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Telling Stories: Lina Srivastava Talks About Transmedia Activism (Part Three)

January 26, 2016 - 3:02pm

What do you see as the biggest challenges confronting transmedia producers today as they seek to adopt these practices towards promoting social justice?

Funding. Financing these projects, and moreover financing the work necessary to create stakeholder engagement that is long-term and leads to lasting impact, is a major challenge. I’ve seen projects that falter in terms of actually reaching impact within communities because their funding runs out after production.

But transmedia projects for social change must be stewarded and communities need to be managed. You of course need an exit strategy because these projects can’t necessarily go on forever, but too often funding doesn’t sustain the actual community-building or mobilization work necessary for impact.

The other challenge is the ability to let go of control, and hand back the narrative over to communities. I find this most challenging when working with organizations and institutions, who often want a more managed and streamlined message, instead of a community-led story.

Tell us more about Priya’s Shakti as an example of how fictional storytelling can also be used for social change. What motivated this project? What did you hope to achieve? Why did comics turn out to be an effective resource around which to base such a campaign?

Priya’s Shakti is one of the few fictional projects I’ve worked on and it was simultaneously challenging and fun. (Well, as much as you can have fun with the issue of gender-based violence). The motivation of this project was the 2012 bus rape in New Delhi, India, and the aftermath protests, which amplified and intensified decades of activism in India around women’s rights. It was a seminal moment for the country to come together around the issue of gender-based violence.

The project’s creator, Ram Devineni, was there to participate, and he came back with the idea of doing a project that would start exploring cultural patriarchal tropes through popular culture and new media that would engage youth. Graphic comics with embedded augmented reality turned out to be a unique and engaging method for youth to come to the material.

More importantly, we were able to embed real stories of rape survivors within the AR components, aimed at increasing the reach of our nonprofit partner Apne Aap into new audiences. And it set the stage for a series of workshops held with disadvantaged school-aged children to let them create their own comics.

In an essay for Huffington Post, you describe the ways you want to challenge some of the stereotypes surrounding the representation of women’s issues in India via mainstream and global media. In what ways does Priya and her story challenge such stereotypes?

It was very important to me, as a feminist and a person of Indian origin to not have the project be a part of the narrative that “India has a rape problem.” While not attempting to whitewash what was happening on a societal level, I was unsettled by the narrative, both because it misrepresented Indian society, but also because it pushed aside the reality that GBV is a global problem. And by and large, Indian feminists were deeply offended by the manipulative and unbalanced representations in western press and in projects such as the BBC film India’s Daughter.

The rape and protests afterward were a defining moment for Indians and Indian feminists, marking a point in time for all their decades of struggle and really good work. It was important to me to honor and support the work that activists and development professionals were already doing in India, while still presenting an engaging story appropriate for young people, and more importantly to tie the story to grassroots and community-driven action in the face of a waterfall of international attention. It was a difficult balancing act, and one I’m still evaluating.

There are of course limitations to using a comic book as a vehicle. It’s a simple narrative, aimed at a young demographic. In our case, the book was also centered in Hindu goddess mythology, which was risky on a number of levels. But it was also imagery that we, the creative team (most of whom were of Indian origin or sensitive to Indian culture), had all seen throughout our lives and that was instantly recognizable – and we thought we might be able to subvert into a story of self-determination.

And I think, ultimately, Priya is a subversive character. She is framed as an everywoman who reaches beyond her tragedy and circumstance by tapping into her own sources of power to reframe herself as a leader on her own terms, and one that challenges existing norms through art and love. She is an everywoman who becomes a superhero of a sort. And if she’s a superhero, her super strengths to fight the patriarchy are song, nonviolence, and compassion.

In some ways, Priya’s story merges together the mythological tradition in Indian popular culture and the superhero genre. Why did these seem to be particularly effective building blocks for this project? I am struck by the parallels and differences with the Burka Avenger Project in Pakistan which also uses the superhero genre to speak to the rights of women, in this case, the rights of Islamic women to education.

South Asian societies, rich and wonderful though they are, do still carry patriarchal challenges to female self-empowerment and self-direction. While I would argue that Priya isn’t a traditional superhero while the Burka Avenger is (and she’s a fantastic character in a great storyworld), the superhero genre is both an innovative and a safe space in which to explore and advance strong, empowered, independent females as role models for young girls.

When we spoke, you said you were turning your attention more and more towards building up the creative sector, so that projects may have greater sustainability. What do you see as some of the most urgent needs in terms of helping to provide voice to media creators around the world?

As I wrote above, there needs to be more attention paid to business models and financing of these projects, and I’m very excited that I’ve started exploring ways to make the creative impact sector more vibrant and sustainable. I’m building out a strategy for how to do that through my company in partnership with social enterprise experts. And while I’m not intending to become an investor, I’m excited to say I’ve just made my first angel investment in a creative social enterprise in Haiti.

There also needs to be more training and project incubation opportunities for creatives in lower- and middle- income communities and regions, which requires donor and investor education. Similarly, another need is to actively develop audiences for these projects. This requires a critique infrastructure, more robust distribution opportunities, and frankly more trust on the part of distributors that people will come to see or interact with this content (even if it is perceived to be “foreign”).

Finally, as I’ve said various ways above, we need to let go of some of the control over who tells whose stories, and let creators tell the stories of their own communities – and be there to partner with them, and explore their experiences.

Lina Srivastava  is the founder of a social innovation strategy group in New York City. Lina has provided project design consultation to a group of social impact organizations, including UNESCO, the World Bank, UNICEF, MobileActive, Internews, 3Generations, VODO, Apne Aap, Shine Global, BYkids, Donor Direct Action. An attorney by training from New York University School of Law, Lina has been involved in campaigns for several documentaries, including Oscar-winning Born into Brothels, Emmy-nominated The Devil Came on Horseback, Oscar-winning Inocente, and Sundance-award winning Who Is Dayani Cristal? Lina provides workshops, consultations, keynote addresses, panel discussions, and speeches on the rise of storytelling, narrative platforms, and social innovation as tools for social change, including at Yale Law School, Lincoln Center, MIT Media Lab, TEDx, and the Tribeca Film Festival. The former Executive Director of Kids with Cameras, and the Association of Video and Filmmakers, Lina has taught design and social entrepreneurship at Parsons, The New School of Design, and is on faculty in the Masters of Fine Arts Program in Design and Social Innovation at the School of Visual Arts. A graduate of the New York University School of Law, Lina received her BS from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and also studied at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, New York University, the Support Center for Nonprofit Management, the Hastings Center for Bioethics, and the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, Georgetown University.

 

Categories: Blog

Telling Stories: Lina Srivastava Talks About Transmedia Activism (Part Two)

January 21, 2016 - 11:35am

You have been especially concerned about “the ethics of telling other people’s stories.”  What do you see as some of the most common ethical failures that occur when human rights advocates attempt to mobilize around stories from the field, stories that deal with the real life struggles of real people? What kinds of ethical frames should such campaigns adopt to make sure they are being fair to those people whose life stories are entrusted to them? How can filmmakers and activist avoid making “poverty porn”?

We have to stop treating other people’s stories as if they are ours for the taking and shaping. We have to recognize that agency and self-representation are crucial to social change and people’s perspectives of their own situations matter. As Darren Walker recently said in a discussion at the Ford Foundation, cultural narratives drive why inequality and exclusion persist.

We may believe that our colonial period is behind us, but neocolonialist perceptions persist in our institutions and in our cultural narratives. Media outlets trade in savior complex stories to audiences who consume simplified stories that allow them to feel good and ignore structural inequities, a relationship which leads to an ecosystem of cultural narrative that continually misrepresents poor, marginalized, and at-risk communities. And it’s very easy to fall back into these tropes.

A few years ago, I wrote a post criticizing the phrase “giving voice to the voiceless.” It’s a phrase I dislike quite a bit, and while I hear it a bit less these days, it still manages to encapsulate the way we sometimes perceive other people we are seeking to “help,” especially if they are poor or seen as poor (e.g., the way we in the west still see most of Africa). I said:

“If we seek to truly collaborate with people… to advance positive social change, we need to shift our thinking about who contributes to the “project.” It’s much more helpful to think of each other as equal partners who bring to the table various assets… For example, one partner might bring access and resources, while the other one brings local learning, stories and knowledge [cultural assets]. I’m not naive enough to believe that in our current system…there isn’t a power advantage in being the one in control of the financial resources and of the avenues that distribute information. But we have to learn and teach a different perspective on what is contribution, what are valuable assets and resources, and who plays what position on the team?… [C]alling people “voiceless” discredits their ability to contribute. All of us need to recognize participation and contributed assets as valuable tools… as leverage to effect positive change.”

As artists and storytellers, we have an ethical responsibility to understand that we cannot impose “voice.” I will acknowledge that there is power in engaging audiences through language that we know, through tropes we are used to, through allowing us to feel good about the work we do—and when done well, it can contribute to both effective change and to good storytelling.

But as change agents, we are not speaking for someone else. We are primarily serving one of two functions in relation to people in an affected community: either acting as their proxy or working in collaboration with them. We might be providing access to avenues that disseminate their voice, and that’s our role in the project, but we have to interrogate how our position may be affected by privilege or top-down perspectives.

As artists, it is our obligation to open up new frames of reference. In the realm of transmedia, each piece of work related to an issue can transform audiences’ frames of reference and it’s our role and within our reach to use story to put pressure on existing frames that dehumanize subjects and to shift the angles to expose humanity in the form of lived experience and cultural context.

What criteria should we be using to measure or assess the impact of transmedia activism campaigns?

The primary focus should be on the impact of a campaign within the affected community. I prefer qualitative assessments which explore the place of the campaign within political, social, or cultural context. Often impact metrics in media campaigns in general are weighted toward audience engagement as opposed to longer-term monitoring and evaluation on the ground.

Concentrating on the effect on audiences is a lesser criteria, not to be ignored, but in my opinion not to be given primacy unless the audience is itself a target of the campaign (e.g., in public health or consumer choice campaigns, rather than in human rights).

For transmedia particularly, as we’ve discussed, one of the many advantages of interactive storytelling is that of “contribution” and setting a cultural stage for action and change — and to tailor layers of story and participation to the desired change. It is important then to measure each project on a case-by-case basis with concentration on qualitative or semi-quantitative metrics that also evaluates participation by key stakeholders, and how that participation led to shifts in perception or directed action.

The late Brian Clark initiated a consideration of what one might call transmedia locations. He argued that transmedia projects took different shapes, followed different goals, depending on what kinds of media systems and cultures they come from. You’ve done work which straddles across multiple cultures and societies. What differences have you observed in terms of the forms transmedia takes in these different contexts?

Before I answer that, I wanted to recognize Brian’s immense contribution to these fields. He was an incredible influence on so many of us, and he was one of my dearest friends. It’s strange to think about having this conversation without him.

 

Brian was an activist at heart, in part, and a cultural agitator. He and I used to have charged and dynamic, and funny, conversations about so many things – and in the last years, our conversations turned to his exploration of phenomenology, as he started deepening his inquiry into the experience of the media as opposed to the media itself. He understood that the form of media, the form of story, and the form of engagement had to arise from an understanding of what a local audience would perceive.

This ties rather directly to the way I conceive of transmedia for social change — that in order to create sustainable change, we first have to understand the context in which communities (or, in Brian’s frame, audiences) interact with the story.

My observations are that, by and large, transmedia forms in different societal context are affected by a few things: first access to technology, particularly in terms of digital or online storytelling; second, the political landscape a community resides in and what their experience is within political power structures; and third, a community’s or a society’s indie culture. The form of transmedia will, if most effective, follow the forms creatives are experimenting with already.

Many of your projects are connected with documentary productions, where-as often transmedia is understood in relation to fictional storytelling. What added value comes from expanding the scope of documentary productions through transmedia? Who do you think has done good work in terms of transmedia for social change? Transmedia documentary?

There is value in increasing the surface area through which you can engage stakeholders and partners on issues, which you can do by creating multiple entry and participation points through transmedia. In my mind, when I start thinking through strategy, I see the expansion of the core story almost like a taffy pull – you can expand the scope of your story to encompass both the multiple perspectives I mentioned above and also the ways in which stakeholders can take effective action that proceed from the story.

There are quite a few good transmedia projects in social change and documentary from which to choose. I wrote a playlist last year for MIT’s Docubase that mentions quite a few I think are worth study. To that list, I would add the recent project Notes on Blindness and The Enemy. I’m also looking forward to a forthcoming project I’m working on, Traveling While Black.

On a related note, I work with nonfiction content more so than fictional because in the realm of social impact, truth is often far more resonant than fiction. Or looking at it another way, who needs fiction when truth is strange enough?

I will say that, I am wary of pop fiction that is spectacle and gesture and political theater simply for the sake of itself. I do think, however, that fictional content is underused in social impact and that there is much more scope for transmedia producers and artists to experiment with strategic audience engagement and impact. I think CEL does great work, as hope to see more of that.

Lina Srivastava  is the founder of a social innovation strategy group in New York City. Lina has provided project design consultation to a group of social impact organizations, including UNESCO, the World Bank, UNICEF, MobileActive, Internews, 3Generations, VODO, Apne Aap, Shine Global, BYkids, Donor Direct Action. An attorney by training from New York University School of Law, Lina has been involved in campaigns for several documentaries, including Oscar-winning Born into Brothels, Emmy-nominated The Devil Came on Horseback, Oscar-winning Inocente, and Sundance-award winning Who Is Dayani Cristal? Lina provides workshops, consultations, keynote addresses, panel discussions, and speeches on the rise of storytelling, narrative platforms, and social innovation as tools for social change, including at Yale Law School, Lincoln Center, MIT Media Lab, TEDx, and the Tribeca Film Festival. The former Executive Director of Kids with Cameras, and the Association of Video and Filmmakers, Lina has taught design and social entrepreneurship at Parsons, The New School of Design, and is on faculty in the Masters of Fine Arts Program in Design and Social Innovation at the School of Visual Arts. A graduate of the New York University School of Law, Lina received her BS from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and also studied at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, New York University, the Support Center for Nonprofit Management, the Hastings Center for Bioethics, and the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, Georgetown University.

 

Categories: Blog

Telling Stories: Lina Srivastava Talks About Transmedia Activism (Part One)

January 19, 2016 - 8:55am

As my student Geoff Long likes to say, transmedia is an adjective, not a noun, and as such, it needs something to modify. Much of the conversation here has centered around transmedia entertainment, transmedia storytelling, or perhaps transmedia branding and transmedia learning. But, when the word transmedia modifies activism or mobilization, there is no more important voice in the world today than Lina Srivastava. In her hands, transmedia becomes a verb — something we do to make a difference in the world.

I first met her in Madrid several summers ago when we were both speaking at a gathering of thinkers and makers from around the world who were trying to deepen our understanding of what transmedia was and what it could do. I knew her by reputation far before that, and I’ve continued to follow her closely through podcasts, videos, blog posts, op-ed pieces, and projects, ever since. We reconnected not long ago after I got back from India because I knew she had worked so extensively in that region and I wanted to know more about the transmedia campaign she helped to develop around Priya’s Shakti, which we will discuss in more detail in the third installment of this interview. But, our conversation was far reaching, touching on ethical dimensions of the work we do, exploring the challenges of producing media for social change, dealing with how to build structures of participation around documentary and fictional projects alike. When the exchange was over, I asked if she’d be willing to cover some of this same territory for my blog, and she agreed.

So, what follows over the next three installments is a small sample of her passionate and cogent advocacy on behalf of making media that can make a difference in the world.

The term, transmedia, is one which has become increasingly expansive, meaning somewhat different things to different thinkers. Through your work, you’ve talked about transmedia activism. How do you define that concept? Why do you think transmedia is especially valuable as a model for thinking about activism and mobilization?

It’s the combined core of story, community, and collaboration that I seized on the first time I heard and understood the term transmedia. As I thought about the methodology of creating and distributing stories through this framework, I realized the potential for effective social action that emanated from co-creating stories through multiple perspectives that illuminate social, political, and cultural context.

I’ve been working in social impact for fifteen years. The work I do centers primarily with nonprofits and institutions that focus on human rights and international development, or with individual artists and filmmakers who create socially relevant art. Through this intersection, I’ve found that at the very foundation of social change are stories.

And while it appears to me we’ve hit peak noise on discussions of the role of storytelling in social impact, creative expression and culture are still, in my opinion, very underutilized in the social impact fields. We rely heavily on data and policy frameworks, and when we do bring in story, it is still more often to communicate the impact of a program than it is for using it as a strategic driver of change.

You need narrative to spur social action that resonates with and is relevant to communities that are fighting for positive change. You need to know what’s happening at the blood-and-guts-and-feelings level for people – and you need to know what the possibilities and costs to actual human beings are of our policies and actions.

Otherwise, what are we fighting for?

So storytelling, and transmedia in particular, lets me, as a storyteller and a social change agent, illuminate the human side of things.

Activism and mobilization, two distinct ways of effecting social change, at their core rely on community, participation, and collaboration. There’s more to activism or social impact work than these things, of course, but these are essential – and when they are absent, we often get top-down, simplistic, and paternalistic interventions that are ultimately unsustainable because they don’t emerge from perspectives that are based in local contexts.

Beyond that, transmedia has the advantage of allowing for people to travel among multiple entry points and for immersion, both of which are key in allowing for multiple narratives and for complexity.

And transmedia answers the question “how do you tell the story of a system?” There’s a danger in social change when you tell a story from one perspective or from one node in the system. For example, when one thinks about, say, water issues, you may have to think about infrastructure, climate change, safety and security for those getting the water, privatization vs. public access, or sanitation and health, etc. You may work only on one of these aspects, but you have understand how one issue affects the rest and how one shift in the system can change things throughout the system. And you have to know how to tell that story.

True social change comes when solutions are systemic, and transmedia itself – however we define it — has been a social innovation that allows us to view our ecosystem of issues and create stakeholder engagement around systemic change. And one that allows to get into the heart and soul of how these issues affect people and their lives.

So I coined the phrase “transmedia activism” in 2009 to describe this process: The coordinated co-creation of narrative and cultural expression by various constituencies who distribute that narrative in various forms through multiple platforms, the result of which is to build an ecosystem of content and networks that engage in community-centered social.

Another way of saying this is that we use story to effect social change by engaging multiple stakeholders on multiple platforms to collaborate toward appropriate, community-led social action. (And I note, the phrase may specify “activism,” but the framework is meant to be used for various types of social impact or mission-driven work.

I should have been broader when I thought of the term, but this one sounded better than say, “transmedia impact” and I acknowledge its linguistic limitations. And I also will acknowledge here that I don’t always use the term “transmedia” at all when describing my work, as sometimes it’s more appropriate to use alternative terms that will be more easily understood.)

When we build a story universe for social change under this framework, we think first in terms of an ecosystem of issues, social and cultural conditions, communities and solutions– and not only about the narrative arc of the story.

I’m not sure whether my definition works for other thinkers or not. I’ve rarely been one to indulge in discussions around the definition of transmedia, because to me the debate was always a distraction from what I thought to be the core utility of the term, which was to map out a new way of exploring the ways communities were already working together and the ways they were already using culture for to effect social change.

At the time that I was working on the “transmedia activism” framework, about eight years into my work in social impact, discussions around multi-platform narrative as a strategic tool were still fairly nascent in the social impact world, but storytelling per se is not an original concept in social impact.

People had talked about storytelling for years (primarily as an external participatory media was a well-established methodology, and the success of story- and culture-based feedback loops were well-documented. So I wasn’t establishing anything new. I was putting a frame around narrative in a way that plugged into numerous emerging discussions, including social innovation, human-centered design, and digital media, and package those discussions under one frame.

 

As I read your writing, your concept emphasizes multiple contributing authors working with shared assets, as opposed say to a single author working across media. Why do you find this idea of collaborative authorship important for thinking about social action campaigns?

Collaborative authorship opens up possibilities as I discussed above for multiple perspectives, which is crucial to social action that is grounded in both local context and in larger political or cultural trends. On the creative or artistic side of transmedia, we hear a great deal about the dissolving of boundaries between artist and audience or creators and fans. The analogy for social impact is not one of the taking down of boundaries between various communities and stakeholders.

