie awards is front-page news and on the public agenda in a way I don’t think we have seen before. This defines something new, some shift in the “structure of feeling” in terms of how we as a society see ourselves and how the issue of diversity, in terms of recognition and validation, around the sheer numbers of people making cultural contributions can no longer be silenced or marginalized. Furthermore, the quality and popularity of minority dominated TV programs and films, also speaks to a shift in the fabric of society. To me this speaks to a new configuration of multiculturalism, a shift in terms of how we think of diversity on many levels of social life. I think this is very important for us to reflect on, given that when I was at Berkeley as an undergraduate in the early 1990s, multiculturalism, and the possibility of requiring a course of study on the topic was the political issue of the day.

There were strikes, sit-ins, protests, coming from both the left and the right, all over the possibility of having to take a course on multiculturalism. Now I teach courses on multiculturalism. It has become institutionalized. In fact my students today have grown up in an era where multiculturalism wasn’t something to be fought for, it is something that they take for granted (at least in terms of its rhetoric). In fact, I would argue that the issue of diversity and multiculturalism is one that is reconstituting the very social organization of society. Only through making multiculturalism central to both our thinking about society, and central to our politics, can we hope to gain any purchase on achieving social cohesion and reducing, if not eliminating, the mechanisms that structure societies in inequalities.

Second, as far as the ongoing interplay of news and entertainment, we have seen nothing but an ongoing erosion since the time of Media Matters. As Fiske argued, media have fundamentally changed our social relations in contemporary society, to the point where we can no longer rely on a “news” event vs. “entertainment” event distinction. When news and entertainment blur, distinctions of truth and false, real and unreal, objective and subjective distinctions become increasingly difficult to maintain. While I agree with Fiske that we cannot succumb to a pessimistic viewpoint that society has completely “imploded” into the “hyperreal” where the world is nothing but images, I do feel at times that we are getting closer and closer to that implosion. While I try and teach my students the forms of cultural literacy and cultural analysis that Fiske taught us, I see less and less “critical” in the ways those students interpret media and the ways they put those interpretations to use in everyday life. As a result, the analysis of media events, and the kind of cultural literacy and critical analysis Fiske advocated for, becomes ever more important in helping us negotiate these cultural shifts in society today.

Black Hawk Hancock is an Associate Professor of Sociology at DePaul University. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in Sociology, and his B.A. from the University of California at Berkeley in English and Philosophy. He is both an ethnographer whose work focuses on issues of race and culture, as well as a social theorist. His first ethnographic monograph, American Allegory: Lindy Hop and the Racial Imagination was published with The University of Chicago Press. His next book, In-Between Worlds: Mexican Kitchen Workers in Chicago’s Restaurant Industry, is currently under contract at The University of Chicago Press. His theoretical work includes two books with Roberta Garner, Social Theory: Continuities and Confrontations, 3rd edition (The University of Toronto Press), and Changing Theories: New Directions in Sociology (The University of Toronto Press), while his articles have appeared in such journals as The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, and History of the Human Sciences.




Categories: Blog

From Media Matters to #blacklivesmatter: Black Hawk Hancock discusses John Fiske (Part Two)

May 27, 2016 - 8:39am

 You describe Media Matters in your introduction as a “diagnostic framework” for understanding contemporary cultural politics. What do you mean by this and can you provide some examples of what a diagnosis might look like? What symptoms might we identify and what conclusions would we draw as we think about the way the world has changed between when Fiske wrote this book and now?

I take the concept of diagnostic thinking from the political philosopher Hans Sluga, in order to show how Fiske explores the social terrain.[1] As such, I think we can see Fiske as a diagnostic thinker who seeks to understand the contemporary reality in which we live—the structures of feeling—the shifts in the social, economic, and cultural spheres of life that have opened up a multiplicity of understandings, perspectives, and ways of life that are not always compatible and congruent. In this sense he explores he racial, cultural, gender, and economic “illnesses” that are riddled through the social body, as well as offers practical modes of intervention into that illness, so that we can come to understand what is ailing us.

Media Matters offers us a diagnostic framework to unearth the cultural currents that give rise to the politics of everyday life in the media events that momentarily crystallize them. This diagnostic illuminates the ways media events can reaffirm top-down hegemonic or ideological positions, but also opens those positions up to interrogation.

By doing so, this expands our notion of the political by demonstrating how media events are never straightforward. They are always in need of analysis. Media events must be analyzed in terms of their specific contacts, and how different social positions in society render them intelligible and meaningful. Ultimately, media events reveal the complexity of social life and the social inequalities within which our contemporary society is structured.

I also think of diagnostic thinking in terms of what I consider to be the fundamental question that Fiske was always asking throughout his work—what’s going on society?—so the diagnostic approach in which one looks for symptoms, connects us to the dissection of media events. How do we treat them?

In looking at the events of Media Matters and today, there is an uncanny resonance. Once again we are thinking through an uprising in a poor African American neighborhood. As we look at the events of Ferguson, Missouri, we should ask if things really changed so much? Or are we seeing some issues of structural inequality in American society and the consequences of them when the community is pushed over the threshold?

In addition, with Antonin Scalia’s death, we are now in the political upheaval of appointing a Supreme Court Justice, as we were with Clarence Thomas back in the time of the events in Media Matters. It is hard not to think how prophetic the book is in looking ahead to what we see today.

We are at a moment when many are looking back on the period this book documents to try to understand the present moment — from a second Clinton seeking the White House to docudrama series revisiting the O.J. Simpson case. What would you hope a young person learning about the 1980s for the first time in an undergraduate class might take from Fiske’s account of this key moment of political change?

I think there are number of things that we need to consider here, most importantly the “Reagan Revolution” defined by a reactionary moral conservatisms the withdrawal of the state and social programs, the privatization of institutions, the notion of the trickle-down economy, his hostile anti-communist attitude towards Russia and the Cold War, which led to the massive military build up, the notion of “Star Wars” missile “force field” defense system—and the beginning of massive rates of incarceration. These are just a few of the issues I would hope students reflect on now.

Thinking of today, once again we have an actor, in this case Donald Trump, rather than Reagan who is now seeking the Presidency. To go through all these issues would be a course onto itself. But it is hard not to think how this whole nexus of interconnected issues shaped the world we see today. In fact with Trump, we see a resurgence of many of these issues, in terms of social panic around Islam and the rabid anti-immigrant sentiments parallel to the social panic around the Soviet Union and the rabid anti-communist sentiment of the day.

The withdrawal of the state that was occurring then has given rise to neoliberalism today. This unfettered economic logic has eroded social services and infrastructure, and has perpetuated massive economic inequality, to the consequences we have not even begun to understand.

Another significant development during this time to me, certainly defining my youth, was the rise of MTV as a cultural watershed. Here we have the full commodification of culture as spectacle. While commonplace now, maybe even irrelevant now, but then the cutting edge of music, fashion, even news, all packaged into a glossy visual medium that was nothing but advertisements. While primarily for tapes, videos, CDs and other music related commodities, MTV became the direct to consumer conduit for shaping the rise of a hyper-consumer society and the “branding” of products in ways that connected them with music stars, actors, and TV “personalities.”

I’m not sure that I can say enough about the role of MTV in shaping an entire generation, in turn completely redefining the cultural landscape, and through its indoctrination into cultural consumption, the economic landscape as well.

Your publisher placed an image of the #blacklivesmatter movement on the cover of Media Matters, and in many ways, this is the appropriate choice. Fiske describes in that book the kinds of demographic shifts (especially around race and ethnicity) which are having such an impact in today’s politics, he describes a range of “media events”, such as those around Clarence Thomas, Rodney King, and O. J. Simpson, which would become the focal point for discussions around race, class, and competing notions of the truth, and he predicts that we will see a steady stream of such “media events” moving forward. How might we use this book to make sense of some of today’s struggles around racial justice?

The Ferguson unrest, with the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in August 2014, and the months of unrest that followed, weighed heavily on my mind during my conceptualization of the introduction to Media Matters. I kept asking myself, what needed to be written for this politically charged book, in so far as it questioned and undermined the hegemonic perspectives of race, class, and gender in terms of the specific deconstructions and reconstructions of these specific media events?

In the spring of 2015 I put together a panel for the Pacific Sociological Association meetings with the Dean of the law school at UC Irvine and my colleague Bryan Sykes in the Department of Criminology, Law and Society. I titled the panel “Questions of Social Justice: Ferguson, Missouri and Beyond” I argued that the events in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York demonstrate how racial inequities in our judicial system erode perceptions of fairness among communities of color and reinforce beliefs that accountability and justice are reserved for white victims or individuals of higher social status.

Given the growing race and class stratification in employment, education, housing, and criminal justice, the purpose of the panel was to question notions of institutional legitimacy, accountability, and social justice around the unfortunate, untimely, and unnecessary deaths of young men of color. It was in constructing this panel and getting my two colleagues on board that the introduction to Media Matters took shape.

In preparing the introduction for the panel and my presentation, I began to sketch out how Ferguson was a “media event” in that it structured our view of who and what we are as a society. As a media event, Ferguson became a highly visible spectacle dominating the public consciousness and conversation. The uprising in Ferguson became a serious flashpoint where the underlying currents of racial inequality in social life boiled over into the mainstream of society. Like L.A. and Rodney King, we were able to look into the deep anxieties, conflicts, and contradictions in society that are often passed over in mainstream media or excluded from official channels of information.

What is most important is not the event itself, but the struggles that exist underneath the events, which continue on long after any one media event occurs. While the social clashes exposed in media events could lead to a political pessimism, instead they are opportunities for public debate and social engagement.

As flashpoints of cultural struggles, media events are also potential points of political intervention and political contestation opening up points of dialogue in the public sphere. I think the framework Fiske offers us, which allows us to see the multiplicity of perspectives, and the deep conflicting interpretations as to an event’s meaning and significance is essential for today’s politics and our struggles for racial justice.

While media events are highly temporal and fade as others occur and take their place in our public consciousness, we can pursue social movements around issues of racial justice by keeping those truths alive and part of public discourse. I think that movements like Black Lives Matter is doing just that, as they connect cases of police violence and the killing of young African American men across the country, showing us that the shooting of Michael Brown is not an isolated incident, but rather is a systemic problem through the country, one which demands our immediate and ongoing attention if we are to effect serious change in the way that we police society.

Black Hawk Hancock is an Associate Professor of Sociology at DePaul University. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in Sociology, and his B.A. from the University of California at Berkeley in English and Philosophy. He is both an ethnographer whose work focuses on issues of race and culture, as well as a social theorist. His first ethnographic monograph, American Allegory: Lindy Hop and the Racial Imagination was published with The University of Chicago Press. His next book, In-Between Worlds: Mexican Kitchen Workers in Chicago’s Restaurant Industry, is currently under contract at The University of Chicago Press. His theoretical work includes two books with Roberta Garner, Social Theory: Continuities and Confrontations, 3rd edition (The University of Toronto Press), and Changing Theories: New Directions in Sociology (The University of Toronto Press), while his articles have appeared in such journals as The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, and History of the Human Sciences.





[1] Sluga, Hans. 2014. Politics and the Search for the Common Good. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Categories: Blog

From Media Matters to #blacklivesmatter: Black Hawk Hancock discusses John Fiske (Part One)

May 25, 2016 - 7:44am

Full disclosure: I was lucky enough to have had a chance to study under John Fiske, first at University of Iowa where he was a visiting scholar and later at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he closed out his faculty career. He was a gifted mentor, who introduced me to the world of cultural studies, as he did so many scholars of my generation around the world. While he retired several decades ago, I was able to spend some precious time with him last fall when I was in Cambridge on leave, and he still has the same irreverent wit and critical intelligence and the same warmth as a mentor. I am still learning from him decades later.

I was honored several years ago to be asked to write the introduction to the reissues of the books he had published for Routledge, including Television Culture, which he was writing when we first met and thus will always have a special place in my heart. But the rights to two of his final books — Power Plays Power Works and Media Matters — were owned by another press.  They have recently been reissued with a thoughtful introduction, ” Learning How to Fiske,” by the sociologist Black Hawk Hancock. Hancock helps us to see why these works remain timely, even urgent, today and what lessons scholars and students might take from them to apply to understand more contemporary phenomenon.  Hancock shared with me some of the circumstances which led to their republication:

I was asked to be the keynote address for the luncheon/ acknowledgement ceremony for our AKD (honor society) students in the sociology department. Someone from the department usually does it. I usually don’t attend, but Spring of 2014 my senior colleague who runs the event was adamant that I do it. I was talking with Routledge at the time about PPPW, but nothing was decided. When you did the new editions in 2010 it lighted a fire and I pursued Verso for PPPW, since it is my favorite in terms of theory… So the night before I am to give this address, Routledge emailed and gave me the green light on a new edition. So I dropped everything, tossed the previous talk into the recycle pile and set out writing what was going to be the introduction for PPPW as I had envisioned it in my head for years. It would be a reworking of my presentation at Fiske Matters “Learning How to Fiske.” I thought what better way to leave our graduating students than with lessons learned from someone who continues to animate my intellect today—John Fiske. So at about 10 pm until 3am, I sat down and wrote down 9 lessons John taught us, lessons that were not about the classroom, but about being an intellectual and what should be expected of you as you went out into the world. So the talk was written purely from memory and was an overwhelming success. In actually putting the introduction together, I had to go back into the text to ferret out some material, but I was keen on looking at supplementary texts, as both introductions emphasize, so as not to repeat the arguments of either text verbatim.

Once they had my plan for PPPW, then they wanted MM. So that was a totally different undertaking, and I do outline the two animating factors in my thinking about MM, but again I didn’t want to just discuss the text, I wanted to let Fiske speak for Fiske. I just despise the introduction written such that it simply gives yu a summation of what the books says, rather than animates your thought about what the book can do, and that is what I attempted in the introduction to MM… I wanted the introduction to serve as a springboard for the relevance of Fiske’s approach to cultural studies and its applicability today. So the introduction to MM is really about the generative nature of Fiske’s thought and my attempt to draw out the implicit theoretical framework and tools that he undertook such a magnificent book.

If Power Plays Power Works is Hancock’s favorite, Media Matters ranks as the book I would most like to see people read today. This is where Fiske dug as deep as he ever had into the specifics of how politics worked and what media had to do with it. He was writing in the wake of Bill Clinton’s election to president — a Democratic victory after the long years of Reagan and Bush. And he saw the election as a byproduct of both demographic and discursive shifts: America was moving gradually towards a minority-majority country and as those shifts occurred, there would be an enormous amount of struggle over race, power, knowledge, which would express itself he felt through a series of media events — such as the Rodney King beating, the confirmation drama between Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, or the O.J. Simpson case — which would often be the battle ground amongst competing frames for understand larger changes taking place.  And he discussed these shifts also in terms of how these discourses worked through and upon the kinds of popular culture circulated at these same moments.

Fiske’s analysis proved enormously prescient, especially as we watch how minority voters have become essential to Democratic candidates, the so-called Obama coalition, which may well determine the outcome of the fall campaign, and as we watch the struggles over race in America play themselves online and on television in the age of #blacklivesmatter and the Dreamer movement. Not coincidentally, we are seeing dramatic television productions focused on the O.J. case (The People vs. O.J. Simpson) and Hill-Thomas (Confirmation) and we are seeing all of this spill over into entertainment television — from Scandal to Blackish, from American Crime to Fresh Off the Boat, From Empire to Master of None, etc. Fiske’s theoretical tools and methodological moves in Media Matters, thus, could not be more timely and I hope the reissue helps more people to discover this work.

Hancock was enormously generous in responding to this interview. When I typically do these interviews, I tend to ask a mix of over-the-plate questions to allow the author to spell out some of their core assumptions and more provocative ones to push beyond the book’s frame. In Hancock’s case, though, I am asking questions about a book he did not write, and I realized only later that what I really wanted was for him to channel John Fiske and tell us how his ideas would have changed in response to, say, Donald Trump. It’s a bit like that moment in Bladerunner where they zoom in on a door knob and see around corners. In any case, Hancock has put an incredible amount of time and effort into providing substantive responses to my sometimes off-the-wall questions, for which I am much impressed and very grateful. The result is an extensive interview which reflects on Fiske, race and American politics from a range of different angles.

