Biometrics and Machinima, Reanimated:
Jacqueline Goss’s “Stranger Comes to Town”

Dale Hudson / NYU Abu Dhabi

night moves elf

1: Night Elf discussing NSEERS in Stranger Comes to Town.

In Jacqueline Goss’s Stranger Comes to Town (USA 2007), green Orcs and purple Night Elves appear to discuss their experiences of U.S. customs and immigration policies. The humanoid forms of avatars from the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) World of Warcraft (WoW) perform difference between citizens and non-citizens in the United States, as the video’s critical texture emerges within its assemblage different types of animation and anonymous interviews. By appropriating and reworking sound and visual images from machinima shot in WoW and Google Earth’s program that allows users to fly over 3D renderings of satellite and aerial photography with a United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) documentary, Goss identifies what might be called the “unseemly” intervals within the purportedly seamless interface of digital technologies. (( I discuss comparable intervals within globalized digital interfaces in “Undesirable Bodies and Desirable Labor: Documenting the Globalization and Digitization of Transnational American Dreams in Indian Call Centers,” Cinema Journal 49.1 (fall 2009): 82–102.)) Like Alex Rivera’s short video Why Cybraceros? (USA 1997), discussed in “Race and Labor, Unplugged: Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer,” Goss’s video reanimates an extant documentary that draws upon rational discourses of scientific progress and national exceptionalism to divert attention from corporate capitalism and racialization. If Rivera’s video exposes ways that globalization and digitization converge on the bodies of non-citizens along physical borders according to U.S. immigration and labor laws guided by private industrial interests, then Goss’s video exposes a similar convergence on non-citizen bodies along the “virtual” borders according to customs and immigration policies that use the purportedly objective technologies of biometrics.

orc not there

2–4: Three views of a WoW avatar: machinima, rotoscoped, and prepared for biometrics.

Goss reanimates the US-VISIT animated documentary to contest its implied claims that racially/ethnically determined “barred zones” and “national quotas” of U.S. immigration law before 1965 have been replaced by racially/ethnically blind policies. One such policy is the “layer of security that uses biometrics” in US-VISIT. Biometric systems include a variety of means by which the physical bodies and behaviors are rendered as digital information that can be sorted for verification and identification. Promoted for its ability to “protect” privacy and “prevent” identity theft, US-VISIT is an identity-management system that collects biometric data, such as fingerprints and retina scans, to control the mobility of “international visitors” at points of entry to and departure from the United States. (( These phrases are taken from U.S. Department of Homeland Security, “US-VISIT What to Expect When Visiting the United States,” (“last modified and revised”, 04 March 2011; accessed, 01 February 2012), where the video may be streamed, and “US-VISIT Biometric Identification Services,” (“last reviewed and modified,” 18 March 2011; accessed, 01 February 2012). The video does not mentioned “outsourced” border regulation before departure for the United States. )) Goss complicates the scientific efficiency of biometrics by interviewing people on their experiences of US-VISIT. “You can calculate who will stop the line because he or she looks a certain way,” comments one of her subjects on variations in wait time. In biometric systems, the term “failure to enroll” (FTE) describes an event that occurs when the biometric program’s algorithms cannot capture data, when they cannot scan bodies in ways that produce legible data. FTEs often cause additional layers of security and longer wait times in queues containing bodies that fail to enroll.


5–6: Nationalist title card of US-VISIT video; same title card, rotoscoped by Goss.

Goss allows her subjects to be identified only by their voices, which are mostly “accented” according to normative U.S. standards of spoken English, and by what they reveal about themselves in words. Their visual identities are camouflaged under rotoscoped machinima and critically inserted into the US-VISIT video [images 2–4]. Developed during the 1910s by Max Fleischer, rotoscoping typically involves frame-by-frame tracing over images from live-action filmed sequences, so that movements and expressions appear natural; however, Goss rotoscopes over the “action” in the animated US-VISIT video precisely to denaturalize its assumptions about biometrics. As Tess Takahashi argues, the video can be considered a “speculative documentary” for its use of “animation’s formal malleability to emphasize the uncertainty of much of the information we encounter.” (( Tess Takahashi, “Experiments in Documentary Animation: Anxious Borders, Speculative Media,” Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal 6.3 (November 2011): 235. )) Goss’s rotoscoped copies of images disrupt the original video’s conceits of clarity and objectivity through simplified graphics and limited colors that promoting legibility for—and of—international visitors [images 5–6]. Black stick figures suggest an ease and orderliness with which visitors are processed. They resemble familiar stick figures on toilet signage in airports.

illegal aliens

7–9: Caution: DOT’s racially/ethnically unambiguous “illegal aliens” and internet memes of “illegal immigration” and “alien immigration.

If live-action films rely on facial expressions and bodily gestures to convey emotional meaning, then these graphics erase that level of meaning, generating the appearance of a rational and impersonal system. They adapt principles from constructed universal pictorial languages, such as Otto Neurath’s Isotype (International System of TYpographic Picture Education), to suggest that all international visitors are treated equally and fairly. The figures resemble ones on Department of Transportation (DOT) road signs, as well as in internet memes that parody DOT caution signs about “illegal aliens” crossing highways by revealing “illegals” as seventeenth-century Christian pilgrims from northern Europe and “aliens” as beings from outer space [images 7–9].

Goss challenges the universalizing strategies of stick figures by replacing them with avatars from WoW whose racial/ethnic, class, and sexual characteristics are exaggerated in caricature. By representing US-VISIT’s international visitors (aka “aliens”) as humanoid avatars, her video reanimates processes of differentiation that are erased by biometrics yet continue to sort international visitors according to race/ethnicity, sex, religion, class, and nationality. Goss’s video asks what biometric information might look like in playback.

night elf security

10–11: Smooth round-headed silhouette in US-VISIT video and pointy-haired and bearded silhouette in Stranger Comes to Town.

The humanoid silhouettes of Night Elves and Orcs reanimate particularity within the universalizing stylization of human figures [images 10–11]. In one scene, a Night Elf watches as fellow arrivals approach a US-VISIT kiosk [image 12]. His jagged beard and spiky hair distinguish him from the smooth, shaved or bald, heads of the other figures. Paired with the voice of Goss’s male Egyptian subject, the characteristic silhouette of a Night Elf visualizes ways that the DHS might tag and sort biometric data to produce results comparable to racial/ethnic, religious, or national profiling. Other scenes include DHS officers identifying WoW humanoids on their computer screens and rotoscoped WoW avatars looking at other WoW avatars on US-VISIT screens [images 13–14]. By making DHS screens visible, Goss exposes invisible layers of mediation within the US-VISIT application of biometrics. Bodies are made legible for security. In another scene, a female voice describes the inspection of her “private parts,” perhaps so that her records can be tagged as female, in a procedure not visualized with the male-only stick figures in the US-VISIT video. Like new media in general, data can be tagged, sorted, and recombined according to needs by data aggregators, and algorithms can be programmed to make interpretations automatically. (( This point is illustrated by Lori Andrews’s “Facebook Is Using You,” The New York Times (04 February 2012),, an op-ed piece that went viral on Facebook at the time of writing. She points out that Facebook and Google make huge profits by selling personal information on posts, searches, and the content of email to advertisers. “If I’ve Googled “diabetes” for a friend or “date rape drugs” for a mystery I’m writing,” she explains; “data aggregators assume those searches reflect my own health and proclivities.” ))

watching orc

12–14: Goss’s interpretation of screens within the US-VISIT user interface.

Goss’s male Egyptian subject discusses changes to his mobility and sense of identity after the USA Patriot Act of 2001 and National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS, or “Special Registration”) of 2002 for male nationals of states categorized as predominantly Arab and/or Muslim by the United States [image 1]. Identity is tied to biological data from scans, which is translated into political categorizations (“risk assessment”) and racial/ethnic profiling that are, in turn, internalized. Living in the so-called cosmopolitan diversity of New York City, he thought that being Egyptian was irrelevant until he experienced certain DHS procedures. The information gathered makes him knowable according to anything that is “broadly physical” yet renders him invisible and unknowable in terms of everything else like how his friends and family know him or how he feels about being in the United States. “Am I here because of a girlfriend or to make more money or because I don’t like it in Egypt, that, they have no idea about,” he explains; “and I don’t think that it would to translate them in any way because actually it doesn’t translate into a document.” Special Registration makes him legible as suspicious. Before when asked whether he was Muslim, he would reply that he was not; now, he says that he was “brought up in a Muslim family” but “is not religious.” “That’s the kind of difference,” he explains. Identity is prescribed and precedes the individual. Self-definition functions according to the anticipated criteria of others; it is ever contingent.

Goss links the animated security world of the US-VISIT video, the satellite-view of the “real world” of Google Earth, and the role-playing world of WoW, explaining her attraction to the MMORPG due to its “game-logic that suggests that species and races of avatars naturally belong to specific geographies.” (( Jacqueline Goss, “Drawing Voices,” Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal 6.3 (November 2011): 247. )) WoW relies on an understanding of the isomorphic correspondences of nation and state in modern nation-state that produces certain bodies as belonging “naturally” in certain places, as appearing “normal” there. Players select avatars by race and class according to political allegiance with one of the two warring factions: Alliance or Horde. Goss asked her subjects to select an avatar. Canadians chose to represent themselves as Orcs, a non-native race to Azeroth where most action takes place, aligned with the Horde. Their “naturally brown skin” turned a “sickly green” due to exposure to “fel magic” which caused their “ancestral lands to wither and die.” (( Blizzard Entertainment, “Races of World of Warcraft: Orc,” (2012; accessed 01 February 2012). )) Egyptians and Argentineans represented themselves as violet-skinned Night Elves on the Alliance side.


15–17: Tagged and untagged borders rendered on Google Earth.

The video incorporates machinima shot in WoW. A process of recording video of live gameplay within the game engine developed in the 1990s, machinima emerged as a means of sharing tricks and cheats among videogame players. It has also become a mode of narrative filmmaking. Goss’s use of the 3D animation rendered by the game engine differs from the original stories, literary adaptations, and amateur music videos (AMVs) that are often shot in SIMS and WoW. (( A WoW machinima that became a viral video is “Leeroy Jenkins.” )) The machinima sequences in experimental and amateur media, such as She Puppet(USA 2001; dir. Peggy Ahwesh) and Red vs. Blue: The Blood Gulch Chronicles (USA 2003–2007; dir. Burnie Burns, Matt Hullum, and Geoff Ramsey), comment upon commercial video games that are designed to “entertain.” (( She Puppet was shot partially in the first-person shooter (FPS) game Tomb Raider and questions assumptions gender and media, and Red vs. Blue was shot in the FPS Halo and questions the binary logic of politics and political life in the United States during the invasion and occupation of Iraq in search of “weapons of mass destruction.” )) Those in Stranger Comes to Town serve to protect (rather than confirm) the identity of Goss’s interview subjects, as well as to reanimate a certain “game logic” within the US-VISIT video on biometrics.

