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A Visit with Feminist Filmmaker Paromita Vohra

October 15, 2015 - 6:10am

Today, I continue to share excerpts from my diaries during my travels across India. Consider each of these entries an impression – one slice through the complexity of contemporary Indian culture. My focus is often on the new — on popular culture and media change — but it is hard to separate out the new from older cultural traditions. I am no expert on India but I am trying to share here my evolving understanding of what I learned as I was guided through this rich and diverse country by my former student, Parmesh Shahani, director of the Godrej India Culture Lab in Mumbai. Today’s entry describes a visit to the home of an amazing activist and filmmaker whose work deserves to be much better known here, since it speaks to so many issues we discuss with our students. I know that I often struggle to find non-American examples to help students think about how some of these concerns play out in other contexts, and the videos embedded here are potentially great starting points for such discussions. I know I will be sharing some of them with my students once I get back into the classroom next year.

The big event of the day was a visit in the home of Paromita Vohra, who is a major cultural player here – a documentary filmmaker, an actress, a feminist and queer icon, a columnist for a major newspaper, a reality television producer, a comic book writer, and as it turned out, the perfect person to give me a master class on Indian popular culture and politics. We spent the afternoon around her computer, pulling up and discussing clips from her various documentaries, as well as my sharing some videos from the database of activist youth media we’ve been assembling around the By Any Media Necessary book. Paro, as she is called informally, is brilliant, thoughtful, warm and gracious, and down to earth in equal measures. You can get a sense of her from this video interview on gender politics I found online.

She also has a campy sense of humor and has performed a recurring cult role as Aunty 303 for a promotional campaign used by one of the television networks here.

We struck it off from the start and found many common interests.

For example, she was very interested in my early work on vaudeville and film comedy, and shared some reflections on popular theater traditions in India – specifically Parsi theater which she described as offering a series of “numbers” or specialties, a strong sense of improvisation and topicality, and a mixing of broad melodrama and even broader comedy. She traced how this eclectic mix of performance specialities fed into the evolution of the Bollywood (and other popular film genres in India) creating the unique mix of genre elements that we know today. But she also expressed concern that the popular Indian cinema was under much stronger pressure to adopt the linear three act structure used by Hollywood and she saw this change as having very negative effects on the culture here.

She blamed it in part on the Indian film industries response to globalization and the new generation’s sense of shame over some of the kitsch aspects of the Bollywood movie; she sees these films trying to break into film festivals or multiplexes with mixed responses and she sees increased co-productions with Hollywood partners dictating a closer adherence to Hollywood storytelling models. She also though saw these shifts as reflecting the pressure from the Hindu Nationalists currently in power towards what she sees as a monoculture – one true way to be Indian – as opposed to the contradictory, even incoherent, sprawl associated with the popular film traditions here.

Later, she talked a bit about bahurupia, a kind of clown, which traveled around the country, impersonating particular types, and seeing if they can fool the locals into believing that they are who they claim to be. I tried comparing it with Borat, which they felt was an interesting analogy, but they also pointed towards the Yes Men as another western counter-part to this kind of performance. This video is in Hindu, but it provides some pretty compelling images of a range of different local clowns at work.

She talked a bit about how all of these traditions had informed her own style and techniques as a documentary filmmaker: she likes to mix and match genres throughout her work, resulting in a more fragmented, nonlinear, and multivocal style of storytelling. She mixes a range of fictional and even musical segments into her documentaries, often drawing on popular culture genres to help frame things. For example, Unlimited Girls uses a fictional chatroom as a kind of greek chorus to explore a young woman’s struggles as she tries to engage with the contemporary feminist movement, but it also represents patriarchal responses to feminism through mock commercials (including one featuring a Vampire in a Superhero cape, who appears magically when teen girls start thinking about feminism to put them back into their place).

Where’s Sandra? explores a particular cultural type here – middle class, westernized, Christian, suburban girls (“Sandra from Bandra”) by combining interviews with Indian women named Sandra with clips from vintage movies where this type appears and more ironic musical numbers (including a spoof of “Look at Me – I’m Sandra Dee” from Grease).

In our correspondence, Ritesh Mehta, another of my former students from India, mentioned that he felt Persis Khambatta, an actress known to Americans for her performance in Star Trek: The Motion[less] Picture, was something close to a “Sandra” type in Indian films, despite her Parsi background. I was bemused since her introduction to America really played up her exotic, “alien” qualities rather than seeing her as someone who was highly westernized in her mother country.

Another of her films – Cosmopolis — deals with food politics in India, but is framed in terms of the mythological tradition as a battle between two Godesses – one who embodied “plenty” and food, the other “wealth” and “luxury.”

The film’s central topic concerns efforts by vegetarians to ban meat eaters from specific housing complexes or even from whole neighborhoods, much as we have child-free, pet-free, or smoke-free spaces in the United States. They argue that they hate the second hand smell of meat and that meat eaters bring their own shops into communities which are doing things the vegetarians find distasteful. She gave me DVDS of some of her longer films, including Q2P (the title took me a while to work out but when I did, it was brilliant) which deals with gender inequality in terms of access to public toilets in India.

Partners in Crime deals with copyright, piracy, and capitalism in the local film industry.

Morality TV and the Loving Jihad deals with the ways news focuses on moral rather than political issues in depicting cities and the ways street mobs end up acting out against people identified for their moral lapses.

We also spoke about her recent experience producing a nonfiction series (some would say reality series) for Indian television, Connected. Connected was inspired by an Israeli series of the same name and format. Basically, they identified a group of “average” Indian women of different generations and backgrounds and gave them a camera with which to document their lives over a year as they lived out some kind of transition – including getting jobs, moving, falling in love, getting divorced, and so forth. Then her team edited the footage to construct narratives. She described the process of watching all of these incredibly intimate videos each day and often trying to anticipate what would happen next for each of these women. She talked about the very different ways they approached the filming but also the way they became more and more saavy about what her team needed in terms of coverage in order to construct the program. This material has not been translated from Hindi yet so we could only really absorb the visual style and some moments she translated on the fly, but it seemed to be really interesting material I hope to learn more about down the line.

She is currently working on a range of projects, one exploring sex and sexuality in the lives of young women, and another dealing with “excessive” fans of older Indian film songs. As you can imagine, the fan culture theme led to some great comparisons between us, as she talked about these older fans who still perform the vintage songs for each other, collect all kinds of artifacts and older films, and are convinced that no good film numbers have been created since the 1950s. We shared some of our own experiences as being amongst the youngest people to go to Cine-Con each year and what we’ve learned about the older generation of film fans and collectors in the United States.

As the hours ticked by, we were joined for dinner by Anusha Yadav and Parmesh. Anusha has been master-minding what sounds like a great project – the Indian Memory Project – which has crowdsourced old photographs and the stories that go with them from hundreds of Indians, as a way of preserving and examining culture memory. She is also working on a project which will collect “love letters” across generations and across media – from handwritten notes to text messages.

This turned out to be a long, sprawling, evening marked by lively conversation and great food, and gave me yet another glimpse into the social life of artists and intellectuals in Mumbai.  Our session went from 4 in the afternoon until well after 11 pm, and we dropped off quickly once we got back to the room and are waking up slowly this morning.

As an added treat, and as another illustration of a camp aesthetic at work in contemporary Indian popular culture, I wanted to share this spoof of a classic Bollywood number, “Dreamum Wakeupum ” from the recent film, Aiyyaa. The clip was shared with me by the film’s director, Sachin Kundalkar, who I met at several of the Godrej India Culture Lab events. Listen carefully to the words, which are often nonsense — English phrases made to sound Hindi — as a play on the country’s language politics. As for what the dance number does to gender and sexual politics, well… In any case, this segment was too great not to pass along but I didn’t know where else to put it except at the end of this segment, given the focus on comedy and cultural politics.

Categories: Blog

Behind the Scenes at Indian Idol Junior

October 13, 2015 - 6:44am

 

I have been running a series of blog posts sharing some of the experiences I had during a five week tour of India this summer, thanks to the hospitality of Parmesh Shahani and the good folks at Godrej India Culture Lab.  Since I have much to share, I have been breaking up this travel narrative with other segments, but I wanted to pick up again today with a segment describing what we saw when we were able to attend a taping of Indian Idol Junior. The following is adopted from my travel diary.

Today’s main event was a trip to Studio City, which was nearby, for a taping of Indian Idol Junior. We drove down meandering roads through Studio City, where there are a number of smaller studios, some of whom seemed to be shooting things on their front lawns, all involved in film and television production. My favorite because of the cultural incongruity was Swastick Studios, which used the local variant on the Swastika as its brand logo. (It is a traditional good luck sign in Hindu and other local religions, which the Indians have refused to cede to its 20th century associations.)

We pass through multiple levels of security and some degree of confusion before we find our way to the studio where they are shooting Indian Idol. We are the guests of the program’s creative director, who is a family friend of the woman who runs the media program at Sophia. We are immediately ushered upon arrival onto the sound stage and given a seat of honor.

 

The studio space is surprisingly small, even compared to its American counterparts.  Cynthia and I have never gone to an American Idol taping but we have been to a Survivor finale and to a taping of So You Think You Can Dance. A key difference is that both are taped lived before a very active studio audience.

Here, they are taping two episodes back to back on a Sunday which will air across the coming week: a result show is taped in the morning and aired last night; we are there for the taping of the performance competition (the top ten) which will air the following Saturday night.  Parmesh says this is required to accommodate the judges, one of whom Sonakshi Sinha is a Bollywood glamour queen, second or third generation superstar. So, we are directly in front of the performance space and we have a good view of the area where the contestants sit when they are waiting to go on, of the judge’s table, and an area where the parents of the contestants sit. And above us, there is a small ring of enthusiastic fans who cheer wildly during each segment. We seem to be sitting in an area for friends and family of the producers.

Before the production starts, we are able to watch the contestants mill about, getting last minute advice or touch ups from their parents. One of the contestants, who we will call Red Dress, was working the crowd and we posed for a selfie with her. She’s also playing up to the judges, bringing around a local sweet from her region and passing it out to the judges and the announcers, even the production grips, on the pretext that it is her birthday. As we observe her throughout the performance, it is clear that she is the one to beat in the competition – she’s got incredible vocal skills – but she also knows it, and she’s a bit of a prima donna, who tends to boss the other children around. She’s apparently been adopted by a number of Bollywood stars who tweet out their support around each episode.

The children are dressed in a wide array of clothes, some very westernized, some traditional, all brightly colored to pop on the camera. The songs they sing are Bollywood standards, and unless I am fooled by the less familiar patterns of these songs, they are much more challenging and vocally complex than the songs typically sung on American Idol. And we are dealing with contestants who range in age between 9 and 14-15. The stress on these contestants must be intense (We saw the tail end of last night’s result show when we got back to our quarters, and the contestant voted off weeped with enormous intensity.)

The conventions of the show are universal, so even without knowing a word of Hindi, we can follow more or less what goes on. But because this is taped, not live, there’s a lot of set up and primping between numbers. It’s also got a different rhythm with much more time devoted to the male and female hosts. The male host with fluffed up hair is the Indian equivalent of a baggy pants comic who performs broadly; his female counterpart – in a lime colored pants suit and high heels – also plays broadly but is a more reactive character. They do a lot of prop humor setting up each segment.

Then, the singer’s perform, always in one take, and near the end, the cameraman do a sweeping pan around them, pushing the camera almost into their face, and then, the judges judge.

The judges are speaking Hinglish – a mix of English and Hindi. Parmesh says that these elite Indians are used to speaking in English and their Hindi is not especially strong. In between takes, the judges are always on their cell phones, texting, but they are also getting made-up by their personal staff and they are brought food. We watch one of the judges plow through a meal of chicken and salad in about two minutes between takes, as if this was the only food he was going to get. We were amused that the judges have cups displaying their sponsor, Horlicks, a hot milk-based drink, in front of them, but we saw a staffer pour Coke Zero into each cup between takes.

Then, the contestant offers their pitch to the public – which moves between Hindi and whatever local language they speak. Indian Idol taps intense regional pride and rivalries, often with massive rallies and voting drives in local areas to insure that support gets directed towards contestants who are the source of enormous pride for parts of the country that are rarely represented on television.

There’s often also a segment involving one of the parents, full of stories of sacrifice and determination. The parents mostly come from working class backgrounds, often from rural areas, and so they may speak only their local languages, but they are coached to be able to speak in Hindi or English for the national television audience.

Finally, there may be some sketch involving the contestants and the judges which are designed to further define their characters. So, one of the contestants came out in a traditional tunic-based outfit, which the announcer rips away to reveal rocker clothes underneath, for what turned out to be a show-stopping, defining performance (perhaps the best of the night coming from a young man who had been in the bottom three in last week’s results). Another young boy pulls a lizard (or what we hope was a toy lizard) out of his pocket and sticks it into the hand of the female host who shrieks on cue and drops it on the ground. There’s a dance-off between the Bollywood Glamour Queen and the Female Announcer, both in high heels. A village boy shares that he misses playing marbles with his friends, so they bring out a blanket and marvels, and the male announcers and judges play marbles with him. I am not sure what use is going to be made of this material, since everything is running so much longer than an American show would, and Indian Television is if anything heavier on commercials than American broadcast television is. Taping this episode took a full four hours.

We all have our favorites. Despite her bossiness, I can’t help but root for Red Dress, just because she really has amazing vocal chops, and for the boy who transformed into a rocker, for much the same. But there is the “Drama Mama,” the youngest contestant, who dances – not especially well, but its more movement than most of the others; there’s a boy who wears a turban and traditional clothes; and a range of others. Right now, it’s 3 boys and 7 girls, so we are betting one of the girls goes home this week. She seemed flatter than the others; looked really dejected afterwards, and while the judges were kind, they were much less effusive than they had been with the other contestants. Our sense was she knew it was her turn to go, but we will have to wait till next Sunday to see the results.

We did watch the episode when it aired the following weekend. It was fascinating to see what made it onto the air. Having gotten rid of liveness, the program also got rid of any pretense of “real time.” The footage is tightly, almost abruptly, edited, with only the highlights of the responses aired. This helps to explain why they shot so much more than was aired. In the studio, everything seemed to be much slower than on the American version. On the air, much faster. It has that feel of cutting from highlight to highlight. Aesthetically, it is a very different experience of the program.

Most of the sketches I described ended up on the cutting room floor. They did use the segment of the village boy’s marbles game – which Parmesh did not think they would use because the judges were so bad at marbles, but this becomes the focus of the editing. They did not use what we saw as a more successful segment where the boy sticks a lizard in the hand of the female announcer. I wondered if some of those segments were shot for distribution online.

The soundtrack has also been juiced up – comic noises to prop up the mugging of the announcer, audience noises to amp up the responses of the somewhat meager studio audience, and especially a better sound mix for the performances than we heard in the studio. It’s hard to tell if they worked from the raw tracks or rerecorded the songs, which, of course, has serious implications for a singing competition.

They also had altered the sequence of the performances dramatically with the boy who rips off his traditional clothes and becomes a rocker as the starting point for the program and one of the first performances we saw ending up the broadcast. We’ve always suspected that American Idol structures their live shows based on who did the best job in rehearsal, but here, the actual editing of the content reflects this assumption as well.

If you’d like to read more about Indian Idol, check out this great essay by another of my former MIT students, Aswin Punathambekar, which deals with the local campaigns to support contestants as a kind of civic activity.

Categories: Blog

Engaging with Transmedia Branding: An Interview with USC’s Burghardt Tenderich (Part Three)

October 8, 2015 - 4:35am

What do you see as some of the ethical concerns that transmedia branding practice pose for industry leaders? Are there times when transmedia’s blurring of the boundaries between fact and fiction, for example, can be misleading or may cross established policies regulating trade practices?

Like any other forms of marketing or branding, transmedia storytelling raises ethical considerations, some of which are not all that different from those that apply to any marketing discipline. Edward Bernays, considered by many to be the ‘father of public relations,’ was led the charge in applying the principles of political propaganda to marketing communications.

During the boom years following World War II, supply for many products and services suddenly exceeded demand, so Bernays and his contemporaries on Madison Avenue, on behalf of their industrial clients, built PR campaigns with the sole purpose of creating demand for things people had previously no idea they wanted. This was the birth of consumerism – based on the assumption, held by Bernays and others, that the masses are stupid and easily manipulated. I’m afraid we see a lot of this approach still today in the worlds of marketing, advertising and public relations.

More specifically to the ethics of transmedia is whether fictional storylines can be mistaken for reality in campaigns where the lines are blurred. Due to the prevalence of sarcasm, parody and humor in storytelling, the ethical standard is not as much determined by the literal truth of campaign content, but whether or not it is—or has the potential to be—deceiving. The notion of deceit is central to the discussion of transmedia branding because of one of the discipline’s key characteristics: many transmedia branding campaigns purposefully mix fiction with reality and playfully expose participants to a constant back and forth between the two.

The question is whether ethical boundaries are surpassed when brands use fictional content mixed in with actual events. For example, the campaign Art of the Heist stages a fake break-in into the Audi car dealership where actors shatter the store front window to steal an Audi A3. This is the kick-off to an online and offline transmedia campaign to solicit attention to the A3’s launch. The day after the theft, at the New York auto show, instead of seeing America’s first A3, attendees saw signs reporting the missing car. What if this campaign scared people in the real world? While we assume that most people can distinguish between fiction and reality here, some may not be able to.

Another form of ethical transgression is appealing to emotions in order to divert attention from distorted facts. This was masterfully done in Chipotle’ Scarecrow video, one of the most impressive examples of world building. The animated video shows a scarecrow who witnesses the unappetizing side of industrial food production and decides to ‘go back to the start’ by farming and selling organic vegetarian produce, including the red chili pepper from the Chipotle logo. The problem is that Chipotle’s food is not vegetarian and, at the time of the video release, mostly not organic. This triggered internet video publishers Funny or Die to extend the storyline with a brand jam: they recorded a video using the original footage and soundtrack, but imposed subtitles and changed the lyrics to expose Chipotle’s ethical transgressions.

You point to growth hacking as representing one future direction for communication strategy. How are you defining this concept and what are some examples of the ways this has worked to increase the visibility of brand messages?

Growth hacking represents principles and techniques designed for rapid adoption of a brand. Communication strategy is part of this, but growth hacking is a broader concept that includes product design and refinement as well as programming. It’s frequently used to promote web sites and consumer technologies, but its potential use is much broader. The basic idea is that a product or service is defined jointly with its intended users, mainly by soliciting feedback, analysis of user data and constant A/B testing. The communication strategies focus on spreadable or even viral components.

To illustrate, the original growth hack was Hotmail’s decision to print underneath each email the tagline “Get your free email at Hotmail.” At a time when free email accounts were unheard-of, this led to truly viral adoption of the new tool. Dropbox used a similar growth hack by setting up a member referral system for free cloud storage.

But the technical co-founders of Dropbox also demonstrated their impressive PR instincts by using communication growth hacks. For example, in order to recruit highly technical beta users, company founder Drew Houston posted a short video on Digg. The video was laced with hidden messages and jokes that only experienced software developers would understand. Called “Easter eggs” in developer lingo, these messages included references to Chocolate Rain, the movie Office Space and keys for decrypting Blu-ray disks. This nod to its technical audience helped the video rise to the top of Digg. This particular strategy – described in the Harvard Business School case on Dropbox – points to one of the key differences between mainstream PR and growth hacking: it’s about reaching the right people, not the maximum number of people.

 

Growth hacks can also be based on simple creative ideas, such as Apple’s decision to ship iPods and later iPhones with white headphones, so people in the street would know the person who just walked by wasn’t just listening to music on any mp3 player or smartphone, but indeed an Apple product. Apple also strategically featured the white headphones prominently in all its ads and commercials

And, of course, people created funny parodies, like the one below with the Spong Bob silhouette, when the iPhone 5 was launched.

Interestingly, while I was sitting at a window on the second floor of a café just outside an outdoor mall on Black Friday recently, I couldn’t help noticing that almost every other female shopper was recognizably carrying either a Lululemon or Victoria’s Secret bag. From my perspective, they were swarming constantly in every direction of the shopping area, serving the unintended function of brand ambassador.

Also, this summer we took a family trip to Berlin. The streets right around the Brandenburg Gate were packed with taxis that all prominently displayed the same ad, for Uber (!)

 

Berlin has banned Uber, which makes this form counter-cultural (commercial) activism even more noteworthy.

In summary, growth hacking comes in many flavors that pertain the central goal of creating engagement with a brand.

Burghardt Tenderich is a Professor at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in Los Angeles, CA, where he teaches and researches about strategic communication, transmedia branding, emerging media technologies and media entrepreneurship. He is the author of Transmedia Branding (2015) USC Annenberg Press, together with Jerried Williams. Burghardt is Associate Director of the Annenberg School’s Strategic Communication and Public Relations Center, and co-author of the Generally Accepted Practices for Public Relations (GAP VII).

Burghardt has over 20 extensive experience in communication and marketing in the information technology and internet industries and he holds an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Economic Geography from the University of Bonn, Germany.

 

Categories: Blog

Engaging with Transmedia Branding: An Interview with USC’s Burghardt Tenderich (Part Two)

October 6, 2015 - 4:52am

Early on, Grant McCracken used the example of Mr. Clean to illustrate what might happen as existing brand icons are given greater backstory. But, even in the entertainment industry, there’s been some debate lately about whether Hollywood is providing too much backstory now and whether backstory can bring negative consequences in terms of narrowing rather than intensifying audience engagement. What insights might you share about how much backstory might be needed to build audience interest in a brand narrative and when the backstory is doing damage to the core goal of the advertisement, which is to sell product?

I’m all for open-ended stories and for improvisation. In fact, two of the aforementioned campaigns, Old Spice Guy and the Most Interesting Man in the World, started off as a video and an advertising campaign, respectively, and over time, due to audience engagement, carried on and eventually morphed into transmedia campaigns. In a way, the less scripted and the less background provided, the more opportunity there is to take a campaign into previously unimagined territory.