John Fiske remains one of the most controversial thinkers in the global Cultural Studies tradition — admired by his students, attacked harshly by critics. Why do you think his work remains so divisive? To what degree is the divisiveness part of what has made his work so generative?

I think a number of factors play into Fiske being a controversial thinker. First and foremost, the central role of resistance—by which ordinary people, through their own conscious or unconscious uses of the material and symbolic resources around them, defied being absorbed into some sort of mindless conformity of a uni-dimensional or mass society—drew the most backlash. This was often caricaturized or dismissed. I think the problem was that his critics failed to read him or just refused to take this seriously.

I find it comical now that so many of those names have faded into obscurity, while Fiske’s work is coming out in new editions. His work continues to endure precisely because of this issue.

Fiske was not simply concerned with Foucault and De Certeau, he worked across disciplines to gather the theoretical tools he uses—drawing from a wide range of theorists—Mikhail Bakhtin, Michele De Certeau, Michel Foucault, Antonio Gramsci, Stuart Hall, Valentine Voloshinov, and Raymond Williams. Other scholars may have drawn on some of these figures in their work, but Fiske drew on the all of them to construct his conceptual frameworks.

Furthermore, the role resistance played in his work was never something established a priori, but was only revealed by actually going out and seeing what was going on—what people were actually doing in everyday life. At the time he was writing, political economy and rational choice theory were dominant theoretical paradigms in the social sciences and communication studies. Fiske refused to fall into any sort of determinism or reductionism, structuralism, positivism, etc…or that any one social structure (political economy) could explain the complexity of social life.

Finally, he refused to think that people were duped by the system, or take an elitist position, like Pierre Bourdieu, that they were simply not smart enough to understand their own conditions of subordination and are therefore complicit in their own domination. Academics who accused him of promoting a “populist” agenda was absurd and intellectually irresponsible. Most of them fell into the very Bourdieusean elitism I mentioned, while Fiske was simply arguing that people are aware of their social conditions and can carve out spaces of autonomy, self-control, and agency relative to those social conditions.

As I started to think about the new introductions to Power Plays Power Works and Media Matters, I went back and looked at some of the original critiques and thought how ironic they were since, at least as an ethnographer and a sociologist or race and culture, Fiske’s ideas are taken for granted, in that they have become absorbed into our intellectual horizon. This is one of the main reasons that his work continues to speak to us today. In the ever-expanding neoliberalism and globalization, his works remain touchstones to help us think about ways of countering these social forces that are eating away at the social fabric of society today.

For those who have a stereotypical conception of Fiske’s work, what sets the late work, especially Media Matters, but also Power Plays, Power Works, apart, from the earlier writings?  What do you think shifted in his thinking as he entered this final phase of his career?

I’m not so sure I would see them as radically different from his other work, in the kind of breaks or periods of thought in the works Foucault for example, but I do see in these two books the full crystallization of his methodological pluralism and theoretical synthesis. I also think that these two books are two sides of the same coin, in that Power Plays Power Works contributes in terms of theoretical frameworks for interpreting the world, whereas Media Matters contributes in providing the concrete empirical analysis of socio-historical events. I think they support each other while showing opposite ends of the intellectual spectrum.

Having thought a bit more about this, I could also say that the depth in which Fiske was exploring Foucault’s work, how central that became to him, does define the two works as different from the others. Power Plays goes deep into Foucault’s thought, and sets up the theoretical apparatus that he would use in Media Matters.

I think that is pivotal in thinking through these two works because when read together, there was a need, or so it seems to me, in this more Foucaultian approach to extend beyond reading popular culture and move into the realm of the concrete politics defining our time. In a sense Fiske becomes his own “specific” intellectual, to use Foucault’s term, for intervening into particular debates within which one has expertise. In the end that may be why Media Matters is such a charged and passionate book in its intensity and searing critical commentary.

Black Hawk Hancock is an Associate Professor of Sociology at DePaul University. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in Sociology, and his B.A. from the University of California at Berkeley in English and Philosophy. He is both an ethnographer whose work focuses on issues of race and culture, as well as a social theorist. His first ethnographic monograph, American Allegory: Lindy Hop and the Racial Imagination was published with The University of Chicago Press. His next book, In-Between Worlds: Mexican Kitchen Workers in Chicago’s Restaurant Industry, is currently under contract at The University of Chicago Press. His theoretical work includes two books with Roberta Garner, Social Theory: Continuities and Confrontations, 3rd edition (The University of Toronto Press), and Changing Theories: New Directions in Sociology (The University of Toronto Press), while his articles have appeared in such journals as The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, and History of the Human Sciences.




Categories: Blog

What Kinds of Difference Do Superheroes Make?: An Interview with Ramzi Fawaz (Part Three)

May 20, 2016 - 11:40am

You discuss the “queerness” of certain superhero characters — notably the Fantastic Four. In what senses are you using this term and what does it capture about these characters and their relationship to the dominant construction of American family life during this period?

I use the term queerness broadly to describe modes of being in the world that thwart the direction of presumed heterosexual desire and life outcomes, including monogamous romantic coupling, marriage, and reproduction. The terms strikes me as an incredibly powerful and compelling descriptor of comic book superheroes in the 1960s and 1970s because these characters’ stories focused so intently on the ways that misfit, outcast, and mutant superheroes constructed alternative kinships, struggled with competing romantic desires, found themselves more invested in relationships with other outcasts (as opposed to traditional marriage and romance), and often sidelined the goal of reproduction for other practices of world-making.

The Fantastic Four is a brilliant example of the queerness of superhero comics in the 1960s because it depicted four heroes who’s family bond is a chosen kinship (two of the characters are bound by blood but they are orphans). The four become a family both because of their shared experience of being mutated by cosmic rays, but also because of shared ethical values and investments.

The flexibility of their kinships allows them to pursue relationships of affinity and common cause with all manner of life in the universe so that, within the first decade of the series publication, the characters had made allies and community throughout the cosmos. Finally, because queerness references questions of intimacy, sexuality, and kinship, it allows us to talk about how comics successfully projected new kinds of bodily fantasies through these categories, and by making the superhero more vulnerable to human needs and desires.

There has been a concerted effort by Marvel in recent years to diversify their cast of superhero characters, thus we have a black Spider-man, an American Muslim Ms. Marvel, an all-female superhero team, a female Thor, in comics and the emergence of Jessica Jones and Agent Carter on television. In what ways is this push to diversity an outgrowth of the developments you discuss here? In what ways are the underlying approaches to diversity different?

Ultimately, I think the difference between today’s diversification of characters in Marvel Comics versus the diversity presented in 1960s and 1970s comic book worlds is a distinction between the goals of representational diversity on the one hand, and the investment in exploring the problem of difference on the other. In other words, the mere expansion of different kinds of characters—women, ethno-racial minorities, the disabled etc.—is distinct from the project of exploring how people are different from one another and what they do in response to those differences.

Certainly, the creative world-making of 1960s and 1970s comic book production involved an expansion of the representational diversity of superhero characters—including the introduction of African American, Native American, and international casts of characters and increasing numbers of women superheroes—but this diversification took place within a broader ethos of exploring difference, encountering a range of people throughout the universe, and responding to their unique worldviews.

There are many elements of today’s increasingly representational diversity that are compelling, but this push lacks a fundamental attentiveness or interest in the problem of difference—that is, how people negotiate the fact of their differences from one another—which leaves the diversity of contemporary superhero characters flat and, frankly, boring. I discuss the distinction between these two models of diversity at length in a piece I wrote for Avidly the LA Review of Books blog: http://avidly.lareviewofbooks.org/2016/01/28/the-difference-a-mutant-makes/.

What is interesting about a character like Jessica Jones, to take one example, is not simply that she is a woman superhero, but that she is different than most superheroes in the Marvel Universe because she doesn’t necessarily feel compelled to use her powers for a broader ethical mission. She is, at core, a good person, but she doesn’t have grandiose visions of her own heroism.

This is a difference that matters, in a sense, because it means her motivations, investments, and actions are guided by totally different criteria than most of her fellow superhumans in the Marvel Universe. Her gender plays a role in this difference and significantly shapes how she views hero work, but it isn’t the single or most important variable in the formation of her character.

The series explores the multiple articulations of her difference from other Marvel heroes, including but not limited to her gender, and paints a beautifully complex, gritty, and sometimes unpleasant portrait of this deeply divided character. Her series, then, addressed a substantive difference while also diversifying the ranks of superhero comic books. This is the kind of diversity I find compelling, what I would call true heterogeneity, and that I argue superhero comics championed in the 1960s and after.

Ramzi Fawaz is Assistant Professor of English and Affiliate Faculty in the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at UW Madison. His first book, The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics won the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies Fellowship Award for best first book in LGBT Studies

Categories: Blog

What Kinds of Difference Do Superheroes Make?: An Interview of Ramzi Fawaz (Part Two)

May 17, 2016 - 6:36am

What roles do formal aspects of comics play in your analysis? Is your book primarily about ideological change or does it also help us to understand the visual strategies of comics as a medium?

Perhaps one of the greatest pitfalls of comics scholarship has been the tendency to separate formal innovation in the medium from social and cultural context. Some scholars have sought to produce universal theories or concepts for explaining how the formal mechanics of comics function, including the movement and flow of sequential panels, various conceptual uses of “the gutter” (the space between panels), the spatial arrangement of narrative, and so forth. While such efforts are valuable for understanding how the medium works in a broad sense, they cannot explain how particular formal qualities of comics get articulated or linked to distinct ways of knowing, seeing, or understanding the world at particular historical moments (or for specific creative projects).

In other words, it’s one thing to explain how the movement of panels across space conveys the passage of time in a comic strip, but wholly another to show how this movement across space is deployed for a variety of different purposes in different kinds of comics, graphic narratives, or works of art. For example, in action and superhero comics the temporal movements across space might signal speed, intensity, or action, while in a graphic novel about AIDS in the 1980s it might signal the deterioration of the human body under the strain of illness across time.

In my book I stress the fact that comic book creators in the 1960s and after actively articulated the formal qualities of the comics medium to new kinds of values and ideals related to the image of the outcast or mutant superhero: for example, the expanded scale of global and intergalactic adventure these heroes engaged took advantage of the idea central to comics art that anything that can be drawn can be believed. In other words, creators realized that if they presented readers with a massive double-page collage of a distant alien planet, readers would believe it; or if they drew superheroes shrinking to the size of a molecule, that would be believable too.

The ideal of global and cosmic encounter between mutants, misfits, and freaks across all manner of differences then, was materialized through a formal scaling upward of the visual field of comic book art. Similarly, the space between panels, which commonly denotes movement across time, was used to underscore the mutating and shape shifting qualities of this new generation of superheroes: a hero that appeared as an ordinary human in one panel, might appear on fire in the next, invisible, encased in metal, solid rock, or altogether not there.

Creators exploited this visual trope by making the transition between different embodied forms appear ever more strange, vivid, or intense in order to underscore a variety of bodily transformations that were indicative of the diversity of modern superheroes. In and of itself, of course, the ability to visually depict change across the space of multiple sequential panels is nothing new as a formal trope in the comics medium; rather what was new in the 1960s was the linking of that formal trope to particular instances of bodily transformation. I try to highlight these moments to show how form was one vehicle through which creators expressed a new set of values and creative or imaginative ideals to their audiences.

What roles did comics fandom play in tapping into what you are calling popular fantasy? Would these texts have been as significant on their own terms without the larger conversations and debates they provoked amongst fans?

The significance and cultural power that superhero comics had in the late 20th century would have been severely limited without the existence of a vibrant fan community. This is not to say that the comics would not have been popular or subsequently worth studying, but that their public, social, and cultural dimensions would have been intensely circumscribed. Simply put, fan communities made a form of mass culture (the mass produced superhero comic book) into a form of American public culture (a shared object of collective concern involving a range of participants).

By responding directly to comic book content, using their collective influence to transform the ideals and creative innovations of comics, and participating in a variety of public dialogues about the meaning, nature, and value of superheroes and their medium of origin, fans made superheroes matter, both figuratively in the sense of their significance or social value, but also literally by encouraging the actual material production of more superhero stories across time.

I see fans as neither simply the catalysts for, nor the pure consumers of, superhero comics, but as central participants in the production and circulation of the imaginative worlds presented in their pages. Whether or not Stan Lee or Jack Kirby intended to make a statement about feminism when they introduced the character Sue Storm as the Invisible Girl in The Fantastic Four, it was readers who brought the character within the orbit of feminist debates, demanding a more significant presence for the character in the series, disagreeing with those who believed women superheroes were weak or useless, and underscoring the values of gender diversity in comics. Fans allow us to move our attention away from questions of authorial intention towards shared practices of meaning making, which I believe is a far more compelling and substantive way to understand what role comics have played in our culture.

Given the dramatic ideological reworking of the superhero you describe between its origins in the 1930s and 1940s and what it would become in the post-war period, what accounts for the persistence of this genre over time? Why did not the earlier configuration die out as has to a large degree happened to the western or the Musical?

First, I believe superhero stories remain compelling because of the extraordinary range of ways they can be told. The Western and the Musical both had very long lives (and they are certainly not “dead,” though they may have lost their exceptional popularity), but they were often fixed formulas with a limited number of permutations.

Superhero stories are broad because the genre is less defined by a distinct narrative structure than by a figure, a person with unusual or exceptional abilities, who can be placed in an endless set of scenarios. Until or unless we simply cease to have bodies at all, in a rapidly technologically advancing society fantasies of bodily capacity or superhuman ability will continue to be a key site where we imagine, work through, or grapple with both the limits and possibilities of humans’ ability to influence the material world.

At the same time, the specific popularity of the superhero in media like film and television has a lot to do with special effects technology; the mere fact that we can now visualize some of these formerly drawn fantasies as though they were “real life” on screen is one driving force behind big-budget film adaptations of superhero comic book stories. In the golden age of Hollywood musicals, the technical ability to choreograph and film large numbers of people in synchronized dance was one motivation (among others) for producing these films.

The long gap in superhero filmmaking between the original Superman and Batman movies and the more recent film adaptations of superhero stories that started with the 1999 release of the first X-Men film had much to do with the failure of special effects technology to adequately capture the full extent of different superheroes’ abilities. With recent advances in special effects technology that allow for the visual representation of such abilities, these movies have exploded in popularity.

At the same time, during an extended period of intense national crisis, it makes sense that a figure that can easily be articulated to physical and military power has taken a hold on the American imagination. Since so many of these movies are quite literally expressions of technological power—the power to represent superhuman power itself—they often jettison the egalitarian political values of their comic book counterparts for epic stories of Manichean conflict between superhuman champions. They are essentially fantasies of technological superiority in a chaotic world.

Categories: Blog

What Kinds of Difference Do Superheroes Make?: An Interview with Ramzi Fawaz (Part One)

May 13, 2016 - 4:48am

From time to time, I use this blog to showcase new books released as part of the Postmillenial Pop book series which Karen Tongson and I oversee for New York University Press. As always, we are interested in hearing from writers and scholars who are doing projects which fit within the flexible boundaries of this particular series — we are looking for ground-breaking work on all aspects of popular media and culture, work that may explore themes anchored in the past but which always does so with an awareness of contemporary developments, especially those having to do with diversity and inclusion.

Ramzi Fawaz fits our notion of Postmillenial Pop perfectly, and it’s been a pleasure to work with him as he has developed and published his book, The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination. The book has been out for only a short while and it has already generated extraordinary responses. Here are just a few:

“A powerhouse one-of-a-kind book! By charting the radical transformations of the comic book superhero in the post-war period, Fawaz brings to light the extraordinary secret history of American Otherness. Truly fantastic.”