Goss’s video opens with a fly-over an undifferentiated blue landscape. A female voice describes going for a “biometric recording for immigration” in “same building, interestingly enough, of the national archives.” Towards the end, images from Google Earth focus on digital renderings of militarized zones, such as the Line of Control (LOC) between India and Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir and the Ceasefire Lines between Syria and Israel in the Golan Heights [images 15–16]. These zones are reminders of wars and violent displacements of millions based upon assumptions that political geography can be mapped onto cultural identity, often with race/ethnicity and religion as prime vectors of segregation. Globalization propels migrations over borders that might not be tagged with names [image 17].

Image Credits:
1–4, 6, and 10–17: Stranger Comes to Town (2007). Jacqueline Goss. Used
with permission.
5 and 10: US-VISIT. U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
7–9: Images of DOT road sign and internet memes.

Please feel free to comment.

Indigeneity for Life: Bro’town and Its Stereotypes

by: Ilana Gershon / Indiana University


Brotown Creators and Characters

Bro’town creators and characters

The South Park sensibility has traveled all the way to New Zealand. Bro’town, an animated television series clearly influenced by South Park and The Simpsons, focuses on five schoolboys, four Samoan Pacific Islanders and one indigenous Maori, and their adventures in an urban working class neighborhood called Morningside. When this show first aired in September 2004, controversy quickly bubbled around it. Academics such as Melani Anae and Leonie Pihama argued that Bro’towns’ portrayals were racist and enforced widespread and unwelcome stereotypes about Pacific Islanders and Maori. Journalists began to raise this question in every interview with the show’s writers, asking whether Bro’town was racist. The writers uniformly responded by pointing out that they make fun of everyone on the show. This isn’t a terribly satisfying answer to the accusation of racism — equal opportunity stereotyping only seems to sidestep the issue. Here I want to discuss how Bro’town disavows many of the principles structuring ethnic identity in New Zealand. Through this rejection, the show provides a critique of how what it means to be ethnic ends up limiting people’s interactions.

In New Zealand, issues of indigeneity haunt every relationship the nation has with a minority group. Since the late 1970s, the indigenous Maori have been increasingly successful at persuading the New Zealand government to heed its obligations to respect and promote Maori well-being. This is widely acknowledged to involve seeing New Zealand as a bicultural nation first and foremost, and a multicultural nation only within the context of Maori’s prior demands for social justice. Practically, this means Maori are the dominant group shaping the New Zealand government’s policies towards minorities. This takes two forms. First, the gains Maori have made in gaining funding and infrastructure support are eventually also provided to other minorities. When Maori receive government support for language pre-schools or funeral leaves from work, other minority groups will have the same opportunities a few years after Maori do. Second, and what I focus on here, what it means to be a minority is largely shaped by how Maori politicians and activists have explained to a general New Zealand public what it means to be Maori. The ethnic in New Zealand is a Maori-inflected ethnic.

Maori have had to pay a price for their relative success, they have had to engage with the New Zealand nation’s politics of recognition. It is not just the state that is being called upon to recognize certain groups’ rights or histories. The groups themselves have to perform in a way that is recognizable. People constantly and repetitively demonstrate the already agreed upon markers of their ethnicity — that in acting as themselves they are also engaging with the range of stereotypical qualities linked to the identity that people attribute to them. Now that does not mean that people have to perform their stereotypes in their entirety or without parody. But to be properly recognizable, people have to engage with these stereotypes, and have to engage with these stereotypes in such a way that does not challenge the most fundamental assumption of a nation’s politics of recognition — that people possess ethnicity, race, or culture in an inalienable way. In short, ethnics are asked to perform an essentialist relationship to identity.

Brotown characters

Bro’town characters

In New Zealand, the self-mimicry that ethnic groups have learned to perform in response to the government’s “Hey you” emerges out of a historical dialogue Maori have had with the government in their efforts to change government policies. For indigenes more than any other ethnic group, radical cultural difference of a particular type frames the ways in which they can articulate their claims on the state. Indigenes are presumed to have knowledge of what traditional laws and other social practices used to be prior to colonialism or other encounters with a transformative modernity. They do not live according to these principles currently, because they are forced to navigate the treacherous demands of modern life, such as the capitalist market. Not all nations demand that ethnic identity has operates in this way. But in New Zealand, every ethnic group’s identity is framed in relationship to Maori — the indigenous functions as the ur-ethnic in this particular ethnoscape. As a consequence, when the NZ states asks — “how are you an ethnic group?” — every ethnic must respond with an explicit account of what their culture is in terms already agreed upon between Maori and the NZ government.

What is striking about Bro’town is the television series’ systematic refusal to do this. When I first started watching Bro’town, I was caught by the ways this show never addressed many of the concerns about culture that I kept hearing about while doing fieldwork with Samoan migrants. The show never refers to fa`alavelave, the Samoan ritual exchanges that everyone who goes to a Samoan church or a Samoan wedding or funeral comes in contact with. The show never discusses concerns widespread in Samoan communities that Samoan children are not learning how to be properly Samoan. Or portrays Pacific Islanders with large extended families — the only person with a complicated family is Jeff the Maori, who has eight dads and one mother — a parody of the nuclear family instead. In short, the show skirts questions about what it means to be culturally Samoan, focusing instead on the consequences of being a relatively generic brown minority with Pacific Island markers in this particular ethnoscape.

But the show does more than simply avoid answering with culture to the question of ethnic identity. The show also depicts every character as a pastiche of phrases, with characters often recycling other people’s words or sayings. This primarily takes place through code-switching — characters are constantly peppering their language with words or phrases that mark their ethnicity. Characters don’t only codeswitch ethnicity markers — they reference songs or other people’s catch-phrases. These juxtapositions happen not only at the level of words, but also in terms of who populates the series. Every Bro’town episode opens in Heaven, with Jesus portrayed as a slightly annoying teenager and God as a tolerant and wise, and very well-built Samoan father — marked especially as Samoan by the tattoos. Jesus has frustrating interactions with various historical figures, and God always has to intervene with words of wisdom. When John Lennon shows up in heaven, the point of the scene appears to be to insert as many John Lennon song lyrics as possible into an intelligible conversation. With scenes like these, Bro’town writers avoid making ethnic markers the only source of codeswitching. Ethnicity becomes merely one of many markers that the characters animate and juxtapose.

The white characters on Bro’town are an intriguing exception. They too will make pop culture references, but the other codeswitching they do is invariably about the ways they engage with racism. The white teacher of Maori language is constantly using Maori words, and then defining them immediately afterwards in an attempt to visibly accept Maori and other Pacific Islanders. Intriguingly, she is the only person on the show who codeswitches ethnic markers that are not her own. Other white characters are also defined largely in terms of how they treat people of other ethnicities. For example, the white South African teenage bully is invariably portrayed both as a sycophant and as a racist, someone who is bringing a racism fostered elsewhere to New Zealand. In this case, his racist comments are phrases that circulate from another ethnoscape.

Brotown cast

Bro’town cast

While Bro’town does not do away with stereotypes altogether, the show does provide an alternative to the ways New Zealanders construct ethnic identity. It offers a vision of ethnicity that does not rely on essentialized cultural markers. Instead, ethnicity is one marker among many that people recycle through their words and practices. In addition, the show offers a strong critique of any attempts to make ethnic relations hierarchical — no ethnicity should be privileged over any other ethnicity. Throughout the show, government representatives in particular are frequently criticized for trying to position some ethnicities as more valued than others. For example, whenever the police are called, they inevitably suggest that the boys or parents call back when any other ethnicity other than a Pacific Islander is in trouble. Capitalists too are attacked for implicitly trying to insist on ethnic hierarchies. The villians of very first episode of Bro’town were a secret wealthy white cabal who wanted to rig a quiz show for high school students. They did not want brown students to be successful, and sought to maintain an unequal ethnoscape. In short, Bro’town uses pastiche as a rebuttal to any effort to value ethnicities in relation to each other. The show insists instead that ethnicity can be but one of many ways to express differences that distinguish but in the end do not determine people’s futures or friendships.

Bro’town explores the question: is it possible to engage with stereotypes without being racist? In exploring this question, the writers insist on a distinction between stereotypes used to reinforce historically and economically grounded inequalities and stereotypes used to indicate differences without consequences. Through various plots, the writers insist that difference alone is not enough to spark violence or economic disparities. The show offers the possibility that ethnoscapes in themselves do not necessarily disadvantage people. Too fittingly, this is an animated show that uses cartoon drawings as a vehicle for arguing for the possibilities and advantages of flat ethnic relations in real life.

For futher reading:
Bro’Town’s website

Fairburn Dunlop, Peggy, and Gabrielle Sisifo Makisi, eds. Making Our Place: Growing Up PI in New Zealand. Palmerston North, NZ: Dunmoore, 2003.

Sissons, Jeffrey. First Peoples: Indigenous Cultures and Their Futures. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2005.

Image Credits:
1. Bro’town creators and characters
2. Bro’town characters
3. Bro’town cast

Please feel free to comment.

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

Please feel free to comment.

Why Do I Love Television So Very Much?

by: Alan McKee / Queensland University of Technology

Federico Fellini 8 1/2

Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2

[This document is an RFC. The RFC–Request For Comment–was the mode by which information was shared in the design of the Internet. Designers put out proposals, not claiming that they were the absolute truth, but offering them as suggestions, for others to agree, disagree, or use to think with. The idea appeals to me as a model for discussion in the humanities. By disseminating my own way of seeing culture as an RFC, I can avoid both arrogant assertions that this is the truth about a medium on the one hand; and a solipsistic ‘anything goes’ attitude on the other. I’m not telling people that this is the truth; I’m asking if anybody else thinks the same way, or finds this a useful approach. If so, let’s get together and agree that this is how we see the world.]

Why is television my favourite medium? Moreso than cinema, radio, even than books? An evening on the couch, mug of tea in my hand and the TV guide in front of me, favourite programs marked in yellow highlighter … This I love more than anything.

Why is that?

Can I find any insight in my relationship with other cultural forms? With art, say? Why does art make me so angry, television so joyful? Why is it, for example, that my experiences of art make me want to sign a petition calling for all its public funding to be cut?

