#TrumpIsRight: The Paradox of Digital Database Histories and Collective Memory
Eric Hahn / New York University

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Donald Trump, the man of the hour

The Internet has served as a catalyst for the development of interactive and shared historical archives. Websites and databases like Immigrant Nation and CNN’s iReport, have approached what can arguably be understood as the democratization not only of access to historical archives but, and more significantly, to the very creation and curation of history itself. These seemingly open databases where users can effectively craft and post their own historical fragments (be it news or life stories) from unique perspectives calls into question any cohesive, teleological readings of history. While this fragmented and personalized approach to history is seemingly effective in the destabilization and questioning of dominant and often problematic historical narratives, the promise of purely democratic and multifaceted database approaches to history raises alternative and significant questions. This brief article intends to explore the progress and limitations of this digital database approach not merely in its ability to offer central spaces for collective and personal histories, but additionally in regards to the possibility or impossibility of generating “believable” and “substantial” histories. By analyzing the aforementioned sites/databases, one can begin to deconstruct and question the often over-sentimentalized prospect of participatory and democratic constructions of history and collective memory via new and emerging media.

Both iReport and Immigrant Nation function as repositories of “lived” experience. By providing basic information (e.g. name, email address, etc.) or simply linking to a source via hashtag (#CNNiReport) users are invited to post newsworthy items in the case of iReport or personal accounts of emigrating to the United States in the case of Immigrant Nation. While these two sites differ dramatically in terms of business structure (iReport being a for-profit endeavor) this difference ultimately factors little into the nature of the material stocking the databases. Indeed, a quick review of current CNN iReport stories reveals contentious and clearly unmoderated headlines at odds with the traditional fare offered by “the most trusted name in news” such as, “Will Black Lives Matter Team Up with Isis to Stop the Republican National Convention?” and a short, clearly doctored, video titled “Unexpected Jihad” in which a child on a playground explodes. While this lack of moderation seems contradictory, Devon Bissonette rightly suggests, “As long as advertising is linked to user views, media companies have a vested interest in pushing users to generate inflammatory versus informative content, as long as the former proves more salable” (394). [ (( Bissonette, Devan. “A Digital Democracy or Twenty-First-Century Tyranny? CNN’s iReport and the Future of Citizenship in Virtual Spaces.” DIY Citizenship: Critical Making and Social Media. Ed. Matt Ratto and Megan Boler. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014. 385-401. ))]

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“Unexpected Jihad,” a CNN iReport video with clearly doctored content

In essence, both for-profit and not-for-profit models can be understood as utilizing fairly loose modes of moderation (of course this varies by website) albeit based on fundamentally different motives: for-profit to generate views, not-for-profits to allow for as many disparate voices to be heard as possible. Hidden within this seemingly revolutionary model in which moderation is limited or non-existent, lies a problematic paradox. In analyzing approaches to database histories that are wholly user moderated, or not moderated at all, any conception of historical “truth” is itself an impossibility. Admittedly, one could argue that historiography is a process of negotiated and mediated readings of reality therefore “truth” is inherently a problematic word. But, such an understanding ignores the fact that traditionally generated histories can theoretically be deconstructed through questioning and contextualizing the source(s) of specific histories. In essence, even problematic historical narratives can be traced (some more effectively than others) and through this process of investigation, inverted, reformulated, or challenged. Conversely, the allowable anonymity of the Internet acts as both a cloaking device for the source of the historical fragment thus problematizing deconstruction and simultaneously a means of separating the creator of a historical narrative from the consequences of such a narrative. Such an approach to wholly democratic databases can be dismissed as too pessimistic, but in briefly pointing to a seemingly innocent post on Immigrant Nation (see below), one can begin to understand the grounds for this critique.
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An Immigrant Nation post: complication or experimentation?

In a post titled, “bjfdbj” by Edgar, we learn of someone who emigrated from Guatemala to the U.S. to escape civil war. Interestingly, the post itself has a picture of a carrot, followed by a seemingly random string of text. While this is certainly nothing alarming or offensive it does pose some important questions. Are the incoherent aspects of this post simply a result of a genuine user having difficulties manipulating the interface or is this perhaps a user who is simply testing or playing with the interface itself? This of course would precede the question: if this is a user simply testing or playing with the interface, can the history documented be given any credence? Again, one can assert that history is fundamentally polylogical and relative but, the anonymity afforded through digital mediation negates any possibility of tracing contextual threads that might allow for the deconstruction of the specific historical discourse. This argument points to a paradox. The Internet has allowed for disparate groups or individuals to connect and share personal or collective histories effectively questioning and destabilizing dominant historical narratives, but, the very medium that enables such a connection fundamentally problematizes the histories generated by its users. As such, the pluralization of the archives’ nomos — the law of the archive and the authority to archive [ (( Pinchevski, Amit. “Archive, Media, Trauma.” On Media Memory: Collective Memory in a New Media Age. Ed. Motti Neiger, Oran Meyers, and Eyal Zandberg. Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2011. 253-264. ))] — fractures any tenuous points of contact between truth and history even as it allows for a more diverse and inclusive approach to historiographical practice.

What is significant when analyzing this paradox is not necessarily the loss of grand historical narratives as such, but rather the reverberations of this destabilization. In “Past Indiscretions: Digital Archives and Recombinant History,” Steve Anderson argues that beyond the possibility of total and encyclopedic approaches to history, the significance of the digital and collective approach is the existence of “recombinant histories.” [ (( Anderson, Steve. “Past Indiscretions: Digital Archives and Recombinant History.” Transmedia Frictions: The Digital, the Arts, and the Humanities. Ed. Marsha Kinder and Tara McPherson. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014. 100-114. ))] Anderson suggests, “A more provocative historiographical argument is posited in the premise of the apparatus that encourages audience members to lie—to pose as someone other than themselves—in order to generate alternative histories” (110). Anderson expounds the democratic possibility of challenging dominant histories but what is at stake here is not simply the existence of dominant historical narratives — which should indeed be questioned — but additionally the very notion of historical “truth” as relevant at all. One need only turn to contemporary political discourse to witness this (post)modern, Baudrillardian mode of existence. Specifically, presidential hopeful Donald Trump fairly recently claimed, “Hey, I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down. And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey where thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down.” [ (( Taibbi, Matt. “America is Too Dumb for TV News.” Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone Magazine, 25 Nov. 2015. ))] Vehemently argued as a fictional account by most accredited media and news outlets, this alternative history has no doubt generated concurrent reports even leading to the creation of the hashtag #TrumpIsRight. The pseudo-news website InfoWars dedicated a page to scrolling user generated histories — much like iReport’s “database” — detailing these “celebratory displays” in agreement with Trump’s arguably false historical narrative. [ (( Watson, Steve. “I Live in Jersey and Trump is Right: Muslims Did Celebrate on 9/11 in NJ… We Saw It!” InfoWars. Free Speech Systems, LLC. 24 Nov. 2015. ))] As such, Trump’s account, although largely contested, is also forcefully supported through digital “eyewitness” channels whose users fundamentally disavow contrary reports as biased or false.

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Eyewitness testimonies reported via Twitter

In essence, the digital archive functions in an interesting way. Rather than envisioning it as a Foucauldian heterotopic paradigm where “time is accumulated but not lived,” we can begin to conceive of this digital approach as “an eminently social practice, a veritable living memory” (254). [ (( Pinchevski, Amit. “Archive, Media, Trauma.” On Media Memory: Collective Memory in a New Media Age. Ed. Motti Neiger, Oran Meyers, and Eyal Zandberg. Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2011. 253-264. ))] It is in this vein that Pinchevski argues that this process of digital and user generated historical archives returns the notion of “collective memory” to a kind of pure existence as “the remembering community and the collective will to remember” (256). [ (( Pinchevski, Amit. “Archive, Media, Trauma.” On Media Memory: Collective Memory in a New Media Age. Ed. Motti Neiger, Oran Meyers, and Eyal Zandberg. Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2011. 253-264. ))] While one can indeed approach these digital databases as forms of unmediated collective memory, Pinchevski ignores or misinterprets the results of these newly generated mass histories (collective memories). Specifically, collective memory and history itself has reached a stage of pure simulacra. No longer do grand historical narratives exist to be deconstructed and analyzed, but rather, the digital database, in all its democratic potentiality, has indeed served to destabilize and democratize collective memory and history. In this new egalitarian model, all history exists in a dual state: unquestionably true and absolutely false with no room in between.

Image Credits:

1. Donald Trump
2. “Unexpected Jihad” from CNN iReport
3. “bfjdbj” from Immigrant Nation
4. Eyewitness testimonies reported via Twitter

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A Part and Apart: Hawaii and Domestic Satellite Broadcasting, 1967-1971
Selena Dickey / University of Texas Austin

Engineers Ready the Intelsat Satellite

Engineers Ready the Intelsat Satellite

In the “International” section of Broadcasting’s July 24th, 1967 issue, the industry trade journal reported the blast off of “A second synchronous Pacific communications satellite…a twin to the present Intelsat II satellite now providing 24-hour commercial service between the U.S. mainland and Hawaii, Australia, Japan, Philippines, Thailand.” [ ((“Sept. 20 Blast off for Pacific Satellite,” Broadcasting 73, no. 4 (1967): 58.)) ]

In this nearly unnoticeable notice, Broadcasting alerted readers of the most recent step in satellite communications: with a second successful launch, engineers had proven their satellites could achieve and maintain geostationary orbit (that is, reaching an altitude of approximately 22,230 miles and moving at the same speed and rotational direction as Earth so that it stays in place over a single location). But yet subtly, this small announcement also shows how Hawaii is rhetorically configured as a part of and apart from the United States: though the 50th state in the Union, it is lumped together here with various Pacific island nation-states, marking it as not really domestic but, instead, as the section title reminds us, “international.”

The a part/apart-ness of Hawaii is nothing new. Many have looked at the pop culture representations of the island state, from tourism and airline campaigns showcasing the wahines with never-ending supplies of leis to the films of Elvis and Gidget hip-thrusting and surfing across the sandy beaches to the television shows featuring McGarrett and Magnum P.I. chasing criminals through the palm trees. All of these images have created a myth of Hawaii, an escapist’s multicultural utopia so utterly different from the mainland and yet so a part of it that, unlike Australia, Japan, the Philippines or Thailand, no passport is required.

What makes Broadcasting’s coverage different, however, is how its rhetoric configures Hawaii as a part/apart in a discussion of off-screen processes. Similar to the images of island exoticism that filled television and cinema screens, here the industry discourse surrounding the role of developing satellite technology also blurs Hawaii’s connection to the mainland and blends it with the foreign. That both onscreen and off-screen logics function in this way is significant. Both reveal how ideology operates not only within visual discourse but also within industry, policy and technology discourses. In other words, analyzing hula girl and tiki hut tropes is important, but it isn’t the whole luau.