There’s been much debate about the nature and value of brand communities. Does every brand need a community of brand advocates? Are some brands more likely to generate such communities than others?

In an ideal world, every brand would have its devoted brand communities — iconic groups like those who followed Harley Davidson or Apple in the 1990s, when the latter was an underdog seemingly losing to Microsoft. In reality, this is not possible, simply because many products or services don’t lend themselves to strong brand communities. Think for example about personal hygiene or cleaning products: who wants to strongly identify with a panty liner or a spray disinfectant? Hence, these brands are best served by what I call ad-hoc communities that rally around a specific campaign, either because of its relevance or entertainment value.

One example of that in the personal hygiene space is the iconic campaign – not product – around Unilever’s True Beauty for the Dove brand of soaps.

The campaign showed regular women – as opposed to models – posing in underwear. This was almost cause-driven, empowering women to celebrate the reality of the female body over Madison Avenue’s stylized ideal. The campaign was widely discussed offline and online and rallied people to consider real-life beauty, and accept the reality of our bodies with a sense of confidence rather than anxiety. The ad-hoc communities emerging from this discussion are not likely to have any staying power once the campaign is no longer on people’s minds, but they’ve served a powerful commercial purpose while they were in existence.

True brand communities, one could argue, germinate organically as people become fans of a product, service or cause, and proactively seek out peers and information related to the brand. Ad-hoc communities, in contrast, seem to be primarily facilitated if not created by strategic communicators. This requires the ability to read and understand the culture of the people engaging in ad-hoc brand communities.

Your book notes several points where major brand campaigns have been targeted for parody or culture jamming tactics. What advice would you give to a brand manager if they were confronted by grassroots appropriation and remixing of their content? Are there examples where brands have responded well and turned these threats around?

Now that people have the ability to talk back so easily and effectively, marketers are beginning to realize that they’ve completely lost control over key elements of their brand. People may choose to make fun of brand messages, images, logos or other elements, and may even choose to defame them. This makes traditional brand managers and advertisers very nervous and frustrated, but it’s actually easier for their public relations counterparts to deal with. PR has always been about negotiating relationships and optimizing activities to achieve intended outcomes, with full knowledge that they had little control over what journalists would actually write, or which customers, partners, competitors they might cite.

So control is gone. Forever. Brand communicators are forced to adapt to the new environment. For many, the default reaction to unwanted brand engagement has been calling the attorneys, who would issue a cease-and-desist letter. This raises a practical question: in a somewhat anonymous internet landscape, to whom do you send the letter? What if hundreds of people have participated in a brand jam – do they all get a letter? And the bigger issue is: what if legal actions backfire by creating a prolonged negative news cycle in the media and on the social web?

If brands become the target of a culture jam, as when Greenpeace attacked BP with a competition to redesign the BP logo in 2010, they need to first ask the question: can the attack on your brand be ignored, as the issue may simply fade away in a short period of time? This would be the easiest solution, but raises the second question: even if you can afford to ignore the attack, is it ethical to do so, or do you have a moral obligation to fix the underlying issues? This, of course, requires brands to identify the core of the problem. And once the core problem has been defined, can it be remedied? To stay with the BP example, if a brand was instrumental in creating a massive and prolonged oil spill, the underlying issue obviously can’t easily be remedied, and the brand has to deal the consequences.

On the other hand, a great example of a company that turned a brand jam into an opportunity was Domino’s Pizza. A few years back, videos appeared on the social web showing company employees purposely contaminating ingredients that they were placing in the pizzas. The spread of these videos led to an onslaught of negative comments about not only this particular disgusting incident, but the quality of Domino’s pizza overall.

Domino’s “The Pizza Turnaround” Documentary from Andrew Lincoln on Vimeo.

In a case like this, most brands would have responded defensively or would have tried to divert the public’s attention. Domino’s actually did the exact opposite: they launched and chronicled an investigation into the perceived quality of their food, and the results were shocking. Many people apparently strongly disliked their pizza and even referred to the crust as tasting like cardboard. Remarkably, Domino’s embraced this feedback, reinvented their pizza for improved quality and taste, and then told the story of the entire journey across a variety of media channels, including TV advertising and social platforms. They launched the website Pizzaturnaround.com where they posted the “Pizza Turnaround” documentary.

Burghardt Tenderich is a Professor at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in Los Angeles, CA, where he teaches and researches about strategic communication, transmedia branding, emerging media technologies and media entrepreneurship. He is the author of Transmedia Branding (2015) USC Annenberg Press, together with Jerried Williams. Burghardt is Associate Director of the Annenberg School’s Strategic Communication and Public Relations Center, and co-author of the Generally Accepted Practices for Public Relations (GAP VII).

Burghardt has over 20 extensive experience in communication and marketing in the information technology and internet industries and he holds an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Economic Geography from the University of Bonn, Germany.

Categories: Blog

Engaging with Transmedia Branding: An Interview with USC’s Burghardt Tenderich (Part One)

October 1, 2015 - 6:59am

Over the past few years, I’ve been helping to develop an innovative course for the Strategic Communication Program in Annenberg dealing with contemporary trends in branding culture, with a strong emphasis on transmedia, spreadable media, and crowdsourcing. I’ve now taught this class twice with Burghardt Tenderich and he has in turn co-taught the class with Darren Brabham. Each time, we’ve brought in some of the top “thought leaders” in advertising and public relations to share their perspectives on the changing media landscape.

Tenderich, “B.T.,” as we call him, is an industry veteran who brings enormous insight into the teaching of the class, and he has also really dug deep into what it might mean to apply the insights from transmedia entertainment to think about how contemporary brand strategies seek to foster engagement with consumers across media platforms. B.T. recently wrote and published a new book, Transmedia Branding: Engage Your Audience, with Jerried Williams, who was one of the star students in the class the first time we taught it. This book, released in digital format from the Annenberg Press, offers a great option for those of you who teach strategic communications and an essential read for anyone who wants to understand contemporary branding practice. It’s chock-a-block with great examples of recent campaigns which adopted new approaches to reaching consumers, grabbing their interest, and building their loyalty. It is theoretically sophisticated, but also concrete, and applied, a rare combination of virtues.

In this three part interview, B.T. reflects about the changing nature of strategic communications, the value of transmedia branding, and the ethics of blurring between fiction and reality while making claims about real world products and services. Enjoy.

 

The term “transmedia” has been applied for most of its history to storytelling and entertainment media. What changes when we apply the term to talking about advertising?

If used in an advertising or public relations context, the term transmedia takes on a commercial meaning. The story is no longer at the center, but rather becomes more of a means to an end, where the end is – in most cases – primarily of commercial nature: to sell more of whatever you’re marketing.

But I don’t think that presents a problem as long as the brand storytelling is done authentically and the commercial nature is not disguised. This also doesn’t make the story any less important. For any campaign to catch on and be effective, the story needs to be relevant and well-told.

What are some of the factors that you see disrupting the field of strategic communications right now? In what ways are branding and public relations, for example, increasingly intertwined? What factors are reshaping how consumers relate to brands? And how are these changes, collectively, resulting in a new understanding of the communication environment? In short, if transmedia is the answer, what is the question?

The question is: how can you reach and engage with audiences in a communication environment that is saturated with media of all thinkable forms, and where people have the easy option to tune out of commercial messages? This is directly related to the two-pronged paradigm shift that journalism, advertising and strategic communication have been experiencing in the recent years: the rise of social media combined with the proliferation of cheap and easy-to-use multimedia production tools on the one hand, and the decline of mainstream editorial media on the other.

To start with the latter, while there has never been more editorial media in the history of journalism than we have now, collectively editorial media have lost influence, and they have yet to determine a new revenue model that will enable them to stay in business in the long run. Until recently, the barriers of entry were extremely high, as companies had to invest in expensive broadcast equipment or printing presses, distribution and personnel costs. In the past, due to these high barriers to market entry, once you were established, you had very little competition to face and were able to pretty much dictate pricing for advertising. And because people had so little choice for media consumption, your editorial content would certainly reach vast audiences.

Then came Google, Craigslist, Twitter and Facebook. Due to their superior online advertising model, they took away massive advertising revenue from mainstream media. At the same time, blogs and emerging news sites created a so-called long-tail of various niche media, giving people unlimited options for consuming and sharing content. These two trends together have disrupted the 20th Century business model for journalism, and with it the 20th Century approach to advertising and public relations.

Risen from theses ashes is what many now call the PESO model for PR, marketing and branding, which is based on the assumption of strategic equivalency between Paid, Earned, Shared and Owned media. ‘Paid’ is the new term for advertising, product placement, sponsoring, etc., while ‘Earned’ refers to a new and expanded notion of media relations, the traditional stronghold of public relations. But ‘Earned’ is not limited to pitching the New York Times or the Huffington Post. It includes being interviewed on Henry Jenkins’ blog (thank you for that!) or being mentioned in a post by any member of the LinkedIn community. So ‘Earned’ media itself has become much more granular and requires a better understanding of authors and audiences, and therefore requires more research than reading up on 10 established beat reporters, like back in the day.

‘Owned’ media refers to channels where the brand has editorial control. This includes news releases, corporate blogs and web sites, but also the emerging practice of brand journalism where corporations themselves produce journalistic content to reach audiences. ‘Shared’ describes media that can be paid, earned or owned, and practically speaking refers mainly to social media. For example, on networks like YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, you can run ads or sponsored content (Paid), pitch media producers to be included in their stories (Earned), and publish your own content (Owned).

So, we’re operating in a completely changed media ecosystem, and it is noteworthy how many strategic communicators and advertisers have not yet evolved and still conduct their work in a 20th Century media framework; they still bombard people with mostly unwanted ‘messages’ across all channels in integrated marketing campaigns that become increasingly less effective. This is where new approaches, such as Transmedia Branding, come in.

What lessons has the advertising industry taken from the entertainment industry in terms of the ways brands might foster greater engagement with their audiences?

It’s all about storytelling. Just a few short years ago, strategic communication was all about ‘the message.’ How do I make people remember ‘the message’? How do I make the media repeat ‘the message’? But as the visionary book Cluetrain Manifesto told us even a few years before the rise of social media, “there is no market for your message,” and instead “markets are conversations.” The human brain is wired to retain information better if it’s packaged as a story, rather than a peremptory ‘message.’

This is intuitive when we think about how humans evolved culturally. We’ve created and shared stories for as long as we’ve been communicating with each other as human beings; storytelling is central to the human race. And if done well, and/or with emotional appeal, this leads to conversations as people share stories, and frequently change or add to them. This is where engagement begins.

The other lesson marketers have learned from entertainment is that compelling stories are more likely to foster intense and enduring engagement. That’s why in transmedia storytelling we see so many cases of entertaining and humorous storytelling. For example, if you think about Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man in the World campaign, it’s a highly amusing storyline that draws people in by encouraging them to participate interactive games and bounty hunts, and many become motivated to create related parodies or memes.

 

You draw a potentially generative distinction in the book between brands connecting themselves to existing stories and storyworlds and brands constructing stories and worlds to serve their own particular needs. Can you discuss a few examples of what these two strategies mean in practice?

 

In the context of transmedia branding, some marketers choose to develop their brand’s own story elements, while others decide to join existing narratives.

In terms of the first option, every brand has a story, even if a marketing team has never thought about it. A good example of a brand with a rich story is Levi Strauss. The company’s co-founders were Jewish immigrants from Germany who arrived in San Francisco just in time for the Gold Rush. Unlike most people, Levi and Strauss made a fortune not by digging for gold, but by selling work trousers, denim Jeans, to the onslaught of prospectors.

Incidentally, both of what we think of as very American words – denim jeans – are actually derived from French words: the misspelling of ‘de Nimes’ as in ‘from the city of Nimes’ and ‘Gênes’, the French spelling of the Italian city of Genoa. The background is that Southern French cowboys of Carmargue, a region close to the cities of Nimes, wore work pants that were precursors to what we now know as denim jeans, which were shipped to the United States from the port of Genoa. So, the emerging storyline is that of European immigrants bringing trousers worn by French cowboys to the United States and selling them to the pioneers of the West.

 

The company Levi Strauss never actually packaged this backstory in succinct ads, but did allude to this history in a campaign several years ago, which included one spot featuring an image of a little girl running around outside in jeans with the caption, ‘This country wasn’t built by men in suits.’ This ad captures the core concepts of the American experience, such as freedom, opportunity and wide-open land.

Another example of a company building out its own storyline is the iconic ‘The Man Your Man Could Smell Like’ by Old Spice. The brand team realized and owned up to the fact that the Old Spice brand had become dated and stodgy. What’s so remarkable about this example is that they chose to tackle the stodgy image head-on, with taglines such as ‘If your grandfather hadn’t worn Old Spice, you wouldn’t be here,’ and by incorporating the original imagery—the old-fashioned nautical theme—into their transmedia campaign. This created the basis for the tongue-in-cheek persona of the ‘Old Spice Guy.’

What’s interesting is that you don’t need to be a billion-dollar brand to build a story that people will care about. One of my favorite recent examples is MegaBots, a tiny pre-funding start-up in the San Francisco Bay Area which, as of this writing, is working on its first round investment, a $750,000 Kickstarter campaign.

For a total budget of $175 plus a friend with a camera, they created a story that has been viewed on YouTube over five million times, and picked up extensively on both social media and mainstream media. Here’s why: their story is super cool! Basically, three twenty-something robot enthusiasts got together and built a 15-foot, 6-ton giant robot equipped with paint guns, as a prototype for their ultimate vision: to create an international professional sports league for gigantic fighting robots.

 

As it happens, there’s only one other mega robot currently on this planet, Kuratas, built by the young Japanese robotics company Suidobashi Heavy Industry. The MegaBots guys reached out to their counterparts with an opportunity too good to resist: they would create a video challenge that would stir up interest on a global scale.

So with some pre-warning, MegaBots shot a video of two of its three co-founders wrapped in American flags, using patriotic language, music and imagery, to challenge Kuratas to the ultimate win-or-die robot fight. A few days later Suidobashi posted its video response, in Japanese with American subtitles, flashing Japanese patriotic images and showing CEO Kogoro Kurata dissing MegaBots for the ‘ugly’ design of its robot, and then accepting the challenge.

A few weeks ago MegaBots followed up with another patriotic video to launch their Kickstarter campaign. This is the gambit to a great transmedia campaign ready to unfold.

For an example of a brand joining an existing story, we can look to New Zealand Air and their production an the air safety announcement video titled“An Unexpected Briefing,” all done in the style of the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies.

The crew and passengers all appear dressed in-character of the film creatures. The video was posted to coincide with the premier of The Hobbit I, and at the same time, Air New Zealand painted all its planes in major airports with imagery form the Lord of the Rings franchise.

Note the trade-off between these two strategies: building a campaign with your own story is generally less expensive, but you don’t benefit from the exposure of an existing franchise. If a brand joins a big story, the investment is much greater, but visibility is almost guaranteed.

Burghardt Tenderich is a Professor at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in Los Angeles, CA, where he teaches and researches about strategic communication, transmedia branding, emerging media technologies and media entrepreneurship. He is the author of Transmedia Branding (2015) USC Annenberg Press, together with Jerried Williams.
Burghardt is Associate Director of the Annenberg School’s Strategic Communication and Public Relations Center, and co-author of the Generally Accepted Practices for Public Relations (GAP VII).

Burghardt has over 20 extensive experience in communication and marketing in the information technology and internet industries and he holds an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Economic Geography from the University of Bonn, Germany.

 

Categories: Blog

Geeking Out About the Comics Medium with Unflattening’s Nick Sousanis (Part Three)

September 25, 2015 - 4:30am

People who do not read comics with any frequency ask me for advice on the best way to read them. My usual advice is left to right, top to bottom. But in your case, you have consciously set out to design at least some pages which can be read in multiple directions at once. I take it this has to do with your argument that text and images capture (encourage?) different modes of thought. So what advice do you give readers about the choices they make in how to read those images?

As we think about how the reader moves through the page, there is the typical pattern, left-right, row by row from top to bottom not unlike how text unfolds. Because the ideas didn’t necessarily move like that, I wanted to move the reading in a multitude of directions: at times sliding backwards, occasionally upwards (very difficult), sometimes snaking, hopscotching about, and in a few cases, where I wanted it not to matter which way you read – and that mirrored the idea at hand.

 

The organization of the text elements was as crucial a decision as the layout of the images. If the reading was intended to be different from the expected, I had to be very precise about each element to ensure the reader went in the way I wanted and didn’t get confused. I used the text boxes a bit like pinball bumpers to carom the reader in the right direction. As for the instances where there wasn’t a single right direction – I feel this in some sense destabilizes predictability in the same that changing drawing styles and radically different compositions does. But I think our thoughts do this, and I think our creative process works in this way and can be cultivated by trying to similarly break form.

You write, “Perhaps, in comics, this amphibious language of juxtapositions and fragments — we have such a form. A means to capture and convey our thoughts, in all their tangled complexity.” Janet Murray has made a similar argument (in Hamlet on the Holodeck) about the potentials of interactive and nonlinear digital media. She is often asked what are the new ideas we need to express which do not fit within the limits of traditional text. How do you answer that question?

I think it’s hard to say what new ideas can be expressed until we start doing it. New tools to organize our thinking seems to me not only to be a new vehicle to communicate them but a way to better understand ourselves. I’m certainly biased toward the form, but I find that organizing ideas in comics continually facilitates new connections – it’s made me think in new ways and go in directions (with the research) I wouldn’t have otherwise. And that’s powerful. Comics may appear static and flat, but I think that conceals just how much can be going on within a single page – a way to contain that ‘tangled complexity’ – that I think we are still only beginning to explore.

I am intrigued by your metaphor of comics as an “amphibious” medium — “text immersed in image, pictures anchored by words.” Barthes and others have written a lot about how text, especially captions, can anchor the meaning of images, but I’d love to hear you say more about what happens when text gets “immersed in image.”

That “anchoring” is a direct reference to Barthes, and (in the way I was describing above) “immersed” came about by responding to the image itself. It’s not a one-directional relationship in comics – words and images affect each other, for the reader and the maker. Here, I’m keeping the reader adrift through the image by the placement of the words – they’ve become an essential visual element, which is quite unlike magazines and art museum labels, where words and pictures are kept quite separate. We have leave one domain to go to the other. While I do a lot with the placement of text to orchestrate specific reading flow, I had also wanted to do more with letterforms and the expressive nature of fonts themselves – and how drawing words brings a whole other dimension to the means for expression.

Let’s discuss some of the repeated visual motifs — shoes and feet, spirals and circles, the cat’s cradle, etc. — which occur many times across the book. To what degree are you using these repeated patterns to create links between ideas that operate primarily if not entirely on the visual level?

I’ve heard comics scholar Kent Worcester describe print comics as having “flippability” – that is we can flip back and forth across the book and quickly find passages because images stay with us so strongly. David Mazzucchelli uses this to great effect in Asterios Polyp, where scattered throughout the book he depicts the main character’s living room five different times. Same room, same angle, same panel size – only the contents in the room have changed in the periods of the character’s life portrayed.

 

 

I think even if we might not consciously recognize that it’s happening, we still feel it – and as we become more aware of it, his decision to do this prompts the reader to flip back and forth – and likely notice similar instances (like his inclusion of a tiny image of an airplane in the background of all the dream sequences…). Comics let us play with that visual recall without ever having to explicitly announce it.

In the case of the feet, I knew I was going to something about my shoe problem from the very start of the project (though not the larger crowdsourcing project I ended up doing), so it was important to seed the idea at the outset. There’s a pun with the word “tracks” in the first chapter with a baby up on its feet for a first time. Perseus’s winged sandals show up in the interlude following, and more instances spring up from there, so by the time it’s front and center, the significance of feet/shoes should be, umm, kicking around in reader’s heads by then.

Much like learning a new word and then hearing it three times the next day, I’ve found something strange happens when I have in mind some thematic symbol to incorporate throughout – it starts to proliferate and rear its head in places I didn’t expect. In an earlier work, I made a page that uses rabbits as the theme for each panel. Prompted by seeing a t-shirt with the Trix rabbit, led me to the White Rabbit, and all of a sudden I started seeing rabbits everywhere.

So in some sense, I feel like these motifs take on a bit of a life of their own. In the case of the unflattening symbol – the stylized side-view of an open eye – it’s hinted at in my very first sketch for the project (reproduced in the back of the book), where I paralleled the opening of a door with the opening of the eye – this doorway to the world. It first shows up in the book as I diagrammed Eratosthenes’s measurement of the earth – and that ended up being the place where I defined “unflattening,” in words at least, and so it made sense for it to reappear at other points where I was more directly addressing the concept.

I started noticing other drawings I made that could be transformed into this ‘eye’: the profile view of me drawing at my desk in the fourth chapter, the open door in the fifth, Artemis and her bow, even the side view of a person looking at their own reflection. I feel like each instance of this visual can’t help but draw you back to the others – consciously or not, and that starts to ravel the whole work together – linking it all in rhizomatic fashion.

So now not only are images affecting other images upon any single page, they are starting to speak to one another across the entire book! We take in so much about our world visually that we’re not even aware of, and we can employ this in comics to compound meaning. It’s possible some of this never gets caught by a reader, and that’s okay. But maybe on a second pass it does – and then they’re reading it with different eyes, encountering it from a changed perspective – which is the point.

Nick Sousanis received his doctorate at Columbia University, where he wrote and drew his dissertation entirely in comics form. Titled Unflattening, it is now a book from Harvard University Press. He’s presented on his work and the importance of visual thinking in education at such institutions as Stanford, Princeton, UCLA, and Microsoft Research, along with keynote addresses for the Visitors Studies Association’s and the International Visual Literacy Association. He has taught courses on comics as powerful communication tools at Columbia, Parsons, and now at the University of Calgary, where he is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow in Comics Studies.