No, that’s not quite true. Not all art makes me angry. After all, I like The Simpsons and Buffyand The Amazing Race, all of which are clearly art. Rather, it’s Art that upsets me – the institutions of turning beautiful things in culture (The Simpsons, Buffy, The Amazing Race) into something that must be regarded with reverence. The museums and galleries and Art magazines, university courses on Art Theory and people who call themselves ‘Artists’ as though that were an identity – these are what upset me. They make me want to scream.

Why is that?

The cast of Battlestar Galactica

The cast of Battlestar Galactica

I try so hard not to be prejudiced. I try to approach Art with an open mind. But I find, over and over again, that lovers of Art resist explaining their affection in terms of their relationship with their love object. They won’t simply say, I love this, this moves me, this excites me, this makes my life better – the kinds of insights that show a person’s humanity and promote fellow feeling. Rather, so often, in telling me about their passions they want to frame them in terms of their own superiority. Not only do they want to say, ‘I love this’, but also – ‘and if you don’t love this, then there is something wrong with you’. Not only, ‘This moves me’, but also, ‘and it moves me in a way that entertainment doesn’t move you’. Not only ‘This makes my life better’, but also, ‘If your life doesn’t have this in it, your life is less worthwhile than mine’. And when I say, but Big Brother moves me in the same way as Fellini moves you, I have had Art lovers tell me that it doesn’t. That there is no way that my response to that text could possibly be as subtle, as profound, as meaningful as is theirs to 8½. When I tell them that Battlestar Galactica excites me just as much as Barbara Hammer’s films do them, they disagree. They tell me that I’m wrong. That I don’t know true sublimity. As though they have lived inside both of our heads, and they know from comparison that their sensibilities are more profound than mine. Which makes me want to swear.

Watching television makes me a better person. It reinforces my best qualities. When I’m watching television I’m genuinely interested in the lives it shows me and the ways that are different from mine. I am joyful in the encounters it offers with difference. Because television doesn’t make Art’s claims that those who have different pleasures are inferior. Television is, as John Hartley puts it so well, the ultimate ‘cross-demographic’ medium, the host of ‘the smiling professions’. Television doesn’t want to put anybody offside. Television wants to bring everybody into the audience, smiling. Come in, sit down, laugh with me (except, of course, for Fox News. That’s an exception. It doesn’t represent television). The Simpsons may, quite rightly, mock intellectuals who think they are superior to everyone else (‘But you can’t hate me!’, yells Homer after his retreating friends, when the removal of a crayon from his brain boosts his IQ to genius levels and renders him an unbearable snob: ‘I’m your better!’); but it also includes jokes that only Art lovers will get (Thomas Pynchon appears in the cartoon, but only with a paper bag over his head). It speaks to different people, in different ways, at the same time. Television likes it audience, and flatters its viewers that their opinions matter – tell us what you think, says television, performing the belief that democracy is true and that what the individual thinks is important. And for television, it is true. It is a generous, warm, inviting, kind medium–defined by its desire to reach out and draw communities together. It is the ultimately civilized medium in that sense.

Thomas Pynchon on The Simpsons

Thomas Pynchon on The Simpsons

Television is civilized. But Art isn’t. If television is the natural home of the smiling professions, then Art is the world of the scowling professions. If television flatters its audience, then Art shouts at us. It tells me that I’m stupid, that I’m vulgar, that I’m not as good as Art lovers. That I have no soul and no insight and that therefore my opinions and views and loves and passions don’t matter. That I should leave the business of running culture–and, in an ideal world, politics and the public sphere as well–to my betters. To the poets and Artists who hate me and who will tell me what is good for me and what I am allowed to consume. All the while frowning and saying ‘should’ and waving their fingers at me angrily. Art–as I have experienced it in my years of study and social interaction with Art lovers–is about divisions, drawing lines in the sand–here is Art, here is not–and telling people that they are stupid and shallow and insensitive if they don’t like the same things as the Art lovers do. Art is, in this sense, barbaric. It’s full of hatred and it’s looking for a fight. It does not show us the best of ourselves. It shows us the worst. It makes me angry–pouring out expletives and invective in a way that lowers me as a person. Art brings me down to its own level. It makes me no better than itself.

While television shows us love and joy and intimacy and domestic lives and people listening to others.

Which may be at least one reason that I love television so very, very much.

Image Credits:
1. Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2
2. The cast of Battlestar Galactica
3. Thomas Pynchon on The Simpsons

Please feel free to comment.

Lessons from the Undead: How Film and TV Zombies Teach Us About War

Uncle Sam (Lustig, 1996)

Uncle Sam (Lustig, 1996)

I am the Marine, on the border of Kuwait.
I am the soldier, only God knows my fate.
I am the sailor, on the sea, where I might die.
I am the pilot, breathing hell from the sky…

The soldiers of Iraq are waiting there to die.
Both sides are still screaming the same warrior’s cry:
Why, why, why?

— Excerpt from poem written and performed by B-movie actor William Smith in Uncle Sam (Lustig, 1996).

All genres contain room for political allegory, but some have more room than others. Romantic comedies are not necessarily incapable of making statements about ecological destruction, over-population, the dangers of nuclear weapons, or militarism, but they rarely, if ever, venture into such terrain. It’s not that melodrama and other “female” genres are apolitical; rather, they tend to reveal the political dimensions of the private realm rather than the broader political actions and struggles of the public realm. Further, genres such as melodrama and romantic comedy strive to create characters who demand intense, personal identification; allegorical films, by contrast, more often create broader character types representing big issues. Men in musicals are not always exactly what they seem — they may sometimes, for example, be rather gay — but they are generally not explicitly used as didactic symbols. It is in horror and science fiction that men function as symbols of the military-industrial complex. Or cities represent typographies of postmodern consciousness. Or monsters represent the Id, Communism, or post-Fordist capitalism.

Unfortunately, most contemporary American science fiction and horror films focus more on sexed-up action than interesting ideas. So it was big news when Showtime premiered its “Masters of Horror” series, which seemed to be an homage to old-style horror. There were no flashy stars or fancy locations, just high-concept stories. This series would, in theory, take the genre back to its 1970s glory days, when horror could be scary on a low-budget without car chases or epileptic seizure-inducing editing. Showtime marketed the thirteen-part series for its scariness and invited a number of the great horror auteurs of the 1970s to participate. But the strength of ’70s horror did not lie simply in its goose-bump-inducing power. The best horror films of the 1970s were stunning not only because they were terrifying but also because they were full of ideas: about the family (The Hills Have Eyes), Catholicism (The Exorcist), Vietnam (Deathdream), consumerism (Dawn of the Dead), and even perception itself (Suspiria). Furthermore, many of the most interesting horror films, before and after the 70s, contained strong allegorical elements, using monsters as metaphors to convey big ideas about sexual difference, capitalism, or, generally, the cruelty of human nature.

Zombies are particularly apt monsters for allegorical manipulation. Depending on writer and director, they are imbued with varying levels of consciousness and desire, and unlike Dracula and Frankenstein, they don’t require heavy back stories, they can’t be sexy or develop a boring love interest, and they have no hope of achieving any kind of happiness. These undead, decaying bodies are potent ciphers by virtue of their uncanniness. They are monsters, yet so much like us. They wander about wearing clothes we might have in our own closets: business suits, wedding dresses, nurse’s uniforms, pajamas, or combat fatigues. Film and TV zombies have been particularly well used as anti-war figures, beginning during World War I and continuing right up to the current war in Iraq.

If we define “zombie” broadly to include any non-vampiric walking corpse, the first use of zombies as anti-war symbols was in Abel Gance’s J’accuse in 1919. The film ends with the dead of the Great War returning to ask why they have been sacrificed. In 1938 Gance made the film again, this time with an even stronger indictment of the politicians and industrialists who lead citizens blindly to the slaughter. The first film had used soldiers on leave, many of whom were killed afterwards in battle. The second film used veterans of the war, many missing arms, legs, and faces. No need for special effects here. The dead march straight toward the viewer, demanding to know how the world could possibly go to war again. Had they died for nothing? By 1939 the answer was clear: yes.

Unfortunately, zombies would appear in American films of the 1930s and 1940s primarily as symbols of racist and xenophobic social anxieties. These black monsters conjured by voodoo lacked agency and humanity; they functioned as symbols of “natural” white power and black inferiority. It would take George A. Romero to reinvent the zombie as a more progressive symbolic figure. In Night of the Living Dead (1968) the putative bad guys are hungry zombies, but the real villains are the living: clueless government officials, abusive middle-class patriarchs, and hicks picking off zombies like they were at a turkey shoot. The film contains imagery obviously referencing African American oppression — mobs of whites hunting zombies with dogs and guns, a funeral pyre evocative of the final stage of a lynching, a montage of news photos showing whites roughly handling a dead black body with grappling hooks. In addition, as Sumiko Higashi has argued, through its representation of television news the film subtly references Vietnam TV coverage; the news in Night includes estimates of body counts, discussion of “search and destroy operations,” and shots of Pentagon strategists feigning being in control.

Night‘s discourse on Vietnam was subtle, but Bob Clark’s Deathdream (1974, a.k.a. Dead of Night) explicitly critiqued the war, as well as taking a few jabs at the “typical” American family. In this film, a soldier dies in Vietnam, but he comes home anyway. Like so many vets of the era, he is distant, withdrawn, strange, and addicted to drugs — or in this case, human blood, which he mainlines to defer his own decomposition. Lynn Carlin and John Marley star as the vet’s dysfunctional parents — more or less reprising the role of unhappy couple they had played in John Cassavetes Faces six years earlier. It is soon apparent that a rotting son is the least of this unhappy family’s problems. Nixon’s silent majority might not have been loudly protesting in the streets, but in the privacy of their suburban homes they were screaming bloody murder.

Uncle Sam similarly aimed its sights at the mythology of the American family, but now in the context of the Gulf War. Written by Larry Cohen of It’s Alive fame, the film tells the story of an American soldier killed by friendly fire in Kuwait. Discovered in the desert sand three years later, he is sent home to his family. His nephew worships his Uncle Sam as a hero, but his wife and sister know that the real Sam was no hero; he was a horrible, abusive, violent man who joined the Army because he liked killing people. Importantly, he is not represented as an atypical psychopath. The film emphasizes that most men are dishonest, over-sexed, and potentially violent; Sam is just at the far end of the spectrum. The military needs patriarchal violence and bogus heroic myths to perpetuate itself. What is particularly striking about the film — a low-budget, earnest, poorly acted, extremely didactic production — is that it does not embrace what has become the standard line on war protest: hate the war but love and honor the soldiers. Rather, this film asks, what kind of man chooses to join the Army, knowing that he will win medals for killing complete strangers? It dares to contend that soldiers are not inherently innocent.