—Junot Díaz, Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

“I have never encountered anyone–not Art Spiegelman, R. Crumb, Douglas Wolk, Stephen Burt, or even Michael Chabon–who has addressed himself to superheroes with Ramzi Fawaz’s generosity of spirit and unsatisfiable critical fervor. In this book, one is caught up in the way in which we and the likes of Superman, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and the Silver Surfer share a common terrain of both history and imagination. All sorts of people will bring a long-nurtured, even fetishized familiarity to Fawaz’s pages, and it won’t survive–the most familiar stories are, here, radically, thrillingly new.”

—Greil Marcus, author of Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music

Here are just a few of the things I admire about this book: Fawaz knows his stuff — he combines a fan’s attention to the specifics of comics history with a scholar’s bent for theoretical insights especially having to do with race, queerness, global politics, and otherness. He takes his comic-book superheroes on their own terms with the right mix of playfulness and seriousness. He believes the comics of the 1960s and 1970s matter — in part because they offered alternative conceptions of masculinity, Americanness, and sexuality, that did not bubble up into the mainstream very many places in the popular and mass media of the era. They provide us with “memory traces” of a period of profound disruption and transition. He is not afraid to discuss the progressive and even radical potentials he sees within these larger-than-life stories, as well as to explore the ways that these graphic storytellers often compromised in their efforts to tell this stories through a commercial medium. And he sees the fans and the letters they wrote to the publishers as a kind of alternative public sphere, where people are willing to play with the possibilities for difference that these comics open up within their civic imagination.

All of this makes The New Mutants a lively read and perhaps one of the most provocative accounts of popular media I’ve seen in recent years. I strongly recommend this book, which has implications well beyond the emerging field of comics studies, since it represents such a great model for historically grounded ideological analysis of popular culture in all of its many variations.

As I’ve gotten to know the author better through our interactions around the book, I have come to value his passionate insights and challenging perspectives on popular media and the scope of his interests and expertise. What follows is a guide to how and why superhero stories matter and how and why we should integrate them more fully into our teaching and scholarship.

Why study superhero comics and especially why study superhero comics now?

At their core, superhero comic books tell stories about people gifted with extraordinary (and impossible) abilities who must contend with the question of what to do with those abilities: whether to use them to serve their own interests, to benefit others, to hide them altogether, or to forward a particular vision of progress, social change, or collective governance. These stories are fantasies in the sense that they explore bodily capacities—shapeshifting, controlling the weather, rapid healing, intangibility, super strength etc.—that humans do not actually have access to, in order to both take pleasure in the imaginative possibilities of expanded ability (which, let’s face it, is just plain old fun) and to meditate on what kinds of choices people make with the powers at their disposal.

Superhero comic books then, are a living archive of our collective fantasies about a number of concerns including the nature of power (its pleasures and dangers), the meaning of ethical action and collective good, visual pleasure in witnessing impossible abilities, and the capacity to change the world. In that sense, superhero comics have a lot to tell us about the underlying desires, dreams, and aspirations that have motivated the American imagination in the 20th century; tracing how superheroic fantasy changes over time gives us insight into larger transformations in what it is that Americans fantasize about, how they struggle over competing visions of the use of power and force, and how they use visual media like comics to creatively narrate alternatives to their own conditions of existence.

Take for example the rise of the superhero team in the 1960s compared to the popularity of singular crime-fighting heroes in the 1930s and 1940s. In the 1930s and 1940s, Americans through the Great Depression and a second World War were drawn to fantasy figures like Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Captain America who were gifted with exceptionally enhanced strength, speed, agility, and fighting power. These heroes used their abilities against a variety of threats to the American way of life including fascism, poverty, political corruption, and organized crime. At a moment when the twin pillars of Americanism—democracy and capitalism—were in terminal crisis, such visions of individual will power, strength, and invulnerability projected fantasies of control over one’s destiny in a world where individual Americans had lost the sense that their personal choices could make any difference in assuaging large-scale economic and political catastrophe.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, however, superhero teams—collectives of individual superheroes binding together to use their powers in the interest of global and intergalactic peacekeeping—became extremely popular; unlike the culture of bootstrap individualism celebrated in previous superhero stories, 1960s superhero comics were dominated by narratives of cooperation, shared deliberation about the nature of a common good, and collective action against threats to the survival of a variety of species throughout the cosmos. These comics tell us something about the shifting fantasies of power that Americans held across this period, including the increasing desire for new forms of collective life and innovative ways to imagine cooperative practices of global care and ethical action.

Neither the individualist superhero nor the superhero team were mere reflections of their times; rather they were extended creative meditations on what it would mean to enact, deploy, and inhabit different modes of power (whether individual will or collective action) at historical moments when those forms of power were in flux or just starting to emerge as genuine political possibilities: we might recall, for example, how in the late 1950s and early 1960s, global peacekeeping organizations like the United Nations and UNESCO, and egalitarian political movements like the Students for a Democratic Society, the Civil Rights Movement, and third world movements were beginning to provide models of what internationally oriented and democratic forms of governance could look like.

While comics reflected these realities, they also told epic tales of superheroic cooperation that unfolded over years of narrative storytelling, thereby producing extended explorations about what possibilities might unfold from the collective actions of formerly independent heroes; these stories necessarily projected a variety of possible outcomes to projects for global peace.

We should study superhero comics now because the fantasies they narrated and visualized throughout the 20th century have captured the imagination of almost every major American media outlet. While comic book characters and scenarios have appeared in a variety of American media forms since the 1960s (including the acclaimed Wonder Woman TV show, the Spider-Man and Super Friends Saturday morning cartoon shows, and the original Superman movies), starting in the late 1990s, that media influence has accelerated at an exceptional pace; even as Americans read less and less actual comics, they encounter superhero comic book characters with greater frequency and intensity in big-budget Hollywood films, web comics, video games, animated features, television series, toys and merchandise.

This suggests both the incredible durability of this particular fantasy figure, and its ability to do and mean different things in different media platforms. If for not other reason than its continued visibility and popularity, we should be curious about why this figure holds such a powerful sway over the American cultural imagination, and how its appearances in different formats accomplishes vastly differing kinds of work.

Your primary focus throughout the book is on superhero comics of the 1960s and 1970s. What’s changing about the genre during this period and why?

The 1960s and 1970s represented an extraordinary renaissance in superhero comic book production and creativity. The central creative transformation that helped catapult the superhero comic book to new heights of popularity was the intention reinvention of the superhero from a figure of white masculinity, individualism, and Americanism into a genetic and species outcast.

In this period, comic book creators began to introduce a new pantheon of heroic figures who comprised a generations of mutants, freaks, misfits, monsters, aliens, and cosmic beings who questioned all kinds of assumptions about what it meant to be an ordinary human, or to be an “exceptional” heroic being. These characters—like the molecularly transformed members of the Fantastic Four, or the mutant X-Men, heroes gifted with abilities due to a genetic evolution in their DNA—articulated the value of difference itself, rather than simply exceptional humanity. They modeled surprisingly complex strategies for negotiating a world filled with ever more diverse superheroes, human allies, alien species, and cosmic beings.

In my book, I argue that this creative shift radically altered the fundamental visual and narrative structures of superhero storytelling: this included the visual scaling upward of superhero comics from the local settings of inner city life (where characters like Superman and Batman traditionally fought urban crime) to a vast range of global and intergalactic locales where superheroes met unexpected allies and fellow travelers, encountered conflicts on distant worlds that echoed the internecine struggles of warring humans, and found ways of finding common cause with people unlike them.

In other words, comics in this period became visually more bombastic, colorful, and expansive in their scope, depicting superheroes traveling the world and the far reaches of space, uncharted civilizations, and even the infinitesimal world of molecules and atoms.

Simultaneously, comics in this period became more responsive to a new generation of young readers who were being influenced by the New Left, the counterculture, and the Civil Rights movements. These readers were savvy teenagers and young adults who sought out the pleasures of comic book fantasy both to be entertained and to see their burgeoning political values modeled and explored in their favorite imaginative stories. Through published letters to the editor, fan clubs, and comic book conventions, readers found new ways to communicate their values and aspirations to creators who engaged with, incorporated, and sometimes productively disagreed with readers’ worldviews. Ultimately, this meant that 1960s and 1970s superhero comics were the product of complex negotiations between creators and readers, rather than merely the creative invention of a single author or creative team.

You discuss the political project of postwar superhero comics as a kind of “world-making.” What do you mean by world-making and how does this concept help us to understand the ways that such comic books might contribute to fostering public discussions around core issues of their times?

I use the term “world-making” to describe acts of creative innovation—including the imaginative invention of fictional characters and stories, and the development of new aesthetic techniques—that facilitate the formation of social bonds, networks, or interactions in the everyday world. In this way, I see world-making as the site where creative or imaginative labor comes into contact with the work of forging solidarities, affinities, and connections in the social realm.

I borrow the term from the fields of science fiction studies and queer theory: in science fiction studies, world-making (often used interchangeably with the term world-building) is understood as the creative work that goes into forming a fully functioning, internally coherent fictional world with its own rules, values, logics, and flow. In this understanding, world-making is a kind of loving attention to the richness, detail, and complexity of a social system that one has imagined into being.

In queer theory, a variety of thinkers like José Muñoz, Lauren Berlant, and Michael Warner, have used world-making to describe the creative and gutsy ways that sexual minorities have invented cultural practices—from drag performance, to camp, to underground sex cultures, to artists’ salons—that allow them to find community and belonging within a larger dominant culture that denigrates and despises them. In this sense, world-making is understood as involving strategies of social survival that allow one to flourish among others who similarly do not fit into the prescribed logics of a homophobic, sexist, and racist society.

In The New Mutants, I deploy world-making in such a way as to link these two senses of the term. I seek to gain leverage on the ways that the creative development of fictional fantasy worlds can contribute to the production of everyday intimate bonds that produce spaces of social possibility for marginalized and outcast people.

This understanding of world-making helps us grasp how superhero comic books of the 1960s and after produced expansive creative worlds (or fictional “universes”) populated by misfit and outcast characters who’s exploits galvanized a generation of readers to forge substantive social investments in the content of comics and their collective reading practices. Superhero comics readers in this period had the opportunity to write to creators (and potentially have their letters published in monthly letters columns appearing at the end of individual issues), respond to one another’s published letters, convene in fan clubs, collaboratively produce fan zines discussing their viewpoints and investments in various series and characters, and potentially join the comic book writing and drawing community.

The creative worlds that comic book companies like Marvel and DC produced in the 1960s then, actively helped forge a social network devoted to exploring the cultural and political ramifications of the stories they were telling; readers of these stories often thought of themselves as outsiders or maladjusts to the norms of American society, not only in their sense of being fans of a denigrated popular media like comics, but also for some, in their attachment to the egalitarian and democratic ideals espoused by so many of their favorite comics. World-making accurately describes this phenomenon and allows us to gain a better understanding of the ways that fictional or fantasy storytelling shapes social life.

Ramzi Fawaz is Assistant Professor of English and Affiliate Faculty in the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at UW Madison. His first book, The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics won the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies Fellowship Award for best first book in LGBT Studies.

Categories: Blog

Civic Paths Hotspot: Remixing the U.S. Presidential Campaign

May 10, 2016 - 9:42am

Donald Trump for President? Don’t make me laugh!

Well, actually, laughter may be one of the most effective forms of political speech in an election cycle with so many over-sized personalities, so many odd twists of fortune, so many outrageous statements from all the parties involved. We are reminded of an earlier political advertisement from the 1972 U.S. Presidential election where laughing away the opposition turned out to be a key gesture.

Over the past term, the Civic Paths research group has been developing a shared framework for thinking about contemporary politics, one which has been inspired by the groundwork we had done for our recently released book, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism. Here are a few of the defining traits we’ve been talking about together:

  • Activists have always promoted social change by tapping the civic imagination. That is, before you can change the world, you have to imagine what a better world looks like. More and more, young people are using popular culture references as a shared frame of reference for debating the kinds of future they want. This form of the civic imagination tells us what we are fighting for.
  • The civic imagination may also require us to envision dystopian alternatives — worlds gone bad, evil triumphing — so we know what we are fighting against.
  • Activist media is designed to circulate — it is spreadable — through informal social networks both on-line and off, and one of the most effective ways to insure circulation is to make people laugh.
  • These new forms of activism rely on the mechanisms of participatory culture: young people — many of whom would not have been politically active otherwise — are being drawn into engagement via what researchers are calling participatory politics.
  • So, one of the ways to bring these insights together is to be attentive of the ways popular culture and politics are remixed into memes which circulate within and sometimes spread beyond participatory culture communities.

These memes can deploy a range of different media, as we will see — from the tangible to the digital, from images to videos. We are thus seeing a Bernie Sanders-themed musical, modeled upon Hamilton, and Donald Trump as a evil warlord in the world of Game of Thrones, to cite just two examples, of the civic imagination at play.

Sanders ( Bernie Sanders + Hamilton ) from Tabitha Holbert on Vimeo.

We hosted a show and tell session where members of our research group identified examples of grassroots mashups of the political process that were circulating within their own communities. We brought them together for comparison and analysis. And what follows here are short pieces intended to share some of the conversation they engendered. Many of these, as you will see, use parody to express ideas about what is going on out there on the campaign trail and to share what it might mean for the people who will be most impacted by the outcome.

We’ve love to see examples you encounter in your own social networks and especially we would love to see examples of how these same practices may be deployed by conservative groups, given that most of our examples take a more progressive stance. These materials are ephimeral, but significant, in understanding how politics works today. So, we are trying to assemble our own archive for future research and teaching.


“Participatory Aesthetics” by TJ Billard

hyperakt (hyperakt.com), Brooklyn, NY

Shawn Hazen (hazencreative.com), Chicago, IL

Both of these pictures demonstrate the way appropriating the graphic elements–and in particular typeface–of Obama’s campaign allows citizen content producers to contribute to the campaign’s messaging. The first of these pictures is interesting for two reasons: it uses Gotham (the typeface used by Obama’s campaign) to tie the image into the campaign’s official content, and it uses the famous picture of Barack and Michelle as well; but it also riffs on Shepard Fairey’s HOPE poster, engaging simultaneously with the official campaign content, as well as other citizen-created content. The second image more simply reflects the appropriation of the campaign’s official typeface and color palette, blurring the lines between citizen-originated content and campaign-originated content.


Mark America Great Again by Yomna Elsayed

We have witnessed some extreme, sometimes “surreal”, political rhetoric this election season. But, many times the response to surreal rhetoric such as that of Trump or Cruz, was equally surreal, even hilarious. After all jokes are a temporary displacement from the control of the conscious to the arbitrariness of the subconscious[1]. Hence it was not surprising to see comedy flourish in atmospheres of fear and racism. Lawrence Levine in his Black culture and black consciousness records how slaves used humor for a variety of purposes from self-control, by releasing a wide range of inhibiting energies and feelings, to subversion and control of the social situation, by using the majority’s stereotypes in their humor “in order to rob them of their power to hurt and humiliate”. Jewish humor was also utilized as a “political weapon and as a provocative form of entertainment during (and in response to) an extreme state of a culture under threat of extermination”[2]. In either case, one can say that humor was a response to a situation that goes beyond human reason, one that deals with primitive human feelings of hate and fear. Humor certainly entertains, but it also works to challenge our perceptions by inviting us to reconsider taken-for-granted assumptions in a different light, bringing about cognitive dissonance to our clearly defined unproblematic understanding of the world. It does so, without necessarily incurring our resistance, but rather clandestinely encouraging us to laugh at ourselves in the company of others. Ultimately, notes Levine, laughter is a social phenomenon.