Nick’s website: www.spinweaveandcut.com

 

Categories: Blog

Geeking Out About the Comics Medium with Unflattening’s Nick Sousanis (Part Two)

September 23, 2015 - 4:38am

Given the book’s emphasis on getting us to reflect on seeing (and other sensory perceptions) as part of the thinking process, I wondered about your choice to publish the book in black and white rather than in color. Does restricting the color palette force us to more actively work to fill in the blanks? Or would color have added another whole dimension to your argument?

Hmmm… My choice was primarily based on economics. Since I print and give away copies of my work all the time, color printing would break me! Also, I think I’m more comfortable working in black and white. It is possible that working in black and white makes it seem more dignified – frequently the pages feel like woodcuts or etchings, and that may align it more with artistic traditions and proto-comics like Frans Masereel or Lynd Ward than the four-colored newsprint Ben-Day dots so negatively associated with comics. Though none of that was my intent.

That said – there were places I really wanted color and it would have helped me! Simple things like the two page sequence (p. 36-7) where I show the green glasses given to Dorothy and co. when they enter the Emerald City (in the book version).


 

That sequence continues as white light is split by a prism into the spectrum and spot color for it all would’ve been great. My page discussing multimodality (p. 65) would’ve been an entirely different concept had I been working in color.

 

 

Not having color forced me to invent more complicated analogies. I juxtaposed typewriter keys with an orchestra pit and all the different sounds that can emanate from it – all mapped to expressive fonts and symbols (emanata) we might use in comics.

When I give talks on comics and discuss their multimodal strengths, I always share a page from David Mazzucchelli’s beautiful Asterios Polyp. There he plays with color, artistic style, fonts, and balloon style to great effect. So I can imagine color both enhancing existing pages I did and then radically changing pages based on having a different means of working available to me from the ground up. And certainly given the Oz allusions, it might’ve been fun, if somewhat predictable, to go from the grey opening chapter to increasingly Technicolor pages moving forward.

Sergei Eisenstein once boasted that he could present the arguments of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital via a silent, montage film (but he never actually did so). This claim came to mind for me on several levels as I worked through your book: first, it reminded me that most comic books for instructive purposes focus on concrete elements which can be depicted easily, where-as you have sought ways here to communicate a much more abstract argument (much more like Das Kapital than like the themes that Eisenstein actually did depict through his work.

Second, you do not seek to communicate these ideas through images alone; rather, the work depends on the complex interweaving of words and images (a point you raise many times).

And third, many people have argued that while in a broad sense any idea can be communicated through any medium, there are some constraints and affordances which make some ideas easier to express than others. There are places here where it seems you purposefully set out to do nonfiction comics the hard way, pushing against what the medium did easily, to see where the affordances might break down. Responses?

On the list of things I wish I’d tried/had space/time for – an entirely wordless chapter is near the top, and it is something I intend to do in a forthcoming project. But as far as doing things the hard way – ha! – yeah, I suppose that’s true.

Long before I’d come to the doctoral program, I’d abandoned having a visible narrator to carry my discussion. Using one comes with certain advantages – you always have something to draw! But I felt there was much more to be explored with comics – and making use of the range the medium offers. I think that a visible narrator can often serve as a simple placeholder for the text – and so it becomes a way of making words more easily digestible, more approachable – all of which are certainly good things – but it doesn’t necessarily add something to the words.

I wanted to make comics that present ideas as complex as we form them within our bodies – with all the layers, the uncertainty, etc. I never start with text or a script and then come up with pictures for it. I begin with an idea I want to convey, a question I have, and then try images and text that help me get at it.

The hardest thing here is I never know what I’m going to draw – there is nothing to fall back on. Some ideas suggest images right away and some go through many, many iterations before I arrive at a suitable arrangement of visuals (the initial concept for that aforementioned page on multimodality was of an omelet and all the ingredients mixed into it! I think it would have been productive, but it kept not working for various reasons).

 

And what’s also key here is that I don’t know what I’m going to say until the whole comes together. For instance, on the page with the tightrope walker/cats cradle (p. 91) – I ended up calling imagination “both binding agent and action” spanning “gaps in perception” – and that was because the visuals suggested that text (a cats cradle binds even as it serves as an active bridge between moments), which ended up being just the right way to talk about what I was doing around imagination.

It is hard, this not knowing what you’re going to do, but it’s exciting. It’s generative. The pages that finally emerge out of the sketching/thinking process so often come as a surprise to me – I really relish that!

Throughout Unflattening, there were the shifts in representational style throughout and often on the same page — between naturalistic and iconic/stylized images, between concrete and abstract images, between representational and diagrams and maps, between idiosyncratic and shared cultural symbols, and in some cases, between a full page of text and pages much more centered on images. To what degree are these shifts part of your strategy for getting people to think about how and what they are seeing?

Yes, the shifts are entirely intended to do just that! As the central core of this book is seeing from multiple perspectives – literally drawing from multiple perspectives was key throughout. The extreme cases of this were when I altered drawing styles entirely from panel to panel on the faucet and rose pages. What does that mean for me as the maker to draw differently? And how does that affect the reader?

The page of all text is meant to come across as jarring, and reinforce my point. The first chapter is the most consistent in style – dense, almost etched-linework, clearly laborious and involved drawing. I wanted to ensure a possibly skeptical academic audience that I could indeed draw and it’s further designed to be pretty straightforward compositionally for someone with even the most limited experience reading comics.

From there I could, as with the concept itself, start to open things up, and play with more conceptual approaches. Early on, as word of my work was getting out, there was some understandable misconception that it was entirely on comics. It is very much an argument for its own existence and for that of things like it, but only a small part of it is explicitly about comics. However, the whole thing is intended to be a demonstration about what comics can do – so I was very conscious of wanting to highlight the diversity of ways comics can organize and present ideas – in style and composition.

As I said above, the creation of each page begins with an idea, guided by this question – what does the idea feel like? Perhaps even more so than the style of drawing, I want the composition, the reader’s movement to be part of the meaning, and I think in that regard I’m thinking about the connection between comics and architecture, and maybe even comics and dance – how do you move through it, how does it move you?

So each page has an aesthetic style (or range) and a particular flow that feels appropriate to convey the idea. My thoughts to greatly vary my compositions were reinforced early on by a comment from my wife, where she kept looking at pages over my shoulder and saying ‘I’ve never seen a page like that before.’ And so I made a point of not having any compositions repeat in the book!

It’s important to me that comics aren’t simply what we put in the panels (which is why “guided view” comics apps don’t make a lot of sense to me in terms of how I work), but the assembled whole of visual elements. So sometimes I do lean more towards information design because that’s how the idea takes shape. I’m quite interested to study more of information visualization, and see how I can bring that back to comics (in my current course, I have several information visualization students, and I’m excited to learn from them). I think there is much to be gained for comics artists to see what’s going on in these related forms as a way of expanding what comics can be. Why not use every tool at our disposal? And why not make scholarship that is beautiful?

Nick Sousanis received his doctorate at Columbia University, where he wrote and drew his dissertation entirely in comics form. Titled Unflattening, it is now a book from Harvard University Press. He’s presented on his work and the importance of visual thinking in education at such institutions as Stanford, Princeton, UCLA, and Microsoft Research, along with keynote addresses for the Visitors Studies Association’s and the International Visual Literacy Association. He has taught courses on comics as powerful communication tools at Columbia, Parsons, and now at the University of Calgary, where he is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow in Comics Studies.

Nick’s website: www.spinweaveandcut.com

Categories: Blog

Geeking Out About The Comics Medium with Unflattening’s Nick Sousanis (Part One)

September 21, 2015 - 4:13am

 

About a year ago, I was asked by the Harvard University Press to be a peer-reviewer for a remarkable book — Nick Sousanis’s Unflattening. I had heard rumors that a PhD candidate had written his dissertation entirely in the comics form and I was intrigued to see what the finished product looked like, perhaps skeptical that it could be good on both levels — good scholarship and more importantly, good comics. So, I was unprepared by what I was sent — this was not simply good comics, whatever that might mean, but transformative comics, comics that stretched the medium in all different directions, comics which made us think about comics were in new ways. On one level, it reminded me of my experience first reading Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, but it also got me thinking about those comics artists whose expressive use of the medium taught us to rethink what comics are implicitly if not explicitly — Chris Ware, Will Eisner, David Mazzuchelli, David Mack, Richard McGuire, Art Spigelman, etc.

So this is what I ended up writing (and after several more reads, I stand by it):

“An important book, Unflattening is consistently innovative, using abstraction alongside realism, using framing and the (dis)organization of the page to represent different modes of thought. The words and images speak for themselves and succeed on their own terms. I couldn’t stop reading it.”

So, when the book appeared, I reached out to its author and asked Sousanis if he would subject himself to an interview. Again, he has surpassed my expectations. What follows is a four part interview where the two of us really geek out about comics as a medium and about its unfulfilled potentials. He has interesting things to say about specific pages in Unflattening, but beyond that, we take up what comics may do to expand human perceptions and thoughts (yeah, heady, thinky stuff!) and beyond that, about the potentials and limits of multi sensory expression. Fastening your seat belts, dear reader, for a bumpy ride. And as Nick noted, he ended up putting almost as many words on the page here as appears in the book itself. What follows is not just for comics fans, though, but for anyone who is interesting in exploring how media work.

You write, “a changed approach is precisely the goal for the journey ahead: to discover new ways of seeing, to open spaces for possibilities, and to find ‘fresh methods’ for animating and awakening.” To what degree are these goals you are setting for comics as a medium? To what degree are these goals you are setting for academic writing more generally?

As with most things in the book, my intention was two- or more-fold. The choice to work with metaphorical language and imagery let me address something at once specific but leave it open to other interpretations. Here, I definitely wanted to make the claim that changed approaches for academic work and institutional approaches to learning were possible and necessary. That the visual, among other things, had a place in being a part of what thinking looks like and that by embracing such methods, we might arrive at a changed place in how we do our thinking. I do, of course, taking up comics specifically at some point. And so, I think in this way, the work itself is very much setting out to reframe the perception of comics. Even if we had known comics can handle serious stories for a long time now, I wanted to say with this work – comics can handle anything in any domain.

Your opening critique of life lived within confined and preset grids can be as much a critique of many contemporary comics as it is an analogy for the limits of human expression and experience more generally. Clearly, your work has been inspired by Scott McCloud’s call for us to think of comics as a more generalized mode of expression which can convey a variety of ideas and concepts, not simply a limit number of genres and formats. So, in what ways did McCloud’s Understanding Comics pave the way for a project like this one?

While I hadn’t intended for that talk of boxes to directly reference comics, I appreciate the irony of discussing moving outside of boxes even as I work in a form that tends to be defined by organizing within boxes! J (Though I have in the past made comics that played with the concept of boxes using the literal nature of comics panels to make that point.)

 

Understanding Comics certainly had and continues to have a significant impact on me, as has McCloud’s inspiration as a champion of the form more generally. I think you’re exactly right, it pointed out that comics could tackle all kinds of subjects and not be limited to narrative genres, and really it showed both how much thought went into making comics and how much thinking could be conveyed through them. That inspired me, and certainly emboldened my own explorations. And Understanding Comics is an obvious thing to point to as precedent when making the argument for my own work – as I hope Unflattening might be for scholar-artists to come.

You’ve said in a number of interviews that you wanted to use Unflattening to help broaden the circuits through which academic ideas travel, so that these conversations were able to reach people who would not otherwise encounter scholarly or philosophical works. What is it about comics which seems to open up those possibilities and based on what you’ve observed so far about your book’s reception, have you found a general reading public ready to think of these levels? Does this link your book to other contemporary projects, such as work to convert ideas about film analysis into videos that circulate on YouTube?

Certainly comics offer the appearance of approachability. Pictures are inviting and the prevailing attitude around comics are that they’re easy. I see this as a means to subvert expectations – you pick up one of my comics assuming it will be simple and light, and yet because of how much information can be conveyed through images, through page composition, and through the interaction between image and text, they can be deceptively complex. While the title “Unflattening” must seem like it came about as a reference to Flatland or Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, works I do draw on heavily, it actually came to me as a way to describe what comics could do, and how they could fit more density of information than seems possible in a small space and offer an expansive dimension for communicating ideas. It was only as I got deeper into my work that the notion of unflattening merged with the broader philosophical concerns I was after. The inclusion of Flatland at all was almost an afterthought, because I figured given the title I should do something with it, and then it ended up becoming a central metaphor!

In addition to blogging my work as I went, all through my doctoral program, I printed up and gave away excerpts of it to anyone I encountered long enough to have a conversation about what I do. People read it. And they got it. And that has continued. I’m thinking I couldn’t have done the same thing with a more traditionally formatted scholarly article! (The looks I would’ve gotten handing out a typed paper with APA formatting on it…)

But again, that doesn’t mean any of this was simplified. I made a conscious choice early on to not use domain specific terms or what felt like loaded language, and keep the work deeply in the realm of metaphor. This to me was a way to make it more accessible while maintaining depth of content. It was not about dumbing down but providing a means for readers to come up and find their own way into the work. And again, I’ve seen that happen.

And now that the book is out, I’ve had the curious experience of having people tweet me pictures of their children – one as young as six – reading it! That caught me by surprise. I expected it to be read by advanced high school readers and upward (and along with college and graduate courses, it is already being used in high school situations). But I think this speaks to the ways that we can read images – even when the words aren’t yet in our vocabulary.

I have seen my work listed alongside the “dance your dissertation” and other such phenomenon of academia made fun or easy. I like these – anything that communicates the ideas to broader audiences seems positive to me. But it was central to me that the work be the work – not some watered down version of the real thing. If the means of communication are truly up to the task – as I was certain that comics were – then it’s essential to let them stand on their own.

Nick Sousanis received his doctorate at Columbia University, where he wrote and drew his dissertation entirely in comics form. Titled Unflattening, it is now a book from Harvard University Press. He’s presented on his work and the importance of visual thinking in education at such institutions as Stanford, Princeton, UCLA, and Microsoft Research, along with keynote addresses for the Visitors Studies Association’s and the International Visual Literacy Association. He has taught courses on comics as powerful communication tools at Columbia, Parsons, and now at the University of Calgary, where he is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow in Comics Studies.

Nick’s website: www.spinweaveandcut.com

Categories: Blog

My Talk at the Godrej India Culture Lab

September 18, 2015 - 5:42am

 

What follows are some selections from my travel diary describing the major talk I gave at the Godrej India Culture Lab, the most significant address I gave during my time in India. This was a total head rush experience, as is reflected by the somewhat giddy and a bit braggy tone of this narrative.

Parmesh is working up the crowd, personally welcoming everyone who arrives. The 250 seat auditorium is starting to overflow the seats. People are sitting on the stairs, standing in back, even sitting on the floor directly in front of the stage. U.S. fire marshals would have shut much of this down, but in the end, I am told that some 400 people turned up for the talk.

 

Parmesh has been pumping it everywhere we’ve been; it’s gotten a significant amount of media coverage, and the people turned out. There’s a whole group of students from Sophia who were the ones I went rice planting with. There are a number of individuals who have hosted us at various stops along the way. There’s a former MIT student who came down to tell me how The Film Experience had changed her life. There are some nervous fan girls who are afraid to ask me to autograph battered copies of Textual Poachers. A number of people have shown up wearing superhero-themed clothes: everything from Batgirl themed T-shirts to plush minions dangling from their purses.

 

Parmesh is wearing hand crafted leather Bat-ears; several women are wearing traditional tunics – one with Hulks, another with Bam, Pow, Zowie, prints.

It’s clear that my talk is giving the crowd permission to geek out. Parmesh introduces me, pouring on the hype. No pressure there.… And then I bound on stage, shouting out “Hello Mumbai” in my best rock star impersonation, and the crowd goes wild.

They could not have been more engaged or enthusiastic; they laugh at the jokes; they clap at multiple points during the presentation; they are taking notes, and they are with me every step of the way through a talk that was a bit longer than the one hour promised. Then, we get another hour of questions from the playful (“what super-powers would I like?”) to the thoughtful (questions about inequalities of access and participation, about freedom of expression and net neutrality, about Twitter mobs, about how we develop standards of excellence for digital expression or norms of behavior within online communities).

And then, the talk ends, and for the next two hours, people are crowding around me, wanting Selfies, wanting autographs (one person has brought a copy of Convergence Culture that I had signed in 2006 and he wants me to sign it again), asking me questions. There are students and academics, some of whom have driven half-way across the country to be there. There were novelists, playwrights, artists, fashion designers, filmmakers, recording artists, game designers, brand executives, transmedia producers, activists, journalists…. Here I am with the group of Sophia students.

Overwhelmingly, they are young (more than 50 percent of the population of India is under 30) but some of the most enthusiastic supporters in the crowd are “of a certain age.” There was such eagerness in their eyes to engage more deeply with these ideas, and many said I gave them a framework to articulate things they have been trying to say for a long time.

When we get back to the room, I lay awake for a while reading through the social media response –  several hundred tweets  and they are being retweeted and retweeted. I slip off to sleep and wake up again at 4 a.m. and another 50 or so tweets went out while I was sleeping. I lay awake for a while, adrenaline pumping through my body, and then doze back off. This morning there’s another 50 or so tweets or retweets popping up and there’s no signs of it slowing down just yet.

So here’s the video of the event released by the Godrej India Culture Lab.

 

Categories: Blog

Transplanting Rice in Rural India

September 16, 2015 - 4:05am

Early in the trip, we paid a visit to Sophia Bhabha Polytechnique, which runs the Society, Culture and Mass Media program, considered to be one of India’s best communication and journalism programs. Sophia has historically been an all-women school, but has started to branch out in recent years to include more male students. The school had been founded in the 1970s with the goal of empowering and training women to enter the professional realm. They run a professional program for journalists, which runs 10 months, 2 semesters, and includes 10 courses – roughly the pace of the Journalism masters program we offer at USC. The program places a strong emphasis on experiential learning (learning by doing) and doing work out in the community with the goal of developing strong social commitments and civic engagement in their students.

One of the things they do early on in the term is to take their mostly urban students out into the country side where they get to muck about in rice paddies transplanting rice. It turned out that they were going to be doing one of these field trips a few days later and  I decided to join them for the experience. They shared with us a range of their student projects, many of which deal with issues of rural and migrant labor and problems of urban poverty. What follows is my diary entry for this day of the trip.

Early rise today – I am being picked up at 6:45 a.m. for our trip to the Kamshet rice fields with Sophia students and faculty. By the time I get to the bus stop, it’s clear I’ve started to corrupt my own field work, since word is getting around town that I am interested in Superheroes, so a number of the students are turning up wearing t-shirts with Spider-Man or Super-Man or Captain America. I later learn that they had been assigned to read the Fusion article about Superman and Immigration politics, and I get asked questions about it throughout the day.

My favorite shirt of the day mashed up Iron Man and the Iron Throne from Game of Thrones – I want that shirt!

 

The students are excited about the trip. Most of them grew up in urban areas and many have never been to a farm before, let alone worked with rice. Some of the faculty say their fathers are a bit ashamed that their daughters are going to work in the field for class or caste reasons. We are visiting a farm which belongs to the father-in-law of Sunitha Nirmita, the head teacher for this expedition, an alum of the Comm program at University of Indiana-Bloomington. She jokes that she has a PhD from America but her father-in-law is still making her work in the rice fields. Her father in law bought the farm land when he was in his 20s but only really started to work the land after he retired in his 60s. He spent his life selling chemical fertilizers, but he is now an outspoken advocate of organic farming processes (as we will hear later in the day). He is now in his 80s. The students have been full of anxieties about what might be lurking in the water – creepy crawlies, leaches – but I am happy to report that we confronted no such hazards.

The bus drivers are having a grand old time honking their horns back and forth amongst the truckers and other bus drivers they pass along the road. I am told this is a ritual to keep them all awake during long cross-country drives. But at one point, they all perform a song on their horns, which was pretty masterful, actually. At one point, a group of policemen try to pull the buss over. Sunitha suggests that they are going to try to shake us down for some bribes before they will let us pass. Much to her astonishment, the driver gives the cop one of these characteristic head woggles (which I read as something close to an eye roll) and then drives off without bothering to stop. The cops do not pursue us – as an American cop almost certainly would have.

On the return trip, the professors are more emboldened. One of the toll stops we encounter was supposed to be shut down on June 1. There had been a protest against the toll because it was illegally close to the others; the protestors vandalized the station. The government chastised them for the violence but agreed to shut down the toll by June 1. But it is clearly in operation. When one of the professors asks the toll booth operator about the situation, he waves us on through without charging, but then continues to collect money from all of the other vehicles in line behind us. But it’s a bad idea to do this for a bus full of journalism students, since they plan to write a follow up story.

We stop for breakfast at a kind of massive truck stop with many small shops and eateries. Except for the scale on which it is operating, it reminds me very much of similar roadside stops you could see along the road in the U.S.. For example, there are stands selling ice cream, popcorn, and especially dried fruit and various nut products. On the return trip, we pick up what is essentially peanut brittle to bring back to Cynthia.

From here, we are going higher into the mountains, which are breathtaking: not like the rounded hills of the Blue Ridge or the jagged and arid peaks of the West Coast chains. They do remind me of the images I have seen of the Himalayas but not nearly as high. They are lush right now. I am told that the monsoon season turn hills that are brown most of the year into something really lush with plant life, and that all of the cars we are seeing are driving north to enjoy the waterfalls which are formed from the rains. We do see some really beautiful ones from the bus. We also spot a few monkeys sitting along the side of the road watching the cars drive past. Every so often we see what seems like a massive apartment complex in the middle of nowhere. These are for people who drive up from the city for a country experience but expect to live precisely as they live back home. I’ve certain seen this tendency in the North Georgia mountains but never to such a literal degree.