Needless to say, Sam does not stay dead. His first undead act is to shoot the American soldiers who discover his body, telling them, “don’t be afraid, it’s friendly fire.” Back home, he kills a Vietnam draft dodger played by George Bush look-alike Timothy Bottoms (who would star a few years later in Comedy Central’s short-lived That’s My Bush). Dressed in an Uncle Sam costume on July 4th, our hero buries alive one flag burner, runs a second one up a flag pole by his neck, and decapitates a third and barbecues his head. He takes revenge for a kid who became psychic after being horribly maimed by fireworks, he explodes a dishonest politician with fireworks, he shoots down a dishonest lawyer dressed up like “Honest Abe” Lincoln, and he impales a pot-smoking cop on a flag pole. Finally, a Korean vet (Isaac Hayes) with a wooden leg, who has explained that heroes are just crazy killers who survive to get medals, obliterates Uncle Sam with a revolutionary war cannon. And did I mention that P.J. Soles has a cameo as the mother
of the psychic burn victim? (Though octogenarian exploitation impresario Herschell Gordon Lewis is still alive, I like to imagine him rising from the grave to make this crazy film!) In J’accuse the innocent dead returned to ask “why?” In Uncle Sam the guilty dead return to tell us exactly why. War exists, in part, because men do not recoil in horror at the idea of killing others to get what they want. It takes a psychotically patriotic corpse to show us the error of our ways.

The first narrative film to critique the current Iraq war was George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead (2005). Throughout his zombie oeuvre, Romero has encouraged us to feel for his corpses. “They ain’t doin’ nothin’! They’re like sharks,” he explains. They kill, in other words, not because they are malicious but because it is their nature to do so. It is those who enjoy killing who are most dangerous. The innovation of Land lies in further increasing our sympathy for the zombies, and in picturing them as a disenfranchised underclass. In the film’s dystopic world, a military underclass of non-zombies works for the upper-class, killing zombies and foraging for food and booze. To mesmerize zombies while they pilfer goods, the military underclass launches fireworks, which have lost all connotations of patriotism and are now called “sky flowers.” The rich live in a luxurious skyscraper, Fiddler’s Green, far removed from the zombies and poverty in the streets.

If Dawn was a critique of consumerism, Land is a critique of capitalism (and the militarism that supports it) tout court. Dennis Hopper plays the wealthy entrepreneur who owns Fiddler’s Green; he’s an obvious Bush stand-in. Unlike Uncle Sam, the film does not overtly declare itself to be about America’s wars in the Middle East, but the allegorical message is clear. Oil and greed are the name of the game. Hopper ends up trapped in his limo as a zombie who used to be a service station attendant fills the car with gasoline. Hopper escapes, only to be attacked by a former minion (John Leguizamo) who had dared to aspire to upward mobility — impossible, since he was a “spic.” Before he can be eaten alive, though, Hopper is blown up by gasoline. Iraq is never mentioned, but the gasoline inferno says it all: the greedy bastard who, earlier in the film, said he would not “negotiate with terrorists” has been hoist on his own petard.

Dennis Hopper in Land of the Dead

Dennis Hopper in Land of the Dead

Joe Dante’s Masters of Horror installment, Homecoming, offers an even more direct attack on the president and the war. Dante explains that “this is a horror story because most of the characters are Republicans.” In the one hour TV film, American soldiers killed in Iraq are reanimated because they cannot be at peace until someone who will end the war is elected president. They have no malicious intent, and they don’t want to eat people; they just want to vote. They can’t be killed, but after they vote they drop dead. At first, the panicked Republican spinmeisters salute the power of American troops: nothing can kill our heroes! A Jerry Falwell clone says these zombies are a gift from God. But once the zombies start bad-mouthing the president, they are put in orange jumpsuits and trundled off to detention camps. Now the Falwell stand-in explains that Satan sent these disloyal soldiers. A skanky Ann Coulter type calls the reanimated soldiers “a bunch of crippled, stinking, maggot-infested, brain dead, zombie dissidents.” Locking up the “formerly deceased” ends up not really fixing the problem, and since there aren’t really all that many of them, the Republicans allow them to vote (and die permanently). Many non-zombie citizens have been moved by the sight of the dead to vote against the president, but the Republicans fix the count so that the president is re-elected. At this point, Arlington cemetery explodes as the dead of World War II, Vietnam, and Korea rise to take over Washington. Dante blew it by including only veterans from the past 60 years, it seems to me, but he successfully made his points: 1) It was seeing and empathizing with the dead of the war that enabled people to vote against Bush; 2) Right-wing politicians and their machinations-“Lies and the lying liars who tell them,” as Al Franken puts it-are much scarier than zombies.

Lustig, Romero and Dante all worked with low-budgets and bargain basement actors. (Notably, Hopper and Leguizamo, huge stars for a Romero film, play important but secondary roles to keep their salaries down.) Thanks to 28 Days Later and the Resident Evil franchise, zombies have recently made a pop-culture comeback, and it was only because of this that Romero was able to get his fourth zombie movie green-lit. Political zombie movies do not guarantee big box office, and, in general, no one is going to fund a would-be blockbuster, with A-list actors and a bloated budget, that is “too political.” Speaking highly of Showtime, which offered him total artistic freedom, Dante explains, “I can’t conceive of any other venue where we would have been able to tell this story. You can’t do theatrical political movies; people don’t go to them. You can’t do them on [broadcast and non-premium cable] television, because you’ve got sponsors.” It is not in spite of such practical and budgetary constraints but rather because of them that these films were able to make potent anti-war statements.

Moreover, it was precisely because Lustig, Romero, and Dante were working within the zombie sub-genre of horror that they were able to create such terrifying political statements. Horror is the best genre for literalizing our anxieties and fears, and zombies up the ante by virtue of their very mundanity. Dracula is a fancy monster, a top-shelf creature who will look soulfully into your eyes before passionately sucking the life out of you. Zombies are rot gut, the old lady in the house coat from next door who just wants to eat your brains out. Zombies scare us because, to use Romero’s refrain, they are us. At a literal narrative level, this means that in most zombie movies anyone can become a zombie, instantly making a switch from “normal” to “abnormal” (and Romero insistently asks, which is which?). But at a more metaphorical level we are all zombies because we wander numbly through life, riding the bus to work, shopping at the mall, going through the motions of normality. And not unlike the undead of Land, we are distracted by sky flowers, pretty art films and vapid Julia Roberts movies that illustrate “the triumph of the human spirit.”

Sullivan\'s Travels

Sullivan’s Travels

Like the convicts in Sullivan’s Travels (Sturges, 1942), though, we need escapist genres. Such sky flowers make daily life tolerable. We are not stupid victims of false consciousness because Arrested Development (Fox, 2003- ) makes us laugh our asses off and Now, Voyager (Rapper, 1942) makes us bawl our eyes out. (And, further, these kinds of entertainments are not as neatly apolitical as they might initially appear.) Not all sky flowers are bad, but we also need films and TV shows about rotting, bloody corpses. The Bush administration won’t even allow photos to be taken of sealed coffins of dead veterans, much less photos of the putrescence within. Viewing the dead makes war a visceral reality. It makes our stomachs turn. In the wake of a war fought over non-existent weapons of mass destruction, it is perhaps only the dead who can function as weapons of mass instruction.

Obviously, a film like John Greyson’s Zero Patience (1993) illustrates the capacity of the musical to be overtly political. I’m not arguing that science fiction and horror are inherently more political than other genres, simply that historically they are the genres that have most directly sought political engagement.
This is not to deny the significance of a film like I Walked with a Zombie (Tourner, 1943), a compelling examination of female disempowerment and self-sacrifice within the white patriarchal family.
Sumiko Higashi, “Night of the Living Dead: A Horror Film about the Horrors of the Vietnam War,” in Linda Dittmar and Gene Michaud, eds. From Hanoi to Hollywood: The Vietnam War in American Film. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990. 175-188.
Cited in Denis Lim, “Dante’s Inferno: A Horror Movie Brings Out the Zombie Vote to Protest Bush’s War.” Village Voice, November 29, 2005.

Image Credits:

1. Uncle Sam (Lustig, 1996)

2. Dennis Hopper in Land of the Dead

3. Sullivan’s Travels

Please feel free to comment.

Let’s Get Small: The Year When the Record Industry Broke and Listeners Became Crazy, Mixed Up, Downloading, File-Sharing Freaks



Like so many teachers, the end of the year for me is a time to catch up. Many of you may be catching up with unviewed programming, unopened letters or unread books you started in September but had to put down once the midterms, students and committee obligations rolled in for the next 10 to 16 weeks. For me, that means looking at end-of-the-year best of lists, particularly for popular music. Compared to film and television, trends in popular music move at light speed. The relatively low amount of investment capital it takes to produce a quality set of recordings has meant that significant aesthetic movements like local music scenes and subgenres can rise and fall without making an impact on the charts or popular consciousness. What this means for someone like me, someone who doesn’t get out to live music as often as they once did or has the free time to simply explore pop music with friends and music lovers alike, is that I play catch up when I can and my month-long holiday break truly becomes that most wonderful time of the year.

And Lord knows I need that time to catch up. To paraphrase Robert Christgau, unless you are obscenely wealthy or a professional music critic you probably aren’t going to have enough time and money to follow the vast set of genres and artists that constitute contemporary popular music. Furthermore, because social networks tend to depreciate and/or stagnate in terms of variety and numbers as one ages, an inverse relationship between your age and you’re your knowledge of contemporary popular music quickly develops. Put simply, the older you are, the less likely you will know or care to know who Young Jeezy is and why he is a “Soul Survivor.” So, in finding the time to read my issues of Spin, troll the web and have some old-fashioned discussions with my local hip baristas about “what I should be listening to”, a number of issues arose. While I finally had the time to listen to those Antony and the Johnsons, Bloc Party and Clipse records that had piled up, the story of 2005 lied not so much in what one listened to, or even in the fact that there was as much good music in 2005 as I can remember. The story of 2005 didn’t even reside in how one listened to music, but in how the listeners got those recordings. In other words, as I went about my days of reading, writing and grading, the kids had not only bought new music, but there were new ways of buying music. As illegal file sharing sources such as Kazaa and WinAmp were effectively slowed down, more and more legitimate distribution networks were established. In 2004 iTunes could claim a million song catalogue and by 2005 emusic, which specializes in independent music distribution, also met the million song mark. As one Major Label A&R person told me late in the year, “We finally plugged the holes in the system.” Furthermore, not only did those iPods get smaller and smaller, more and more listeners had gone from being curious about iPods in 2004 to finding them absolutely essential only one year later. But the most important story of the year wasn’t the iPod Nano, it was that an effective infrastructure of legal file distribution was finally in place. As a result, the music industry can put a stake in the heart of disk distribution. The combination of legal networks and a significant portion of the audience walking around with 60GB hard drives meant that, sometime in the last 12 months, both audiences and industry alike uttered a collective “iacta alea est” and crossed a “technological” Rubicon.