For instance, other industry trade journals focusing on the novelty of satellite transmission also configured Hawaii in rather ambiguous terms. As a Variety article covering the sat-casting of the 1968 Presidential election put it,

[T]here is no reason why foreigners can’t see U.S. election returns live… With foreign newsman commenting on the pictures relayed by pool cameras, 18 1/2 hours of coverage were arranged for Europe and 9 hours and 20 minutes for Hawaii, 2 hours and 25 minutes for Australia, 6 hours and 30 minutes to Japan and two hours to the Philippines. [ ((“Election Via Comsat,” Variety 252, no. 13 (1968): 122.)) ]

Clearly, one of these things is not like the others.

Hawaii is, once again, slipped into a list of foreign regions and countries, its status as a U.S. state overlooked, reconfigured as a foreign body vying for satellite transmission time.

Sat-Casting the 1968 Election Results

Sat-Casting the 1968 Election Results

Even though the number of Broadcasting and Variety articles covering satellite technology and its connection to Hawaii is limited (approximately 30 stories from 1966-1971, the era when television broadcasters first began using satellite transmission), the rhetorical maneuvers and slippages of these longstanding trade journals, subtle as they may be, reveal how the industry conceptualized the island state at a key moment of telecommunication development: Hawaii as Other, as foreign. And this, paired with the findings others have made about onscreen representations of Hawaii, only further reinforces how Hawaii’s identity has been shaped and deployed in certain ways—ways often laden with explicit and implicit power dynamics. If evidence of this can be found in such a small sliver of writing on the development of satellite technology in this brief moment of history, how many other off-screen contexts have, over time, merged and mixed to shape the popular mythology of Hawaii?

For broadcasting industry insiders (network executives, affiliate station general managers, advertising and marketing firms, policy makers, etc.) reading these stories in the late 60s and early 70s, Broadcasting and Variety‘s rhetorical strategy of “othering” Hawaii had real world effects. Satellite technology was new; the role these key stakeholders would play in its development was still undecided; and the way these publications framed the issue within their pages—Hawaii not as a state but as a foreign market—influenced programming, advertising, and telecommunication policy decisions.

These decisions then rippled out to viewers and the general public, shaping their access and exposure to programming. That Hawaiians glimpsed the results of the 1968 Presidential election through the same satellite feed as Europeans and Australians, for example, marks their television experience of this event as significantly different from that experienced by Americans in the continental United States. Sure, Hawaiians were a part of the election—they voted in it, after all—but so too were they excluded from it, receiving national election coverage on an international satellite feed. Put another way, Hawaiians were a part of the mainland, exercising their voting rights as American citizens, and yet apart from the nation’s televisual “flow.” The consequences of this ambiguous—and uneven—televisual relationship with the mainland are complex and the subject of my ongoing research, but what can be said here is that, in the three-network era, access to and participation in a common national television “cultural forum” wasn’t so common, or even so national.

Paumalu Earth Station, Hawaii's Satellite Access Ground Station

Paumalu Earth Station, Hawaii’s Satellite Access Ground Station

Looking at the ways off-screen practices shape regional identity has gained traction in television studies, with Victoria E. Johnson’s, Steven D. Classen’s, Yeidy Rivero’s, and Myles McNutt’s work particularly standing out. All take into account different elements, from policy to production to local politics, and each considers the ways those elements—operating beyond the frame of yet shaping what appears on a television screen—nuance and reshape our understandings of regional identity. Similarly, Broadcasting and Variety‘s coverage of newly developing satellite technology and its effect on Hawaiian identity reminds us that not only are there other regions still left to explore but also other off-screen practices to examine. It reminds us that to conceive of a homogenous televisual flow, of unhindered participation in a national television cultural forum, fails to consider the unique position Hawaii occupied during this particular historical moment and opens up the need for further investigations into the way region shapes understandings of technology, television, and culture, and vice versa.

Image Credits

1. Engineers Ready the Intelsat Satellite
2. Sat-Casting the 1968 Election Results, Broadcasting 77, no. 8 (1969): 32.
3. Paumalu Earth Station, Hawaii’s Satellite Access Ground Station

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Prostitution or Oprah: The Impact of Dichotomous Images of Black Women
Mary Vanderlinden/Averett University

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Images 1 & 2: Participants Identified Limited Portrayals of Black Women on Television

How are Black women characterized on television and what do these depictions mean to you? This was the primary research question posed to a group of 15 African American college women who participated in a qualitative study on the portrayals of Black females on television and the influence such representations have on their personal development. (( This article highlights a portion of Vanderlinden’s dissertation titled “Associating with Occupational Depictions: How African American College Women are Influenced by the Portrayals of Women in Professional Careers on Television.” )) This article is comprised of participants’ reflections that highlight my findings on how this intense imagery affects the lives of these women and impacts their decision to attend college. (( Participants in this study were African American, female, enrolled as a degree seeking student, and at least 18 years old. ))

Participants described vivid portrayals polarized as exceedingly negative or positive. Georgette (( Pseudonyms were used to protect the confidentiality of participants. )) summarized the groups’ collective assessment:

… there’s only two types, the video vixen kind of girl or the professionals like Oprah. Honestly, those are the only two types I can think of, yeah, prostitution or Oprah.

This response served as a precursor for many of the reactions that followed. Interestingly 14 of the 15 participants described negative images first, using the following descriptive words: poor, jobless, loud, angry, addict. Donesha discussed the Black female character (Video 1) in True Blood named Tara:

… there’s one show that I watch, it’s True Blood, a vampire show. There’s a Black character and she’s very loud, very angry, very mean, you know she doesn’t have any money, she’s very poor, her mother is an alcoholic. And I mean she displays a lot of things African American women have, or at least are given in the television shows or the movies … they usually portray them in a lower class.

Donesha summed up the feelings of many participants by stating that Black women are “ … stuck in that type of role.”

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZMOypXPrl_Y[/youtube]

Video 1: The Type of Role Black Women Seem Stuck Playing

Conversely, participants also recognized positive portrayals of African American females on television. Overwhelmingly, participants said the affirmative images are determined, smart, strong and successful. The iteration of these qualities was repeated by several participants. For example, Alaina’s description of Dr. Bailey, a character appearing on Grey’s Anatomy (Video 3), echoed these traits:

She is very strong minded, she is very smart. She is top notch; she is head of the surgery department. She was the only Black person in the entire program when she interned, and she is just brilliant, well educated, excellent surgeon, and she overcame those circumstances while being a parent. Now that she’s in control, she is the boss of the other interns and other doctors. She is kind of a mother influence towards them because she makes sure they are strictly business … she doesn’t expect anything but greatness.

So, what do such images mean to 15 African American college females? For many of these women the positive vicarious characters gave them a sense of realization, of hope, and intensified their aspirations to achieve. Importantly, these portrayals had a degree of influence on some participant’s decision to attend college.

For Tonya watching reruns of the 1980s sitcom A Different World (Video 2) was the impetus she needed.

I used to watch A Different World. I thought I wanted to go to college and I want to be just like Whitley, Dwayne, and Denise. I wanted to be like that, that influenced me to go to college.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_zq3UYQJzPY[/youtube]

Video 2: A Different World Spurred College Ambitions

Tonya further recalled how A Different World made her believe that college was not an option but something that students did after high school. Other participants discussed accomplishing their own aspirations based on the careers of their favorite characters or personalities. Isis shared her dream of becoming a lawyer and how watching the attorneys in Law and Order influenced her decision:

… like when I watch Law and Order and I listen to the attorneys talk … I know that I’m not going to talk like that right out of high school. So, I guess the attorneys language, I guess that’s how I can phrase it, really told me that like, yeah, in order to become something you’ve got to go to school, you have to have the education. I know they had to go to school in order to be where they are. They didn’t just up and say well I’m going to court and I’m going to defend somebody today.

Dr. Bailey, the principal character on Grey’s Anatomy, was inspirational for Alaina who wants to achieve a doctoral degree:

I’m going to graduate, I’m going to go for a Ph.D. because I have it in me. Even if I don’t see it now, but in a few years, I’ll have this, and I’m approaching that I can be a success.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d7cNlSmmTxI[/youtube]

Video 3: Dr. Bailey: A Strong, Smart Portrayal

Phillipa continued this line of thought, referring to her interpretation of events in Oprah’s tumultuous childhood:

Oprah’s case … she taught people that no matter where you come from that doesn’t matter. If you put in the hard work then you can go anywhere. That takes away your excuses because you know a lot of people, like in my family, they try to use their background to like say… I didn’t have this … I didn’t have money to go to college. Oprah kind a takes away that excuse.

But, it’s not exclusively the positive images that drive these participants to achieve. Donesha responded that the constant negative images of Black women appearing on television can have an inspirational effect and gave her the impetus to achieve instead of succumbing to prevalent stereotypes.

I mean, as far as like some of television shows where there are African American women who are put on a lower scale, I mean that influences you know. That makes me say I want to do better, I want to go to school, I want to get an education, and I want to surpass those limits … because of these television shows. You know, like I said, I mean, my family doesn’t have a lot of money, and my family doesn’t have a lot of education … (the portrayals) makes you, not angry, but it makes you want to show people not everyone is like this. Not everyone that is female and Black portrays these aspects. That’s a strong key in me wanting to get an education.

Literature reviews on the persuasiveness of television reveals that often researchers focus on the negative influences of television on individuals. If, however, this ubiquitous medium has the power to encourage unconstructive and even harmful behavior, then it also has the capacity to promote a person’s constructive actions. Albeit my findings are greatly truncated for this article, what this qualitative research shows is that positive television portrayals can be potentially motivational, prompting some to achieve and possibly offering individuals a sense of self affirmation.

It is important to remember that in qualitative research we cannot use information gleaned to make full generalizations of an entire population: this information only serves as a snapshot in the lives of these 15 study participants. Qualitative information, however, can be the foundation for quantitative questions and lead to future formative research on this or any topic.

Image Credits:
1.RollingOut.com
2.Oprah.com

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Sanjaya and the Mulatto Millenium

by: Mary Beltrán / University of Wisconsin-Madison

As Camilla Fojas and I note in our forthcoming anthology, Mixed Race Hollywood, we have embarked on a new era. (Fojas is credited as co-author of this opening paragraph, adapted from the book’s introduction). As novelist Danzy Senna succinctly describes it, we’ve entered the “mulatto millennium.” This certainly seems to be the case if you follow trends in popular culture. If you turn on your television you might happen upon mixed-race actors Vanessa Williams in Ugly Betty (2006+), Wentworth Miller in Prison Break (2005+), Kristen Kreuk in Smallville (2001+), or models of various mixed racial backgrounds competing to be declared America’s Next Top Model (2003+). Similarly, you might see Vin Diesel, Keanu Reeves, or Rosario Dawson’s latest film at your local multiplex, hear Mariah Carey talking frankly about her mixed heritage on a talk show, or read about Raquel Welch “coming out” as half Bolivian. In truth we’ve always liked mixed-race performers (think Nancy Kwan, Anthony Quinn, and Freddie Prinze, Sr.), but these days it’s a boon to star hopefuls not only to have an ethnically ambiguous look but to be open about their mixed heritage in their publicity.