As we get closer to the farm, we start to see a shift in attire – the men are now mostly wearing white, from the creased cap on the top of their heads down through their pressed jackets and creased pants, and riding motorcycles, because at a certain point, the bus is no longer able to make the turns on the winding country roads. The students walk, but the father-in-law insists on taking me by car out of respect for my age. (I was told by the way that when we had met the Sophia principal, she had been astonished that I knew so much about digital media because, “well, you know, he’s a gentleman of a certain age.”) You can imagine how well this privilege goes down with me, but I take it all in good humor. What are you going to do!

Since we arrive by car, we arrive a good deal earlier than the others, so I am taken on a tour of the farm. First, we visit a little three room school house.


All of the walls are covered by texts of various kinds, including elaborate charts of the alphabets and numbering system (with numbers identified in English, Hindi, and Marathi (the language of this region). There is a picture of Gandhi hanging over the blackboard. And there’s a television in the corner from which they receive educational broadcasts from the state. There are three rooms – one for preschool, one for the younger students, one for the older.

Outside the top two grades there are pictures and accounts of national leaders, including Nehru (another Prime Minister) and Ambedkar (the leader of the untouchables and author of the constitution, the subject of the graphic novel).

Outside the preschool classroom there are a series of cartoon characters. There are two that are clearly intended to resemble Mickey Mouse, one in western garb, one a bit more distorted in Indian clothing. And then there is a tall lanky fellow with a dog-like face and a tall cap who may or may not have been intended as Goofy. It is really hard to judge in this context since the localization process has been more extensive here.

The head laborer – a woman (more about her in a moment) – shows me her house. It Is much more spacious than those we visited yesterday in the slums (and we are told that her son has gotten a high paying job in the city so this is not typical of a laborer’s house in the country). She has a massive salt water aquarium. I am most interested in her shrine – the television set is right in the middle, in a place of privilege, in an area set aside for the worship of her gods. We are also go out back to a shed where she has a massive black water buffalo which is used for farm labor.

By this time, we are all assembling, so I go with the others out to the rice fields, and we are given a lesson in how to transplant the rice. Apparently, rice grows better if it is uprooted and replanted during the growth cycle, so we are each handled several bundles of rice plants with dangling roots. Our job is to wade out into the water and press a cluster of three rice plants down into the mucky soil, pressing down with our fingers, not the roots. The water is actually warm since it is fairly shallow and thus gathers heat from the sun. The bottom of the river has some pebbles but is mostly oozy mud mixed with cow dug and compost veggie matter. The area where we are doing the planting is not quite solid so that the dirt spreads easily around your fingers.

We are moving out in shifts and each of us has about twenty minutes to experience the planting process under the supervision of the head laborer.

 

She’s extremely dark skinned and withered, she walks barefoot at all times, and she wears very traditional pants that are swaddled around the back so as to avoid getting into the water. She lays down the plants machine-gun fast, even as we are still struggling to understand and repeat the process. I am sure she could have done everything the whole class did in roughly the same amount of time but she is very patient and smiling. I am told that she is the one who oversees all of the other laborers on the farm.

The teachers are urging the students to sing traditional farm labor songs, but none of them seem to know any, so one suggests they sing songs from Lagaan.

While we are working in the paddies, a male farm laborer comes up with a plow, which he surfs on top of, pulled behind two buffalo, as he is processing the field. Traditionally, men do the plowing and women do the planting. After our turn in the paddies, we go off to the pump where we wash our feet, hands, and legs of the mud, and then we walk down to the banks of a nearby river when we wait on a dam for the others to complete their tasks. As we are standing there, a woman and her daughter below are washing their clothes in the river and beating them out on the rocks.


After the time in the field, we go back to the school house where we are served cups of hot Chai and some pastry-like cookies, given a packet of the locally produced rice, and a lecture from the father-in-law about the virtues of organic farming of rice. He explains basically that you pay a little more in the store, but that this process is much better for India, which has produced enormous poverty because it has done such damage to the soil over time, both because of the hot sun and the use of chemicals and salt-based water. These kinds of traditional farming methods are gradually restoring the quality of the land and making it possible to produce more crops and as a result, they are bringing more jobs to Indian farmers. The pitch for organic foods in the U.S. are very much pitched towards the health of the consumer, but this is about the health of the land and of the nation.




Categories: Blog

Digital Culture in Dharavi

September 14, 2015 - 4:55am

One of the many fascinating people that Parmesh Shahani, our host from the Godrej India Culture Lab, introduced to us was Dena Mehta, who is a trained ethnographer who works for corporate clients here in India and around the world. In the course of conversation, she asked whether we would like to visit one of India’s slums. There has been a rise in slum tourism in the wake of Slumdog Millionaire, which interests me very little, but she and her team of ethnographers maintain ongoing relationships in this community, and she offers to set up some interviews for us so we can develop a better understanding of how people live there and especially how they relate to media, old and new.  The photographs used here are a mixture of those taken by Cynthia Jenkins and by Shubhangi Athalye, a member of Mehta’s team. What follows are my field notes from my experiences that day.

Today, we met Dena Mehta at her apartment, since she was taking us out into the field to do some ethnographic work in Dharavi, which she describes as Asia’s biggest slum. Along the way, Dena points out to us the Chawls, which are old tentament structures which were established in the mid-century to house workers at the local textile mills. Each of the buildings are 4-5 stories tall and have 10-20 apartments per floor: each apartment is one room for sleeping and then shared public areas and bathrooms. The Chawls are the focus of some nostalgia here as they have come to stand for a particular communal lifestyle, but they are vanishing rapidly as gentrification hits these areas (see my earlier discussion of the ways that the Mills are being repurposed for corporate office space, etc.)

We are met on the outskirts of the slum by an elected representative from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) , which is currently the ruling party of India and is known to be very right-wing, Hindu nationalists, but also deeply rooted in the poorest urban areas of the country. Narendra Modi, India’s current head of state, came from this party and he rose to power in part on the basis of his promise to bring more toilets to India, which John Oliver did some comic riffs on, but having visited here, it is no joke. Sanitation is one of the biggest challenges facing this community. Individual quarters do not have toilets; people tend to go to public facilities to wash or do other things, which can be some blocks away from where they live, and are massively crowded. They may also go in buckets which get dumped, along with the trash, in the open sewer which runs along the outskirts. The streets of Mumbai are densely populated and chaotic, but that was just a dress rehearsal for what we encountered here.

 

We are told that something like 1.2 million people live in this tightly packed area of the city, many of them stacked on top of each other, and that this area has become a kind of refuge camp for migrants from other regions, with the result that they are dealing with enormous cultural and linguistic diversity. Even to our still uninformed eyes, it is not hard to spot real differences in dress and speech. As we are arriving, a group of Muslim men are kneeling on blankets beside the road as they begin their prayer, and we hear the sounds of the prayer in the background for much of our first round of conversations here. We pass many women wearing Burkas. But we also encounter brightly dressed women in Saris passing alongside them in the streets.

The area is a maze of narrow, winding streets, and we walk along one of them to discover a colony of potters, whose family have been making clay pots for generations.

The women are sitting on the ground, slapping and pounding the clay and starting to shape it. A few buildings down we see the clay pots sitting in coals as a kind of kiln.

 

 

We spoke with one local family inside their home, and learn that they have been able to gradually improve their quality of life thanks to loans from a local support system: different groups, based on their unions, their religions, and their ethnicity pool money for mutual support and they are able to take out low interest loans. The political leader also tells us that families can get government loans but that this program is still not very well understood.

These large Indian families live in households which on average are 180 square feet, though the politician claims that their goal is to increase this to 279 feet in the coming few years. These homes, as we observed, mostly consist of an entry area, a sitting room where people work by day and all of the family members sleep at night, and sometimes, a separate kitchen. In some cases, the space is split between a shop downstairs and a living quarters upstairs, which is reached by climbing up a rather steep ladder. We were able to visit in three different homes during the day – in each, the furnishing are sparse, with people sleeping on mats on the floor, and perhaps a few seats, but all of the homes we visited had television sets. We were told that their daily life is structured, in part, around water: water runs through the pipes from 4-7 A.M., which is when they do their housework and also store water for the rest of the day in jugs or bottles for further use.

 

As we walk down the street, it is clear that most of these people are involved in either some form of craft or are shopkeepers. There are many stalls along the way selling fresh fruits and veggies. We are also told that much of the illicit goods that circulate in Bombay come from this area – including bootleg copies of dvds and CDs, but also, for example, knock-off Gucci bags, but even knockoff versions of simple household items, for example Life Buoy soap or brand name crackers.

The politician works the neighborhood like an old Ward politico in the states: he stops along the way to talk to his constituents by name, and they all seem to know him. He has a degree in Print-Making from an arts school, but his child was born with Autistic and so he went back to learn special education and now works part of each day at the local schools. But he spends 4-5 hours a day walking through the neighborhood to resolve disputes and help connect people to government services. We are told that he is also involved with RSS which he described as an organization which “looks after our Indian culture,” but which others described to us as borderline fascist. He told us that the police simply can not handle all of the problems of this area so they have created a diverse counsel of senior citizens who are called upon to work through conflicts on a local level and not involve the cops unless it is totally necessary. As we are talking standing on a street corner, I am watching over his shoulder as more and more people start to gather around us, some staring openly, some coyly trying to pay attention to something else, many glaring at us, and all trying to figure out why this white guy is taking so many notes. Just as I am afraid we are about to get completely mobbed, there are horns blaring, and the politician realizes we are blocking the street and we move along.

As we are standing there, a Muslim man, Shaikh Fakhrul Islam, approaches us.

 

He is a local doctor and social worker but more interestingly, he is a journalist who runs a news organization, C24 news. The group engages citizen journalists all over the ghetto who send him photographs and reports via What’sAPP, which is a kind of social media platform.

 

He and a few other writers consolidate the information into news reports which go out over their website and their Facebook page. He is able to use the site to advocate on behalf of his community. He specifically mentioned that he has women come to him and say “I can not fight my own battle. Will you help me fight my battle,” and he stands up against domestic abuse and rape culture in this community. He also has been able to focus attention on local problems and get faster government response – for example, flooding caused by the monsoon. As we leave, he turns to us and says “remember me in your prayers.” The politician takes a more skeptical view of the whole operation. He believes that the doctor is a decent fellow and well meaning, but he wonders where the money is coming from to support the operation and what interests he may be serving.

We travel to another section of this community and are met by Adrana, an adolescent girl, who is wearing what seems to be clearly her very best dress, her younger cousin also in a festive dress tagging along behind her, and she shows us the way back to her family home. We climb a rather steep ladder up to their living quarters, and find her mother and father, a sister-in-law and her husband, another girl, and two more boys waiting for us, (adding to the five members of our ethnographic expedition) in what is a one room home.



The father is a tailor and he has shoved his sewing machine into the corner to make room for the guests. We focus our attention on Adrana, who has agreed to the interview, but we end up engaging with the whole family, including the younger sibling, who periodically ask us such questions as “What gods do you worship?” or “What is in America?” and we do our best to answer. From the shrine in the corner, this is clearly a Hindi home. Adrana is in 12th Grade and goes to a local commerce college; she was accepted into a credit-bearing educational institution based on her test scores but her family could not afford to send her to a college which charged for tuition. She is studying economics and she tells us she hopes to go on and get a PhD and then become the CEO of a company. Everything she tells us places a strong emphasis on her studies, and it is clear she is smart and ambitious.

Much of this and the other interviews are in local languages, which Dena’s team is helping to translate for us but every so often she breaks out into English. My thought was that she wanted us to know she could speak the language and she does so beautifully: she said that she is taught in English but that her friends and family do not speak it outside the classroom. Dena later suggested that she spoke in English when she did not want her mother to understand what she was saying. So, for example, she told us at one point that boys did “bad things” on the net but girls did not, so I asked what “bad things,” and after some evasion, she finally says “blue movies.”

She said she would have preferred to go to the Credit-bearing school, because they did not require her to dress in traditional Indian clothes, and she would prefer to dress in western clothes, such as jeans or shorts. She gets up, she said, at 5:56 every morning, helps her mother with the housework and bathes, then goes to school at around 7 and returns around 4 pm. We had learned from the politico earlier that the local schools run on shifts because they cannot seat all of the students from this community at the same time. She says with some pride that she is becoming a good cook just like her mother.

We talked a lot about her media consumption. She points with pride to the flat screen television on the wall, but also says that the set is brand-new, replacing one that gave out a year or so back: it still has packaging around it that lists its price, etc. Asked about what she watched on television, she identified only Hindi-language Indian-made shows, most of them dramas about high school and college life. Her younger brother announced that he especially liked WWE wrestling. When asked what movies she likes, she again identifies Hindi stars and films, with a strong emphasis on those which involve dance. She specifically mentioned wanting to see Disney’s Any Body Can Dance 2 (or ABCD as it is called). She said that she liked to do Bollywood dance but they could not afford lessons, so she practiced along to the music videos she saw on television.

She has internet access primarily at her Uncle’s house, who lives nearby and is an accountant, so he needs to have a computer at home. For the most part, she accesses the web through her mobile phone, which she about a year and received for her birthday from her father. She says she uses it to access Facebook: “All my friends use Facebook so she needs to use it.” She also likes to download images of actors and actresses, which she uses as her profile picture, since she is told that it would be dangerous for her as a young woman to publish her picture on the web. She also likes to collect quotes, words of inspiration and wisdom from famous people, which she exchanges with her friends and uses to model her life.

She also uses her phone to download songs and exchange them via Bluetooth with her friends. Dena told us that they pass the phones around with all of the members of the family so there is essentially no privacy about what they download, and she mentioned gathering around the computer at her Uncle’s house with four or five other female relatives, all working on Facebook at once. When asked what she looks up, she used as an example “who invented the selfie stick” and said she was especially interested in science facts and discoveries.

I tried to get a sense of her model of the civic by asking how she would deal with a problem in her community. She said first she would bring the problem to her mother and father, to her high school friends or to the tutor she works with (who seems to play an important mentor role on all aspects of her life). At school, if you brought a problem to the principal, they would yell at the students and then fix the problem. In the neighborhood, she would rely on the council of elders or if needed, a local representative like our initial guide. She also described how her circle of friends, from different backgrounds in the community, worked together to insure they all did well in school, helping weaker students, learning from stronger students.

She seemed very interested in the fact that I am author and wanted to know if I was going to write about her in one of my books: she loves to read and it turns out that she mostly likes one writer who does thick stories about college life in India. She asks for my autograph and wants to take her picture with me, and she follows us down the street as we leave, still asking us about America.

We drove to another location, past some Quonset Huts which had been left here by the British during World War II. They are semi-circular buildings with corregated metal roofs (or in some cases, now, with blue plastic tarps stretched over gaping holes in the roof).

We walked past a group of young men gathered around a game board and we were told that they were playing Carrom. It is played on a flat game board with pockets on the four corners. It is something close to pool except that it is played with flat game pieces of varied sizes which you slide across the board. So at the start, the smaller pieces are all on the center, and the goal is to use the bigger pieces to push them into the pockets. The game seemed to involved 5-6 players, though I could not tell how many of these were just watching and waiting their turns.

We are here to visit Nitesh, a young man 3-4 years older than Adrana. He lives with his father and his elder brother in this house; his elder sister is married and lives elsewhere; his grandparents live in the adjacent house. For several generations, they have lived in this area. He works in an office where he collects and documents checks for local workers. We ask whether he likes to work there, and he says “It’s OK. It’s What I do.” He works 9-6 six days a week with Sundays off and commutes via train which gets him home around 7 pm. Later, we asked him about his aspirations. He wants to own a Royal Enfield motor bike; but for now, he is saving money.

He plans to get married when he has saved enough. He tells us “nowadays everyone is doing love marriages” but his mother comes from the village and she will expect him to accept an arranged marriage and “I will need to listen to her.” We ask what he wants to do in the future and he has no professional goals: “they pay me well and I don’t want to leave. “ So, he imagines working in this job for as long as they will have him, but he does acknowledge the job is “Pakau” which is slang for boring. He says he would like to marry a woman who has a job: men used to resent working women, but now they need the extra income.

We ask him about his engagement with media and he shows us his phone, which he uses to maintain contact with his friend and help organize local cultural festivals (his role in the local community) but also to download music and engage in social media. He has little interest in Facebook but prefers What’s Up, which allows him to participate in groups. As he listed what kind, he mentions sharing “non-veg” content with his friends, and it turns out he is referring to a group called “All About Sex.” Asked what kinds of videos he likes, he says he likes to warch videos of people playing Carroom or Cricket; he’s a big sports fan and also cites games on television among his favorite and, oh yes, the WWE. Asked about Indian wrestlers in the WWE, he says “nice to see our people but they do not perform as well as the American wrestlers.” He said the WWE performances have inspired him to go to the local gym and work out.

Asked if he had ever produced video, he mentions a project he did with his friends when a boy their age died of malaria: a tribute video which set a series of dissolves of photographs with the boy and his friends to a somber pop song, and he shows us the video on his phone.

On television, he likes sports and dance competition reality series. He says his mother likes to watch serials, but he doesn’t even know their names, even though he is in the same room as she views them. He doesn’t watch Bollywood songs on the web but downloads clips directly onto his phone and trades them with his friends. He specifically mentions liking the songs from the ABCD movies, but he deletes songs when he gets bored and nothing stays on his phone for long. He says that the people he knows who own computers are educated: they acquire these skills by working in offices – typists, for example – and they end up doing projects more because they want to improve their skills than because they want to express themselves.

Asked about how he would deal with problems, he mentioned again the elders committees which arbitrates disputes. When they need action, they pick up the phone and call local officials, who they all know personally. He said they respond more quickly when more people call so they go around beginning friends to call in reports about problems. He would not use social media because it is less direct than calling the officials directly on his mobile phone.

I mentioned that he helps to organize local festivals, and he mentioned two festivals in particular. The first is the festival of Ganesh, which is coming up soon. The other night we saw inside a warehouse as we were driving by: it was full of giant statues of the elephant-faced helper god, Ganesh, which looked to be made of paper mache. In this festivals, people all over the city take these statues into their homes, feed and care for them, and then they bring them to sea and watch them float away.

He also talked about the Festival of Krishna. Krishna was said to have an appetite for butter so his mother would put the butter put high up in the trees to keep it away from his reach. During the festival, they hang pots with candy and coins in very high places and festival goers form human pyramids, sometimes 8-9 bodies high, to get the pot down.

As we are leaving, I noticed something over the door to his house, next to the tiles depicting Hindu gods. There are several dried peppers, a chunk of lemon, and a block of coal, which I am told are used to keep the “bad eye” away.

 

Categories: Blog

India: My First Impressions

September 11, 2015 - 5:02am

The following extracts from my travel journal describe the process of discovery and enculturation that occurred when I first arrived in Mumbai. These incidents occurred over roughly the first week of our stay. I have also included here some random street photography taken by Cynthia Jenkins or myself to capture some aspects of life here where seeing is better than reading.

We arrived here two days ago. The first day was, as always after such a long flight, spent in a state of utter stupor and I recall very little of it. I could not hold my eyes open and ended up sleeping for many hours. I do retain some blurry impressions of the drive from the airport. Everyone had warned me that Mumbai was an intense and overwhelming city, and after so much mythologizing, I had built up a certain degree of anxiety about what I would encounter here. The ride from the airport covered me in both directions – yes, it was intense and overwhelming but it was also oddly comforting because I did not encounter any deep culture shock or confusion, given my previous experiences in cities like Beijing, Tokyo, Bangkok, and San Paulo. I am still not sure I want to try crossing a street without locals to guide me, but I at least can take in the scope and frenzy of the activity here. And I think I know how to read much of what I am encountering – even if I am relying more on Bollywood movies to process things than might be ideal. And every so often, we encounter signs that are all too familiar – not just Starbucks or Subway, but even Krispy Kreme doughnuts (my personal favorite going back to my Atlanta childhood).

We are staying at a guest house on the Godrej campus — very nice quarters, definitely a cut above most hotels where I stay. We’ve struggled with some cultural confusion here. We couldn’t figure out how to get hot water into the shower. We took a cold shower the first day but by the second, we were able to communicate with the housekeeper here the issue, and he showed us a switch on the wall in the bedroom which turned on the hot water heater in the bathroom. But, of course, why didn’t I think of that! I am having corn flakes for breakfast most mornings, but was surprised to find that they warm my milk, which makes it a very different dish….

I had a fairly restless night as I continued to adjust to jet lag, and so I was able to listen to the sounds of Mumbai (or at least the sounds of Vikhroli, the neighborhood where Godrij’s headquarters are located) as the city came to life. I could not help but think about the prelude which A. R. Rahman wrote for Bombay Dreams, which I was lucky enough to have seen in London’s West End some years ago.

In this case, the first sounds that really penetrated my sleep was the very faint sound of chanting coming from a nearby mosque. India is at this point a country dominated by its Hindu populations but I have been struck by how pervasive and visible the Moslem minority is here. Second, there was the sound of another wave of rain. We are in the monsoon season and so rain, mostly light, but very persistent, has been a constant since we came here, with only a few rare pockets of sunshine. The rhythm of the rain is constantly shifting. We’ve seen very few moments when the skies opened up and torrent rains fell down, which was more or less what I anticipated from a Monsoon, and many more moments where there was a drizzle or mist or simply a slow pitter-patter of rain on the roof. And then, as the sunlight begins to take hold, you start to hear the crows. There are massive flocks of them here on the campus, and there are times when it feels like we are in a scene from Hitchcock’s The Birds. I don’t know what I expected Mumbai to sound like, but the cawing of crows was not it! But they are loud and raucous and they make sure people hear them for miles around….

