Henry Jenkins Day!

August 22, 2011 § Leave a comment

“Do You Enjoy Making the Rest of Us Feel Stupid?: alt.tv.twinpeaks, the Trickster Author, and Viewer Mastery,” from Fans, Bloggers and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture (1995; 2006)

Many things have changed since this essay was first published; much of what qualified as novel or even incredible in terms of community formation and output is now taken for granted. But at the time, it really was a brave new world, both from the fan and academic perspective. Not a perfect new world, mind you, given the demographics of the people involved — we’re talking about a group of college educated, culturally literate tech-savvy (mostly) men, automatically particularizing the dataset. Still, the findings are highly instructive. Most interestingly to certain Whitney Phillipses, this is a group of people who bring a so-called Hacker aesthetic to the business of entertainment — as alt.tv.twinpeaks illustrates, this particular brand of fan engagement is about cracking textual code. The focus is on puzzles, in other words, not affect; you rarely see this sort of thing in (gendered) female fan communities, which tend to privilege character development and interpersonal relationships, not so much technical inner-workings. alt.tv.twinpeaks thus posits an emotionally divested but intellectually invested community collectively predicated on its collective relationship to a particular media text and –inextricably– its medium of engagement. The interdependency of this relationship is important.

“Interactive Audiences?: The ‘Collective Intelligence’ of Media Fans,” from Fans, Bloggers and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture (2002, 2006)

Yikes there’s a lot to cover here — the above question gets bigger and thornier every day. The answer(s) vary from community to community, and depend(s) on the relative degree of access, the kinds of people participating, the texts being engaged, and so on. Ultimately, however, the issue is one of navigation. How do fan communities navigate the waters of commodity culture, and how does commodity culture navigate the waters of fandom? Lévy is a good person to start with, as his utopian account of what could be is a helpful model when considering what already is. In a nutshell, collectively intelligent knowledge spaces of online fandom are self-organized, epistemaphilic, and communitarian; they elicit increasingly creative modes of engagement and produce as much as they consume. Of course the utopian account is just that, an idealization, and isn’t always borne out by how these large-scale communities actually behave. Nor does it account for the varying degrees of corporate complicity in the creation of grassroots communities. And/or the divergent interests of those who seek to undermine media/corporate power (“jammers” in this essay). Still, it is almost impossible to overstate the cultural and economic influence of the rising fan-class; the question is what types of influence fans do or can or will someday have.

“Photoshop for Democracy: The New Relationship between Politics and Popular Culture,” from Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (2006)

So far we’ve discussed the ways in which Convergence culture –wherein grassroots and corporate interests align and diverge and engage in various death matches, but end up back in bed together– impacts fan behavior. It is also important to consider how and why and if and when Convergence culture influences political processes. After all, Lévy’s is a fundamentally political argument. How might collective intelligence amongst fan communities mirror (past and/or present tense) the online body politic? Consider the 2004 election, which saw an explosion of grassroots activity both online and off. The line between bottom-up and top-down organization was often blurry, and mainstream/corporate content was frequently integrated into independent “viral” micro-campaigns, a shift due in no small part to the emergence of the political blogosphere as well as the widespread use of software editing software like Photoshop (hence the title of this essay). It’s perhaps a bit excessive to claim that we’ve entered an entirely new phase of democratic engagement. But it is clear that, at the very least, we have wandered into uncharted territory. The question is, now that we’re here, what are we going to do? The post-internet world is long way from fully democratized, but these same technologies have destabilized the playing field — it can go either way, which is all the more reason to push for more access for more people, and perhaps more importantly, to push for more exposure to more people who are not like ourselves.

What I learned from this fine scholar

I like Henry Jenkins. I like Henry Jenkins because he likes things. Not “likes” in some blah uncritical way (“I like chocolate more than vanilla”), but in a way that is fully engaged and genial and, most importantly, generous to the people and places and things he considers. In other words he takes his work seriously, but not so seriously that he closes his mind to alternate possibilities. This results in an open sort of scholarship that is more about understanding than standing in weird paternalistic judgment (lol you see what I did there, WORD PLAY) — which, ironically enough, is one of the most common critiques of Jenkins’ work. NEEDS MOAR CONDESCENSION, the argument (implicitly) goes, on account of some people aren’t satisfied until an adequately stern father figure tells them what to hate next, due to capitalism or whatever. Oh well!

But back to Henry. I first encountered “Photoshop for Democracy” in the Fall of 2008, when he came to UO I guess as part of a speaking tour. Or maybe just for a single engagement, I can’t remember. At the time I was still hugely green in terms of internet research/literacy, though I had juuuust dipped my toe in the troll-pool — in part because of Henry’s stated topic, namely FOTO PLAY in relation to POLITICS. Cue dramatic origin-story background music: I started my stupid journey at UO thinking I wanted to study political humor. Given that it was 2008, the internet was the obvious place to look for new and interesting angles. And what to my wondering eyes should appear? Trollshit, but of course. Although I didn’t know that’s what it was, not at first anyway. But even before I had a word to call it, and well before I started exploring particular communities on Ebaumsworld and MySpace, I was hooked. This was political humor alright, but it wasn’t………well normal, I couldn’t map it. It was this general sense of curiosity and there’s-something-else-here-edness that brought me to Henry’s talk, which he presented a day or two before the election. I remember hearing what he had to say about internet/fan culture(s) spurring civic engagement, and wondering if “engagement” encompassed the trollish behaviors I’d been observing all summer. In other words, did dark-sided stuff count too? tl;dr maybe, a conclusion which has seeped into a number of troll and not-quite-troll-related interests. For example anti-fans, my latest obsession. Gotta write a dissertation first though lol.

But! Henry Jenkins! When I grow up I want to be like him, and if people give me the same kind of shit (too much celebration, not enough finger-wagging), well then goodI shall wear it as a hat.

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