Just like any gamble, what exactly the outcome of all of these new organizations and their effects will be on listening and production is not clear. What is clear are the numbers. And the numbers tell us that audiences are buying significantly fewer and fewer pre-recorded discs. As the radio industry website noted in an end-of-the-year article (December 30, 2005):

“While there’s still two more days for cash registers to ring in 2005, sales of albums in the U.S. should come in around seven percent behind last year, according to Nielsen SoundScan, however, digital downloads have more than doubled in the past twelve months.”

There was even more bad news for the disk-oriented portion of the industry, which was already in a slow, but steady decline. With the exception of the less-than-outstanding 1.9% rise in number of CD units shipped in 2004, according to the RIAA the years of 2001 (-6.4%), 2002 (-8.9%) and 2003 (-7.1%) confirm the diminishing importance of pre-recorded music. Compare this to the rise of legal downloads skyrocketing between 2004 and 2005 and one certainly does not need a crystal ball to notice that the 148% upward trend (134.2 million to 332.7 million) speaks volumes. And less than 10 days into 2006, Billboard reports that, “In the seven-day stretch between Christmas and the new year, millions of consumers armed with new MP3 players (primarily iPods) and stacks of gift cards gobbled up almost 20 million tracks from iTunes and other download retailers.”

Again, the key is not to confuse consumption with distribution. Despite what Ken Tucker claimed on a December 20th, 2005 interview on Fresh Air, it isn’t consumption that changed. People may not be buying discs, but they are buying laptops and digital music players. Lest we forget, an iPod is little more than a small but powerful record and playback device. And while “podcasting” and “TIVOing” of television may be a radical change for television and radio, concern about “time shifting” performances began to dominate the music industry beginning in the 1930s. By the late 1940s, when long play and magnetic tape recordings began to outstrip sheet music in terms of sales and industry importance, time shifting had effectively become the rule of thumb for musicians and listeners alike. This isn’t to say that the musicians thought that time shifting was good idea. In fact, they vehemently resisted in the form of two national recording bans, but that’s another story (Anderson 2004).

Myspace Music

Myspace Music

What is interesting is that artists such as Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Annie may be the first two critically revered pop music acts to rely more so on the distribution capabilities of the internet not simply to outflank broadcast radio, but in a direct-to-listener micro fashion that effectively grants music and bands a “personalized” aura. In fact, while major labels still aim for the distributive potency of radio airplay (it’s still the only way to move a million units or more), more and more artists are utilizing various computer and Internet networking techniques for viral marketing opportunity. And these techniques are effective. For example, while my students rarely speak about radio stations, they do talk about the songs they hear through their peers online playlists and personal sites such as those found on And just like a virus that you can catch simply because you briefly connected with a fellow traveler, popular music is no longer something that we need to go some specific place to hear or purchase.

(a) Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (b) Annie

What this has meant for someone like myself is that assignments I used to give in popular music classes regarding music purchasing no longer have the pedagogical impact that they once did even 5 years ago. Because more and more of us no longer go to record stores (or even frequencies on the dial), a specific musical geography is dissolving around us as the music industry has adjusted to make bricks and mortar. Over 18 months have passed since Virgin shut down a number of its US-based megastores, leaving my city of Columbus, Ohio with second tier acts such as FYE to fill the bill as a local catalogue store. At the end of December part of that second tier began to fall as Media Play, a chain associated with FYE through the holdings of Trans World, announced it would, close the doors to all 61 of its stores, including the four in the Columbus area. If poor fourth quarter reports slammed the doors of the chain shut, the poor Christmas season of 2005 was the equivalent of Snidely Whiplash throwing the chain’s possessions into the cold with one hand while changing the locks with his other. And while this Christmas season was bad for many retailers, for many music retailers it was simply beyond the pale. According to the same article,

“The biggest drop during the season was in music sales, which were down 15 percent. However, sales of electronics and other equipment were up 3 percent, he said.
The soft season comes at a time when many entertainment retailers are struggling. And the trade newspaper Billboard reported that U.S. album sales were down 10 percent in 2005, although digital sales tripled in the 53-week comparison.
Rocky Roy, owner of Music Shack in Colonie, can empathize. He said the CD and music store saw holiday-season sales decline 15 percent in December from a year ago.
I get the feeling, based on the sale of iPods, that’s going to continue,” he said.”

Indeed, that loss will continue and we should recognize that we are at the beginning of one of those unique cultural moments, a moment where we end one mode of distribution and begin another, a moment that cuts both ways. I assume I will miss my catalogue stores, look forward to my trips to San Francisco, Phoenix and New York so I can visit Amoeba, Zias and Towers, and continue to frequent a number of smaller used and specialty shops. But I can’t say this kind of longing for a media space has any place in my student’s lives. While the extinction of the large, well-stocked, colorful, multi-genre record store is inevitable in all but the most hip, urban American centers does not exactly signal the demise of a overly centralized system of control, it does make it clear that many of the centralizing forces of geography have been effectively removed. And while I may mourn the loss of the record store as an element central to the popular music experience, it is something that I hope artists and producers will continue to organize around. If we no longer have to press as many physical discs let alone pieces of cover art, then maybe our investments can get so low that we won’t have to worry so much about making a video or paying for the airplay that is so persuasive that when we see or hear it we are forced to get up, leave our houses, drive to our local Sam Goody and plunk down $15 to $19 on a CD with only two good songs. Maybe this will be one of those moments when the music industry can become, for lack of a better phrase, “fun” again, something it hasn’t been in years. And as bottom line excessive as capitalism wants us to become, perhaps we can find some time at the beginning of the post-disk era to explore what it would mean to live in a pop music world where artists and producers need not deal with those excesses that so many of us believed had become part and parcel of the music industry. Maybe we will get a chance to, like punks in the late 1970s and hip hop of the early 1980s, once again see what it means to get really small together.

Work Cited:
Anderson, Tim J., “Buried Under the Fecundity of His Own Creations: Rethinking The Stockpile, The Standing Reserve and the Recording Bans of the American Federation of Musician, 1942 to 1944 and 1948,” American Music, Summer 2004.

Image Credits:

1. EMusic

2. Myspace Music

3a. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah

3b. Annie

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.

What a Long, Bad Trip It’s Been

Temptation Island

Temptation Island

When the giant data-mining company ChoicePoint announced its plans to sell background-check software at Sam’s Club, private investigators complained the company was threatening their livelihood by making the tools of the trade available to the masses. They may have been bucking a trend: ChoicePoint’s open invitation to the public to become amateur P.I.’s represented just part of the proliferation of technologies, products, and services for do-it-yourself spies, ranging from background check Websites to keystroke monitoring software, home spycams, and even downloadable voice-stress analyzers. This multitude of peer monitoring tools, many of which piggy-back on new communication technologies, caters to a reflexive savviness about the staged character of our public personae and offers a default strategy for getting behind the façade.

The omnivorous trend-digesting genre of reality TV has picked up on the theme of peer investigation, spawning a variety of shows that feature friends, family members, and significant others spying on, investigating, and videotaping one another – all in the name of extracting a moment of authenticity, even if that moment merely highlights the inevitability of artifice. Such shows add one more reflexive twist to reality TV, insofar as they stage the search for behind-the-scenes reality, sometimes in the guise of a reality-show-within-a-show. Temptation Island, Average Joe, Room Raiders, and One Bad Trip, all feature segments in which cast members watch “backstage” footage of one another, sometimes with the added element of forensic searches, hidden cameras, and disguises. We, the viewers, watch a second audience engaged in practices of investigation and verification.

The point of lining up examples of what might be called techniques for peer investigation alongside their representation in reality TV is not to suggest that TV encourages viewers or trains them in the pursuit of such practices (nor is it to rule out this possibility). Rather it is to propose an angle of approach to the critical interpretation of media texts that sidelines the effects question construed in the broadest sense. My own recent experience of reality TV discussions has been that the tendency is to yoke together interpretation and effect. An interpretation of what takes place on a show – its portrayal, for example, of surveillance strategies for minimizing relationship risks – can be readily assimilated to an “effects” question: are audience practices and/or attitudes affected by exposure to such shows? Anna McCarthy invoked such questions in her FLOW article on TV and governance when she asked whether “the pedagogical voice of reality TV [is] actually persuasive or effective as a program of rule.” Similar questions of effects, again, in the broadest sense, propel a familiar merry-go-round of debates in media studies (at least in some quarters; in others they’ve largely been settled, albeit in opposing ways). Their persistence derives not just from the depth of their roots in the field – and in ongoing popular and political debates – but also, it seems, from persistent concerns about the purpose of critical interpretation. Why bother studying texts, if not to consider issues of broader social import? How else to avoid the pathology of Rorschach interpretation, which exhausts itself in the repeated discovery in texts of the theories we bring to them?

Perhaps one useful alternative critical approach for an analysis that focuses on textual content is what might be described as a symptomatic analysis. From such a perspective, the split between media and culture or society remains solely one of interpretive convenience. The point wouldn’t be to ask how culture affects itself, still less to ask what media texts do to audiences, or what audiences do with (and to) texts, but rather what such texts, viewed hologrammatically through the lens of theory, can tell us about the society from which they emerge. The test of such an approach would lie in its fruitfulness – the extent to which it illuminates hitherto un-remarked patterns and connections and extends the analysis not solely of media texts, but of the society within which they emerge.

By way of a brief and underdeveloped example, I’m going to focus on MTV’s One Bad Trip – and in particular the changes undergone by the format once cast members figured out the show’s gimmick. One Bad Trip is a parasitic show: producers tell cast members they’re going to be on an episode of something called MTV’s Ultimate Party Show, which documents the hijinks of the young and judgment-impaired at play in well-known party destinations. The twist is that, unbeknownst to the partiers, producers bring along their family members or significant others to spy on them as they let it all hang out for the cameras. The show’s gimmick is that it stages the scene of surveillance: a behind-the-scenes look at people peering behind the scenes. We are presented, for example, with the spectacle of two fathers spying on their college-aged daughters as they frolic on Lake Havasu, drinking, making out with one another, flashing the crowd, and so on. “This might be too much information,” says one father peering through binoculars from a nearby boat, “I don’t think she’s going to end up being a school teacher.”