We saw so many cultural references to Crows running across Indian media and popular culture once we started to look for them. But Ritesh Mehta, one of my USC students, with whom we corresponded often during the trip, shared this segment from one of his Bollywood favorites.

We spent much of yesterday in Parel, which I understand was an old industrial section of the city – basically an area associated with Mills. Parts of the area has gone through a process of gentrification, so that the old mills have been converted into all kinds of office and residential spaces, preserving just enough of the industrial feel to give atmosphere, and representing some of the most expensive real estate in the city. On the other hand, the housing where the factory workers once lived has remained low income housing, and the offspring of those factory workers still live there. As a consequence, one encounters some of the deep contradictions of how class operates in Mumbai in this community. The working class sections have sprawling low-scale buildings, small shops and stalls, a great deal of visual clutter, and a frenzy of activity. We drove through a maze of winding alleyways to get to the places we were scheduled to visit. I was struck by the informality and intimacy of social interactions we observed through the windows of our car – lots of people walking around arm in arm, many people sitting around barefoot, shop keepers bartering over their wares. There is a density of life here, to be sure, but without romanticizing what I was seeing, there was also a sense of a vibrant public culture that I do not always see traveling through urban areas. I am not sure I can convey what street life is like here – beyond the people, there are many cycles (both motor-bikes and human-powered), there are big red public buses, there are trucks which have individualized, hand-painted, and brightly colored patterns all over them, and there are auto rickshaws which are used as taxis to navigate the narrow, winding streets.

I have been in other places around the world which are known for their dense populations – Shanghai and Tokyo come to mind – but somehow they seemed much more ordered to me, masses of people moving in patterns and flows along the streets, but the streets of Mumbai strike me as more chaotic, with people all moving along their own individual trajectories, and with much more social interactions between them. Certainly we saw some of that street culture when a decade or so ago, Cynthia and I were taken to the tenement communities in Beijing, but the streets of Tokyo have such a sense of everyone in their proper lane, everyone moving towards predestinations, that feel very different from what I have observed here so far….

I spotted a telling display on our drive today. We were once again fascinated with the street life we saw through the windows of our car. In a very low income section of the city, I saw a woman hawking what were either placemats or wall hangings, that were hanging on a clothes line against a wall. About half of the images being sold came from Hindu mythology and the other half were images of Disney Princesses, so you had an image of Sita hanging right next to an image of Cinderella. As we’ve been told many times since we’ve been here, everything is negotiable. And what gets absorbed from outside India gets incorporated into Indian culture in very distinctive ways. One person I spoke with shared a classic summation: “Everything you have ever heard about India is almost certainly true but so is it’s opposite.”,,,

We ended up visiting a ritzy shopping mall in the heart of the city, and as we were wandering around, we found our way into a British toy store. I loved the fact that there were various hands-on demonstrations of various toys and games, such as you see in old movies, but rarely encounter any more in American stores. And then, there he was, right in the center of the store — Captain America. My first reflect was one of revulsion — a sense of American cultural imperialism taking over the world, and of all of the icons of American popular culture, this one at this moment seemed the most American. But, at the same time, I had seen very few Americans, very few westerners in my time in Mumbai, compared to almost any other city in the world I have visited before. Is the monsoon season keeping everyone away or is it always this way? And there’s suddenly a wave of the familiarity and comfort you get when you encounter a total stranger, but someone from your country or home town, when you are traveling overseas? And so I ran up to him and did the rabbit ear thing for a photograph — a sign which somehow expresses familiarity and disrespect in one gesture. And it was only then that I noticed the massive Mumbai bus, with the crazy teddy bear behind the wheel, about to run us both over, which somehow sums up my impressions of the traffic flows here. This ended up being the perfect image of my entry into India and one I used in many of my talks here to talk about the ways we adopt popular culture to our own expressive purposes.

 

We tried to grab a quick bite to eat before plunging into the traffic again to head to our next stop. Parmesh decided to take us to get fast food and we had that Pulp Fiction kind of moment where you find that things that on the surface look just like home have odd little cultural twists as fast food chains localize to the tastes of the host country. So, first, we stumbled on a scene that would have made a world class photograph but would have been too awkward to consider taking. There was a park bench in front of MacDonalds. On one edge of the bench was a mature, stately Hindi woman in a sari and on the other edge was a Muslim woman wearing a full black Burka. In between the two women was a statue of Ronald McDonald with his arms stretched out so that they ran along the full back of the bench.  The effect was to see the clown, effectively, putting the move on both of these women. The image worked on so many levels to capture some of the contradictions we felt eating fast food in India.

For a long time, American fast food companies did not really know how to open hamburger chains in a country where there is a strong taboo against eating beef, but gradually they have adopted their menu, so that you can get a wide range of burgers made from various veggie substitutes, and BK is unique in offering a Mutton Burger for those who want to eat meat. The burgers give a good approximation in appearance to our Whoppers, but let’s just say it was not to my taste. Of course not – it’s been adapted to the tastes of Indian customers. But a big part of the pleasure of fast food chains is that the food tastes like home.  Another interesting detail: Mickie D delivers here…

We were driving through South Bomaby, along the waterfront, on the way to our first meeting. The traffic bogs down and a woman in a dingy Sari comes out to the car, clutching a toddler in her arms, and tapping on our windows begging for money. We have been told repeatedly that it can be dangerous to give in to such requests, so we are trying to develop thick skins and harder hearts. As I look up through the front of the car, trying to avoid her gaze, we see a horde of other mothers, all similarly dressed, all also carrying their babies in their arms, descending on cars all around us. This helped me to put the issue into perspective.

 


We paid a visit on a Sunday afternoon to Mount Mary Cathedral, a large Catholic church, in the heart of Bandra.

When we got out of the car, the first thing we encountered were a series of make-shift shops where people could buy wax offerings. I have seen such places outside, say, Notre Dame in Paris, where you could buy candles, and you can indeed buy candles here: not simply white as in Paris but in a range of bright colors. I ended up purchasing a few purple candles to use to pay my respect. But the candles are just the starting point: you can buy wax figurines that represent the things people have come there to pray for, so for those praying for the sick, there are, for example, wax hospitals or clinics but also various organs and body parts. For those who want to do better in their studies, there are schools and textbooks. For those who want to travel, there are wax versions of Indian passports. For those who want success, there are wax versions of piles of Rupees. And for those with relatives in America, there are wax Statue of Liberty figures.

We carried the candles with us into the cathedral, which was huge, and full of people at prayer underneath massive ceiling fans. The walls of the church are decorated with paintings depicting scenes from the New Testament, although the figures are brown and in some cases, wearing traditional Indian clothing (perhaps the counterpart of all of the European-style art we’ve come to associate with some of these same incidents). But, there was no place in the church to light the candles. To do this, we have to cross the street to a huge staircase: we were told that people climb and count the steps to represent the stations of the Cross.

On top, outside, there was a kind of BBQ grill, where you put the candles into leaping flames, and watched them melt. Climbing back down the stairs, we passed by another series of shops. Here, there were all kinds of crucifixes, rosary beads, and depictions of Christ and the Virgin Mary.

But, again, there was something unexpected and a bit confusing: they were also selling in the mix some necklaces depicting the ensignas of Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, and Iron Man. I could not figure out what they might have to do with the church rituals!

We drove around the city a bit more: Parmesh and the D’Silvas showed me the home of some of the largest Bollywood stars. There were a large crowd of people waiting outside the home of Shah Rukh Khan, sometimes called “King Khan” or “the King of Bollywood” because of his rags to riches personal story. He has appeared in more than 80 movies. I found this highlights real on YouTube.

The crowds were gathering, waiting patiently, in hopes that he would stick his head out and say a few words. I have heard much about the devotion of Bollywood fans and the reverential attitudes they have to certain stars. I have been told that in South India, there are temples dedicated to the memory of certain stars who have become emblematic of national/regional pride and spiritual devotion.

Categories: Blog

What If Batman Was From Chennai? And Other Stories

September 8, 2015 - 9:00am

One of the strands of my research I was sharing during this trip to India focused on the various political and civic uses of the superhero amongst young American activists. You can get a taste of this work from this video produced by Fusion to showcase the ways Superman has become an icon for the DREAMer movement. This work caught the imagination of many people I met in India and so everywhere I went people were bringing me examples of Indian appropriations and remixes of superhero stories. I will be sharing many such examples in future posts.

 

One of my favorite examples are a series of YouTube videos, produced by a group called Culture Machine, which deal with what would happen if certain iconic cultural figures such as Batman and the Avengers, had been born in Chennai, a city in South India.

America’s Bruce Wayne watched as his mother and father were brutally killed before his very eyes, and this is what made him into the Batman. But, his Indian counterpart has a much more troubling relationship with his father, whom he can never please, and more generally, with the social expectations of adult society. Everything is pulled down to Earth in this spoof video and we can debate what it means that the Indian superhero gets depicted in such an anti-heroic manner (not just here but across a range of different media incarnations). And the romance between Batman and the Catwoman takes on a life of its own, which gets developed even further in a sequel which got released more recently.

This other video shifts the focus onto the Marvel superheroes. Here, the Avengers are “heroes for hire,” desperately marketing themselves for more mundane jobs, where no one expects to be invaded by aliens or over-run by super-criminals.

One did not have to look hard to spot other superheroes lurking in the heart of India’s cities. My wife captured this image as we were walking through a ship-breaking yard in Mazagoan (on the outskirts of Mumbai).

 


 

We were able to visit Culture Machine’s headquarters in Mumbai, where I was able to get a deeper sense of their strategies as a producer of highly spreadable media content. The following is taken from my travel diary.

 

Culture Machine, a new media company, set up shop in a old sari warehouse a few years ago, and has enjoyed such tremendous success that the staff now grossly overwhelms its capacity. All of the rooms are crammed with people, who feel like they are stacked on top of each other. The company is moving to a new headquarters in just a few more weeks much to everyone’s relief. We had read an article in Forbes India about our host Sameer Pitalwalla, who was identified as one of their 30 under 30 industry leaders. He is the former director of the interactive division of Disney India. He partnered with Venkat Prasad, a UCLA alum, and former Google Analytics engineer, to start Culture Machine, a company that now represents and helps to craft many of the country’s top YouTube stars.

Pitalwalla and Prasad took us through their perspective on how to design content which plays well to Youtube audiences in India. Their strategy rests on three kinds of content – Heroes, Hubs, and Hygiene. So, Heroic content would be unique and distinctive content designed to “smack you in the face” and create buzz; what we might call spreadable content which helps put a particular character or personality on the map. You can’t produce this kind of high impact content on a regular basis, so you have to develop content which keeps people coming back to the Hub on a regular basis, so this is a more serialized form of production. And finally when people come to the site, they want to find lots of content there so to fill out a channel they have an automated process which produces low impact, low cost, predictable content.

To help them develop this steady flow of content, they have developed an incredible analytics tool – probably the best big data platform for this purposes I have seen – which collects data around personalities, brands, genres, themes, etc., around the world, from both Facebook and Youtube, and allows them to predict the cycle of any given topic, so that they can rapidly produce and release content to feed rising trends, while back off from trends they see has reached its peak. They have production facilities right there, so they can transform insights into content at high speed. Here are some examples of the kinds of work which Culture Machine has been producing.

One highly successful series, Epified, involves an ongoing exploration of themes from classical Indian mythology. Here, for example, is a video which helps to explain the Polytheistic system of Hindu religion for those of us who come from a more Monotheistic background.

And here’s a video which shows how the discussion of these classical stories can shed light on more contemporary debates.

The Epify videos are adopted from the work of Devdutt Pattaniak, who turns out to be a really fascinating figure. He’s billed on his book jackets as “India’s best-selling mythographer.” He started out life as a pharmacist, but he fell deep for his country’s classical traditions and began to write and talk about them more and more. He ended up styling himself as the “Chief Belief Officer” for a consulting firm: he basically works with Indian and American companies that do business in India to help them think through the rituals and mythological significance of their address to the Indian audience. At a time when the national government has embraced a particularly reactionary version of Hindu mythology, he has presented a progressive alternative, which he claims recovers the original meanings of these classical texts (debatable no doubt, but he seems pretty convinced). You can get a sense of his approach, if you are interested, from this TED talk he did some years ago.

I was able to meet with Pattaniak later in my trip. Early on, there is a certain amount of jockeying for position as he probed to see how many westerner traps I fell into and I work hard to side step them. We end up having a great discussion which ranges from Joseph Campbell to fan fiction. He was especially interested in the folkloric dimensions of fandom, a topic he had not considered before, but he got almost immediately the way fandom becomes a space for exploring multiple lives which the characters might have led. We have some debate about the ways fandom is and is not a religion and whether this might mean something different in an Indian context than it does in an American. Fair enough. He argues most American companies are especially paralyzed by religious difference while Indians live with religious contrasts all of the time. And yes, we have managed to encounter most of the world’s great religions co-existing side by side here and often working together for common survival, but we’ve also heard brutal reports of genocide directed against one or another sect here and signs that the most repressive aspects of some of these religions still exert a powerful impact on the day to day lives of people.

Here’s an example of the kind of  video Culture Machine produced for a corporate client, in this case, the manufacture of home appliances, which adopted a “respect for women” theme. It is a brilliant example of an advertisement which follows many of our principles for Spreadable content.

Finally, the company is very much involved in producing video segments around music and especially fashion and cosmetics. We met one of the top stars in this space, Elton Fernandez, as he was starting to shoot a segment in their studios. He said that he had gotten complaints because his videos often used models that people did not think looked like the average Indian woman, so he had invited his housemaid into the studio and was going to give her a make-over for the cameras. Here’s his YouTube channel.

We talked with the CEOs and then they brought me into the central space in the office, where all of the company’s employees, or at least those on ground for the day, gathered around for a question and answer session which centered around issues of transmedia, world-building, and spreadability. The young creative workers seemed to have an enormous awareness of U.S. based developments in popular culture and new media.

We had some discussions of what transmedia might mean in the Indian context. I had suggested that we could think about Bollywood as a system that supports transmedia performance, with musical numbers being the segment that extended outward from the film, through music videos, song tapes, lip sincs, and dance classes, all of which help to heighten awareness of a new release and build up the careers of certain performers. The Culture Machine folks talked about the elaborate traditional mythology of India – these vast interlocking story cycles that were constructed in classical times and have fueled entertainment production ever since. The stories of the Hindu gods and goddesses have been drawn into all forms of artistic production. There are full on adaptations of some of the classical epics, but individual characters can spin off and be the basis for their own more focused narratives. Both have happened in recent years in Indian television. And they compared the recent cycle to the strategies Marvel has used to launch the Avengers movies.

So, this is world-building on a large scale that spans much of the country’s history. And they noted that many more contemporary and original drama series also relied heavily on stock types and conflicts that implicitly or explicitly reference moments from those epics, so these stories still provide the template for much of their drama. But because of this rich and still strong tradition, they argued the country had been slower to develop original IP that might do what Marvel’s universe did. They were very interested in what that might look and we talked a lot about what it might mean to create such a new mythology through YouTube videos rather than big screen or television stories. A second challenge they identified had to do with the Indian consumer’s expectation of larger-than-life entertainment, whether it was these epic stories of Gods and Goddesses (the mythological genre proper) or the kinds of genre-mixing and glamour-driven stories we associate with Bollywood. They said that this expectation had created some challenges in rolling out YouTube content, since YouTube in the states is associated with a DIY “Broadcast Yourself” trend, where-as even reality television in India depends less on “ordinary people” and more on minor celebrities already partially known to audiences before they turn on the first episode.

Categories: Blog

All India Bakchod: Changing India…One Gag at a Time

September 4, 2015 - 7:36am

The  following excerpt from my travel diary describes a meeting I had with Vijay Nair, the CEO of Only Much Louder, and Rohan Joshi, one of the key performers from the comedy troupe, All India Bakchod, which occurred early in my time in Mumbai and informed my understanding of how digital media and popular culture were working together to change political discourse in the country.

We were taken to the headquarters for Only Much Louder, former industrial space which is being adopted to the needs of a creative company, while preserving at least some elements of its old atmosphere. The company’s director and founder Vijay Nair told us the story of how his company was helping to transform Indian popular culture. Nair had started out while still in high school managing some local bands – mostly rock and heavy metal. He said at that time most bands in India were doing cover versions of western rock performers, but he began identifying artists who were trying to develop and perform original material, especially in college campuses, and he sought ways to support their efforts. His promotions were very much aided by the emergence of the internet which allowed artists and fans alike to learn more about performers who might previously have been known locally but would not have been able to develop a national following. The web supported communication across scenes, and he began to provide these artists with management to help give them the business support they needed. Gradually, the company also began organizing concerts and music festivals, became a production facility to help them make music videos, and became its own record label.

He had what struck me as a very enlightened attitude towards copyright. He said that there was a long history in India of the retailers being very slow to pay the labels for the records they sold (if they paid at all) so the revenue from record sales could never constitute the primary income stream for his artists. As a consequence, they embraced the web, giving away much of the music for free and trusting their fans to help publicize and distribute it, counting on live event revenue and sponsorships, rather than retail sales, to sustain them. He said, “piracy was the best thing to happen. Our fans took over our distribution.”

Along the way, he also observed a shift from performers doing rock only in English to more artists performing in Hindi and other local languages, which also helped to differentiate alternative artists from the commercial mainstream. In 2010, they started hosting music festivals which now travel city to city, exposing audiences to new and established bands, and further building up the music scenes.

But around this same time, the company started to branch out to work with comedy and Youtube stars. He described the dramatic growth of comedy performances in India, with his stars going from small venues to large concert halls in a matter of two years time. Much of the energy here, he suggested, came through the platform which Youtube gave to these comedians. He gave me some sense of the comedy traditions of his country, which were highly localized until the rise of the web. He talked about local theaters cultivating a troupe of comic poets who would do satirical verse about contemporary developments, but who would be so grounded in local references, vernacular languages, etc., that they would be almost incomprehensible outside of their local community. There were strong traditions of comedy grounded in imitation and mimicry with a strong focus on parodying regional and caste differences. He referenced the introduction of a comedy competition, the Great India Laugh Challenge, which gave some of these local performers a chance to compete for more national visibility.

But he felt that YouTube has had an enormous transformative impact on the audience for comedy, creating a new generation of personalities who had followings across the country. Most of the audience, he said, still comes from the top ten cities in India – very urban based, not yet penetrating the small towns, but definitely having an impact on youth culture.

Comedy still is heavily gendered as a male profession, but there were some emerging female performers, and he said that Youtube was also having an impact in terms of Indian audiences accessing U.S. based female comics, such as Sara Silverman, Amy Schumer, Tina Fey, etc., which is exposing people to the idea that women might have their own distinctive comic contributions to make to the culture. Much of the stand-up comedy was modeled on British and American performers, so it was done in English, though he is seeing a rise in performances in Hindi and other regional languages, following the pattern of localization he had previously observed with rock bands.

The comedians are performing at some risk, because free speech is inconsistently defined, and there can be legal consequences for jokes that ruffled the feathers of powerful people or which make fun of religious beliefs in particular. Yet, despite or perhaps because of this, comedians were playing important political roles in India, speaking about issues that are not being discussed within mainstream media, and becoming a force in shaping how young people in particular think about the political process.

Around that time, we were joined by Rohan Joshi, who is part of All India Backchod, a group which has been at the center of much of the debates around comedy in India. Parmesh had shared with me an interesting article which used their fights with censorship to illustrate the shifting limits on what comedy could or could not address in their country. And the article led me to a feature length documentary,I Am Offended, which centers around the struggles of comedians in India to deal with both formal and informal forms of censorship, an issue which has also drawn increased interest here in the United States.

AIB had done a “roast” of several Bollywood stars, one of the first public examples of this well-established genre of comedy performances in India, and the response from the public had been enormous, reaching many million viewers via YouTube, but then they got complaints from the government about some of the material included, especially some of the comments about sexuality and religion, and they were forced to take the videos down from their own Youtube channel though it continues to informally circulate through many more dispersed networks. It is hard to remove something from circulation once it has gained a life online.


The Roast of Arjun Kapoor and Ranveer Singh… by AlllndiaBakchod

I had been warned we would be meeting Rohan so I checked out some of their videos online yesterday morning. Many of them are in Hindi without subtitles, so I was not able to fully comprehend the comedy, but here’s a link to a video depicting what an Indian version of Mario Brothers would look like, which was visually oriented and thus largely comprehensible to me (even if some of the local references fly over my head).

Rohan noted that within India, he reached an audience much bigger than any comic reaches in America or the UK, so he asked why he would want or need to “globalize” his address: he felt his success came in articulating an Indian perspective on world events. AIB has been fearless at tackling controversial political issues. One of their first videos to really get on people’s radar, “It’s Your Fault,” dealt with rape culture in India and had women repeating some of the absurd statements made about rape by various Indian public figures (male and female).

AIB also played an important role in reshaping the debate in India around Net Neutrality, an issue which, as in the United States, got almost no media coverage. The government was very quietly calling for public comment on the issue and they were inspired by John Oliver to produce their own comedy video explaining the issue to the Indian public and encouraging them to weigh in.

And the group has continued to rally support and educate supporters at each twist and turn of this complex regulatory process. Here, for example, is a more recent video which further elaborates on the various ways that Indian telcomms had sought to misinform the public about what net neutrality meant. What a bunch of pineapples!

Rohan noted that their net neutrality  videos were produced in English, albeit in simple English that could be understood by those with limited comprehension of the language, because they wanted it to be seen across the nation. They said that they moved between English and Hindi as the dominant language for their work depending on what felt most organic to a particular project, and that it was not uncommon for Indian comics, much as in everyday life, to code switch sometimes in the same sentence. Ultimately, they were able to get 1.2 million people to send in their responses to the government in support of net neutrality and thus helping to shape the policy that emerged.

