Presidents, Star Wars, and Harry Potter: Convergence

It’s been a while since I’ve given serious thought to the convergence of media, but Henry Jenkins strikes me as someone with a pretty good understanding of it. Jenkins points out right away that “people today talk about divergence rather than convergence, but (Ithiel de Sola) Pool understood that they were two sides of the same phenomenon” (10). Jenkins also largely talks about convergence in a way different than the understanding I was first taught. He is interested in how media bring people together in a “participatory culture” and he quickly puts to rest the “Black Box Fallacy” that we will someday have a centralized technology through which run all the media we need. However, he doesn’t devote much space to the dangers of corporate media convergence. For example, when the newspaper I worked at was purchased by a different company, the scope of things I could write about changed. Because media ownership is concentrated in a few companies, the issues and people who get shown in the media are an increasingly elite group. Jenkins does address this crisis in his discussion of the 2004 CNN presidential primary debate: “[W]e can see which submitted questions got left out, which issues did not get addressed, and which groups did not get represented” (278). While this is true, people whose access is limited to television cannot see those things. They are victims of media convergence.

But Jenkins also encourages readers to think of media in a new way (although I wish he’d have done more with this). He defines media as: 1) “a technology that enables communication” and 2) a “set of associated ‘protocols’ or social and cultural practices that have grown up around that technology” (13-14). This second definition runs parallel to Bray’s definition of technology as including social/cultural rituals that affect how people live. This general idea of making transparent the ways in which technologies shape our lives is an important point.

In the chapter entitled “Quentin Tarantino’s Star Wars,” I found the discussion of interactivity and participation to be illuminating. Interactivity is a referent to technologies being designed to elicit and take into consideration user feedback, while participation is more open-ended. Loosely speaking, interactivity could be aligned with strategies (using Michel de Certeau’s understanding of the word) and participation could be seen as a venue for tactics.

(Although as Jenkins astutely notes, that isn’t always what happens. “Too often, there is a tendency to read all grassroots media as somehow ‘resistant’ to dominant institutions rather than acknowledging that citizens sometimes deploy bottom-up means to keep others down” (293). Having served as moderator for the comments section of a newspaper website in a small town, I have more experience with the nastiness of consumer participation than I ever cared to experience.)

I also enjoyed–and I’ll admit, I giggled a little at these terms–Jenkins’ deployment of the words prohibitionist and collaborationist in reference to how corporations and other dominant entities respond to fan participation. Prohibitionist, in particular, hails an era of socially accepted rebellion that makes one think these dominant entities may be fighting a losing battle in their quest to close down fan participation. Jenkins’ use of Star Wars and Harry Potter to show the interactions of fans and trademark/copyright holders was exciting, largely because those two alternate universes are so popular that they really have become a part of popular culture and as such were fertile sites for this conflict. Popular culture is another term that Jenkins defined very helpfully as “what happens as mass culture gets pulled back into folk culture” (140). This is also the point at which passions arise; when a particular story becomes so important that folk culture lays a claim to it, things really get interesting.

And, in fact, I can prove it. This appropriation of storylines and worlds by folk culture results in a sense of ownership by those who consume and/or re-produce these products in such a way that an avid Star Wars fan (ahem) would be a little insulted by a scholar who claimed to have done significant research on SW subculture without learning that the plural of “Jedi” is not “Jedis.”

In “Why Heather Can Write,” Jenkins does an excellent job of showing how new media can function as a space for children (and adults) to learn in new ways and to teach each other. The stories he tells about Heather Lawver are nothing short of amazing, and they make me wonder about the pedagogical possibilities of fan participation and media interactivity. I’m with Jenkins in thinking the “potential seems enormous” in having “a growing percentage of young writers … publishing and getting feedback on their work” (187). This is why it is so important for composition scholars to look at the ways that young people are writing and interacting with the world around them and to react to those interactions. This is a field in great need of more work. Even Jenkins makes the mistake of citing studies that show that young people get their news from satirical late-night shows without problematizing the situation. The people who do these studies act surprised that “Daily Show viewers have higher campaign knowledge than national news viewers and newspaper readers” (236). In my opinion, this isn’t because The Daily Show is the best news source ever. It’s because most people who watch The Daily Show also consume the news from a variety of sources and are aware of the biases of those sources. Because Daily Show viewers are predominantly young, surveyors assume they don’t consume traditional news outlets as well. But they do. They may not carry around print copies of the Wall Street Journal, but they’re informed consumers and re-producers of popular media.

I’d like to end with a reflective note on Jenkins’ use of sub-narratives in some of his chapters. In the Star Wars chapter, for example, he ran other stories in the (enlarged) margins. These stories concerned related, but not explicitly connected, topics such as camcorder history, anime, and The Sims. Although the design of the pages made these sub-stories a bit difficult to read, I really enjoyed the hypertextual element they provided and the network they began to weave for readers who are looking for new and exciting avenues of thought.
Work Cited
Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York U P, 2006. Print.

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