Posting Up at Pigalle: The Online and Offline Worlds of Branded Basketball
Courtney M. Cox / University of Southern California

Teenagers playing a pickup game of basketball at Pigalle court in Paris, France

Teenagers playing a pickup game of basketball at Pigalle court in Paris, France

I am standing on Rue Duperré, a narrow street in a Paris neighborhood. The only way I can describe it is beautifully crumbly—well-preserved but a bit old and dreary, especially on a cold winter day. And then, in the midst of the crumbly, I reach it—yellows, purples, and blues swirl around me, beckoning me inside the gate. There I find a group of children playing a game of pickup basketball while a model and her glam squad cluster in the corner, waiting for a stoppage in play to set up a photo shoot.

This is the famous Pigalle court—made popular locally by its vivid color in the midst of its drab concrete surroundings, and known globally in small rectangular form through thousands of Instagram posts circulated constantly. Named for the popular streetwear brand, the colorful court offers a public sporting space emblazoned with abstract expressionism and perhaps more importantly, Pigalle’s name and logo.

Over the past few years, Pigalle has used the court to expand its streetwear reach, developing Pigalle Basketball, an offshoot which caters to the “athleisure” market and the ever-growing National Basketball Association (NBA) fanbase in France. Across the street from the court, the store is tucked into the neighborhood, a simple chalkboard sign denoting its existence steps away from the Insta-iconic space.

A patron enters the Pigalle Basketball shop across the street from the court

A patron enters the Pigalle Basketball shop across the street from the court

The creators behind the court, Ill-Studio, Pigalle, and Nike, describe it as an exploration of “the relationship between sport, art and culture and its emergence as a powerful socio-cultural indicator of a period in time.” This particular time for brick-and-mortar stores is complicated as Amazon and other companies offer the convenience of curated suggestions, rapid shipping, and delivery options, which include placing items in your car, at your door, or even inside your home, all with a click of a button. This, in tandem with the rise of streaming services, video on demand (VOD), and DVR, allows viewers to fast forward past commercials or eschew them all together for a monthly fee. To compete with e-commerce and the loss of many traditional advertising platforms, many companies have employed the experiential, with pop-up shops, limited editions, and interactive events that offer a built-in, free advertising component for those posting on social media. The visual appeal of these viral marketing ploys can affect even the most discerning, critical scholar.

The author falls victim to the

The author falls victim to the “Instagrammability” of the space

It was perhaps not until I reached WiFi to post this photo that I realized my role in what David Harvey has termed the “time-space compression”—the constantly accelerated nature of the production, exchange, and consumption of goods, services, and experiences—that remains a key aspect of postmodernism as he understands it. He writes in The Condition of Postmodernity that “The mobilization of fashion in mass (as opposed to elite) markets provided a means to accelerate the pace of consumption not only in clothing, ornament, and decoration but also across a wide swathe of life-styles and recreational activities.” [ ((David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Hoboken: Wiley, 1992), 285.))] He argues that a secondary trend in consumption is a move away from the consumption of goods and into the consumption of services, including “entertainments, spectacles, happenings, and distractions.” [ ((Ibid.))] With Pigalle, these experiences of consumption can occur over the course of a pickup game of basketball or with a scroll across Instagram. Before arriving in Paris, I was already aware of the court and specifically planned to view it in the same way one would plan to see the Eiffel Tower. My readiness to capture my pilgrimage to Pigalle and share throughout my Instagram network reflects Harvey’s notion of the “consumer turnover time,” the rapid nature of spreading images, as the image of Pigalle (and accompanying geotag) continues to serve as an identity-establishing emblem for those marketing public consumption of the space. [ ((Ibid., 288.))] Pigalle Basketball is not merely a place to shop, it is a sight to behold.

Advertising, according to Harvey is no longer built around the traditional model of informing or promoting. Rather, niche marketing attempts to appeal to desires or taste through images that may not have anything to do with the product itself. In this case, seeing the court is not a call to action to purchase the expensive sportswear; the brand is seen through its proximity to cool. In branding leisure spaces, the sell is much more subliminal—and spreadable. Jenny Xie of Curbed writes that the basketball court as space is “ripe for mesmerizing transformations that challenge our sense of the familiar,” as she describes the trend of painting basketball courts around the world.

Basketball is an American export molded by Black culture, expanded by global capitalism, and transformed into a complicated site of consumption—of bodies, of space, and of technology. As I enter the Pigalle Basketball shop, I realize another aspect of Harvey’s time-space compression—the flattening of spatial specificity. In this case, I see sweatshirts and keychains in the technicolor Pigalle flair but with a distinct difference—the word VeniceBall scrawled underneath a logo comprised of palm trees and beachfront property. As a tourist in Paris, I’m struck by seeing the Southern California image of the adjacent neighborhood to my own. For many, Venice, California represents another site of important basketball courts. Linked to films such as White Men Can’t Jump (1992) and Lords of Dogtown (2005), Venice is a mythic outdoor sporting space associated with a particular form of authenticity which Pigalle is seemingly tapping into with this collaboration. It is also an area grappling with the effects of gentrification, often referred to as “Silicon Beach,” as Google, Snapchat and Facebook set up shop down the street from the iconic courts.

The collaboration between VeniceBall and Pigalle represents the glocal marketability of these outdoor sporting spaces

The collaboration between VeniceBall and Pigalle represents the glocal marketability of these outdoor sporting spaces

To me, this reflects Pigalle Basketball as a “transnational zone,” a term Julian Murphet uses to refer to retail spaces “as much about the experience of ‘non-place’ as they are about consumption.” [ ((Julian Murphet, “Postmodernism and Space,” in The Cambridge Companion to Postmodernism, ed. Steven Connor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 120.))] NBA jerseys of French players are next to the league’s American superstars. Looking out through the storefront, a Chicago Bulls mini basketball backboard is affixed to the front door. Pigalle, clearly labeled by its neighborhood, is linked to larger transnational sporting goods and sportswear corporations, whether in their collaboration with Nike or the VeniceBall basketball leagues.