If we accept that story and media are powerful tools to influence the way people understand issues (knowledge), experience the issues (engagement), see themselves and others in relation to the issues (perception), and what they do to cause these issues to shift (action), then we can see that NGOs and activists who commit to a process through which their various stakeholder communities and influencers take shared ownership of their mission-related story and media, they build an advantage of shared support for their goals, activities and outcomes.

By identifying the narrative underlying the full spectrum of engagement to action, and then by collectivizing ownership of that narrative, transmedia bears the potential to break down the unidirectional construct – “us” helping “them” – that is often at the heart of many traditional aid and international development efforts, instead creating a network of change agents that use narrative as a tool to work toward shared goals, activities and outcomes.

This has the added benefit of having the potential to shake up existing power structures and to move away from paternalistic, patriarchal narrative and design. Transmedia strategies, in allowing diverse and multiple authorship, have the potential to create better streams of participation for community-centered design or “local voice”– i.e., voices coming from an affected community, to tell its own stories and participate in or lead solutions-building.

As an example of this, we took a community-centered and multiple authorship design process for Who Is Dayani Cristal?, a film and social impact campaign about migrant rights related to the U.S.-Mexico border. We’ve laid out our methodology and impact evaluation here, people can view multiple streams of content here, and those in the migrant and refugee rights movement can use any of our content for their work, as detailed here. As of this writing, I am working on expanding our platform and strategy to the global migration crisis.

A Death You Could Die By? from marc silver on Vimeo.

 

Lina Srivastava  is the founder of a social innovation strategy group in New York City. Lina has provided project design consultation to a group of social impact organizations, including UNESCO, the World Bank, UNICEF, MobileActive, Internews, 3Generations, VODO, Apne Aap, Shine Global, BYkids, Donor Direct Action. An attorney by training from New York University School of Law, Lina has been involved in campaigns for several documentaries, including Oscar-winning Born into Brothels, Emmy-nominated The Devil Came on Horseback, Oscar-winning Inocente, and Sundance-award winning Who Is Dayani Cristal? Lina provides workshops, consultations, keynote addresses, panel discussions, and speeches on the rise of storytelling, narrative platforms, and social innovation as tools for social change, including at Yale Law School, Lincoln Center, MIT Media Lab, TEDx, and the Tribeca Film Festival. The former Executive Director of Kids with Cameras, and the Association of Video and Filmmakers, Lina has taught design and social entrepreneurship at Parsons, The New School of Design, and is on faculty in the Masters of Fine Arts Program in Design and Social Innovation at the School of Visual Arts. A graduate of the New York University School of Law, Lina received her BS from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and also studied at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, New York University, the Support Center for Nonprofit Management, the Hastings Center for Bioethics, and the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, Georgetown University.

 

Categories: Blog

How Progressives Will Break Through with Pop Culture: An Interview with Tracy Van Slyke (Part One)

January 13, 2016 - 1:26pm

In 2014, Tracy Von Slake,the Director of The Culture Lab, wrote what has turned out to be an important white paper, “Spoiler Alert: How Progressives Will Break Through with Pop Culture,” which outlines a series of strategies by which popular culture can be deployed as a tool for campaigns in support of social change. I should have read this report as soon as it came out, given my own interests in, among other things, fan activism and the civic imagination, but it took me a while to get around to it. But, when I did, it was clear we were very much on the same wavelength and that I wanted to use this blog to draw attention to some of Von Slyke’s core insights about activism and entertainment-education.

The Culture Lab — part of a larger Civic Engagement Lab initiative — has developed this helpful diagram for mapping the key points where they feel meaningful interventions can and are taking place in relation to popular media.

CultureChangeTriadModel

Many of the most heated debates impacting the worlds of fandom and gaming in the past few years have been struggles over representation, including how the media might do a better job reflecting the experiences of women and people of color. We are seeing more and more progressives recognizing the ways that popular media can and does, at least sometimes, speak for them, even as we are also seeing backlashes against “social justice warriors” from groups who are threatened by the inclusion of such perspectives in entertainment media. None of this is new, but my own sense is that we are engaging in such conversations with a growing consciousness of what is at stake in these struggles over the civic imagination.  What Spoiler Alert does, then, is bring together a wealth of examples, showing different sites where these struggles are taking place, and develops a conceptual vocabulary for talking about these examples that allows activists and community organizers to draw on the best practices of people working towards other related causes.

Over the next two installments, I will be running an interview with the report’s author, Tracy Van Slyke, as we probe deeper into the implications of her findings and as we encourage her to reflect on more recent examples of these principles at work. But there is no substitute for reading the report itself.

You begin your report Spoiler Alert with the idea that our attachments to and investment in popular culture need to become more central to social change movements. What are some of the different ways progressives might be able to achieve those goals?,

This is a ripe and rich time to work at the intersection of social and culture change.

An increasing number of artists working in popular entertainment are making people laugh out loud, get lost in a story, and gasp at dramatic plot twists (which they have always done)—while also tackling society’s most pressing social and political issues: race and gender equity, reproductive rights, voting rights, and more. One recent example: Aziz’s Azarni’s new Netflix series Master of None, especially the third episode, which unabashedly calls out racism in the television industry (and really, society at large), while managing to stay funny and entertaining. Other highlights are the winter finale of Shonda Rhimes’ Scandal, which included a storyline on abortion and reproductive choice, and the latest season of Inside Amy Schumer, in which Schumer wrote a 30-minute parody of 12 Angry Men that skewered the power dynamics of men and their relentless judgment of women’s bodies.

 

 

We’re also seeing more moments in which celebrities throw down the gauntlet, like Jennifer Lawrence speaking out against gender-based pay disparities in Hollywood and Viola Davis’s Emmy speech about diversity in Hollywood. Celebrity energy sparks social network energy, and social media buzz and digital platforms can create both celebrities and pop moments.

Social change leaders are eager to connect to these compelling stories, these fires of public attention, because they are contending for people’s hearts and minds. Through organizing, policy, and communications efforts, progressives are constantly blocking the rhetoric of hate and divisiveness. They are fighting policies that reinforce inequality in race, religion, and gender and grow the power of the one percent over our economy and democracy. But defense is not enough. With our societal soul at stake, they need to proactively introduce and reinforce visions of equity and diversity, as well as an economy and democracy that works for all, not just an elite few.

They know that from television shows to sports, from movies to music, from video games to hashtag trends, pop culture is where people are already paying attention, where myths are shaped, and where hopes and fears take root. Culture can influence a single person and be disruptive enough to move large-scale, transformative change. And as culture turns, so does the social and political landscape—for example, the long-term approach to culture change that the LGBT community took is now seeing huge legislative and policy effects.

Now, the opportunity and need is for a long-term, extensive investment in culture. If the correct investments are made, progressives can:

  • Seed stories and narratives through and with a wide array of culture makers;
  • Develop and mobilize our communities to influence cultural content and products; and
  • Spread those stories and values to new communities.

Together, this can create new cultural experiences, moments, and over time, long-lasting values shifts.

As progressives focus on infrastructure needs, as Spoiler Alert

articulates, they specifically need to:

 

  • Understand that culture is not about a communications strategy but about how and why people communicate to and with each other. By putting people at the center, we prioritize their needs, motivations, and identities, not just messages we want to deliver.
  • Tap into the cultural pulse by tracking pop trends, storylines, audience/fandom conversations to drive and increase the impact of campaigns. Progressive organizations invest heavily in influencing and tracking the daily political news cycle, but so far we’ve largely failed to use entertainment news and storylines to advance our goals.
  • Create a clear road map for investing in culture that drives their social and political work: Are they using cultural opportunities to help win campaigns or to bring about long-term culture change?
  • Build working partnerships with creatives and pop culture makers to inspire the stories, portrayals, and experiences we want to see in the world.

Over the past year as CEL Culture Lab director, I’ve seen increasing numbers of progressive groups that want to hook into pop culture, but don’t have the infrastructure and knowledge they need to make that happen. The Culture Lab is working to help fill in these gaps. For example, we have built a new service, called the Cultural Pulse, which tracks pop culture news and storylines, adapts the audience­-listening strategies and tools used by marketers, and combines that data with action tips that help progressive changemakers use popular culture to advance political and societal change.

Many on the Left have been taught to see corporate media as the enemy—something to be deeply distrusted—and they also are often fearful of emotion and pleasure as mechanisms that are pit against rationalism. Are they wrong to have these concerns? Are there ways that one can embrace the emotional power of popular culture without giving up the value that many progressives place on rationalism and science?

It’s not wrong to have concern about corporate control of pop culture—but it’s not strategic to dismiss pop culture because of it.

The basic principles of political organizing apply to our work in culture: power analysis, targets, and demands. This means knowing what you want to have happen and understanding who has the ability to give you want you want. For progressive changemakers, that includes the purveyors and consumers of popular culture.

Many social change organizations have pivoted off of pop culture, creating campaigns that advance their larger goals. For example, ColorOfChange.org, an online organizing group dedicated to fighting for the rights of Black Americans, has won multiple campaigns over the last few years, including forcing Fox to stop airing its exploitive show Cops after 25 years and making the Oxygen Network cancel the show All My Babies’ Mamas for its stereotypical and racist depiction of Black families. The Harry Potter Alliance—a network of thousands of Harry Potter fans banding together to work for human rights and equality—ran a four-year campaign that resulted in all official Harry Potter chocolate products being fair trade.

 

Focusing on popular culture doesn’t mean we have to set aside science and data. In fact, translating data into narrative, giving it a values-driven voice, and embedding knowledge into the DNA of a character that fans follow through books or screens or control through games can be effective in both reinforcing and disrupting subconscious beliefs. Studies show that when they’re presented with simply statistics, people may feel like they are powerless to make a difference. A story has the opposite effect: it inspires empathy. “Stories are powerful because they transport us into other people’s worlds but in doing that, they change the way our brains work and potentially change our brain chemistry—and that’s what it means to be a social creature,” says the neuroscientist Paul Zak.

Storytelling can also influence an individual’s sense of agency. In “The Power of Story,” Elizabeth Svoboda writes:

Using modern technology like functional MRI (fMRI) scanning, scientists are tackling age-old questions: What kind of effect do powerful narratives really have on our brains? And how might a story-inspired perspective translate into behavioural change? … The Ohio State University psychologist Lisa Libby studied a group of people who engaged in “experience-taking,” or putting themselves in a character’s place while reading. High levels of experience-taking predicted observable changes in behaviour, Libby and her colleagues found in 2012. When people identified with a protagonist who voted in the face of challenges, for instance, they were more likely themselves to vote later on.

That’s why progressives should not think they can just create their own cultural content. It should be a priority to work and partner with artists and media makers—people who are actual experts in narrative creation and storytelling—to bring data, story, and experiences together so that people want to watch, talk about, and be inspired by the storylines and characters, instead of cynical about the latest soundbite.

And that’s the trick. Pop culture is fun! It’s escapism, it’s relaxing, it takes us to new places, even new worlds (for the sci-fi and fantasy geeks in us). When we are at work as community organizers, social change advocates, we all-too-often focus on the serious in ways that are disconnected from the places in the cultural environment that we go to play. We forget that people don’t want to be fact-finding, hardline policy geeks on a Thursday night binge watch or Sunday sports day. We need to find ways to reach people where they are—instead of trying to get them to come to us.

Tracy Van Slyke is the director of the the Culture Lab at Citizen Engagement Lab. The Culture Lab works to increase the ability of social change organizers to engage people by tapping into the energy, creativity, and reach of culture. Through an iterative, experimental approach, it develops the services, knowledge-building products, and relationships that help changemakers design and evaluate cultural strategies that move systemic political and societal change. As an Opportunity Agenda fellow in 2014, she wrote the report “Spoiler Alert: How Progressives Will Break Through with Pop Culture.” Van Slyke was previously the director of the New Bottom Line, an alignment of economic justice organizing groups; director of the Media Consortium, a network of independent media outlets; and publisher of In These Times magazine. In 2010, she co-authored the book Beyond The Echo Chamber: How a Networked Progressive Media Can Reshape American Politics (New Press).

Categories: Blog

How Progressives Will Break Through with Pop Culture: An Interview with Tracy Van Slyke (Part Two)

January 13, 2016 - 8:24am

 

You cite Glenn Beck who said, “Culture is the lead. That’s the dog. The news is the tail.” What might progressive activists learn from the Right in terms of how to use cultural change as the “lead” in their efforts to reshape how the news frames public policy issues? Many on the Right also construct an argument that popular culture already reflects a leftist agenda, one they see as counter to traditional family and national values. How do we understand their very different perception of what’s going on in popular culture?

The right wing continues to complain about liberal bias in the news media and Hollywood because it works: It’s guaranteed to rile up their base and leave the targets of their attacks on the defensive. But the truth is that the Right is not suffering from a lack of access to pop culture. Just a few weeks ago, Donald Trump’s hosting of SNL brought in almost 10 million viewers and the show’s highest ratings in nearly four years.

Conservatives are expanding their coordinated influence beyond the news/media industry of Fox News, radio networks, and the online Breitbart News and Drudge Report. They are entering the realm of entertainment by building interconnected, long-term, political and cultural strategies. Reporting nearly $3 million in funding in 2014, the nonprofit Moving Pictures Institute is churning out films with far-right policy agendas. Projects like the comedy website WeTheInternet promote strategies for “freedom in film” to conservative think tanks, foundations, advocates, and organizers.

As I discuss in Spoiler Alert, right-wing commentator Glenn Beck (whose estimated earnings are around $90 million per year) is now throwing down with all his might in the culture sphere: He has three movies in the works; his internet TV network, TheBlaze, has more than 300,000 paid subscribers; and his online portal draws more than 25 million unique visitors per month. He even launched his own line of jeans after Levi’s produced an advertisement that he found too progressive.

Every piece of culture Beck touches has an embedded political and social agenda.

How do we make arguments that explain why the contents of popular culture matter without falling into the traps of traditional media effects or propaganda arguments? What assumptions are you making about how popular culture shapes or influences the ways we perceive the world? What room does your account allow for the agency of audiences to reshape popular messages to reflect their own agendas and interests?

The Hollywood storylines, the celebrities that dominate magazine covers and social media feeds, the multibillion-dollar sports industry, the individual and community experience of game play, the spiritual connections made through faith communities—these all exercise enormous influence on what people buy, how they vote, what social and political issues they support, and how they interact with their family, friends, and neighbors.

Popular culture reflects the complex, messy, and beautiful nature of our society. It is also the place to move societal change forward. In Who We Be: The Colorization of America, award-winning author Jeff Chang writes:

Here is where artists and those who work and play in culture enter. They help people to see what cannot yet be seen, hear the unheard, tell the untold. They make change feel not just possible, but inevitable. Every moment of major social change requires a collective leap of imagination. Change presents itself not only in spontaneous and organized expressions of unrest and risk, but in explosions of mass creativity.

For those who are fighting for a more just, equitable, diverse, and sustainable world, it is imperative to give people the experiences to read, watch, interact with that vision. And that’s where entertainment comes into play.

What really makes pop culture exciting is that it’s a two-way street. There’s an interchange between the industries that mass-produce experiences, content, and products, and the individuals they reach. Fans who create their own subcultures and networks, and artists who build and inspire their own communities, can and do influence popular culture beyond themselves.

The growth of digital platforms—Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, YouTube—is breaking the constraints of advertisers and traditional show formats. YouTube, Vimeo, Vine, and other platforms are boosting opportunities for storytellers, artists, and fans to experiment with content without corporate influence (which is not always ideal in the ongoing struggle for financing!) allowing them to push the boundaries in the stories they tell and how they tell them, as well as directly reach and build their own fanbases.

We can and must intervene and influence popular culture—to break down negative stereotypes, to introduce and inspire new portrayals and storylines, and to organize to change the infrastructure and decision-making systems that control access and creation of content. We, as changemakers, thought leaders, and organizers, can:

  • Work with and support the artists and media makers who are producing great values-aligned stories.
  • Support and expand efforts such as the Harry Potter Alliance to organize and work with fandoms.
  • Invest in experimentation, tools and services (like the ones Culture Lab offers) to build infrastructure that supports long-term culture change strategies in the progressive movement.

As you discuss how activism and creative might work together, a key insight is that “creatives think in terms of narratives.” What kinds of practices would social movements need to adopt to respond productively to the creative’s desire for compelling stories?

Both socially conscious artists and social justice organizers seek to change hearts and minds. From disrupting current internal biases to introducing new ideas to inspiring millions of individual actions, added together can make seismic political and social change.

Movements of people advancing social change are by nature cultural experiences, historically and around the world movements generate songs and heroes, symbols and fashions. But too often, organizers and changemakers think of narratives as a one-way message delivery tactic. Social movements are made up of people whose identities are more than just organizing hooks: worker, youth, women, people of color. They—we all—have complicated, rich lives. Advocacy groups have to do more to go beyond just thinking about the messages we want to relay, to connecting with the lives, identities, and interests of the people we want to reach. Those identities are often shaped, defined, and magnified through narratives and immersive experiences in cultural spaces. To both expand the number of people in our movements and to build the power of movements, we need to understand that narrative and culture is not a communications ploy. It actually is a fundamental part of organizing.

To strengthen and expand our movements, organizing groups and changemakers can:

  • Shift from thinking about people’s love of entertainment as a waste of time to recognizing the immense value of reaching and engaging people through narrative and culture: whether it be high-concept art or commercial escapist pap.

    You know the Cyndi Lauper song, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”? Well, yes. And so does everybody else. According to the Motion Picture Association of America, United States and Canada theatrical releases totaled $10.9 billion in 2013. In addition, 227.8 million people—68% of the population of the U.S. and Canada—attended a movie in a theater at least once in 2013. Meanwhile, according to Nielsen’s March 2014 cross-platform report, overall time spent watching TV in households that own TVs was 155 hours and 32 minutes per month. The average adult spent 5 hours and 4 minutes per day watching TV, and 32 minutes per day watching time-adjusted TV via live streaming, video on demand, DVR, and mobile devices. And just a couple years ago, YouTube reported that more than 1 billion unique visitors access the platform every month, and users watch over 6 billion hours of video every month.

    Many of the millions of people consuming cultural content have also become cultural producers—making videos via YouTube, Instagram, and Snapchat, creating and distributing their own music, self-publishing their own books.

    If we actually start to take “fun” seriously, we can influence and inspire the narratives that are being created and consumed across different pop culture and entertainment sectors.
  • Invest in learning more about the cultural intake and production of the people, communities, and networks that they want to reach, engage, and activate. Culture is not a one-size-fits-all muumuu. Individuals, communities, and networks have different and overlapping cultural interests. For the communities and networks that we want to reach, dig into learning about what they are watching, playing, listening to, and reading. What fictional characters resonate with them? What conflicts on nighttime soap operas are they talking about with their friends? What videos are they watching on their phones and sharing on social media? What are their spiritual practices? This knowledge can offer amazing insights into the narratives and cultural spaces that influence and matter to them. And then we can take that knowledge to help us find the right artists and influential media makers to support and partner with in order to shift hearts and minds.

    As I write in Spoiler Alert:
    … [T]o expand to new and targeted audiences, and to insert ourselves into the cultural conversation, we need to think about the kind of stories that they would relate to, be excited about, and want to be a part of. Even the world of wrestling is doing this. Perkins Miller, former Executive Vice President of Digital Media for the WWE, said a brand must tell a story. “We’re in the business of telling stories, 52 weeks a year. When our talents get out there and our fans watch their stories, they just flock to Twitter to continue the conversation.”
  • Learn how to build strong relationships and working partnerships with artists and media makers. Working with RaceForward and JustFilms to bring together filmmakers and advocacy groups, we found that there are “natural alignments between organizers and storytellers that play to each other’s strengths. But right now, both groups lack the deep understanding of each other’s work that’s necessary to effectively move the needle on social issues.” Artists who have worked within social movements point to the need for advocacy groups to change how they typically engage artists. Payment is important, but in a generative collaboration that goes beyond a transactional “communicate this message for us” approach. Collaboration also means we can’t try to control all the outputs. (This maybe the hardest thing for an organizer to do.)

