Contemporary Culture, As Participatory Culture: Thesis, Part II

Here’s the first half of my cultural landscape survey, a rough draft. It serves as the background for the understanding of contemporary culture, telling stories and offering some analysis via cultural studies and media studies folk….

Part II

The Church in Contemporary Western Culture:

‘Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.’[1]

(Re)Creation of Meaning

The Magic of Culture. On Thursday, November 18th, 2010, I heard a news story from NPR while driving home; the picture below links to the audio.  It describes the Harry Potter fan community, and a select group made up almost entirely of youth, who have turned the themes of love and self motivation from the Harry Potter fiction into real world activism. Organized under The Harry Potter Alliance (HPA), members who were once apathetic to engagement of real world problems became inspired by both Rawlings work and preceding HPA members who had already begun to use her narrative as a means to “fight” against evil, for “The weapon we have is love.”  (The Harry Potter Alliance 2010) The story reveals the causes and efforts of HPA as it energizes its members to donate resources to places like Darfur. World events are addressed metaphorically from memes in the Potter series: Campaigns with names like Deathly Hallows; human suffering like starvation categorized as a horcrux; and plays on phrases like “What Would Dumbledore Do”, the HPA has attracted over 60 chapters and 100K members worldwide since 2005. (The Harry Potter Alliance 2010) All members share a love of the Harry Potter story, which is what draws them together. Several of the founding members were first involved in garage bands that utilized the Harry Potter themes in both names and songs. Others write fan fiction (fanfic), narratives that contain events, characters, plotlines, etc. that are contained in the interstices of Rawlings original work. Still more are merely avid fans and readers of the stories. And HPA is not the only activist group organized around the Harry Potter Series.

Both my listening experience on NPR, and the content of the story are indicative of the most significant cultural shift in western history. As noted above, it took only 4 short years for the internet to acquire 50 million users. 100K of them, worldwide, are working together, across both the internet and other mediums, to achieve goals that reduce human suffering. In this story alone, we can identify several mediums: print literature via the Harry Potter series; the feature length films based on Rawlings characters that made the narrative more popular; music in the garage bands like Harry and the Potters that continue to inspire the HPA members; radio was the medium which I heard the story on; blogs of members and readers alike who dialogue about the books and relief activity; and the internet, specifically Web 2.0, that is the foundation and necessary for HPA’s organization and existence.

Web 2.0, and its’ construct that encourages and is based on relational interaction, must also be noted here. It is the very nature of Web 2.0 that the fan fiction community has an audience, which is another medium in this process. This story, in fact, is evidence of the aforementioned cultural shift: it reveals an integration/intersection of mediums where one never existed before, and the growing participation of cultural agents -with each other- to shape, define, etc., culture. Jenkins has named this convergence culture.

…[T]he flow of content across multiple media platforms, the cooperation between media industries, and the migratory behavior of media audiences who will go almost anywhere in search of the kinds of entertainment experiences they want…. [I]t manages to describe technological, industrial, cultural, and social changes depending on who’s speaking and what they think they are talking about. (2006: 2-3, italics added)

Among other things, it heralds the breakdown and destructuring of contemporary society, where mutli-national corporations, the world of business, and media authorities dictated content ownership, publishing, control and flow of information, finances and advertising that make it possible to communicate a message, etc. Does J.K. Rawling have rights to HPA? What of the fanfic that was written; is it intellectual material that is legally owned by her, Scholastic Books, the fanfic authors, etc.? (Jenkins 2004: 40, 2006)[2]

Before we go further, we must introduce a growing characteristic of the cultural landscape that has been discussed but not yet openly defined. The very nature of the Harry Potter conversation and content ownership revolves around fanfic: cultural agents publishing their own material to those who would read it, who are mostly other fan’s of the narrative. This is participatory culture, “culture in which fans and other consumers are invited to actively participate in the creation of and circulation of new content. (Jenkins 2006: 331) As the story of the fanfic community played out over time, the global Harry Potter fanfic community rallied together under the name Defense Against the Dark Arts to push back against Warner Brothers Studio (WBS), who had exerted their legal ownership of the content. Eventually they relented on their futile attempt at tracking down every web site that fans published from, but the change was brought about by the aggregate behavior of the fanfic community, and their organizing activity to be recognized as authors of material. It should be noted that this was a global response: WBS targeted Polish web sites at the onset of their legal action; the remaining worldwide community rallied around them. (Jenkins 2006: 195-200)

An Avatar Politic. The Harry Potter Alliance and Defense Against the Dark Arts offer examples of organizing towards development ends and rights of cultural agency, respectively. However, local and global politics have seen the convergence and participatory shifts in culture. At right is a three minute video of a Palestinian village demonstrating against an occupying Israeli settlement which is taking over their land.

This is unusual on multiple levels. It first reveals the adoption of a style of narrative into the cultural milieu of a society which does not tell stories in the ‘western’ cinematic genre that Avatar falls into. Secondly, Avatar is likewise a decidedly western cultural text, with the hero a white male saving an indigenous, non-white people from their impending destruction. (It is no small irony that Anglo history reveals quite the opposite when white folk encounter an indigenous people.) Thirdly, the very employment of a movie or its’ characters –particularly cross cultural characters- is quite unusual in a political demonstration of this kind, especially given the cross cultural narratives.

The village of Bil’in has recreated this story is an expression of participatory culture, creating a political text from an entertainment text, albeit one with political themes. It represents hybridization, if you will, of media and activity. Further, the Bil’in community deconstructs the Avatar text, retelling the story of the Na’vi as a community that is self-motivated to resist their destruction. They do not have need from one outside of themselves for help; although their filming and uploading a video of this to YouTube may garner wider attention from others who seek to assist. They are not the naïve indigenous people they are represented as. Further, they identify that the Israeli settlement –no coincidence that most Israeli’s are Anglo transplants– is the very source of their oppression, not their salvation.

This form of text re-creation is called redaction, “the production of new material by the process of editing existing content”, more aptly refined as  “a form of production not reduction of text (which is why the more familiar term ‘editing’ is not quite adequate.)” (Hartley 2007: 112) They are de-constructing and re-constructing cultural themes expressed in Avatar, fed by globalization, in order to both publish a text of local significance with a (now) global audience. Western themes are being used and changed by Palestinian culture to resist their oppressor. Although the significance is not nearly with such high stakes, the Defense against the Dark Arts fanfic community is also doing the same thing. Both in redaction and in the creation of new content, cultural participants are “collectively making meaning with in popular culture, which is starting to change the ways religion, education, law, politics advertising, and even the military operate.” (Jenkins 2006: 4)


[1] Dorothy, in The Wizard of Oz (Fleming et al. 1939)

[2] Jenkins devotes a whole chapter to the Harry Potter cultural phenomenon, of which this summary and discussion is bolstered by the NPR segment. (2006: Chapter 5: Why Heather Can Write: Media Literacy and the Harry Potter Wars)

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~ by Brian Shope on December 6, 2010.

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