Wednesday, April 25, 2007

More on Virginia Tech and Media Spectacle

Thanks to Ryan Thompson for calling my attention to an Open Source podcast devoted to some of the issues I raised in my post below. The show, according to the website, is devoted to exploring the following questions: "Is there anything to learn about the way we use new technologies in this first mass-murder made, as it were, for YouTube? Are mashups and tributes a form of digital catharsis, a sort of artistic safety valve? Is there a cross-over point where they become pure exploitation, or worse? And what, exactly, is new here? Besides the zeros and the ones, and the ease of dissemination and reconfiguration, is there a difference between a 19th-century suicide note and a 21st-century QuickTime movie?"

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Virginia Tech and the Production of Media Spectacle

While you’ve been working on your presentations and papers I’ve been preoccupying myself with following the media and internet coverage of the killings at Virginia Tech, perusing some of the blogs and websites that have become important for us over the course of the semester, thinking some about where the study of networked public culture fits within the wider framework of cultural studies, and what the impact of the developments we’ve been studying will be on academia in general.

Regarding the Virginia Tech horrors, a couple of things. I don’t know about you, but I found myself immediately upset about NBC’s decision to publish the pictures and video they got from Seung-Hui Cho. I suppose this is marginal to our course focus and is more of a journalism, main-stream media issue, but it seemed to me the decision to publish this material was wrong on a couple of counts. First of all, the network became complicit in the killer’s desire to seek publicity, and secondly they circulated material that had to be traumatic to a large number of people in grief who were struggling to come to terms with mayhem and death in their lives—not just the direct victims and their families but all of us subjected to the slaughter. I suppose they weighed the “newsworthiness” of the material against all this and figured the one trumped the other. It struck me a bit too much as cashing in and not terribly ethical.

Thinking more dispassionately about what this incident tells us about contemporary visual culture, I suppose we have to consider how, on the one hand the communicative technology available to people about to commit a crime like Seung-Hui Cho’s may shape criminal acts in the 21st century, and how the images they produce to frame their crimes will enter public culture in multimedia fashion. It seems as if the committing of a crime may now become a media production and take upon itself all of the aspects of spectacle, but a spectacle produced by the criminal rather than just by the media. This gets back, I suppose, to the whole idea of complicity, that is, what is the extent to which the media becomes complicit in the criminal’s production of spectacle by broadcasting their show? It’s easy to just say, “well, pictures like these will just get out anyway, so why not present them in a controlled and civil way,” but I don’t know. I would have sent the whole package to the police and that would have been that. There’s some connection, it seems to me, between the publication of these pictures and those from the Abu Ghraib prison (at least in terms of the kind of visual cultural event they produced) but I want to take more time to think about that.

Another interesting story coming out of this nightmare can be found in the New York Times article by Noah Cohen about how Wikipedia contributors created “an essential news source” for the events unfolding at Virginia Tech. The “Virginia Tech Massacre” entry at Wikipedia was apparently produced by over 2,000 “reporters” cobbling together an impressive report on what happened. I recommend the article for the perspective it gives on how Wikipedia, or for that matter, the wiki format in general, can be harnessed as a site for open source reporting. This happened to a degree during the Katrina disaster at, of all places, Craigslist, but what the folks at Wikipedia produced is a big leap forward. More and more we may find Wikipedia having value as a source for (flawed, inaccurate?) news as well as for (flawed, inaccurate) historical information.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

When You Need a Break from Writing Your Paper

When you need a break from writing your papers you might relax by watching cheddar cheese age at Today's New York Times reports that Tom Calver, a cheese maker in England, has installed a web cam above a 44 pound hunk of aging cheese and become an instant media sensation. When you tire of watching the cheese age you can participate in the site's online forum, visit the cheese's MySpace page, and go to YouTube for a 3-month time lapse version of the video. I'm not kidding. Networked Public Cheese Making has finally arrived.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Fan & Slash Fiction

Following are some questions to consider for tomorrow night's discussion. As always, feel free to comment ahead of time or post your own questions.

