On the Cutting Room Floor (Part Two)

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‘Untitled V’ © Jason Hopkins

The following post is part of an early, discarded draft of the introduction to my PhD thesis on monster mashups. Having just completed a second, and (hopefully) infinitely more readable version, I thought it would be fitting to celebrate by looking back to where I started. Since it will no longer become part of any published work, I’m sharing it here on my blog for posterity. There is of course a reason this was cut—so take it with a grain of salt! It unfolds over two parts; you can find part one here

As the monster undergoes changes in our society’s narratives, so too does our society’s way of telling and distributing those stories. When I suggested in part one of this post that the form and distribution of neo-historical monster mashups contributed to their posthuman nature as cultural objects, I was suggesting that, in twenty-first-century culture, globalisation and transmediation contribute to the fragmentation of meaning. Both the figure of the author and that of the subject are becoming decentred by our processes of cultural production and consumption. Much like an academic essay, popular culture is inherently relational, ‘always defined, implicitly or explicitly, in contrast to other conceptual categories’.[1] Drawing on Storey’s first of six theories of popular culture, Peeren advocates the following definition:

Popular culture comprises those cultural artefacts that are seen and talked about by large audiences, whose members do not always fit neatly into a social class or any other category of social differentiation. One of the most important aspects of this definition of popular culture is that it reaches across the entire social spectrum, even if not everyone interprets its products in the same manner. […] In the end popular culture, as I regard it, is the site where the struggle between dominant culture and the cultures of marginalized social groups is most openly and indeed most democratically played out.[2]

This approach to popular culture, which emphasises its plural interpretations and relational nature, is compatible with a posthumanist framework. Like posthumanism, popular culture decentres the subject, using the language of dominant culture to ‘work through’ its influence and become something other.

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Katja Novitskova, “Approximation V Chameleon” (2013). Photo: Achim Hatzius

The first contributor to the posthumanity of popular culture is globalisation. As Herbrechter argues, globalisation ‘is inherently posthumanist because at the very moment something like “humanity” seems geographically and representationally realizable, the “referent” of this humanity disappears and dissolves into its constituent and its others’.[3] In other words, we understand the term ‘humanity’ as a concept, but whenever we try to conceptualise an example of this humanity we are forced to acknowledge that this example falls short of the concept. Our referent is always elsewhere. Over the past century the structure of the world’s population has shifted from a series of isolated local communities to a series of localised global communities. Though lack of education and access to technology still limits participation in the global community, these limits are far less pervasive than they were even ten years ago. In the capitalist world, which is also increasingly global, consumers are becoming steadily more involved with the products they consume, sometimes even dictating or appropriating their production. This complicates our understanding of the process of interpretation as taking place between an ‘author’ figure and a ‘reader’ figure.

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Likewise, transmediation and crossmediation complicate readings of texts and their audiences by splitting the same narrative across multiple media platforms. Crossmediation does this by simply transplanting a story from one medium to another – for example with both a novelisation and video game version of an upcoming film. Transmediation expands one story across multiple media, with as little overlap as possible. The Assassin’s Creed novels, for example, tell stories that are completely new, but are supplemental to the Assassin’s Creed video game franchise. In this case, as with many examples of transmediation, these stories reference each other, and fans are encouraged to purchase both to obtain a ‘complete’ understanding of the narrative. Both of these processes of remediation reflect the current state of the consumer market, where audiences demand both more and more content from their favourite products, as well as more niche products. If this material is not available from the product’s producer, fans will often create it themselves.[4] This is especially true outside of the Western world, where storytelling methods are developing independently of the fixed commercial structures of the west.

The general expansion of a cultural product’s distribution and the change in its distribution method are both related to the recent and ongoing shift in our modes of cultural consumption. In the twenty-first century, the consumer is increasingly a producer/consumer (or prosumer)[5] in a participatory culture that rejects the idea of passive spectatorship. As we have seen, one result of this shift is the remix or mashup. As author William Gibson describes:

Today’s audience isn’t listening at all – it’s participating. Indeed, audience is as antique a term as record, the one archaically passive, the other archaically physical. The record, not the remix, is the anomaly today. The remix is the very nature of the digital […] the recombinant (the bootleg, the remix, the mash-up) has become the characteristic pivot at the turn of our two centuries.

