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Monthly Archives: August 2010

Sorry for missing last week; life was crazy. New blog day will be Thursdays through early December.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the nation-state as a site of legal, economic, and diplomatic power has been (or is being) superseded by globalization/transnationalism/technological processes.

Tony Bennett (1995, p. 218) had begun to observe these processes as early as 1988; “Expo ’88” in Brisbane, Australia displayed a “tendency for the corporate pavilion, once a marginal feature of the exhibition form, to displace national pavilions as the organizing centres of expositional rhetorics of progress.”

Rather than the traditional exposition structure, then, in which the core was made up by nations showing off their innovation and modern-ness, there was a shift in the late twentieth century toward the corporation as the preeminent international entity.

This change, I’d like to argue, is not just a matter of exhibition layout, but rather is indicative of a shift in the worldwide balance of power; the de-centering of the nation, then, would seem to “pose fundamental questions to our neat categories of the liberal public sphere, where citizens interact through constitutionally guaranteed rights” (Liang, 2005, p. 16).

This is to say that the model of the citizen with legal rights—and particularly rights to private property, as has been codified by the conflation of political and economic liberalism (see Brown, 2003)—has become less compelling (and less accurate to the functioning of the world) in recent years.

Instead, as Lawrence Liang (2005, p. 16) argues, “globalization demands that we ask fundamentally different questions of the relationship between law, legality, property (tangible and intangible) and that which we call the public domain.”

On one hand, there are situations in which the power of capital is great enough to override the protections extended by the nation, such as when nations eliminate or relax or create exceptions to labor and environmental and tax regulations in order to draw business, though as Aneesh (2006, p. 22) notes this is “not an autonomous process that undermines the ability of nation-states to protect against the deregulation of their markets. In fact the nation-state—under contemporary neoliberal pressures—is the key actor in effecting deregulation.”

Through deregulation, then, nations are actively ceding their power to corporations, but there are also ways in which the nation-state is undermined through processes which, if not autonomous, are at least beyond its control. David Savran (1998, pp. 240-1) describes terrorism as “both a perversion and a parody” of “multinational capitalism”—each, he says, “threatens not just national security and national borders but the very idea of the nation as a sovereign political and economic entity.”

In the age of terrorism, one of the nation’s fundamental powers and responsibilities—to keep its citizens safe—has been to some degree stripped from it, and in this way the power of the nation has been diminished overall. Indeed, U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan can be seen as a last-ditch effort to keep that power in the hands of the nation using old-style military-power modes of maintaining safety in a world in which they no longer apply.

In these ways, then, the nation’s role is diminished from one direction through a reduction of the power of law, whether chosen or imposed.

On the other hand, though, the process works in more or less an opposite direction—the nation is obviated by means of a shift from place-based to international enforceability, or the extension of law.

This can be seen in the articulation of intellectual property piracy as requiring “universal jurisdiction” (Govil, 2004, p. 382). Typically, law operates with “national jurisdiction,” overridden only by “the moral heinousness of crimes against humanity,” and “for centuries prior to the post-World War II application of universal jurisdiction against genocide, apartheid and war crimes, maritime piracy was the only crime deemed heinous enough to warrant universal jurisdiction” (Govil, 2004, p. 382).

In this way, then, Govil demonstrates the ways in which the use of the term “piracy” for illicit copying of data is not coincidental, but instead quite explicitly bound up in moral judgement, as it frames the theft of intellectual property as on par with genocide, of such compelling interest to humanity that nations have no right to protect their citizens from prosecution.

In this way, then, though the world may seem to be becoming more lawless, it turns out that law is actually just becoming disarticulated from the nation-state, which suggests that, as an institution, it is perhaps being rendered obsolete by the tides of history.