Both Vijay and Rohan described a vision where they would help to create an alternative media channel, largely crowd-funded, in order to get around commercial constraints on free speech and which would help to mobilize young people of all classes to get involved more directly in reforming the political system. Crowdfunding was a new model in India, with Kickstarter only tapping the top few percent of the population. A major obstacle was that the use of credit cards was still not widespread in the country, where cash based exchanges are the norm, but they were seeing e-commerce sites allowing more people to place faith in credit card exchanges online, which they felt would pave the way for more widespread interest in the crowdsourcing of entertainment content. For now, their content production is mostly supported by brands and by the revenues from live performances, which is why the kind of management they provide is so vital to these rising artists.

Around this time, Parmesh pushed me to share with them some of our recent work, and I talked a bit about Civic Imagination, the Harry Potter Alliance, The Nerdfighters, and the use of the superhero motif in various immigration rights struggles, all of which interested them greatly. We got into an interesting set of exchanges about what might be the Indian counterparts for these efforts, and they identified two projects in Indian politics which were using the superhero motif in particular. Rohan shared the example of a particular political figure, Arvinnd Kejriwal, who suffered from Ashma and who tended to wear rather unfashionable mufflers around his neck, which had made him an object of ridicule from the political opposition. His supporters turned this around by dubbing him “muffler man” and creating a series of videos which used superhero imagery to suggest the muffler was the source of his super powers.

Our discussion shifted more generally to the political culture of India, which they saw as characterized by a certain degree of cynicism, but within limits. They said the basic deal was that all politicians were corrupt, so the public wanted them to “eat” from the public trough but “get shit done,” and the outrage was directed at incompetence far more than corruption. They also said that political engagement was very much class-based in India but in a somewhat counter-intuitive way. The upper classes did not vote because they did not want to be associated with the corruption of the political class, where-as much of the politics was directed towards the common classes, which really cast the deciding votes in most cases. They argued that recent campaigns, though, were using social media and even transmedia tactics in ways that were reaching the attention of young people from the upper-classes and pulling them into the political process. The result was not necessarily a more progressive politics but was changing the political style, including the rise of a generation of “cool” or “hip” young political figures who were themselves using comedy or willing to engage with comedians in getting their messages out to the world. Needless to say, I found this entire discussion VERY interesting.

Through my engagement with Indian students via the LOUD tour, I came away by the end of my trip with an even stronger sense of how important AIB had become at merging the worlds of comedy and politics. Most of the audience seemed to recognize AIB and knew about their videos, and for many of them, AIB played much the same role that the Daily Show performed in U.S. undergraduate culture. AIB, like the Daily Show, consistently calls attention to the foibles of the mass media and especially of the news media, as might be suggested by this video, “The Great India Media Circus.”

The proliferation of screens in the talk television segment seems particularly target at Arnab Goswami, a conservative talk show host, more or less in the same vein, as Bill O’Reilly, but pushed to the Nth degree. Here, you can see what has become perhaps the most famous segment on Arnab’s program, where he talks through and hectors a guest who dares to challenge his presentation of the facts. Arnab’s “Never, Ever, Ever…” has become emblematic of the voice of mass media in India, and would generate easy laughs when I referenced it during my talks.

Ironically, I had a chance to have a brief conversation with Arnab, during a conference hosted by Twitter in Mumbai, and I found him to be charming, soft-spoken, and thoughtful off-camera. Remixing Arnad is a popular pass-time in India and I incorporated this example in many of my talks as I traveled across the country — a way to illustrate the collision between old and new media that is helping to shape political discourse around the world.

As we were leaving India, AIB released a new video,”Unoffended,” featuring Arnab, and speculating what would happen to mass media if the world decided to be reasonable rather than shouting at each other. This adds yet another layer to my argument about the interface between AIB/Remix Culture and Arnab/Mass Media.

Categories: Blog

Why I Went to India…

September 3, 2015 - 5:03am

I spent five weeks in India this summer. During that time, I delivered more than 20 talks and met with some of the country’s leading thinkers about new media, culture, education, politics, and journalism. My wife, Cynthia, and I visited a range of cities in the North, South, East, and West of the country, though our core base of operation was in Mumbai/Bombay.

This was my first trip to India, though I have imagined visiting this country since I was 12 when I became utterly fascinated with the Disney animated version of The Jungle Book. How many layers deep into the colonialist imagination is that — a Disney version of a Rudyard Kipling novel — but it planted a seed for me which grew over time, leading me to explore and engage with many different aspects of Indian culture, food, cinema, music and political philosophy, over the subsequent decades, and led to me standing in front of one audience after another across the subcontinent. As I told these audiences, I no more thought of them as Mowgli than I hoped they would think of me as Rambo; our popular mythology distorts how we see each other in so many ways, but it can also open us up to new experiences and perspectives and inspire curiosity about people we might never encounter otherwise, and that’s how it was for me in India.

But what brought me to India was not The Jungle Book, or the Apu Trilogy, or the various Bollywood films I have watched through the years. I had worked closely with one great student from South Asia after another through the years — both graduate and undergraduate, both at MIT and now at USC.  Their work exposed me to so many significant developments in the country’s media landscape and I wanted to see what was happening there with my own eyes. I wanted to come to India to pay tribute to those students. And I wanted to expand the conversations within my classroom to engage with more thinkers and do-ers in this remarkable country.

In short, I came to India to learn (though, of course, being an academic, the way you finance such a trip is to agree to give a series of talks.) Off and on, across the fall, I plan to share some of the things I learned and some of the amazing people I met during my trip through India. I hope to share some excerpts from my travel journal, some of the photographs my wife took, but I also want to dig deep into the country’s contemporary popular culture (especially the culture around comics). Keep in mind that I am not an expert on Indian culture and politics. I am sure to make some mistakes here, so please be patient with me, but also, if you know more about India than I do, do not let these errors slide. I’d love to hear from you.

The person who made this trip possible was Parmesh Shahani. Parmesh had been a Master’s Student in the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program. Parmesh was one of those people who arrived on campus and already seemed to be at the center of a vast network of contacts. As a graduate student, he wrote a remarkable thesis which became a groundbreaking book — Gay Bombay: Globalization, Love and (Be)Longing in Contemporary India. He was perfectly situated to capture a moment of change in terms of how India thought about sexual politics, and his book combined a personal memoir with ethnographic accounts of the emerging activist movement there. You can read here the interview I did with Parmesh for my blog at the time the book first appeared. (Part Two is here.)

In the years since, Parmesh has become an iconic figure in the GLBT struggle in India — an outspoken activist who has fostered change by working within some of the country’s largest companies. You can get a sense of Parmesh from this video, produced by the INK conference.

Parmesh’s talk is powerful and personal, including some discussion of his time at MIT, when he was my student, and the efforts he has made since returning to Mumbai to be an activist for gay rights within the business community. He has been responsible for getting his company, Godrej,  to embrace what remains one of the most enlightened policies for employees in the country. It’s interesting in this talk to watch the ways he is able to link gay rights back to classical traditions in India’s history, while depicting homophobia as imposed on India by the Victorians.

While he was at MIT, Parmesh had been key in developing and launching the Convergence Culture Consortium, a think tank which brought together leading scholars on media consumption, fandom, and participatory culture, in conversation with leading media companies and brands.  Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Society, which I co-authored with Sam Ford and Joshua Green, was perhaps the most visible outgrowth of that initiative.

Parmesh now runs the India Culture Lab at Godrej, which he developed to serve a similar function in his home country. The Lab’s home page characterizes it as: “a fluid experimental space that cross-pollinates ideas and people to explore what it means to be modern and Indian. We are based in Vikhroli, Mumbai, at the Godrej headquarters. The Lab was launched in January 2011 as an attempt to create an alternative intellectual hub in Mumbai city that would serve as a catalyst for conversations about contemporary India, by brokering interactions between academia, the creative industries, the corporate world and the not-for-profit sector…We measure our success by the connections we empower and by the quality of conversations we facilitate; to us, success is a process of discovery and not some endpoint. We also see ourselves contributing to the larger design thinking process around innovation at the Godrej group. Through the Lab, we are creating a certain kind of atmosphere that encourages new ideas and opportunities. Agendas for innovation need not just be procedures and methodologies but also an underlying philosophy of creating a work environment conducive to a culture of thinking. A note on how we think of ‘culture’ at the Lab. To us, ‘culture’ is a term that extends beyond the visual, performing or fine arts, but rather addresses broader questions related to aspects of living, demographics, gender relations, urbanism, and communication technologies, to list just a few.”

I was able to attend several of the lab’s public events and came to see it as one of the most generative spaces I’ve ever encountered. The events, which are diverse in format and theme, attract a community of people — filmmakers, musicians, poets, scholars, journalists, business leaders — who return week after week to participate in conversations that push them outside of their own comfort zones and encourage them to reflect on the diversity of the culture around them. I came to know and value each member of his remarkable team, including Dianne Tauro, Ojas Kolvankar, Kevin Lobo, and Jeff Roy.

One of the highlights of my visit with the Culture Lab team was an event organized by Nitika Khaitan, a Yale undergraduate intern, who spent her summer researching performance poetry in Mumbai. For this event, she  brought together a mix of poets, representing many different traditions. The following is an excerpt of my travel diary about the event:

“Part of the emphasis here is on differences in language, so we heard works read in six or seven different languages from all over the country: it was interesting to hear so many of the regional languages side by side and listen for the differences in sound and cadence. There was also an enormous range of different modes of poetic performance, from Preeti Vangani reading feminist poetry in English to a group of South Bombay hip hop artists performing in Tamil and English (South Dandies Swaraj).

By far, the most compelling performer was Sambhaji Bhagat, who is apparently a living legend: his story was translated into a movie last year, Court.

And here is a video of the actual poet performing

He is a barrel chested man with shoulder length hair and a big bushy mustache who sings his poems in a big, booming voice: we did not understand a word he said, but there’s something jaunty and subversive about the ways he presented the material. He was clearly playing with the audience, getting them singing and clapping along, as he pushes his themes deeper and deeper into an anti-government direction. Best we can tell, he sang about corruption and scandal in the current regime, as well as speaking about the struggle in Kashmir. Parmesh told me the poet has already been jailed multiple times for his critiques of the government (free speech is far from guaranteed here and the current government is particularly prone to turn its critics into political prisoners.)

All in all, the night called attention to the multi-lingual nature of Indian culture. Ask yourself, if each American state had a different local language, which languages would you learn and why. Having grown up in Georgia, would I also speak the languages of the neighboring states? Could I have gone to graduate school without learning to speak the languages of Iowa and Wisconsin? Would I have been able to move as easily between jobs at MIT and USC? Many people here speak fluently in 3-4 or more of these languages and the audience, in general, seems to understand much if not all of what is being said, leaving me feeling inadequate about living a society where most of us speak one language and not that well.”

Parmesh’s work with the Culture Lab is informed by a range of other networks in which he also participates. He’s editor-at-large of Verve, a leading fashion magazine, where he writes a monthly column. While we were on our visit, he had to go for a photo shoot because Vogue India was showcasing him as one of the coolest people in the country. He is a Yale World Fellow, A World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, and a TED Fellow. In short, our Parmesh is quite a fellow! He was willing and able to tap many of these networks as he took me on what amounted to a five week guided tour of his country and its culture. My student had surely become my teacher over the time we were in India together.

I wrote in my diary on the second day: “He seems to know everyone in the city – people of all classes and backgrounds. He can call together the top educators for a meeting today but he also knows the cooks and cleaning staff at the corporate dining hall, knows the wait staff at the places where we eat, knows the proprietors of all of the shops he takes us.” and I quickly discovered that he maintains this same set of connections in every other city we visited across India.

The India Culture Lab hosted a large public lecture, and I will be sharing videos of that event in a few more days, but I was also there to deliver a series of “master classes” designed to help MBA students across India develop a deeper understanding of how media and cultural change is impacting the environments within which they will be working. Here’s how I described the core mission of the event in my travel diary:

“Godrej is recruiting new talent at top MBA programs across India and it has done this in an original way through its LOUD program: LOUD stands for Living Out Ur Dreams. Participants at the workshop will be sharing their dreams, personal and professional, and a certain number of applicants will be selected and funded. The recruits will then be expected to live out their dreams before starting to work for the company and to share with the world what happened. Last year, they produced an entire reality series based on the process and had rock bands perform on each campus to draw people in. This year, I am supposed to be the star attraction, telling my own story of pursuing my dreams, and also giving these students, who have had an incredibly focused education without any humanities classes, why culture should matter in the ways they do business in the future. No pressure here at all. :-)”

Teams of students were also proposing projects to improve their campus and the company would fund the best project to emerge from this nation-wide recruitment process. Each presentation, then, included an introduction by Parmesh, my master class presentation, and an inspirational and informative talk from a top executive from the company (with a shifting cast of characters in this slot across the trip).

And here’s a description I wrote shortly after the first of the events:

“It is hard to describe the tone of the event: Parmesh has a unique ability to connect with Indian audiences; his humor is bawdy, his tone is raucous, he shows no shame, and he invites the students to question what they have been taught and to actively participate in the conversation.  All of these break to some degree with the tone of most academic presentations here, and indeed, the pep rally like atmosphere he created would be odd on an American college campus also. He brought in tons of gifts – shampoos, umbrellas, books, gift bags – all branded by the company and has a range of different stunts throughout the program to give away the gifts, typically by encouraging the students to shout our questions or responses to questions. The climax comes when he takes the hat he’s been wearing through the session and offers it to the person who asks the most Hat-Ke question. Hat-Ke, apart from being a pun on hat in this context, is a word which literally means different, but in vernacular speech, means something closer to “queer.” So there’s something really amazing about seeing these straight-laced, disciplined,  Indian students fighting over who can ask the most queer question of the day, and Parmesh flirts shamelessly with the winner of the competition.  The audience laughs at every suggestive one-liner and double entendre which he throws out there, part of his ongoing project to liberate the next generation of Indians from the repressive structures of the past.

My talk seemed to be well received. I started by congratulating the audience on the discipline and hard work that they had demonstrated to get to this point in their careers and talked about how proud their parents and teachers must be of them. But then I suggested that I was going to give them advice they may never have heard from someone in a position of authority before – I wanted them to go out and play video games, read comics, watch television, and otherwise follow their passions, and then the talk describes my own journey – how things that my parents thought got in the way of my studies had paved the way for new insights – and share some advice on how to think beyond the narrow confines of a discipline. A highpoint in my leadership advice is a slide where I describe the lessons they might take from Jon Snow in Game of Thrones – this gets the best response of the whole talk. The second part lays out some key ideas about participatory culture and its impact, including examples from both American and Indian popular media. Another high point came when I referenced the Supreme Court decision on marriage equality and unpacked the history of the rainbow flag and why it was chosen as a filter on Facebook. There was such honest excitement about the decision here, such joy, and there was also great interest in knowing the history of this symbol and how it emerged from the connections between the gay community and Judy Garland/Wizard of Oz

….Afterwards, I was mobbed on stage. At one point, there were probably a hundred students, swarming around, all wanting to take a selfie with “Yoda” or “Professor Henry.”

Across the five weeks, I participated in LOUD rallies at National Institute of Industrial Engineering, Mumbai; Xavier Institute of Management, Bhubaneswar;  Indian Institute of Management, Lucknow; Jain Institute of Management, Mumbai; Symbiosis Institute of Business Management, Pune; India Institute of Management-Kozihikode, Kozihikode; Management Development Institute, Gurgaon;  Faculty of Management Studies, Delhi, and Indian Institute of Foreign Trade, Delhi.

Each stop drew slightly different responses, though for the most part, the students responded with intensity — pounding tables, shouting yes to rhetorical questions, applauding wildly, and laughing at every outrageous statement. And through the LOUD competitions, we got a sense of their hopes for their campuses, for themselves, and for their country.

Sometimes, our interactions were unintentionally comic: one young man stood up to explain his dream, “I want to go to a war-torn country and shoot something.” It took Parmesh gently probing to get him to explain that he wanted to shoot a documentary, though I am not sure the young man ever really grasped why what he had said might cause confusion.

Sometimes, the encounters were poignant. A young man told me about the pressure he sometimes felt to abandon his dreams and personal passions, recounting how he had been bullied by other students about his interest in model airplanes, with people telling him he did not come to a top business school to spend time playing with toys. It is clear the enormous stress that the testing regime here places on these young people to conform to fairly narrow definitions of what knowledge matters and thus the pleasure they take in hearing someone like me talk about what they can learn by engaging more closely with popular media.

And sometimes, they helped me to see things that were right under my nose the whole time. Here’s a part of my travel diary notes about our visit in Gurgaon: “There was an eye opening moment during the Campus Dream competition. The winning team basically proposed making their campus one of the first in India that was handicapped accessible. And it clicked. All trip, I had been struggling with grossly uneven surfaces, with oddly placed steps, small steps down for no good reason, massive steps up also without visible rationale, and often, both in getting from point a to point b. It is one of the many reasons why I feel constantly off-balance here, but somehow it had not sunk in that part of what we are dealing with is a world which had not passed legislation requiring public facilities to be handicapped accessible. Doh!” The issue of handicapped access resurfaced at several other campus visits, forcing all of us to recognize how urgent this struggle is in contemporary India.

In the weeks to come, I will be sharing more of my experiences in India — a mixture of travel writing and media analysis, which I hope will spark more awareness of some of the incredible work going on down there. So, buckle your seatbelts, folks.

Categories: Blog

What We Miss When We Focus on the Confederate Flag…

August 31, 2015 - 11:04am

This past June, I began my summer travels with a homecoming tour of the American South, visiting old friends, and stopping at places across the region that had meant something special to me growing up. One of the highlights of the trip was dinner at Chef & the Farmer, the neo-Southern cuisine restaurant opened by Vivian Howard in Kinston, North Carolina. My wife Cynthia and I were joined for this amazing dinner (one of the 3 or 4 best I have ever eaten) by John Huey, the former Editor-in-Chief of Time Inc. and a fellow member of the jury for the Peabody Awards, and his wife, Kate.  

Howard’s program, A Chef’s Life, had won a Peabody Award during our first year on the jury: this program tells the story of how Howard and her husband, the artist Ben Knight, moved back to Eastern North Carolina from New York City to open a farm-to-table restaurant. A Chef’s Life situates her efforts to reinvent southern cooking in the context of the cultural life of her surrounding community, telling the stories of the farmers who grow the food she serves and the local traditions concerning how that food is prepared. Howard knows how to make traditional southern dishes taste great! Her program offers an alternative set of images and stories about the American south, focusing on its rich cultural traditions and its strong sense of community. A Chef’s Life ranks in my personal canon of contemporary works which invite us to rethink and reimagine southern identity: Russ McElwee’s Sherman’s March, Jeremy Love’s Bayou, Maggie Greenwald’s Songcatcher, Ava DuVerney’s Selma, Peter Berg’s Friday Night Lights, Ray Mckinnon’s Rectify, and the music of T-Bone Burnett, to cite just a few favorites. 

Huey and I had grown up in Atlanta, just a few miles apart, and so we had bonded as members of the committee; we both had fallen hard for Howard and her program. I wanted to taste the food she prepared: Huey had already had a few chances and promised me that I would not be disappointed. And I was not.

It is hard for anyone raised in the South (especially someone who has found their fortunes outside the region) not to have profoundly mixed feelings about what it means to be southern.  As we had dinner together, the two couples (with visits from Howard and her staff) talked about how we struggled to separate what we love about the South from its more cringeworthy and disappointing aspects.

But when we got back to our rooms, we learned the news of the tragic shooting at the black church in Charleston, South Carolina. Huey and his wife are residents of Charleston and were driving back immediately to participate in some of the gatherings that would take place there in the aftermath. We talked briefly about how much progress that city had made — people of many races working together — to create a more diverse yet unified community. 

There are many ways America could have responded to the shootings in Charleston, including, for example, by pursuing all the more aggressively the kinds of gun reform (or mental health) policies  that might have actually prevented the shooting from taking place, using the incident to continue what I had seen as a promising national dialogue about race and racism or  to foreground the history of efforts (successful or otherwise) towards civil rights and cultural diversity within the region. And some of these other approaches were tried. But for the most part, the Charleston shootings have triggered a summer where the public conversation has been dominated by debates around the Confederate flag.

Let me begin with as direct a statement as I can make: the continued use of the Confederate battle flag on public buildings or state flags in the South is indefensible.

State governments should no longer provide cover for those for whom the flag has always been about hate and not heritage; citizens of color should no longer feel misrepresented or excluded when they look upon their state’s seat of power, and our local and state governments should be looking towards the future and not the past. So, take it down!

Obama is correct that the flag belongs in a museum.  There is no way to erase or ignore the fact that this flag’s history has been charged at every moment by the worst kinds of racist ideologies.

In 2003 (way too recently!), the Confederate war banner was removed from the Georgia flag and similar choices were made by other southern states. Today, the Confederate flag is officially part of the flag of Mississippi, but until the recent efforts, it was still displayed, for example, on state-sanctioned auto license plates. As state governments have moved away from the use of the Confederate flag for official purposes, that banner has been used almost entirely by the most extreme, most defiant segments of the white South. Today, most people choosing to use this flag, in the face of pained responses from other people, are doing so with the full knowledge of the flag’s implications. That said, the Confederate flag has always bourn a complex range of other meanings (family, region, class, masculinity, tradition, pride, resistance), which are not easy to separate out from that history and which is why removing the flag still carries an emotional charge, even for those of us who have come to deplore it as a symbol of the south’s worst impulses.

I hear my non-Southern friends on Facebook say that the Confederate flag is “simply” about racism, and what I want to suggest is that there is nothing simple about it.

You will get no defenses of the flag from me based on arguments around heritage. It is impossible to reduce a flag to a single meaning, but, in so far as it is possible, the Confederate flag now stands for racism. Period. End of story.