Even when audiences do not actively participate in an object’s creation, they often respond to that object in an active and social – though also highly personal – way, for example on social media or through fan fiction.

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For Henry Jenkins, rather than ‘talking about media producers and consumers as occupying separate roles, we might now see them as participants who interact with each other according to a new set of rules that none of us fully understands’.[7] This blurring of the border between producer and consumer is made possible by recent technological advances like the internet, and has wide-reaching implications for authorial supremacy, and for existing power structures in media production. As Bruce Sterling asserts in his digital remix ‘Death of the Author 2.0’:

The user-producer is a concept that speak [sic] to the digital experience and the freedoms that this digital culture allow [sic] for ordinary people to become artist and producer. This model fundamentally challenges the traditional assumptions of author, it moves away from the idea of the romantic notion of authorship, which saw authorship and cultural production as an isolated activity of a genius sitting and creating something out of nothing.[8]

Sterling’s title clearly references Roland Barthes’ comments in Image, Music, Text on the ‘death’ of the author. Like the humanist subject, the author ‘is a modern figure, a product of our society in so far as, emerging from the Middle Ages with English empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation, it discovered the prestige of the individual, of, as it is more nobly put, the “human person”’. Referring here to the same cultural process that brought us humanism, Barthes argues that authorial intention is ultimately useless as a hermeneutical tool, serving only to grant the figure of ‘the author’ (or ‘the artist’) an unrealistically pivotal role.

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Cover image from Donna Haraway’s ‘Cyborg Manifesto’

As with so many of the ‘deaths’ ushered in by poststructuralism, the death of the author has never quite been realised in either academia or popular culture. Even in popular music, where the success of the ‘vocal artist’ is more and more a team effort,[10] the figure and power of the author lives on.  Remix (along with other forms of participatory culture) fulfils Barthes’ description of the author in a way other texts still struggle to do: as ‘a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture […] the writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original. His only power is to mix writings, to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as never to rest on any one of them’.[11] Though Barthes would not have been familiar with remix culture at the time of this description, it strongly evokes the remix ideology.

For Barthes, efforts to ‘decipher’ texts in an authorless world become meaningless.[12] Without authorial intention, there can be no inherent meaning. As Gunkel asserts in response, this means that ‘the objective of the reader, listener, or viewer is not to unearth and decode some secret meaning situated outside of and just below the surface of the text, but to engage with the material of the text itself, to disentangle and trace out its various threads, and to evaluate the resulting combinations, contradictions, and resonances’.[13] This new objective, which resonates with the aim of the critical analysis approach to texts, is increasingly popular in contemporary criticism, and vital to any analysis of remix culture.

Into this world monsters emerge, perfectly suited to play to the needs of the posthuman era’s prosumer. They symbolise the other, but also the self and the self-as-other. Their identity is mutable. Monsters are heavy with the weight of history, and rich with historical meaning. Their use in everything from folk tales to breakfast cereal marketing makes them endlessly versatile. They have come signify nothing, and thus are capable of signifying everything. They are the ideal posthuman vehicle, always elsewhere.

[1] John Storey, Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction, 5th edn (London: Pearson Longman, 2001), p. 1.

[2] Esther Peeren, Intersubjectivities and Popular Culture: Bakhtin and Beyond (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008), pp. 21, 23.

[3] Stefan Herbrechter, Posthumanism: A Critical Analysis (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), p. 142.

[4] Consider the example of Susan Byles’ performance on Britain’s Got Talent in Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford and Joshua Green, Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture (New York: NYU Press, 2013), pp. 9–16. The network failed to spread the video widely themselves, but fans did so on their own terms, clipping parts of the broadcast and sharing them on YouTube and other social media. This represented unintended and unplanned publicity for the network. See also Henry Jenkins, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, 2nd edn (London: Routledge, 2012).

[5] See Jenkins, Ford and Green, Spreadable Media.