Historicizing fan/slash fiction
. In her essay, “Fan Fiction in a Literary Context,” Sheenagh Pugh insists on seeing fan fiction as part of a long process of borrowing and recycling in the historical production of literature. We find the same approach to historicizing fan fiction in the Wikipedia article on fan fiction. To what extent is this a valid or useful way to contextualize fan fiction, and what general issues about authorship and literary production get raised in such an approach? How does the notion of authorship that emerges here tend to coincide with poststructuralist discussions of the author (or the author function) like those in Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author” or Michel Foucault’s “What is an Author?” Here we can also reference Jonathan Lethem’s recent essay in Harper’s Magazine, “The Ecstasy of Influence.”

Fan fiction as critical commentary. Where Pugh approaches fan fiction in terms of its relationship to general literary production, Jenkins insists that fan fiction is fundamentally a form of critical commentary, that it’s related to literary interpretation and analysis. How valid do you find this argument? How does it work as a general argument, and as a legal one (in terms of how he links it to his position on “fair use”)? His discussion of fan fiction as critical commentary also deals with the relationship between fan fiction and the marketplace. What role does this discussion play in his overall argument?

Fan fiction as “Erotic Criticism.” In the last section of his essay, Jenkins cites “erotic” fan fiction as a specific example of how fan fiction performs a critical function by “providing a critique of the constructions of gender and sexuality found in the original works.” This is largely the subject Sharon Cumberland takes up in her essay, “Private Uses of Cyberspace: Women, Desire, and Fan Culture.” How clear a picture does she give us of how fan/slash fiction operates as a space for (apparently mostly women) writers to “express desire in ways that have been socially prohibited in the past” (p. 2, top)? See the quote at the end of the first section in which she writes that her “thesis is that the paradox of public access and private/anonymous identity has made it possible for women who have access to the internet to create permissive and transgressive spaces which have been, in the past, the traditional reserve of men’s magazines and men’s clubs,” something that allows “women to appropriate power over their own imaginations and bodies.” Can all this really come from writing fantasies about the sex life of Zorro as portrayed by Antonio Banderas?

Fan fiction as social networking. Another important part of Cumberland’s essay is her focus on how the combination of anonymity and public access online constructs communities of women whose particular interests “migrate” to other forms of contact (p. 1). She calls this a “displacement of affection” (p. 1). We’ll want to explore the connection between this kind of social networking and her insistence that women writing fan fiction “use cyberspace . . . to express desire in ways that have been socially prohibited in the past, and which continue to be publicly and generally taboo for women in our society” (pp. 2-3).

Fan fiction comes out of the closet.
Finally, Melinda Lo’s article, while it presents an introduction to fan and slash fiction, and deals with some of the issues Cumberland raises, is most interesting for her observation that Jenkins’ “utopic” vision of fan fiction has been “complicated by an increasing convergence between mainstream or legitimate cultural producers . . . and grassroots fan-based creations including fan fiction and fan-made films” (p. 2). The (apparently defunct) “L Word” project stands as an example here. This gets us back to the whole question of the tension between bottom-up and top-down production on the internet (for more on this, see the post below this one). Lo discusses this trend on pp. 5-6, and we’ll want to talk a little bit about where it might be heading.