A view from inside of the Pigalle Basketball shop

A view from inside of the Pigalle Basketball shop

The Pigalle team describe their vision as aiming to “establish visual parallels between the past, present and future of modernism from the ‘avant garde’ era of the beginning of the 20th century, to the ‘open source’ times we live in today, and our interpretation of the future aesthetics of basketball and sport in general.” As its visitors traverse time and space each time they step onto the court or into the shop, they are consumers of Pigalle and Paris (perhaps), Venice and viral marketing (of course). But most importantly, they are creators—postmodern producers who transmit in rapid turnover time in a transnational zone created to capitalize on the cool of one of the most popular sports in the world.

Bright blue gates replace the structures which once obscured the Pigalle court from view

Bright blue gates replace the structures which once obscured the Pigalle court from view

Image Credits:

1. Teenagers playing a pickup game of basketball at Pigalle court in Paris, France. (author’s personal collection)
2. A patron enters the Pigalle Basketball shop across the street from the court. (author’s personal collection)
3. The author falls victim to the “Instagrammability” of the space. (author’s personal collection)
4. The collaboration between VeniceBall and Pigalle represents the glocal marketability of these outdoor sporting spaces. (author’s personal collection)
5. A view from inside of the Pigalle Basketball shop. (author’s personal collection)
6. Bright blue gates replace the structures which once obscured the Pigalle court from view. (author’s personal collection)

Please feel free to comment.




Podcasting’s Dirty Secret: Audio Storytelling Takes Art, Craft—and Tons of Time
Siobhán McHugh / University of Wollongong

Mark Barbaro

Michael Barbaro, host, The Daily podcast

The other day I opened my podcast feed and pressed ‘play’ on The Daily, awaiting the familiar chords and host Michael Barbaro’s mellifluous intro to the New York Times’ news wrap—only to be rudely surprised. The podcast opened cold, with the actuality of two New York Times (NYT) staff awaiting a Russian in the office foyer. Then a wry voiceover: “From the New York Times, I’m NOT Michael Barbaro. I’m Kevin Roose.”

Roose, the NYT technology reporter, launched into his investigation of a propaganda site, USA Really. Though the report was well researched and produced, I felt cheated. It lacked the magic, mediating ingredient of the affable yet hyper-engaged Barbaro, or Mikie, as I know him from his Twitter handle (@mikiebarb). I gave up listening halfway. Like many others, I’ve come to think of favourite podcast hosts as new best friends—so why is this happening, and what does the podcast boom mean for media studies?

I’ve watched the post-Serial podcast explosion of the last four years with mixed feelings. On the one hand, as someone who has been a committed audio storyteller since the early ’80s, I felt vindicated—at last, audio was being celebrated, not just as the significant cultural force that radio has always been, but as something cool. People who had never listened to a radio documentary I might have spent a year making, or shown the slightest interest in the form, were suddenly asking me for my podcast recommendations. Even weirder, after they’d binge-listened, they’d tag me on social media, wanting to sound off about this character or that moment, and how much it sucked them in or incensed them or made them cry. Yep, I’d go. That’s the affective power of sound.

“But there are no pictures, and yet I feel like I’m there, like I know those people,” they’d say. “Yes,” I’d reply. That’s because audio is not prescriptive, doesn’t harness you passively to a screen—it bounces off your memory, engages your mind, your senses and your imagination all at once and makes YOU create your special meaning, thereby becoming invested.

That’s not an exactly new concept and nor is the vaunted intimacy of audio—Franklin D. Roosevelt was onto it in the 1930s with his “wireless radio chats.” But it seems to surprise born-again podphiles—because, I believe, the perceived idea of audio, even, or especially, among journalists from other media, has long been that it’s simple: unlike television, it’s “just talking.” But audio is far more than video-without-pictures. It’s a thing.

description of image

This New Yorker cartoon captures the Zeitgeist: podcasts have proliferated to near plague proportions and most are of very poor quality.

The success of Serial (340 million downloads of the first two seasons) forced people to acknowledge the power of audio stories, but most still fail to consider the immense time, skill, and yes, artistry, it takes to do them well. Culture vultures will murmur appreciatively about the innovative tracking shot in the film Children of Men or the symmetrical imagery of Wes Anderson. They will celebrate masterly theatre design or direction. They will readily attend art exhibitions and reflect on the artist’s intentions. They will wade through the literary canon. And they will dissect their musical preferences with expertise and elan.

But the creativity behind the great crafted audio features, documentaries, and works of fiction and non-fiction now paraded on podcast platforms by the thousand—I know there are 600,000 podcasts on iTunes, but I said “great”—that creativity is rarely interrogated, deconstructed, or frankly, understood. The NYT Facebook Podcast Club, for instance, has 26,000 members. Each week they discuss a designated podcast—all the usual suspects have been covered, from Dirty John to Invisibilia. This is “just” fan commentary, but it’s surprisingly low-level as critique. Listeners comment mostly on the content or themes of the show, maybe on the ethics or politics that surround it, but very rarely show an understanding of the audio storytelling art and craft that underpins it.


Sarah Koenig

Sarah Koenig, host of Serial podcast

It was because of that gap, that lack of awareness and articulation of what good audio storytelling is and what makes it so, that I founded RadioDoc Review in 2013. (It was a year before Serial, or yes, I would have called it Pod-something.) Its board is made up of top audio makers and scholars from around the world. It publishes critiques of selected works, written by highly credentialled audio folk: something like having the Coen Brothers review Almodovar. It’s been a revelation to see these authors develop language and concepts that allow us to probe and understand how excellent audio works are built and crafted: the writing; the capture, placement and layering of sound; the use of space and time; and the placement of sound and voice and music in relationship…all these elements have been unpacked and explored. And it’s all free and open access, done as a collective labour of love.

Of late, mainstream outlets such as The Atlantic, Vulture, and the New Yorker have provided thoughtful criticism of the aesthetics of podcasts and the crucial role played by their hosts. Some narrative podcasts, such as S-Town, have consciously extended the form. Others, such as Wrong Skin, in which investigative journalist Richard Baker examines the clash of ancient Aboriginal law and modern culture in Australia, are a departure because an award-winning print journalist has abandoned the page for the ear, in an acknowledgement that podcasts can do things that print simply cannot. [ ((Disclaimer: I co-produced Wrong Skin))]


wrong skin

Script editing on Wrong Skin podcast, The Age, Melbourne, 2018: Greg Muller, executive producer, Siobhan McHugh, consulting producer, Rachael Dexter, producer.