So I was happy when we saw a new wave of energy across the South to further limit the use of the flag in any official capacity, a struggle long over-due and well worth fighting. But as the flag goes away, we then have to work through the other things that it stands for and we have to develop a more complex account of how race operates in contemporary America.

Let’s start with a key point. Banning symbols is rarely the best way to get at the source of problems and often can be a way of masking their root causes.   Removing symbols attempts to negate their original meanings and effects (perhaps necessary to do) but does not generate new beliefs and practices. We need to find new ways to articulate southern identity that are not based in racist ideologies and that reflect  contemporary southern experience.

For much of my life, I, like many other southern white men of my generation, saw the Confederate flag as a sloppy shorthand for my southern identity. The Confederate flag waved over my childhood treehouse and was part of the state flag I learned to draw in elementary school. My grandmother filled me with stories of my Great-Great-Grandfather who fought for the Confederacy and helped to raise her. There were still aging Confederate veterans being paraded around during my early childhood.

 Whiteness has often been discussed as an ex-nominated category, an unacknowledged norm against which all other identities need to justify themselves, but it can also be experienced as a lack — an absence of a particular identity or history, a hunger for stronger ties (which is part of what people mean when they talk about the Confederate flag in terms of “heritage.”) My family’s history went far back in the South, so far that we have never traced our story to an immigration narrative: Jenkins is no doubt an Irish or Welsh name but I have no other “mother country” from which I can meaningfully claim ancestry. So, for me, being a southerner is a deep part of my identity. Just as there is much about southern history that fills me with dread, shame, and guilt, there is much — food, music, literature and language, cultural practices —  that I still value enormously.Let’s be clear that there is no one southern experience; being southern is to be part of what Benedict Anderson would call an imagined community, and the shifting boundaries of who belongs or doesn’t belong within that community are part of what is at stake in this debate. There are important regional, generational, and gender/sexuality-based differences in what it means to be a white southerner and beyond that, southern history needs to incorporate its multicultural, multiracial, and multiethnic influences. 

One can express pride in being an Irish-American without that pride being read as necessarily a snub to Polish-Americans and one can assume that such pride brings with it some ambivalence: after all, most of those immigrants left their mother countries for good reasons.  Yet, Americans seem to find it easier to define their heritage through links to Europe or some other elsewhere rather than deal with regional particularities in their own backyards. We have few symbols through which to express a shared southern identity. The Confederate flag was the wrong symbol, as is now clear, but it was the one we inherited from previous generations.

Flags are imperfect vehicles for expressing cultural identity, since they can always be high-jacked by someone else in pursuit of their own identities (ultra right wing groups have used the American flag to hammer home divisive political messages, but progressives don’t relinquish the flag as a symbol of their country). Most flags have uncomfortable histories (How can anyone wave the Union Jack given the history of British racism and colonialism around the world?) For that reason, while I was deeply offended by the use of the flag as a symbol of white supremacy,  I was frustrated with the idea that something that was part of my state’s flag could be reduced to a single negative meaning, given what cultural studies teaches us about how even the most loaded cultural symbols can be appropriated, remixed, and resignified. (See, for example, this website which explores the diverse ways that southerners of multiple race have endowed the flag with meaning in the context of their everyday life choices.)

There was much I did not know (or had not bothered to find out) about the Confederate flag until recently, starting with the fact that what we are calling the Confederate flag never flew over the government of the Confederate States of America. It was explicitly a battle flag, and it was reclaimed as a symbol of the south by subsequent generations of political leaders who almost without exception deployed it for explicitly racist purposes. For example, the Confederate battle flag was added to the Georgia State Flag in 1956, just two years before I was born,  in the context of debates about the civil rights movement. It was not added to the flag simply as an acknowledgement of southern pride (the earlier flag included a variant of the official flag of the Confederacy and it was replaced by the more militant image).  It was a symbol of defiance against the federal government’s push towards desegregation.

I’m thankful this summer’s debate highlighted those facts—which I’m guessing many southerners of my generation or younger didn’t know. But I’m dismayed that this conversation has led to intense negativity about the American South in general, so my friends on Facebook would add comments about “white trash,” “crackers”, “rednecks,” “Bubba,” and “Honey Boo Boo.”  If critics use the flag debate as an excuse to mock southerners in general, perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised at a knee-jerk reaction by some to hold onto the stars and bars. Southerners have a right, like any other group,  to be proud of their culture and their family histories. But that pride should not be expressed at someone else’s expense.

The attack on the Confederate flag has come dangerously close to treating racism as if it were somehow the unique property of a particular region. America has a history of locating racism in the South in order to avoid addressing the racism that infects the whole nation.   Anyone who grew up in the South during my generation had to confront this legacy of racism and white supremacy. You had to decide how you were going to respond, while many  in New England or the Midwest have rarely reflected on their own  privilege or seen themselves as implicated within racism. My schoolmates each made a choice; I knew people (myself among them) who became active in the civil right’s movement  and I knew people who joined the Klan.  As long as the rest of the country has a way to deflect serious consideration of a more complex history of racism onto a set of stereotypes about “rednecks” waving Confederate flags, they will do so. 

This refocusing on the Confederate flag has come at a moment when we are, as a country, paying increased attention to, for example, racialized police violence. The #BlackLivesMatters movement has helped us to see incidents of black deaths at the hands of white cops not as isolated incidences, not as problems in local police forces, but as a more widespread issue that impacts the lives of every Black American. So, it has been significant that the incidents which have sparked media coverage have come from places like Ferguson, New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles,  and Baltimore as much or more than they have come from Florida, Texas or South Carolina. Going after Confederate flags doesn’t get us very far in terms of understanding someone like Donald Trump and the many people around the country who seem to be embracing what he stands for. Racism remains a problem in every community in America and people at all levels will need to work together to bring about meaningful change.

A focus on the Confederate flag has a tendency to personalize racism, to discuss it as a moral failing of specific individuals, rather than as a systemic and structural problem. For many white people, racism does not appear to be a problem in America today because they do not see blacks being forced to ride the back of the bus and do not see people burning crosses in their neighborhoods. We have hidden the overt signs of racism (though not the everyday micro-aggressions) and we have changed many Jim Crow laws. This does not mean, however, that we are not seeing the rolling back of voter rights, for example, or that our communities do not still feel the economic and social impacts of post-war housing policies which limited who could get loans to buy into particular communities (a history capably discussed in George Lipsitz’s recent How Racism Takes Place) or that criminal justice and incarceration policies do not have implicit racial biases or… The point is that these phenomenon are built into the system in such a way that we do not need to identify explicit racist intents in order to find racialized impacts.

So, what happens to the focus on these structural and systemic factors when we bring back the age-old boogeyman of the redneck waving a Confederate flag? This is not to let Bubba off the hook or to deny that there are real hate groups in the south and elsewhere which need to be confronted. The Southern Poverty Law Center which monitors such groups do valuable work. That said, we could get rid of all of the Klansmen tomorrow and still have substantial issues we need to confront.

A focus on the Confederate flag brings with it a particular framing, which emphasizes the relations between blacks and whites, at the expense of adopting a more complex, layered picture of our multicultural society. It reduces the issue of racism to a binary when much of our best contemporary theory about race and racism has been emphasizing intersectionality — multiple points of contact between multiple demographic groups, not to mention the ways race intersects with class, gender, sexuality, and so forth. Ironically, it was an Indian-American woman, South Carolina’s Republican Governor Nikki Hailey, who ended up taking the lead on getting the Confederate flag removed from the South Carolina State House, a reminder that the modern south has experienced waves of immigration in recent years resulting in much more demographic diversity than most media representations acknowledge.

Even if we want to focus on race in the South, we need to do so with an awareness of the experiences of Latino, Asian-American, American Muslim, and a range of other minority groups who are struggling to survive and thrive in the region.  To return to my home state, Georgia is now the tenth largest state for Hispanics in the United States. To focus more narrowly on my home town, Atlanta long consisted overwhelmingly of blacks and non-Hispanic whites; those groups made up 92.1% of the city in 1990, but by 2010 their proportion had shrunk to 85.0%. Metropolitan Atlanta’s Hispanic population increased by 72.0% from 2000 to 2010, and in 2010 the city was 10.2% Hispanic. The Asian American population increased by 65.5%, and in 2010 Asian Americans made up 5.1% of the Metropolitan area. And depending on which estimate you use, Georgia’s  Muslim population is between 9.9-13% of the state’s total population. (So much for our Bible Belt stereotypes). None of this is to make the mistake of universalizing the meaning of #BlackLivesMatter by translating it into “all lives matter.” Black-white relations have a special status, have a painful history that needs to be confronted and acknowledged, but there is also work we need to do that factors in these other experiences of racial and cultural difference in the south and beyond.  

A debate around the Confederate flag increases our awareness of the history of racial conflict in the region — which can be a good thing. As I mentioned, it awakened me to the specific timing of the introduction of the Confederate flag to the state flag of Georgia and thus undercut any lingering rationales for its status as tradition. Yet, as we do so, we need to also pay attention to the long history of struggles to forge cross-racial alliances across the region — the ways diverse people have worked together  to re-invent their communities, to form new symbols and traditions, to frame new identities, that are more inclusive. Some key southern cities have made real progress in reforming laws and policies that bear traces of that history of racial discrimination. Yes, we’ve got a long, long way to go but we may want to look at what’s working in cities like Charleston, Atlanta, and elsewhere, as we try to figure out how we might form meaningful alliances to overcome racist beliefs and practices.

It is neither fair nor realistic to tell white southerners that they should not have some form of collective identity which reflects their history. This is why a fight over the flag becomes so divisive and defensive. We need to create positive new symbols of local pride. Otherwise, people will cling to the old ones. We need to find ways to represent the south that are more inclusive while confronting the region’s particular history of racism and segregation.  The flag must go but we should not leave a symbolic vacuum in its place or we will not like what fills that space.

And this might bring us back to Vivian Howard and A Chef’s Life, by way of illustration. We should never place all the burden on one sign or even one cultural system.   Food, which demonstrates the potential for constant variation and re-articulation, may offer us a more sophisticated language for talking about regional and cultural identities than flags. The ingredients at the core of traditional southern cooking — sweet potatoes, collard greens, okra, corn bread, iced tea, peanuts, peaches, chicken, black eyed peas, etc. — are foodstuffs that can be found in both black and white kitchens. Some were foods that were brought to America from Africa. Some were foods that hint at shared histories of poverty and struggles to survive. Some were foods prepared by black cooks working in white households, and so they hint at the ways — painful and sometimes affectionate — that white and black lives were complexly intertwined across that history.

The history of southern cooking is fraught with exploitation, appropriation, marginalization, and scarcity, it would have to acknowledge how much blood was spilt over gaining access to lunch counters. The fact that we eat many of the same foods does not mean we fix them in the same ways or eat them in the same places and there are some dishes which produce dread and disgust,  so there’s much we still have to overcome.  Paula Dean shows us that southern cooking can contain too much butter — and too much racism — to be always the best thing for our health, but all the more reason  to tinker with those classic ingredients and see if something a bit more tasty emerges.  

The great thing about food is that it comes with a “serve by” date, and after that, we throw it out and try something else. Food can represent family history (as anyone with fading hand copied recipes from earlier generations can attest) but it also points to community practices — the potluck — which imply a world where there is always room for another seat at the table. Traditional southern dishes can be mixed with new ingredients which reflect other histories and trajectories.

The Southern Foodways Alliance, for example, represents the kind of collective enterprise that will be required if we are to construct alternative markers of southern identity. Here’s part of how they describe their mission: “The Southern Foodways Alliance documents, studies, and celebrates the diverse food cultures of the changing American South. We set a common table where black and white, rich and poor — all who gather — may consider our history and our future in a spirit of reconciliation…We tell honest and sometimes difficult stories about our region. We embrace Southern history, the realities of the Southern present, and the opportunities for Southern futures. In other words, we don’t flinch from talking about race, class, religion, gender, and all the other biggies.”

Howard’s food and her personal narrative are a powerful expression of local particularity, all the more so because it is a story of a return to the south, of what people bring back with them and what they discover “back home”, of new beginnings and creative rewordings: what emerges in her kitchen is provisional and improvisational  and this is what we need to embrace if we are to articulate forms of southern pride that do not bear residuals of the Confederate past.

And I can tell you, for all the symbolic weight I am placing on it here, Howard’s food tastes damn fine.

I am grateful to John Huey, Charlie Jenkins, Sam Ford, Amanda Ford, Tara McPherson, Liana Gamber-Thompson,  Samantha Close, Andrea Wenzel, Erna Smith, for critiques, advice, and insight during the writing of this essay. Any stupidity that remains is my responsibility.

Categories: Blog

The New Audience: Movie-Going in a Connected World

August 26, 2015 - 7:26am

Late last spring, I participated as the opening speaker of a program hosted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and dealing with the future of movie-going. The program was organized by Michael Shamberg, a two-time Best Picture nominee with credits including The Big Chill, A Fish Called Wanda, Erin Brokovich, and Django Unchained. My fellow panelists included Ze Frank, the President of Buzzfeed Motion Pictures and a long-time innovator in digital media; Tayo Amos, a young filmmaker who described how digital media was creating openings for minority artists to create and share their work; and John Lassiter, the chief creative officer of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios and principal creative advisor for Walt Disney Imagineering.

As a long-time Oscar fan, it was a great honor to be speaking to this audience and I enjoyed pulling together a talk which spanned the history of motion pictures and sought to flag some key developments in contemporary Hollywood. Over the summer, the videos of this event have been released, and I wanted to share them here.

Over the next week or so, I am heading off to the East Coast: I am on leave this fall and in residence at Microsoft Research’s New England office. There will be a brief gap in the flow of blog posts, having gotten caught up on a backlog of material that built up over the summer, and then I will be back like gangbusters. So pardon our interruption.

Categories: Blog

Digging Deeper: Virtual Reality and Immersive Entertainment

August 21, 2015 - 9:25am

Jaz Jowett from Halvas Media has produced an outstanding series of videos on virtual reality and immersive entertainment featuring participants from this past spring’s Transforming Hollywood conference.   Check them out below.

If you missed my post earlier in the year showcasing the videos of the actual sessions from that conference, you can find them here.

And if you want some further reflections on the topic, Fred Turner, who spoke at our conference, followed up with a recently published essay in American Prospect. And if you want more historical reflections on VR and technological change, see this Soundcloud interview with media archaeologist Erkki Huhtamo, who also spoke at our Transforming Hollywood event.

Experts discussed Virtual Reality with Havas at Transforming Hollywood – Part 1 – Future or Fad from 18 Los Angeles – Havas Media Gr. on Vimeo.

Experts discussed Virtual Reality with Havas at Transforming Hollywood – Part 2 – Advertising from 18 Los Angeles – Havas Media Gr. on Vimeo.

Experts discussed Virtual Reality with Havas at Transforming Hollywood – Part 3 – Storytelling from 18 Los Angeles – Havas Media Gr. on Vimeo.

Categories: Blog

“Somewhat Diverse?”: Remarks to the Science Fiction Research Association Conference

August 19, 2015 - 6:33am

Earlier this summer, I was presented with the Pilgrim Award for “lifetime contributions to SF/FS” by the Science Fiction Researchers Association. I learned of this honor too late to attend but I sent them the following remarks, which speak to their conference’s key themes about recovering marginal voices in science fiction and fandom. My first response was “not dead yet,” in my best Monty Python impersonation, but beyond that, I was deeply honored.  These remarks were published in the organization’s summer newsletter, but I wanted to share them here, especially since this blog and the community it attracts was specifically singled out in their presentation of the award. What follows are some of my own reflections about where we are at and where we still need to go as a field as we engage with the politics of diversity as they relate to scholarship on fandom and genre entertainment.

I was deeply honored to learn that your organization, the Science Fiction Research Association, had bestowed on me your 2014 Pioneer Award. I am so sorry that I am not able to be there to accept the award in person. I am scheduled to leave in the next few days for an extended trip to India and Indonesia. The trip has been in planning for some time, and it wasn’t possible to adjust my plans accordingly. But I hope that I may be able to attend a future conference and perhaps share some time with many of you so that I can learn more about the research you are doing. So, first, let me say thanks. But, second, let me offer a short provocation — one intended to build on the themes you have outlined for this year’s conference.

Science fiction in particular; genre fiction more generally; and fandom above all have been key influences on my thinking since childhood. They remain sources of ongoing inspiration to me, as I am sure they are for those of you attending this conference. I grew up in the segregated South. I went to segregated schools, and I attended a segregated church. Insofar as I encountered racial and cultural difference, I encountered it on Star Trek, with its multi-cultural and multi-planetary crew. I encountered it through alien life forms in the pages of science fiction novels. And I encountered it through Lt. Jeff Long, the black astronaut that Mattel controversially included in its Major Matt Mason toy line.

 

The narratives of that period, we might say now, were painfully flawed, unable to imagine a world not dominated by white men; unable to imagine a galaxy where being human was not the best possible thing we could be and being American was the highest form of being human. Yet, despite—or, perhaps, because of—those limits…because science fiction raised expectations it could not itself satisfy…my experiences as a science fiction fan were central to opening my eyes to the experiences of others. Star Trek’s Prime Directive was perhaps most powerful because it gave us a vocabulary to critique all of those many times when Kirk sought to disrupt or overthrow other cultures because they did not confirm to his own deeply entrenched norms and values. Talking about and critiquing the show with fellow fans sharpened my own sense of social justice and forced me to question things I was observing in the world around me.

 

From the start, science fiction was designed to be a provocation, an incitement for reflection and dialogue about the nature of change, whether understood in technological or cultural terms. At each step along the way, science fiction writers have encouraged readers to ask some fundamental questions about who we are and what kind of world we want to live in—questions which have inspired political movements and informed academic research across many disciplines. I have been struck recently by Michael Saler’s discussion in AS IF of early science fiction fandom as a “public sphere of the imagination,”—that is, a space where fans could speculate and ask questions just removed enough from the realm of their lived experience that participants were free to consider and debate alternatives that might be unspeakable and unthinkable under other circumstances. Science fiction narratives and art provided resources for thinking through those other possibilities, and fandom provided a social space where people from somewhat diverse backgrounds might trade insights and experiences with each other.

 

My phrase “somewhat diverse” is meant to acknowledge what I take to be a central theme of this year’s convention—the attempt to reclaim science fiction’s suppressed and marginalized histories, to come to terms with the exclusions as well as inclusions that have shaped the history of science fiction as a genre and fandom as a social/cultural phenomenon. The histories of science fiction culture, which have been handed down to us from First Fandom, have stressed the roles played by white men who belonged to certain educational and technological elites, while they also remind us of the roles ethnic minorities and especially youth who were first or second-generation immigrants—people with names like Schwartz and Asimov—played in shaping science fiction cultures. Samuel R. Delany has written about the “liberal-Jewish” traditions that shaped this early fan culture. And, yet, we also know that these were not the only people engaging with speculative fictions.

 

If SF fandom constituted a public sphere of the imagination, we can only assume that there were multiple counter-publics where these same ideas were being discussed by those who would not have been welcomed at the World Science Fiction Conventions of the 1950s and 1960s. Where were science fiction’s “hush harbors”? Recent work on Afro-futurism has helped us to identify resources from science fiction that have found their way into other kinds of representation and become tools for survival of the black community, but we need to know much more about what these same processes have meant for Asian-American, Latino, first nation, and American Muslim communities across the 20th century. And we need to remember that science fiction has been a global discourse, one which has repeatedly addressed the process of globalization and colonial exploitation and one which has had an active role to perform in fostering post-colonial identities.

 

We are starting to piece together some fragmented histories of the roles science fiction fandom has played for female fans (and the conflicts they faced as they sought entry into the once almost-exclusively male clubhouse and continued to face once they got there). For me, this history has gained new poignancy as we have watched how some corners of fandom (such as Sad Puppies or Gamergate) are continuing to react aggressively against efforts to diversify and include others whose stories and perspectives matter. When we see the intensity of some of today’s fights, we gain a new appreciation of what that first generation of feminist fans must have confronted. Fandom studies was, in many ways, born from those gender wars and, from the start, has been inspired by feminist scholarship (whether the work of cultural theorists such as Janice Radway and Angela McRobbie or the work of science fiction practitioners such as Johanna Russ). Fan fiction was understood as a form of women’s writing, and these stories were often read as counter-narratives which poached the genre conventions of science fiction or other genres to tell stories from the margins. And fandom studies was quick to embrace new insights from queer theory and to engage with what fandom’s alternative forms of production and reception meant for the LGBT community. We still have much to learn by digging deeper into early fanzines which included some of the first essays advocating gay rights in America, by seeing how fans responded to James Tiptree’s transgender identifications, by looking at how organizations such as the Gaylaxians advocated for queer characters on board the Enterprise, and by examining how slash fans were drawn by their fantasies into participation in struggles around “don’t ask, don’t tell” and marriage equality.

 

But the original sin of fandom studies was its silence about race. Those of us who pioneered fandom studies too often bracketed race and class in order to focus on gender, sexuality, and generation. As we sought to validate forms of cultural production and experience that were meaningful to us, we neglected the fact that our own ranks were still too narrowly constituted and that there was more we should have done to validate forms of culture that were meaningful to a more diverse population. However much we might have sometimes felt like outcasts in our own lives, we were still in a privileged position to help inform what kinds of cultural production and reception mattered in an academic context. We pioneers have much to answer for, but we cannot afford to wallow in liberal guilt.

 

Today, work on race and fandom takes on new urgency as we confront the grim, even deadly, political realities of our times (as represented by events in Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, and perhaps some other city by the time you read these remarks). In the process, we have seen the power of social media to coalesce communities and spread critiques of the police and the news media’s responses to racialized violence in America. In the forthcoming book from our USC Media, Activism, & Participatory Politics project team, entitled By Any Media Necessary: The New Activism of American Youth, we talk about the civic imagination. Before we can change the world, we need to be able to imagine what alternatives might look like. We need to understand ourselves as civic and political agents. We need to be able to grasp the experiences and perspectives of people different from ourselves. And we need to be able to imagine concrete steps we could take to change the world. We are finding that American youth are rejecting traditional political rhetoric as insular and partisan and seeking inspiration from popular culture, including science fiction and fantasy texts, as they make appeals to their collective civic imagination.