[6] William Gibson, ‘God’s Little Toys: Confessions of a Cut & Paste Artist’, WIRED Magazine, 2005, para. 11–12 <http://archive.wired.com/wired/archive/13.07/gibson.html> [accessed 14 January 2015].

[7] Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: New York University Press, 2006), p. 3.

[8] Bruce Sterling, ‘Death of the Author 2.0’, WIRED Magazine, 2007, para. 1 <http://www.wired.com/2007/09/death-of-the-au/> [accessed 27 January 2015].

[9] Roland Barthes, Image, Music, Text, trans. by Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978), pp. 142–143.

[10] David J. Gunkel, ‘What Does It Matter Who Is Speaking? Authorship, Authority, and the Mashup’, Popular Music and Society, 35 (2012), 71–91 (p. 20).

[11] Barthes, Image, Music, Text, p. 146.

[12] Barthes, Image, Music, Text, p. 147.

[13] Gunkel, ‘What Does It Matter Who Is Speaking?’, p. 86.

Teaching Cultural Studies after Trump

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I’ve been trying to come up with a fitting topic for my 100th post on this blog (hi, guys) for days, but I find that one thing overshadows all the others in my mind: the US presidential elections.

In the wake of 8 November, many educators have been re-evaluating the content of their teaching, especially those working in the humanities and social sciences. Some people have despaired about the value of teaching at all in this climate. MacSweeney’s posted a grading rubric that reflects the logic of the presidential debates. Many of my fellow PhD students and academics have voiced their sense of helplessness, while also sharing the unpleasant realisation that their research—on monsters, on neoliberalism, on class, race, and gender—is now even more relevant and urgent. And indeed, the appeal to popular culture metaphors in the wake of the election has been overwhelming. References to Harry PotterThe Hunger GamesThe Walking Dead or The Purge, are seemingly everywhere.

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While this is potentially a good sign for humanities teachers, it has its dangers and drawbacks as well. In particular, we must be careful that this turn to popular culture does not placate us into a false sense of familiarity, and stop us from taking action against the very real threat to the safety of the very real people around us. The rhetoric behind this election was monstrous, Trumpism is monstrous, and we must take great care not to normalise this monstrosity by comparing it too closely to the fantastical monsters running rampant on our screens.

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As Jacob Silverman pointedly wrote earlier this week, in an article you should really read in its entirety:

Corporate-branded fantasy entertainment is not a model for political thinking […] Standing in for a shared sense of history, cult films and the YA books of our childhoods offer a comfortable sounding board for liberals as they process an election outcome that seems to them unreal. But as we move forward, these entertainments will not be able to give us what’s so lacking in the here and now: a sense of an ending.

Popular culture can inspire us, but it cannot save us: least of all the slew of contemporary dystopias, with their white and blandly lovely protagonists, that routinely dominate the box office. How, then, do we go about teaching it in the wake of Donald Trump? What texts can we use in our teaching and how can we use them?

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A number of educators have already stepped up to the bat. Below, you will find a selection of university-level resources that invite discussion of the key issues in this election, from many different disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. Many also get students looking outside the circle of ‘Dead White Men’ that remains so prevalent in higher education.

I know this list is woefully incomplete. It’s only a start. There are many more suggestions out there for how to equip students to deal with the shape of the future, and hopefully many more will spring up in the coming months. There’s currently even a call for papers (deadline 30 November) asking for responses from educators and calling for action.

Are you working on your own reading list, resource, or syllabus? Please, share it in the comments, or send it to one of the other educators in this list—especially if it includes pop culture texts.

Public Books’ Trump Syllabus 2.0

This syllabus started off as a reaction to a post on the Chronicle of Higher Education, but has since gone viral. Broadly interdisciplinary (but featuring plenty of readings from literature, politics, and popular culture), it questions not just the driving force behind Trumpism, but also the way mainstream media approaches it:

The readings below introduce observers to the past and present conditions that allowed Trump to seize electoral control of a major American political party. By extension, this syllabus acknowledges the intersectional nature of power and politics. The course emphasizes the ways that cultural capital like Trump’s grows best under certain socio-economic conditions. Trump’s open advocacy for race-based exclusion and politically motivated violence on matters both foreign and domestic cannot be separated from the historical and day-to-day inequalities endured by people of color, women, and religious minorities living in or migrating to the United States. Concerned less with Trump as a man than with “Trumpism” as a product of history, this course interrogates the connections between wealth, violence, and politics.