 

In terms of compelling stories, advocates need to provide access to real stories and people, not talking points. Favianna Rodriguez and the CultureStrike network teach the importance of seeking and supporting artists from within the communities we are organizing for and with, and the need to bring creatives to the table from the beginning and throughout a strategy and campaign process. Beka Economopoulos of the strategy shop Not An Alternative, suggests: “If you are mapping out campaign strategy and messaging, and you have options between different tactics and one lends itself to more visual messaging and storytelling of what’s happening within the culture—go with the cultural and visual strategy. This allows us to develop a multimedia, multipronged campaign that plays out across media and on the ground with grassroots pressure.” (There are other specific artists’ recommendations in the Spoiler Alert chapter on collaboration with creatives.)

 

  • Overcome fear of pop culture by connecting with strategists who can provide trusted analysis. I’ve heard from political organizers who are worried they’ll “get it wrong” when trying to hook to culture and it might backfire. But just as there’s people in the progressive movement who are really skilled at figuring out how to, for example, move a policy through legislation, there’s a growing number of cultural organizing specialists who can co-create strategies that allow a campaign to authentically hook into the cultural and narrative worlds of the people we are trying to reach.

 

It’s been interesting to watch, and participate, over the past 15 years as this emergent community of practice—”cultural strategists”–has been asserting itself (ourselves) more clearly as a defined component of  the public interest, social change ecosystem. There are more and more examples of funder conferences, peer networks, reports, and the like that indicate that “culture change” may be becoming a “field.” In the year since “Spoiler Alert” came out, I started the Culture Lab at CEL and we launched a series of research, training, and tool-building projects. I’m also really excited about new initiatives from leaders like Bridgit Antoinette Evans (now a Nathan Cummings Fellow), Andrew Slack of Harry Potter Alliance and now the Star Wars Dark Money Campaign Rebel Alliance, Rashad Robinson, Color of Change, and Ai-jen Poo of Caring Across Generations, projects like Halal in the Family and LadyPartsJustice, among many others.

I see 2016 as a year when progressives will be increasingly hooking into pop culture—so we soon should have even more evidence about the practices and models that are worth replicating.

Tracy Van Slyke is the director of the the Culture Lab at Citizen Engagement Lab. The Culture Lab works to increase the ability of social change organizers to engage people by tapping into the energy, creativity, and reach of culture. Through an iterative, experimental approach, it develops the services, knowledge-building products, and relationships that help changemakers design and evaluate cultural strategies that move systemic political and societal change. As an Opportunity Agenda fellow in 2014, she wrote the report “Spoiler Alert: How Progressives Will Break Through with Pop Culture.” Van Slyke was previously the director of the New Bottom Line, an alignment of economic justice organizing groups; director of the Media Consortium, a network of independent media outlets; and publisher of In These Times magazine. In 2010, she co-authored the book Beyond The Echo Chamber: How a Networked Progressive Media Can Reshape American Politics (New Press).

 

Categories: Blog

What We Talk About When We Talk about Star Wars

December 22, 2015 - 10:34am

This blog post might be subtitled “The Pretentious Ass Strikes Back.” Here’s a story we tell in my family.

In 1977, Cynthia Ann Benson, an undergraduate at Georgia State University, has signed up for a class on film theory and criticism, with some nervousness about whether it will take the pleasure out of going to the movies. On the first day of class, the instructor — Jack Creech — is late, and a group of students are gathered outside the classroom. This guy — you know the one — another undergraduate student  is standing around making assertions about gender, race, and technology in the recently released Star Wars movie to anyone who will listen and to many who would probably rather not be listening. She goes off after class and writes a letter to her best friend describing “this pretentious ass pontificating about the social significance of Star Wars” as summing up everything that made her fearful of cinema studies.  It took me several years to overcome that unfortunate first impression and get her to go out on a date with me. We’ve now been married for almost 35 years.

So, it was some ironic glee that I accepted the invitation of the media relations folks at USC to be put on a list of experts who could talk to the media about Star Wars. I found myself doing some dozen or more interviews with reporters all over the world in the week leading up to the release of A Force Awakens, filling them in about the impact which the Star Wars franchise has had over the past few decades.

 

If you have a low threshold for pretentious asses pontificating about the social significance of Star Wars, you may want to skip this post. If you are worried about spoilers, the first chunk will be spoiler free and I will give very clear signals when you should stop reading.

In the years, in between, much has happened. One thing my wife and I had in common was that we were not impressed with the first trailers we saw for the original Star Wars. I recall rolling my eyes and laughing it off the screen. In fairness, the original trailers were singularly bad, lacking John William’s music, and using a hooky pitch that we had felt science fiction cinema had overcome by that point.


Keep in mind that there were also trailers at this particular show for more serious science fiction movies such as Logan’s Run and Damnation Alley. (Okay, time has not been kind to these particular films).  I was a young reporter for the campus newspaper at the time. I was offered the chance to interview three unknown actors — Carrie Fischer, Mark Hamill, and someone named Harrison Ford — and I turned it down. Some other classmate got to take what turned out to be a really plum assignment. By the time I saw Star Wars, for the first time, there was enormous press and I was pumped, but bad first impressions all the way around.

Cynthia and I would see every subsequent Star Wars film together, on opening day, with the latest one being no exception. We were dating by the time Empire opened, we were married by the time Jedi opened, and we had a son by the time we saw Phantom Menace. In fact, we had an adolescent son given the long wait between and we had practiced some miserable child abuse, because we had forbidden him to watch the Star Wars films on a small screen and they had not released them on the big screen in more than a decade. We did take him to see the digitally “enhanced” versions (he has never seen Star Wars in its original format). And this go around we huddled, as fifty-somethings, under umbrellas in the rain, waiting with all of the undergraduates, to see A Force Awakens for the first time. One of the reasons that I do not think Star Wars has been over-hyped, though God knows Disney and the media have tried, is that so many people have stories like this one, where this saga has become central to the ways they tell their family and personal history. More on this point in a minute.

Along the way, other things linked me with Star Wars. I curated a screening of Star Wars fan films at the Art Institute of Chicago; I wrote a chapter about Star Wars and its troubled relationship with its fans for Convergence Culture; I appeared as a witness for the prosecution in the documentary, The People Vs. George Lucas; and I ended up getting hired by the University of Southern California  (where Lucas was a film student) and teaching sometimes in a building where Lucas’s name is carved in marble over the entrance. So, Star Wars has, hell yeah, been an important aspect of my life since the late 1970s. And though I was nervous after my disappointment with Phantom Menace and its sequels, I went into this one with a new hope, sorry couldn’t resist, about the future of the franchise. For me, the best news about Disney buying and revitalize the franchise was that George Lucas was going to have nothing to do with the new films.

Don’t get me wrong. I will always value Lucas for giving birth to the Star Wars mythos. Lucas, like L. Frank Baum before him, set out to create an American Fairy Tale and he pulled it off with flying colors. We can make a number of claims about the origins of Star Wars. Joseph Campbell, the mytholographer, would credit Lucas with tapping into the “monomyth,” his model for the core themes and narrative elements of global mythology, and updating it for the 20th century. If Lucas did not intentionally tap “the Hero’s Journey,” he may have been the last writer in Hollywood not to have done so, since Campbell’s model, especially after Star Wars’ success, has been encoded into many of the core texts for training screenwriters and remains the template for most of the big budget blockbusters released each year. Lucas was inspired in part by his own childhood, watching serials at Saturday morning matinees, and especially by Flash Gordon, which he had intended to remake, but failed to get the rights to do so. So, he created an original story in the spirit of those classic serials, and crammed it with as many pulp genre elements as he possibly could. He also raided countless other films from around the world, including The Hidden Fortress and Battleship Yamamoto (Japan) and Dam Busters (UK), cutting together key sequences as a means of pre visualizing his movie (as Bob Rehak has pointed out). And out of this primordial soup of borrowed elements emerged what has become the most popular film franchise of all times.

Of course, Lucas did not get there without some real collaborations — with Marcia Lucas (his wife, the film’s editor, and what many believe to be the one person who could tell him no), the classic SF writer Leigh Brackett, the screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, and of course, the composer John Williams, each of whom played key roles in shaping the core DNA of the Star Wars universe, as did many others (auteur theory be damned). And yes, USC’s Cinema School deserves some credit: Lucas was one of the original “movie brats,” the first filmmakers in America to come out of film school. They had absorbed many classic films — including The Searchers upon  which one of the original film’s most emotionally compelling moments was based — and they knew how to think about the full range of cinematic techniques. Above all, they knew how to communicate with the various technical collaborators and create an audio-visual style that was intensified compared to any previous films to come out of Hollywood. For more of my thoughts on Star Wars‘ impact on contemporary Hollywood, check out this piece. 

Lucas made what turned out to be a key move when he rejected a higher salary of the film in favor of greater control over and more profit from the unfolding of Star Wars as a media franchise. From the start, Lucas saw the ancillary materials as a vital aspect of how he would build up this fictional universe, just as from the start he understood this as something which could unfold across multiple installments. I don’t believe, as is sometimes claimed, that he knew the exact shape of that narrative from the start. I doubt he would have constructed Luke, Lea, and Hans as a romantic triangle in that first film, if he knew at the time that Luke and Lea were siblings. But the development of the extended mythology of Star Wars represents a major breakthrough in the emergence of today’s transmedia entertainment. Here’s a good piece tracing some of the contributions that the extensions have made to the Star Wars saga. 

From the start, Star Wars was conceived not so much as a story about the dysfunctional Skywalker family as it was a world with many movable parts that can be explored through a variety of different media — comics, novels, games, toys, animated series, radio dramas, etc. By the second and all subsequent films, we are given glimpses of different corners of the Star Wars universe on screen precisely so that material can be mined and developed through these other platforms. And these other creative developments sustained audience engagement across the long years when there were no new Star Wars films on the big screen and the original versions were not even available for VHS or DVD release.

And of course, the other thing that sustained Star Wars through the years was the intense fan activity it attracted from the get-go. If you trace the history of media fandom, Star Wars ranks alongside Star Trek and Harry Potter as perhaps the most influential fandoms. There’s so much one could say here about the role of SW fandom in the development of fan fiction, fan music, fan cinema, fan vidding, cosplay, role play, and model-building. But, as I wrote in Convergence Culture and testified to in the People vs. George Lucas, Lucas had, from the start, a contradictory relationship with his fan base. His personal mythology relies heavily on stories of his experiences as a Super 8 filmmaker, but he was openly hostile to most other forms of fan production, and his company has modeled a series of different strategies by which studios might bring fans more fully under their control through the years. 

The mainstream media has tended to read Lucas’s comments about the new film as positive. I read a bit more subtext behind them. Read them again in light of the history of animosity between Lucas and his fans: “I think the fans are going to love it. It’s very much the kind of movie they’ve been looking for.” How we read this comment depends on whether Lucas wants the same things as his fans want and it is pretty well established by this point that they were opposed on almost every development around Star Wars 1-3.  

Moving Lucas’s hands off the reigns of the Star Wars empire is what needed to take place for the revitalization of the franchise we’ve seen in recent months. Ironically, the best way to return Star Wars to its core was to put someone else in charge. And in many ways, Disney, scary thought though it was when it was first announced, was probably the best studio to take control. There are plenty of bad things you can  say (and probably have said) about the Disney corporation. It’s record for fan relations is no better than Lucas’s, but they have made some decisive steps to turn this around in recent years, including sustained outreach to adult fans, rather than basing everything on an appeal to “children of all ages” or writing off the adult fans the way Lucas did implicitly and explicitly around The Phantom Menace. By the early sound era, Walt Disney had created the Mickey Mouse clubs, organizations at movie theaters across the country, which encouraged audience engagement and participation with its properties. These organizations would provide the template for the later Mickey Mouse Club television series. The creation of Disneyland as a theme park and as a television series helped to lay the foundations for transmedia entertainment, and the company has been in the forefront ever since in exploring how to extend and deepen stories across media.

In many ways, the plans for the new Star Wars franchise, with stand-alone films about individual characters sandwiched between contributions to the larger unfolding saga, comes straight out of the playbook that Disney has developed around the extended Marvel universe. All of this makes sense to me.

Putting J.J. Abrams in charge of the new film sent a mixed message. As a Star Trek fan, I did not like what has ultimately happened to the big screen reboot of Star Trek: I had mixed responses to the first film (in which I had an unrecognizable cameo role that is included in the dvd extras — look for the shadowy figure of the Klingon on watch) and HATED the second (another story for another day, but mostly having to do with his total lack of understanding of the core character relations and themes that make Star Trek into a distinctive SF franchise.) So, after Phantom Menace and after Into the Darkness, there were good reasons to be twitchy heading into this film, even though otherwise, there were plenty of great elements already visible in the trailers to set my fanboy heart at ease.

So, what did I think about the film?

 

THERE WILL BE SPOILERS FROM HERE.

 

It took me probably a good ten to fifteen minutes into the film before I could start to breathe in a normal fashion as the realization set in that this film met the first criteria for being the flagship for a major media franchise: It doesn’t suck. And by the time, Hans and Chewbacca show up on screen, I realized that I was loving it. I have still only seen it once, so I am going to avoid making too many grand interpretive claims here, but I will say that the film did what it needed to do to set Star Wars on the right path for the next decade or so.  Here’s some of the things I think it accomplished:

The Force Awakens Revitalizes, but does not reboot, Star Wars. This goes back to the J. J. Abrams issue. I had no objection to Abrams recasting the leads on Star Trek, but I did not think he needed to spend the entire first film setting up an elaborate time paradox in order to explain why and how he did so. I also felt like if he was going to call these characters Kirk, Spock, McCoy, etc., he needed to respect some core aspects of their personalities. It is one thing to provide a new interpretation of those characters, as happens whenever a new actor tackles Hamlet, say, but another to fundamentally shift who they are, and by the second film, he was showing a total disregard for those characters. If you can swap out Spock for Kirk in Wrath of Kahn, and have it make no difference in terms of how the story plays out, you are not grounding your storytelling in the characters.

This time around, Abrams does show obvious respect and affection for the original characters, both big and small. Clearly, he reminded us of how central Hans Solo has been to the spirit of Star Wars, but there were also great moments featuring Chewbacca who has always been a personal favorite (the scene with the nurse was a highpoint of the film for me), and there are so many minor Star Wars characters hidden like Easter Eggs in the background of various scenes, suggesting a fully populated universe which continues on from the elements we valued from the original trilogy. This looked and sounded like Star Wars.

Lucas with Phantom Menace and Abrams with Star Trek had made a big deal out of needing to throw out the past in order to appeal to a younger generation . But this time, my generation of fans were not sacrificed to pave the way for the younger ones. That scene with Hans and Lea, talking to each other about their mature relationship, and their troubles as parents, was directed straight at all of us who had led adult lives while still maintaining a fascination with this franchise. Our mastery over the mythology was valued, even if they did streamline much of the extended mythology built up through the transmedia through the years, and the film returns to classic themes that have made the Star Wars films work as a shared mythology. Some have argued that the film spends too much time looking backwards, not enough time looking forward, but when you compare it with the Star Trek reboot, it is clear that Abrams made a different set of choices this go-around (or was forced to accept them, given how much Disney had running on this one!).

A Force Awakens paves the way for the next phase of the story. There are a whole new cast of characters, each born of the archetypes of the original (literally or not — in some cases it remains to be seen), but each representing new energy and interests. Rey is the female protagonist that Star Wars fans have wanted for decades. Ironically, one of my claims when talking about Star Wars in that GSU hallway so many decades ago was that Princess Lea did transform the vocabulary of the female sidekick in SF adventure stories — she does pick up a blaster and proves a better shot than Hans, she does deliver some withering one-liners which cut Luke down to size, and she does exercise some power over the rebellion forces. But, today, I think we would say that the roles offered to women in Star Wars are limited. I assume many of you have seen the recut of all of the lines across the original trilogy delivered by women other than Lea.

Rey ranks alongside Imperator Furiosa (Mad Max: Fury Road), as the archetype for the next generation female action hero. Lucas always saw the young boys as the true audience for Star Wars and had deep ambivalences about its appeal to women, so it is great to see women of all ages get the protagonist they deserve. I am outraged by suggestions that Rey is a Mary Sue character — certainly no more so than Luke himself — and it is not “political correctness” to think that we can have a broader range of characters front and center in these kinds of stories. It is also not “political correctness” to protest when the studio released a set of action figures which features all of the boy characters and does not include the chief protagonist. 

They get enormous credit for making a blockbuster where the white male is at best the third most important character, but come on, for all of the progress this film makes, it really still doesn’t have a clue of how central women have always been to the fan community around this franchise, or why many of us would want both our sons and our daughters growing up with admiration and respect for Rey’s mad chops and self-confidence.

I would argue that the film is still struggling with its racial politics — Finn spends far too much of the film in a state of utter terror and ends up coming pretty damn close to being another dead black guy in an action movie by the final credits. I know he overcomes his fears to be there for Rey, but come on, he doesnt need to hold her hands, but we also do not need to diminish him in order to make her look stronger.

Poe doesn’t spend enough time on screen — he’s got some real potential, but I need to get to know him better. I fell under the charms of Maz Kantana who is not a puppet like Yoda, not too cute like the Ewoks, not a cartoon character like Jar Jar Binks, but really does show the expressive capacities at the hands of contemporary CGI artists in creating alien characters. (I will note that this last is a split decision in my household: my wife and son think I am crazy). BB8 is legitimately cute without being cloyingly so and without relying on racist stereotypes.  And as for Kylo Ren, we have someone as compelling as Darth Maul who is allowed to last for more than one sequel, and someone who shows what a good actor  (and frankly a better director) could have done with the Anakin Skywalker storyline. I don’t love everything about him — the temper tantrums seemed to come from a different movie and one that I do not like at all. But, the emotional core here provides strong fundamentals that can sustain the series moving forward.  

The casting was across the board brilliant, including a deep back bench of performers who still haven’t shown everything they can do with these parts. I left the theater wanting to know more about all of these characters and above all, wanting to know what happens next (the true test of any serialized entertainment).

The Force Awakens was fun. That surely has to be the top criteria for evaluating a Star Wars movie. It is not going to provide overt social commentary — if you want that, go see Spotlight or any of a dozen other films released this Oscar season, with varying degrees of quality and impact. 2015 will go down as the year when Hollywood rediscovered its liberal core — as if the entire industry went back and binge watched the complete works of Elia Kazan and Stanley Kramer. But Star Wars has cool action  sequences, great character moments, witty one-liners, everything that felt so fresh when the original film hit the screen in 1977. The actors look like they are having a good time, even Ford, and the characters clearly like each other. There are enough mythic themes to make us care what is getting blown up next, which is more than can be said for many other big budget movies of the past year.

So, is this the best film ever made? Certainly not. As a Star Wars fan, there’s a lot to nit-pick and a few things that contradict core mythology (how exactly was Finn able to get Luke’s light saber to work for him? (Keep in mind it was previously –even in this film — suggested those light sabers need to be keyed to specific individuals.) What exactly did Hans think Ryo was about to do? What nonsense about the maps!)  

Is it the best Star Wars film ever made? I am seeing fans debate whether it is the second or third best Star Wars film — the dust needs to settle and we need to dig around in the new elements before any of us can know — but I’ve seen few assert that it is the best.

Is it a worthy addition to a classic series that has sustained audience interest across multiple generations? Absolutely. It cleared the bad taste out of our mouths, and it paves the way for what promises to be a long run of Star Wars stories into the future. Keep in mind that there was a new Oz book released each year at Christmas time for the better part of the 20th century, a transmedia franchise which was valued by generation after generation.

I want to see Star Wars films that center on characters who are not named Skywalker. I want to see films which provide back story for Hans and Chewie, that explore different corners of the Star Wars extended universe, that draw on different mixes of genre elements,  that push the story backward and forward in time. I want to see what happens to the new characters introduced in this film. And it sounds like I will get my chance.