Entertainment Weekly cover

Entertainment Weekly cover

A recent illustration can be seen in the massive popularity of ex-American Idol contestant Sanjaya Malakar. Even while he was in equal parts adored and maligned by viewers and the Idol judges, he achieved a level of fame and attention in the entertainment news media unsurpassed by any other non-winner to date. On a recent perusal of a newstand I noted that Malakar was featured in several major U.S. entertainment and news magazines—even People, which featured Malakar on its cover in a small photo insert captioned “Sanjaya Tells All!” This is not to argue that the 17-year-old performer has become popular merely because of his dual Bengali Indian and Italian American heritage. Clearly Malakar’s personality, charisma, and potential as a performer are largely to credit for the stardom that he garnered during his stint on Idol. But I would argue that the singer’s mixed background and ethnic, but not too ethnic look, also played a role in his capturing the hearts of many viewers.

Sanjaya Malakar singing

Sanjaya Malakar singing

People’s “tell all,” among other things, answers the puzzle of Malakar and his sister Shyamali’s mixed heritage, given that viewers already had seen his sister and his mother, Jillian Blyth, cheering him on each week. We learn from People that Malakar has an Indian father, Vesuveda Malakar, a musician, and that his parents divorced when Malakar was 3 years old. Notably, pictures of Sanjaya and his Italian American mother and of Sanjaya and Shayamali as young children are included among the illustrations that document Sanjaya’s life as a mixed-race youth for curious readers. His story is one that I would argue is increasingly coded as American in star promotion efforts. While it isn’t why he became popular, it has helped that Malakar not only has the right look at the right time, but also a life story that is timely and compelling to the U.S. viewing audience.

Sanjaya Malakar

Sanjaya Malakar

Sanjaya’s charm notwithstanding, why are we so enamored of ethnically ambiguous, mixed heritage individuals? In part because of the ongoing evolution of ethnic demographics and identity our country. Americans, and particularly the youth generation, have never been so racially and ethnically diverse as in recent years. In addition, the numbers of mixed-race families and youth have boomed since the 1970s and are projected to continue to grow. A broad perspective on ethnic differences therefore could be expected to come naturally for many of the Millennial Generation, the first generation large enough to displace the Baby Boomers in dictating the direction of popular culture. Advertising and other studies have shown that youth and younger adults today are more culturally curious than their older counterparts, demonstrated in an interest in television shows, films, and other pop culture forms featuring individuals perceived as non-white. As the rise in mixed-race actors and performers attests, however, we can’t necessarily shake the standards of beauty that have been drilled into us by a century of white-centric media culture. Actors, models, and others in the public eye who can embody the “ethnicity lite” that enables us to have it both ways—for example, Jessica Alba, Keanu Reeves, Vanessa Williams, and Sanjaya Malakar—are seen as especially attractive today, and are increasingly successful. While only time will tell if Sanjaya’s fame will extend beyond the shelf life of this most recent season of American Idol, this trend in popular culture arguably is only beginning to be felt.

Image Credits:
1. Entertainment Weekly cover
2. Sanjaya Malakar singing
3. Sanjaya Malakar

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Sometimes a kiss is just a kiss: (not) responding to the Richard Gere-Shipla Shetty controversy in India

by: Shanti Kumar / University of Texas-Austin

Shilpa Shetty, it appears, cannot stay out of controversy and news headlines these days. Shetty, a well-known Bollywood actress in India, shot to international prominence after appearing as a contestant on Celebrity Big Brother in the U.K. in January 2007. The British reality TV show was engulfed in a major controversy when Shetty became the target of racist remarks and bullying by some of her housemates led by the now infamous Jade Goody. When Shetty went on to win the show, she not only became a household name in Britain, but was also the focus of attention in many newspapers, television channels and online sites around the world.

Shetty was back in the global news headlines in April 2007, when she was embroiled in another controversy, this time in India. At an AIDS awareness campaign organized in Delhi to benefit truck drivers, the American actor Richard Gere planted a series of kisses on Shetty. Although taken aback by Gere’s actions, Shetty reportedly laughed it off with a comment directed to the truckers, “yeh thoda zyaada ho gaya” (“This is a bit much.”)

Shipla Shetty and Richard Gere

Shipla Shetty and Richard Gere

Condemning the kiss, Prakash Javadekar, the spokesman for Hindu nationalist party, Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) proclaimed, “Such a public display is not part of Indian tradition.” In Mumbai, members of the right-wing Hindu nationalist group Shiv Sena stormed onto a set where Shetty was shooting a film, set fire to her photographs and burned effigies of Gere. Poonal Chandra Bhandari, an advocate in the city of Jaipur, filed public interest litigation accusing Gere and Shetty of committing “an obscene act” in a public place. Conceding that the kiss at the public event was “highly sexually erotic,” Dinesh Gupta, Additional Chief Judicial Magistrate in the Jaipur Court, issued an arrest warrant against Gere and summoned Shetty for appearance on May 5, 2007.

Sensing trouble due to the growing controversy, Gere tried to set the record straight with an apology. In a statement addressed to “My dear Indian friends,” and released to the media, Gere wrote, “What we thought was a very successful HIV/AIDS event has taken a sad turn. The evening and event in question was intended to celebrate courageous people and partnerships in the supremely important fight against HIV/AIDS, a worldwide pandemic which has afflicted over 5 million Indians and is still increasing.” Applauding Shetty for taking a leadership role in the fight against AIDS, Gere said, “I assure you, I have utmost respect for her, and she knows this. Of course, I’ve felt terrible that she should carry a burden that is no fault of hers. The burden is mine and no one else’s.”

Shetty, on her part, strongly defended Gere saying, “He is such a gentleman. He is incapable of indecent behaviour.” Lashing out against her critics, Shetty argued, “It was just a kiss on my cheek! What’s the big hue and cry about?” She explained the reason for the kiss as follows: “Earlier during the day during lunch we were teasing him about a dance step in Shall We Dance? When he suddenly bent me down on stage he was doing that whole step from Shall We Dance? I was as taken aback as the people who saw it. It was nothing but a joke and not pre-planned at all.”

But some critics of the kiss seemed unwilling to accept either Gere’s apology or Shetty’s explanation. “The indecency might have been purposefully done as a publicity stunt,” argued Lily Agarwal, a BJP member of the Bhopal City Corporation. Supporting the protests, Agarwal said, “An Indian woman’s greatest asset is her modesty, her reputation and dignity. Shilpa’s lack of any protest only confirms that we are still slaves of the ‘White.’ We will tolerate all humiliation just because we feel the ‘White’ is our master.”

In many postcolonial nations like India, the myth of a homogenous and homogenizing (white) Western culture is a convenient reference point for many political parties and ideological blocs struggling to establish their hegemony in the very diverse terrain of culture. As the noted postcolonial critic Ashis Nandy argues, the myth of “the West” has engendered (and has in turn been engendered by) three responses in colonial and postcolonial India; or more precisely, two responses and one non-response.

The first response, writes Nandy, is to model Indian culture on the idealized myth of Western culture. However, there is more than mere imitation or mimicry involved in this process: It involves “capturing, within one’s own self and one’s own culture, the traits one sees as reasons for the West’s success on the world stage.” This process is seen as a liberal synthesis of “Indian” and “Western” cultures, and justified in terms of universal principles such as “democracy” and “civilization.” In the Gere-Shetty controversy, for instance, some in the Bollywood fraternity embraced this view in their defense of Shetty. Noted Bollywood director Mahesh Bhatt declared, “When the mother of civilisation gets obsessed with trivia, you can be sure doom is around the corner.” Actress Celina Jaitley asked, “If she [Shetty] does not have an objection, why should others be bothered? She is above 18, is grown up and knows what she is doing. I really wonder what has happened to the world’s biggest democracy where every citizen has the right to expression and this reaction from fundamentalists groups is really uncalled for.” Shetty also seemed to endorse this view when she said, “I don’t want the Indian media and Indians to look foolish to the outside world.”

In a similar vein, former attorney general, Soli J Sorabjee criticized Judge Gupta for behaving like the “Taliban moral police,” and opined that “the order is unsustainable and makes us look ridiculous.”

The second response to the so-called clash between “Indian” and “Western” cultures is that of the fundamentalist zealot whose sole aim is somehow to defeat Western culture at in its own game. Examples of this type of response abound in India; the over-zealous moral policing of the Gere-Shetty episode by Hindu “fundamentalist” groups like the Shiv Sena in the city of Mumbai, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the national level being only the most recent. The strategy of the Hindu fundamentalist groups is all too evident. As Nandy puts it, the goal of the Hindu fundamentalists is to:

[D]econtaminate Hinduism of its folk elements … then give it additional teeth with the help of Western technology and secular statecraft, so that Hindus can take on, and ultimately defeat, all their external and internal enemies, if necessary, by liquidating all forms of ethnic plurality — first within Hinduism and then within India, to equal Western Man as a new ubermenschen.

Many liberal-minded Indians who are embarrassed by the political manipulation of religion by fundamentalists tend to classify the response of the Hindu right wing groups as “a retrogression into primitivism and as a pathology of traditions.” But look closely, argues Nandy, and there is nothing “fundamental” about the “fundamentalists.” The almost complete lack of tolerance of the fundamental principles of religion, and the inability to accept the diversity of cultural traditions demonstrate how Hindu right has morphed into a highly modern political machinery that seeks to create an “Indian” culture which not only equals but ultimately surpasses Western culture.

The third response of postcolonial Indians to the myth of a Western culture, writes Nandy, is a non-response. This (non)response emerges from a pragmatic recognition of the cultural and historical continuities and tensions between the “colonial” and the “postcolonial,” “Indian” and the “Western” or the “traditional” and the “modern.” This non-response, according to Nandy, is voiced by a majority in postcolonial India and is based on the belief that diverse cultures in India have known how to live with each other for centuries. This belief emerges from a cultural consensus that religion is not a tool for political manipulation but is a way of life with its own principles of tolerance.

The three responses outlined above are inextricably linked in the political, religious and cultural realms of everyday life in India. But, paradoxically enough, both the enthusiastic admirers of the “West” and their over-zealous opponents in the Hindu right wing would like to believe that the third response is merely a minority view. However, the non-response is clearly in evidence as a majority of Indians ignored the controversy over the Gere-Shetty kiss and the protests organized by Hindu right wing groups fizzled out with a whimper – notwithstanding the excessive media coverage in India and abroad. But the perhaps the most powerful impact of the non-response by a majority of Indians to the Gere-Shetty controversy has been that Judge Gupta (who issued the warrants against Shetty and Gere) was quietly transferred from his post in Jaipur to the small town of Kishangarh several hours away. A spokesman for the Court claimed that the transfer was “routine,” but he also said that Judge Gupta acted on a “frivolous” public interest litigation, and noted that the transfer order came from the state’s Chief Justice. Although it is not clear what effect the transfer will have on the Gere-Shetty case, one can only surmise that the judiciary has recognized that the non-response to the controversy is indeed a majority opinion in Indian public culture.