 

We have seen genre entertainment become yet again a space where vital conversations can take place—one where we can imagine alternative futures of race in America, where we can rewrite the scripts with their embedded racial and gender hierarchies, and where we can reimagine who gets to be depicted as a hero and how they get depicted in popular narratives. We have seen signs that fandom can be as intolerant as any other sector of our society, despite a historic embrace of “infinite diversity in infinite combinations” (as Star Trek fans of the 1960s might have put it). But we have also seen fandom as a place where alternative representations might emerge and where different kinds of dialogues might take place, grounded in shared passions and interests.

 

Just as we critique the failures of science fiction to achieve those ideals, we need to advocate for those practices that have proven productive in generating new visions for future race relations. As researchers, we need to be there as feminist fans redraw the covers of superhero comics to challenge their hypersexualized depictions of female protagonists as part of the Hawkeye Project. We need to be there as fans embrace a Pakistani-American girl as Ms. Marvel or when they debate whether they can accept a black Spider-Man or Human Torch. We need to be there as fan activists attach their civic imaginations to stories such as Harry Potter, Man of Steel, or the Hunger Games as vehicles for fighting for human rights, immigration reform, or fair wages. We need to be there when Racebending challenges a history of white-casting in the entertainment industry, as minority characters often change their colors when their narratives are brought to the screen, or when women at San Diego Comic-Con insist that Cosplay is Not Consent. And we need to be looking more closely at the ways fan fiction has experimented, sometimes in ways that are painful to observe and sometimes in ways that give us hope, with other kinds of stories we can be telling. As we observe and document these more recent developments in science fiction and genre narrative, we need to place them into a larger historical context. That will require us to go back and reclaim histories and revisit texts that were neglected by earlier generations of fans and researchers.

 

As science fiction fans, we know that technology will not be our savior in these struggles, that what matters are the human choices we make in response to the affordances of new media platforms. A crucial theme running through my own work has been the ways that a growing number of people around the world who are experiencing an expansion of their communicative capacities are using those platforms and tools to assert a much more active role in shaping cultural production and circulation. I used to talk about these shifts in terms of participatory culture, but it is increasingly clear that these opportunities are unevenly distributed and that many are being left behind…so it makes more sense to not only describe but to advocate a more participatory culture.

 

Studying fandom gives us a window into understanding how grassroots power might change the world. Science fiction fandom has a long history of networked communications, and of communities coming together and conducting long-distance exchanges around shared interests. Studying science fiction fandom has thus been an important entry point into larger conversations about how cultural agendas get shaped, how communities get formed, and how publics get mobilized in the age of Web 2.0. Much of the pressure for more diverse representations in commercial entertainment right now is being driven by fans. Fans are also driving many of the critiques of the mechanisms by which digital companies exploit the creative labor of their participants.

 

Critics of this work on participatory cultures and new media have sometimes dismissed us as engaging in pure speculation, describing our accounts as “mere science fiction.” However, the people in this room know fully the power that comes from tapping into both the utopian and dystopian imagination. The best science fiction dystopias often include within them representations of what forms resistance to power might take. And the best science fiction utopias often include some hint of the current realities against which they are being framed. As we think through what a more democratic and inclusive culture might look like, the theoretical turns we use need to do what science fiction has always done best. Go beyond what is known. Trace forward implications of current trends. Warn against dangers. Advocate for opportunities. And, above all, help us to think through the nature of change itself.

 

Some of this work is already being done, no doubt by those attending this conference—many of them graduate students and recently hired junior faculty members who are seeking to insert their voices into the scholarly conversation. Those of us who are more established need to be insuring that those emerging voices get heard. We need to be supporting their research and insuring that it gets published. And we need to be bringing these insights into our teaching and our own research.

 

I am encouraged to see your organization identify some of these topics as your central concern for this year’s event. I wish I were able to be there in person to more fully engage in these crucial conversations. I hope that we will hear of much more such research in the future. In short, science fiction researchers need to boldly go where no one has gone before.

 

Once again, thank you for this honor.

Categories: Blog

F For Fake (In the Second Order): Yanis Varoufakis, The Germans, and the Middle Finger That Wasn’t There

August 17, 2015 - 10:38am

I have returned.

I spent the summer having some incredible experiences, and some profound conversations, across India and Indonesia. Some of you will have followed these events via my Facebook page, and I am going to be sharing some highlights and some reports on media developments there on this blog in the weeks ahead. But, for now, I am playing catch up with some developments while I have been away.

Moritz Fink, an expert on culture jamming, who has contributed to this blog in the past, shared with me this insightful post about the ways the Greek crisis has been depicted via comedy news and memes and I wanted to share this analysis here as we continue to focus on the interplay between news, politics, and participatory culture. Enjoy!

 

F for Fake (in the Second Order)

Yanis Varoufakis, the Germans, and the Middle Finger That Wasn’t There

by Moritz Fink

On July 5, 2015, the people of Greece were asked in a democratic referendum whether they would accept the terms imposed by the European Union to receive another tranche of desperately needed euros. The outcome was an overwhelming oxi (“no”), which, indeed, may mark a caesura in the ongoing European economic crisis. On the other hand, it seemed to be but another act (although most people considered it the very climax) in a series of political decision-making documented by the news week by week: an arrival of optimistically smiling politicians at European crisis summits and a departure of the same after long hours of discussion without any specific results. We all have seen these scenes a dozen times and followed them in an almost routine manner.

The summits have become rituals — for the protagonists, as for the journalists and commentators, as for the people at home in front of their TV sets. It’s a political daily soap opera starring, on one side, Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel and her Minister of Finance, Wolfgang Schäuble, French President François Hollande, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and President of the Eurogroup, Jeroen Dijsselbloem. Playing opposite these leaders is the Greek delegation: Prime Minister Alexis Zipras, representing the Syriza left-wing government elected earlier this year, and, until recently, his charismatic finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis — plus, oddly enough, Mr. Varoufakis’s middle finger (both symbolically as well as literally).

For the news industry, a figure such as Varoufakis is a great character. Varoufakis, a post-Marxist Professor of Economics, presented himself as an unconventional and combative politician. His narcissistic ego undoubtedly enjoyed the image amplified by the mainstream media, and thus Varoufakis became the irreverent and overconfident bad boy perfectly suited for dramatizing the business of politics as well as polarizing (that is, entertaining) the “audience.”

Although he publicly promoted the government’s oxi-stance, Varoufakis resigned as Minister of Finance after the 5th July referendum. According to his version of the events, he left office because he “was made aware of a certain preference by some Eurogroup participants, and assorted ‘partners’” that no agreement could be reached between the European creditors and the Greece government as long as he held office.[i] While the negotiations may perhaps be easier without Varoufakis, the news media already misses him, as Varoufakis readily provided the headlines journalists seek to write (in fact, the continuing media interest in Varoufakis after his resignation confirms this thesis). Varoufakis’s rhetorical style is certainly ambiguous: offering powerful vocabulary and images, he has become infamous for denying any controversial statement that had been attributed to him. Typically, Varoufakis would propose bold ideas about how to better the economic situation of Greece, but could not refrain from garnishing these proposals with intellectual hubris or even offensive remarks (of which his middle finger has become but the symbolic peak).

Yet, it wasn’t merely his role as controversial politician that made Varoufakis the media’s “darling” — as the crazy-but-smart, good-looking rock ’n’ roll politician. Of course, Varoufakis himself fueled this image by exuding a glamorous high-society aura as intellectual star and man of the world, jet-setting between his professional life as bestseller-author and professor of economics, and his political life as Greek parliamentarian.

Indeed, Varoufakis’s eccentric style and celebrity status made him not only a catchy figure for “serious” journalists (featured in such illustrious formats as the French lifestyle magazine Paris Match), but also a great vehicle and poster boy for political satire.

Fig. 1. Fan-created image in the form of a movie poster which satirically depicts the dispute between Germany (represented by Angela Merkel) and Greece (represented by Yanis Varoufakis), posted on http://fuckyeahyanisvaroufakis.tumblr.com.

As the popularity of TV shows like The Daily Show or Colbert Report indicates, satire today plays an important role in how citizens perceive and evaluate the political establishment.[ii] And not only on TV: the meme culture of Internet has become a major tool for its users to articulate their own voices, which often blend politics with pop culture in satirical forms of media productions.[iii] In fact, what has become subsumed under the hashtag #varoufake demonstrates the vitality of satire in the age of media convergence. The hashtag refers to a satirical stunt that unfolded through various media channels, a stunt that somehow wasn’t planned and nevertheless appeared to be a grandiose satirical scheme.

All of this started with a parodic music video clip titled V for Varoufakis produced by Jan Böhmermann, host of the German comedy late night show Neo Magazin Royale, and his team in late February 2015. The clip featured Böhmermann as a parody rock star à la Jack Black. Standing in front of a microphone in Freddy Mercury‑esque fashion, complete with mustache and melodramatic pose, Böhmermann sings about the “German angst” during the times of the European crisis. The video is interspersed with representations of “Germans,” portrayed in folkloristic dirndl-look and military uniforms reminiscent of the Second World War (in part, a self-ironic turn on populist anti-German sentiments that have emerged in Greece, which articulated itself, for instance, through placards depicting Angela Merkel as Adolf Hitler).

Much of the comedy of V for Varoufakis derives from its ironic portrayal of German stereotypes which are put in relation to the current economic crisis in Europe, in particular in relation to Europe’s problem child, Greece. Germans are assiduous and fearless, the narrative of the video says, but become anxious about Greece’s unruly behavior personified by Yanis Varoufakis, the “Minister of Awesome.” Varoufakis has indeed worked hard to cultivate his image of being a renegade politician unintimidated by Germany as Europe’s hegemon. The Minister suggested that he would be an unconventional and tough “cool” guy who arrives at official meetings with “jacket collar raised” and “on a black motorbike,” as Böhmermann puts it in the song before entering the chorus with the bridge line, “He puts the ‘hell’ in Hellenic and wants to take our pride.”

Aside from what are apparently re-enactments in which Varoufakis is mimicked by an anonymous double, the video contains original footage showing the Greek Finance Minister with jacket collar raised and on a motorbike. The whole clip reflects a style of “radical scavenging,” as Christof Decker calls practices of alternative documentary filmmaking where the “re-editing and assemblage of television (and film) outtakes [is] used for the construction of alternative histories.”[iv]

Böhmermann’s parodic take on Varoufakis has indeed conjured up such an alternative history, yet probably in a different way than he and his team had intended. An outstanding detail of V for Varoufakis is footage where we see Varoufakis at a public performance mentioning the words “stick the finger to Germany”; at this, we see him giving the middle finger to the camera. “Hilarious!” Böhmermann might have thought. The scene perfectly captures the humor of the whole clip. “How dare he?” many television viewers were wondering two weeks later, however, as the aforementioned scene was blended in on Günther Jauch, for several years the most popular political talk show in Germany. (Günther Jauch airs Sunday nights, right after the primetime crime series Tatort, a program slot that guarantees high ratings.)[v]

The topic on Jauch that evening was Greece and the economic crisis in Europe. Even Varoufakis joined the discussion live from Athens throughout the whole show. After the prescribed diplomatic welcoming talk, the host of the show, Günther Jauch, let the cat out of the bag: The middle finger scene was blended in, and Jauch confronted Varoufakis with the gesture. He wanted to know how “the Germans” could trust someone giving them the finger; it won’t be an option for Greece, said Jauch, to give Germany the middle finger anyhow.

Then something strange happened. Rather than explaining himself, Varoufakis insisted that the scene with the finger was “doctored” — in other words, manipulated. “I can assure you,” Varoufakis said, “I can prove this beyond reasonable doubt, and I wish that you could simply take it away. It never happened.” Everyone in the studio (including Jauch) looked bewildered. “When I’m in this show,” one of Jauch’s guests said, “I assume that every visual material and data is correct.” “We’ll verify your standpoint,” Jauch replied to Varoufakis.

Fig. 2. Still from Günther Jauch where the host confronts Varoufakis with the infamous gesture, looking aghast at Varoufakis’s explanation: “The finger was doctored!” (Well, was it?)

They didn’t need to. Just two days later, Böhmermann and Neo Magazin Royale launched a new clip on YouTube in which Böhmermann apologized to Jauch and his editorial team, acknowledging that the footage incorporated into V for Varoufakis was actually faked.

In what appears to be a making-of documentary, Böhmerman traces the origins of the middle finger in V for Varoufakis. Thus his team took the scene from an appearance of Varoufakis at the so-called Subversive Festival in Zagreb, Croatia, in 2013. “There is this scene where he [Varoufakis] says the words ‘stick the finger to Germany,’ Böhmermann explains. “It’s a totally harmless context — indirect speech — so, [Varoufakis] isn’t really saying that he wants to give the finger to the Germans. But we [Böhmermann and his team] thought it would be a good idea if the words ‘stick the finger to Germany’ were followed by Varoufakis actually giving the finger.”

Böhmermann reflects on how the middle-finger scene has taken on a life of his own after it had been shown on Günther Jauch. Bild-Zeitung, the most blatant organ of the German yellow press, wrote “Lügner” (“Liar”) in bold letters next to an image of Varoufakis framed by the silhouette of a middle finger gesture. Böhmermann presents headlines of the tabloid press that boldly ask, “Is the middle-finger video real or fake?” Then we see footage from Bild-online where “experts” were consulted about the possibility that Neo Magazine Royale had faked the scene. “I would assume it . . . would be impossible if the whole take wasn’t done in a studio,” the expert concludes.

From his confession clip you can tell that Böhmermann enjoys the fuss he has generated. In fact, the middle finger provided him with the maximum of media attention possible. If Böhmermann was designated to follow in the footsteps of veterans of German TV comedy such as Harald Schmitt or Stefan Raab, the middle finger made him Germany’s Jester No.1 overnight. Reveling in his triumph and schadenfreude, Böhmermann rhetorically asks, “Who would fake such a scene? The only thing I can imagine is that this was some small public-broadcasting loser show.” And “who could have thought that anyone from Subversive Festival would have participated in such a subversive move?” he added with a tongue-in-cheek smile.

Then Böhmermann directly addressed Jauch, wondering how he and his editorial team could use the scene totally out of context and without verifying its authenticity. And yet, Böhmermann joked, “Varoufakis wasn’t right. You [referring to Jauch and his team] didn’t fake the video. You just used it out of its original context, took the middle finger and pulled a Greek politician through your studio so that mom and dad can get their weekly kick of getting annoyed. . . . That’s what you did, the rest was our effort.”

In the following hours, user comments on the Internet skyrocketed. Even Yanis Varoufakis himself came into the picture, congratulating Jahn Böhmermann for his coup on Twitter.

Fig. 3. Varoufakis commenting on Böhmermann’s coup on Twitter.

For Jauch and his team, all of this was of course extremely embarrassing. And so Varoufakis and Böhmermann appeared to be partners in crime when, a few days later, NEO Magazine Rolyale announced that it had actually been the confession video that was made up — faked. The finger, indeed, had been there. But so what?

What’s much more important is that Böhmermann successfully unmasked the bigotry inherent to the debate over the finger as such. According to Böhmermann, the reason that the finger had generated so much fuss has to do with German narcissism. “We’re going nuts when someone is giving us the finger,” Böhmermann says with a big grain of satiric salt. In an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung, he later stated that the whole stunt was meant to serve a demonstrative purpose: While everybody was talking about Varoufakis’s middle finger after the scene was shown on Jauch, it should be apparent that the gesture itself was actually the thing least important about the complicated relationship between the governments of Europe/Germany and Greece.[vi]

If this is so, it is safe to assume that journalists like those of Bild and the team of Günther Jauch were fully aware of the effect Varoufakis’s finger would have, namely to fuel the climate of haughtiness towards the Greek people which currently dominates German discourses about Greece. As a motif, the finger fits well in the picture relayed by some populist media representatives. The “Greek tragedy,” as commentators across the news sarcastically keep calling the crisis in Greece and Europe, isn’t coming to an end. According to this reading, the Greeks not only can’t solve their problems; they don’t appreciate the generosity of their fellow Europeans, reacting in the deprecating way of giving them the finger instead. But wasn’t this much more an incident of the Germans giving the finger to Greece?

Hence the message of Böhmermann is that we all (including the media itself) should always view media content in a (self-)critical light. Through his fake-fake — or fake in the second order — Böhmermann succeeded in executing a lesson in media criticism; he warned us “to be a little more careful of what we read or watch.”[vii] In this sense, Varoufakis makes an important point as he reflects in retrospect on his own image in the media during his time as Minister of Finance. Since he took office, says Varoufakis, the media had made him appear as a madman who wants to rip off the Germans.[viii]

This corresponds to Marco Deseriis’s account of fakes as an interventionist approach that makes use of the mechanisms of the media in order to “challenge the media’s ability to discriminate between reality and fiction.”[ix] In fact, Böhmermann’s stunt follows this logic in that it entails a fundamental critique of the softening of journalistic standards. “In the age of the seemingly unstoppable rise of infotainment, soft news, and celebrity culture,” Deseriis argues, “facts are routinely sacrificed to narrative.”

Indeed, the Internet has provided us with a wealth of oral and visual material; it has never been as easy to repurpose media content to fit a certain narrative as in the digital age. Böhmermann’s fake-fake seems to indicate that we have to be aware of that and consider every spectacular story that we hear or see under that premise.

Interestingly, the fakes Deseriis describes all come from outside of and position themselves vis-à-vis the commercial media. They share a bottom-up, countercultural impetus; their producers are people like Alan Abel and Joey Skaggs or teams such as ®TMark (ARTMark) and The Yes Men — folks who consider themselves conceptual artists or culture jammers.

However, as the case of Böhmermann and #varoufake has shown, in the age of media convergence the borders between pranksters and the media industry are blurry. Böhmermann’s original accomplishment was to develop a fake as cultural critique out of the “official” sphere of the commercial media itself. This incident demonstrates that satire can actually affect the political debate and leave the public with a degree of confusion and critical insight at the same time.[x]

Speaking of confusion, according to the contemporary Greek satirists Nikos Zachariadis, Varoufakis didn’t actually resign. A pseudo-newscast launched by Zachariadis reported that the announcement of Varoufakis’s resignation was due to a misinterpretation by the media. “Never mentioned the word ‘resignation’!” reads a faux tweet ascribed to Yanis Varoufakis.[xi] Well, who knows? As we have seen, with Varoufakis any course of events might be possible.

Fig. 4. Fake tweet ascribed to Varoufakis, saying that he has never resigned but is still minister.

Moritz Fink is a media scholar and author. He holds a doctoral degree in American Studies from the University of Munich. His areas of interest include film and media studies, cultural studies, disability studies, visual culture, political humor and satire. He is co-editor of the collection Culture Jamming: Activism and the Art of Popular Intervention (forthcoming from NYU Press).

 

[i] Yanis Varoufakis, “Minister No More!” July 6, 2015, Yanis Varoufakis: Thoughts for the Post-2008 World, http://yanisvaroufakis.eu/2015/07/06/minister-no-more/.

[ii] Jeffrey P. Jones, Entertaining Politics: Satiric Television and Political Engagement, 2nd ed., Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010

[iii] Limor Shifman, Memes in Digital Culture, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

[iv] Christof Decker, “Radical Scavenging Revisited: Emile de Antonio and the Culture Jamming of Compilation Film,” in Marilyn DeLaure and Moritz Fink, eds., Culture Jamming: Activism and the Art of Popular Intervention, New York: NYU Press, forthcoming.

[v] On June 5, 2015, Günther Jauch announced the end of his talk show, tagesschau.de, http://www.tagesschau.de/inland/jauch-talksendung-ard-101.html.

[vi] “Wie Schach ohne Würfel” (“Like chess without dice”), interview with Jahn Böhmermann in Süddeutsche Zeitung, May 15, 2015, p. 11.

[vii] Thomas Seymat, “#varoufake: When Satire Acts as Media Watchdog,” March 19, 2015, Euronews, http://www.euronews.com/2015/03/19/varoufake-when-satire-acts-as-media-watchdog/.

[viii] “Wie ist das, wenn man ganz Europa gegen sich aufgebracht hat? Ein Gespräch mit dem ehemaligen griechischen Finanzminister Yanis Varoufakis” (“What is it like to antagonize all of Europe? An interview with the former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis”), Zeit Magazin, July 30, 2015, pp. 14–23.

[ix] Marco Deseriis, “The Faker as Producer: The Politics of Fabrication and the Three Orders of the Fake,” in Marilyn DeLaure and Moritz Fink, eds., Culture Jamming: Activism and the Art of Popular Intervention, New York: NYU Press, forthcoming.

[x] In a subsequent step, Böhmermann again engaged with the political debate in Germany about Greece and the euro crisis in collaboration with fellow comedian Klaas Heufer-Umlauf in mid-July. In the YouTube clip titled Unsere schönen Deutschen Euros (“Our beautiful German euros”), we see Böhmermann and Heufer-Umlauf wearing white pajamas in a fancy hotel speaking to each other on the phone. The telephone conversation turns out to be an ironic rant against Greece in which the two recite various headlines from the German mainstream media that reflect anti-Greek sentiments noticeable in Germany these days.

[xi] Nikos Zachariadis, “Διαψεύδει την παραίτησή του ο Γιάνης Βαρουφάκης!” (“Yanis Varoufakis denies his resignation”), July 6, 2015, Protagon.gr, http://www.protagon.gr/?i=protagon.el.moyfanet&id=41963.

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