Aneesh, A. (2006). Virtual Migration: The Programming of Globalization. Durham: Duke University Press.
Bennett, T. (1995). The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics. London: Routledge.
Brown, W. (2003). Neo-liberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy. Theory & Event, 7(1), n.p.
Govil, N. (2004). War in the Age of Pirate Reproduction. In R. Vasudevan, R. Sundaram, J. Bagchi, M. Narula, S. Sengupta, & G. Lovink (Eds.), Sarai Reader 04: Crisis/Media (pp. 378-383). Sarai/Center for the Study of Developing Societies/Society for New and Old Media.
Liang, L. (2005). Porous Legalities and Avenues of Participation. In Sarai Reader 05: Bare Acts (pp. 6-17). Retrieved from
Savran, D. (1998). Taking It Like a Man: White Masculinity, Masochism, and Contemporary American Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

In one of the many sidebars in his 2006 book Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins notes that an “analogy to Tom Sawyer whitewashing the fence lies close to the surface” when discussing the efforts of game companies to encourage their fans to produce content (p. 165).

But earlier in the text, there’s another analogy that seems quite fruitful to pursue. In the pre-Internet days of fandom, he says:

Corporations might now, abstractly, that such transactions [trading around of unauthorized songs and stories] were occurring all around them, every day, but they didn’t know, concretely, who was doing it. And even if they did, they weren’t going to come bursting into people’s homes at night. But, as these tractions came out from behind closed doors, they represented a visible, public threat to the absolute control the culture industries asserted over their intellectual property (p. 137).

Maybe this is just a product of re-reading this in juxtaposition with some queer theory, but this just screams Lawrence v. Texas to me.

For those who are unfamiliar, this is the Supreme Court case that ruled that sodomy laws were unconstitutional. The case revolved around the arrest of two men who were found to be engaged in consensual homo-sex in Lawrence’s home by police who were (legally) entering for another reason. The argument that swayed 6 of the 9 justices was based, at least in part, on the right to privacy, or the idea that what happened “behind closed doors” wasn’t anyone’s business. For more information, see the Wikipedia article.

Sounding familiar yet?

It is in this context that Jenkins’s assertion that “the Web provides an exhibition outlet moving amateur filmmaking from private into public space” becomes very interesting (p. 142). This and other fan practices have now “come out,” ceased to be private, begun circulating openly.

We’re here, we’re fans, get used to it.

Yet, just as the decriminalization of particular sex acts between particular configurations of people is a limited victory, both Jenkins and Francesca Coppa, in her 2008 piece Women, “Star Trek,” and the Early Development of Fannish Vidding point to ways in which some fan practices remain equivalent to sex in public, not covered by the new amnesty.

Thus, on one hand, fan films of the Atomfilms Star Wars contest, largely created by male “filmmakers who were making ‘calling card’ movies to try to break into the film industry” are encouraged, publicized, and rewarded (Jenkins, p. 154).

On the other hand, “female fan writers sharing their erotic fantasies” (Jenkins, p. 154), and the vids that are essentially equivalent (Coppa, Jenkins), aren’t so lucky. Indeed, these queer texts have become newly actionable, continually taken down from YouTube for copyright violation.

Jenkins has a vision that “if the corporate media couldn’t crush this vernacular culture during the age when mass media power went largely unchallenged, it is hard to believe that legal threats are going to be an adequate response to a moment when new digital tools and new networks of distribution have expanded the power of ordinary people to participate in their culture” (pp. 157-8), but to some degree he misses the point.

You can’t stop fans, but you can hope to contain them, and the validation of particular, gendered practices of fan filmmaking would seem to be exactly a move toward containment.

In thinking about what Harrigan and Wardrip-Fruin call in their 2009 book Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives “vast narratives,” it soon becomes quite clear that to have such vastness a narrative requires both user-generated content and vast consumption.

To begin with the former, Bartle (2009, p. 114) notes that, using what he calls “Alice” design—in which users can, so to speak, choose their own adventures (or quests) toward a predefined goal rather than having to take a particular, pre-designated path—producers of virtual worlds “don’t have to create anywhere near as many of these quests as they would have done without the Alice quests in support, and although making a world rich enough for a critical mass is not free, it’s a lot less expensive than one in which all the quests are lovingly crafted.”

