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OTW Fanvidding series, part 5: I Like To Watch
Fan Art Law at Comic-Con (by deviantart)
From a review of the video by Boing Boing:
Here’s an hour-long presentation on copyright law and fan art from San Diego ComicCon 2012, presented by a lawyer from DeviantArt who once worked as a copyright enforcer for Paramount. It’s a pretty good overview, though — predictably enough — the presenter waits until quite late to talk about fair use and other public rights in copyright, generally downplaying them and omitting the de minimis exemption to copyright (the idea that it’s not infringement if you take a small enough piece, for reasons that are separate from fair use) altogether.
During the Q&A, he also mischaracterizes SOPA and PIPA as having been concerned with “mass-scale” infringement (the laws allowed for censorship if there was a single link to a website that infringed), but makes up for it somewhat by plugging EFF, Public Knowledge and other public interest groups.
It’s hard for me to explain just what I find so entertaining about the Geek and Sundry Network’s webshow Tabletop. It’s not a huge transmedia playground like The Guild, and it’s not a zany talk show like The Flog, but rather a half-hour (by TV time) webshow, in which a rotating cast of three geeky New Media creators get together with Wil Wheaton to play a tabletop game. I knew that that Wheaton, who co-created the series with Geek and Sundry founder Felicia Day, would shine in this environment by the sheer enthusiasm with which he related the rules to the game he played in the first episode. However, I remained suspicious that he could reliably recruit actors who would take so readily to the concept. From my own limited experiences with tabletop gaming, I feared that, even with significant editing, some games and some sets of people simply wouldn’t have it in them to create an entertaining half hour of television. Fortunately, I was completely wrong, which I conceded when I watched the June 29th episode, in which Buffy‘s Amber Benson, The Guild‘s Michele Boyd, and YouTube’s Meghan Camarena teamed up with Wheaton to play the hilarious card game Gloom.
Before the Gloom episode, I felt like I was watching instructional videos — incredibly well-made instructional videos, populated by highly-likeable New Media celebrities — but still instructional videos. However, the Gloom episode changed all that, and, for the first time, invited me to relax and enjoy improvisational comedy and storytelling, with the game resembling a series of thoughtful prompts, and a loose structure, rather than constraining the players’ in-game actions to the point of first-timer confusion. I say this not to critique highly complex games — I am a huge fan of long-arc commitments to any storyworld, be it a game, a television series, or, my favorite, a transmedia universe populated by fictional gamers — but rather to suggest that the show realized one of its creator’s major goals in the Gloom episode. Wheaton summarized his two-part mission in a May blog post about Tabletop, in which he said, “I want to inspire people to try hobby games, and I want to remove the stigma associated with gaming and gamers.” In order to inspire the broadest range of viewers to try out new games, I think that the decision to feature a different game in every episode is wise, and I think that offering games that allow a diversity of skill sets to be showcased is important. For example, any opportunity to highlight Amber Benson’s macabre sense of humor is an opportunity for a fine moment in webshow history, and I’m glad that this show took it.
The second part of Wheaton’s mission, the removal of stigma, is harder to assess. Those who absolutely reject gaming and geek culture because of its stigma are unlikely to watch the show long enough to realize the error in their own thinking, and those who stigmatize from within, for example, those who hate on women gamers, apparently need someone like Felicia Day to do even more than found an entire network devoted to their interests before she can prove herself. However, for someone like me, who is primarily a television fan, and only somewhat curious about expanding my horizons into games, I think that the show makes an excellent case for me to try out some of what’s newly available. (Gloom, for example, was designed in 2004, long after my lazy high school summer afternoons of rejecting Settlers of Catan had been taken over by other obligations.) I love storytelling, and I love experimental storytelling, and Tabletop provides a bridge between my love for Michele Boyd’s New Media celebrity persona and my love for creative approaches to communal storytelling. Like compulsively refreshing a ficathon, watching an episode of Tabletop gives me the sense that people can easily help each other to articulate their surprising and creative observations about the world, and that the end result will be worth preserving.