Endnotes
Effigies of Richard Gere burn in India
My dear Indian friends, I’m surprised: Gere
Richard Gere cannot do anything obscene
Gere has apologized: Shilpa
Nandy, Ashis. “The Politics of Secularism and the Recovery of Religious Tolerance,” Alternatives, XIII (1988): 186.
Ibid.
Gere has apologized: Shilpa
Indian judge who ordered Richard Gere’s arrest transferred: report
Nandy, 187.
Ibid.
Ibid., 188.

Image Credits:
1. Shipla Shetty and Richard Gere

Please feel free to comment.




La televisión mexicana y la transformación del poder en México en el siglo XXI

por: Javier Esteinou Madrid / Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, Unidad Xochimilco

(for English, click here)

Napoleón Gómez Urrutia

Napoleón Gómez Urrutia

Con la introducción de las tecnologías electrónicas de información de masas en México, con la radio en 1920 y la televisión en 1950, el poder ideológico de las industrias culturales paulatinamente desbordó la esfera de control y de orientación del Estado tradicional. De esta manera, éste moderno poder entró en una nueva fase de desarrollo vertiginoso que rápidamente rebasó los límites de los controles políticos y jurídicos convencionales creados por el Estado mexicano y se fue conformando paralelamente como un poder ideológico independiente que se enfrentó a los otros tres poderes republicanos formales que constituyen al Estado nacional (Poder Ejecutivo, Poder Legislativo y Poder Judicial), e incluso en algunos casos los reformuló y en otros los substituyó.

A partir de este momento histórico que se constató que si a mediados del siglo XX el Estado mexicano estaba constituido por 3 poderes formales como fueron el Poder Ejecutivo, el Poder Legislativo y el Poder Judicial; a principios del siglo XXI, en términos reales, el Estado mexicano ya está compuesto por 4 poderes: 3 poderes formales tradicionales que son el Poder Ejecutivo, el Poder Legislativo y el Poder Judicial; y un reciente poder fáctico, que es el nuevo Poder Mediático. Este último poder, cada vez más, silenciosamente frente a nuestras narices, se convirtió en el Poder del Poder que progresivamente subordinó y presionó al resto de los 3 poderes constitucionales formales de nuestro Estado-Nación para someterlos a su voluntad mediático empresarial e imponer su proyecto de construcción de sociedad, de economía y de seres humanos.

En éste sentido, si la lucha por nuestra independencia nos dio la edificación de la Primera República, la realización de la reforma Juarista aportó la cimentación de la Segunda República y la Revolución Mexicana colocó los fundamentos de la Tercera República en el país[i]; con la consolidación del nuevo poder mediático, especialmente de 1960 en adelante, se conformó lentamente en nuestro país la Cuarta República que dio origen a la nueva República Mediática en el siglo XXI con su respectiva mutación estatal y social. Dicha entidad poco a poco, creó culturalmente un país opuesto al de los anteriores espíritus constitucionales de nuestra historia nacional e incorporó una mentalidad únidimensional de la vida funcional para el proyecto de super acumulación económica.

Eugenio Hernández Flores

Eugenio Hernández Flores

De ésta manera, sí en el terreno comunicativo la sociedad mexicana pasó de la declaración del espíritu de los Sentimientos de la Nación de 1800, que buscaban fundar la nueva República Federal para darnos un nuevo orden civilizatorio superior a nivel nacional, con el reconocimiento de los nuevos derechos civiles y creación de modernas instituciones públicas; en la etapa del 2000 se pasó a la declaración de la pragmaticidad de los sentimientos del mercado autorregulado, regidos por la Mano Invisible de la ley de la libre oferta y demanda informativa, que lo que pretenden es la consolidación del modelo de mercado como regla básica para vivir, relacionarnos, comunicarnos y ver la vida en comunidad.

En éste sentido, las primeras 3 Repúblicas Nacionales se gestaron por necesidades históricas consensuadas de la mayoría nacional para darle forma estructural equilibrada al proceso de gobernabilidad social en México y de maduración de diversos procesos históricos colectivos de participación socio política que buscaron la creación de contrapesos a los poderes públicos para gobernar armónicamente en el país. En cambio, la 4a República Mediática emergió por la introducción de la fuerte revolución tecnológica en el terreno comunicacional del país, por la formación de los monopolios de la comunicación electrónica, por la concentración de grandes cuotas de poder de las industrias culturales a nivel comunicativo, por la incapacidad del Estado mexicano de poner bajo un orden jurídico justo a los poderes mediáticos salvajes, y finalmente, por la necesidad unilateral de la ampliación de los requerimientos del mercado, a escala ampliada, en la esfera ideológica de nuestra sociedad.

De esta forma, a diferencia de la construcción de las otras 3 Repúblicas anteriores que significó un avance democrático para darle forma y organización al funcionamiento colectivo de la sociedad mexicana, bajo la estructura de tres poderes federales diferenciados, autónomos y complementarios; la creación de la 4a República Mediática no es un avance democrático, sino que es la fuerte imposición de un nuevo poder fáctico y “autorregulado”, e incluso salvaje, que compite en el campo de acción y de influencia de los otros 3 poderes públicos establecidos constitucionalmente. Es decir, es un nuevo macro poder ideológico-político independiente que interviene significativa y crecientemente en la dinámica por la disputa de la estructuración, la conducción, el reparto y la explotación de la nación.

En éste sentido, mientras que durante el siglo XX el Estado mexicano cuidó celosamente que las redes de su poder tradicional no se debilitaran a través de la corporativización de las centrales obreras, la seducción de los intelectuales disidentes, el control de los brotes de insurrección campesina, la manipulación de las movilizaciones populares, la canalización de las protestas estudiantiles, la coptación de los descontentos burocráticos, incluso, la represión de los movimientos populares, etc; paradójicamente no pudo ver que el verdadero poder real que se construía y consolidaba abiertamente frente a sus narices ya no residía en las viejas dinámicas de los movimientos sociales de oposición, sino que se gestaba alrededor del avance de la revolución tecnológica que introdujo la presencia del modelo comercial privado de la radio y la televisión en nuestro país. Así, paralelamente al tejido de poder corporativo que construyó durante más de 70 años el Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) para gobernar a la sociedad mexicana, se cimentaron y desarrollaron las bases del Primer Gran Poder Ideológico en la historia del México moderno, que escribió la otra historia mental y política de nuestra sociedad: El Poder Mediático.

PRI tachado en graffiti

PRI tachado en graffiti

Con la emergencia de la 4a Republica Mediática en México a través de la incorporación de los medios electrónicos de difusión colectivos en la estructura de conformación básica del Estado mexicano, éste se transformó sustancialmente para adquirir paulatinamente los rasgos de un Estado mediático que es el que opera cotidianamente en la fase de la modernidad nacional. Así, el ejercicio ideológico político del poder cotidiano quedó mediado por la acción concreta del Estado mediático desde mediados del siglo XX en México.

Por todo lo anterior a principios del siglo XXI el poder de los medios dejó de ser una variable de presión aislada e importante sobre el Estado Mexicano y de reconducción anímica de la sociedad en general, para convertirse ahora en un poder fáctico que forma parte de la columna vertebral del poder para estructurar ideológica y políticamente de forma cotidiana a la sociedad mexicana, especialmente en las grandes ciudades. Dentro de ésta perspectiva, entramos en la fase histórica de vivir bajo el imperio del nuevo poder informal de los medios de difusión colectivos, donde su fuerza fáctica compite permanentemente con el desempeño y las funciones de los otros 3 poderes constitucionales del Estado mexicano , hasta llegar, en ocasiones, al grado de minimizarlos, subordinarlos o disputar con ellos su centralidad y rectoría, para imponer a la colectividad su proyecto de desarrollo social y de vida que fijan las exigencias del mercado desregulado.

Nota
Martínez Álvarez, Jesús Emilio, Discurso de Posicionamiento del Partido Verde Ecologista de México (PVEM), IV Informe de Gobierno del Presidente Vicente Fox Quesada, Primer Periodo de Sesiones del Segundo Año de Ejercicio de la LIX Legislatura, Palacio Legislativo, México, D.F, 1 de septiembre del 2004, versión estenográfica, páginas 5 y 6.

Imágenes
Imágen cortesía de autor.
3. PRI tachado en graffiti

Javier Esteinou Madrid es Investigador Titular del Departamento de Educación y Comunicación de la Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, Unidad Xochimilco, México, D.F.

Favor de comentar.
Por favor comente.




by: Javier Esteinou Madrid / Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, Unidad Xochimilco

When electronic mass information technologies were introduced in Mexico, including radio in 1920 and television in 1950, the ideological power of cultural industries slowly overcame the sphere of control and orientation of the traditional state. Thus, this modern power entered a new period of frenzied growth which quickly overcame the limits of the conventional political and judicial controls created by the Mexican state; it thus developed in a parallel fashion as an independent ideological power that faced the three formal republican powers, the powers that embody the national State (Executive Power, Legislative Power, and the Judicial Power). In some cases, it even reformulated or substituted these powers.

In this historical moment, one can recognize that in the midst of the 20th century, the Mexican State was constituted by 3 formal powers: the Executive Power, the Legislative Power, and the Judicial Power. At the beginning of the 21st century, however, one recognizes that in real terms, the Mexican state is constituted by 4 powers: 3 formal and traditional powers, the Executive Power, the Legislative Power, the Judicial Power, and another, recent factual power, the new Media Power[a]. This last power, with increasing frequency, both silently and before our very eyes, became the Power of Powers, a force which progressively subordinated and pressured the other three constitutional powers of our Nation-State in order to subjugate them to its entrepreneurial and media-infused will; it attempted to impose a project which involves the construction of society, economy, and human beings.

In this manner, one can argue that our struggle for independence resulted in the First Republic; the Juarista reforms brought about the establishment of the Second Republic; the Mexican Revolution built the foundations for the Third Republic in the country[b]; with the establishment of this new Media Power, especially after 1960, our country slowly saw the establishment of a Fourth Republic, which resulted in the new Media Republic of the 21st century, with a resulting political and social mutation. This entity slowly created a country that was culturally opposed to the previous constitutional spirits of our national history; it incorporated a one-dimensional mentality, one that dealt with the functional life of a super-accumulation economic project.