 
More-over, this film is certain to generate new kinds of fan responses.  I’ve written here often about the amazing work being done by the Harry Potter Alliance and Imagine Better in using popular mythology to inspire a new generation of young activists. (We write extensively about those efforts in our forthcoming book, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism). Andrew Slack, the co-founder of that group, has moved onto a new campaign which uses the Star Wars saga to call attention  to the role of dark money in American politics. He’s asked me to serve on the Jedi Council, advising him on these efforts. Here’s an example of the early press coverage of these efforts and below, you can watch a video which explains about the Jedi pledge you can take to help fight to help reform today’s broken campaign finances system. So, yeah, social significance after all!

Your friendly neighborhood pretentious ass signing off for 2015. See you next year.

Categories: Blog

A New History of Laughter in China: An Interview with Christopher Rea (Part Three)

December 15, 2015 - 1:54pm

You draw some interesting connections between humor and other culture practices, such as amusement parks, fun house mirrors, photographic manipulations, and games, many of which speak to technological shifts in perception impacting China and the rest of the world during this period. To what degree were such devices a means of responding to the emergence of modern mass media and modernity more generally?

To a great degree, I believe. During the late Qing dynasty, especially during the 1900s, you have a lot of futuristic novels that include looking devices, like the “character-examination lens,” which is a kind of moral X-ray. These writers found China’s present to be unwatchable and preferred to look ahead. In the book I include one 1909 cartoon showing a hand-held X-ray device revealing that the only thing in an elected representative’s heart is money. This 1909 “allegorical illustration” from Shanghai’s Illustration Daily uses binoculars to represent Chinese and foreigners’ tendency to view each other as either larger or smaller than life (figure below).

In the 1910s, you have the ha-ha mirror, as they called it, being installed in front of big-city amusement halls (figure below) to draw in passersby. And in 1920s films you have plenty of glasses, binoculars, windows, mirrors, lenses, and other optical devices. Not all of this play was comedic—some illustrations of flying machines from the 1880s are more fantastical than anything else—but I do see irreverence being connected to this modern mode of positive exploration, unconstrained by past ways of doing things.

Postcard of Shanghai’s Great World amusement hall (est. 1917)

To what degree did these comic genres survive the Second World War and especially the rise of Communism and the Cultural Revolution?

Big question, which I hope to answer in a future book called The Unfinished Comedy. In 1957, the prominent filmmaker Lü Ban made a film, Unfinished Comedies, in which a pair of slapstick film stars from the Republican era—Han Langen and Yin Xiucen, playing themselves (figure below)—reunite in New China. In the film, they make a trio of film comedies, only to be berated at the advance screenings by a censor called Comrade Bludgeon. Unfinished Comedies was never released and the political backlash ruined Lü Ban’s career, but fortunately the film survives, and with it the comedian’s cri de coeur.

To me, the film expresses the resilience of modern China’s comedians in trying circumstances…which are pretty much the only circumstances they’ve ever known. Each era had different constraints and opportunities, including the Anti-Japanese War (1937-45), the Civil War (1945-49), the early Mao era, (1949-65), and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). The early Mao era, for example, ushered in a new period of didactic comedy, in which satire and eulogistic comedy were the only two modes explicitly endorsed by the Party-state. Nowadays, the government censorship apparatus is more active, and by some accounts more effective, than ever before. But all of the comic genres survive in some form, even as new genres and terminology continue to appear.

Near the end, you talk a bit about forms of internet humor in China, which you connect back to earlier examples of “crowdsourcing” jokes for Chinese publications. To what degree were the styles of humor you identify a popular or grassroots phenomenon as opposed to one reserved to the literary elites? To what degree do you see contemporary web culture as introducing a new “age of irreverence” into China?
Well, people who could read and write were in the minority in China at the turn of the twentieth century. I did come across a few joke books compiled by scribes working with illiterate comic performers. But with the exception of amusement halls, photographs, and films, most of the types of humor I discuss are written, and thus were to some degree products of “elite” culture.

Of course, the Chinese literary sphere had its own pecking order. Most of what I would consider to be the best humor writers of the Republican era were scholars of the Chinese tradition as well as multilingual and cosmopolitan—writers like Lao She, Zhou Zuoren, and Qian Zhongshu. The “humor movement” of the 1930s was an elite one that ended up getting some traction in popular culture, and it’s the moment scholars know best. I make a point of also spending some time with the hacks, the amateur enthusiasts, and the entrepreneurs.

You once talked about “Web -10.0,” referring to earlier iterations of participatory culture—people using mini presses to publish ‘zines in the 1850s, amateurs staffing their own radio stations in the 1920s, and so on. An entrepreneurial ethos also developed in China ca. 1890s-1930s, which involved a lot of sharing. Tabloids, literary journals, cartooning magazines, and small film companies shared labor—moonlighting was the norm—and content, like jokes.

Xu Zhuodai, who became one of Shanghai’s most popular comic writers, founded a slapstick film company in 1925 with a second-hand camera and a bunch of buddies from his theater troupe (figure below). He called their opportunistic, shoestring approach to the business “cigarette butt-pickup-ism.” Wu Jianren, one of the most prolific joke-writers of the 1900s, claimed that people in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Southeast Asia kept retelling his jokes. So he republished his favorites. Cartoonists were even more welcoming of new talent, and solicited contributions from readers.

A still from Cupid’s Fertilizer (1925), produced by Xu Zhuodai’s Happy Film Co.

My impression is that, as a whole, Republican Chinese, while relentlessly exploratory, was still nowhere near as egalitarian as contemporary web culture, if only because of the breadth and speed of access today. I’ve written before about online video spoofs known as e’gao or kuso, which became popular in the mid-2000s, and generated the most famous comic Chinese meme, the Grass Mud Horse.

I do think that the web has facilitated a new virtual age of irreverence in China (figure below). But the authorities have a chokehold on print publishing and mass media, so, at the moment, we’re hearing much less laughter out of China than we should.

Christopher Rea is an associate professor of Asian studies and director of the Centre for Chinese Research at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. He is author of The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China (California, 2015); editor of China’s Literary Cosmopolitans: Qian Zhongshu, Yang Jiang, and the World of Letters (Brill, 2015) and Humans, Beasts, and Ghosts: Stories and Essays by Qian Zhongshu (Columbia, 2011); and coeditor, with Nicolai Volland, of The Business of Culture: Cultural Entrepreneurs in China and Southeast Asia. He is currently translating, with Bruce Rusk, a Ming dynasty story collection called The Book of Swindles.

Categories: Blog

A New History of Laughter in China: An Interview with Christopher Rhea (Part Two)

December 15, 2015 - 4:59am

Part of what brought us together was your recognition of some parallels between what I had written in What Made Pistachio Nuts? about the “new humor” in the American context in the early 20th century and the kinds of developments your book documents. So, could you say a bit more about the similarities and differences in terms of what was happening around jokes in American and China during this period?

Ah, the “new humor”—same marketing strategy! In both cases, there’s this sense that the modern era calls for a new comedic sensibility. I see a lot of parallels, including in timing. Some jokes stand the test of time and are endlessly circulated. But, even as they make new conquests, jokes seem to have a built-in obsolescence factor. So we promise that this “new” one isn’t stale—actually, it just has to be new to you.

One major similarity is an increase in the volume of published jokes by several orders of magnitude. You have a rising tide of publications that lifts all literary boats, including humor’s humble sloops and dinghies. Writing jokes and amusing “filler” material for various periodicals became a means of livelihood. One writer, Zheng Yimei, was known to his colleagues as the Fill-in-the-Blank King, bubai dawang.

Another is that the rise of the periodical press overlapped with the popularity of a vaudeville culture of variety amusements. The Chinese word for magazine—zazhi, or “assorted records”—resonates with the new focus on miscellany in literary culture, and the choose-your-own-adventure ethos of the new amusement halls springing up in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Singapore in the 1910s and 1920s. Funhouse mirror, floor one. Magicians, floor two. Comedians, floor three.

Finally, joke books, live performances, comic strips, slapstick films, and other forms of amusement became cheaper in the early twentieth century thanks in part to technological advances and urbanization, which created economies of scale. As it became cheaper, humor became more democratic.

As for differences, the main one was language. A new vernacular style of writing was just taking hold in the 1910s and 1920s, so you have humor collections appearing both in a written vernacular close to everyday speech, and in classical-style literary Chinese. The actual content of the jokes was not terribly different, though my impression—having not done a rigorous quantitative comparison—is that you find more puns in Chinese, a language of homophones.

Much of the debate about jokes in America had to do with their ties to a new commercial culture where the desire to make people laugh was divorced from the desire for moral instruction or critical commentary (or so the discourse of the period argued). Are these same criticisms directed against Chinese humorists and jokesters of this period? Why or why not?

In What Made Pistachio Nuts? you describe religious figures and members of the middle class decrying a new cultural force that would see any situation “thrown into the cauldron and cooked into some fashion of mirth.” Chinese critics voiced similar objections. One in the 1930s reminded advocates of “the so-called humor” that “laughter is like tobacco and alcohol: a little is a stimulant, but too much is narcotic.” China had just woken up from its dynastic lethargy—and now humor was putting it back to sleep.

Moral instruction (wen yi zai dao) and personal expression (shi yan zhi) are the two main writerly impulses—so says traditional Chinese literary theory. Either you set the world straight or you vent your own feelings. The moralists of the modern age weren’t just old fogies satirizing modern women in short skirts; you also have progressivists mocking their peers for wallowing in nostalgia for the glory days of the Ming dynasty instead of making revolution in the streets. So, yes, you see the same antagonism toward a new entertainment culture of pictorial magazines, comic strips, amusement halls, and movies. I would add that the “serious-minded” critics also often envied the entertainers’ commercial success.

There are many references here to “western jokes” being popular in China during this period and you also describe various ways Chinese jokes and other humor got exchanged across a diasporic community in the early 20th century. How might we understand humor and laughter as part of a larger set of cross-cultural exchanges during this period? It’s often said that humor is one of the hardest forms of cultural production to translate across national and linguistic barriers. So, what survived and what got lost through these exchanges?

“Laugh, and the world does not usually laugh with you, because the world generally fails to see just what there is to laugh about.” T.K. Chuan, an American-educated writer, also claimed that “it is not laughter that brings men together.” But he did so in an English-language Shanghai weekly, The China Critic, which played handmaiden to a humor craze in the 1930s, translating jokes back and forth with a Chinese-language humor magazine called The Analects Fortnightly. His colleague Lin Yutang, one of modern China’s most influential humorists, was more optimistic. On the eve of WWII, he facetiously suggested that if each nation were to send a representative humorist to a Peace Conference, all war plans would collapse because each would claim that it was all his own country’s fault.

Chinese humor was as internationalized as the Chinese press itself. Chinese humorists drew from any sources they could get their hands on. They read Tokyo Puck, Russian satirical plays, American comic strips like Mutt & Jeff (figure below) and Bringing Up Father, London’s Punch magazine. They translated Mark Twain and modeled magazines on The New Yorker. One Beijing-based periodical reprinted Chinese cartoons with translated French captions. Playwrights wrote comedies of manners channeling Wilde and Shaw. Filmmakers adapted Lady Windemere’s Fan and replicated gags from Buster Keaton.

A Chinese version of Mutt & Jeff in Shanghai’s Eastern Times Illustrated (ca. 1910s). Having cooled down on a hot day by strapping a block of ice to his head, A. Mutt is beaten by a sweaty companion when he dons gloves.

As for “western jokes,” that was often a lazy marketing device like “new jokes.” In the 1920s, one writer claimed that Chinese jokesters were cribbing from old dynastic joke collections, changing the names to foreign names, and passing them off as “western jokes.” But you do have lots of translation and bilingual humor, literary and pictorial (figure below).

Vermin make their home in the newly-established Republic, spoiling the fruit of earlier labors. From Shanghai’s The True Record (Mar. 1913)

My impression is that pictorial humor traveled wider and translated more easily than wordplay, but even still, China—then as now—had some remarkably talented translators who were able to bridge the language gap.

You have very interesting things to say in the book about the reception of slapstick comedies by Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin in China and the ways they intersected with local slapstick traditions. Most of us know little to nothing about silent film comedy in China. Can you give us some glimpses into what was happening in Chinese cinema during this period and how it connected with the other kinds of humor you discuss?

The earliest extant Chinese film we have today is a slapstick comedy called Laborer’s Love (aka, Romance of a Fruit Peddler, 1922) (figure below). That’s pretty late in terms of film history, global or Chinese. But it’s no accident that it’s a comedy, which were then popular worldwide, or that it’s so fascinated with trick photography and gadgets. As Xinyu Dong has shown, the film was responding to American films made just a year earlier, like Buster Keaton’s The Haunted House (1921), which also features a staircase that turns into a slide.

I show that trick camerawork in films like Laborer’s Love—such as a frame showing two images of a character dreaming of himself—can also be found in contemporaneous portrait photography. You could go to a studio and sit for a photograph in which you appear to be pouring yourself tea, driving yourself in a car, or begging yourself for money, thanks to the miracle of double exposure (figures below).

Trick photographs using double exposure, ca. 1910s-1920s. The top one (with watermark) is printed on a postcard. The bottom one features a teenaged Puyi, the recently-deposed last emperor of the Qing dynasty.

These novelty photographs had been around since the 19th century, but their reception in China was unique. For example, in the Confucian Analects the Master twice advises that it is better to ask of oneself (qiu ji) than to ask of others—so they called the money-begging photo a “self-beseeching photo” (qiu ji tu). It’s a consumer product that’s at once allegorical, playful, and ironic.

Lloyd and Chaplin were extremely popular in China. Their films screened regularly, and they were both written about extensively in movie magazines (figure below). The handsome, friendly Lonesome Luke character was especially popular; Dong points out that the Laborer in Laborer’s Love even puts on Luke-style glasses at one point. Lloyd’s popularity plummeted in 1929 due to the Chinatown stereotypes in his first talkie, Welcome Danger (1929). Wisely, he apologized, and the brouhaha died down.

Harold Lloyd on the cover of the first issue of Shanghai’s The Motion Picture Review (Jan. 1920)

Chaplin was revered as an “artist” and inspired local imitators as early as 1922 (figure below). His short visit to Shanghai in 1936 was a sensation. And by then, the Chinese film industry had been stable for about a decade, and you had actors specializing in comic roles, like the skinny Han Langen, who often paired with Liu Jiqun or Yin Xiucen as a Chinese Laurel and Hardy. Unfortunately, the 1937 Japanese invasion of Shanghai, where China’s film industry was centered, disrupted production for almost a decade.

The King of Comedy Visits Shanghai (1922), a Chinese production starring a British expatriate

 

Christopher Rea is an associate professor of Asian studies and director of the Centre for Chinese Research at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. He is author of The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China (California, 2015); editor of China’s Literary Cosmopolitans: Qian Zhongshu, Yang Jiang, and the World of Letters (Brill, 2015) and Humans, Beasts, and Ghosts: Stories and Essays by Qian Zhongshu (Columbia, 2011); and coeditor, with Nicolai Volland, of The Business of Culture: Cultural Entrepreneurs in China and Southeast Asia. He is currently translating, with Bruce Rusk, a Ming dynasty story collection called The Book of Swindles.

 

Categories: Blog

A New History of Laughter in China: An Interview with Christopher Rea (Part One)

December 10, 2015 - 7:00am

Christopher Rea’s The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China offers an in-depth consideration of popular humor and popular culture more generally in China from the 1890s to the 1930s. This was a period of tremendous political and cultural change: many traditional forms of authority were challenged, and  various forms of westernization and modernization impacted the daily lives of the people. Comedy feeds upon such instability: as the anthropologist Mary Douglas has suggested, jokes provide us a way to say things that are widely recognized or felt but can not be expressed directly. Rea looks closely at a range of different comic genres as he describes the ways that Chinese culture entered “an age of irreverence.”

I should be clear that I am no expert on Chinese history or culture, but I have studied what was happening to American humor and comedy during this same time period. My dissertation and first book, What Made Pistachio Nuts?: Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic, described the ways that the emergence of mass media and waves of immigration helped to shape what made Americans laugh in the first decades of the 20th century. Rea contacted me about his book because he saw some important parallels between the developments in these two different cultures at the dawn of the 20th century, and for this reason, I found myself drawn into this richly detailed, carefully argued, and theoretically nuanced account. I believe that the insights here have the potential to spark larger conversations about the cultural analysis of humor and comedy, so my interview here is designed to pull out parallels and differences between the place of comedy in China and the United States. We are planning to do a public exchange about comedy and cultural change at USC next term, so this is a good dry run for further explorations.

Let’s start with the title. Stereotypes of Chinese culture often include the idea of a deep respect for tradition, for seniors and for ancestors, which all grow out of the Confucian tradition. Yet, you talk across the book about “irreverence.” How and why did China enter an “age of irreverence” and how might we understand what “irreverence” means in a Chinese context?

Respect for tradition and convention was still a strong part of Chinese culture at the turn of the twentieth century, but the top of the social and political hierarchy was breaking down. Qing armies had been defeated by the British in the Opium Wars, routed in the south by Taiping rebels (whom it took them 14 years to eradicate), and, in the 1890s, humiliated by the Japanese. Han Chinese resented the Manchu court, which was increasingly dysfunctional and desperate. Plus, you had a huge supply of frustrated, educated men who had trained for the civil service but had no chance of getting a government job. In the past they might have turned to tutoring for a living, but now many went to work for the expanding periodical press, which gave them a new platform to share erudite jokes, write doggerel verse, parody government proclamations, or trade insults. At the time, to express reverence for authority or for Confucian wisdom was anachronistic. You’d make yourself a figure of fun, cynicism, or even contempt.

The founding of the Republic of China in 1912 brought new hopes, but those soured immediately when the former Qing general Yuan Shikai pushed Sun Yat-sen aside and made himself president. Yuan sounds like “ape” (yuan) in Chinese, and a new crop of cartoonists and satirists had a field day with a strongman aping a statesman (figure below).

“Dreaming of the Central Government.” Yuan Shikai as an ape reaching for a tablet that says “Long Live the Emperor.” Civil Rights Daily (ca. 1912)

 

This cover from the first issue of Free Magazine (Sept. 1913), a spinoff of the Shanghai daily Shun Pao’s “Free Talk” column, symbolizes a moment at which the press was celebrating the “freedom” (the word the boy’s holding) to be irreverent.

Cover of Free Magazine (issue 1, Sept. 1913), a spinoff of the “Free Talk” column of the major Shanghai daily Shun Pao

 

Long story short, the outburst of irreverence was caused by a combination of disastrous national politics, uneven censorship, new mass media platforms, and people motivated to take advantage of these opportunities to change the tone of public discourse.

 

You talk about the book as a “history of laughter,” by which you seem to mean both a history of genres of popular amusement intended to provoke laughter and a history of the emotion and bodily reflex we call laughter. Can you say more about what it means to develop a history of laughter as opposed, say, to a history of comedy?

 

Xiaoshi, is a phrase I kept coming across while reading Chinese periodicals from the late 19th and early 20th century. “History of Laughter” is a literal translation of xiaoshi, which could also mean “laughable tale,” “funny story,” or just “funny stuff.” It was print industry shorthand for “Humor Here!” Editors called joke collections, novels, news items, stories, celebrity and political gossip all xiaoshi. They even applied it to a translated 1930s comic strip featuring the silent film comedian Harold Lloyd, who for a while was a bigger star in China than Chaplin. With “History of Laughter” we’re dealing with a genre of affect rather than of form. Part of my reason for using that term is to call attention to this Chinese convention, which predated but got a big boost from a boom in periodical publishing that occurred during the early twentieth century.

 

My subtitle is “A new history of laughter in China” because modern joke-writers tried to give their products a leg up in the print market by slapping on the term “new” or “modern.” (figure below) Be New was the big modern imperative, though a lot of the jokes that appeared under the New History of Laughter banner were recycled. This is no big surprise—you find the same thing going on in 19th-century Europe and America.