At a time of conflict, our response to jokes depends not only on how clever they are, but on our relation to their subjects and butts as well. Therefore, the more we identify with a leader the less we are going to enjoy jokes at his or her expense[3]. Hence jokes demarcate by defining those who share the joke as ‘we’, and those who don’t, as the ‘other’. But to muster the will to laugh at someone is to exert power on oneself and others; a power to overcome one’s helplessness in response to what appears to be a ridiculous situation on one hand, and to turn the tables and laugh at those in power (a temporary exchange of places) on the other. In colloquial Egyptian, if someone successfully ridicules someone we’d say, “He has left a mark on them” and that’s precisely what humor does. Humor could be a temporary release of energy, but it is also one that leaves visible marks on what once seemed to be unconquerable.

This election season, Trump has been the subject of many comedy shows from SNL sketches to the daily show’s satirical commentary. His outrageous comments regarding minorities, coupled with his unrestrained trolling, made him an amusing figure to media pundits and comedians alike. Other less professional ones, focused on Trump supporters by attending Trump rallies and recording their reactions to seeing an unlikely face. Though others suggested that this maybe an opportunity to reach out to Trump supporters (who “identified with Trump for a reason”) rather than simply ridicule them. However, of the funny videos circulated around Trump, “Your Drunk Neighbor: Trump” stands out to me.

“Your Drunk Neighbor: Donald Trump” has so far garnered over 1 million views since its release in October 2015. The video appeal lay in its use of incongruity, and surprise to draw laughter from viewers. This was one of the few sketches that removed Trump from the presidential candidate podium to a more familiar setting and character: a drunk neighbor. By juxtaposing Donald Trump speeches with the familiar image or frame of “your drunk neighbor”, it exposes the irrationality and lack of seriousness in choosing Trump as a presidential candidate: much like choosing your drunk neighbor for president. However, this video would not have been as successful if it did not build its humor on grounds of a non-threatening familiar situation1, such as that of drinking beer over your porch’s rocking chair in a warm summer afternoon. Furthermore, a recent survey by the university of Quinnipiac, showed that Trump’s name had a polarizing effect “on Americans attitudes about general statements and policies” advocated by the presidential candidate. With such polarization, humorous videos like “Your Drunk Neighbor”, can take away the edge of political criticism, inviting viewers, supporters or not, to assess their position in a non-threatening light situation of both entertainment and release. For Trump himself, one can say, at the very least, it “leaves a mark”.

[1] Douglas, M. (1968). The social control of cognition: Some factors in joke perception. Man 3(3), 361-376.

[2] Kaplan, L. (2009). In Jenkins, H., McPherson, T., & Shattuc, J. (Eds.), Hop on Pop: The politics and pleasure of popular culture. Duke University Press Books.

[3] Lewis, P. (2006). “Divided We Laugh”. In Cracking up: American humor in a time of conflict. University of Chicago Press, pp 1-20.


Collection of Election-related folk art for sale on Etsy by Samantha Close

From left to right:

“Ted Cruz Republican Leading the Fight” from ConservativeArt

“Feel the Laser Bern” from DanSchaubDesigns

“Women for Hillary jewelry” from slrfreespiritjewelry

“Donald Trump doll” from TobeyTimeCrochet


The stuff of politics is never supposed to be important.  Signs get taken down, pamphlets get thrown away, and people move on to laws, policies, and budget disputes.  In traditional thinking, this arena of financial appropriations and negotiating which and what laws make it on the books is the important political “stuff,” the way you see what the candidates are really made of.  There is a lot of truth to this.

But, as Stephen Duncombe (2007) points out, this is also a highly intellectualized, rationalized, and cerebral way of understanding politics that misses out on much of what inspires and motivates people to take part.  The craft and folk art objects related to candidates in the 2016 presidential election that are pictured here suggest a different, more affective and emotional relationship to politics that requires an outlet in durable, material stuff that will remain long after the candidates are selected and the election concluded.

The contemporary political climate in the United States, as many of my comrades are pointing out in this discussion, is often highly cynical.  Political talk is heavily inflected by irony, humor, and sarcasm—to the extent that, at first glance, many might wonder if the folk art pictured here isn’t taking the piss rather than being sincere.  It’s an elitist, urban—Duncombe might say traditional leftist—sensibility that sees a hagiographic woodcut or hand-penciled (and sharpie-d) portrait as parody rather than proud declaration of identification and admiration (Sweeney, 1997).

Particularly in communication and cultural studies scholarship, this kind of highly invested affective relationship is more familiar in the realm of fandom—we would have little pause in characterizing a Harry Potter amigurumi doll as made out of love.  It is past time that we take as much care and bring as much nuance to analyzing how identification works on an emotional level in the domain of political communication as we do in the domain of popular communication (for one example of such analysis, see Liana Gamber-Thompson (2016) on Libertarian fandom).

Such a politics is at once more and less empowering for the average citizen and very different from how we were taught that our political system works in sixth-grade civics.  It much more closely resembles the Christian “What Would Jesus Do?” philosophy, oriented towards the impact of identification and belief in daily life rather than in official spheres (Jackson, 2006).  This is in line with the religious overtones and symbolism of much candidate-related folk art.  This election folk art suggests a different interpretation of the ubiquitous question “does my vote matter?”  It matters because it matters to the voter, not necessarily for them.

Duncombe, S. (2007). Dream: re-imagining progressive politics in an age of fantasy. New York: New Press ; Distributed by W.W. Norton.
Jackson, G. S. (2006). “What Would Jesus Do?”: Practical Christianity, Social Gospel Realism, and the Homiletic Novel. PMLA, 121(3), 641–661.
Jenkins, H., Shresthova, S., Gamber-Thompson, L., Kligler-Vilenchik, N., & Zimmerman, A. M. (2016). By any media necessary: the new activism of American youth. New York: New York University Press.
Sweeney, G. (1997). The King of White Trash Culture: Elvis Presley and the Aesthetics of Excess. In M. Wray & A. Newitz (Eds.), White trash: race and class in America (pp. 249–266). New York: Routledge.


It’s Over 1000! by Rogelio Lopez

I came across this on my Facebook newsfeed and thought it was funny/interesting. The piece is by artist CR Bergen and was apparently posted to his Tumblr on April 5, 2016. The illustration re-imagines a scene from the Dragon Ball Z animated series, where the characters Vegeta and Nappa sense the protagonist Goku’s increase in power as he becomes enraged. The scene became a widely circulated meme on its own, due to the hilarious voiceover for the phrase “It’s over 9000!” Bergen uses the scene to interpret the unexpected populist rise of Bernie Sanders, comparing him to DBZ protagonist Goku. At the same time, Hillary Clinton is compared to Vegeta, an antagonist of the series. The image clearly provides a comical critique of Clinton and the DNC by associating her to imperialist villains from DBZ, while showing support for Sanders. The “Feel the Bern” pin on Sander’s characters while he is engulfed in blue flame is a nice touch.


Hashtag #HillarySoQualified  by Limor Shifman

Zach Haller ‏@zachhaller

#HillarySoQualified she can only win by buying votes

The story of this hashtag, which started as a pro-Hillary response to Bernie Sanders’ assertion that Clinton is not “qualified” to be president and was quickly hijacked by Sanders’ supporters, is particularly revealing. What it seems to expose (beyond Clinton’s inferiority in this scene) is that some forms, or templates, of participatory “positive” commentary are almost by default inviting cynical responses. Hashtags which are cynical, or ironic, to begin with are thus more likely to maintain their original agenda (e.g. ##distractinglysexy,  #benCarsonWikipedia).


Donald Trump and Mean Girls by Chloe Yuqing Jiang

I came across this video shared by a friend on my own Facebook news feed last week.

Being one of the biggest fans of Mean Girls, I found this video extremely interesting and captivating (probably given the fact that I could memorize the whole script by heart). The video “stars” Donald Trump as Cady Heron and incorporates some of the key arguments Donald Trump has been making. It also highlights these arguments which makes it amusing to watch. The video was posted on April 3, 2016 under the account TheCrazyGorilla, a YouTube channel made by two guys who produce funny videos weekly. With 185,456 views on YouTube, I think it is a smart idea to combine politics and entertainment to raise more awareness on election, especially for those who are less tuned in with political issues. This video might inspire more young people to create more relatable content like this and share the message through social media platforms to reach more audiences.


Bernie of Hillary Meme by Michelle C. Forelle










This is a meme I’ve been seeing all over my Tumblr dashboard. According to Know Your Meme, the meme originated from a 12-image post simultaneously put up on Tumblr and Reddit on January 28, 2016 by user ObviousPlant, with the caption “Left in the streets of Los Angeles”. It is clearly designed for people to mess with, with big text fields that are very easily Photoshopped. What’s particularly interesting about it is that the blank template could be used by supporters of either candidate – when it’s blank, there is no indication who is favored. Interesting note that I found on the KYM entry for this — there is a Facebook group, now with over 436,000 members, called “Bernie Sanders’ Dank Meme Stash”.


#Time2Escalate: A movement of movements by Emilia Yang

The Black Lives Matter organization, the anti-deportation campaign Mijente (#Not1More), and the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance (which works on global issues including climate change) promoted a call with a hashtag first popularized by the white-ally network Standing Up for Racial Justice: #Time2Escalate to agitate Drumpf through the GOP’s summer convention and beyond in order for white allies to join and take a stance.

Anti-Trump protesters aren’t trying to change anyone’s mind. Here’s their strategy. (Vox explainers)

The action and the push towards escalation is based on some of these assumptions:



Bernie is almost as cute as Mujica <3



Trump’s Bizarre Election by Yining Zhou

I found this image on my facebook stream, repost by several friends whose interest lies in the intersection between manga and politics.  Trump was put in a scene from Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure (JJBA) series. In its third series, Stardust Crusaders, JJBA introduced the concept of  supernatural power called “Stands”, which was the semi-physical manifestation of the user’s psychic powers resembles a spiritual familiar standing next to them.

On one hand, the picture offers a critique, pointing out Trump over emphasises “the stance” all the time. On the other hand, it is hilarious smart to juxtapose Trump election with Jojo’s adventure, implying that both of them are kind of radically idealistic and bizarre.

Categories: Blog

That Was Then, This is Now: Confessions of a Former Teenage Punk

May 6, 2016 - 8:46am

Earlier this term, I featured a number of blog posts written by students in my Public Intellectuals Seminar. The following is another example of the work that emerged from this assignment.



—Matt Pascarella


The Only Lit Parking Lot In Town

I worked nights at the Turkey Hill gas station in Mt. Carmel, Pennsylvania during my last two years of High School.  A typical shift involved stocking and organizing the freezer with ice cream Snicker’s bars, Hot Pockets, and the famed Turkey Hill ice cream.  Then I’d move on to the shelves in the store, restocking bags of potato chips, candy bars and cigarettes. I’d clean as I re-stocked, and then I’d head outside to our massive sign on the corner where I’d change the price of gas with a long pole, which had a suction cup on the end. It was like putting together a puzzle that loomed over you by 20 feet.


Then I’d shake out my apron, slick back my hair and take over the register, relieving the shift and taking charge of the store all on my own until about 11pm.  I would do my homework at that register in between selling gas and scratch-off lottery tickets. Everyone always wanted the scratch-offs that were called “Win For Life” but the best I ever saw won was a mere ten bucks.


When my school work was done, I’d turn to writing out ideas and sketches for art projects, song lyrics, and poems on the back of old receipt paper. It was usually around that time that I’d get a call from my manager who would tell me that she happened to pass the store on her way home from Bingo or wherever the hell she was, and that she had seen there were kids hanging out in the store’s parking lot once again.  She would say this to me as if the apocalypse was upon us and that the only way to prevent it’s fruition was to rid the parking lot of these savages, ordering me to, “Tell them to leave right now or else I’m calling the police!”


They weren’t doing anything crazy — just revving engines, talking to each other, laughing, making plans and making-out.


At that point in my life, I was a senior in High School and I had attended about a dozen schools up and down the eastern seaboard.  I knew that kids always create spaces to hang out. But in the Coal Region it was different. My first night in town a horde of kids were chasing a bear through the streets. There just was not much going on, and it turned out that my Turkey Hill’s parking lot was literally the only lot in town that kept its lights on at night. So when my manager would call freaking out, I’d then hang up the phone, walk outside and would tell the kids that if the cops showed up, well, I’d defend them.


I must have looked ridiculous standing there with my military buzz cut, holding a broom, wearing a red apron, a white buttoned-down shirt tucked into khaki pants.  Of course, my attempts to defend them never really worked out because most of the time the local cops would descend anyway — all officers on duty at the time, bored and looking for kicks — flying in, sirens wailing, surrounding the parking lot and telling everyone to go the hell home on loudspeakers.  Clearly, they were the ones disturbing the peace so I protested in my own ways, quickly becoming the only employee at the store that charged the cops for coffee when they came in during their shifts.



In many ways, my true coming of age in terms of becoming intensely critical of media and politics, began to take over much of my life around this time.  It was a time when access to the internet was sparse, and so I’d set off for Bloomsburg, the nearest college town. To do so, I had to risk a drive through the next town over, Centralia — which was abandoned due to a mine fire that ran out of control decades earlier and was still raging on beneath the very road that I had to take. I’d drive the forty minutes each way to Bloomsburg because there was a record shop there that sold Punk Planet magazine and I always had to have its latest issue.


I remember the March/April 1999 issue of Punk Planet as clear as yesterday.  The cover story was called ‘the murder of Iraq’ and it detailed the impact of US-driven sanctions in Iraq and an organization that was defying those sanctions in order to provide life-sustaining food and medicine to people who were starving and dying.


Just eight years prior I had experienced the first Gulf War in my own intense ways as a child who would watch neighbors and loved ones as they were shipped off, fearing that my own mother — a single mom and a Private in the US Army — may be deployed as well.  My brother and I would sit in large gymnasiums and salute the flag before being told that our community was being mobilized for war in order to promote democracy and freedom in Iraq.


Reading this report in Punk Planet eight years later as a teenager began to add a whole new complicated and nuanced set of layers about the world I found myself in, and I felt like I was being pushed to a place where I would have to tackle those issues and unpack those layers head-on.


Then the ‘Battle in Seattle’ took place.  I poured over all the coverage I could get at the time.  Each day, I’d walk down to the newsstand, which was one of the few businesses left on main street at that time, and I’d pick up every paper that had a story about the protests against the WTO.   I’d speed home to cut the stories out, paste them on the walls in the loft of a garage we had out back — which was falling apart but that I turned into a makeshift studio — and I’d read the coverage over and over again.  I was in awe that so many people, from so many walks of life, showed up to protest together.  I wanted to know what motivated the protesters; would they be successful in getting what they were asking for; what would increase or decrease their odds of success; why did certain coverage paint the protesters in a bad light; and many, many other questions.


I began listening to Jello Biafra’s spoken-word albums.  The most influential of which was his three-disc release, ‘Become The Media’ which was released in the Fall of my senior year.  Soon after, I started my descent into a Chomsky rabbit hole by first reading his ‘Profit Over People.’ I then began exploring Zinn’s work and a history of the United States that was left out of my high school history books.  I then moved on to Nichols and McChesney, and began to understand the media’s role in a healthy democracy, and how this was being subverted by corporations who cared more about their bottom lines than providing a public service.


As I’d drive down the narrow backroads of Coal Township, PA each day, making my way to my tiny catholic high school, I’d blast Anti-Flag’s album Die for the Government, screaming along with their songs about how the government failed to care for the veterans of the Gulf War who had been exposed to chemical warfare.  I knew the story firsthand, and yet I’d put all of that aside as I would walk into the school, head to my locker, and take off my blue hoodie adorned with band patches and safety pins, before stripping down to a uniform that matched everyone else: a pressed white shirt, tie, and dress pants and shoes.


Back then, our group of friends would share stories, create community and collaborate on projects together.  But it was all offline.  We made our own zines, our own posters for our band’s local shows, made t-shirts and other random merchandise to sell at shows, and we’d also play fundraisers to help local kids and to try and save the few local music venues that still existed within a 100-mile radius.