MySpace as a Marketing Tool (and More)

We've talked a lot over the course of the semester about the extent to which networked culture is being produced from the bottom up or manipulated from the top down, and how this tension in cultural production online will play out. This came up last week in our discussion of YouTube, which is struggling to balance user-generated content with commercial video sometimes used to market movies. We're also used to the idea that social networking sites like MySpace are now routinely used to market bands, singers, TV show, and movies. There's an article about this in today's New York Times entitled A Fictional Video on MySpace Puts a TV Show's Promotion Into Hyperspace. It's about yet another TV show that has created a MySpace site to pump up its viewership. But it adds a new wrinkle, reporting on how the show, "How I Met Your Mother," is actually moving to produce scenes for the show too racy for TV broadcast that will be posted for viewers to see on the show's MySpace site. The show's producer is quoted as saying that "we'd like to get to the point where people will know that if they hear in the naration, 'but I can't tell you that part of the story,' then they'll know they should go looking for it online." So we've got another kind of convergence apparently going on here, one in which content produced for TV and content produced for online consumption are going to become interactive. Stay tuned.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Sopranos Mashup on YouTube

Virginia Heffernan, the TV critic for THE NEW YORK TIMES, has an interesting piece in today's paper about the video, "Seven Minute Sopranos," which you can view below. The video, as you can imagine from the title, reviews the entire set of episodes in seven minutes using video clips from the shows and a voice-over narration by the creators (Paul Gulyas and Joe Sabia). Heffernan reports that, unlike Viacom, the people at HBO, and the show's creator, David Chase, seem delighted with the video and the free publicity it provides for the new season, starting Sunday. No copyright problems here. Heffernan provides background on how the video was produced and devleops a nice technical/critical analysis of the video. She insists it isn't "sycophantic." "The more you study 'Seven Minute Sopranos,' the more mischievous it seems. It’s an intensive work of the imagination." Where David Chase seems to be taking the video as a kind of homage, Heffernan suggests it may in fact be a critical send-up of the show. In this sense the video may be functioning much like Henry Jenkins insists fan fiction functions, as a form of "critical commentary" on the original.

Seven Minute Sopranos

The video discussed by Virginia Heffernan in today's NEW YORK TIMES

Digital Humanities Quarterly

Steve Jones has just called my attention to an interesting new digital academic journal aimed at the humanities. Digital Humanities Quarterly is, to quote the editors, an "open-access, peer-reviewed, digital journal covering all aspects of digital media in the humanities." It is commited to:

Experimenting with publication formats and the rhetoric of digital authoring
Co-publishing articles with Literary and Linguistic Computing (a well-established print Digital humanities journal) in ways that straddle the print/digital divide
Using open standards to deliver journal content
Developing translation services and multilingual reviewing in keeping with the strongly International character of ADHO

They plan on publishing a wide range of peer-reviewed materials, including:

Scholarly articles
Editorials and provocative opinion pieces
Experiments in interactive media
Reviews of books, web sites, new media art installations, digital humanities systems and tools
A blog with guest commentators

Thanks to Steve Jones for bringing this to our attention.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Some Transitional Thoughts on the Future of the Book

One thing I’ve been thinking we should to talk about tomorrow night is how – and why – we ought to incorporate the study of “networked public culture” (especially its traffic in images and video, our current emphasis) into cultural studies as it’s traditionally conceived. This sent me back to During’s Cultural Studies: A Critical Introduction because I wanted to review the section on “The Internet and Technoculture” (pp. 136-142). The first thing that struck me, of course, is how dated the discussion is. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that when the book was published in 2005 this section was dead on arrival. It contains a short paragraph on blogging, but there is nothing on social networking sites, YouTube, Flickr, or most of the issues we’ve found ourselves grappling with in this course. Grant it, these all kicked in after the book was finished, but that simply makes my point about how limited the book is as a format for scholarship on contemporary culture.

Of course this underscores one of the problems about the book or monograph we discussed last week, that in an age when electronic communication makes it so easy to disseminate research and publish our scholarship quickly the book is beginning to increasingly look like a stage coach in the age of jet travel. It seems to me this is unavoidably true for the field we’re calling “networked culture.” By its very nature this culture is changing so quickly that there is no way to write about it in book form. By the time the book came out, it would be irrelevant. The topic requires electronic publication along the lines of the Networked Public book or Gamer Theory. A book like During’s then, while it can prove valuable as a history of past practices, may be an increasingly useless vehicle for talking about vast swaths of contemporary culture and cultural theory.