Players of these games, then, are asked to do the work of making the game for themselves, and while this is a form of freedom, it’s simultaneously unremunerated labor. (See Old Fashioned Marxism for New Media Labor for more on this.)

Similarly, Gingold (2009, p. 132) speaks glowingly of the design of the game Spore as one in which, “by directing their creatures’ evolution, players would contribute valuable material to the Spore gene pool, creating aliens and civilizations for other players to discover. [ . . . ] Thanks to the effort of other players, an infinite number of alien civilizations would await your discovery.”

Other people make the game for you, and you make the game for other players, and it’s far richer than it could be if the designers built the whole thing, but the designers, at least, would get paid.

The other commonality when considering the “vast narrative” is the extensive efforts of media companies to make connections between properties such that consumers of A come to also consume B.

Thus, “For decades, DC and Marvel treated all of their titles as interconnected: characters move across different series, and universe-wide events periodically require readers to buy titles that they were not otherwise reading to understand their full ramifications” (Ford & Jenkins, 2009, p. 304).

This, then, is a richer experience, more stories and information to enjoy, which keeps fans from running out of something they love. However, at the same time this is manipulation of consumption practices; fans can’t get everything they want/need without spending more.

Another form this takes is “multiauthored, cross-media franchises”; as Krzywinska (2009, pp. 395-6) points out, “worlds”—however “completely furnished”—“offer up a recognizable brand that can be used to produce a whole range of different products.”

In this way, rather than sprinkling some of A onto B to make it more attractive, A is spun off into A-prime, and so on. The effect is similar, whether viewed as manipulation or as providing more of what people love.

The reason all this matters is that, as Hills (2009) and Krzywinska (2009) both point out, fans would seem to be the vanguard of changes to media consumption in general. Thus, Hills (2009, p. 338) argues, “one of the key developments of television seriality in the Internet age is that cult fans’ attention to narrative continuity will start to become a more generalized feature of audience activity.”

If this privileging of narrative continuity extends to everyone, will everyone then start following narratives across platforms, spending money as they go?

Krzywinska (2009, p. 396) makes this point more explicitly, arguing that “while shows that encouraged this type of consumption used to be considered ‘cultish’ and marginal to mainstream popular culture, they are now becoming central [ . . ]. This dovetails all too neatly with greater industrial and technological convergence, which depends increasingly on formulating devices to create long-stay audiences/consumers who will spend money to remain on contact with their preferred world” (396).

This needn’t be only a pessimistic future, but in the face of the persistently celebratory tone of much of the work on these developments drawing attention to the other side seems vital.

Bartle, R. A. (2009). Alice and Dorothy Play Together. In P. Harrigan & N. Wardrip-Fruin (Eds.), Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives (pp. 105-114). Cambridge: MIT Press.

Ford, S., & Jenkins, H. (2009). Managing Multiplicity in Superhero Comics: An Interview with Henry Jenkins. In P. Harrigan & N. Wardrip-Fruin (Eds.), Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives (pp. 303-312). Cambridge: MIT Press.

Gingold, C. (2009). A Brief History of Spore. In P. Harrigan & N. Wardrip-Fruin (Eds.), Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives (pp. 131-136). Cambridge: MIT Press.

Harrigan, P., & Wardrip-Fruin, N. (Eds.). (2009). Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Hills, M. (2009). Absent Epic, Implied Story Arcs, and Variation on a Narrative Theme: Doctor Who (2005-2008) as Cult/Mainstream Television. In P. Harrigan & N. Wardrip-Fruin (Eds.), Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Krzywinska, T. (2009). Arachne Challenges Minerva: The Spinning out of Long Narrative in World of Warcraft and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In P. Harrigan & N. Wardrip-Fruin (Eds.), Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives (pp. 385-398). Cambridge: MIT Press.