The show invokes the anxiety catered to by the promise of peer-to-peer monitoring technologies: that since self-presentation is always a performance, it can double as a form of deception – one to be thwarted (along with its attendant risks) by adopting the techniques of the do-it-yourself private investigator. If, as the background-check Website puts it, “most people lie a minimum of 25 times in a single day,” we are invited to wonder along with the promotional blurb for the reality show Fake Out, which teaches lie detection techniques, “Is your teenager being untruthful? Is your spouse not telling you the whole story? Is your employee late to work again the fifth time because of a car accident on the road? Can you spot a lie?” A savvy mistrust of representation – what Slavoj Zizek (1999) has described as the erosion of symbolic efficacy – coincides with a default to empirical investigation: don’t trust what people say, see what really goes on when you’re not there. Protect yourself. Order a spy-cam. Sign up for One Bad Trip … or not. The point is not to suggest (or deny) that TV trains us but to consider what we might learn from representations of peer-to-peer surveillance about an era that witnessed the transformation of Google from proper noun to verb.

From MTVs One Bad Trip

From MTVs One Bad Trip

By staging the scene of surveillance, One Bad Trip foregrounds not only the façade of self-presentation, but also the use of reflexive strategies for getting “behind” the façade. After its first season, the show’s producers found that the kids they recruited had figured out the gimmick: they’d seen the ads for the show and had read about it on MTV’s Web site, and they suspected they were no longer on the Ultimate Party Show. In response, the producers “flipped the script” as they put it, adding one more twist. They let the partiers in on the fact that their family members or significant others were spying on them, and then helped set up the spies by staging outrageous scenarios for them to react to. So, for example, a young lady whose parents had signed up to spy on her Las Vegas trip pretended that she was eloping and marrying her boyfriend in a Vegas wedding chapel.

The “script flip” resulted in wholesale role reversal: the investigated became the investigators, the spies were on display. And it is this reflexive reversal that suggests two aspects of contemporary peer-monitoring practices. The first is the default of the voyeur/spy to exhibitionist: the watcher engaging in the process of verification with an eye to the gaze of an imagined audience to which s/he strives to avoid appearing as a dupe. It suggests, in short, the internalization of the discipline of surveillance not just by the watched, but – in an era of reflexive savviness and generalized risk – by the watchers. Perhaps the reality on offer in a show like One Bad Trip is that it stages the redoubling in the figure of the do-it-yourself spy of the imperative to watch and of submission to a monitoring gaze: the default of voyeurism to a desire to be seen as not being fooled.

The second suggestive aspect of the show, which might be described as the George W. Bush moment, is its portrayal of the default of savvy skepticism to a point of fixation that ostensibly bypasses the pitfalls of mediation – the resuscitation of gut instinct as the obverse of generalized savviness. If representation is not to be trusted, we need direct access to presence via cultivation of the kind of x-ray soul vision that Bush famously invoked to gauge Putin’s character (and that his supporters repeatedly invoke to gauge his own). The same faith-based access to authenticity is invoked in the debriefing sessions of One Bad Trip‘s post-flip season. In the first season the spies were exposed to behind-the-scenes realities portrayed as both surprising and troubling (the conservative father who saw his daughter pouring hot wax on S&M entertainers in a Miami bar; the woman who saw her boyfriend hitting on other women). The final debriefing portrayed the impact of this reality upon the watchers – how would they absorb the shocking truth behind the façade?

By contrast, finales in the post-“flip” season revealed this shocking truth as just one more façade. The result was not the universalization of skepticism, but rather an incitation to declarations of trust that bypassed the debunked realm of representation. We see a man explaining to his girlfriend that the very fact that the scene of his infidelity was staged should prove that he would never cheat on her. Those who engaged in outrageous activity used the fact that it was all a set-up to suggest that they would never really engage in such acts. In this respect the show staged a second aspect of contemporary savviness – its correspondence with the promise of direct access to the real: the default of the mistrust of mediation to a desire for the immediate. This staging reflects and perhaps reflects upon its cultural context – a society in which savvy debunkery of media representations, political deliberation, and scientific discourse coincides with the rise of Intelligent Design and the popularity of The Da Vinci Code. One bad trip for the rest of us.

Image Credits:

1. Temptation Island

2. From MTVs One Bad Trip

Citations: (2005) Psychological and personality profiles. Web site. Retreived 2 November at:

Zizek, S. (1999) The Ticklish Subject. London: Verso.

Please feel free to comment.

Speculation with Spoilers

by: Jonathan Gray / Fordham University

Ana Lucia

Lost‘s Ana Lucia’s former profession revealed
(on TV, 11/23/05; online 11/01/05)

As a result of the research conducted for this column, I now have super powers. I can see into the future of television, telling you who will win The Amazing Race, what will happen in January on Lost, and how Arrested Development plans to leave Fox in a blaze of self-reflexive glory. (I promise, though, not to divulge details).

In my last column, I wrote of the previews and hype about shows circulated by the television industry, discussing how we interact with programs before even watching them due to these industry-designed pre-texts. However, it’s not just Hollywood who gets to play this game, as viewers too are releasing information gleaned from leaks from cast or crew; reports from the set by passersby, fan pilgrimages, and sleuthing trips; and sheer textual detective work. This is the world of the “spoiler.”

Many fansites on the Internet have sections for spoilers. Usually carefully cordoned off with threats such as “Spoiler Warning!!!! Do NOT go further if you do not want to know what happens,” these areas grandiosely announce their Pandora’s Box nature. Meanwhile, standard etiquette dictates that outside of these sections, all spoilers must be gratuitously labeled, followed by numerous blank lines, so that the eye cannot betray its owner by glancing down the screen, hence “spoiling” the narrative to come. Indeed, there appears something very pornographic about spoilers, and such rules and etiquette show the degree to which they are similarly seen as holding significant power to corrupt on mere contact and the degree to which many consumers are still guiltily smitten by and drawn to spoilers.

Spoilers may not ultimately attract as many online viewers as does pornography, but spoiler discussion forms a major portion of many popular fan sites. Television Without Pity’s Lost board hosts a spoiler thread (from which I get my title) with, at last count, 316 pages of text; TWoP’s Amazing Race board has a 300-page spoiler thread; while other sites, such as Lost-TV, have literally thousands of posts and boast hundreds of thousands of pageviews. Certain programs attract more spoilers, notably, those that thrive on keeping their readers in the dark, such as Lost, Veronica Mars, and competition reality shows, but even sitcoms and quiz shows have their spoilers.

Part of the appeal behind the consumption and production of spoilers would seem to be play with the narrative delivery system. To put it simply, this system posits an Author who knows, and a group of readers who don’t. Those who hate being spoilt are quite often those who are happy with this relationship; but clearly the system irks the spoilt. Spoiling is all about knowing. To some spoilers, the experience would seem akin to the pleasures felt by video game players who find cheat codes that allow them, for instance, unlimited ammunition. Video games can be devilishly hard, their puzzles irritatingly addictive, and cheat codes allow early gratification, and a pleasurable end to the pleasure-agony of not knowing how to solve the problem. Similarly, spoilers offer a pleasurable end to the pleasure-agony of not knowing what will happen next, what the Hanso Foundation is, or who wins next week’s leg of the race. To know what happens is a small victory, and a pat on the back.

As the size of some spoiler sites suggests, there is clearly a huge social element to this knowing too. Rather than exploring the text alone, thumbing it on all sides for the secret latch, spoiler sites allow what Henry Jenkins, following, Levy, calls “collective knowledge” (2002). Moreover, cultural capital can be earned or lost by knowing more or less, whether online, or in the smug contentment of the living room. As such, this need to know is both collaborative and competitive.

Beyond analyzing their appeals, though, I am fascinated by what spoilers tell us about the individual’s or group’s interaction with the text. After all, spoilers effectively allow viewers to read, decode, and interpret a text before it’s even got to them. Spoilt viewers can experience a text’s effects before broadcast, and can also, therefore, profoundly muddle up the phenomenology of the text, especially a well-written serial text. Good writers often “trick” their audiences, calling on us to react in one way, then adding new information that changes the ground rules. Spoilt viewers, though, can immunize themselves to such strategies.

Meanwhile, there is also the case of the false spoiler. For example, last year, a poster by the name of Old Scooter Dude began leaking information about Lost‘s season finale at Lost‘s spoiler board. Old Scooter Dude became something of a cult figure for a while, with some posters even speculating as to whether he was Lost star Jorge Garcia. But come season finale, he was proven a sham (resulting in his immediate expulsion, per community rules, from the board). Pre-excommunication, though, Old Man Scooter managed to throw the narrative off significantly for his (truly) spoilt subjects: using his bogus facts, they decoded all manner of events, characters, and themes in the lead up to the fateful revelation, only to have these all thrown into disarray. Instead of being episodes ahead, then, they were episodes behind.

Or in another instance at the same site, it was revealed what the show’s mysterious “French Lady,” Rousseau, was on the island to study. By all accounts, the spoiler came from an actually shot scene, and thus was completely legit — but the scene was then cut, with no subsequent allusion to the research. How is the spoilt viewer to make sense of this? Does this mean simply that writers Abrams and Lindelof decided to withhold that information for the time being, or does it mean that they changed their minds? Clearly, such examples show how spoilers can confuse the viewer. But they also show how the text has truly moved beyond its textual body, existing across all sorts of media. John Fiske called such intertexts “secondary textuality” (1989), while Will Brooker (2001) dubs them “overflow,” and although both terms are helpful, spoilers such as this offer something quite primary, and would seem to start the flow as much as they continue it. This one cut scene potentially answers many of the island’s, and hence the show’s, mysteries, allowing us not only to go back and make sense of past episodes, but to make significant sense of episodes-to-come.

Spoilers, therefore, also suggest something not only about our capacities to interact with and interpret texts before we actually receive them, but also about the significant pleasures in doing so. Much work into textual pleasure (logically enough) focuses on pleasures during or after the encounter, but the pleasures of anticipation, and pre-decoding can prove themselves just as strong to many. Certainly, reading through spoiler sites, it is hard not to conclude that many spoilt fans enjoy the experience of the text at the level of the spoiler significantly more than they claim to enjoy it when it is actually on the television in front of them.

Personally, I prefer not to be spoilt. But (and frustratingly so), many of those close to me love to be spoilt. And it is sometimes odd, therefore, to watch an episode with such creatures. While I am entranced by the narrative, waiting to see what’s next, they are either watching me for their enjoyment, or searching the text for other things: for character complexity, for cinematography, for minutiae. Much the same way that a repeat viewing of Seinfeld or The Simpsons allows that layered reading, spoilt viewers can make end-runs, so as to experience those aspects of the text in the first reading, while covering the narrative in the pre-reading.