We would abuse the photo-copying honor system in the school library and at Staple’s and we’d copy chapters in books that we wanted to pass on to each other.  We’d make mix tapes, and we’d remix cover songs like Eddie Money’s Two Tickets To Paradise, opening it up into our own vernacular — putting out our own spin on stories and media that we encountered and thought worth passing on.  We’d meet friends at a show or at the local Denny’s and sit around talking and drinking coffee until sunrise.  We’d go to our older friend’s apartments and watch films like Empire Records, Clerks, Gia, and Office Space.  We drank Schlitz beer and gut-rotting Gin, ate horrible canned food and ramen, and got tattoos at truck stops.


Yet as ‘defiant’ as we thought we all were, most of us shared something that we rarely, if ever talked about: We were poor.  Well, at least most of us were, and so most of us knew that our shot at a future better than where we had come from was incredibly slim at best.  But what was often our saving grace was the simple fact that we had each other.


Many of our parents, despite their best intentions, simply did not have the capacity to help us map out our possibilities, much less offer us a helping hand to actualize such possibilities. They were too busy trying to survive and provide for their families on the most basic of levels. They were treading to stay afloat at blue collar jobs day in day out, before coming home at night to screaming kids and stacks of bills. If we were lucky, the best thing any one of us could get would be a teacher who cared and took it upon themselves to make sure our college applications and scholarship essays got done.  But even they seemed to be a rare experience for most of us.


By that time, my mom had become one of the top recruiters in the US Army.  A large proportion of my graduating class had already enlisted in the military.  Most of them were skinny, white, 17-year old kids who had never left the state.  Yet they knew and I knew, that the chances of affording college and getting the fuck out of what was one of the most economically depressed regions of the country, came down to two options: Get a scholarship, or join the military.  It was a time of peace and the military was a ticket towards a better life, a better future.


My late night study sessions standing at the Turkey Hill counter paid off.  With the help of my art teacher, Gina Rice, I somehow landed a scholarship at a small liberal arts school in New York City. After surviving Y2K and stepping into a new millennium, suddenly my prospects in life appeared much brighter.


But as quickly as that brightness emerged, it was dimmed.  Within just four months of graduating, the twin towers were struck down, the Pentagon was hit, and once again, the communities I came from were readying themselves for war.


This time it would be a never-ending, globe-spanning war that would not cease for decades. This time I knew even more people being sent to the front lines — some of whom never returned.


As the ashes were still falling in Lower Manhattan, my only choice, my only shot at a worthwhile future, was to pack up my car and head to New York.


I stopped at the Turkey Hill to fill up my tank, and as I drove through Centralia for the very last time, the world itself was suddenly on fire.


What I choose to do with my life

You know you suddenly have acquired privilege the moment you realize your life is yours, and that you can make the decisions that will likely determine your own fate. That is a feat that most people on this planet simply cannot claim, and it is something — particularly as my friend’s were being shipped off to war and I was entering my first college classroom — that was never lost on me.


I kept that knowledge close to my heart as I fell into investigative journalism soon after landing in New York City. I was 19 when I started working with Greg Palast, researching and producing his stories for BBC, The Guardian, Harper’s, and many others. We turned those reports into books, and we dreampt up trans-media, on and offline, grassroots campaigns. I led teams that, together, turned those books into NY Times bestsellers. Some of the reports we did even had an impact on changing laws in several countries. Yet one of the coolest experiences out of all that was producing two spoken-word albums with Jello Biafra. Just three years earlier, he had awakened me into politics and media, and here I was suddenly producing work with him. One of the albums we produced together even hit the top of the CMJ charts!


From there I helped launch and run Tar, a successful international arts and culture magazine printed on a single-sheet fed press in Italy. The NY Times called it “A thinking man’s magazine,” and TIME elected our second issue as one of the top five magazine covers of the entire year!


After that I helped bring Demotix — a citizen journalism photo news wire with tens of thousands of contributors in 180 countries — into the United States. Demotix went on to win a Media Guardian Innovation Award, a Webby award, and was nominated for the Knight-Batten Award for Innovation in Journalism, among many others.


I then went on to work with the brilliant team at Art Not War to support and lead teams that produced trans-media promotion campaigns for the launch of successful organizations and impact projects. This included Van Jones’ Rebuild The Dream, the 99% Spring, and award-winning, viral political advertisements for MoveOn.org. I then lead a national citizen journalism watchdog organization called Video the Vote during the 2012 cycle.



Back to School

Soon after Video the Vote, I sold pretty much everything I own, took out a massive student loan, and got on a flight to London.


After landing, I joined a cohort of some of the most incredible people I’ve ever met. They hail from all over the planet, and together we have been studying for a dual degree at LSE and USC Annenberg in Global Media and Communication. I want to finally get my master’s degrees because in the near future I want to teach at community colleges and high schools in under-served communities, while working for individuals, organizations, and companies that are developing tools for citizen engagement and civic participation.


While much of my past work has been very focused on developing high-impact, story-based initiatives from the framework of impacting national change, I am currently pursuing work that attempts to understand how social change takes place when positioned from ‘glocal’ perspectives.


In other words, I am interested in how civic institutions, organizations, and campaigns attempt to stretch their work beyond traditional borders of nation states by taking on global issues within specific local contexts, as well as how local issues are being addressed by institutions that situate these issues within a global context.


This work involves exploring and expanding upon existing empirical research, and experimenting with theoretical models from a host of disciplines including social psychology, sociology, interpersonal and organizational communication, media studies, as well as work in the fields of economics, socio-cultural anthropology and global studies. These models help build a repertoire of practical applications concerning the role that media and communications can play in leading this form of social change.



Impact Generation

The biggest take-away from that work, in addition to my past experiences is, as follows:


I have heard my generation referred to as apathetic, as not giving a shit about the world we live in, as unfit to change the all-out destructive course prior generations have left in their backwash for us to drown in.


But I don’t believe any of that.


I believe my generation — millennials — are more aware, smarter, and far more meaningfully connected to each other, than any generation prior.


In fact, the consciousness which binds us as a generation is to make the world a better place, and we share a fundamental collective desire to accomplish that together.


We are far from uninterested, unconcerned or unmoved when it comes to the challenges of our day. We are not apathetic. In fact, we are acutely-aware of the cacophony of problems bequeathed to us.


Unlike generations before us, we were born with an average of 232 synthetic chemicals already in our bloodstreams due to our mothers’ involuntary exposure to a toxic world. We grew up with the fear of AIDS, race riots, NAFTA, the WTO, a stolen presidential election, 9-11, brutal wars that have no end in sight, and a savage economic disaster that left millions in our country homeless and unemployed. We grew up with major American industries bleeding out, with rampant corruption, with greed and even the bankruptcy of an entire city — all while watching the planet melt in front of our eyes — oil spill, after oil spill, after oil spill. Super storm, after superstorm. Hurricane after hurricane.


We are well aware of what we have inherited and it is offensive to say otherwise. We are sick from the problems and of the problems.


It is not that our generation does not care about what is happening to our country and to our world. It’s that the traditional systems for participating have long since imploded. And so we are left starving for logical, accessible, meaningful, and actionable pathways for participating in real solutions.


That is why we have been at the forefront of coming up with the alternatives, with working hard to build new ways to make our voices heard, with solving the problems of our day, and with having a lasting impact on the betterment of the world — and we have been doing this work despite the tremendous obstacles that have been thrown in our paths.


At the heart of this, is that it is in my generation’s marrow to gather in the only lit parking lots we have in order to share our stories, to collaborate on meaningful projects, and to build communities of action that are already leaving the world in a better place for the generations that will follow. And if those parking lots don’t exist, we will make them ourselves.


Coming back to school has not only expanded my critical thinking and my research skills, it has also led me to become friends with incredible people — people who each, in their own ways, have reminded me of how proud I am to be a member of this generation.  As I walk across the stage at graduation one week from now, and begin to look for what’s next in my career, my only hope is that I can continue to play my part in building the tools for people to participate in solving the biggest problems of our day.

Categories: Blog

Happy Star Wars Day!: Odds and Ends

May 4, 2016 - 6:19pm

Bunky Echohawk is a Pawnee artist: his picture, “If Yoda Was an Indian, He’d Be a Chief” represents a Native American repurposing of the iconic figure from the Star Wars saga. I stumbled upon it reading a fascinating article, “Navajos on Mars: Native Sci-Fi Film Futures,” suggested to me by my graduate student Samantha Close. The essay moves from a consideration of the way indigenous cultures around the world have been appropriated for science fiction film and literature, and in return, more recently, how these same groups have sought to tell their own stories within the science fiction genre. There’s a wealth of resources and insights here that I have just begun to dig into, but I wanted to flag this for others who care about science fiction as a genre and about current struggles to bring more diversity and inclusivity to the entertainment industry.

I am opening this post with this image because today is May 4, unofficially known as Star Wars Day. The designation comes from the bad pun, “May the 4th be With You,” but over the past few years, this holiday has taken root amongst fans, and Star Wars day stands not only for the George Lucas franchise but also for a broader appreciation of the popular imagination.

And of course, fans are not the only ones to attach themselves to this emergent national holiday. This morning, John Kassich released a Star Wars themed campaign video, describing himself as the GOP’s “Only Hope.” Of course, Kassich suspended his campaign just a few hours later, leaving all of us utterly without Hope. And Kassich is not the only Star Wars fans among the candidates this season, since Hillary ended her remarks at one of the debates with “may the force be with you” and Ted Cruz’s campaign did its own remix video.

I have intended this post, however, primarily as a shout out to #TeachMeYouDid, an innovative campaign by the Rebel Alliance, a fan activist group focused on calling out the role of dark money in American politics, to pay tribute to teachers and mentors who have made a difference in their lives. As it happens, this year, May the 4th coincides with National Teacher Appreciation Week, and so an enterprising group of fans have chosen to use the resources of participatory culture to call attention to educators, who like Yoda did for Luke, have taught them to see themselves and the world differently. For more information about the campaign, visit their homepage. Below are some of the videos produced by fans in response to this call.

I am posting this late in the day because I have been, well, busy myself as a teacher as I help my students through the end of the term. But I had promised Andrew Slack from the Rebel Alliance that I would share some of my thoughts about teachers and teaching as a way to help promote this worthy project, so here are a few brief and inadequate thoughts.

As someone who has been working in the space of media literacy for the past decade plus, I often think about the incredible educators I have had a chance to meet. I have enormous respect for the many educators around the country who have chosen to incorporate media literacy activities and resources into their teaching in the absence of institutional support and sometimes in the face of institutional opposition. They have done so because of their own personal commitments to insuring that their students have the capacities for critical thought and social action. They have done so, sometimes, by bonding together within a larger media literacy movement, forging networks with other teachers, seeking out insights through journals and website and podcasts and blogs and webinars, mostly on their own time and at their own expenses.

Let me be clear that when I talk about educators, I do not mean only classroom teachers, but also librarians, community organizers, religious leaders, and others who have brought discussions of media literacy into their domains. I find this commitment inspirational but also frustrating, because there’s no question that many more resources and interventions are needed. Part of the point of bringing media literacy into our schools is to insure equal access to experiences and knowledge which can help us to foster a more participatory culture.

We have been lucky to be partnering with educators from the National Writing Project and the National Association for Media Literacy Educators as we are launching our new book, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism. You can access the book online for free thanks to the collaboration of New York University Press and the MacArthur Foundation. It is one of the launch titles for a new series focused on Connected Learning.

One key theme we stress in the book is that these new activist groups have been successful in part by bridging between the everyday life concerns of youth and the realm of contemporary politics. Neta Kligler-Vilenchik describes “mechanisms of translation” which enable organizations, such as the Harry Potter Alliance and the Nerdfighters, among many others, to help young people grasp political issues via connections forged with popular media franchises which are already part of their world. We’ve found that these groups are not necessarily attracting the “usual suspects” — that is, white middle class upwardly mobile youth, but are also attracting youth who might not have been inspired to take civic action in any other way. Research has traditionally shown that young people are most apt to become politically engaged if they are raised in families where the parents model participation and have dinner table discussions about current events, where they have access to teachers who bring political figures and practices into their classes, where they participate in after-school groups which have a civic focus, and where they volunteer in their community.

Reflecting on the educators that matter to me, I can see ways that my own civic path was shaped both by traditional and informal means. Lately, I’ve told the story with an emphasis on informal paths into politics. For me, the key text was Star Trek which modeled what a better, more diverse, more inclusive, and more accepting society looked like, and helped to foster my civic imagination. I was watching Star Trek even as I lived in a segregated community, went to segregated schools, and attended a segregated church. And I did so even as I was living in Atlanta which was at the center of the Civil Rights movement. So these things came together to inspire a strong sense of social justice, especially as it related to issues of freedom and equality. My political consciousness came a bit later: I was a child of the Watergate era, becoming obsessed with watching the hearings on television, and plowing through the vast archive of documents being released to the public. I first voted in the 1976 election when I supported Mo Udal as he struggle unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination.

But, telling the story that way cuts out the strong role which educators played in that process. As I think about my civic education, I think first about Betty Leslein, from whom I took American Government and a range of other social science classes. She was herself actively involved in trying to form a teacher’s union and she later ran for the Georgia General Assembly (allowing me to help her campaign). She knew government leaders at all levels and brought them into her classes. I recall for example meeting Max Clevland, who would later become the head of Veteran’s Affairs during the Carter Administration and who later still became a U.S. Senator: at the time, he was a representative in the state government, as I recall. Leslein gave extra credit for attending governmental hearings, and this got me to watch city council meetings and the like. She supported her students even when it put her at some risk: I worked with student leaders from a range of high schools to pull together what we called the Students Rights Organization, and she let us use her house to host our first meeting. Unfortunately, news of the meeting leaked to the Principals and the school board, and as a result, we all got called on the carpet, including our teacher. But she had taught me the importance of standing up for your beliefs, taking risks in the name of your core rights, and getting involved in the political process. These lessons have stuck with me for more than 40 years. I was lucky some years back to sit down with Ms. Leslein, then retired, and share with her my own experiences, including testifying before the U.S. Commerce Committee after the Columbine shootings, and it was wonderful to see the pride in her eyes about how I had continued to build on the skills and knowledge she had taught me.

But, I also had the other advantages that the research on civic engagement flags. I had parents who were very active in their communities, and especially in their church community. I was very active in a range of school activities, including student government, the school newspaper, and the debate team. There, I recall with fondness Donald Meeks, who was the adult leader of the debate team (we never won a debate but we had a grand time together) and Marjorie Throckmorton, who was the faculty advisor to the student newspaper (and what a plague I was on her, given my tendency to always push the limits of what we could publish and sometimes cross the line.) I also benefited from participation in the Boy Scouts of America, where we were blessed with great adult leaders, and where I had my first experiences teaching, including teaching merit badges around theater and photography, early steps into the world of media studies.

By the time I was an undergraduate, then, I was well on my way to being an active and engaged citizen. My mother even allowed me to claim to be sick for a day when I went to a Democratic party gathering where all of the core candidates for the 1976 nomination were speaking. As an undergraduate, I once again had great teachers, though, including George Grief, a nervous retired city editor, who sharpened my writing and thinking skills through putting me through my paces in my first reporting classes. But above all, my life was influenced by William Thomas, then a leading expert on the U.S. Supreme Court. Thomas was also someone who brought the world into his classroom and sent his students out into the world: I remember most vividly a course I took on Criminal Justice, which had us riding in patrol cars with cops, watching trials in courtrooms, interviewing prosecutors and defenders, and otherwise trying to make sense of the various ways that discretion entered the legal system. He was the advisor for my undergraduate thesis, which dealt with film and politics in the 1930s.