As with Wheton, so much of what Felicia Day creates and oversees is an inspiration to others to tell their own stories and to do so in innovative ways. Her Vaginal Fantasy book club, for example, has inspired women who may not have felt hailed by previous book club cultures to form their own, specifically devoted to genres that appeal to to them and their sexuality. And perhaps that is the stigma that is most flexible and removable — the stigma that people can internalize about their own desires, which they then miss the opportunity to express to like-minded friends. Within New Media culture, women who don’t feel particularly spoken to by The View or The Talk can instead watch Vaginal Fantasy, and thus perhaps be inspired to expand their fannish engagement in new directions, or simply find peace in the fact that there is such visible interest in women’s responses to literature written with them in mind.
The Geek and Sundry lineup lives, in terms of accessibility, somewhere between this weekend’s Comic-Con, and online fanfiction. Hosted on YouTube, the shows do come with advertisements, which, understandably, might frustrate people. However, the content is all original, and I am excited to see what will come of the experiment, as well as from other experimental networks, such as Pharrell’s i am OTHER, which is now showing the second season of Issa Rae’s Awkward Black Girl. While there is still a crucial distinction to be made between fandom proper and fandom as industrial response, I do think that experimental and independent media about which one is fannish merits a different kind of consideration than the mainstream, especially when its creators are specifically trying to reach an audience of which certain segments of fandom are a central component. The Geek and Sundry channel is far from representative of the incredible diversity of fandom at large, but its structure invites a great variety of possible responses, ranging from affirmation to imitation, and from transformation to critique. Ideally, these networks will take advantage of one another’s talent and ingenuity, as, for example, The Guild‘s Amy Okuda settles into her new role as Sam in BFF’s, a series appearing on Justin Lin’s YOMYOMF Network, thus bringing her old fanbase to a new set of creators. As this particular segment of the media landscape takes shape, inevitably fans will respond just as creatively as they always have, sometimes through industrial response, and sometimes through their own networks, which may include their own unrecorded evening of storytelling with the assistance of a card game.
The new issue of Transformative Works and Cultures almost here, and I can’t wait to check out the content on transformative works and fan activism. It’s such an important topic, and one that’s bound to generate some energy from readers moved by direct action. However, while we wait for June 15th, I thought I’d share how valuable I’ve found the Fan/Remix Video issue, and how much I want to encourage readers to check it out. In fact, I can’t imagine a better place to start for a reader who’s new to academic writing than the editorial introduction to the issue, by Julie Levin Russo and Francesca Coppa, which, above all, showcases the pleasures of incorporating embedded video and images into academic writing. I’d recommend that any skeptical reader start by watching one of the videos that first draws her attention, and then locate what else on the page might contextualize that experience. The issue is really an art museum. At an art museum, one quickly realizes that he can’t read every description of every piece and experience them all as well, at least not within the short time he’s got to spend there. Personally, I always prefer to follow my instincts and find what moves me, even if it means I end up confused about whether the one with all the dark shadows was supposed to be about religion or not. I’m much more comfortable revealing this non-linear preference now than I would have been when I started graduate school in 2006. What changed me was teaching, and specifically, teaching in classrooms with excellent technological capabilities, which have enabled me to incorporate streaming video into almost every class I have taught. Streaming video has undoubtedly been the most helpful pedagogical aid I have found over the past five years. I started teaching in 2007, and the first thing I learned as I got to know my students was that it’s important to present information in as many different ways as possible. Everybody learns differently, and, while some do respond strongly to written texts, a lot of people do not. I had thought of my writing class as “an English class,” which, like the English classes I’d taken in college, would consist mostly of reading (literary) texts, analyzing them, and then writing papers about them. I had never really thought to question what a paper was, because it seemed to me that it was “between four and five pages,” primarily. Although my private approach to