Perhaps it is ultimately fittingly ironic that with the industry saturating everyday life with hype and overflow, many viewers are interacting as (or more) meaningfully with rumors of the text as with the text itself.

Brooker, Will (2001). “Living on Dawson’s Creek: Teen Viewers, Cultural Convergence and Television Overflow,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 4.4, 456-72.

Fiske, John (1989). Understanding Popular Culture, New York: Routledge.

Jenkins, Henry (2002). “Interactive Viewers,” In Dan Harries (Ed.), The New Media Book. London: BFI.

Image Credits:

1. Lost’s Ana Lucia’s former profession revealed


Please feel free to comment.

The “Popular Culture and Philosophy” Books and Philosophy: Philosophy, You’ve Officially Been Pimped

The D’Oh! of Homer

The D’Oh! of Homer

Introduction: Ridiculously Obvious Observations

Unless you’ve been living under a rock the past four years, you’ve no doubt seen or heard of the Popular Culture and Philosophy books published by Open Court. Titles such as The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D’oh! of Homer, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy: Fear and Trembling in Sunnydale, and The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy: One Book to Rule Them All litter the shelves of local bookstores, where they can apparently be purchased in bulk. Turns out that popular culture is — well, “popular” — with young people. Philosophy? Not so much. But the Popular Culture and Philosophy books have managed to bridge this gap by exploiting the commercial success of recent cultural artifacts and releasing a new title dedicated to that artifact every couple of weeks.

Indeed, one might compellingly argue that the books themselves have become a popular cultural phenomenon. In the unselfish interest of bringing philosophy to even more young people, this book examines the philosophical importance of the Popular Culture and Philosophy books. Specifically, it suggests that their importance is “not much.” Like the fleeting character of the texts to which they pay tribute, these books will not have a lasting influence on philosophy. But in the meantime, there’s profit to be made. So, without further delay, let us examine these books before they, too, become passe.

Chapter 1: Plato: Philosophical Whore or Does This Guy Really Just Apply to Everything?
By Richard Fish, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, McBeal State University

Plato was a hip-cat who lived a long, long time ago. In his writings, which mainly took the form of dialogues, he pursued the notion of “the good,” which was rooted in his theory of forms. This theory proposed the existence of ideal, moral forms that were absolute and eternal. They were also conveniently accessible only to Philosopher-Kings, who were especially knowledgeable. Everyone else essentially lived their lives in a cave, albeit an allegorical cave. In perhaps his most famous work, The Republic, Plato suggests that most people are chained deep in the cave, where they see mere shadows of the “real” world projected onto the walls by the sunlight of the true world outside. This allegory is useful for thinking about the Popular Culture and Philosophy books, which feature shadow philosophy (i.e., poor approximations of real philosophy). So, yes, if you ascribe to perfect forms, Plato can apply to everything.

Maybe Logic Academy

Maybe Logic Academy

Chapter 2: You Want Kant to Do What?! That’ll Be $16.95

By Victor Ehrlich, Professor and Chair of Philosophy, St. Eligius College

With his famous claim that the “Mind is the law-giver to nature,” Immanuel Kant married empiricist and rationalist views of knowledge, suggesting that knowledge was a composite of both sensory experience and the structures of the rational mind. Simply put, indeed overly simply put, the object is, according to Kant, inevitably created to some extent by the subject. Thus, if we take as the object of our investigation the Popular Culture and Philosophy books, sensorily we are dealing with printed text on paper. But this printed text is meaningful only to the extent that the faculty of the human mind supplies it with form. This chapter argues that that form is perhaps best labeled, “philosophy as entertainment.” By severely bastardizing Kantian philosophy, we can rationally conclude that Popular Culture and Philosophy books are “pure fun” and that fans of popular culture will buy anything that mentions what they’re fans of.

Chapter 3: Philosophy as Cash Cow: A Marxist Primer
By Beverly Crusher, Visiting Professor, The University at Farpoint

Adopting the perspective of historical materialism, Karl Marx argued that the underlying conditions, forces, and relations of production shape the superstructure of ideas in society. In other words, the economic base or foundation in any given society conditions the realm of culture. To understand specific elements of culture, then, such as the Popular Culture and Philosophy books, we must examine the modes of production. These books — with their flashy covers and populist promotions, targeting of mass tastes, standardized, formulaic content, and relentless release — reflect a capitalistic profit-motive. As such, these books reproduce the economic interests of the ruling class, thereby exploiting and enslaving the working class of readers. Fortunately, according to Marx, the oppressed class will at some point rise up, stop buying these books, and will determine their own modes of production and thus forms of thought.

Chapter 4: Taking the “Pop” Out of Popular Culture: Philosophy Without Fun-House Mirrors
By Cordell Walker, Assistant Professor of English, Texas Ranger University

In Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Richard Rorty critiques the tradition of foundationalist, metaphysical philosophy, arguing that far from being absolute and universal, knowledge is local, constructed, and contingent. For Rorty, a philosophy without mirrors begins with the recognition that philosophers possess no special method for accurately representing reality. In this chapter, I contend that the authors of the Popular Culture and Philosophy books posses no special method for accurately representing the reality of popular cultural representations of reality. What they do possess is a shared disinterest in the communication technologies they analyze. Apparently, the fact that television shows are actually televised has no bearing on their philosophical messages. This chapter infuses the books in this series with deep philosophical meanings, while ignoring their status as literature targeted to a mass audience.

Chapter 5: Habermas Reads Popular Culture and Philosophy Books and Confirms Disintegration of the Public Sphere
By Jessica Lovejoy, Lecturer in Theology, Springfield University

While many scholars have declared the failure of Enlightenment reason, others such as J. Habermas have defended the project of modernity, claiming that intersubjective recognition and mutual understanding through communication can still lead to emancipation (i.e., egalitarian politics). For this to happen, however, the systematic impediments to understanding must be demolished. Informed by the Frankfurt critique of the “culture industry,” Habermas argues that the mass media is chief among these impediments, for it leads to passivity. Thus, mass media or popular culture such as the Popular Culture and Philosophy books impedes the development of an alternative, progressive public sphere by making readers the passive recipients of commercial philosophical messages. This chapter contends that Habermas would urge serious political and philosophical conversation outside of popular culture.

Chapter 6: Pop Philosophy and Postmodernism: Lyotard Asks, “Tenure Case or Just Language Game?”
By William Truman, Professor Emeritus, College of Connecticut, Metro Campus

Philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard is perhaps best known for his definition of the postmodern as “incredulity toward metanarratives.” A metanarrative, according to Lyotard, is simply a story that provides a credible purpose for action. In the postmodern condition, however, such stories and the grand narratives they legitimate have lost credulity because of the recognition that they lack any universal basis for grounding their claims. Social institutions, then, are constructed on little more than language games or self-legitimating discourses that follow internal rules. Drawing on Lyotard, this chapter examines the language game of tenure, and explores how the rules of this language game have been rewritten by philosophers to legitimate chapters in the Popular Culture and Philosophy book series as serious scholarship.

Forthcoming Titles in the Popular Culture and Philosophy Series from Open Court:

  • Volume 845

Maxim and Philosophy: Being and Toplessness

  • Volume 846

Paris Hilton and Philosophy: “Existentialism, That’s Hot!”

  • Volume 847

T-Shirts with Pithy Sayings and Philosophy: Hemlock Is So Last Season

  • Volume 848

Edible Underwear and Philosophy: Mmmmm, Tastes Like Neo-Pragmatism

  • Volume 849

Brad and Jen’s Breakup and Philosophy: Mr. & Mrs. Ubermench

Image Credits:
1. The D’Oh! of Homer

2. Maybe Logic Academy

Please feel free to comment.

Teen Choice Awards: Better Than The Emmys?

Teen Choice Awards 2005

Teen Choice Awards 2005

I admit it: I am a TV Award Show junkie. I throw parties, accompanied by my annual rant on the horrible results — quickly followed (after a bit of champagne) with a follow-up rant on what was not nominated that should have been. One show that I haven’t paid as much attention to has been The Teen Choice Awards, and this summer I found myself wondering why this has been the case. I love teen television, whatever that may be, and I am routinely disappointed at how many “legitimate” award shows leave out some of the best programming we have in the U.S.

This year, I paid attention — and I suggest that as TV scholars we all start paying attention (to these awards, and more broadly, to the shows that fall into the ever-expanding category of “Teen TV”). The Teen Choice Awards are similar in nature to shows often dismissed (People’s Choice, MTV): nominations emerge and “real people” vote online for their favorites. This summer, as I tracked the nominations and then the winners, I found myself thinking: “Hey! I’m more pleased with these than the Emmys!” And I really am in no way exaggerating. In particular, these awards surpass the Emmys in four key ways that we should heed: 1) forward-thinking in terms of technology, 2) range, 3) diversity, and 4) quality.

This year, The Teen Choice Awards added a new category: The V-Cast Award. While admittedly mired in commercialism (the award emerged from Verizon Wireless), this category recognizes that TV is expanding beyond the set to include short video content available by cell phone. Short-form content for the small(er) screen is a rapidly developing area of television that is quickly becoming as integral to viewing for many teens as going online to read and talk about their favorite shows. (Note: many of the series nominated for regular categories have avid online fan bases.) The fact that the show recognizes this significant trend suggests that the Teen Choice Awards are seeing (and pursuing) a future element of “TV” that others are not — something to consider, at the very least, in terms of how we ourselves teach and write about TV.

I was also impressed by the range of the shows that were nominated. Compared to the Emmys, there was, quite simply, a lot more going on; these awards gave me a much better sense of not only what teens might be watching, but of what TV is offering to viewers in general. If one looks at the Emmy nominations, one could surmise that only a few shows (and networks) capture viewers’ hearts, minds, and spirit as they watch: we see the same series appearing on a regular basis, with some programs receiving multiple nominations in the same category. The Teen Choice Awards spread the wealth a bit (at least with their nominations). There are shows you might expect (One Tree Hill, That 70s Show) but quite a few that you might not — such as Desperate Housewives, Lost, Alias, and House. I could see Nickelodeon, WB, UPN — in addition to the “usual suspects.” At the very least, this range is worth paying attention to if only to open our minds to preconceptions we may have about what constitutes “Teen TV”; it is also worth heeding because the range of nominations to a degree is honest about what people watch and enjoy and find worthwhile. I often feel that other award shows, in their rush to define excellence and quality, forget about the social, cultural, and psychological value of entertainment.