Utterly Brilliant and Delightful Modern Jokes (1935)

 

But it does mark a cultural shift. Now you had a broad print culture that thrived on emotional payout. Historians of the era have tended to emphasize the prevalence of tears, sympathy, and other forms of catharsis. In China, this is partly because the Communist Party has, since the success of its revolution in 1949, promoted the Republican Period and the late Qing era before it (roughly, 1890s-1949) as an Old Society of pain and suffering. The era is also replete with laughter, much of which I see as expressing a modern attitude of open, even mocking, skepticism.

 

My main goal is not to answer the question “why do we laugh.” It’s to identify Chinese genres (including some we might call “comedy”) and sensibilities and show how they changed in the modern era. I focus on five Chinese terms that dominated the humor market in the early twentieth century: xiaohua (joke/humorous anecdote), youxi (play), maren (mockery/ridicule), huaji (farce), and youmo (humor). Starting with this basic lexicon, I show why, for example, the humorous curse became such a conspicuous part of 1920s literary culture, when the promise of a cultural renaissance was eroding due to warlord violence. Or why foreign-educated Chinese promoted a tolerant, worldly, empathetic sense of humor—they saw it as a way to purge their countrymen’s deep-seated cynicism. The Age of Irreverence is partly a history of the Chinese language, so I do pay close attention to semantics, but it also goes beyond that to look at the politics of being funny in a modernizing society.

 

 

Christopher Rea is an associate professor of Asian studies and director of the Centre for Chinese Research at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. He is author of The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China (California, 2015); editor of China’s Literary Cosmopolitans: Qian Zhongshu, Yang Jiang, and the World of Letters (Brill, 2015) and Humans, Beasts, and Ghosts: Stories and Essays by Qian Zhongshu (Columbia, 2011); and coeditor, with Nicolai Volland, of The Business of Culture: Cultural Entrepreneurs in China and Southeast Asia. He is currently translating, with Bruce Rusk, a Ming dynasty story collection called The Book of Swindles.

Categories: Blog

In Search of Indian Comics (Part Four): In Orjit Sen’s Studio

December 8, 2015 - 5:04am

This is the fourth and final installment of a series of posts dealing with the current state of comics and graphic novels in India. It is based on my experiences in Dehli last summer, hosted by Parmesh Shahani from the Godrej India Culture Lab.

Cynthia and I parted company with Vartikka and head out to the outer suburbs, where we are going to visit Orijit Sen in his studio. I introduced Sen in passing a few posts back, but let me take a moment to give this man the props he is due. Sen’s The River of Stories is often cited as amongst the first important graphic novels to come out of India. It is currently out of print but will be coming back soon, so I am personally looking forward to engaging with it more fully in the near future.

Sen offered an account of its creation in the special issue of  Marg on “comics in India.” This is some of what he had to say:

“The universe is not made of atoms, it’s made of stories. Landscapes tell tales, geographies contain histories, trees express emotions, houses are characters, and rocks can be moody…When in 1991 I started work on River of Stories, my first graphic novel project, I travelled to the Narmada River Valley where my story was to be set. I had no clear notion of what I was going to do there but I knew I wanted to experience the land, meet the people who belonged to it, sit on the banks of the ancient and storied river, and watch it flow….Over several visits, I stayed variously at rest-houses, with Andolan activists in their offices in small market towns, with Adivasi families in their village homes, and sometimes in remote ashrams and schools managed by Gandhian organizations. I attended Baghoria festival fairs, wedding feasts, religious ceremonies and political rallies, journeying on trains, buses, jeeps, bullock carts, bicycles, and on foot. Everywhere I sketched, made notes, took photographs and listened to people’s stories. Gradually, the people, the river, the hills, forests, streams, roads, bridges, plantations, hamlets, houses, tools and objects became internalized as part of the visual vocabulary with which I sought to fashion the story of the Narmada Valley and the struggle of its people. I laboured to not just capture slives of life, but to absorb entire chunks of lived experience in the Narmada Valley. I felt this was the only way one could tell the truth about a place and its people.”

What emerged was ethnographic in its focus on a people and activist in its attention to their struggle for social justice.

 

Sen runs the People Tree shops from the front part of the studio, so it is piled high with fabric and clothing in various states of preparation, and there are people sewing away.

In the back of the shop, he has a team of young artists working on a very interesting project. They are designing a set of murals depicting the history and everyday life practices of the city of Hyderabad on commission for a local art gallery owner. The work is intricately detailed, combining aspects of the miniature painting, street murals, and especially comics. And there are surprising and compelling shifts in perspective which force you to continually reposition yourself in relation to the work.

I was fascinated by what he was producing, since it includes so many details of street life we had observed during our time here, but also manages to move back and forth through time, showing the layers of that city’s history and culture. These images are being developed digitally and will be printed out in huge sheets for the gallery space, but the hope is to use those images to pitch the city to hire his team to paint them onto actual walls and incorporate it into the geography of the city itself. Below are a few images I’ve found online depicting an earlier and similar mural project Sen oversaw, and they give you a sense of the scale and representational strategies involved with this project.

 

 

 


His team includes a Japanese manga artist who is otherwise trying to produce manga with Indian content, a woman who is a children’s book illustrator, and two guys, both of whom are part of the emerging generation of young comic book artists here. One of them mentioned having run the local 24 hours Comics event (this is a practice created by Scott McCloud where lots of artists pledge to produce a comic book in 24 hours). They are spending weeks at a time wandering the streets of Hyderabad taking photographs and drawing sketches – mostly sketches since Sen believes the simplification involved in drawing leaves more useful impressions for comics work.

We have a great conversation with Sen and Vishwajyoti Ghosh, both tracing the emergence of a graphic novel scene in India. Sen described how he had read and loved comics, but could get no interest in them as an art student, until Art Spigelman published Maus and this suddenly sparked an intense dialogue about graphic storytelling, out of which emerged, a decade later, River of Stories.

Ghosh was part of the next generation who was inspired by Sen’s work and together, they have edited several important anthologies of comics by contemporary Indian comics producers — most notably, PAO.

They seem to go around recruiting young talent and trying to connect them with publishers.  Sen explains in the book’s introduction:

“The Pao Collective is a self-funded and self-propelled group of very disparate individuals who have managed to work together over a very long time and put in a hell of a lot of collective effort to conceive, drink beer, create, drink beer, mentor, share smokes, edit, eat mutton rolls, agree to disagree, drink beer and put together this anthology involving some twenty artists and authors.”

Pao‘s contributors represent the core of the contemporary graphic storytelling movement in India, and the entries represent a range of visual styles,  from the highly cartoonish or dream-like, to the photorealistic, from photo-collage to more text-centered works, and from modernism to very traditional folk techniques, all of which convey the possibilities of what sequential art might become in this country.

This piece, contributed by Raj Comics, borrows from the Japanese manga tradition and captures something of the dynamic movement of people and vehicles across India’s densely packed urban areas.

 

 

The above image comes from Sarnath Banerjee, whose work, Corridor, we discussed last time: it suggests his keen observation of the details of everyday life.

“The Pink,” written by Salil Chaturvedi and illustrated by Priya Kuriyan, is a surrealist story about a business man who unexpectedly turns into a flamingo (albeit one who still wears a tie and is still stuck in his established ways of thinking).

“The Afterlife of Ammi’s Betelnut Box,” Story by Iram Ghufran, Art by Ikroop Sandhu, with additional illustrations by Mitoo Das, gives us a glimpse into the Islamic culture of India.

Lakshumi Indrasimhan and Jacob Weinstein’s “Tattoo” focuses on the expressive potential of ink and men’s bodies.

In Pao‘s introduction, Sen also discusses there the properties of his medium:

“One could talk about ‘engineering’ comics in the sense that there is a lot of planning, craft, precision and labor involved. First, the superstructure of the narrative arc needs to be constructed with the raw materials that contain a mix of characters, locations, rationales and perhaps some random ideas and images. I try to make this strong yet flexible — else the whole thing might collapse after I begin loading all of the other elements onto it. Then there is the building up of the chapters or sequences that determine the ebb and flow of narrative drama. Planning these bits is not unlike the way one would go about scripting a movie or a novel, I imagine. It is in the page planning and layouts that I feel I really begin to engage with the nitty-gritty of the medium. In comics, the turning of the page is the key act in the unraveling of the narrative. Hence, page break-ups and layout, text placements, etc., are aspects to which I pay a lot of attention. The final stage is the detailing of each frame, choosing angles and points of view, color, and light and shade. Though the entire process doesn’t usually unfold in such a net way, I rely heavily on a hands-on understanding of this inner engineering of comics to respond to the unique challenges posed by each project.”

Thinking of comics as a form of engineering strikes this former MIT faculty member as a very constructive way of thinking through both the production process and the challenges of conveying a narrative across words and images.

As an editor and community organizer, Sen clearly plays a central role in fostering the creative community in Delhi and in advocating on behalf of his medium across larger conversations in the arts world. I saw him struggle with what might be the best way for these artists to break out from their current ghettoization and command the kind of respect and impact enjoyed by their counterparts amongst alternative and independent comics creators in America or Europe. Sen argues that what they need to do is to produce a series of graphic novels, one after another, which can really put their scene on the radar of Indian readers. Right now, there are 1-2 books published per year on average, and so they are not getting the critical attention they require to become more firmly established. We joke about a “season” of comics, something that sustains the conversation across works and builds momentum and publicity over time.

They describe to me some of the comic-cons and comics festivals here in India, that place a strong spotlight on Indian comics.  Sen and his collaborators seem very well connected with other international artists, describing, for example, being visited by R. Crumb who came to India to acquire more early 20th century records for his collection, and they seem to go often to international comics events but not yet to San Diego. We have a great time, sipping chai, and talking about our mutual love of comics.

During the conversation, I also learned more about the grassroots comics movement in India. Here, artists work to help students, farmers, local residents, anyone who wants, to translate their insights about the world into visual stories that can be reprinted and shared with a larger community.  The emphasis of the grassroots comics movement is to help everyday people find their voice, to foster conversations around local problems and issues, by encouraging your friends, family and neighbors to look upon them in new ways.

The grassroots comics movement started in the 1990s and today, the World Comics Network, based in Delhi, runs training sessions and publishes some of the most promising output in newsprint for subscribers around the world. To date, the network has conducted more than 1,000 plus workshops in Asia, Europe, Africa, and Latin America, involving well over 50,000 participants, all of whom were empowered to draw the world they wanted to see.  This video gives some sense of the energy and excitement they bring to this work


Another glimpse into the cultural life of Delhi:

Parmesh, Cynthia, and I are joined by journalist Nikhil Pahwa, who I had met eight or nine years ago when he visited MIT. He has been at the helm of the campaigns here in support of net neutrality, working alongside AIB (the comic troope whose video was widely circulated across India). So far, they have been very successful at mobilizing the public here to write the regulators in support of Net Neutrality. He says that because they were following the debates in the U.S., they got net neutrality into the conversation quickly and they have largely been able to frame the debate with the result that few directly oppose the principle but many corporations are nibbling away at the edges looking for ways that they can charge different users different rates and provide them with more or less bandwidth while seeming to support a broader grassroots access to the media. We have an animated discussion as we drive comparing tactics used in the U.S. and in India to get the public educated about what’s at stake with these issues. He says the sharpest critiques leveled at his group is the idea that the public is supporting these policies without really understanding them or knowing what the alternative arguments are, so they are making real efforts to educate their supporters so they can respond to questions from others.

 

Nikhil is taking us to Old Delhi – the original city which was here before New Delhi was built. If New Delhi is highly ordered, a planned city, Old Delhi is one of the most chaotic and noisy places we’ve been in India (and that’s saying a lot). We hire two human-peddled rickshaws and we are ferried at a rapid pace down the street, weaving in and out of flows of traffic, involving motorcycles and auto-rickshaws, past little shops, piled high with goods or food stuffs.   I am impressed by these incredible tangles of electrical wires which hang all over the buildings, basically a jerry-rigged infrastructure, constructed – mostly illegally – on top of crumbling ancient buildings. Nothing here would pass a code inspection in the U.S., that’s for sure.


 

And then we climb up the stairs, shed our shoes, and enter into the Jama Masjid, what we are told is the largest functioning mosque in contemporary India.


 

By now, it is late afternoon and the mosque is teaming with activity. There’s a large pool of water in the center, and people are gathered around to wash their feet and socialize. Over head, we see kite battles taking place and every so often, a kite gets severed from its cord (thanks to the success of a rival) and goes drifting off into the sky. We see such a wide array of different kinds of clothing here as Muslims come from all over the country and beyond to worship here. We are not here at prayer time, but we are told on high holy days that the courtyard will be completely full of worshippers bowing towards Mecca. We exit the Mosque and walk around the shop district a bit, but we are running out of time and still have several more stops to make today, so it’s back to the rickshaws and then down the street as fast as our poor guys can peddle, weaving in and out of traffic.

Categories: Blog

In Search of Indian Comics (Part Three): I Mean, Really, Where Are They?

December 3, 2015 - 5:02am

This is the third part of a series about my adventures in Delhi, which were largely structured around my efforts to learn more about comics publishing in India.

Here’s a bit more about my lunch with the comic artists at the Delhi Craft Museum, drawn from my travel diary:

“There are NO comic stores here. Comics are available through multiple other channels depending on what kind of cultural production we are discussing. So, there are comics in many of the regional languages which even people in other parts of India do not know exist. Amongst English comics, there are pop or low brow titles (such as the locally produced Raj comics which have the most sustained history of adventure comics in the country) which are sold only through news-stands.

On the other end of the scale, there are the ACK comics – essentially the Indian version of Classics Illustrated, mythological tales or stories of national heroes; these are sold mostly through the children’s section of bookstores. Unfortunately, most of the graphic novels with more mature content (not sexual, never sexual, but, as we saw last time, often highly political content) are also most often sold through the children’s book section at bookshops, because there is still a perception that comics are aimed exclusively at children, even when they are not. There are certain bookstores whose managers get graphic novels and treat them appropriately – they gave me the names of several – but these are few and far between and the most reliable place to buy comics would be through online bookstores such as Amazon or its India-based rival Flipkart. The creation of graphic novels in India, accordingly, moves in fits and starts.

One of the folks at lunch – Orijit Sen – published River of Stories which is credited as the first graphic novel to come out of India (now  out of print). There have been a smattering published since, mostly by traditional book publishers, especially those which deal with art books. None of the folks I met live off of their work on comics per se, each works in other corners of the graphic arts world, including doing advertising work or commissioned art pieces. They are seeing shifts in the cultural status of comics, though, as parents and educators have come to accept that “at least the kids are reading” and that these visual forms may be effective at reaching those who the system might otherwise leave behind. Sen talked about being commissioned by a textbook company to create graphic stories about the history of India that would be part of the textbooks; he jokes that it was the same publisher that produced the textbooks he used to hide his comics within when he read in class as a child.

And then there is a new wave of comics being produced for the web, and so they were especially interested in the web comics movement in the west and intrigued by the role Kickstarter now plays in crowd-funding the production of independent comics here. They seem to be familiar with many U.S. based artists – Aparajita told me that she learned to draw as a child by copying pictures from Mad magazine (and we both wax nostalgically about the glory days of Mad). I am invited to come to their studios for more conversation and so they can show me more of their work, an invitation I have accepted for Monday.”

What follows are some segments from my travel notes for that following Monday, a day spent somewhat fruitlessly trying to track down contemporary graphic novels via local bookstores, following the suggestions we had received.

I had met Vartikha Kaul, a PhD student doing work on Indian superheroes, after a talk I gave at Jawaharial Nehru University a few days before. Varthka grew up in Kashmir, an area which is on the border between Pakistan and India, and has been contested space, basically a war zone, for decades, and her family originates in Central Asia. Over the course of the day, she shared bits and pieces of her story. I asked her how she ended up being a humanities graduate student, since we’ve heard that majors other than science, engineering, and business are strongly discouraged here. She turns out to be a top ranked student whose parents were shocked when she decided to “throw it all away” and go into a humanities field, but she pushed back hard and she thinks the fact that she was female and married contributed to their willingness to let her go off to an arts program and write her dissertation on superheroes. Here’s a picture of Kaul and myself exploring Hamayun’s Tomb.

Her project straddles film and print versions of these characters, though she says that nothing like a franchise system has emerged here. I am reminded of the curious history of the export of American comics in this region: how American superhero comics were slow to be imported but that some U.S. comic strips, such as The Phantom and Mandrake the Magician, which have long fallen from view in their home country, continue to be published and avidly consumed in India and across Asia. These stories offer some of the core building blocks of the superhero tradition, but most of the DC and Marvel characters only became visible here through film and television, belatedly creating a market for the comics themselves. I was amused that during my stage in Delhi the local paper showcased a cosplay party on the Society page, where various local celebrities came dressed as American superheroes.

With the exception of Raj, Indian publishers of pulp comics are short-lived, so few characters have developed much continuity or history, and the films have tended to be one-offs, at best with a sequel, often star vehicles for particular performers and thus the superhero becomes an extension of their larger star persona (in an industry which still has a star system much like Hollywood in the 1930-40s). She is interested though in shifts between mythological origin stories  and more scientific/rational explainations of the sort more typical of western superheroes (i.e. scientific experiments gone awry). She’s interested in the superhero as a focus for transmedia storytelling and to some degree, on the gender dynamics of male and female versions of the superhero.

We discuss the phenomenon of regional filmmakers who actively remake western superhero stories for their local markets, a theme beautifully explored by Superman of Megalon, a 2012 documentary by Faiza Ahmad Khan. Here, a young Muslim man and his friends put all of their money and creativity into making their own Superman epic,  localized to respond to the tastes and experiences of the residents of his economic depressed area.

I had been told by Orijit Sen that People Tree may be the best place in Delhi to buy graphic novels. (I learn later that this is because Sen is the owner of this particular shop). It is a small little boutique where the entire front half is taken over by clothing, nick-knacks, and local crafts, while there’s a very small back room area dedicated to books.

When I ask the staff about Indian comics, they refer me to the children’s book section, though there was not much to be found. I did find two newspapers full of what are called here “grassroots comics,” that is, educators go to work with children in the villages or the slums, and help them to translate their experiences into comics. So, these are amateur comics, produced through charity organizations.

And then we continued on to Oxford Books, where we have lunch in the café (highlight was a sweet beverage flavored by almonds and pistachios) and then some more searching for graphic novels. Here, the selection is almost entirely international – they have all of the volumes of Osamu Tezuka’s Buddha, and they have a large selection of French comics (Tin Tin and Astrix), far fewer American comics, and almost no Indian comics – I get a graphic novel version of a popular children’s cartoon series and a book by an Indian cartoonist designed to help visitors from the Indian diaspora make sense of the local culture (Indian by Choice).

We go to several other book shops – most of which are very narrow stores, where books are piled into floor-to-ceiling mounds, and only the proprietor can help you find anything. What they have in stock at any given moment is almost entirely random. No wonder online book dealers have had such a huge impact here, even despite the desire for cash-based transactions. This is not a very good culture for book lovers.

Ironically, these Connaught Place book dealers are the focus of one of India’s most acclaimed graphic novels, Sarnath Banerjee’s Corridor. Here’s how the stores are depicted there — more or less accurately.

 

 

The graphic novel’s protagonist Jehangir Rangoonwalla is described on the book’s cover as “enlightened dispenser of tea, wisdom, and second-hand books,” and there are memorable panels of him groping around amongst the mounds of books and putting his hands on just the right title for the right customer. The graphic novel sprawls outward from his shop, developing glimpses into the lives of various book collectors and wisdom-seekers, who are trying to make meaning of contemporary life in Delhi through sexual discipline, obscure collectibles, Marxism, religious sects, and vegetarianism, among a range of other world views. Banerjee’s subsequent books, The Barn Owl’s Wonderous Capers and The Harappa Files show a consistent fascination with contemporary and historical print culture, and seem designed to introduce the graphic novel (in various permutations) into this same book culture. But, ironically, the dealers depicted in Corridor did not, on this particular day, know how to put their hands on any of Banerjee’s books.