art, literature, and, of course, online fandom, was one of searching, skimming, and skipping, I’d been in school long enough to understand that my writing should disguise this fact. When I wrote about a quotation from a novel, for example, I should not reveal that I was drawn to it because it revealed the author’s secret attitude toward women, or that I had found it because I’d been looking for a new quotation for my AOL Instant Messenger profile. Instead, I was expected to claim that the quotation was clearly central to the novel, and that it would reveal itself as such to any careful reader. When I transitioned from student to teacher, I realized that I would have to find a way to explain to my students what was expected of them, in terms of reading and writing, without being hypocritical. So at first, I assigned text after text. A poem about the experience of being away from home, that’ll strike a universal chord! It did not, at least not universally. An essay about learning curves, which will inspire self-reflection on learning styles. Yes! No. The texts did inspire discussion, of course. Students are kind-hearted people who take pity on their graduate student teachers, and also, a good portion of them have the background and natural curiosity in the humanities to succeed in most contexts. But I could tell that some students simply did not feel spoken to by the material, and I knew that it was not simply a lack of interest in academic success on their part. I needed to introduce something new, and fortunately, because this was 2007, and I had a computer in my classroom, I settled on YouTube. After all, the way I bonded with my friends much of the time was by sharing a 3-5 minute video about an issue that moved us, and then discussing it, or responding with a video on a related topic. Why not try to bring that dynamic to the classroom? To be clear, I’m writing this under the assumption that the practice is much more common in composition and other kinds of classrooms now, so don’t take my rhetorical questions as though they represent actual expert advice. For that, see Table 1 in Russo and Coppa’s article, which offers a selective overview of whole university courses devoted to remix and related practices. These courses undoubtedly represent a much more sophisticated approach to teaching with digital media, as compared with my “have you guys heard about this?” approach. Even so, I maintain that there was value to my approach even when it was best described under the latter category, before I understood how important it was to keep my desire to tell people about everything interesting, contained. And that is how simple my argument in this post is. The Fan/Remix Video issue of TWC is simply inviting in a way that not every issue of an academic journal proves to be. There are much worse ways to spend an afternoon than watching every video discussed in Elisa Kreisinger’s piece, “Queer video remix and LGBTQ online communities.” I’d be amazed if anyone did this and was not moved to read the author’s notes and analysis, because these videos demand further engagement, and the article acts as an instant interlocutor. Web video, especially remix video, is as powerful for many of us as poetry is for, well, fewer of us, and this issue offers a great array of examples and reasons why. I take Andrea Horbinski’s intervention into the issue’s place within fan studies seriously, and I think that, for those of us who are committed to the central issues she raises, her post should be required reading. At the same time, I think that, for a reader wondering what academic writing might look like if it spoke about her life on the internet in the 21st Century, she might be pleasantly taken in by it. Since 2007, my goal in teaching has changed from “give them the same things I was given, because then they will follow the same path of inspiration” to “give them as much good stuff as possible, in as many different ways as possible, in hopes that something excites their intellect or desire.” Similarly, my take on this issue is, “I’d never seen that one before! People are amazing.”
“But with it–” began Will.
Iorek didn’t let him finish, but went on, “With it you can do strange things. What you don’t know is what the knife does on its own. Your intentions may be good. The knife has intentions, too.”
“How can that be?” said Will.
“The intentions of a tool are what it does. A hammer intends to strike, a vise intends to hold fast, a lever intends to lift. They are what it is made for. But sometimes a tool may have other uses that you don’t know. Sometimes in doing what you intend, you also do what the knife intends, without knowing. Can you see the sharpest edge of that knife?”
“No,” said, Will, for it was true: the edge diminished to a thinness so fine that the eye could not reach it.
“Then how can you know everything it does?”
“I can’t. But I must still use it, and do what I can to help good things come about. If I did nothing, I’d be worse than useless. I’d be guilty.”