In line with range of programming, there also exists a much greater sense of cultural diversity in the nominations I saw for The Teen Choice Awards. The viewers who voted clearly represent a much more accurate sense of the diversity that exists in this country; and one can only hope TV executives are paying attention and taking notes — because in a very short amount of time, these viewers will be in that magic demographic of 18-49. I have often suspected that one reason reality TV does so well with younger viewers is the diversity of casting that exists in this genre — stereotyped though it may be. In the nominations for comedy and drama this year, I saw the names of shows and actors that many outside the world of Teen TV might not recognize — several of whom I think should have been included in the Emmy nominations (such as Donald Faison of Scrubs, Jorge Garcia of Lost, and winner of Female Breakout Performance — Desperate Housewives’ Eva Longoria). Especially pleasing was the inclusion of winner DeGrassi: The Next Generation (Summer Series), a show from Canada featuring one of the most racially and ethnically diverse casts available on TV — and that also happens to address teen concerns in a socially realistic way (i.e., it doesn’t shy away from what occurs in the world of teens, and manages to do so without talking down to its viewers). Would that our “legitimate” awards had such diversity.

The final variation I note — that of quality — is sure to raise some debate, but so be it. To be sure, many of the nominations offered for the Emmys are deserving of it — but, as Jason Mittell as argued for so eloquently in his past columns for FLOW, there is something to be said for making distinctions (especially since awards are supposed to be about exactly that). A few overlaps exist between the Teen Choice nominations and the Emmys (Zach Braff of Scrubs, Jennifer Garner of Alias, Sean Hayes of Will & Grace for actors; Scrubs, Desperate Housewives, Lost, Family Guy, and The Simpsons for series). More noticeable, in my opinion, is that several series and actors emerged in the Teen Choice lists that truly should have been there in the Emmy list. I had to turn to the Teen Choice Awards to see Gilmore Girls and its cast finally given their due (winner of Best Comedy, Actress for comedy [Alexis Bledel], and “Parental Unit” [Lorelai Gilmore, a single mother of a college-aged daughter])… Here I saw House, Grey’s Anatomy, Veronica Mars, What I Like About You, and Everwood. These series might not be top Emmy picks for me (although I am still steaming mad that Gilmore Girls has been ignored, after a stunning season), but could certainly replace some of what got nominated this year. (I’ll leave that for another column, post Emmy wins.)

I will still watch the Emmys on September 19th (take note — that’s a Monday, so that it can avoid being beat in the ratings by Desperate Housewives), and I will still offer my rants to those who are unfortunate enough to accept the invitation to my party. This year, however, the rants will be informed by The Teen Choice Awards. I am a faculty member of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, but I don’t have voting power. I can only hope hypothetically that if teachers in the field of television were permitted voting, we might see some of what emerged when teens did the voting this past summer: forward-thinking, range, diversity, and quality.

Image Credits:
1. Teen Choice Awards 2005

2005 Teen Choice Award Winners
Gilmore Girls Official Site
Degrassi: The Next Generation Official Site
Academy of Television Arts and Sciences

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Celebrity Nepotism, Family Values and E! Television

Filthy Rich: Cattle Drive

Filthy Rich: Cattle Drive

While thirty years ago second-generation Hollywood stars (Michael Douglas, Tatum O’Neal, Mia Farrow, Jane and Peter Fonda) were coming to be regularly associated with the era’s highest-grossing films, today it seems there are endless numbers of celebrity progeny in film, television, literature, music and fashion. With Rich Kids and The Simple Life having established the viability of reality franchises built around celebrity children and the children of the superwealthy, late summer 2005 has seen the debut on E of a new series, Filthy Rich Cattle Drive. In it, the (mostly twentysomething) offspring of various sports, music and television celebrities and moguls attempt to drive a hundred cattle across the open Colorado range in a fusion of new survivalism, frontier re-enactment and celebrity endurance. There are elements at work in the series that suggest it should be viewed as more than just another facet of the trend in which as one New York Times critic recently noted, “semi-celebrities are enjoying astounding notoriety” and the “B-list, it appears, is the new A-list.”

In a June 2003 excerpt in the UK’s Sunday Times drawn from his book In Praise of Nepotism Adam Bellow (the son of novelist Saul Bellow) diagnosed and defended the “new nepotism” he believes is a flourishing force in contemporary societies officially dedicated to meritocratic principles. Bellow contends that “It is high time for us to get over our ambivalence about the ‘return’ of dynastic families. The risks involved have been exaggerated and fail to take into account both the progress of meritocracy and the power of the market in determining social outcomes. . . The new nepotism springs from the initiative of children, not the interest of parents; it tends to seem ‘natural’ rather than planned.”

I agree that the new legitimacy of nepotism is worth thinking about, particularly under a political administration that has unashamedly and repeatedly placed relatives and cronies of the president, the president’s father, and cabinet members into powerful political roles.

Unlike Bellow, however, I don’t find a generalized belief in the transcendence of merit and the virtue of markets to be sufficient checks on the consolidation of inherited power and wealth. More often, trading on the seeming universality of such concepts operates as camouflage for nepotism in an era in which phenomena like “talent dynasties,” the mega-celebrity couple and the “accidentally” well-connected celebrity (like CNN broadcaster Anderson Cooper [Gloria Vanderbilt’s son], or the musician Norah Jones [daughter of Ravi Shankar]) are increasingly naturalized.

It seems clear that a certain strain of reality programming that requires celebrities to prove their worth in endurance contests/scenarios of teamwork and discipline has emerged a very useful form for negotiating the contradiction between meritocratic discourse and nepotistic practice. In addition, scenarios of celebrity abjection like I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here and Celebrity Fear Factor engage questions of celebrity toughness or endurance while other series like Celebrity Fit Club and Fat Actress assemble casts whose waning celebrity is connected to their failure to maintain bodily discipline and extend the possibility of rehabilitation. These television series emphasizing the disciplining of minor, declining or aspirant celebrities stand in interesting relation to other trends focusing on ever more microscopic adulatory attention to the style, earnings, vacations, homes, etc. of the most high-profile stars.

In thinking about the new nepotism in the context of family values I would frame the question rather differently from Bellow asking instead: how does the “natural” way in which so many stars’ children become stars themselves interact ideologically with the strengthened sense of belief in contemporary American culture that one’s family capital is more reliable than any other form of social or political capital? One of the most striking features of Filthy Rich Cattle Drive is the way the series both draws upon and strengthens the kind of biological/genetic essentialism that seems to hold so much currency these days. The show hypes expectation from one episode to another through recognizable melodramatic structures but it frequently ties these expectations to an implicit promise that we’re going to see celebrity progeny do and say things to confirm that they are exactly like their parents. Thus, Shanna Ferrigno (daughter of Incredible Hulk Lou Ferrigno) is shown to be physically capable and tough on the trail, while Anthony Quinn’s son Alex is cast as a potential heartbreaker romantically interested in at least two of his fellow cast members. Most significantly, by its third episode the series was using program teasers to prompt us to expect some type of meltdown from the angry son of Robert Blake. Filthy Rich Cattle Drive‘s use of Noah Blake illustrates the free-floating textual connections that can now be built between different forms of reality tv, the discourses of scandal and entertainment court coverage. Widespread public perception that Robert Blake killed his wife Bonnie Bakley (despite his exoneration) will seemingly be corroborated through the “natural” and “unscripted” inherited behavior of his son under the adverse conditions of the cattle drive.

Certainly, Filthy Rich Cattle Drive engages the ambivalence of celebrity nepotism; its pleasures are at least in part tied to the abjection I allude to above. A key moment in the series’ third episode involved Beverly Hills princess (and daughter of Yahoo CEO Terry Semel) Courtenay Semel being compelled despite her obvious repugnance and anxiety to help a cow deliver its calf. And of course the phrase “filthy rich” in the series title ironically engages audience expectation that these wealthy/privileged young people will be dirtied/debased in the course of their experience on the trail.

Filthy Rich Cattle Drive appears at a moment when the relationship between work and success in American life has grown significantly more dubious. In an earlier Flow column, Heather Hendershot has offered astute arguments about the contrived yet essential nature of work on reality tv. One of the most interesting aspects of this new reality series is its effort to retain some degree of belief in worthy, collective enterprises that are quintessentially American in character. Clearly, the series speaks to a new sense of contestation over bedrock beliefs in the stability of the relationship between fame, talent, commitment and effort as it assembles its semi-famous cast under the promotional slogan “Cows don’t know who your daddy is.”

Finally, though I haven’t mentioned it thus far, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge how the series’ meanings are refracted in relation to its producer, Joe Simpson. Simpson, the father of daughters Jessica and Ashlee, regularly deploys ministerial credentials and pronouncements of his patriotic, Christian family values to deflect perceptions of unseemliness in his role as promoter of his daughters’ multi-faceted media stardom. Filthy Rich Cattle Drive premiered the weekend of The Dukes of Hazzard‘s theatrical release and was preceded by an E True Hollywood Story entitled “Jessica, Ashlee and the Simpson Family,” an account of the coming to celebrity of the Simpson sisters (largely through reality television) and their sponsorship by their father. In the broadcast Simpson repeatedly emphasized the individuality and ambition of his daughters but added that “As a father, there’s nothing better than making your child’s dreams come true.” While Simpson’s daughters have given him a degree of fame, rather than the other way around and the double bill of these two broadcasts significantly challenges the precept that the new nepotism must appear artless, the juxtaposition nevertheless makes the Simpson family appear all the more entitled to their fame in contrast to the celebrity progeny on the cattle drive. Whatever the series’ resolution (as I write the first three episodes have now been broadcast), for me the most important aspect of Filthy Rich Cattle Drive is its emergence from an industrial/cultural milieu of increasing familial promotion and nepotistic hype.

In this context one might also include a series like “My Super Sweet Sixteen,” which profiles the planning of opulent birthday celebrations for the teenage daughters of the superwealthy.
Lola Ogunnaike, “B-List Rivals Bring Their A-Game to Reality TV,” The New York Times, August 4, 2005, p. E1.
“Are They By Any Chance Related?” The Sunday Times, June 29, 2003, News Review, p. 3.
When given the opportunity to name the calf, Semel decides to call him “Fred Segal” after the Beverly Hills store she has been pining for.
In the third episode, in a gambit reminiscent of the more rigorously survivalist celebrity endurance programs cited above, the group are fed bull testicles disguised by the camp cook as “swingin’ sirloin.”
See “Belaboring Reality” in Flow 1.11.

Image Credits:
1. Filthy Rich: Cattle Drive

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