Which brings me back to where we started. A lot has been written about the success of The Daily. What’s less appreciated is how much that also depends on how its team of ten or so audio experts cleverly exploits the audio medium. They add texture and immediacy via archival audio grabs, capture atmospheric meta-scenes and understand that timing is crucial: you can’t freeze-frame audio—it unfolds in real time. A beat between sound bites, an eloquent pause, a reflective music bridge, all change how we as listeners take things in. Thus a phone’s ringing tone builds expectation; when it is picked up, we hear a seemingly unvarnished exchange that establishes the normality of the interviewee, before we get to the topic in hand.

One episode of The Daily opens like this: [ ((The Daily: The Climate Change Battle Through One Coal Miner’s Eyes, 30 March 2017.))]

Michael Barbaro (MB): Forget the political, forget the legal: for the 65,000 coal miners in the US, this is just about daily life.

ACTUALITY: Phone rings, twice

MB: We called one of them…

Miner: “HELLO?” (open, friendly tone)

MB. …Mark Gray.

MB: “Hey! Is this Mr Gray?” (pleasantly)

Miner: “Yes.” (pleased, affirming tone)

MB: “Hey, it’s Michael.

Barbaro.

From the Times.

Miner: “Okay.” (more guarded, resigned tone, shallow breaths)

Barbaro: “I think I had the wrong number. By one digit.”

Gray chimes in, his wariness forgotten: “Yeah, I think I GAVE you the wrong number.”

MB laughs appreciatively. “It happens,” he says. Gray laughs too.

Miner: “I’m not used to this number over here (breathes audibly). It’s a Tennessee number and I’ve not lived over here too long (breathing raggedly).”

MB: “So does that mean you have moved?”

Miner: “Yes I moved from Kentucky. I’ve had to move away…”

In 44 seconds (listen here), much has been established. Some of it is overt: MB is interviewing a coal miner, who comes from Harlan County, a district famous from the eponymous 1970s documentary about a bitter strike there. Non-verbal meaning is also apparent. Hearing those strangled breaths brings home viscerally the existential struggle Mark Gray is living minute by minute. Soon we will learn that he has “black lung disease.” But he doesn’t regret for one minute having been a coal miner—although it’s killing him.

The news hook for the podcast was federal battles over climate change. One man’s story makes it personal, an old journalistic device, but the audio medium humanises it further. We can hear that they are actively listening to each other, an underestimated but vital tool of a good interview. When people feel validated by knowing they’ve been truly heard, they are more inclined to trust and open up. MB has a particular talent for listening keenly, often punctuating his understanding with his now celebrated auditory exclamation, “hmmmmph”.



He then recaps what has been said—further validation—and asks his interviewee if he got it right. Invariably he did.

In this interview, the questioning shifted. Gray asks MB, “you ever been to a coal town?” MB, an urbane resident of NYC, says no—and gets tearful. Gray listens kindly as MB sniffles through his reply. It’s an extraordinary and powerful inversion of roles.

Later, MB was excoriated by some for not advocating the evils of coal. He cried, he told longform.org, because after 45 minutes of “talking like real human beings,” he was simply moved. He suddenly felt the unconscious bias he carried against men like Gray, who yet had suffered. Barbaro had become emotional in interviews before—but the difference was, the public didn’t hear it. “Audio is a very honest medium,” he reflects. And that is what builds relationship, between host and guest, between host, guest and listener—between Mikie and me.

Image Credits:

1. Michael Barbaro, host, The Daily podcast
2. This New Yorker cartoon captures the Zeitgeist: podcasts have proliferated to near plague proportions and most are of very poor quality.
3. Sarah Koenig, host of Serial podcast
4. Script editing on Wrong Skin podcast, The Age, Melbourne, 2018: Greg Muller, executive producer, Siobhán McHugh, consulting producer, Rachael Dexter, producer. (author’s personal collection)

Please feel free to comment.




Media Historiography Projects: One Librarian’s Hacks
Nedda H. Ahmed / Georgia State University / College of the Arts Librarian

NBC.com December 28, 1996 via the Wayback Machine.
So many ‘90s feels. NBC.com December 28, 1996 via the Wayback Machine.

Media historiography is a mandatory course in many film and media studies graduate programs. In these courses, professors typically ask students to engage with historical sources on a rigorous level, requiring deep dives into primary source collections, manuscripts, and microfilm. Here at Georgia State, our Archives & Special Collections are full of amazing primary resources in a wide variety of collecting areas, but we don’t have a plethora of media-specific collections that you’d find at, say, UT’s Harry Ransom Center or UCLA’s Film & Television Archives.

It’s neither possible nor practical for our grad students to travel to archives outside the Atlanta area within the timeframe of a single semester… So what’s a librarian to do?

Over the years that I’ve been working with this class, I’ve collected a bunch of weird and wonderful things that, in the right context and with a little bit of creative thinking, can kickstart exciting historical research projects. In the rest of this column I’ll share some of what I’ve gathered because:

1. Perhaps you’ll find something useful here for your own class/research paper/syllabus
2. Some of these things are too amazing to keep to myself
3. I’m a librarian, and sharing is basically my entire reason for existence
4. I love listicles
5. I want more weird and wonderful things, so please share your hacks in the comments

Hack #1: Media History Digital Library
OK, unless you live under a rock, you’ve already heard about MHDL. “GET TO THE WEIRD STUFF, NEDDA” I hear you thinking. But I have to include MHDL because no list of primary source film/media resources is complete without it. Also, Eric Hoyt (et al.) is doing such great work that MHDL deserves all the free publicity it can get. A few years ago, ProQuest came out with Entertainment Industry Magazine Archive, a similar-but-not-quite-the-same subscription-based product. For a detailed comparison between MHDL and EIMA, check out my pal James Steffen’s review over on Media Industries Journal.

media history digital library
Media History Digital Library



Hack #2: Local Newspapers
I have to give local newspapers a shout-out because they tend to get overlooked in favor of national showbiz-type publications. Regardless of how big or small your institution is, you’re likely to have access to an extensive run of the main city paper, whether online or on microfilm (Yes, microfilm still exists and it’s important and you should use it). Maybe you’ll have to visit your local public library to access the paper’s full run, but that’s still heaps easier than getting a travel grant to fly to some distant archive. There’s also something incredibly comforting about seeing people in the past freak out about whatever new thing was on the horizon, threatening to take over their lives.

