Henry Jenkins visits LCC

[General,Talks] (11.09.08, 7:09 pm)

Renowned media and culture scholar (and blogger) Henry Jenkins visited us this past week. He gave a lively presentation on media technology as used in the election campaign, and later met up with several of the research groups. I stuck around the group meeting with Janet’s narrative schema group where we looked at some of Sergio Goldenberg‘s eTV projects, as well as Hartmut Koenitz’s Advanced Stories Group. I was at this last meeting, but was not especially conversational, as one, I don’t have a huge amount to say about the projects, and two, I did not have much completed work of my own to show. Nonetheless, there were a few very interesting bits that I picked up from both events, and I’ll try to convey them here.

Politics and Media

I’ve studiously avoided discussing politics here. This is not to say that I don’t have my own strong beliefs, but I find nearly all political discussions to be exhausting and ultimately futile. Nonetheless, there are a number of very interesting and noteworthy things discussed in Jenkins’ talk about media in the election, and in political communication in general. So, I’ll try to review what I can.

The talk opened with a review of how media has been used in previous elections. The Lincoln-Douglas debate is an example which is frequently used as a non-mediated political event. The historical debate was dry, logical, and textual. However, the situation of the debate was still at a carnival. Bands played, there were sideshow performances and greased pig chasing contests. Spectacle was still very much an issue. Neil Postman claimed that the spectacular nature of television could never match the rationality of the Lincoln-Douglas debate, but this claim misses a complex relationship between politics and media.

Media has been used by all candidates in recent past, and the skilled use of media has tended to make for successful elections. Examples are FDR and radio, Nixon and Kennedy over television, Reagan and dramatic iconography, Clinton with cable, and finally Obama and the internet. This election is marked by a convergence of media. Obama’s skilled use at weaving many kinds of media together to create a coherent and consistent message is in part responsible for his overwhelming success.

The pivotal moment to Jenkins is the CNN-YouTube debate. This is revolutionary and pivotal because it marks a return of control from an institutionalized system (television or town-hall debates) to popular control. The clash between participatory (meaning user/popular controlled) culture with the authority of mass media. There were two sets of controversies that came out of this. The first was the reaction against the legitimacy of the YouTube questions, and the second was a reaction against the authority of CNN to filter and screen the questions in the first place.

The issue of legitimacy takes a complex spin when examined carefully. one of Jenkins’ examples is a snowman, asking about global warming. The example was decried somewhat as illegitimate, because it is ostensibly not serious. Literally, the snowman is fictional, and it is at odds for a candidate to be faced with a question from a fictional character. However, a snowman asking about global warming is still apt metaphorically. Furthermore, there is a deeper thread: The snowman speaks with a squeaky voice that is reminiscent of Mr Bill from Saturday Night Live. Mr Bill was, in turn, a “user-created” tape sent to SNL. This example thus taps into a somewhat deeper set of meanings than may first appear. User created questions work beyond the questions themselves, but also pull the weight of a larger set of cultural meanings.

The YouTube debates are one example in which users were able to “talk back” to the candidates and the media, but there are also other cases. One example is the “3-AM girl” who was in some stock footage used in an advertisement by the Clinton campaign, but then was able to post a response saying that she supported Obama. All of these cases are ways in which users have taken control of media and used the internet to talk back, taking control away from the usual media authorities.

In turn, existing media still does not go away, but rather takes on a new relationship to the internet and other media sources. Television broadcasts something, and this is reacted to on the internet, and is in turn broadcast out by television. There is a feedback cycle between blogs, YouTube, cable television, and national news and television.

Other Tidbits

On reality television: This has always had to do with ethics. While reality TV always focuses on conflict, or strives to create conflict, the conflict is ultimately about ethics. Characters have different ethics, and observers project their own values onto them. Jenkins explains that this is how some theorists have come to understand gossip: people project values onto characters, and talk about those characters to communicate their ethical values. In a sense, reality television is used by audiences to discuss their own ethics indirectly.

We were still discussing the eTV projects, in terms of exploring fictional worlds, specifically as relates to convergence, and an interesting point came up. Convergence is the process of revealing a fictional world through many different kinds of media. An example of how this works is when a franchise (for example, The Matrix) splits off into several media forms (beyond films: an animated series and some games), and while watching or consuming one form of media, there is a reference to something that occurs in the others. This sort of connecting process is an active function of the viewer, and helps build a better sense and knowledge of the fictional world. Jenkins called the sort of pleasure that results from this “epistemophilia,” which is a pleasure of knowing and connecting. Epistemophilia is associated with puzzles and transmedia works.

Epistemophilia is also conflicted with a different pleasure, the pleasure of immersion, even though the two are often confused. Immersion is the sense of being in a world and experiencing it viscerally. (Maybe I should call it “ontophilia”). Immersion is at odds with epistemophilia, which can be seen as a type of “spoiler” that undermines the sense of being. Immersion is normally associated with transparency and immediacy. To be in a fictional world, the media that exists between the user and the world must be overcome. On the other hand, with epistemophilia, the media is necessary. An epistemophilic desire is to take advantage of a medium in order to understand and piece together the world as an external observer. This can be done for instance with freeze frames in DVDs (to catch some subtle and impossible clue). Both of these desires relate to the relationship between the user, the medium, and the world.

Later, while discussing the advanced stories system, Jenkins warned us about the mechanics of fan fiction and interactive story systems. Character drives fan fiction. In this case, characters are used projectively: to explore values and idealizations. Branching narratives do not deal well with the complex matter of character motivation, which is what drives fan fiction. There could be branching narration (not narrative), which explores different perspectives. The culture of writing is compelled by character psychology. In rich environments and settings, the world is a character.

This last bit was somewhat troubling to me, though. My work is focused on adaptation of fiction, and is looking at Jane Austen specifically. Austen has a huge culture of recreation, and adaptation, much of which reads very much like fan fiction. However: my approach and focus has been on recreating the social world and model, rather than capturing the characters exactly. I could make the argument that real motivation is impossible without some social or cultural model (that expresses values), but I do not attempt to express the deep complexity of character. At least not yet, the essences and complexities of character are extremely hard to formalize.

Nonetheless, I did speak to him for a few minutes afterwards, in which I hurriedly (and possibly incoherently) explained my ideas, and he seemed to give me an endorsement, so that is a positive sign. Hooray!

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