One could argue that the other book we read, Convergence Culture, is in fact more timely and suggests the format of the printed book may still have some relevance. But the Jenkins book is dated, too, especially in terms of the T.V. shows and movies it discusses. I think his blog is the place to go for his best work, but then he’s got the credentials necessary to make his blog important. There’s a lesson here, perhaps, about where we might be headed in the profession of literary and cultural studies, at least for the time being as we transition: you establish yourself first through the conventional route of conference papers, published essays, and a book or two, but then when you get acknowledged prominence in your field you can move to a blog. This is what Jenkins has done, and what Michael Berube did (though he got exhausted and shut his blog down a few months ago). A Shakespeare blog run by Stephen Greenblatt or a Milton blog run by Stanley Fish, or one on the performance of gender run by Judith Butler, or Chicana/o studies by Maria Herrera-Sobek, these would all get immediate attention and become a conduit for the quick (i.e. instantaneous) dissemination of ideas. I know, this structure sounds elitist, based more on the power of reputation, perhaps, than the power (and freshness) of ideas, but I throw it out for you to kick around. Perhaps we’d be better off the other way around, with young scholars like yourselves free to publish their own ideas in blog or networked format (peer reviewed or otherwise) with an understanding that this is where the real action is taking place, where you’ll get attention, discussion, criticism, and some traction with having your ideas beginning to influence people in your field (quickly). But my main point is that as I look back at During’s section on “Technoculture” (the very title is passé, of course) it seems to me the field of contemporary cultural studies, like the field of media studies, may soon need to leave the format of the book behind.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Next Week on Networked Images

For next week's discussion I think we can concentrate our attention on the social networking of the still and video image on two sites, Flickr and YouTube. For Flickr, the Open Source podcast discussion will be central, so please give it a close listen and spend some time at Flickr (if you have the time and inclination to dig deeper, check out the comments posted on the Photography 2.0 podcast site as well). I’m particularly interested in the social/intellectual networking that develops there around groups. Try joining a few and look at the discussions as well as some of the posted images. For example, I’ve joined and am going to try to monitor the following groups (click on links to access groups):

Hardcore Street Photography
Barcelona Street Art
Graffiti Archaeology
Art & Theory Nobs
Aesthetics of Failure
Vanishing Beauty
Baudrillard's Way

There have been lots of developments at YouTube over the last few weeks. In addition to the assigned articles from the syllabus for this week, you should also take a look at a couple of articles on the recent suit Viacom has filed against YouTube: "Talking Business: Awaiting a Compromise on YouTube" (posted in syllabus material for this week), and "Viacom's Full-Court Press for Online Ads," both at The New York Times. In light of these developments, we'll want to specualte about where YouTube is headed (Is the heyday of video free-for-all over? Is the site going to be commodified and appropriated by traditionally dominant mega-entertainment groups?). See also "News Corp. and NBC in Web Deal" for another dimension of potential changes. You might also take a look at how MTV is contemplating the social-networking of TV shows as described in this article (sound interesting, or a total waste of time?).

Then, of course, there's the appearance of Apple TV, which is linked to iTunes. For an overview of this potentially revolutionary (or not?) device, see David Pogue's overview of how it works and what it might do.

All of this, plus some discussion of the videos we can find on the sites linked to the menu on the right, "Online Video Links," ought to keep us plenty busy.

ALERT ON INTERNET RADIO: On a totally unrelated note I want to sing the praises of Pandora Internet Radio. This site allows you to custom build as many radio stations as you like utilizing the Music Genome Project. You create a station by "seeding it" with some music you like and then it sets about "learning" more music that goes with it. The radio plays in the background on your computer, but if you plug your computer into a speaker system it plays through your stereo. I've been editing my Tex/Mex station while writing this blog entry. Talk about multi-tasking. And you can share your stations with others. Let me know if you want me to send one your way.