Atlanta Constitution “Television Issue,” October 6, 1948.
If you can explain how TV works better than this, let me know.[ ((Atlanta Constitution “Television Issue,” October 6, 1948.))]

Off the top of my head, I can think of at least three research papers that could be generated by historical local newspaper research:

• Idea 1: Using TV listings and lineups, how did local broadcasters fill their airtime? What was the locally-produced content like?
• Idea 2: Using movie theater listings and advertisements, how were films marketed to the local population? If you have access to multiple papers, can you draw any comparisons between the way films were marketed to the different cities’ populations?
• Idea 3: Pick any technological advance that happened in the 20th century. When did it come to your town, and how was it discussed in the newspaper? [ ((The screenshot of the adorable headline [above] comes from the Atlanta Constitution’s “Television Issue,” October 6, 1948))]



Hack #3: Historical Catalog Websites
Specifically, these: Wishbook Web and Radio Shack Catalogs. Oh Internet, how I love thee. That someone—or a group of someones—cares enough to collect, scan, and post online decades’ worth of these catalogs is pretty amazing. Wishbook Web is a compilation of the holiday catalogs from several major department stores, such as Sears, JC Penney, and FAO Schwarz. For kids in the pre-web era, getting the holiday catalog and obsessively marking the pages of the toys you wanted was the build-up to Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa; in short, it was a major deal. These catalogs are an ideal resource for anyone wanting to study film/TV licensing deals with toy manufacturers or the rise of home video game systems, to throw out just a couple of ideas.

Merry Christmas I’ll haunt your dreamsssss
“Merry Christmas I’ll haunt your dreamsssss”

Radio Shack Catalogs is, as the name implies, a digitized collection of the store’s catalogs, organized into areas to facilitate easy browsing. Although its relevance has (ahem) diminished significantly in recent years, Radio Shack was once the place you’d go for all your home electronics needs, whether you wanted to build your own radio or you just wanted some AA batteries. Because the company started in 1921, these catalogs offer fascinating glimpses into the relationship between technology and American culture as well as documentation of how technology was marketed in the 20th century (spoiler alert: the target audience was men and boys).

From the 1977 TRS-80 catalog.
The tape recorder hook-up. I can’t.[ ((From the 1977 TRS-80 catalog.))]



Hack #4: Internet Archive
I don’t think Internet Archive is an unknown resource, but I’m not sure many people comprehend the breadth and depth of stuff to be found here. There’s way more than just the Prelinger Archives, though that collection is impressive. Need to look at old versions of a TV network’s website? Internet Archive has it. Want to listen to old timey radio shows? Internet Archive has it. Need to see full episodes of the acid-trippy 1970s kids show Vegetable Soup, if only to prove to yourself that you didn’t just imagine it during a fever dream? Internet Archive is there for you.

Two of the nightmare-inducing child puppets with freakishly large hands from Vegetable Soup (Season 1, Episode 1). Good luck sleeping ever again.
Two of the nightmare-inducing child puppets with freakishly large hands from Vegetable Soup. [ ((Season 1, Episode 1))] Good luck sleeping ever again.

Hack #5: Be open.
This isn’t really a hack, just general advice for folks heading into a historical research project. I’ve worked with many students over my 15+ years as a film/media librarian, and the most common source of stress with these projects is caused by formulating a specific question before identifying the collection of primary sources that will be used. Most of the film historians I know approach their work from the other way around: locate a repository of interesting stuff, dig into it, and allow the questions to percolate. Adopting this approach may even reveal research opportunities at local archives that don’t seem relevant to film and media studies, but that could be fruitful avenues for research. Talking with archivists and librarians about what your general interests are—without being too limited in scope and not the day before the project proposal is due—is a great way to gain access to materials you might not know exist.

So that’s it! Five ideas for historiography projects for people who don’t have convenient access to film/media archives and special collections. Do you have other recommendations for primary source resources? (Or perhaps you’d like to discuss further the complete bizarreness of Vegetable Soup?) I look forward to hearing your ideas in the comments!

Image Credits:
1. So many ‘90s feels. NBC.com December 28, 1996 via the Wayback Machine.
2. Media History Digital Library
3. If you can explain how TV works better than this, let me know. Atlanta Constitution, “Television Issue,” October 6, 1948. (Author’s photo)
4. “Merry Christmas I’ll haunt your dreamsssss”
5. The tape recorder hook-up. I can’t. From the 1977 TRS-80 catalog.
6. Two of the nightmare-inducing child puppets with freakishly large hands from Vegetable Soup. (Season 1, Episode 1) Good luck sleeping ever again. (Author’s screengrab)




Mass Reach After Mass Media
Josh Braun / University of Massachusetts Amherst

Abraham Bradley Jr.'s map of the early U.S. postal network

Abraham Bradley Jr.’s map of the early U.S. postal network

Writing in 1829 about the newly completed U.S. postal network, William Ellery Channing marveled, “When a few leaders have agreed on an object, an impulse may be given in a month to the whole country. Whole States may be deluged with tracts and other publications, and a voice like that of many waters, be called forth from immense and widely separated multitudes. Here is a great new power brought to bear on society, and it is a great moral question, how it ought to be viewed, and what duties it imposes.” [ ((Quoted in John, 1995, p. 185. ))]

As Richard John [ (( John, Richard. (1995). Spreading the news: The American postal system from Franklin to Morse. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ))] notes in his history of the postal service, the United States’ first national distribution network was transformative for the manner in which it enabled—and at times compelled—the country’s inhabitants to think of themselves as belonging to a common public. This is what Kristy Hess [ (( Hess, Kristy. (1995). Tertius tactics: “Mediated social capital” as a resource of power for traditional commercial news media. Communication Theory, 23(2), 112–130.))] calls the “bonding function” of media and, while the underlying technologies may have changed since the nineteenth century, the tenet that media infrastructures and distribution networks are central to the formation and maintenance of publics is still being proven out in the work of scholars like Yong-Chan Kim and Sandra Ball-Rokeach [ (( Kim, Y.-C., & Ball-Rokeach. (2006). Civic engagement from a communication infrastructure perspective. Communication Theory, 16(2), 173–197. ))] who highlight the manner in which people who share a broadcast radius or newspaper circulation footprint appear more likely to think of themselves as members of a common public with shared concerns and civic responsibilities.