Vartikha tells me about a chain called Leaping Windows, with branches in Banglore and Mumbai, which is set up like the comics cafes in Tokyo. You pay an entry fee and then can come inside and read any of the comics they have on the shelves, as you sip your coffee. This store also home delivers comics – but again, on loan rather than for purchase. We’ve since learned that the shop has closed in Banglore and perhaps in Mumbai, so even this is endangered. Vartikha asks me about the comics specialty shops we have in the U.S., like she’s seen on The Big Bang Theory, as if this possibility was beyond imagination, and shares her dreams of making it to San Diego Comic Con some day.

So, here’s the bottom line: India has a new generation of gifted graphic storytellers, who are doing comics that speak in direct and powerful ways to the country’s politics, comics that experiment with new visual languages for comics, often drawn from the country’s rich and diverse folk traditions. These artists are slowly but surely producing work that people should be paying attention to. But, you can’t really find them in Indian bookstores when you go looking and they are not making their way into comics specialty shops in the United States. If you want to find India comics, you have to look online.

Next: Inside Orjit Sen’s Studio

Categories: Blog

In Search of Indian Comics (Part One): Folk Roots and Traditions

November 25, 2015 - 6:28am

So far, my account of my trip to India this summer has centered on time spent in Mumbai (which was our home base) and its surrounding cities. I want to return to my travel narrative over the next few posts — first focusing on Delhi and later on some of the other cities in India we visited. My time in Delhi was especially preoccupied with trying to understand the current state of comics and graphic novels in India, given that many key artists and authors are based in that city. I am going to use the next few posts to share what I learned.

Parmesh Shahani from the Godrej Indian Culture Lab, my host, had arranged for a meeting at the Crafts Museum for lunch with a mix of some of the country’s top creators of graphic novels.  The Museum itself is a great institution. It showcases living crafts traditions from across the country. The museum is open air: you walk around and look at, for example, a massive display of terra cotta sculptures, wall paintings and carvings representing different traditions, and stalls where craftspeople are producing and selling their work. The Crafts Museum proved to be the ideal location for this gathering, since it allowed me to place contemporary graphic practices in India in the context of a much larger tradition of pictographic wall art from various local cultures.

The following are some examples of what these wall paintings look like: it is not hard to find here forms of local practice that display principles of juxtaposition and sequence, stylization and expression, and simplification and exaggeration, that could provide the cornerstones for more contemporary forms of cartooning, and indeed, as we will see, some contemporary artists are beginning to build upon these practices to create distinctive kinds of graphic practices. The mural below represents a Muriya painting from Bastar, Chhatisgarh.

Below, in red, are figures drawn by Warli artists, who come from Maharashtra.

 

 

Below is a mural representing the traditions of Patachitra artists from Odisha, which is striking because of its use of panel boxes, unlike almost all of the other folk art styles we saw.


And these are Gond paintings from Madhiya Pradesh.

Below are some of my impressions of a contemporary graphic novel, Bhimayana: Incidents in the Life of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, which was inspired by Gond art.The story was written by Srividya Natarajan and S. Anand and illustrated by Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam. Ambedkar was an important spokesman for the rights of the Dalits (or “Untouchables”), and this book deals with the politics of the caste system in India, attempting to bridge from historic events and struggles in the early 20th century with some of the still horrible conditions and prejudices confronting the Dalits today. As an American, I had a high school geography class level understanding of the caste system, but this was a really powerful account of how caste worked on the level of basic human needs, especially focusing on access to water and shelter, and it was chilling to read accounts of very recent incidents of violence directed against the Dalits by upper caste Indians, when they crossed informal lines about whether or not they can draw water from a particular pond, even though they had been granted basic human rights some decades before. Ambedkar sounds like a remarkable political leader, who the comic suggests has often been left out of many contemporary accounts of the country’s history, except insofar as he is credited with helping to write the nation’s constitution upon its independence from Great Britain.

As powerful as the content of the graphic novel is, what really blew me away was the visual style: it is unlike any comic I have ever read before (and that’s increasingly difficult to accomplish). The artists are Gonds, that is members of a tribal community in Central India, which maintain a very traditional culture, and have developed their own art style known as Digna. According to the explanation in the back of the book, the artists had never encountered graphic novels before and found some aspects of the form philosophically troublesome: “We’d like to state one thing very clearly at the outset. We will not force our characters into boxes. It stifles them. We prefer to mount our work in open spaces. Our art is Khulla (open) where there’s space for all to breathe.” We can understand this position better looking at the example above and this one below of their traditional wall art, where there are no formal boundaries between figures. And when you see these huge, intricately entangled, wall paintings, you get a fuller sense of how they have had to reimagine this style for the printed page.

An account of their art in the back of the graphic novel explains, “Tiresome photorealism was out of the question. Nor would the Vyams [Traditional bards and artists] offer cinematic establishment shots, close-ups or extreme close-ups (of tense hands, surprised eyes, furrowed brow), mid-shot, perspective, light and shadow, three dimensionality, aerial views, low angles, etc., that have come to constitute the muse-en-scene of graphic books. The same character might not appear similar throughout the book.”

Below are a few examples of the pages from Bhimayana, showing the ways  the artists  organize the page, beyond traditional grids, boxes, panels, and gutters.

 

 

Here they use blocks of texts to separate out two opposing groups of characters and hint at the segregation created by the caste system.

 

And from there, they decided to draw more on their tribe’s visual traditions, which include the use of different kinds of word balloons to symbolize the character’s moral philosophies often through analogy to different animal forms. The result is stunning, forcing you to rethink so many of the ways that comics in the U.S. functions as, in Scott McCloud’s terms, “an invisible art” because it relies so heavily on shared visual conventions.

For example, in the panel below, speech bubbles take the shape of birds, and appear “only for characters whose speech is soft, the lovable characters, the victims of caste — men and women who speak like birds.”

Some of the word balloons below have stingers and are “full of words that carry a sting. Characters who love caste, whose words contain poison, whose touch is venomous.”

 

In addition, you see a third kind of balloon here — one which depicts thoughts that occur within “the mind’s eye” — “words that cannot be heard but can be perceived.”

 

You can also see throughout the book the use of traditional forms of representation to depict more contemporary settings, so this image depicts the characters on a railroad train.

Here’s a link to a review of the graphic novel which appeared in Comics Journal. Like most of the books I discuss throughout this series of posts, it is written in English and is available through Amazon and other online bookstores, but does not seem to have penetrated very far into the comic shops of the United States. Part of my goal in writing this series is to call attention to work that has largely passed unnoticed by American comics fans.

MARG: A Magazine of the Arts devoted its December 2014 issue to “Comics in India.” I was struck by a series of images by Manjula Padmanabhan, who attempts to represent popular western comics characters, including Calvin and Hobbes, Archie and Veronica, Garfield,and Modesty Blaze, through the traditional language of Mithila paintings. As the artist explained, “I found it quite liberating to use a different standard of aesthetics to create these drawings, such as the checkered borders used for separating one scene from the next.”

This special issue includes a rather interesting discussion of the ways Indian comics are building on traditional arts practices, written by Vidyun Sabhaney, including not only visual forms (such as the wall art discussed above) but also performance traditions (such as puppetry). As Sabhaney explains:

“While in a comic image and word are both graphically represented to enact a story, these traditional storytellers perform images through oral narration and/or song.  For example — practioners of Bengali Patachitra (West Bengal) unfurl a scroll composed of sequentially arranged images and bring them to life through song. In the case of Chitrakathi (Maharshtra) a potha or loose collection of painted images is revealed page-by-page while the narrative is sung…Coming from a predominantly oral society, rarely do performers rely on any written text — in fact, most improvise the dialogues in the course of the performance. Every time a story is performed in these traditions, the telling is different, the artist being at liberty to develop the narrative as pleases him — within certain boundaries which are defined by the version of the epics that is traditionally performed.”

Sabhaney notes that the translation of these techniques for the printed page in terms of contemporary graphic storytelling projects raises a range of questions: “Is there anything to be learnt from these traditions? What is the role of the image in the telling of the story? How is the role of the image in a performance-based practice relevant to us?… Is the unique graphic novel format allowing for the emergence of new voices that have previously been unheard?”

A key point here is that the visual style is not only traditional, but the stories most often told are grounded in India’s mythological traditions, especially stories drawn from the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, and various local legends. These stories have long been expressed across a range of graphic forms. For example, below are two examples of art we encountered during our visit to the 13th century Konark Sun Temple in Odisha: the first shows the stone carvings, often highly erotic, found within the temple itself, the second a more recent painting depicting Jagaannath, who has a round, expressive faith, which in many of the drawings, seems a bit like a black-faced minstrel. He is often described as “Lord of the Universe” and especially characteristic of this area. He is one of many personifications of the god Vishnu.

At the gift shops around the outskirts of the Sun Temple, you can find many crudely painted versions of Jagaannath, as rendered on bottles or coconuts, suggesting that, like a good cartoon character, his face can be reproduced quickly, in a range of different contexts, and still draw a smile.

And here are a few more examples of the decorative dimensions of contemporary and classical Indian culture — on the one hand, pretty much every truck we saw in the country had hand painted patterns on the sides, and on the other, part of the experience of staying in a high class hotel in India is to see elaborate floating flower arrangements created afresh each morning.

 

 

 

One of the few things I knew about Indian comics prior to this trip was that they relied extensively on India’s mythological traditions. Perhaps the best known Indian comics, around the world, are the Amar Chitra Katha books.

 

Across several decades, this publishing house sought to introduce Indian youth to their history and traditions via comics, not unlike the Classic Illustrated books published in the United States. Altogether, they did stand-alone comics which told more than 384 stories and reached 86 million readers. These comics have been translated into an incredible 38 languages and thus have been widely read world-wide. Abhimanyu Das, one of my students at the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program, produced a thesis looking extensively at the ACK comics in relation to the role of graphic storytelling in developing a public culture in India.

 

The ACK tradition still exerts a strong influence on contemporary graphic novels in India — while they are often framed in terms of a critique of the traditional values embraced by the earlier publisher, it is striking how many of the graphic novels I encountered there still take as their core subject matter either aspects of the Hindu mythology or key historical figures. In America, the underground comics artist had to work through the legacy of funny animals and superheroes before they could tell a broader range of stories, often inverting or subverting the previous values expressed through such stories. Something similar is happening in India today, and we can see Bhumayana as a prime example of this process at work.

 

Next Time: The Political Dimensions of India Comics

Categories: Blog

Informing Activists: A New Video Series

November 23, 2015 - 6:04am

From time to time, I’ve showcased here the work being done by my colleagues within the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics Research Network, headed by Joseph Kahne (Mills College). Today, I wanted to direct my readers towards a really rich set of resources recently produced by one of the network members, Jennifer Earl and her Youth Activism project team, and shared with the world via the Center for the Study of Social Movements at Notre Dame University.  I asked Earl to share with us some insights into what motivated this project and what it hopes to achieve:

The Informing Activists video series is a collaboration between the Youth Activism Project at the University of Arizona and Mobilizing Ideas, a premier blog about social movement scholarship.

Our mission in developing these videos was to connect social movement scholars, and the insights they have about how movements work, with the activists on the ground actually doing the social movement work.

We hope these videos can help individual activists understand some of the bigger processes and structures in which they are working, and use the research social movement scholars have produced to become better activists.

The series features top social movement scholars from around the world discussing how research in their area of expertise speaks to activists. Scholars describe what they know about how social movements work, and how activists might use that knowledge to be more effective at mobilizing for change.

Topics covered include social movement outcomes, participation and mobilization strategies, navigating political contexts, messaging and media, choosing effective targets and tactics, and dealing with repression.

Each video is framed as a question a young activist might have about what they should do to lead a successful campaign, so the video on framing is framed as “How do I talk about my cause?”

The intended audience of the video series is activists, particularly young activists, who are just starting out working on a campaign for change or who are trying to figure out how to improve an effort they are already involved in. The videos aim to help activists think through the kinds of decisions they will need to make as they mobilize, and provide guidance on how to make those decisions.

 

If you go to the Informing Activist website, you will find more than twenty videos, featuring some of the country’s leading scholars on social movements, addressing core questions about their research in terms that are designed to be applicable to activists working on a range of different causes. Each video is accompanied with a reading list identifying other sources where they can learn more about the research around this particular topic.  This is a first rate example of how public intellectuals can use new media platforms and practices to speak directly with groups who are involved in everyday struggles to change the world. Taken as a whole, these five-to-six minute videos constitute a master class on how to form a social movement in today’s media environment. Below are a few samples that speak to issues I thought were especially pertinent to those of us interested in understanding politics in relation to media and culture, but you need to go here to have the full Informing Activists experience.

Here’s Bert Klandermans from the University of Amsterdam explaining why people participate in social movements.

Here’s Lissa Soep shares some principles for how social movements should tap online media for their cause.

Here’s David Snow on how activists might best speak about their causes.

And here’s Deana Rohlinger (Florida State University) speaking about what activists need to know about the media environment.

 

Categories: Blog

One Conversation Begat Another: Howard Rhinegold and Henry Jenkins

November 20, 2015 - 5:04am

Over the last two installments, I’ve shared a short exchange between myself, Mimi Ito, and danah boyd, the three authors of the newly released book, Participatory Culture in a Networked Era. Today, I want to share the video of an interview I did with Howard Rhinegold about the book. The video was originally circulated via the Digital Media and Learning blog, but I thought there would be people here who had not seen it.

Howard and I have been engaging with each others work for more than two decades. You can read the interview I did with Howard about his own most recent book, Net Smart: How to Thrive Online here, here, and here. Appropriately, Howard sent me his response to these questions on the very day that Mimi, danah, and I had sat down to conduct the exchange that became the foundation for the new book, so these interactions are completely stitched together in my mind.

Howard is an incredibly generous person, not to mention a generative thinker, who has been responsible for getting people thinking about such topics as virtual communities, smart mobs, and net smarts, through the years.

Henry Jenkins on Participatory Media in a Networked Era, Part 1 from Connected Learning Alliance on Vimeo.

Henry Jenkins on Participatory Media in a Networked Era, Part 2 from Connected Learning Alliance on Vimeo.

Now, that’s the end of the free stuff around the book I am sharing on this blog. Go and order a copy, and let us know what you think.

Categories: Blog

The Conversation Never Ends: Participatory Culture in a Networked Era (Part Two)

November 17, 2015 - 4:12am

The following is the second part of an exchange between myself, danah boyd, and Mimi Ito, intended to mark the occasion of the publication of our book, Participatory Culture in a Networked Era, which is being released this month by Polity.

Henry: All three of us are finding ourselves collaborating more and more with quantitative researchers, so in what ways might the findings of more humanistic research help to inform the kinds of data we collect and publish about young people and their media use?

Mimi: I’ve enjoyed increasing collaboration with quantitative researchers over the years, and I find it a useful corrective to contextualize my local, in-depth cases with broader trends that you see in national surveys and the like. And the stories that we tell from a qualitative and humanistic lens are often taken up as ways of putting a human face to the numbers. At the same time, I find it very challenging for the qualitative evidence to punch through some of the underlying preconceptions that are often reinforced by large scale surveys. For example, what gets categorized as “making” versus “passive consumption” is culturally defined, and how a young person might answer a question of this sort doesn’t necessarily track to what adults conclude based on a set of survey findings. For example, one of the case studies our team did of fan fiction on Wattpad showed that young people don’t necessarily describe their publication and writing on the platform as “writing” or “reading” because it doesn’t conform to the genre expectations of what gets called reading and writing in school. Reducing consumption and production to a binary set of participation genres misses the fact that the majority of what kids do these days sits between these poles of activity. These are an outdated set of metaphors in an era where even “consumption” involves searching, querying, downloading, rating, and sharing of media. This more youth-centered perspective is harder to communicate than a raw percentage number coming off a survey.

danah: I recently read Sarah Igo’s The Averaged American, which was a brilliant reminder of the politics that underlie all discussions of data and research. I’ve been fortunate enough to be surrounded by researchers of all stripes who are really passionate about moving past methodology and theory to work collaboratively to understand what’s at play. But I also realize how rare this is. All too often, research is produced, disseminated, and framed for political agendas. One of the things that I relish about the scholarly community in which we operate is that when we disagree – which we sometimes do – we’re able to challenge each other in a productive and constructive way. But I’m definitely struggling with the ways in which research is positioned to mislead and fear-monger, especially statistical and quantitative research.

Henry: I have been lucky to spend a good deal of time over the past six plus years interacting with the members of the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics Network, a multidisciplinary group trying to understand the political lives of American youth. This research is discussed throughout our book, but is also the focus of another book coming out early next year. The focus of the work on my side was qualitative and ethnographic, but we worked in conversation throughout with researchers who were using more quantitative methods, including large scale surveys. By doing this work collaboratively, some of my team’s framings — such as the emphasis on circulation as part of what it means to participate in the new media environment — found their way into the agenda of questions for the survey research and has resulted in important findings, suggesting that there has been a significant increase in young people spreading political news through their social networks and that this process is an important part of finding their voices as citizens. Such results would have been invisible if participation was defined entirely on the basis of media production, for example.

The challenge of this kind of work involves the development of shared vocabularies, which works better if everyone sheds some of the established jargon, and the recognition of conceptual differences. For example, throughout the process, we kept bumping up against the focus of some of our home disciplines almost exclusively on individual agents and the emphasis of other fields on various forms of collective agency (or social constraints on individual action). We’ve reached a point where we are all aware of these different methodological starting points, acknowledge them, and try to incorporate them into our analysis. But this worked because everyone came in with mutual respect and was able to take the time to listen and understand where we each were coming from in our research.

Mimi: On the qualitative/quantitative axis, the other interesting development is the rise of data analytics, another thing we discuss in the book, and something that has become the focus of danah’s work. While there are a lot of new risks associated with the big data movement, I do find it interesting that it has broken the methodological linkage between quantitative and reductive approaches. Big data is quite unlike the sequestered and reductive methods you see in traditional surveys and psychometrics, and is more like ethnography and fieldwork in the sense that it is “in the wild” and about capturing behavior in context. I’m still early in incorporating data analytics in my own work, but I am finding it a fascinating space to play in.

danah: Most people who hear about “big data” don’t realize just how nuanced you have to be to do analysis in this space. Asking questions of data – especially semi-structured and unstructured data – is extremely hard. Cleaning data is hard. Analyzing and interpreting data is hard. As a result, doing data science is often more art than science. But the iterative nature of working with complex datasets – especially highly dimensional networked datasets – is so refreshing. It allows you to look at a problem from a radically different perspective.

Because I started out in computer science and came to anthropology and qualitative methods later, I always felt as though I needed to convince people that I was a “real” ethnographer. In seeking legitimacy in a scholarly world defined by method, I often downplayed the different technical work that I used in my research. I did a lot of large-scale random sampling of MySpace and a lot of network analysis of different social media services. Although I published a few papers on Twitter and Friendster analysis, most of what I did when scraping and using technical tools to analyze data was to help me better understand what I was seeing in interviews and observations.

In all the hype around “big data,” I hope to see more integration of qualitative methods with statistical and machine learning methods because it’s amazing how these can feed into each other. The key with both is learning how to formulate a question and be reflexive about what you’re seeing and what you’re not.

Mimi: I feel the book does a pretty good job of giving expression to our different disciplinary dispositions and generational identities, and the methods we have brought to bear to our research. All three of us have studied overlapping and related topics and trends, but have different lenses on the phenomenon. The book reminds me a bit about the proverbial blind men and the elephant, but with a more positive outcome. When the three of us are in conversation I do feel like we are able to piece things together into a still imperfect, but somewhat integrated bigger picture.

danah: As we dive into this conversation, emulating the kinds of conversation that we produced for our book, what do you hope people get from reading our book?

Mimi: Writing this book as a three-way dialog was a new experience for all of us, and I’m really curious what people will make of it. Although it was challenging to work through a new genre of book writing, in a lot of ways the process mirrored how the three of us have actually worked together over the years, sharing partially formulated ideas, arguing with one another, and putting things out there in public for broader engagement. I’d love it if this book gave folks a window into this kind of dialogic knowledge production. I hope people leave with positive view into the way that ideas and theories are socially and relationally constructed as other people and the changing world pushes up against our theories and preconceptions. This kind of openness and flexibility seems to me critically important especially for those of us who take up topics like technology and youth culture which are very dynamic, require us to be methodologically innovative, and collaborate across geographic and disciplinary boundaries.