But one day, he pulled me aside and said that he had noticed that while Political Science was my major, my real passion was the work I was doing on the Entertainment Section of the campus newspaper, and that I should consider going to graduate school in film studies. There were two things in that sentence that changed my life — the first was the idea of going to graduate school. I was among the first in my family to go to college and none of us had gone to graduate school so the idea had never crossed my mind. I COULD GO TO GRADUATE SCHOOL! And second, I had no idea you could go into graduate school in film studies. This sent me racing to the library, looking up programs, and putting together the pieces which would shape the rest of my working life. So, Thomas has always been a model for me of a committed teacher and mentor, someone who notices the abilities and interests of students, someone who helps them find a path that makes sense for them, even if it not necessarily the path you have followed yourself. Thomas, after all, was a political science professor and I was a major in his department, so going to graduate school in film meant changing fields. I have thought about Thomas a lot as we’ve been putting together this new book, which is very much about what we look at politics through the lens of media and cultural studies. Sometimes paths diverge and converge in unexpected way.

It’s been a long time since I’ve heard from any of these teachers. I am not sure which of them are still with us. I’d like very much to hear from them if this post reaches their eyes. But regardless, I want to use this post to say thanks to them and the many other educators who have made a huge difference in my life.

May the Fourth Be With You.

Categories: Blog

Multichannel Networks and the New Media Ecology: An Interview with Stuart Cunningham and David Craig (Part Three)

April 30, 2016 - 8:51am

The Amazing Race this season has featured a range of social entertainment personalities as their contestants, and many of them seem to be recognized as they travel around the world in ways that previous contestants on the show have not. Does this suggest something about the transnational nature of the media ecology you are describing? Is this another example where U.S. produced content dominates global markets or are we seeing talent emerge in other national contexts which circulates as broadly?

There is indeed a strongly transnational dynamic in new media ecology. Take a couple of examples: Turkey takes a particularly strong interventionary stance with regard to the potential disruption to the political, religious and social order posed by the digital platforms, including YouTube, and has regularly blocked them. The national carrier, Turkish Airlines, however, uses YouTube content creators and multichannel networks in developing a clone of the Amazing Race format ‑ youth-oriented, social media-based engagement strategies ‑ in its attempt to build brand recognition in the ultra-competitive international airline market. Musicians like Elissa from Lebanon or Iranian-Saudi Arabian acapella artist Alaa Wardi or comedians Bader Sadeh, aka the “Saudi King of Comedy”, have harnessed SME platforms to launch global careers and secure cross-cultural and diasporic Middle Eastern audiences less inhibited by local online platform or content censorship. An Australian multichannel network primes aspiring online musicians in their attempts to break into booming Asian pop scenes. India has experienced breakneck growth of amateur content creation, while China is creating a parallel universe of social media entertainment unbeholden to Western platforms and capital.

It is notable that 80% of YouTube traffic comes from outside the US, and 60% of creators’ views come from outside their home country.

Media globalisation has been an enduring topic in film and media studies. It is possible to posit a qualitatively new wave of media globalisation based on the global availability and uptake of YouTube which is relatively frictionless compared to national broadcasting and systems of film and DVD release and licensing by “windowed” territory. And compared to film and television, there is very little imposed content regulation (apart from substantial self-regulation) on the major platforms such as Google/YouTube and Facebook ‑ some of the world’s largest information and communication companies ‑ as their use as content distributors proliferates globally. But it is media globalisation with the difference.

For streaming services such as Netflix, aggressive global expansion (having reached 130 countries to 2015) requires it to negotiate with pre-existing rights holders in each new territory and often requires it to close down informal means of accessing its popular content such as VPN workarounds in such territories. While, longer term, the streaming giants may well drive territorial licensing to the wall, SME content is largely “born global”. This is because this massively growing content industry, in stark contrast to content industries in general and Hollywood and broadcast television in particular, is not primarily based on IP control. YouTube elected to avoid the messy and legally cumbersome traditional media model of owned or shared IP. YouTube also avoided paying fees for content as well as offering backend residual or profit participation. Rather, YouTube entered into ‘partnership agreements’ with their content creators based on a split of advertising revenue from first dollar. In the eight years since the partner plan launched, YouTube has secured over 1 million YouTube partners worldwide.

YouTube talks of being primarily a facilitator of creator and content in the many international markets in which it operates. The key difference between traditional media operating multi-nationally and YouTube is that the former produces, owns or licences content for distribution, exhibition or sale in multiple territories, while the latter seeks to avoid the conflation of YouTubers as the IP creators with YouTube as “platform” and “middleman” operating to facilitate linking of brands and advertisers with YouTube creators and MCNs.

There are significant reasons for YouTube not taking an IP ownership position, which have to do with its continued status as a platform or online service provider rather than a content company. The US Digital Millennium Copyright Act 1998, in addition to criminalising circumvention measures and heightening the penalties for copyright infringement on the Internet, created ‘safe harbour’ provisions for online service providers (OSPs, including ISPs) against copyright infringement liability, provided they responsively block access to alleged infringing material on receipt of infringement claims from a rights holder.

Sceptics would argue that while anyone can post content on YouTube and the other video sharing sites, only a small handful gain the top level of visibility. So, what kind of filtering mechanisms are at play here? Does this suggest the persistence of old-school commercial criteria in shaping who reaches the top? Can we make a case that the production and circulation of niche content plays a different or more significant role here than in other media systems? Should our focus be on the true mass successes, applying Broadcast standards, or should we consider the amplified voice available to creators who reach smaller audiences that are still significantly greater than they would have been able to reach in the past?


While most critical scholars will assert the top-down, determining hand of corporate capitalism, we think the situation is a little more nuanced than that. Digital platforms provide the fundamental communicative affordance and certainly (attempt to) profit from the communicative activity that takes place on the platform, but they do not determine what content works, what ‘trends’, what ‘goes viral’. The great part of the platforms’ agency in respect of content is responsive/reactive, not determinative. The greatest busyness on the part of the platforms is the massive undercurrent of work responding to takedown notices, maintaining the precarious viability of what is managed as civic/civil discourse. It is estimated that Google deals with more than 60 million takedown requests a month! Meanwhile, of course, the AdSense algorithm takes care of the basic revenue streams that continue to pour into Google’s coffers. As Temple University communication professor Hector Postigo says, YouTube is in the happy position of betting on all the numbers at the roulette table.

Stuart, you’ve spent much of your career focused on questions of media policy, and I know some critics have argued that the media policy tradition has lost its way, shifting from a focus on public service media, towards one more centered around issues of entrepreneurship. What would you say to such critics in terms of the agenda and policy implications of this current research?

Contemporary policy questions, including media policy, can be very much preoccupied with issues of entrepreneurship. Perhaps not so strongly in the US, but in many countries media policy concerns itself with the sustainability of start-up careers and small and medium businesses as well as curbing or harnessing the power of the big conglomerates. If there isn’t vibrant local content production capability to command space in the media diet, what’s the point of curbing or harnessing Big Media power?

Traditions of independent public service media, which of course are much more central in the media ecologies of Western Europe, Canada, Japan and Australia than in the US, are engaged these days in the facilitation of regional and local capability. In Australia, for example, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) engages with media entrepreneurs, including YouTube content creators, by providing off Broadway opportunities through iView, its hugely successful catch-up service.

David, you’ve come to this project with a background working in the American entertainment industry. How have your own experiences as a media-maker impacted your agenda and perspective on this project?

This project has exposed, affirmed, and challenged my deep-seated subjectivities. As a former producer and programming executive, I am hyper-attenuated to certain topics and perspectives. Not surprisingly, I can’t seem to stop discussing the agency and precarity of creative management and labor.

Plus as an LGBT producer, activist, and scholar, I may be more attentive to their presence although this functions counter-intuitively. I can sometimes be even more cynical about the progressive value of these LGBT creators, their commercial and representational practices, and potential media effects.

In addition, I am fluent in “Hollywoodlish”. This argot allows me to better understand and critique some of these industrial practices as well as filter out some of the Caldwellian industry “spin”. That said, when it comes to “techlish”, I am often lost in translation.

Alternatively, I fall into old patterns of privileging business logics over critical, cultural, and media effects. Fortunately, I have Stuart there as a mitigating influence, forcing me exert some distance from the economics of this industry to more critically account for how power is operating both positively and negatively in this space.

None of us can project the future, but does your research provide any insights on where all of this might be going? What are the long-term implications of the trends you are identifying and documenting here?

The new digital platforms are competing as much against each other as they are posing challenges to established screen media industries. There are clear dividing lines between platforms (Netflix, Amazon) committed to professional content and competing directly against cable and broadcast and those which, though iterating content strategies and monetising through advertising, remain firmly on the social media side of social media entertainment (Facebook, Vine, Snapchat, Instagram). YouTube sits somewhere in the middle. More intense competition with diverging business models amongst these platforms may see a destructive fragmentation of the new screen ecology.

There is an emerging sense that we might be coming to the end of the first phase of the development of social media entertainment. In the eighteen months since Disney acquired Maker, the acquisition of or investment in these SME intermediaries has declined. There is emerging evidence that the rate of venture capital investment is slowing, indicating that the entrepreneurial ‘buzz’ around the multichannel networks has dissipated. The platforms’ revenue model has been based around programmatic advertising and this has significant limits, although we have seen evidence of platforms moving to capture a higher order value by building brand relationships, squeezing the MCNs in the process. Subscription is being trialled (Red) and this has seen YouTube flex its muscles in a way that should really worry anyone who sees cultural potential in social media entertainment.

There are historical precedents and some impetus for the assimilation over time of this new screen ecology into mainstream protocol and practice, but there is more evidence to suggest it may grow in parallel with, and as a continuing challenge to, the more traditional, established modes of professional screen industrial practice. Rather, with proliferation of new screen platforms capable of luring away traditional media advertising, there is less incentive for the new screen players to transition to the mainstream. Having carved out their own media brands, through unique audience-centric practices and content innovation, the social media creator might survive as a wizard of a parallel screen ecology. Then we’d no longer be in Hollywood, Dorothy.

Stuart Cunningham is Distinguished Professor of Media and Communications, Queensland University of Technology. His most recent books are Digital Disruption: Cinema Moves Online (edited with Dina Iordanova, 2012), Key Concepts in Creative Industries (with John Hartley, Jason Potts, Terry Flew, John Banks and Michael Keane, 2013), Hidden Innovation: Policy, Industry and the Creative Sector (2014), Screen Distribution and the New King Kongs of the Online World (with Jon Silver, 2013), The Media and Communications in Australia(edited with Sue Turnbull) and Media Economics (with Terry Flew and Adam Swift, 2015).     David Craig, Ph.D. is a Clinical Assistant Professor at USC Annenberg’s School for Communication and Journalism, where he teaches multiple courses regarding media and entertainment industries, management, culture, and practice.  He is also veteran film, television, web, publishing, and stage producer and former television programming executive at A&E and Lifetime.  He has produced more than thirty projects that have garnered over 70 Emmy, Peabody, Golden Globe, GLAAD, and other awards and nominations including two personal Emmy nominations.  In addition, he is an LGBT media producer, activist, and scholar and has his doctorate from UCLA and masters from NYU.
Categories: Blog

Multichannel Networks and the New Media Ecology: An Interview with Stuart Cunningham and David Craig (Part Two)

April 26, 2016 - 11:09am

Many of these new players have historically existed in a “pre-revenue” space — that is, they have gained higher evaluations than their return on investment might suggest. But, this is starting to change. How will profitability impact the kinds of social and cultural functions these players perform in this new media ecology?

The profitability of platforms is very uneven. It’s much too early to say which of the current slew of social media platforms will survive and thrive, and under what conditions. Twitter for example is very problematic as an economic proposition. It has huge social media affordance, but if it was to falter – as a lot of business media is reporting over 2015-6 – whole swathes of industrious academics in our field would be looking for new angles! Facebook is humongous and threatens to create a proprietary wall around the web for developing countries particularly in Africa, dressed up of course as civic noblesse oblige. YouTube is in a different position. Hammocked by Google’s VERY deep pockets, it was purchased for $1.65 billion back in 2006 and some now estimate it to be worth $70 billion but it has only started to break even very recently. It has been given all the time in the (online) world to get its (business) act together.

But for cultural studies scholars, the point is not really about profitability –it’s about commerciality as such. Most scholars, so far, have treated the kinds of social and cultural functions YouTube performs in the new media ecology as having been compromised by its rapid commercialisation. Jose Van Dijck, for example, says a ‘far cry from its original design, YouTube is no longer an alternative to television, but a full-fledged player in the media entertainment industry’.

Our point is to absolutely acknowledge the deep social and cultural role and impact of YouTube. Vanderbilt University law professor Stephen Hetcher says of its ability to avoid Napsterization: ‘the world has never before seen the likes of YouTube in terms of availability of non-infringing content’. This has allowed it to roll out a virtually global space for vernacular video content whose success culturally as well is commercially has seen most of the contending digital platforms needing to develop video players.

Our second point would be that there is still massive non-commercial civic space available on YouTube. But its commercialisation strategies of professionalizing amateurs have now reached a level that demands critical analytical attention without such strategies being normatively framed against the brief period of pure YouTube amateurism.


We’ve seen many generations of struggles for independent artists to gain greater access to the viewing public. How might these new media producers fit within that history? But, the genres or kinds of entertainment they produce are radically different — more commercial in a sense — than what constituted independent media-making in the past. So, how do you respond to critics who would argue that these independent producers are selling out and going mainstream?

Rather than artists or producers, most of our interview subjects referred to themselves as “content creators”, although some used the term “community builders”. In stark contrast to media artists in the past, these platforms offered these creators unlimited access. No gatekeepers or scarcity. The only limitations were, as mentioned before, the iterative tech and social platform that are harnessed and converted into commercial affordances by these creators.

However, before they were creators, and like most artists and producers, they were fans, users, and viewers. And, in addition to watching content, they were also engaging with creators and their fans who shared their interests. Over time, these users became creators, operating as hobbyists initially until they discovered how to monetize their content and their community. In an effort to distinguish these phenomena from traditional entertainment, we have coined the term “communitainment”. This term accounts for their use of social media platforms, uniquely content innovation, as well as the “communion” between creators and their fan communities.

Within communitainment, creators have engage in unique and iterative content innovation that is sometimes starkly different from the high production value and sophisticated narratives of traditional media. Hank Green, one of the most prominent creator-entrepreneurs in this ecology, described how “YouTube has helped people create at least three massive genres of cheap-to-produce, high-quality content that viewers really, really love. Video game “Let’s Plays”, style tutorials, and direct-to-camera monologues (which we in the biz call “Vlogs”).”   Our own genre analysis offers slight variation and, as with most genre formulations, is libel for taxonomic tyranny and rightfully subject to heightened scrutiny and debate.

Game play has emerged as one of the most popular forms of content on YouTube. PewDiePie has converted his comedic game play commentary into over 43 million subscribers and 11.5 billion video views. Although he appears often singularly on screen, PewDiePie employs over thirty people plus a raft of managers, publicists, and advertising experts who run his global media brand across multiple platforms. Although our analysis would suggest much higher sums, PDP has also been rumoured to have earned over $14 million in revenue from his game play in 2015.

Despite some backlash from his fans, for which PDP has even issued forth a kind of video apologia, his media empire continues to grow. This has been a pattern we’ve found with other creators and communities who understand that this space requires funding. That said, creators have developed a fascinating self-regulatory system for maintaining authenticity with their fans while also generating revenue. Creators are very cautious to avoid brand deals with products and services that are misaligned with their own content and representation. As one manager mentioned, “a 19-year-old would be happy to take a one million dollar check from an advertiser unless it’s the last check she ever gets.”

By the way, PDP is just the tip of the game play universe. In 2011, Twitch combined game play on YouTube with the affordances of live broadcasting and was acquired by Amazon for $1 billion. The platform has 100 million monthly users and 12,000 partners generating revenue off of their game play. China features an even more competitive game play industry, including multiple platforms like Panda TV and DuoyuTV that routinely pilfer each others best players.