Historian and social theorist Michael Warner [ (( Warner, Michael. (2002). Publics and counterpublics. New York: Zone Books. ))] developed the notion of “reflexive circulation” to refer to this phenomenon—the way in which media distribution underpins many of the social imaginaries on which societies depend. Put simply, our mediated public discourse has historically relied on the notion that when we publish an item in a newspaper or air it in a broadcast that we are speaking to the same assembled audience over time. Stable distribution networks allow us the conceit that a town or a nation or a social movement deliberates as a single, inclusive body.

Of course, this notion has always been something of a fantasy. Throughout their history the news media, for example, have always left out particular groups. This is true not just of the perspectives they offer—though egregious omissions have been well documented by media sociologists from Gaye Tuchman [ (( Tuchman, Gaye. (1978). Making news: A study in the construction of reality. New York: Free Press.))] to Sue Robinson [ (( Robinson, Sue. (2018). Networked news, racial divides: How power and privilege shape progressive communities. New York: Cambridge University Press.))]—but of the networks of distribution on which they depend. John, for example, notes the many ways in which women were effectively barred from post offices in the 19th century, when these were the community hubs in which newspapers were read and discussed. C. Edwin Baker [ (( Baker, Edwin. (2002). Media, markets, and democracy. New York: Cambridge University Press. ))] describes in detail the many ways in which commercial media systems have traditionally limited access by the poor.

 Television set from 1948

Television set from 1948, the presidential election year when both the Democratic and Republican parties held their conventions in Philadelphia so as to be within the broadcast area of the nascent TV market.

Warner’s reflexive circulation, in other words, allows participants to imagine an inclusive public discourse, even as it leaves many groups out of the conversation. And sociologists like Jen Shradie (forthcoming) [ (( Shradie, Jen. (2006). The Revolution that Wasn’t: How Digital Activism Favors Conservatives. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ))] have begun to document how, while the contours of exclusion may be different in the age of digital media (or in some cases very similar), they are still very much with us. Likewise, though the business logics of media have long included some degree of market segmentation in forms such as interest-based magazines and cable channels, Zeynep Tufekci [ (( Tufecki, Zeynep. (2018, January 16). “It’s the (democracy-poisoning) golden age of free speech.” Wired. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/story/free-speech-issue-tech-turmoil-new-censorship/.))] sounds the alarm that the gulf between our sense of belonging to a common mediated public and the actual logics of our media system has grown wider than ever before.

“Online speech is no longer public in any traditional sense,” Tufekci writes. “Sure, Facebook and Twitter sometimes feel like places where masses of people experience things together simultaneously. But in reality, posts are targeted and delivered privately, screen by screen by screen. Today’s phantom public sphere has been fragmented and submerged into billions of individual capillaries. Yes, mass discourse has become far easier for everyone to participate in—but it has simultaneously become a set of private conversations happening behind your back. Behind everyone’s backs.”

It’s not just our personal posts and correspondence that get delivered (or not) in this mercurial fashion. As folks like Jenkins, Ford, and Green [ (( Jenkins, H., Ford, S., & Green, J. (2013). Spreadable media: Creating value and meaning in a networked culture. New York: New York University Press. ))] have noted, legacy media industries are also learning to live in this environment. The “conversation economy” described by “Web 2.0” enthusiasts has evolved into an “attention economy” in which media industries have become adept at leveraging people’s online sharing activities to promote their products. We’ve seen the development not only of editorial and brand management strategies, but of content management systems, recommendation algorithms, playlist managers, and other technologies aimed at rapidly repackaging and repurposing editorial output for different niche audiences and social media channels, attempting to replace the broadcast tower with the capacity to tap into thousands of individual conversations and overlapping gossip networks.

As Matthew Hindman [ (( Hindman, Matthew. (2013). Journalism ethics and digital audience data. In P. J. Boczkowski and C. W. Anderson (Eds.), Remaking the news: Essays on the future of journalism scholarship in the digital age. (pp. 177–194). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. ))] notes, it’s possible to imagine a world in which this level of attentiveness to the wants of audiences serves democratic goals, allowing creators to better identify and serve the public interest. But—as Hindman also points out—that isn’t the world we live in right now. Instead, just as in previous commercial media systems, the emerging digital economy is one in which the interests and conversations of some groups are identified and prioritized as more lucrative than those of others. The result can be a jarring one, wherein the most profitable niche audiences are served up more of what they apparently enjoy and others are offered tone-deaf results in the name of customization.

Example of targeted marketing from Netflix

Example of targeted marketing from Netflix

Witness, for instance, the recent revelation that Netflix has been showing users of color promotional images for its content that feature black actors, despite the fact that these actors have only minor roles in the films being advertised. [ (( Iqbal, N. (2018, October 20). Film fans see red over Netflix ‘targeted’ posters for black viewers. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/media/2018/oct/20/netflix-film-black-viewers-personalised-marketing-target. ))] Safiya Umoji Noble’s [ (( Umoji Noble, Safiya. (2018). Algorithms of oppression: How search engines reinforce racism. New York: New York University Press.))] critiques of Google Search’s historical results for “black girls”—results uncritically responsive to the SEO efforts of the porn industry—provide another example, wherein the response to an individual’s query assumes the most profitable audience (male porn consumers, apparently) at the expense, on multiple levels, of other groups. Meanwhile, in journalism, scholars like Couldry and Turow [ (( Couldry, N. & Turow, J. (2014). Advertising, big data, and the clearance of the public realm: Marketers’ new approaches to the content subsidy. International Journal of Communication,. 8, 1710–1726. ))] argue that the online advertising industry’s push for fine-scale consumer differentiation will prod news organizations even further down the road of content personalization and destroy the potential for the news media to serve as common points of reference in democratic discourse.