–Philip Pullman, The Amber Spyglass (181)
The new issue of Transformative Works and Cultures, vol. 9, is dedicated to “Fan/Remix Video,” an awkward mashup that does much to delineate the uncomfortable position in which I found myself while reading many of the — invariably quite interesting — articles. For me this discomfort was summed up neatly in particular in Kim Middleton’s article “Remix video and the crisis of the humanities”, in which at one point she notes that
To consume, critique, discuss, produce, circulate, subvert, or comply with corporate control—each of these, and sometimes all at once, comprise remix video’s contribution to the practice of living with and through the digital. In its history of practice, remix culture interrogates the transformation of human experience through a sophisticated approach to the texts that project our cultural desires, assumptions, and expectations. Access to digital technologies—whether via LiveJournal, iMovie, or YouTube—allows fans and amateurs to express and share their analysis of, and investment in, canonical texts. In other words, if Tryon’s analysis holds true, then remix video functions as a particularly popular and powerful engagement with cognitive and cultural work that parallels the formative humanities/digital humanities agenda. (3.3)
Note that the magic word “fans” appears only in the penultimate sentence (and that this quotation is only about half of a longer paragraph). Middleton goes on to note — rightly, I think! — that “as modes of thinking about texts, remix practices quite clearly represent competencies endemic to humanities discourse, and ubiquitous in the parlance of its crisis and loss” (3.8), but I am unconvinced by her ultimate conclusion that “It may well be worth the creative effort, however, to recognize a common set of practices, skills, and values that underpin a spectrum of enthusiastic, sophisticated efforts in these two fields [remix video and the humanities] and begin to imagine activities and texts that provide shared opportunities to promote and engage potential participants in the modes of thinking that bring us pleasure and frame the ideas and processes that matter to us, as a collective investment in the creation of an amenable cultural future” (4.3).
Yes, it may well be worth the effort. I can’t agree, however, that any such effort would succeed, for the simple reason that Middleton (and, I must admit, the vast majority of the academy) can’t quite seem to acknowledge that “vernacular remix” is a product not just of critical sensibility and deep cultural knowledge but also of unbridled, passionate enthusiasm. Fans are fannish, in a way that is frequently deeply embarrassing to non-fans, and in the academy that sort of deep emotional engagement with your subject is, at least in my experience, always just a little bit suspect.
I don’t mean to imply that academics aren’t passionate about what they do, or that self-defined “fans” are the only people who make remix video (if anything, the opposite is true, on both counts). But I do think that the humanities aren’t going to survive the onslaught of neoliberal rationalization and downsizing programs without articulating their value not just in terms of cognitive benefits but also of affect, of emotion and sentiment and what the humanities make people feel about them and why that is deeply valuable, in a non-quantifiable way, too. Similarly, I find the disavowal of emotional engagement on the part of many prominent “remix video” makers, such as Elisa Kreisinger, to be disingenuous at best: in particular, Kreisinger’s sharp distinctions between “remixers” and “fans” seem, from the fannish perspective, totally baseless in that everything she says about “remixers” applies, mutatis mutandis, to fans too. The only real difference between the two groups that I can see is that fans are unabashedly enthusiastic about their subject, and that fans and fan vids are far less mainstream-acceptable.
Middleton rather bluntly declares that “remix culture will not save The Illiad” (4.3), but allow me to suggest that fandom just might–what, after all, is the ancient epic cycle that the Illiad began but a poly-cultural, polyglot, centuries-long shared world fandom? (Even the Odyssey, supposedly a landmark of ancient Greek, “Western” culture, draws on and speaks to a roughly contemporaneous Hittite epic tradition.) But for fandom and the humanities to assist each other against the onslaught of their detractors and critics, each will have to know what the other is, to understand and to acknowledge the real dimensions of the other’s affective engagement and critical sensibility, as well as the limitations and benefits of the same. Denying who we are and why we care to do what we do, as whole people, as academics and as fans, will never lead to anything productive.