Henry: There’s lots of core insights to be found in the book about the themes and topics we all care about. This really was an honest period of reflection for all three of us, looking back on the past few decades of change in a networked society, trying to assess what we believe to be true and important, trying to qualify early claims both by us and others that may have simplified our understanding of the current situation. I was struck rereading the book about how much we had to say about inequalities in access and participation, a theme which seems urgent for us to address, but was sometimes pushed aside by our excitement on new and emerging opportunities and the amazing things young people were doing within their online communities. We each bring in examples of the kinds of communities which we’ve focused on through our research and the comparison across those cases is illuminating.

But, like Mimi, part of what I really value about Participatory Culture in a Networked Era is the ways the book may illustrate the power of critical conversations, even among people like us who start with somewhat similar positions. Our thinking evolves over the course of the book, as we listen to and respect what we learn from the others. We need more of this kind of academic dialogue — not reading papers to each other at high speeds at conferences, not throwing out messages in bottles (or journals, which can take even longer to reach their recipients), but in sitting down in real time, sharing thoughts, responding thoughtfully to others, and challenging established wisdom. I’ve recently been rereading a somewhat more contentious exchange between Cornel West and bell hooks about the role of the public intellectual and it has made me wish we had so many more scholarly works in this genre. What I’d love to see happen is for people to sit down with colleagues, across disciplines, across perspectives, with the book, and talk through together how they react to what we say there, or simply take the intersections of their own research trajectories as a starting point to see where this leads them. Such conversations do not happen enough.

danah: I think we’re all in agreement that the key value of this book is exposing how ideas become ideas.  I love “Advanced Reader Copies” or galleys of books because I like to be reminded of the imperfection that happens before we get a book in its completed state.  When I was first entering graduate school, everything about research seemed mysterious.  Ideas appeared to just come down on high and get magically polished by brilliant people. But as we all know, that’s not how scholarship happens.  It’s indeed socially and culturally constructed. More than anything, I hope that this book gives people an insight into the process and practices of research. This book is definitely the backstage of research into participatory culture and I hope it helps people see our work and struggles from a new light.

Henry Jenkins is Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts, and Education at the University of Southern California

Mizuko Ito is Professor in Residence and MacArthur Foundation chair in Digital Media and Learning, University of California, Irvine

danah boyd is a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, the Founder of Data & Society, and a Visiting Professor at New York University

Categories: Blog

In Search of Indian Comics (Part Two): The Politics of Indian Comics

November 16, 2015 - 11:29am

Today, I continue to narrate some of my adventures in search of a better understanding of comics and graphic novels in Contemporary India. Last time, we considered the ways that contemporary artists are building upon India’s folk art and mythological traditions. I ended with some reference to the importance of Amar Chitra Katha, a publisher that for some decades produced comics teaching Indian boys and girls about their legends and history. These comics help to establish the public’s expectations about what a graphic novel from India might be like. I also discussed Bhimayana: Expereicnes of Untouchability, which depicts incidents in the life of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, a civil rights leader who spoke on behalf of the Dalit people: this book taps the folk art traditions of the Gond people, as well as seeking to tell aspects of Ambedkar’s life that are traditionally left out of the history books about the founding of the Indian nation, where Ambedkar is mostly known as the author of the country’s constitution.

Aparajita Ninan, who was part of our party when I had lunch with a group of graphic artists in Dehli’s Crafts Museum, also helped to work on Bhimayana. She’s best known, in her own right, though, for her work on A Gardner in the Wasteland: Jotiba Phule’s Fight for Liberty, written by Srividya Natarajan (one of Bhimayana’s two co-authors) and also published by Navayana Press. Phule was another important critic of the caste system in India who wrote a key book — Slavery (Gulamgiri) in 1873 — who challenged Brahamanism and critiques the enslavement of the “lower” castes, a work inspired by and dedicated to the Abolitionist movement in the United States. Many of Phule’s ideas remain controversial to the present day, including his sharp critiques of the ways that India’s spiritual tradition was often structured in ways that insured the Brahaman caste continued to dominate over everyone else. Ninan’s art work here is rendered in an inky black and white style that has a kind of agit-prop brute force. She draws imagery and symbols from around the world in part to link Phule’s arguments back to their historical roots, including his intense engagement with the struggles to end slavery in the United States and those around the French revolution. Here, for example, is a two page spread early in the book which links Phule back with a range of other freedom fighters and Civil Rights leaders from around the world and across history, all of whom marched, the books argues, behind the cause of Liberty, Fraternity and Equality.

Here’s another spread in the book which represents the forceful techniques deployed to keep the castes in place with the role that lynching in the deep American south, another form of intimidation and political violence.

And this page sums up the contrasting perspective that Phule brought to the mythological traditions of his country. Here, we get a sense of the ways that these books are overturning a particular perspective on Hinduism that was fostered through the ACK tradition.

INSERT

Phule, as the comic suggests, was often dismissed as an apologist for Westernization, a debate about his work which continues to the present day. As these examples suggest, the visual style here depends heavily on juxtapositions and contrasts, design to show both connections across history and geography, and to suggest ways that the same events can be understood differently from different points of view. Both of these strategies are intended to upend established ways of understanding these myths and historical struggles, encouraging contemporary readers to approach them with fresh eyes.

These illustrations suggest how political comics often are in the context of contemporary India, where the current government is dominated by political figures who embrace Hindu nationalism and conservative ideology, and who take a dim view of those — like these artists — who would critique or challenge those traditions.

 


Vishwajyoti Ghosh, another member of our little gathering at the Crafts Museum, is the author and illustrator for Delhi Calm, a graphic novel about a group of rock musicians touring the countryside, and what happens when Indira Gandhi declares a national State of Emergency and imposes martial law on India.  Or perhaps not, since the book works hard to establish a state of plausible deniability about what real world events it may or may not be referencing. A text on the very first page explains, “Nothing like this ever happened. If it did, it doesn’t matter any more, for it was of no interest or relevance even while it was happening. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. This is a work of fiction. Self-Censored.”  And this note captures something of the tone of the work as a whole — one which conveys the ways paranoia infuses every social interaction in a world where the rights of citizens have been suspended and no one knows what is going to happen next.  The female dictator, part of a long line of national leaders, is described throughout only as Little Moon; her supporters are often depicted wearing happy masks, implying that a forced smile is really the only safe way to respond to the political turmoil that surrounds them.

 

Signs of propaganda, police violence, and political imprisonment run across the book, often in the background of panels, suggesting that the characters can never fully escape the presence of oppressive forces in their lives. As an American reader, I am sure I did not get all of the layers of allegory and allusion at work here, but the work was nevertheless compelling and disturbing.

 

Ghosh also curated an important anthology of “graphic narratives”, This Side That Side?: Restorying Partition,  representing the work of a diverse range of South Asian artists, writers, illustrators, filmmakers, and other storytellers, as they reflect on the political forces which separated off India and Pakistan and the ways that those borders and boundaries have impacted their lives. Ghosh writes in the book’s introduction, “Restorying Partition can never be easy. If one wants to avoid the usual revival of Mass Memory, one has to look beyond those maps lodged in our nervous systems that make nervous headlines on our televisions. To listen to the subsequent generations and the grandchildren and how they have negotiated maps that never got drawn. This Side, That Side is a tiny drop in the river of stories that must be told before the markers run dry.”

The range of perspectives and techniques represented here makes its own political statement. Nina Sabnani, an animator, tells the story (“Know Directions Home?”) of her family’s displacement from the shifting borderlands between India and Pakistan using stitch work, a technique she also uses to great effect in her animated film, Tanko Bole Chhe (The Stitches Speak), which is previewed by this excerpt found online.

Malini Gupta and Dyuti Mittal contributed “The Taboo,” which deploys a visual style that to my western eye suggests something of the wall painting traditions we looked at last time, in its tendency to engulf the page in intertwined art rather than break it down into panels.

This side that side. Restorying Partition, An anthopology of graphic narratives. Curated by Vishwajyoti Ghosh. Photo: Darshan Chakma

“I Too Have Seen Lahore!”, a collaboration between Salman Rashid (in Lahore) and Mohit Suneja (in Delhi), conveys some of the horrors and brutality that surrounded this moment of historical upheaval; the visual style ranges, appropriately, from finely detailed pen-and-ink drawing to a much more fragmented and scrawling style to convey the carnage.

The following comes from my travel diary:

After our lunch with the comics artist at the Crafts Museum, my host Parmesh Shahani takes us to Hauz Khas Village (which locals tend to call HKV or simply the Village). It is hard to describe the vibe of this place. On the outskirts there are dozens of little food stalls and carts, each selling street food, and a constant zip of the motorcycles and autorickshaws, which we have seen everywhere on this trip. As we pass through the gates, and past a local deer park, we enter an environment which represents a series of temporal and cultural layers. The original layer are ruins, going back to the 11th century (or there-abouts) of what was once a great Islamic university and a cluster of palaces. Much remains left behind – buildings with huge domes, crumbling columns, decaying steps, which stretch out for as far as the eye can see. Amidst them, people are sitting and having the street food, playing games with balls and rackets, posing for selfies, and otherwise getting on with the business of life.

On top of this was built an urban village – traditional houses and shops which could have been built at any point in the 20th century. We later learn that this area was a kind of criminal underworld in the early 20th century – a tribe of bandits were located here and the city constructed walls to keep them away from the rest of the population, assuming anyone who ventured into this space knew what they were getting themselves into. This is what gives the area its thuggish charm. And now, the area is undergoing a process we might describe as gentrification: it got discovered by hipster youth and has been transformed into their playground. So, they have built, without building permits in most cases (Parmesh says), cute little clothing stores, poster shops, record stores, bakeries, coffee shops, and night clubs, on top of the structure of the older village, often in a very ramshackled or haphazard fashion.

It’s dusk and music is already blarring out of speakers all around us. We pass young people with eccentric hairstyles and cool clothes, doing some early evening shopping, and looking forward to an evening of clubbing. We see more white youth than we’ve seen elsewhere – and almost all of them are wearing traditional Indian clothing – while the Indian youth are almost all wearing western garb.

(I wonder if either notices that their cultural fantasies are not exactly aligned here.) The whole effect is something from a cyberpunk novel – Neo-Delhi rather than Neo-Tokyo, with a healthy amount of the kipple and chaos of something like Blade Runner. Parmesh shares with us a few of his favorite shops including a really cool poster shop which has all kinds of brightly colored vintage paper products: I want, but there’s not enough time to look and process. As we are leaving, though, the manager gives us a business card and says you can order online and he will ship to the U.S. Big smiles.

And here, as elsewhere across India, there is spectacular street art, itself suggesting the graphic storytelling potential of this amazing country.

MORE TO COME

Categories: Blog

The Conversation Never Ends: Participatory Culture in a Networked Era

November 13, 2015 - 8:54am

Over the next few installments, I am going to celebrate the publication of a new book — Participatory Culture in a Networked Era — which I developed over the past few years in conversation with danah boyd and Mimi Ito, both names that should be familiar to regular readers of this blog. For those of you who don’t know, Mimi Ito is Professor in Residence and MacArthur Foundation chair in Digital Media and Learning, University of California, Irvine and danah boyd is a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, the Founder of Data & Society, and a Visiting Professor at New York University. All three of us have been part of the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning initiative over the past decade.

The key word here is conversation. Literally, we started our book with the three of us sitting down in Mimi’s living room and having a several days long conversation about the intersections between our work, reflecting on the past several decades of digital and social change, considering what we know now that we couldn’t have known a decade ago and how this might force us to rethink some earlier claims about participatory culture, connected learning, Web 2.0, the new activism, fandom, and a wealth of other topics we hold near and dear. As we did so, we solicited questions through various social media, and we made sure to address as many of them as we could. And then, we worked through the transcripts, again and again, clarifying our concepts, refining our arguments, shuffling the pieces to insure greater clarity and accessibility. And the result is a book, which is being released this month by Polity Press.

danah and Mimi were ideal thinking and writing partners for this ride. It wasn’t easy since we are probably three of the busiest people we know and so coordinating time to make this work was challenging, and there were many points along the way when we almost pulled the plug. I am so glad we didn’t because I am very proud of what we produced in the end.

Here’s what danah had to say about the process of writing the book on her blog:

I couldn’t think of anything more awesome than spending time with two of my mentors and teasing out the various strands of our interconnected research. I knew that there were places where we were aligned and places where we disagreed or, at least, where our emphases provided different perspectives. We’d all been running so fast in our own lives that we hadn’t had time to get to that level of nuance and this crazy project would be the perfect opportunity to do precisely that…Truth be told, I never wanted it to end. Throughout our conversations, I kept flashing back to my years at MIT when Henry opened my eyes to fan culture and a way of understanding media that seeped deep inside my soul. I kept remembering my trips to LA where I’d crash in Mimi’s guest room, talking research late into the night and being woken in the early hours by a bouncy child who never understood why I didn’t want to wake up at 6AM. But above everything else, the sheer delight of brainjamming with two people whose ideas and souls I knew so well was ecstasy.

I didn’t want it to end, either, danah. There were times when our exchanges felt like a tag team with each of us adding to what the person before had said as we made common cause against shared frustrations in the discourse about, say, “digital natives.” There were times when our interactions were like Truth and Dare as we ended up pushing each other to spill the beans and address core criticisms of our work. And there are a few places where some fundamental disagreements surfaced — such as an exchange about Mimi’s term, Connected Learning, and my term, Participatory Learning — which people might not have recognized from the outside. I think this book poses more questions than we can address, but it is intended as a conversation starter, so literally, the conversation doesn’t have to end but may spark many subsequent exchanges with many more people. So, as they used to say on Saturday Night Live, “talk amongst yourselves.”

So far, the book has been enthusiastically received by Howard Rhinegold, who had most flattering things to say about the project:

My single strongest recommendation to you: if you want the best and latest evidence-based, authoritative, nuanced, critical knowledge about how digital media and networks are transforming not just learning but commercial media, citizen participation in democracy, and the everyday practices of young people, my advice is to obtain a copy of the new book, “Participatory Culture in A Networked Era,” by Henry Jenkins, Mizuko Ito, and danah boyd. This book is the opposite of so much sound-bite generalization about “digital natives” and “Twitter revolutions.” Jenkins, Ito, and boyd seek to unpack the nuances behind the generalizations of digital media enthusiasts and critics alike, rather than to reduce them to easily digested phrases. And, they articulate their knowledge clearly. They not only know this subject matter as well as anyone on the planet, they know how to talk about it.

Here are a few more reactions to the book (these blurbs solicited by Polity, our publisher):

“Jenkins, Ito and boyd offer us all a wonderful gift in the form of this book — it’s as though one gets a chance to listen in on a great dinner party conversation between three brilliant scholars, reflecting on more than twenty years of trenchant scholarship on culture, play, identity, and the emergence of the digital world.”
John Palfrey, Phillips Academy

“These authors practise what they preach! To unlock the promise of participatory culture, Jenkins, Ito and boyd invite us to join their intellectual conversation as they puzzle over the dilemmas, insights and challenges of living in a networked era. This is an exciting way to engage with a fast-developing field of research, knowledge and experience.”
Sonia Livingstone, London School of Economics

“The idea of scholarship as dialogue is one that lies buried deep within the humanities. In the pages of this engaging and accessible book, Jenkins, Ito and boyd have brought the ethos of dialogue very much to the surface. Their conversation is an entirely apt technique for reflecting on what is by now a sustained history of collaboration on questions of informal learning, participation and power in the evolving digital media environment.”
Jean Burgess, Queensland University of Technology

In the spirit of keeping the conversation going, danah, Mimi and I had a new exchange via e-mail this past week, tackling a few recent concerns around participatory culture, as a way of sharing a taste of the book.

Henry: Last week, Common Sense Media announced a new report, based on a survey with 2600 tweens and teens, that they say depicts the current state of media usage in the United States. Among their findings are several which are likely troubling to one or another of us:

“Low-income kids lack access. Children growing up in lower-income homes are far less likely to have access to computers, tablets, and smartphones than their wealthier peers, but when they do have access, they are more likely to spend more time on their devices….

Social media use is big, but maybe not very enjoyable. Social media is an integral part of most teens’ lives (45% use “every day”), but only 36% of teens say they enjoy using social media “a lot” compared to 73% who enjoy listening to music “a lot,” and 45% watching TV.

Everyone can be a maker, but not many are. The vast majority of children’s engagement with media consists of consuming media, with only a small portion devoted to creating content.”

So, first, are these findings consistent with other current research you’ve seen? If so, should we be concerned about these findings? How do they fit within our own accounts of the ways media is impacting how youth learn and live today? And if these are indeed problems, what do we see as effective steps forward from these situations?

danah: Let me begin by tackling the middle finding on social media. When I interviewed teens, they repeatedly told me that they’d *much* rather get together face-to-face but then went on to cite all of the reasons that they couldn’t get together in person. It was deeply frustrating to them. They saw socializing through social media as less ideal than hanging out with their peers in person, but didn’t feel as though they had a choice. But that’s the comparison for them – social media vs. face-to-face. Music and TV are a totally different category and should not be compared to social media. Music and TV can be used socially (and you’ll often find teens listening to music or watching YouTube videos when then get together in person). They can also be used passively, to veg out at the end of a long day. As Henry often argues, there are active ways of consuming media, but the reality that I see on the ground is that there are many times when teens simply want to be passive consumers of media that makes them feel good. Then again, same is true for adults.

Mimi: I’ll jump in on the first finding and like danah also try to add some perspective on this that nuances the broad quantitative findings. Our team has also found important gaps in access and participation, but the differences are quite nuanced and aren’t about a straightforward “digital divide.” Access to computers, tablets, smartphones, and Internet connectivity don’t always go hand in hand, though privileged kids might have access to all of the above. One example is that we found that for low income teens in LA, they may have access to an Internet connected computer or laptop through shared device at home or at a library, but they but lack smartphone-based Internet access. What this means that they are not able to use mobile app based social media like Instagram and Snapchat. Many of the teens said they “don’t use social media” because they are not part of today’s dominant social media platforms. They use text messaging, and may dip into Facebook, because it is more accessible through shared devices like computers and laptops, but they are non-participants in the mobile social media space. And because these patterns tend to track along peer groups in schools, when they attended majority low income high schools, even the kids who did have smartphones were not heavy social media users because their peers were not part of the ecosystem.

Henry: I will tackle the final finding here. All of us have been excited at one time or another by the recognition that an expanding number of American youth have access to the means to produce media and we’ve contributed to projects designed to encourage young makers and hackers to find their voice and develop skills at producing new content. But, we need to recognize that participation in the new media environment can take many different forms and that measuring media making by itself creates a very high bar for mapping the public’s changing communication capacities. Making media may be a special event for many youth — part of a school project, for example — but contributing to the media environment in other ways may occur much more commonly. So, for example, we need to recognize that much more casual acts, such as forwarding or retweeting or otherwise spreading a piece of media content or signing an online petition may, in fact, have an impact on larger societal debates; often local acts of contributing to social media don’t count as “making” media, but do impact the local community where a discussion is taking place, representing forms of participation that would have been hard to achieve in another historical era. In many ways, forms of media participation have become so mundane and everyday that they do not “count” and are often taken for granted. Yet, when this broader range of activities are taken into consideration, it is clear that more young people are “participating” in the media environment than ever before and even if we narrow our focus to things like political and civic participation, there are signs of steady increases, and not just restricted to the “usual suspects” of white suburban middle class kids.

danah: One thing that bothers me about how we talk about media is that we tend to lump it all together. We treat TV as equivalent to video games, social media as equivalent to music. All because it involves electronics at some level. At best, we talk about passive versus active engagement but as y’all know, that’s fraught. I’m curious how y’all would break out different types of media so that people don’t always compare apples to oranges.