Most scholars agree that these misalignments—between valuations of audience attention that serve the public interest and ones that cut against it—have to do with the commercial and ad-driven logics that dominate our media ecosystem. And so, unsurprisingly, the correctives they offer are policy-based. Noble argues that we need consumer protection policies in place to mitigate the representational harms caused by commercial search engines and other online platforms. Victor Pickard [ (( Pickard, Victor (2014). America’s battle for media democracy: The triumph of corporate libertarianism and the future of media reform. New York: Cambridge University Press. ))] makes the case that we should alter government regulations to make it simpler for news organizations to transition to non-profit or low-profit status, and tax the corporations—ISPs, Google, Facebook, etc.—that currently profit most off the the changes that have decimated newsrooms to pay for more media in the public interest. Couldry and Turow suggest we need regulations to limit the extensive collection and use of data in the service of online advertising, so as to buffer the resulting pressures toward hyper-personalization of editorial content currently being experienced by news organizations. And Nicole S. Cohen [ (( Cohen, N. S. (2018). At work in the digital newsroom. Digital Journalism, advance online publication.))] argues that more unionization within digital newsrooms will give journalists the power to push back themselves on editorial policies myopically focused on producing more, and more profitable, clicks.

In many cases, these scholars say that the biggest obstacle standing in the way of such outcomes, however, is the tendency of publics to accept the media ecosystem they see as given, rather than as the artificial outcome of policy frameworks that facilitate particular market logics and valuations of audiences. How do you get people excited about tax reforms [ (( Pickard, V. (2014). America’s battle for media democracy: The triumph of corporate libertarianism and the future of media reform.. New York: Cambridge University Press. ))]? How do you get them to understand the commercial logics governing Google Search results that they have come to trust implicitly [ (( Noble, S. U. (2018). Algorithms of oppression: How search engines reinforce racism. New York: New York University Press.))]? How about the link between data privacy law [ ((Couldry, N. & Turow, J. (2014). Advertising, big data, and the clearance of the public realm: Marketers’ new approaches to the content subsidy. International Journal of Communication, 1710–1726. ))] or unionization [ (( Cohen, N. S. (2018). At work in the digital newsroom. Digital Journalism, advance online publication. ))] and public-interest journalism?

If mobilizing citizens around policy questions like these seems tricky, more scholarship on these topics can’t possibly hurt. The Warnerian conceit that our media infrastructures and distribution networks create an inclusive public is a powerful and necessary one. But it needs to be more than just a conceit. As the media industries continue to adapt to what Newsvine founder and former Twitter VP Mike Davidson has called, “the massive decentralization of conversation” [ (( Braun, J. A. (2015). This program is brought to you by: Distributing television news online. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, p.166. ))], attempting to compensate for the collapse of traditional modes of delivery by tapping into the word-of-mouth marketing and distribution afforded by millions of individuals’ social networks, scholars need to continue to ask critical questions about how media companies are going about this and how our sociality is being commodified. To echo Channing’s thoughts on an earlier system of distribution, “it is a great moral question, how it ought to be viewed, and what duties it imposes.”

Image Credits:
1. Abraham Bradley Jr.’s map of the early U.S. postal network
2. Television set from 1948
3. Example of targeted marketing from Netflix




Lucifer’s Women and Doctor Dracula: Conjuring a Cult-Cult Canon
Phil Oppenheim / Oppanopticom / EPIX / Brown Sugar SVOD / Independent Scholar

Lucifer's Women title card

Lucifer’s Women title card.

My latest obsession is an attempt in stitching together two threads of interests into one, trying to make sense of a particular cultural moment that, uncoincidentally, aligns with that of my young adulthood; that is, I’m trying to make sense of why I’ve been drawn to the sorts of cultural objects that I’ve been unable to shake from my viewing, reading, and listening preferences for the last 50 years or so (and I’ve been encouraged in this exploration by Kier-La Janisse’s profound, inspirational “Autobiographical Topography,” House of Psychotic Women, which examines horror and exploitation film through the lens of her own traumatic “personal trajectory”). [ ((Kier-La Janisse, House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films (Surrey, UK: FAB Press Ltd, 2014), 9.))]

As an adolescent stumbling into (theoretical) maturity, I was drawn to the fictional worlds of Midnight Movies, Psychotronic cinema, Robert Anton Wilson novels, monster movies, Trekkie fandom, and Cult; simultaneously, I was transfixed by the real-world news accounts of Charles Manson’s brainwashed murderous family, L Ron Hubbard’s sci-fi cosmology, UFO-theologies (like The Unarian Society, Heaven’s Gate, and the Raelians), Unification Church mass-marriages, dangerously crazed fans like Mark David Chapman and John Hinckley, Jr., Eckanar, EST, Rajneeshees, and many, many more fringy popular delusions. Perhaps, I’ve more recently been wondering, it’s not just the accident of the timing of my birth to have somehow plopped me in the swirling vortices of the rise of outre media appreciation and the explosion of new religions; what if there were some kind of nexus of events, taste, philosophies, and religious fervor that somehow mutually informed both sets of phenomena? What could be learned about the (my?) 1970s and ‘80s by focusing on “cult-cult” artifacts, those movies, series, records, and paperbacks that seemed to be both for and about cults and cultishness?


Lucifer's Women trailer title card

Lucifer’s Women trailer title card.