Thus, one can state that from a communications perspective, Mexico used to embody the spirit of the Sentimientos de la Nación of 1800, which sought to establish the Federal Republic in order to give us a new, superior civilizing order on the national level, recognizing a group of new civil rights and the creation of modern, public institutions. In 2000, we stepped into the declaration of the practicality of the feelings of the self-regulated market, ruled by the Invisible Hand of the supply-and-demand law. These forces attempt to consolidate the market model as the one basic rule through which one must live, relate, communicate, and envision the existence of the community.

Thus, the first 3 National Republics emerged through historical necessities that received consent from a national majority, allowing them to give a balanced and structural form to the social governance process in Mexico. These processes also allowed for the growth and establishment of a diverse group of collective historical processes, which included socio-political participation which sought the creation of counterweights to the public powers, thus allowing for the country to be governed harmonically. In contrast, the 4th Media Republic emerged through the strong technological revolution which took place in the communications arena of our country, through the formation of electronic communications monopolies, through the concentration of huge power quotas in the cultural industries on the communications level, through the incapacity of the Mexican State to impose a fair judicial order to the savage media powers, and finally, through the one-directional necessity of amplifying the requirements of the market in the ideological sphere of our society on a broad scale.

In this manner, the construction of the 3 previous Republics served as a democratic advance which brought about the establishment of the collective functioning of Mexican society under the three differentiated, autonomous, and complementary federal powers. In contrast, the creation of the 4th Media Republic is not a democratic advance, it is a fierce imposition of a new factual and “self-regulated” power, one that even qualifies as savage, which fights within the field of action and influence of the three other public, constitutionally-established powers. In other words, this is a new, independent, macro-power, one that intervenes in growing and significant ways with the dynamics and debates around the structuring, conducting, distribution, and exploitation of the nation.

In this way, during the 20th century, the Mexican State jealously guarded the networks of its traditional power, ensuring that these webs would not be weakened, fostering the bureaucratization of worker syndicates, the seduction of dissident intellectuals, the control of farmer insurrections, the manipulation of popular mobilizations, the channeling of student protests, the co-opting of bureaucratic discontent, even the repression of popular movements and more. Paradoxically, the Mexican state was not aware that the real power that was building itself and consolidating within its midst did not lie in the old interactions of opposition-based social movements; this new power was growing within the advancements of the technological revolutions that lead to the establishment of a privatized, commercial-market model of radio and television in our country. Thus, even as the Partido Revolucionario Institucional [The Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI] built a network of corporate power for over 70 years in order to rule over Mexican society, a parallel power network was growing, developing the foundations of the First Great Ideological Power in the history of modern Mexico, a power that wrote an alternative mental and political history of our society: the Media Power.

Thus, we see the emergence of the 4th Media Republic in Mexico through the incorporation of electronic, mass media into the basic structure of the Mexican State. This entity was transformed substantially in order to slowly exhibit the characteristics of a Media state, which is the one that operates on an everyday level in the national modernity phase. Thus, the political-ideological exercise of everyday power was mediated by the concrete actions of the Media State as far back as the middle of the twentieth century in Mexico.

Because of all of the above, in the beginning of the 21st century, the power of the media stopped being an isolated and important pressure variable over the Mexican State; it stopped being a catalyst of feelings and states of mind of society in general. Instead, it became a factual power which belongs to the very vertebrae of power, allowing it to politically and ideologically structure Mexican society in the realm of the everyday, particularly in large cities. From this perspective, we are entering a new historical phase, one in which we live under the empire of the new informal power of collective mass media, where this factual force permanently competes with the development and function of the three other constitutional powers of the Mexican State. At times, this new power can minimize, subordinate, or threaten its domains and centrality, allowing the new power to impose a project upon the community at large. This project consists of a social development and life that is set by the demands of an unregulated market.

Notes
Poder Mediático in the original Spanish. [Translator’s note.]
Martínez Álvarez, Jesús Emilio, Positioning Speech of the Partido Verde Ecologista de México (PVEM), 4th State of the Union Speech by President Vicente Fox Quesada, First Period of Sessions of the Second Year of Legislature LIX, Legislative Palace, Mexico, Mexico City, September 1, 2004, Stenographical Version, 5-6. [Original: Discurso de Posicionamiento del Partido Verde Ecologista de México (PVEM), IV Informe de Gobierno del Presidente Vicente Fox Quesada, Primer Periodo de Sesiones del Segundo Año de Ejercicio de la LIX Legislatura, Palacio Legislativo, México, D.F, 1 de septiembre del 2004, versión estenográfica, páginas 5 y 6.]

Image Credits: (located in primary Spanish text)
Images 1 and 2 provided by author.
3. PRI written over with graffiti

Author: Javier Esteinou Madrid is a Researcher in the Department of Education and Communication in the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana [the Metropolitan Autonomous University], Unidad Xochimilco, Mexico, Mexico City.

Translator: Alberto McKelligan Hernandez is a Ph.D. Student in Art History at the City University of New York (CUNY).




Watching TV Without Pity

by: Mark Andrejevic / University of Iowa

VoteForTheWorst

VoteForTheWorst.com

Despite their threats and invective, it’s hard to take the folks at Fox seriously when they badmouth VoteForTheWorst.com, the Website that champions the underdogs on American Idol – not out of pity, but in order to have them to kick around a bit longer. Fox has reportedly slapped the site with cease-and-desist orders and dispatched its spokespeople to call it “hateful” and “mean-spirited,” but as is so often the case with Murdoch-style outrage, this reeks of a certain gleeful hypocrisy – as when the network turned suddenly penitent after Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?, and trumpeted its remorse all the way to the bank (www.votefortheworst.com). VoteForTheWorst.com is merely one more self-stoking symptom of American Idol’s daunting success. As the site’s founder put it, Fox needs to lighten up: “All we’re doing is getting people to watch their show…We’re [earning] you money for the sponsors!” (Elfman, 2007).

If it’s not already quietly negotiating a deal to buy the site, Fox should learn from Bravo, which recently purchased the well established, rip-on-your-favorite-show site, TelevisionWithoutPity.com (TWoP for short) (Peterson, 2007). For those who have been following its snarky antics since it changed its name from Mighty Big TV and attracted a loyal following of some 50,000 registered users with lots more visitors and lurkers, the sale might be somewhat bittersweet: the site that gleefully ripped on The Powers That Be (TPTB, in TWoPspeak) has officially been deputized by them (Kapica, 2006). All of which might threaten to take some of the satisfaction out of the snark…or not.

A few years ago, I posted an advertisement on the site (which was strapped for cash at the time, before its deal with Yahoo and its purchase by Bravo) inviting visitors to participate in an online survey. In keeping with the general tenor of the site, I received lots (almost 1,800, within a matter of days) of articulate, thoughtful, and highly self-reflexive answers to questions about how TWoPpers envisioned their role in the media food chain. Despite the interactive hype that has inundated the media environment since the start of the millennium, the people who wrote me were, in keeping with the upbeat cynicism that characterizes all but the most unabashedly fannish forums on the site, quite cautious about making any broad claims regarding audience empowerment or subversive consumption. As one respondent put it, “the producers are such prostitutes to advertisers and whatever other show may be popular that giving advice would be pointless. It is all about the Benjamins.”

This response was typical. Most of those who wrote me took pains to suggest that they didn’t have any illusions about transforming or improving the culture industry. The recurring theme in the responses was that contributors post primarily for one another, and that if producers feel like paying attention, so much the better. Some respondents cautioned against the dangers of TWoPpers believing their own press coverage, which included accounts of show runners scurrying back to their computers to see how the boards were treating their shows. As one respondent put it, “Although the artistic personnel of some shows probably read TWOP, I think the posters on the forums think they have more influence than they probably do. If they write posts for the series creators, they are deluded as to their influence.”

Tubey

Tubey

Which is not to say TWoPpers were entirely without hope: the site’s snark is motivated in no small part by disappointment in the persistent inanity and unfulfilled potential of a medium for which contributors and founders alike maintain a perverse affection. As one of the site’s co-founders, Sarah Bunting put it, “We love television, and we want it to be better than it is. Because most of the time — 85 percent of the time — it’s crap” (Vogel, 2006). But improving TV via fan participation is not something they’re counting on: “If TV is watching us, that’s great,” Bunting said, “but it’s not what we set out to do” (Kapica, 2006).

TWoPpers are using a new medium – the Internet – to make an older one more entertaining for themselves and anyone else who wants to tag along or chip in. As one of the respondents to my survey put it, “I would like my TV to be smarter, better written, more intellectually stimulating, and more emotionally engaging. With TWoP, at least my watching of TV can be those things.”

This is the beauty of interactivity from the producers’ perspective: not only does it allow for the spontaneous formation of instant focus groups, but it also allows them to benefit from the free labor of smart people trying to make bad TV more entertaining.

I first noticed this phenomenon when I was spending a fair amount of time in the official chat rooms for the first US version of Big Brother. Despite much hype, the show was often mind-numbingly boring, as were the round-the-clock live Internet video feeds. The chat rooms became, for at least some viewers, the only way to make the show interesting. While watching the cast members’ attempts to entertain themselves in a drab, media-free ranch house on a lot in studio city, online viewers similarly took upon themselves the task of amusing themselves by speculating on plot twists that might make the show more interesting, by sharing information about the various contestants, and by starting online debates.

TWoP has elevated the attempt to make bad TV more entertaining to a popular art form. In the TWoP world, the show is no longer the final product, but rather the raw material to which value is added by the labor – some paid, some free – of recappers and forum contributors. While TWoPpers benefit from the wit and wisdom of their fellow posters and their shared project, so do producers. Not only did roughly one-third of the respondents to my survey indicate that they watched more TV because of TWoP but a similar number indicated that there were shows that they would not have watched without the TWoP recaps.

All of which suggests that it might be worth revisiting the Jenkinsian appropriation of de Certeau’s observation that, “ readers are travelers; they move across lands belonging to someone else, like nomads poaching their way across fields they did not write, despoiling the wealth of Egypt to enjoy it themselves” (as quoted in Jenkins, 1988; 86). The romantic appeal of this formulation is unmistakable: it refigures fans of all stripes as latter day Robin Hoods, bandits, and rebels – pirating the wealth of the Hollywood heavies. In the interactive era, the metaphor breaks down in the transition from fields to texts. As economists might put it, the consumption of crops is rival: if I make off in the night with the wheat you worked all season tending, you’ve been despoiled, stripped of your goods. If however, I devote my lunch hour and down time at work honing my wit on the grindstone of American Idol, my enjoyment only enhances the wealth of Century City.

It turns out that the despoilers aren’t tearing their way across the media landscape like rapacious rebels, but perhaps more like unpaid nomadic laborers, turning the soil and enriching it as they go. Fox needs to wake up and smell the fertilizer that’s being lavished on its fields for free.

References

Elfman, Doug. 2007. “Enjoying Their Worst: Suburban Web Site says Idol is ‘Giant Karaoke Contest.’” Chicago Sun Times, March 26.