As Green affirms, style tutorials feature prominently on YouTube and Michele Phan operates as perhaps the best example of how to combine content innovation with strategic commercial entrepreneurism and grow a media brand. Her aspirational makeup tutorials have secured over 8 million subscribers and over 1 billion views. Phan is not converting her fans into subscribers for her mail order makeup business, Ipsy. Phan is also converting her best fans and subscribers into lifestyle vloggers who appear on her YouTube network called Icon. As a result of this virtually seamless ecology both on and offline, the 26-year-old Phan is now valued at over $500 million.

We prefer the term DIY to refer to not only style tutorials but multiple “how-to” subgenres, including the mysterious world of unboxing. Unboxing features built in narrativity as creators open a box in order to assemble and operate its content. Most notably, we have encountered numerous channels dedicated to children’s toys that have garnered startling view counts. One video featuring the Play Doh Ice Cream Cupcakes Playset has been seen over 740 million times.   This content can not help but generate critical anxieties, if not instigate a kind of moral panic, over what these hyper-commercialized appeals may be doing to young viewers.

Vlogging operates as both format and genre, operating more like commodified speech than entertainment IP. As a format, vlogging is a production format featuring direct address as seen in documentaries and reality programs, and now featured regularly in scripted television, like Modern Family and The Office. As a genre, vlogging can feature multiple topics. Hank and John Green are the “vlogbrothers” and have cultivated a community called “nerdfighters”. Their content, which we have identified as a subgenre of “popular information”, feature educational topics as diverse as the U.S. healthcare system to Syrian refugees to why people love giraffes.

In contrast, vloggers like Tyler Oakley feature less overtly educational fare, often based on their own larger-than-life style. Oakley’s most viewed videos cover topics include how to get the best booty, tips for the first kiss, or 100 things he did last year. In his recent feature documentary, Snervous, Oakley acknowledges he doesn’t “make skits or films”. Rather he is “just a personality” – albeit a personality that attracts over 8 million subscribers on YouTube alone, numerous television appearances, bestselling books, and sold out global fan events.

These new media producers are, as a whole, more diverse, culturally, ethnically, racially, and otherwise, than the mainstream media industry. What factors has contributed to the success of minority producers working in this space?

Let’s compare the Academy Awards to the Streamy (online video) awards. 2015’s nominees including an astonishing diversity of race, gender, and national identities, including Palestinian-Americans (Fousey), Germans (Flula), Canadian-Indians (IISuperwomanII), African-Americans (King Bach), and more. While #Oscarssowhite, the Streamyssodiverse. Minority producers have not only harnessed these platforms because of their affordances of unparalleled access coupled with content abundance. They may even be privileged in this space because of their ability to appeal to minorities that have been underrepresented in traditional film and television. This includes Asian-Americans and LGBT content creators who over-index in this space.

Asian-Americans feature prominently in the first wave of commercial content creators on YouTube, e.g., comedians (Fung Brothers and Ryan Higa), musicians (Sam Tsui and David Choi), beauty vloggers like Michele Phan, and traditional scripted creators (Freddie Wong and Wong Fu Productions). Curiously, we discovered that most of the creators ventured online, not due to the lack of opportunities in Hollywood, but because their parents prohibited them from pursuing media and entertainment careers. This phenomenon was as much the consequence of subcultural inhibitions as any perceived or latent racism within the entertainment industry.

Similarly, LGBT content creators are prolific, leading Vanity Fair to claim that, “everyone will come out on YouTube eventually.” Some creators like Tyler Oakley and Davey Wavey arrived online and out. Others like Hannah Hart came out shortly after starting their channel. For transgender people the coming out process can be quite different. Over the past eight years, Gigi Gorgeous allowed her fans to witness her transformation from cisgendered male to transfemale, which well pre-dates the trans moment in traditional media with Caitlyn Jenner and Transparent.

Other creators have come out of the closet mid-career, including top content creators like Ingrid Nilsen, Joey Graceffa, Troye Sivan, and Connor Franta. On the one hand, their declarations affirm the discourses of authenticity that distinguish their content. As a result, their courage is rewarded with millions of views although we found numerous instances where they turned off advertising on their coming out videos, even those reaching over 20 million views. Alternatively, these creators placed their self-owned-and-operated business in peril. When Ingrid Nilsen came out, she jeopardized her multi-year relationship with Covergirl as a “glambassador”. As she declared in our interview, she did not want to represent a brand that wouldn’t accept who she is.

What are the civic or political implications of these new channels and systems of circulation? Are we seeing signs that these new creators are speaking for and to their communities in new ways? Are now issues and new models of mobilization emerging here?

A number of prominent media and communication scholars like Mary Gray and Katherine Sender have described the proliferation of online networked LGBT communities. They have accounted for the unique forms of Guffman-esque impression management conducted by gay youth online. Some have even levelled critiques about the homonormativity within this space.

Our research continues this scholarship to account as well for their commodification of identity, perhaps best exemplified by Joey Graceffa. After six years of hiding his sexuality, Graceffa came out in unique fashion, by writing, producing, and starring in his own musical fantasy video where he saves and kisses his Prince Charming (his boyfriend, Daniel, in real life). After the music video ends, Graceffa delivers his pitch to camera, expressing his firm desire that his fans appreciate his work and that his coming out might just make a difference in someone else’s life. And, by the way, the video is “just a glimpse of what you will discover” if you buy his memoir to be published the next day. In the meantime, purchase the song to download on iTunes.

The coming out of entrepreneurial LGBT content creators may represent the new “gay for pay”. And yet, does this commercialization mitigate their cultural value or meaning for their tens of millions of fans, old and new, gay or straight?  In nearly every instance, our research has discovered that LGBT creators who come out of the closet have subsequently engaged in various forms of LGBT activism and media interventionism, whether raising money for LGBT causes, or speaking out on behalf of pro-LGBT policies or advocating for pro-LGBT products and services.

For decades, theorists have described the “symbolic violence” (Bourdieu) and “annihilation” (Gerbner and Gross) committed by the dearth of diverse media representation. In this industry, we may be witnessing the inverse, a symbolic proliferation of authenticated, marginalized identities and performance, albeit for commercial gain. While reinforcing anxieties about media capital and effects, these phenomena also offer the potential for progressive cultural change, not to mention the prospect of dozens of student theses and dissertations.

Stuart Cunningham is Distinguished Professor of Media and Communications, Queensland University of Technology. His most recent books are Digital Disruption: Cinema Moves Online (edited with Dina Iordanova, 2012), Key Concepts in Creative Industries (with John Hartley, Jason Potts, Terry Flew, John Banks and Michael Keane, 2013), Hidden Innovation: Policy, Industry and the Creative Sector (2014), Screen Distribution and the New King Kongs of the Online World (with Jon Silver, 2013), The Media and Communications in Australia(edited with Sue Turnbull) and Media Economics (with Terry Flew and Adam Swift, 2015).     David Craig, Ph.D. is a Clinical Assistant Professor at USC Annenberg’s School for Communication and Journalism, where he teaches multiple courses regarding media and entertainment industries, management, culture, and practice.  He is also veteran film, television, web, publishing, and stage producer and former television programming executive at A&E and Lifetime.  He has produced more than thirty projects that have garnered over 70 Emmy, Peabody, Golden Globe, GLAAD, and other awards and nominations including two personal Emmy nominations.  In addition, he is an LGBT media producer, activist, and scholar and has his doctorate from UCLA and masters from NYU.


Categories: Blog

Multichannel Networks and the New Screen Ecology: An Interview with Stuart Cunningham and David Craig (Part One)

April 21, 2016 - 9:53am

Stuart Cunningham is an Aussie; David Craig hails from the American south. Stuart has been a leading figure in the realm of cultural studies, pushing all of us towards a greater engagement with media policy issues. Craig has been an activist and an industry insider, someone who, as he notes, speaks “Hollywoodish.”

Together, they have set out on the ultimate “odd couple” academic buddy adventure — trying to map an emerging media ecology which is being shaped by new producers and entrepreneurs trying to circulate their content through multichannel networks. They have begun an ambitious project interviewing producers, platform managers, and fans, from around the world, as we understand how the word of DIY video opened up by YouTube more than a decade ago has evolved into a space for professional and semi-professional media production and distribution.

There’s much we do not yet understand about this screen ecology which is evolving hour by hour, but the first step in making sense of the changes which are occurring is to develop a systematic model of the genres being deployed, who is creating this media, what their motives are, what the economic arrangements look like, and what the impact of these evolving cultural practices have been.

There’s been a lot of talk through the years about the value of bringing together political economy work on the creative industries with more cultural studies work on the cultural and political implications of new producers and audiences. Cunningham and Craig are doing that work as we speak.

Often here, I share insights once books have been published, but they wanted to share some of their preliminary findings here in hopes of sparking conversations with others researching and thinking about this space. They are just starting to publish articles based on their initial field work, and you can find an early example here. Over the next three installments, the two authors share with us some key insights and address some fundamental questions about what’s happening with these new formats, new producers, and new audiences.

You’ve described this project as an attempt to map an emerging “screen ecology.” What do you mean by a “screen ecology,” and what are the methods you are using to identify its parameters?

The idea of an ecological approach really refers to the interdependencies amongst the elements in the ‘gene pool’ of the new screen ecology. It means we have been able to develop an account of why, for example, the multichannel networks are as precarious as the creator careers that they are trying to facilitate. This means that we have been able to complement what is the important focus by scholars such as Vicki Mayer on precarious labour below the line, and demonstrate that management in such a volatile environment can be as precarious.

These intermediaries are being squeezed from above and from below. ‘Above’ – more powerful than – them in the ecology is Google/YouTube, which, having invited in, nurtured and licensed MCNs, is now encroaching on their basic business model by developing its own branded content R&D through direct engagement with top brands in its in-house agency The Zoo. ‘Below’ them, successful, MCN-mentored, YouTubers are poached by mainstream talent agencies, move to the numerous other platforms on offer, and/or negotiate much better terms of trade for themselves. To remain viable, MCNs need to innovate even more rapidly than YouTube and the other digital platforms, and certainly faster than established media.

Another example of the ecological approach has allowed us to refine our account of the political economy of the capitalist hegemons at the top of the food chain. Rather than seeing the IT industry/Silicon Valley/NoCal taking on mass media entertainment/SoCal in a battle that only one can win, it is more ecological to look at their evolving interdependency and the way each is forcing change in the other, with potential benefits for the ordinary citizen-consumer.

Ultimately, our notion of ‘ecology’ derives from evolutionary principles that seek to explain the interdependent dynamics of the economic and social worlds we live in. Evolutionary economics –Stuart has written about the implications of this heterodox tradition for media studies in the recent book with Terry Flew and Adam Swift, Media Economics ‑ has taught us that these systems are never in balance or in equilibrium, as the dominant economic neo-classical models seek to model. There is always turbulence, always change, and new green shoots are always emerging from the creative destruction of the old.


Your focus in this project are the emerging digital distributors of video content, such as YouTube and Netflix. In what ways do these companies differ from the “media incumbents” they are challenging? What changes do these companies represent for the way media is produced, distributed, and consumed? 

Everyone has heard the old truism ‘content is king’ – this is what comforts Hollywood executives in their darker moments. But the political economy truism is that, if content is king, then distribution is King Kong. Distribution has always been where the money is made in the screen industries. And the two big gorillas in our current distribution mist are Netflix and YouTube. Together, they constitute more than 50% of prime time US online viewing.

Netflix and YouTube are alike in a number of ways. Both are world-spanning platforms. YouTube’s platform is uploaded to and streamed around the world, with the particular exclusion of China – which is platform autarkic, North Korea and at any one time a number of countries in the Middle East and northern Africa. Netflix has expanded to 130 countries after coming to dominate the North American mainstream streaming space.

But there are big differences. Netflix is largely a mainstream video store, just online. Is populated by professionally-generated content (PGC). Yes, it has state-of-the-art recommendation algorithms driving consumer navigation and a great deal of resultant consumer satisfaction. But it is old wine in new bottles. And in most regions outside North America, its back catalogue is dusty and drab. Nevertheless, it has huge brand recognition and attracts a lot of entertainment media attention.

Not so mainstream, and less noticed by main media and people of a certain demographic, YouTube’s social media entertainment, we would argue, is a much more radical, longer term challenge to main media than Netflix. Every YouTube creator, whether they’re earning big bucks or not, started as an amateur, a hobbyist, operate, create content, and represent alternative and participatory value to their audiences. And now these are multiplatform creators, using numerous social media platforms to incubate and monetize their unique form of content as well as engage with, aggregate, and harness global fan communities.

These platforms raise questions about the relationship between commercial and amateur production. Many of the top stars on YouTube, say, have positioned themselves as much closer to the audience than to the commercial entertainment sector. Is this simply a posture or is there something different about these new producers from the kinds of media producers that have shaped previous generation’s entertainment? And in particular, is there something significantly different about the ways they connect with their viewers?

Within this ecology, platforms feature constantly differentiating and iterating content, curation and comment features that inform circulation. However, rather than platform determinism, users have the agency to harness these features and create their own technological and social affordances. Baym (2015) describes this as the social shaping of technology. As informed by our research, these creators have also converted these features into commercial affordances, although not without precarity and frustration.

As Halverson (2013) noted, “curation is the new creation” as platforms have sought out new forms of artificial scarcity to compensate for almost unlimited content abundance. Content players like YouTube and Netflix offer user interfaces (UIs) and content management systems (CMs) that feature a mix of programming categories informed by recommendation algorithms. These programming categories resemble what one might see in a video store, e.g., documentaries, drama, and comedies, TV shows, and talk shows. Beneath these taxonomies, however, are complex, non-transparent, and iterating algorithms based on user interaction, including views, subscription, likes, and shares. In contrast, social network platforms like Facebook avoid categorization and simply feature feeds, yet again, constantly iterating and generating indiscernible algorithms designed to avoid hacking by advertisers and creators. While these curatorial features may promote content the users want to see, their primary function is to better target, aggregate, and engage users for the benefit of platforms and advertisers.

For creators, these iterative shifts in platform features can prove disruptive. An overnight shift in algorithms can result in the loss of audience and missing revenue. Most recently, Instagram announced it will switch from a chronological to algorithmic feed. This has led creators to besiege their followers, pleading with them to turn on “push notifications” to notify fans when content has been posted, effectively working around the algorithm. Other creators are petitioning Instagram to stay chronological, while others are threatening to leave altogether.

Notwithstanding all this platform precarity, creators have proven strategic in understanding and converting these features into commercial affordances as well as adapting to these changes. Based on our research, creators have found ways mitigate this platform precarity through a sophisticated, if laborious, practice of circulating customized content across multiple channels and/or platforms. Some creators feature multiple YouTube channels while others have launched channels on an ever-increasing array of proliferating platforms, e.g., Vine, Instagram, Periscope, Snapchat, and Victorious.

Social media play a crucial role in making the content produced and distributed by these platforms accessible to their desired markets. To quote someone or other, “If it doesn’t spread, it’s dead.” So, what can you tell us about the ways content is curated and circulated through these social media channels?

Content circulation represents more than sharing and reposting. Rather, the content must be customized to the nature of the content players, whether short-form looping video on Vine or a live broadcast channel on Periscope or a filtered photograph on Instagram. Only a few platforms offer partnerships; however, creators may be posting content to engage in influencer marketing, which has been richly funded by brand deals and guaranteed across multiple platforms.

But not all content makes money. Some content is designed to add value. Creators use multiple platforms not simply to spread content but to engage in community building. Our interviews affirm that this practice is high-touch with limited scalability. Creators spend upwards of 50% of their time on multiple platforms for the sole purpose of engaging with fans and building their community. Like their fans, they comment, like, share, retweet, and subscribe.

In addition, most creators manage this work themselves, in part to maintain discourses of authenticity with their community that few can emulate. However, in our interview, we learned that the SMOSH duo initially refused to work on Facebook, forcing their managers at Defy Media to pose as one of the creators and respond to the Smosh fans.