Henry: I would start by identifying specific functions and the choices people make about what media tools and platforms are the most appropriate ways of achieving them. So, in The Breakup 2.0, Ilana Gershon asks young people how they would “break up” with a romantic partner, and she gets a wealth of different stories that show choices people are making about when and where certain forms of media are appropriate and useful. Chris Evans, as part of the Youth and Participatory Politics Network research, has asked young people what strategies they would follow to address particular community problems. There, she can chart their movement across a range of different tools and platform, though she notes that many young people do not immediately think of digital media in this way, even though they use it often for other everyday functions. So, I would love to see research that asks about a) a broader range of forms and genres of participation and b) the range of tools and platforms used to achieve everyday social functions.

Mimi: I agree that it is very challenging to make general statements across media types and genres of participation in an era when the defining trend is towards niches and personalization of media environments. We talk about the various gaps and diverse genres of participation at some length in our book. I feel like in different ways, we have each taken on the challenge of adding some texture to blanket proclamations about “kids these days.”

Categories: Blog

Tap, Click, Read: An Interview with Lisa Guernsey and Michael Levine (Part Three)

October 27, 2015 - 5:11am

What do you see as some of the benefits or pitfalls of “interactive hotspots” in today’s e-books? You discuss the difference between forms of interactivity which are there as independent sources of pleasure or as means of allowing the reader to feel some sense of control over the reading process versus those which are “on the plot” and reinforce key learnings.

As I was reading this section, I found myself thinking back to some of the very earliest Sesame Street segments, where they would do a countdown, ending up with a man carrying an armload of pies, who would trip and fall. How might we understand the pleasures and pedagogies of a moment like this in relation to today’s interactive books?

The research on ‘hotspots’ that we get into in Tap, Click, Read–including popular print ‘distractors’ in pop-up books– shows that emerging readers do not in fact benefit in developing key skills such as complex vocabulary development, comprehension and fluency. You can see the tradeoffs that often occur in a print vs. a highly (enhanced) interactive book experience in this experiment the Cooney Center carried out. That said, the interactivity associated with hotspots, as well as the comedy and musical interludes introduced by Sesame Street 2 generations ago are certainly a boon to engagement and extended learning when well deployed by knowledgeable adults. Our work with your group at USC illustrates the key prospects for moving beyond the more traditional framing of the advantages of print vs digital by creating a deeper understanding of the potential power of transmedia.

Throughout the book, there is some question of the concept of “screen time” which runs through much policy discourse on children and media. Yet, as you note, we use screens for so many different kinds of activities; there are so many different ways of engaging with screens; and we use screens in relation to many off-screen practices that lumping everything together into the category of screen time is more apt to be confusing than helpful. Meryl Alper in a recent MIT Press publication also considers what the anxiety about screen time means for families with disabilities where children rely on adaptive and assistive technologies that use screens for even the most basic daily tasks. So, surely there’s a need to shift the focus from how should we limit the amount of time children spend with screens towards what uses of screens are beneficial to children and how do we achieve a better balance in the range of different media practices they deploy. If so, are there some common sense answers to those basic questions we could provide parents?

We agree! It is time to strike the all encompassing term screen time from our vernacular–it just isn’t a helpful construct at all. The field of early learning is beginning to come around with recent guidance for educators and parents being much more nuanced and helpful. The National Association for the Education of Young Children and the Fred Rogers Center crafted a technology position statement in 2013 that stresses the importance of early educators using technology in developmentally appropriate ways.

And two recent statements–one from Zero to Three and the other from the American Academy of Pediatrics give much more direct and helpful guidance to parents, focusing more on the content, context and needs of the developing child. In fact in its recent statement The AAP hit the nail on the head when it wrote: “In a world where “screen time” is becoming simply “time,” our policies must evolve or become obsolete.” We need to address how learning can and should be happening in every place children congregate, regardless of the device.

Many of my readers are librarians, so I would be remiss if I did not ask you what roles librarians and libraries could and should play in the new literacy context you are advocating. Many school districts are cutting back on library staff, arguing that they are less important in an age when young people can find more and more information online. What arguments might librarians make to the contrary as they struggle to save their jobs?

We argue that librarians will become more necessary, not less, in the digital age. But as most know well, their jobs will need to adapt and we hope grow even more important. We came across several successful initiatives in public libraries that involved working with parents and educators inside and outside the physical library. The librarians had transformed themselves from being focused almost entirely on print books to being able to vet and critique digital media too, including e-books, apps, and videos.

In addition—and this is crucial—they were more than just curators. They were what we describe as “media mentors,” providing guidance to parents and teachers through workshops and one-on-one relationships with parents and teachers on how to use digital media in interactive storytimes and other moments of joint engagement with children.
This summer, the Association of Library Services to Children (an arm of the American Library Association) released a white paper on media mentorship that described how librarians for children and youth were uniquely positioned to take on this role. “A commitment to media mentorship in every library,” the paper’s authors wrote, “is a firm commitment to the full spectrum of being a supporter and champion of literacy.”

This kind of mentorship is a must for children from low-income families whose parents may be least likely to have the resources, time, or preparation necessary to learn how to use digital tools well and model that use for their children. The more that librarians can provide support and guidance to parents and teachers around the use of literacy tools and media, the more essential those librarians will be.

Lisa Guernsey is director of the Early Education Initiative and the Learning Technologies Project in the Education Policy Program at New America. She leads teams of writers and analysts to tell stories, examine policies and generate ideas for new approaches to help disadvantaged students succeed. Prior to her work at New America, Lisa worked as a staff writer at The New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education. She has also contributed to several national publications, including The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Slate, and USA TODAY, and she is the author of Screen Time: How Electronic Media – From Baby Videos to Educational Software – Affects Your Young Child (Basic Books, 2012). She won a 2012 gold Eddie magazine award for a School Library Journal article on e-books and has served on several national advisory committees on early education, including the Institute of Medicine’s Committee on the Science of Children Birth To Age 8.

Michael H. Levine, PhD, is the founding executive director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. The Center conducts research, builds multi-sector alliances, and catalyzes industry and policy reforms needed to advance high quality media experiences for vulnerable children. Levine serves on the senior team at Sesame Workshop where he focuses on educational initiatives and philanthropic partnerships for the global nonprofit. Prior to joining the Center, Levine was Vice President for Asia Society, managing interactive media and educational initiatives to promote knowledge and understanding of other world regions and cultures. Michael previously oversaw Carnegie Corporation of New York’s groundbreaking work in early childhood development and educational media, and was a senior advisor to the New York City Schools Chancellor, where he directed dropout prevention and afterschool programs.

Categories: Blog

Tap, Click, Read: An Interview with Lisa Guernsey and Michael Levine (Part Two)

October 22, 2015 - 6:36am

Frequently, media and reading are pit against each other in what amounts to a zero-sum game. Time spent doing one comes at the expense of the other. Yet, you are suggesting that these do not have to be seen as opposing forces. How might they best work together?

You are right–the debate between technophiles and technophobes is driving us down the wrong road. In our book we talk about the need to find a ‘third way,’ that is using media and technology in the service of early literacy development. We call this concept readia. Let us explain.

In developing the thesis for our book, we had an abiding worry that our thinking about early literacy was locked in a time warp. While the science behind early reading development has never been stronger, our capacity to make progress has been constrained, we fear, by a large elephant in the room—the ubiquitous force represented by multiple forms of media in almost every young child’s life. We wondered: might that force be tapped in a more balanced and purposeful way? But we also knew that without pushing for better quality, and more access to diverse learning environments for low-income families, we might be deepening, not closing existing divides.

Just last week, early literacy activists may have gotten an unexpected ally in crafting a modern response: the American Academy of Pediatrics announced changes to its recommendations on “screen time.” For years the Academy has been telling parents to refrain from or sharply limit use of screen media. The new guidance takes a more realistic approach, acknowledging that even young children are using tablets and other technology every day, and that parents and teachers should use new tools more intentionally and collaboratively.

This is a moment perhaps where the important connections between media and reading can be brought to light among educators,’ parents, and in the public’s imagination. If guidance from professionals is more nuanced and evidence-based, we think it’s possible to escape the polarized debates between technology as harmful (it’s nothing more than distractor or electronic babysitter!) and technology as savior (apps will somehow fix everything). Our book documents research and innovations on the ground that are pointing to a third way. In short, let’s maintain a human-centric approach to early literacy by empowering and mentoring parents and educators to see their role as primary. But let’s also see technology as a powerful complement.

Our key takeaway: today’s toddlers — the class of 2030 — will still need to be able to read in the traditional sense. But they will also need a new blend of skills– to speak, listen, write, be able to discern an author’s motivation, and to look for evidence in books to inform their opinions. The new blend is something we refer to as “readia” — media in service of reading, and reading conducted via media of all kinds.

I have heard many parents and even some educators argue that we should keep digital and other media out of schools, that children get too much exposure to this beyond the school day, and that school time should be a time of quiet contemplation such as that traditionally associated with book culture. How would you respond to that argument?

First of all we do not advocate that very young children are left in front of a screen or that ambient use –”always on” media–is effective to promote the rich literacy skills that a developing child needs to get ready for a life of learning.

But keeping digital media out of school is a mistake. The argument works if you are a tech entrepreneur or highly skilled in scaffolding media and tech usage at home because you have the time to do so as a parent. But for a child who is growing up with limited means and parents who might be working 2 or 3 jobs, we need to create normative use of technology beginning in the preschool years. There is no reason at all that children cannot have both quiet and reflective time and be adept in the use of the modern technologies that can be a great ally in personalizing and globalizing their learning possibilities!

We should not be surprised that the Joan Ganz Cooney Center is deeply invested in understanding how children learn to read in a digital age given how much Sesame Street contributed to fostering a deeper understanding of how children might learn to read during the television era. So, what lessons from Sesame Street carry over into this new context and in what ways might we need to rethink that model for the age of networked, mobile, and interactive media?

The book explores the rich history of educational media, and imagines a new, more highly networked and mobile form of public media as a national asset that could be better positioned to connect home and school The origins of Sesame Street and other public media pioneers are the basis–in many respects– to understanding the impact of new technologies on young children. The book offers an analysis of the role that ‘joint media engagement’ (where adults and children learn from media together), might play if we were to intentionally design in-school and out-of-school literacy programs for such interchange.

Let us illustrate. Many of our peers (and we are of slightly different generations!) would sit together watching Sesame Street or Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood as “co-viewers” when their kids were preschoolers. The music or sketch comedy or wholesome life lessons appealed to parents who saw the benefits of engaging their children to “learn beyond the tube.” Research in the 70’s and 80’s showed that parents would often use the teachable moments and displayable skills they were co-viewing to later ask kids to point out the letters on a Stop sign or say numbers like ‘The Count would.”

Today’s kids and parents are still co-viewing, but our research indicates that there is less ‘intentional viewing’ of educational media: parents and kids are more likely to be watching telenovelas or American Idol together. But the ubiquity and mobility of interactive digital media make it possible to expand the reach of ‘learning together’ moments in a new way. For example, rather than constructing the “family hour of coviewing” that often took place in the 60’s and 70’s, today’s parents who understand the benefits of blending literacy and media experiences will spend ten-fifteen minutes in shorter bursts of activity scaffolding and guiding their kids learning in different settings–in the car or on a bus, at the grocery store, after a park or museum visit, to make a new discovery!

Lisa Guernsey is director of the Early Education Initiative and the Learning Technologies Project in the Education Policy Program at New America. She leads teams of writers and analysts to tell stories, examine policies and generate ideas for new approaches to help disadvantaged students succeed. Prior to her work at New America, Lisa worked as a staff writer at The New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education. She has also contributed to several national publications, including The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Slate, and USA TODAY, and she is the author of Screen Time: How Electronic Media – From Baby Videos to Educational Software – Affects Your Young Child (Basic Books, 2012). She won a 2012 gold Eddie magazine award for a School Library Journal article on e-books and has served on several national advisory committees on early education, including the Institute of Medicine’s Committee on the Science of Children Birth To Age 8.

Michael H. Levine, PhD, is the founding executive director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. The Center conducts research, builds multi-sector alliances, and catalyzes industry and policy reforms needed to advance high quality media experiences for vulnerable children. Levine serves on the senior team at Sesame Workshop where he focuses on educational initiatives and philanthropic partnerships for the global nonprofit. Prior to joining the Center, Levine was Vice President for Asia Society, managing interactive media and educational initiatives to promote knowledge and understanding of other world regions and cultures. Michael previously oversaw Carnegie Corporation of New York’s groundbreaking work in early childhood development and educational media, and was a senior advisor to the New York City Schools Chancellor, where he directed dropout prevention and afterschool programs.

 

Categories: Blog

Tap, Click, Read: An Interview with Lisa Guernsey and Michael Levine (Part One)

October 20, 2015 - 5:39am

Too often, computers are pitted against books in the mythology of contemporary education reform. Computers are often understood as fundamentally transforming and disruptive technologies irreversible in their effects — for some, those effects are liberating — the magic box. For others, these devices are threatening — the reason why Johnny (or Mary) can’t read, the reason why we can’t have meaningful conversations with our kids. So, how do we move beyond these polarizing frames?

Tap, Click, Read: Growing Readers in a World of Screens offers us one compelling model for what a middle-ground response to these issues might look like. It’s authors Lisa Guernsey from New America and Michael H. Levine from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, are trusted voices on issues of children and media; they’ve done serious research and they’ve written about it in a public-facing way. They are very good at translating academic findings into something that can be processed by educators and parents who are concerned about the young people in their lives. They avoid alarmist or celebratory framings and get down to what’s working, and what isn’t, about the contemporary media environment. As this interview makes clear, we can no longer make simple decisions about how much screen time is okay for children when so many vital processes of the culture are now taking place within digitized environments. We can not lock down classrooms as computer-free zones in a world where many young people still lack access to both technological infrastructure and mentorship outside of school. We can’t easily separate out what it means to read printed texts from what it means to engage with digital media at a time when more and more of us are reading books on our Kindles and other tablets.

Tap, Click, Read makes valuable contributions to our understanding of what constitutes literacy in the 21st century, contributions directed at parents, teachers, policy makers, technology designers, and fellow researchers. If you fall into any of these categories, you probably need to engage with their arguments.

I am very happy to be able to offer some glimpses into their thinking through this three-part interview. And they were nice enough to provide a range of links to other cutting edge research in this space. So, don’t be afraid to follow one of those links, as long as you come back and finish reading the interview.

If you want to learn more about this project, you should definitely visit their rich web site which also helps connect interesting parties to an array of different resources they can use to apply these insights or take action in support of educational reforms. So, in this case, read, then tap and click.

You begin the book with a very noble statement: “We cannot allow technology to exacerbate social inequality instead of opening more opportunities for everyone to succeed.” So, break this down for us. What do you see as the heart of the problem? Is the concern with access to technology per se or something more than that, whether understood in terms of literacies or mentorship or opportunity? And what might be some positive steps we can take — as parents, as educators, as a society — to address those concerns?

Great question! There has been a good deal of discussion about a “digital divide,” in education and youth development circles. Because the focus is often on hardware and software, we believe that this focus largely misses the mark. While equitable access to technology is still a worry, especially in the lowest income households, access to quality professional development, programs that train “media mentors” or provide opportunities for adults and children to engage jointly in media production is in our view a more important priority.

Recent work by scholars such as Susan Neuman and Vikki Katz on the phenomenon you first coined as a “participation gap,” are showing that children in their pre-school and primary years need engaged adults–parents, relatives and educators to provide normative experiences in the mastery of digital content and tools. In our book, especially in the concluding chapter, we lay out a series of action steps that parents, educators and communities can take to help prevent new divides. Among the most important ones are to invest more in community assets where technology can be more seamlessly connected to children’s natural passions such as libraries and afterschool centers. We also need a massive effort to prepare teachers of young children with the latest techniques to embed in their practice and centrally to invest much more heavily in high quality early learning and parent education programs.

Let’s start with a deceptively simple question: What do you mean by reading? What is it that we want young people to be able to do that they are not able to do under our current configuration of schooling?

Not simple at all!

Reading and more generally, “literacy” as a construct is getting more expansive with every passing year. Someone who is not steeped in early literacy research might think that literacy means reading print. But even the traditional definition of literacy has always meant more than that: It means reading, writing, listening, and speaking.

Children need help in becoming skillful at all four of those skills and they can use media tools of all kinds to do so. And in addition, as children grow up in a world of information overload and constant messaging, they will also need to learn media literacy and critical literacy. Those two concepts are still relatively new in elementary education, but if you think about it, those ideas go hand in hand with teaching a child about what it means to be a writer or media creator and why it is important to look closely and ask questions about what a writer is trying to say.

A number of groups have done important work defining what a new set of 21st Century literacies and skills should look like for children and youth (The National Council of Teachers of English,The National Association of Media Literacy Educators, Asia Society and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills are among the best known groups). A common thread across the groups is that learning and knowledge development is now highly networked, socially constructed, and globally applied.

Educators of young students have always understood the need to consider the ‘whole child’s’ growth and development: a challenge moving forward is to prepare teachers to teach critical thinking and inquiry skills using new and old forms of media. Kindergarten teachers doing real-alouds commonly ask students “What do you think happens next?” But they do not always ask the corollary question that builds students’ media literacy skills: “How do you know? Where in the story do you see signs or evidence of what you suggest?

Often critiques of the impact of media on learning and reading make a series of normative assumptions, frequently grounded in norms of middle class, white, suburban family life. But you cite recent research which factors a more diverse range of families into the equation. What does this research change in our understanding? How might schools shift from seeing bilingual families, for example, in terms of the cultural assets they provide children rather than what are often perceived as “literacy deficits”?

This is a fundamental question that every educator and advocate for a more diverse and sensitive educational system must urgently ask. Both the Cooney Center through its Aprendiendo Juntos Council and New America through its Dual Language Learners Work Group have new research initiatives underway to delve into the deep cultural assets that reside within language learning communities and especially in the diverse families who have recently immigrated to the US.

In Tap, Click, Read we explore the overlooked assets that reside in both the language and culture of low-income Hispanic-Latino families as seen through the lens of contemporary research on the uses of digital media for learning purposes. We include findings from a national survey conducted by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and Stanford University on how Hispanic-Latino families define educational media use in the home, as well as an analysis of research by our team and scholars at Rutgers University on the role that national policies on low cost broadband access are playing in getting modern technology to low-income homes. Our book includes recommendations based on this research on ways to improve parent engagement programs, school-home links, media design, and new public-private partnerships to more effectively meet the needs of ELL’s.

And one of our key messages is that Spanish-speaking families have real strengths and assets to share with their children: By having conversations with them in Spanish about the world around them, they are building a base of knowledge and literacy that will make it easier for their children to learn English as well. This is the case, of course, not only for Spanish-speaking families but also for any family that speaks a non-English language at home. We should be helping families enable their children to become truly bilingual, not just in speaking but also in reading and writing.

Lisa Guernsey is director of the Early Education Initiative and the Learning Technologies Project in the Education Policy Program at New America. She leads teams of writers and analysts to tell stories, examine policies and generate ideas for new approaches to help disadvantaged students succeed. Prior to her work at New America, Lisa worked as a staff writer at The New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education. She has also contributed to several national publications, including The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Slate, and USA TODAY, and she is the author of Screen Time: How Electronic Media – From Baby Videos to Educational Software – Affects Your Young Child (Basic Books, 2012). She won a 2012 gold Eddie magazine award for a School Library Journal article on e-books and has served on several national advisory committees on early education, including the Institute of Medicine’s Committee on the Science of Children Birth To Age 8.

Michael H. Levine, PhD, is the founding executive director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. The Center conducts research, builds multi-sector alliances, and catalyzes industry and policy reforms needed to advance high quality media experiences for vulnerable children. Levine serves on the senior team at Sesame Workshop where he focuses on educational initiatives and philanthropic partnerships for the global nonprofit. Prior to joining the Center, Levine was Vice President for Asia Society, managing interactive media and educational initiatives to promote knowledge and understanding of other world regions and cultures. Michael previously oversaw Carnegie Corporation of New York’s groundbreaking work in early childhood development and educational media, and was a senior advisor to the New York City Schools Chancellor, where he directed dropout prevention and afterschool programs.

 

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