Jenkins, Henry. 1988. “Star Trek Rerun, Reread, Rewritten: Fan Writing as Textual Poaching.” Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 5: 85-107.

Kapica, Jack. 2006. Serious TV Web Forum Getting Serious Notice. The Globe and Mail (Canada), April 13, p. B11.

Peterson, Karla. 2007. “With TWoP in Bravo’s Pocket, Does This Mean the Party’s Over?” The San-Diego Union-Tribune, March 16, p. E9.

Vogel, Charity. 2006. “Living in TV Land.” The Buffalo News, December 10, p. G3.

VoteForTheWorst.com

Image Credits:
1. VoteForTheWorst.com
2. Tubey

Please feel free to comment.




Seeing is Believing

by: Jennifer Warren / Independent Scholar

Britney Spears Toxic

Britney Spears – Toxic

Many years ago, I read several essays from the turn of the century in which the leading pundits of the day expressed their concern about photography and its potential impact on culture. The main point the authors consistently reiterated was a fear of what would occur when the surface of an object was separated from its physical beingness in the world. They envisioned a world where people had consumed the image and thought they had experienced the thing itself, confusing the virtual with the real. As I sit in the 21st Century and peer around San Francisco, I don’t think they were far off the mark.

Take Britney, for example. I bet you know who I mean instantly. I don’t know you, you don’t know me, but you’ll rightly assume that there can only be one Britney I am referring to. I have never met her in person, never even heard her voice except in her highly mixed singer persona. I’ve seen her in videos and in print. But I feel like I know her, know her ups and downs with Kevin, her babies, shaving her head and rehab. But the key here is that I don’t. I only know an image, moments caught by cameras and beamed around the world.

Those video images are easy to identify: the coy, sexually budding schoolgirl in Baby, One More Time; the sexually assured temptress in I’m a Slave 4 U; the impossibly CGI’ed up vixen in Toxic. What do those images tell me about her? She’s young. She’s hot. She seems to like sex, or at the very least, understands that sex sells her records. I know she married young, and that she had babies right away, from the endless parade of photographs in People and Us magazine. If I google her, I find out other details: she is the only female vocal artist of all time to have four records debut at number one, and according to Forbes, in 2007 she was ranked 12th of The 20 Richest Women in Entertainment with a fortune estimated at $100 million. With each detail, the image grows more fleshed out, but it is still just that: an image.

When I watch TV and movies, I am surrounded by a different kind of virtual image: the location itself. If the screen says the story takes place in Africa, it is Africa I see in front of me. Even if I find out later it was actually Afghanistan or India, in my mind, in the place I surrendered to the storytellers, I saw Africa. If I try to adjust my perception to this new piece of information, I experience a kind of motion sickness, a sense of disorientation. I feel like a little kid whose been lied to about Santa Claus. I hold the two experiences—my first viewing of Africa and my second awareness of non-Africa—in an uneasy truce. What results for me is a simultaneous sense of seeing the world through other’s eyes and not trusting what I see. Shakespeare said “All the world’s a stage.” I would paraphrase that in the TV age as “All the world’s a set, of which we will show whatever is most convenient for us.”

Tayrona Park

Tayrona Park

It is not the false sense of having seen Africa or knowing Britney that is the problem. What is problematic is a lifetime of Britneys and false Africas building a slightly skewed map of reality in our nervous systems. The longer I look at it, the more I see a strange state that results, in which we are here and not here simultaneously. We see, but we don’t experience; we know, but we do not understand. I have watched many deserted tropical beaches on TV, but it wasn’t until I hiked through the jungle on my own to the ocean’s edge that I discovered a key detail: insects, and lots of them. I had bites from the moment I set foot on the beach until I left 3 weeks later. I laughed as I itched, amazed at how surface my understandings were of tropical beaches before I physically arrived at one. But what else could they be, having come only from the images?

Image Credits:
1. Britney Spears – Toxic
2. Tayrona Park image taken and provided by author.

Please feel free to comment.




Prime Time Bullies

by: Gareth Palmer / University of Salford

You Are What You Eat

You Are What You Eat‘s Dr. Keith

Lifestyle television is that space where identity is most openly discussed. In programmes ranging from Extreme Makeover to Ten Years Younger our flexible selves are seen to be empowered by experts striving to bring forth ‘the real you.’ This hidden entity is called forth in a range of media including websites, newspapers and countless magazines. Indeed one recent import to the UK is Psychologies, a French magazine whose launch cover invites readers to ‘Rediscover the real you.’

Given that the real you is commonly believed to be in there somewhere it seems reasonable to discuss what methods television recommends for bringing it out.

Two recent television programmes have aggressively sought to strip beyond the surface to find the real you within. In the UK one of Channel Four’s biggest hits is Gillian McKeith’s You Are What You Eat. In the US, NBCs third season of The Biggest Loser was such a ratings winner it disloged prime-time sitcom hours for a week. In both shows the object for treatment is the body. Indeed the shared diagnosis is that within all overweight people a real you can be released by the forces of shame and discipline.

While the transformative device is hardly new to television the sort of rapid physical changes demanded by these programmes are shocking and very possibly not healthy. Each format requires the contestants to make themselves completely obedient because changes have to be quite literally seen to be believed. Thus contestants are chosen partly because of their size and partly because they have the dramatic personalities necessary to make their obedience a difficult but involving struggle. If they can come through this then we can, can’t we? A range of products and web-services help strengthen our conviction to transform and bring out the real you out of recalcitrant misshapen us.

In the UK Dr Gilllian McKeith’s PhD is the subject of much heated debate. But at the core of these discussions are not what McKeith does but her qualifications to do it. It seems that the lessons and indeed the methods of shame are fine as long as one has the correct medical qualifications. This is not merely a moral issue. Since the first series, McKeith has developed a very profitable sideline in Health Foods. Those who believe in the powers of television and have seen her transformations wrought on willing victims may be more willing to pay £5 for the restorative powers of her snacks.

In the US the project is more ambitious. The Biggest Loserhas gone from being a mere television programme to full blown cultural phenomenon. The format has had the distinction of be adapted in Britain, Australia and Israel. The website develops, indeed, makes perpetual the project by inviting a collective effort at slimming down to find the real you via The Biggest Loser clubs. The third series implicated the whole nation by choosing representatives from each state and then photographing ‘before and afters’ (still on the website). This seems to represent an unofficial extension of Bush’s ‘Get Fit’ program designed to energise the nation by getting citizens to ‘take greater responsibility for their future health and welfare.’ This fits into a wider range of new measures described as…

Biggest Loser

Biggest Loser “Before and After”

‘the “tough love” of compassionate conservatism’ through a proliferating network of private and personal trainers (e.g financial planners, home-security experts, smart cars, the Web as customized reference-guide for do-it-youself-ers, professional life-organizers’ on TV, and of course Dr. Phil (Hay and Andrejevic, 2006: 338).

In both programmes the aim is to teach people to become managed, responsibilized selves. And what better, more validated space could there be for this process than television where all dreams come true?

One crucial new factor is this search for the ‘you’ within is the use of Science. Before its treatments can be recommended television has to prove that it is responsible and so it provides the facts about being overweight which cannot be called into question. And so we hear that anyone slightly overweight has a higher risk of heart disease, anyone with more than 25% body fat is close to obese etc. These statistics are presented as if they were indisputable and indeed they are not disputed: science is facts! With a series of scientifically-validated methods outlined for our approval subjects have no choice but to obey. Because science has ‘proved’ what needs to be done (and is validated every week through televised success stories) all manner of punishments, shames and indignities can be visited on
the individuals.

A second allied justification can be found in how ‘fat’ is made to mean in western culture. As responsibilized selves we have a duty to keep in shape. To be big is not only aesthetically displeasing but it’s also cheating the nation. These days the overweight are most often seen in programming such as talk shows which feature the working class as bodies in need of treatment. An association is made between being overweight and a relaxed attitude to sexual morality and employment. Those who become overweight are defective creatures snubbing the project we should all be involved in–making ourselves streamlined engines for leaner fitter nations.

The work of these prime-time bullies validated by science, endorsed by the new common sense and promoted through every possible channel may yet spawn myriad psychological dangers.

‘Identification with the aggressor and privatization can combine to create an insecure psyche that, in attempts to bolster itself, leans on clichés and common sense to the extent that reflection is impossible and…finding security n closing off dialogue with self and other basic needs’ (Sloan, 1999).

Rose has written of the ‘specialists of psy (who) have emmeshed themselves inextricably with our experience of ourselves.’ The pseudo-science inspiring this breed of programming promote health-through-normalization–another example of the spread of governmentality…

Looking for the real you? Just say no.

Biggest Loser Season 3

Biggest Loser Season 3

Image Credits:
1. You Are What You Eat’s Dr. Keith
2. Biggest Loser “Before and After”
3. Biggest Loser Season 3

Please feel free to comment.




Do Good TV?

The cast of Extreme Makeover Home Edition

The cast of Extreme Makeover Home Edition

On January 16, 2006, The New York Times declared a positive trend in reality television. Amidst the “mean-spirited, bug-eating shows,” do-good programs had appeared to provide housing, healthcare and help to the needy. The article focused on Miracle Workers, a new ABC series that intervenes in the lives of “seriously ill people who lack the contacts or the money for treatment.” A team of doctors and nurses provided by ABC steers people to the “latest medical breakthroughs” while cameras “capture the drama of patient-hood, from consultations to surgery to recovery.” The TV network also pays for medical treatments not covered by health insurance, as was case in an episode featuring the Gibbs family of Florida, whose father and son underwent procedures to remove brain tumors that cost more than $100,000. Besides footing the bill for the surgeries, ABC’s medical team “asked the questions they did not know to ask, held their hands, made the arrangements,” said The Times. According to Mr. Gibbs, who described his family as “average people,” it was the TV show that got them through the ordeal.

What can explain ABC’s foray into the helping culture? After all, TV (particularly in the United States) isn’t required to do much more than maximize profit. The erstwhile notion that it should also work for the betterment of democratic society has been more or less obliterated by neoliberal policies. As Disney CEO Michael Eisner put it in 1998, “We have no obligation to make history; we have no obligation to make art; we have no obligation to make a statement; to make money is our only objective.” And yet, Stephen McPherson, president of ABC’s entertainment division, worked hard to convince The Times that a TV show like Miracles is more than a “toaster with pictures,” to use the idiom coined by former FCC chairman Mark Fowler. Although it is being packaged as reality entertainment, McPherson played up its educational and humanitarian dimensions, insisting that “whatever the rating,” ABC had done a good thing by providing “knowledge and access” to unwell people who lack the “wherewithal to get the best treatment” on their own.