Trump Media: A Film Studies Syllabus

Film and television scholar Dan Hassler-Forest has put together a five-part viewing list that ‘might offer some insight, inspiration, or critical reflection of a world that has suddenly gone from challenging to terrifying’. This one is heavy on popular culture. Part one focuses on ‘Populism and Politics’, part two on ‘Commercializing Media’, part three on ‘Popular Fascism’, part four on ‘Racism’, and part five on ‘(Un)civil Society’. Spoiler Alert: The LEGO™ Movie makes an appearance in part two:

#TeachingTheDisaster: Anthropologists Strike Back

In this list (which covers some of the other syllabi on my own list), anthropologist Zoë Wool responds to a number of the questions raised by the election, including ‘How could this happen?’, ‘What to teach’, and ‘Why to teach’. The blog (Savage Minds) has also put out a call for further suggestions on Twitter, using the hashtag #TeachingTheDisaster.

[EDIT: #TeachingTheDisaster has since been updated with even more resources, including syllabi on the Welfare Reform movement, Standing Rock, and a number of other conflicts.

The Black Lives Matter Syllabus

As the title suggests, this syllabus is focused on historicising institutionalised racism in the United States. Most of the texts in this list are non-fiction:

This Gallatin seminar links the #blacklivesmatter” movement to four broader phenomena: 1) the rise of the U.S. prison industrial complex and its relationship to the increasing militarization of inner city communities 2) the role of the media industry in influencing national conversations about race and racism and 3) the state of racial justice activism in the context of a neoliberal Obama Presidency and 4) the increasingly populist nature of decentralized protest movements in the contemporary United States. In this course we will be mindful of an important distinction between #blacklivesmatter (as an emergent movement that has come into existence within roughly the past three years) vs. a much older and broader U.S. movement for black lives that has been in existence for several centuries (which can be traced back to at least the first slave uprisings in the antebellum south).

Post-Election Changes To Philosophy Curriculum By Subject

This philosophy-oriented discussion group on DailyNous.com has been taking curriculum subject by subject, allowing members to share and suggest resources for that particular approach. The first session focused on epistemology, but threads on philosophy of religion, political philosophy, critical reasoning / informal logic, and language have since been launched.

Diversity and Inclusiveness Syllabus Collection

This resource, brought to you by the American Philosophical Association, is an old one, but if you find yourself drawing a blank on who to include in your syllabus it’s chock full of great places to start. Though it starts from a philosophy perspective, and includes a some straight philosophical texts from minority perspectives, most of the texts would be entirely suitable for a literature, film, or cultural studies course.

Best Practices for the Inclusive Philosophy Classroom

This website (launched by MAP), again comes from philosophy, and has a some syllabus lists of its own. More importantly, however, it also has resources for creating an inclusive classroom environment:

The website offers methods for increasing inclusiveness in the classroom and for decreasing the effects of biases more generally. It includes the resultsof research about minority groups in philosophy. It also lists resources for teachers of philosophy who are committed to including in their syllabi readings about issues often overlooked in philosophy classrooms and readings written by philosophers belonging to groups that are typically under-represented in professional philosophy.

The Zinn Education Project’s ‘Teaching After the Election of Trump’

This website has a whole archive of online articles, lesson plans, and resources that offer alternative views of US history, all in loose relation to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (2005). In general these are designed for primary or secondary school students, but many could be easily adapted for university teaching:

Its goal is to introduce students to a more accurate, complex, and engaging understanding of United States history than is found in traditional textbooks and curricula. The empowering potential of studying U.S. history is often lost in a textbook-driven trivial pursuit of names and dates. People’s history materials and pedagogy emphasize the role of working people, women, people of color, and organized social movements in shaping history. Students learn that history is made not by a few heroic individuals, but instead by people’s choices and actions, thereby also learning that their own choices and actions matter.