Once I started thinking about it, some obvious choices leapt out for inclusion in an imagined canon of cult-cult media: it was pretty easy to tick off the TV movies like Helter Skelter (Tom Gries, 1976) and Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones (William A. Graham, 1980), Hollywood blockbusters that have cult followings, like Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968) and The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973), and well-known midnight icons like The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Jim Sharman, 1975) and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (Russ Meyer, 1970). But what of the tier of titles below these, those that might need a little excavation, re-discovery, and reappraisal—borrowing from the twin traditions of cult appreciation represented by Manny Farber and Parker Tyler—to bring back into consideration? Before long, after multiple sessions of chin-scratching, flipping through piles of old Psychotronic Video and Sewer Cinema back issues, late-night web-surfing, and conversations with fellow film and video nuts, I’d amassed a list of more than 230 candidates for the canon, stretching over a time-period bookended roughly by The Manson Family’s moving into the Spahn Ranch (itself a movie and TV shooting location, of course) in 1968 on the one hand and the televised press coverage of the McMartin Trial defendants’ acquittal, marking the end of (the first) wave of Satanic Ritual Abuse panics in 1990.

I’d started flagging titles for queuing on streaming services, and found many pretty accessible; scouring the internet for unauthorized copies of films yielded interesting results as well. I was relatively untroubled when I picked a few DVDs from the bones of the dying Blockbuster Video in Sandy, OR; I was considerably more melancholy lugging away the tens of movies I bought from Portland, Oregon’s beloved Clinton Street Video on the occasion of its three-week-long Going-Out-of-Business Sale. Having worked on programming and curating several streaming services, I know first hand how precarious and temporary their riches can be (FilmStruck, we hardly knew ye), and I’m glad to have hard copies of rare and precious (well, to me) series and movies stacked all over my office and TV room. [ ((Next to my right foot as I type this sentence: Helter Skelter, Evil Come, Evil Go (Walt Davis, 1972), Diamonds of Kilimandjaro (Jesus Franco, 1982), Daughters of Darkness (Harry Kumel 1971), Black Candles (Jose Larraz, 1982), Blood Orgy of the She Devils (Ted Mikels, 1973), Satan’s Sadists (Al Adamson, 1969), God Told Me To (Larry Cohen, 1976), Lisa and the Devil (Mario Bava, 1974), The Devils (Ken Russell 1971), Race With the Devil (Jack Starrett 1975), Cult of the Damned (Robert Thom, 1969), A Boy and His Dog (LQ Jones 1975), ZPG (Michael Campus), and The World’s Greatest Sinner (Timothy Carey, 1962). If anyone knows where I can score a copy of Craig Denney’s The Astrologer (1975) – let’s talk!))]

While in Austin attending Fantastic Fest, the can’t-miss festival of extreme sci-fi, horror, and action filmmaking, and sister organization to the American Genre Film Archive, a non-profit dedicated to preserving and distributing obscure movies that make FF fans drool, I spent hours ogling the wares at the table for Vinegar Syndrome, a for-profit company with a similar mission, and dedicated to the home collector market. I’d visited VS online several times before, of course, but the visceral thrill of seeing so many of their rare and weird titles in one place ready for fondling, their custom slipcovers with specially commissioned new art work lying side-by-side and jostling for attention, was overwhelming. After several trips to the table and a brief chat with James Neurath, VS’s film restoration artist who also served double-duty manning the merch, about VS’s forays into streaming content, both as their own brand and as a supplier to other services, I found a movie I’d half-remembered from its crummy time-period runs on USA Network, thinking that it might be another example of cult-cult: the two-disc deluxe Blu-Ray edition of two films, Lucifer’s Women and Doctor Dracula, was mine. [ ((As was the Vinegar Syndrome devil-horned heavy-metal logo t-shirt, which seemed very appropriate.))]


Lucifer's Women slipcover

Lucifer’s Women slipcover art.

The DVD box-set is lovely. Illustrator Kevin Thomas’s slipcover art luridly arouses our curiosity with a rendered assemblage of the film’s most memorable moments; the clamshell includes two different labels for each of its two films, so that fans can choose which of the two movies to honor most. There are two discs, each with different artwork, to accommodate both DVD and Blu-Ray viewing; there’s a thoughtful essay by Samm Deighan, associate editor of macabre culture zine, Diabolique, an entertaining interview with star, Philip Toubus (better known as porn star and director Paul Thomas), and trailers for each of the films. And the movies themselves look fantastic; the 2k restoration based on a 35mm negative of Doctor Dracula in particular barely resembling the muddy prints I squinted through on cable TV. It’s a loving restoration and presentation, worthy of a studio release of a more reputable and celebrated film.


Doctor Dracula title card

Doctor Dracula title card.

While I appreciate VS’s dedication to the preservation and distribution of its catalogue of gritty, previously unsung and unavailable independent filmmaking from the ‘60s and ‘70s, I simultaneously can’t help shaking the feeling that it’s also a canny kind of performance piece, an elaborate parody of the kind of fetishistic treatment that highbrow outfits like Criterion (to pick the most obvious example) might apply to Classics of World Cinema. It’s unclear to me if VS (along with AGFA, Severin Films, Arrow Films, Grindhouse Releasing, and others doing similarly heroic—or mock-heroic—work) are emulating, parodying, rejecting, or co-opting the idea of mainstream studio and conglomerate Collector’s Editions, but I suspect it’s some kind of playful combination of all of the above. And even though I’ve happily paid a premium for copies of movies I never thought I’d be able to see (let alone own or want to own), the irony of paying more for the Blu-Ray than the film originally might have cost to make isn’t lost on me either. [ ((So what sort of person shells out $25 or more for lovingly restored, thoughtfully packaged editions of trash films that often can be found streaming elsewhere? It’s difficult for me to be too critical of these poor (and rapidly poorer) souls. While procrastinating on this post, I wandered over to Amazon and bought the deluxe Blu-Ray edition of the cult-cult Manson-infused Satanic panic film I Drink Your Blood (Durston, 1970), put out by Bob Murawski’s fan-serving Grindhouse Releasing (yep, the same Bob Murawski who won an Oscar for editing The Hurt Locker and won this year’s Passion for Film Award at the Venice Film Festival for his work assembling Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind!). There’s a good chance that I’ll get impatient waiting for the drone to deliver my package and will watch it on Shudder before then, though. The film’s trailer commands: “You will sit and watch the shocking ugliness splashing across the screen!” And sometimes it’s hard to resist the power of a charismatic voice-over.))] I’m also glad that VS and Something Weird, for two examples, make many of their titles available on streaming services (especially on free, ad-supported ones), so that audiences and prospective fans with less disposable income (or fanaticism) at their disposal can get their minds blown by these subversive discoveries too.