Comedians Rhett and Link hired their own social media manager, because “there is no way we can personally manage it”, although they pointed out that “Jenn” is well known to their fans.


Stuart Cunningham is Distinguished Professor of Media and Communications, Queensland University of Technology. His most recent books are Digital Disruption: Cinema Moves Online (edited with Dina Iordanova, 2012), Key Concepts in Creative Industries (with John Hartley, Jason Potts, Terry Flew, John Banks and Michael Keane, 2013), Hidden Innovation: Policy, Industry and the Creative Sector (2014), Screen Distribution and the New King Kongs of the Online World (with Jon Silver, 2013), The Media and Communications in Australia(edited with Sue Turnbull) and Media Economics (with Terry Flew and Adam Swift, 2015).   David Craig, Ph.D. is a Clinical Assistant Professor at USC Annenberg’s School for Communication and Journalism, where he teaches multiple courses regarding media and entertainment industries, management, culture, and practice.  He is also veteran film, television, web, publishing, and stage producer and former television programming executive at A&E and Lifetime.  He has produced more than thirty projects that have garnered over 70 Emmy, Peabody, Golden Globe, GLAAD, and other awards and nominations including two personal Emmy nominations.  In addition, he is an LGBT media producer, activist, and scholar and has his doctorate from UCLA and masters from NYU.
Categories: Blog

The Ancient Art of Falling Down: Vaudeville Cinema Between Hollywood and China

April 19, 2016 - 7:26am

Last fall, I ran a three part interview here with Christopher Rea, an associate professor of Asian studies and director of the Centre for Chinese Research at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. (See Part One, Part Two, Part Three). Rea is the author of a recent book, The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China (California, 2015), which explores the emergence of new forms of popular humor in China in the early 20th century.

Rea had contacted me because he had drawn some inspiration for this project from one of my early books, What Made Pistachio Nuts?: Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic. I had traced the emergence of new styles of comic performance from the variety stage to Hollywood over the first three decades of the 20th century. This was work I had done almost 30 years ago, so while I was intrigued to learn more about what scholars were saying on this topic today, it was ancient memory for me.

When Rea was invited to come to USC, he asked me to come out and play. Together, we put together a cross-cultural conversation about slapstick comedy, which was hosted by the fine folks at the USC Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures. Rea shared with me some of the clips he wanted to discuss from Chinese slapstick cinema, and I pulled together some clips for American silent and early sound comedy that explored some of the same themes and motifs. We pooled slides into one massive power point presentation, but otherwise, what emerged was unscripted and unrehearsed.

We met for the first time in person just moments before we went onto stage together. But what emerged was pretty amazing, if I do say so myself. There are clearly unexplored connections between comedy in China and the United States during this period. Seeing clips side by side evokes all kinds of memories and associations, and a great discussion emerged around those connections. The result has left me wanting to dig back into my roots in comedy studies and explore this territory once again.

We are sharing the video of that session here for your amusement (some pretty funny material) and your reflection (We would love to hear from others who have researched slapstick comedy in either country and might have insights to share about the topics we discussed.)

Categories: Blog

By Any Media Necessary (Part Six): To Trump Trump’s Wall (and Hate)

April 14, 2016 - 7:39am

This is the sixth and final entry in a series of posts showcasing the archive and resources we have assembled around our book project, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism, which is being released by the New York University Press. This book was funded by the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics Network and written by Henry Jenkins, Sangita Shresthova, Liana Gamber-Thompson, Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, and Arely Zimmerman.

To Trump Trump’s Wall (and Hate)

by Emilia Yang

Donald Trump, real estate magnate and reality television star (against all odds and many people’s disbelief) is still running and leading in the primary elections of the Republican Party. During his campaign Trump has made various statements regarding illegal immigration using derogatory and generalizing terms to refer to the Latino population and even proposing to ban people from “Muslim countries” from entering the country. At the same time, various white supremacists and neo-Nazis organizations have shown support for Trump. Sadly, Trump’s hateful rhetoric not only has had a political effect on his fellow candidates’ positions about immigration, but it has also materialized through violence toward various racial groups, growing exponentially since I first started researching this topic in September 2015 [1].

Bloodied at St. Louis Trump rally. pic.twitter.com/3O65vsktvS

— Trymaine Lee (@trymainelee) March 11, 2016

His proposal for “stopping” illegal immigration is to build a giant wall that would be called “The Great Wall Of Trump”[2]. It is evident that Trump and his supporters do not understand nor care about the humanitarian catastrophe that this would represent. Immigration and security experts warn that historically, US government border enforcement strategies have resulted in a massive increase in border crosser deaths [3]. As Gloria Anzaldúa writes in Borderlands, “The U.S.-Mexican border es una herida abierta [is an open wound] where the Third World grates against the First and bleeds” (1987).

Source: Ian Cleary, “The great wall of Trump”, August 26th, 2015

In a parallel context, students at USC and many other Universities across the Nation are struggling to call attention and overcome structural racism. Even though Trump’s hate speech does not directly link to the discrimination lived by the students on campus, it is disproportionately present in the media discourse that we are exposed to. The recognition of these issues provides a context for discussions about the realities of ethnic minorities such as the Latino community.

In response, I created a media art project borrowing ideas from participatory co-creative media, agonistic design and installation and participatory art, which I called To Trump Trump’s Wall. The main objective of the project was to test different participatory frameworks (a workshop and an art installation) where a political issue is discussed, imagined, and represented in situ. A secondary objective was to find the difference in results between these two frameworks, and the third objective was to inspire fellow students, activists and academics to work with media making methodologies as communication alternatives that challenge both their perceptions of difference and their political engagement.

The first iteration of this project was in the 2015 West Coast Organizing Conference hosted by the Student Coalition Against Labor Exploitation (SCALE) in what I will call the workshop framework. At this conference, student leaders from across the West Coast reunited to teach, support, learn from and inspire each other in their fights for justice. This inspirational weekend featured panels, caucuses, and workshops including To Trump’s Trump wall workshop, as discussion spaces for transgender, women, queer, people of color, working class, and people with disabilities. The second iteration of this project was presented in in the lobby of the SCI Interactive Media Building in the School of Cinematic Arts at the “Against Method” Exhibition that presented five ongoing PhD. student projects in what I will call the installation framework.

During the organizing conference I was given a time frame of one hour to enable a discussion about undocumented issues with 20 participants. I was inspired by Think Critically – Act Creatively: Harnessing The Power Of Fiction For Social Good workshop [4] created by my colleagues Gabriel Peters-Lazaro and Sangita Shresthova, along with Karl Bauman, Ilse Escobar and Susu Attar in collaboration with community partners, artists, and activists and presented in the website By Any Media Necessary. This website provides resources that enhance and illustrate the forthcoming book By Any Media Necessary: Mapping Youth and Participatory Politics authored by Henry Jenkins and the Media, Activism & Participatory Politics (MAPP) group.

In this world building workshop model, facilitators use prompt cards and ask participants to produce a one-word response to their prompt. Then they ask participants to imagine a future world set in a specific year (i.e. 2044) where fantastical things are possible and to come up with a narrative of what happens in this world, relating it to one of the themes fleshed out in the brainstorm. At the end, participants have to come up with a way to perform the story back to the whole group. Similarly, in Trump Trump’s wall workshop, I asked participants to discuss issues of immigration prompted with cards, reflecting on the immigrant experience, and then craft a message that they would like to inscribe in Trump’s wall if it was built and they had it up front. These are some examples of the cards given to the participants:


The participants of the workshop engaged in very interesting discussions in groups. Their message was first drafted, both in words and visually on a storyboard, and then created and projected in the form of stop-motions animations. This mechanic enabled participants to learn how to animate figures and understand the logic of stop-motion animations while doing them.


The installation piece enabled an interactive experience of facing the wall, listening to a soundscape of the US/Mexico border. As in the workshop, participants where asked to create a character with a message that would face the wall with the materials and objects available.

The results are a large amount of media creations that will have a longer life than both frameworks. The animations created by the participants were politically charged, thoughtful, with calls for action. Participants stated that this was an innovative way of discussing any subject and they were interested in doing similar activities in their organizations and sharing their creations online.

Despite being different frameworks of engagement, both enabled multiple discussions with diverse voices of students and faculty. These conversations generated media creations that address a relevant political theme with a playful approach. Overall, I believe that the collaborative and public creation of media activates new spaces for political debate and possibilities of expression within the participants, tapping into practices associated with participatory culture.

My proposal for critical participatory making is to recognize us in others and harness the power of imagination to think otherwise. I propose participation as the place where real, inclusive and contested communication can take place, without erasing difference. I hope for participants not only to empathize with a real situation like the immigrant experience, but also to imagine an alternative positioning where they feel that they can confront this reality creatively. In this sense, I align with Henry Jenkins’ call to stimulate the civic imagination. For him, change emerges from the possibility of imagining a different world, infusing this imagination with a sense that change is possible, and understanding ourselves as agents capable of helping to drive that change. Thus the duality between “this is our reality” and “how we would like it” are displayed not as two isolated and abstract events, but as a contested open space in the present that we can transform through the encounter between reality and desire.


In the case of Trump’s hate, racial discrimination and active calls for the enactment of violence, I believe we are entering into a completely different reality than the one I foresaw when developing the project, and we have to address this with multiple practices of civic imagination. The animal we are facing has mutated drastically. Lives are at risk and we have an ethical and moral responsibility to Trump Trump’s wall and hate by any media necessary.


[1] Gabe Ortiz, “TIMELINE: Trump’s Racial Demagoguery Is Having Dangerous, Real-Life Consequences”, America’s Voice, September 16, 2015, http://americasvoice.org/blog/a-timeline-trumps-racial-demagoguery-is-having-dangerous-real-life-consquences/

Dara Lind, “What the hell is going on with violence at Trump rallies, explained”, March 14, 2016.


[2] “Trump on border: We’ll call it the great wall of Trump”, August 20, 2015, Real Clear Politics, http://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2015/08/20/trump_on_border_well_call_it_the_great_wall_of_trump.html

[3] Clare Floran, “Trump’s Immigration Wall May Have Lethal Consequences”, August 25, 205, National Journal, http://www.govexec.com/management/2015/08/trumps-immigration-wall-may-have-lethal-consequences/119371/

[4] Workshops: “Think Critically – Act Creatively: Harnessing The Power Of Fiction For Social Good workshop” http://byanymedia.org/works/mapp/activity-1?path=activities


Anzaldúa, G. (1987). Borderlands: la frontera. San Francisco, CA: Aunt Luke Book Company

Emilia Yang is an activist, artist, and militant researcher. Yang is currently a Ph.D. student in Media Arts + Practice in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. Her work has been interconnected with digital communications, performance, and public art. Her research focuses on participatory culture and its relationship to media, arts, and design. She is interested in transmedia storytelling framed through the question of how it can foster social change and civic engagement. Her art practice utilizes site-specific interactive installations, interactive documentaries, performance, and urban interventions, all of which explore social justice issues in participatory ways. Emilia completed an M.A in Communications at Penn State University. Her Master’s project researched the first social media protest to make it to the streets in her home country Nicaragua. She developed a participatory transmedia storytelling hub in a site called ocupainss.org with the objective to present the maximum number of stories and violations of human rights around this protest.

Categories: Blog

By Any Media Necessary (Part Five): By Any Infrastructure

April 12, 2016 - 7:31am

This is the fifth in a series of posts showcasing the archive and resources we have assembled around our book project, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism, which is being released by the New York University Press. This book was funded by the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics Network and written by Henry Jenkins, Sangita Shresthova, Liana Gamber-Thompson, Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, and Arely Zimmerman.

By Any Infrastructure Necessary

by Samantha Close

What does a scholarly transmedia project look like?  We’ve become familiar with venturing into fictional worlds created by weaving together different mediums, different modes of engagement, and different narratives.  For the By Any Media Necessary project, there was already a book being written.  When your purpose is to analyze and explain rather than to create and entertain, what kind of digital structure makes sense?

At the start, it looked like a google doc and an excel spreadsheet—the time-honored academic method of listing out sources, citations, key notes, and organizing them into thematic clusters and columns.  One of the key affordances of digital media is its ability to extend, to archive more kinds of content in more ways and simply more volume than any one printed book ever could.  We used that capacity to accumulate a hefty pile of case studies and examples, interesting groups and fascinating moments, which at that stage of brute force listing and organization could have easily become another book or an article in a journal.

Books and articles are, in general, linear.  The argument is organized as a forward march and the existing content materials are marshalled accordingly.  What doesn’t fit gets moved around; what doesn’t contribute to the point gets cut.  With the digital structure, however, we didn’t have to.  Even more than the affordance of abundance, the ability to allow, and even privilege, the winding detour turned out to be key.  One argument and line of logic doesn’t need to satisfy all comers because they, like us, can follow and chart idiosyncratic paths through the assembled materials.

After several long meetings, it looked like an alien lifeform.  As research assistants, Raffi and I sketched out circles, lines, and arrows in multi-color marker on our meeting room whiteboard, accompanied by snippets of suitably cryptic text.

Our scribblings were motivated by the desire to find a balance between railroading audiences through material without allowing for exploration and dropping them into the middle of a trackless archival heap. The navigational structure had to clarify, not confuse, but also to anticipate a wide range of perspectives. Speaking to different audiences coming from very different places meant that questions like “what items do you put on the main menu?” and “how do you explain that there are educational resources without using the words ‘curriculum’ or ‘education’?” assumed great importance. Using terminology that didn’t signal to the audience who could use the content, that led people to expect something that didn’t follow, or that encouraged people to artificially corral themselves in one small corner of the project could lead to teachers, activists, students, scholars, and other folk closing out and not coming back.

And then, it started to look like a website. A really ugly website. But we were getting there. We settled on a few key navigational principles that balanced separation and classification at the top with a web of dense interconnection once you dove in. Navigating into the archive, you’re asked to choose between learning about people doing things (groups, individuals, and networks) or about the things they were making to do them (different kinds of media). That allowed us to chart out analytical paths through each of these broad categories that highlighted particular properties of activities and texts, like the impact of media form or a focus on a specific issue.

Once audiences drilled down to a particular case, though, they had easy routes out to follow whatever piqued their interest—not necessarily what brought them there in the first place. One could start looking at civic networks, find the Class War Kittehs case and see the way actors within this network join cute (and grumpy) animal memes with strong statements about labor rights and economic policies that they share on social media. Now curious about the use of such memes in activism, it’s easy to move from a focused look at the Class War Kitteh Grumpy Cat (who is still waiting for it to trickle down) to analysis of how single, still images can and are being used to promote social justice. From one of those images, a teacher could move to the Conversation Starter video on remix and authorship, which translates the analysis of how civic networks use images into a classroom-ready prompt for student discussion. An activist passionate about economic issues might move instead from these images to the collection of other organizations tackling these topics with different methods and from multiple points of view.


Writing this now with the advantage of hindsight, the structure seems almost painfully obvious. Of course that’s what we would want! The process of getting here, though, was far from straightforward. It pushed us to conceptualize our material in new ways and to collaborate with both a graphic designer and an interactive media team. For my part, I am almost as excited to see how people engage with the infrastructure as with the content, to the extent that the two even can be separated. Like the activists this project analyzes, we’ve tried to find the best media to get our message across. Come help us figure out where it will go from here!

Samantha Close is a doctoral candidate in Communication at the University of Southern California.  Her research interests include digital media, theory-practice, political economy, fan studies, gender, and race. She focuses particularly on labor and transforming models of creative industries and capitalism.  Her documentary “I Am Handmade: Crafting in the Age of Computers,” based on her on-going dissertation work into the economic culture of crafting, is hosted online by Vice Media’s Motherboard channel.  Her writing appears in the academic journalsFeminist Media Studies, Transformative Works and Cultures, and Anthropology Now as well as in more informal online spaces.  You can find her on Twitter @butnocigar.

Categories: Blog