McPherson didn’t dwell on how quickly ABC would pull the plug in the event of a less-than-desired rating or any number of business factors, from lackluster sponsor interest to the “wrong” audience demographics. Such is the fate of all television produced within the rationality of the free market. However, we shouldn’t dismiss McPherson’s statement as entirely disingenuous, either. In fact, I’d argue that he summed up a new mentality of public service that can be seen operating across much network and cable television, particularly reality and lifestyle programs.

Historically, attempts to regulate the use of commercial broadcasting for the so-called public good have focused on the cultural and intellectual fortification of the public sphere: By preparing the TV-viewing citizenry for its role in the affairs of the nation, the community and civil society, broadcasters would earn the “right” to conduct business on the airwaves, went this reasoning. The new mentality of public service, which is voluntary on the part of the TV industry, emphasizes the individual’s ability to care (or not) for her/himself. In other words, political sovereignty on TV has been severed from the electronic town square and rearticulated to a market model of citizenship that values choice, personal responsibility, self-sufficiency and empowerment–the basic characteristics of George W. Bush’s “ownership” society. McPherson’s definition of “do good” TV as that which provides the technical knowledge that consumers need to navigate a plethora of options and make the best choices in the service of their own well-being is an example of this shift.

Much TV is about demonstrating the duties, techniques and pleasures involved in the care of the self, whether that means the body (The Biggest Loser), the senses (Sex Inspectors), the psyche (Starting Over), the family (Wife Swap) or the home (Clean House). But television also acknowledges, in its own warped way, that no amount of technical knowledge can empower people who lack fundamental resources (“entitlements” in the maligned language of the downsized welfare state). Hundreds of thousands of people now apply directly to TV programs not just for medical care, but also for decent housing (Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Town Haul), college tuition (The Scholar) and other forms of material assistance, from food to money for speech therapy to relocation help in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (Three Wishes, The Gift, Renovate My Family). This isn’t a new phenomenon: In the 1950s, TV programs like Queen for a Day and Strike it Rich showered “deserving” contestants with cash prizes and consumer goods provided by sponsors. But today’s “do good” TV is more pervasive, more legitimated, and more clearly aligned with political reforms and discourses.

ABC, with its high-profile “transformational” reality TV lineup, is the leader of the pack. In adopting the role of the private charity/social service provider in “real life” dramas of human hardship and suffering, ABC programs like Medical Miracles help to mediate the ideological contradictions of neoliberalism. But “do good” TV is ultimately more about television’s move into complex new bureaucratic roles and relationships than it is about ideological positioning in any simple sense. For Miracles, TV producers formed networks with patient support groups, hospitals and health care professionals, and through these “partnerships” became directly involved in the social work (screening, evaluating, outreach, testing, counseling) of the medical establishment. In classifying “deserving” individuals and redistributing the surplus of informational capitalism in a manner of its own choosing, TV also drew from an arrogant philanthropic logic that can be traced to Robber Baron industrialists. The difference is that TV has fused charity work with the rationality of the market, so that there’s no distinction between public service and cultural product. Finally, if TV stepped in to fill some of the gaps left by the unraveling of the welfare state, it did so with reformist zeal, implementing an extreme version of the “risk management” strategies practiced by HMOs and private insurance carriers (only surgeries with at least a 90 percent success rate were considered for funding by Miracles).

To understand the emergence of programs like Medical Miracles, we also need to know something about ABC’s ties to public and private agencies charged with the privatization of public service. Disney was one of the corporate sponsors of the 2005 National Conference on Volunteering and Service (Home Depot, which also sponsors ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition was another funder). The event was put together by The Corporation for National and Community Service, The Points of Light Foundation and the USA Freedom Corps, the agency created by Bush to foster a culture of citizenship, service and responsibility, and to help all Americans answer the President’s Call to Service.” In typical corporate liberal fashion, leaders from the public and private sectors met to strategize ways to develop a
culture of “volunteer service” (a term used to describe everything from corporate giving to bake sales) to meet America’s “pressing social needs.” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt spoke to the group about “economic goodness,” and a motivational closing plenary was delivered by Mark Victor Hansen, author of the self-help book Chicken Soup for the Soul.

Bigge Crane and Rigging

Bigge Crane and Rigging

The ABC “do good” brand has emerged within this climate of cooperation among politicians and private corporations with a common interest in the privatization of welfare. Popular reality is the network’s favored venue for the new ethos of charity and volunteerism. Stephen McPherson, head of entertainment, spearheaded ABC’s Better Community Outreach program, which seeks to bring TV viewers “pro-social programs and messages” and give them the “tools they need” to “help build a better community one family, one house, one donation at a time.” Besides “partnering” with ABC programs like Home Edition to promote volunteerism on air, the outreach program aims to develop four qualities in American life: compassion, volunteerism, learning and environmentalism. If the rationale for doing this sounds a lot like the rhetoric surrounding the ownership society, web links to organizations (also called “partners”) from the Better Business Bureau to the Points of Light Foundation a virtual network of privatized care.

Home Edition receives over 15,000 applications every week from families hoping to improve their living conditions in some way or another. As it turns out, the process of applying to the show is not so unlike a visit to the paternalistic welfare office. Applicants are drawn into relationship of scrutiny and surveillance. To be considered, they must answer detailed questions about household income, education, debt, involvement in lawsuits and prior conviction of a crime, whether as “simple as a driving violation or as serious as armed robbery” (Be honest: We will find out sooner or later through our comprehensive background checks, warns the application). They must agree to provide three years worth of tax forms if selected, and they must explain in detail why their case is unique, what extraordinary circumstances have led up to their need, why they more than others “deserve” help. The families are also required to produce a short video, using a provided shot list and following guidelines such as “dress as if you were attending a formal lunch” and “women should wear light makeup.”

The most “deserving” of the applicants, as determined by the casting department, are then offered home makeovers in a “race against time on a project that would ordinarily take at least four months to achieve, involving a team of designers, contractors and several hundred workers who have just seven days to totally rebuild an entire house – every single room, plus exterior and landscaping.” The venture doesn’t cost ABC anything. Local businesses are solicited to donate services, and corporate sponsors from Sears to Home Depot provide the finishing touches. The catch to this spectacular fusion of business efficiency and corporate good will is that only a handful of families with “extraordinary” reasons for seeking outside help (e.g. a child with leukemia, a father who lost a limb in Iraq) will have their lives “transformed” by the program. “We just can’t help them all even though we wish we could,” says ABC.

Boldly claiming to change the “lives of the lucky families forever,” ABC nonetheless plays up the magnitude of Home Edition‘s humanitarian outreach to needy “others.” At a time when low-income housing programs are strapped for funding and welfare as we know it doesn’t exist, the program epitomizes television’s literal (not merely symbolic) role in the privatization of social services. The Home Edition web site is, incidentally, looped back to ABC’s Better Community project, where TV viewers are encouraged to become more compassionate by visiting nonprofit organizations (also described as “partners”) like Habitat for Humanity and Home Aid and by purchasing the new Home Edition DVD (ABC will donate one dollar for every product sold). George Bush must be proud.

This essay draws from my forthcoming book with James Hay, tentatively titled Television for Living (Blackwell).

Image Credits:

1. The Cast of Extreme Makeover Home Edition

2. Bigge Crane and Rigging

Please feel free to comment.




On The Set With Degrassi: The Next Generation ~ There’s Something to Be Said for Passion

The Cast of Degrassi: The Next Generation

The Cast of Degrassi: The Next Generation

(AUTHOR’S NOTE: In the spirit of FLOW doing things differently, the following is an informal, “academic-tourist-friendly” account of my trip to Toronto this past November, during which I visited the set of the hit Canadian-produced teen show Degrassi: The Next Generation while doing research for current projects involving this show. In the spirit of past calls on FLOW for us academics to take a stand on TV that we think matters — here you go!)

It started with cats in 1979. Honestly. One of the first new things I learned about the teen series Degrassi: The Next Generation (DTNG) when I visited Toronto to do research on this show was that its roots can be traced to a children’s book about cats making a movie (written by Kay Chorao). Executive Producer Linda Schuyler (at the time a public school teacher in Toronto) used the book as a tool for encouraging young children to make their own media, turning it into a short film for TV (Ida Makes a Movie — kids instead of cats). The movie became a series, became a series, became a series…The Kids of Degrassi Street became Degrassi Junior High became Degrassi High became DTNG.

I grew up in the 1980s in the good ole’ U.S. of A., and I heard about Degrassi Junior High, which aired on PBS here. But it wasn’t until this franchise was in its roughly 23rd year that I became invested in what was by then a bona fide global teen TV phenomenon. For me, the hook was two-fold: 1) I work in the area of TV and reception, and DTNG is a stunning example of how TV and the Internet have met to reconfigure for its viewers the very idea of what it means to watch television; 2) having grown up (and older) with first a scarcity of inventive teen shows (e.g., My So-Called Life) and then a network devoted to them (WB), I am always on the look-out for programs featuring teens that actually seem to be trying to do something for their viewers. One night at 2 AM, I was up working and came across a program on the digital cable network The N (affiliated with Nickelodeon) in which a group of teen boys were having a sleepover — and one of them was freaking out because another was gay and sleeping next to him. “Huh!” I thought. “How often do I actually see homophobia among teen boys dealt with on a realistic level?”

So, I kept watching (especially after I figured out that the show airs at a more reasonable prime-time hour) and marveling: date rape, cutting, relationship violence, school shootings, parents with cancer, abortions…all with minimal preaching and maximum information. The kids were played by kids, the issues weren’t resolved in a half hour (nor did they involve special characters coming in for one episode to “be the issue” and then disappear)… How in god’s name had this show ever made it onto my TV set?

So off I went to Toronto, doing what a good TV scholar does: meeting the people who make this show run and asking them questions about how DTNG works. I’ll leave it to the reader to find the show on their own (it’s also on DVD for those who don’t have digital or satellite) and assess the content and style of the show. Here I would like to emphasize a few things I learned while on set, because this series demonstrates some interesting talking points about the way we think about teens and television in this country. Further, as an educator in the area of TV studies committed to diversity and to the notion of “quality” being a viable TV commodity, I want to get the word out about this show. My trip could fill a book (and will at least fill a chapter in one), but I focus below on two elements that caught me off-guard in the most pleasing of ways: this program is respected nationally both for its entertaining popularity and its educational scope, and the people who make this show come to life believe that television (even when it’s for profit) should have a purpose (other than profit). This show is fueled by passion — the passion of teachers, artists, and viewers — and in a TV culture dominated by hundreds of options, finding a series that runs on people’s desire to make TV matter…well, there’s something to be said for that.