But what of the films Lucifer’s Women and Doctor Dracula, and their value as prospective cult-cult test cases? The trailer for Lucifer’s Women promises “minds controlled by an agonizing torment,” a tease for what’s to come in my upcoming articles.

Image Credits:
1. Lucifer’s Women title card. (author’s screen grab)
2. Lucifer’s Women trailer title card. (author’s screen grab)
3. Kevin Thomas’ slipcover art, available on Vinegar Syndrome’s website.
4. Doctor Dracula title card. (author’s screen grab)

Please feel free to comment.




Dispatch from the Inaugural Fan Studies Network – North America Conference
Jenny Keegan / Louisiana State University Press

Dr. Paul Booth's popcorn machine at the inaugural Fan Studies Network-North America Conference.

A departmental popcorn machine at the inaugural Fan Studies Network-North America Conference at Depaul University.

“How can we find a way to make an academic conference more like fandom?” FSN-North America organizer Lesley Willard asks me. It is a rhetorical question, but I think the organizing committee have made a good start with their choice of premise. Fandom is infinite and iterative and overwhelming, and the eleventh floor of DePaul University mirrors this. It is organized in a circle (allegedly), yet there are so many doors leading in so many directions that the attendees—including myself, especially myself—are perpetually getting lost. It is so incomprehensible that by the end of the conference, people are still astonished to discover the books ‘n’ coffee room where I am set up. I require a lot of assistance from the organizer whose home university this is, Dr. Paul Booth. He’s a man with a plan—and a popcorn machine.

He tells me, while walking me around in a circle to show me how impossible I will find it to get lost, that he used $200 of refreshment money a few conferences back to buy a department popcorn maker instead. [ (( I am lost as soon as he leaves my side. ))] It is visibly his pride and joy. I conceal my intention to eat yellow bell peppers rather than popcorn while schmoozing with my fellow attendees at the opening reception. In the context of a fan studies conference, schmoozing consists of trying to discover what things one’s interlocutors are fans of—based on subtle context clues like TARDIS pins and Ravenclaw scarves—and then talking about those things noisily until one has to steal away for wine, more bell peppers, or the restroom.

FSN–North America is the brainchild of the scholarly interest group in Fan and Audience Studies at SCMS 2017. Dr. Paul Booth, Dr. Kristina Busse, Dr. Louisa Stein, Dr. Lori Morimoto, and Lesley Willard began talking about how to find a space for fan studies as its own discipline, rather than a minor offshoot of film studies or cultural studies (or any of the many other departments where fan studies scholars make their homes). Creating a North American chapter of the existing Fan Studies Network seemed like a no-brainer, and FSN–Mothership agreed. [ (( “FSN-Mothership” is a colloquial name for the international parent organization, Fan Studies Network.))]


A porg figurine

A porg figurine from the popular Star Wars film series.

The inaugural conference begins with a keynote speech from Abigail de Kosnik. As I settle into the basement room where the keynote is to be, I write a tweet that says “nothing is worth how early I must think thoughts today” and then delete it, because Abigail de Kosnik will inevitably be worth it. She opens by saying: “The current US political climate is a fan war. The show is the United States of America.”

Everyone is entranced as de Kosnik develops this metaphor; we keep waiting for it to collapse under its own weight, but of course it never does. We badly want her utopian view of “our” side of fandom to be real. When she says, “We’ve never seen a show like the one we want: A show of versioning, of variance, of infinite points of view,” your sleepy, under-caffeinated correspondent dabbed away tears. Despite any reservations the audience may have regarding the capacity of fan studies to reshape the political climate, it is a remarkably energizing start. Virtually nobody I speak to over the course of the conference opens the conversation with anything but “Oh my God, that keynote.”

The other constant is the attendees’s elation at getting to spend time with other fan studies scholars. Though most folks come from supportive departments, I hear a lot of stories about mentors who advised against pursuing fan studies. FSN-NA brought together all the people who decided to pursue it anyway, and they are delighted to be in a room together. Towards the end of the conference, someone suggests including fanfiction-style tags on papers and panels, to help each other find points of connection across subdisciplines. Infinite diversity in infinite combinations is the order of the day. [ ((I had to Google this because I couldn’t remember what the exact phrase was. Infinite variety? Infinite versions? Please nobody revoke my fan studies membership card.))]

The variety of panels is part of the conference’s design. From the very beginning, organizers knew they wanted to offer an expansive vision of the discipline. What began in 1992 with a few books about communities of fans of science fiction television has since grown to encompass everything from comics to sports, from politics to early modern literature.

“The fan studies group always crushes everyone else at live-tweeting SCMS panels,” I am told, not without pride. Which is no surprise; fannish people are old hands at finding ways to make the experience of watching a thing communal. The hashtag for the conference (#FSNNA18) is so active that it starts trending locally, and we acquire a spammer with opinions about recent political events. My schedule of meetings prevents me from attending most of the panels, but I am able to follow along handily. If I’m not sure of the point one tweet from a given panel is making, there is sure to be another one to fill in the gaps.


Fanfiction encouragement

The author encourages attendees to share their fanfiction (“fic”) recommendations.

On the second day, I make my own small foray into conference-as-fandom: I set up a bag of Halloween candy with an offer to trade candy for fanfiction recommendations. As a method of getting pooped-out introvert academics to chat with me, it is extremely effective. Someone writes down a fic that I later find out is the most-recommended fic for the fandom newsletter The Rec Center. Folks keep coming by my table and meekly suggesting that I may not want the fic recs they have to offer because maybe I don’t care about [insert fandom here]. I show them my iPad, where I have Archive of Our Own open in a browser tab so that I can easily bookmark all the recommendations I am receiving.

“What are you going to do with these?” someone asks me.

I say, “Read them.”

(Of course.)

Image Credits:
1. A departmental popcorn machine at the inaugural Fan Studies Network-North America Conference at Depaul University. (author’s personal collection)
2. A porg figurine from the popular Star Wars film series. (author’s personal collection)
3. The author encourages attendees to share their fanfiction (“fic”) recommendations. (author’s personal collection)

Please feel free to comment.