The first sign that I wasn’t in L.A. was that our cab driver didn’t know where the studio lot was for the show — and that the studio lot was for all of two series produced by Epitome Pictures (the other is Instant Star). My husband/research assistant and I walked in and hit the ground running: on two separate days, we met everyone from the DP to the cast members to the set designers and I was astounded at how many people were willing to sit down and talk with us about their jobs while the shooting of the series’ 100th (yes — 100th) episode was going on around us. Stephanie Cohen, Director of Marketing and Communications for Epitome Pictures, set the tone: I was a teacher and at Degrassi education is sacred. Stephanie gave us an all-access pass. We sat with DP Gavin Smith and director Phil Earnshaw, chatting with them between takes about the challenges of working on a shoe-string budget with teen actors being asked to deliver nuanced performances about prayer groups in schools or abusive parents (I’m flubbing here — I’m not permitted to reveal spoilers about what’s actually in that 100th episode!). We chatted with actor Adamo Ruggiero (who plays the openly gay Marco) about consumer-oriented media and product placement — because that was the topic of the article he was studying for a class (in-between takes that involved corporate sponsors for the series, ironically). Supervising producer Stephanie Williams gave us time before an Instant Star table-read to talk about the importance of casting DTNG in as diverse a way as possible — from having a range of female actresses with different body types to a range of different ethnicities present so as to reflect the demographic realities of Toronto for teens today. Writers Brendon Yorke and James Hurst spoke about the importance of writing so as to make a point: not “let’s do this because it’s a hot button issue,” but rather, writing to demonstrate that “if you understand your neighbor,” you’ll see that there is always some other side to a story — some angle you might not have considered. This, dare I inject some academia, is the cultural forum I constantly seek in TV…some sense that TV can and should provoke discussion and debate. (And, if I may offer a personal note, when better to promote argument then in the teen years, when ideological perspectives are most firmly being set?)

Which brings me to another observation about my research trip. On one of the days we visited, members of the Degrassi team (from all its 25 years) were invited to a National Children, Youth, and Media Conference and Stephanie Cohen allowed us to tag along. This conference addressed an array of issues about media and children in Canada (and beyond); Degrassi was featured because it had been awarded the first annual Shaw Rocket Fund prize. This monetary grant is awarded to a Canadian series aimed at children, youth, and/or family that achieves excellence. For this first award, teen students throughout Canada who attended public and private schools participating in a program called “Learning Through the Arts” (developed by the Royal Conservatory of Music in Canada — an entirely different article in the making), were trained in media literacy: from learning about pure aesthetics in production values, acting, and writing to the basics of semiotics (yes, semiotics for teens). The students, after their education, then chose from a variety of shows and overwhelmingly elected DTNG as the winner for its artistic and cultural value. Kate Eccles, one of the teachers in the Learning Through the Arts program, spoke with me recently about the importance of media literacy in today’s global TV environment. In a world where students are taught to achieve the almighty test score for continued federal/national funding, the concept of learning itself often falls by the wayside. Teens live in an environment where media is king — but success in school is focused on your ability to “pass the test.” Media literacy — which today, let’s face it, is cultural and societal and political literacy — cannot truly be tested (however important that literacy may be to becoming an informed and productive citizen), but it certainly can be taught.

Media Literacy

Media Literacy

The fact the DTNG passes the muster for popularity, profit, and media literacy speaks to its importance as a cultural text. Perhaps it’s the holiday season passing through me, but I can’t help but wonder: where is “our” U.S. Degrassi? Should a show that speaks to teens as if they are actual humans capable of thought and emotional knowing be restricted to those whose families can afford a 100$ plus cable bill? In the Northern climes, this show is a hit on adult TV. Among my Chicago students (a major TV market), this show scores well with “non-traditional” viewers hungry for realism and depth and diversity. This semester I showed an episode about VD to my students and their jaws dropped — and then we talked and I am still getting emails about the “oomph!” of that episode for them. I don’t often soap-box about TV (as much as I adore it). But it seems to me that a show that offers substance, entertainment, and passion (not to mention that speaks its passion through its artists when it has no financial need to) should make us wonder about what U.S. TV offers to its teens and how we assess the idea of “teen TV.” My Chrismakuhkwanza gift? If you have pre-teens or teens, if you like teen TV yourself, if you teach about youth and media or teach those who are entering into TV…get people to watch this series. At the very least, you’ll find yourself watching an invigorating program that entertains, educates, and provokes inspiration and thought.

(Special thanks to the cast, crew, and producers of DTNG for their interviews — especially Stephanie Cohen and Linda Schuyler and Stephen Stohn.)

Sources and Links
1. Ellis, Kathryn. Degrassi Generations: The Official 411. Madison Press Books: Toronto, 2005.
2. Byers, Michele (ed). Growing Up Degrassi: Television, Identity, and Youth Cultures. Sumach Press: Toronto, 2005.

Learning Through The Arts
Shaw Rocket Fund
The N: Degrassi

Image Credits:

1. The Cast of Degrassi: The Next Generation

2. Media Literacy

Please feel free to comment.




Micro-Ethnographies of the Screen: Flatworld

by: Dan Leopard / St. Mary’s College of California

Jarrell Pair of the Institute for Creative Technologies stands behind Sgt. John Blackwell

Jarrell Pair of the Institute for Creative Technologies stands behind Sgt. John Blackwell

Emerging from behind the singed black rubble of a factory wall, a ruggedly handsome infantryman outfitted with the latest in Army field gear flashes an all clear sign to our party of bemused observers. He lowers his rifle, smiles, and introduces himself as Sergeant Jon Blackwell. His movements are life-like, and he seems to glance about as he speaks to us. Our tour group is clustered before a translucent screen wedded to a large movie-style flat, a standalone, movable wall used on film sets. The screen itself approximates the height of a person. Facing us stands Blackwell, a resident of this life-size screen, rendered in an animated visual style evoking the characters one encounters during videogame play.

Our tour guide chats with the Sergeant using conversational banter designed to promote Flatworld – the immersive reality project within which the Blackwell pedagogical agent system represents an incremental step toward the goal of designing a fully interactive virtual human. Flatworld is one of several projects funded by the United States Army and being carried out by the Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. If the screens of daily life – the video monitors that are embedded in the designed media ecology of the everyday world – are invisible through their ubiquity, ever-present through impression and instruction, then the movable interactive screens of the Flatworld Project are invisible through their status as advanced research. They are removed from public view as they are meant for the consumption of only those with a need to know – in this case military trainers and entertainment industry professionals (and those like myself who have been allowed to observe through an expressed interest in machine-human interaction).

Flatworld Room

Flatworld Room

Everyday screens call to us. At a glance they entreat us to be particular people, to do particular things. I am confronted by a screen on a bank machine. It requests that I type in my PIN number and press enter. The trailer at the movie theater urges that I attend a screening of a film on opening day or soon thereafter. These are examples of the banal entreaties that bind the producer and the consumer during the myriad interactions that constitute a market economy. These screens subtly condition our identities. Implicit in screen-based transactions are forms of training regarding the world. They train us to behave in certain ways – summoning up a spark of thought not so distant from Althusser’s notion of the ideological state apparatus (without succumbing to the siren song of its most – let me emphasize “most” – sinister implications).

The Flatworld project stands at the intersection of two of the most powerful of societal institutions – the school and the military. The stated intention of the project is to create a human agent that can stand in for a human trainer. This interactive virtual human could be programmed to give instruction to new recruits as they prepare to enter actual combat situations. “Green” troops have the highest mortality rates on the battlefield as they move through the learning process necessitated by the life-threatening person-to-person, person-to-machine confrontations of combat. Each step involves a trial-and-error set of choices, each of which carries with it potentially extreme consequences. Whether one considers military action moral or immoral, the actuality for the soldiers in the field, regardless of their motivations for participating in battle, stands as a highly traumatic and disorienting experience. Interactive agent Jon Blackwell provides a new recruit with a human-like guide through participatory scenarios that will allow the recruit to make mistakes and walk away with knowledge, but without a bullet or shrapnel in the back.

Back at the tour, as Sergeant Blackwell jokes and interacts with our tour guide and responds to carefully phrased questions from selected tour members, it becomes obvious that Blackwell, at least in this version of the interactive virtual human scenario, is using a set of canned, scripted answers. Obviously, the intention of our audience’s interaction with this virtual human prototype is merely for the sake of publicity which side steps the hard-to-access actuality of a fully functional programmed avatar for military instruction. Blackwell shifts occasionally from side to side and gestures to us as he responds to questions ranging from the functionality of the flats that comprise the Flatworld simulation room to the voice recognition program that drives the real time interaction during training with virtual humans.

I glance about at the cavernous space of the warehouse that houses Flatworld. I notice two additional areas that are designated as models of Flatworld as it will come to be realized at some future date. One space approximates a shanty house with wall width screens representing a view looking out over the horizon of a war ravaged middle eastern city, while another space opens out onto an alleyway that at times harbors a swarthy enemy combatant and at other times a fellow soldier or civilian non-combatant. Should the new recruit shoot or offer a gesture of good will? This is the stuff of spy stories and cop shows, of course, replayed through countless television and film narratives of training for espionage and law enforcement (as well as representing the basic play structure for both first-person shooter games and even the much lauded Sims 2).

If one performs a web search for Flatworld, it seems that this project has been exhaustively written about by many newspapers and mentioned on numerous blogs, but if one is careful to read what has been written or produced about the ICT, most of the work closely follows the contours of a single ur-narrative, most likely the excellently produced publicity material generated by the ICT itself. Through whatever underlying intent, the ICT’s PR materials function to blur the militarism inherent in all of their projects, funded as they are by the US armed services, while emphasizing the gee-whiz wunder-tech aspects of each of the technologies embedded in each project. While the ICT screens have been exposed to the public-at-large through various media outlets, their projects still remain unseen by most, and what has been seen is always mediated by the filter of promotion designed to bathe each project in the glow of an aesthetics of videogames and movie special effects. (Both of which are, of course, influential in the visual and conceptual style of ICT projects and will in turn benefit from the research conducted at the ICT).

It is tempting, if one is sympathetic to the play of videogames such as Halo and Grand Theft Auto, to confirm this form of training new recruits as merely the next step in the use of simulation training by the military, a tradition that stretches back to at least the cold war world of the 1950s. Conversely, if one opposes the already overwhelming militarism of the current world picture and the ratcheting up of representational violence in media content, then this use of the videogame and special effect mentality can seem to be the latest step toward a scalding dystopia of programmed (in)humanity. Either way, one would be hard-pressed to deny that games like Halo and Grand Theft Auto present to their players a symbiotic relationship between violent character interaction, pulsing sound effects, and stylized graphic environments. And a modified form of this cultural form is exactly what the Flatworld military training simulation represents. Obviously, on the ground during combat it does matter whether the figure standing behind that door as it opens is friend or foe, but, in the world of screen technologies and their use in developing virtual interactive humans, is that binary – friend or foe, at base the most fundamental human interaction – the defining way to conceptualize relations between flesh-and-blood people and their programmed counterparts?

Image Credits:

1. Jarrell Pair of the Institute for Creative Technologies stands behind Sgt. John Blackwell

2. Flatworld Room

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