Civic Imagination at Young Women’s Leadership Conference 2021

We brought the civic imagination to the USC Dornsife Center for the Political Future Young Women’s Leadership Conference 2021 on March 27, 2021!

Popular Culture and Civic Imagination Toolkit

Welcome to our toolkit! Here we tap the stories, TV shows, games, movies and folk stories we love (and love to hate) to activate our imaginations as we work through the social challenges our communities face. Our playful easy to do activities engage popular culture, imagination and issues of collective concern, tackling questions like: How do we want to live with one another? How do we resolve conflicts in our community? How do we know what’s fair for us and for others? How do we work together to solve big problems?

The toolkit is intended for a broad age group – parents and children (5+), peer-groups, those working in educational settings and really anyone interested in watching, remixing, creating, and having fun with popular culture!

Our number one goal here is to help adults and children (and others) to have fun around shared media experiences, moving us beyond the negative focus on “screen time” to a more generative mode of co-creating our culture. These activities are shaped by concepts such as perspective taking and emotional intelligence, but more broadly, designed to help young people to think about how they live in communities and physical spaces with other people, how they work together to achieve a social order that is fair to all, how they might learn to appreciate each other’s different perspectives and experiences, and how they might look at their physical surroundings, both places and things, in new, even magical, ways. We also see these activities as an childhood entry into media literacy (understood not as a school subject but as part of our everyday lives as media consumers and fans.)

Each activity in the toolkit can be completed as a stand-alone unit. Unless otherwise noted, these activities here emerged from brainstorming sessions with the members of the Civic Paths research group.

This is a work in progress and we welcome feedback and new activity suggestions! Do you have activities that you would like to submit to the Toolkit? Please, reach out to us via this form.

You can also download the printer friendly version of this toolkit here.

Practicing Futures Book released!

Practicing Futures

A Civic Imagination Action Handbook

Gabriel Peters-Lazaro and Sangita Shresthova

The real world is full of challenges and the sheer weight of problems facing us can stifle the genius of our collective human creativity at exactly the time when we desperately need imaginative and innovative solutions. Responding to this, Practicing Futures: A Civic Imagination Action Handbook harnesses our connections to popular culture and taps the boundless potential of human imagination to break free of assumptions that might otherwise trap us in repetitive cycles of alienation. Utopias and dystopias have long been used to pose questions, provoke discussions, and inspire next steps and are helpful because they encourage long view perspectives. Building on the work of the Civic Imagination Project at the University of Southern California, the Handbook is a practical guide for community leaders, educators, creative professionals, and change-makers who want to encourage creative, participatory, and playful approaches to thinking about the future. This book shares examples and models from the authors’ work in diverse communities. It also provides a step-by-step guide to their workshops with the objective of making their approach accessible to all interested practitioners. The tools are adaptable to a variety of local contexts and can serve multiple purposes from community and network building to idea generation and media campaign design by harnessing the expansive capacity for imagination within all of us.

Find out more about the book here.

Find out more about the Civic Imagination Project.

Published! Popular Culture and the Civic Imagination Casebook!

Popular Culture and the Civic Imagination

Case Studies of Creative Social Change

Edited by Henry JenkinsGabriel Peters-Lazaro and Sangita Shresthova

One cannot change the world unless one can imagine what a better world might look like. Civic imagination is the capacity to conceptualize alternatives to current cultural, social, political, or economic conditions; it also requires the ability to see oneself as a civic agent capable of making change, as a participant in a larger democratic culture. Popular Culture and the Civic Imagination represents a call for greater clarity about what we’re fighting for—not just what we’re fighting against.

Across more than thirty examples from social movements around the world, this casebook proposes “civic imagination” as a framework that can help us identify, support, and practice new kinds of communal participation. As the contributors demonstrate, young people, in particular, are turning to popular culture—from Beyoncé to Bollywood, from Smokey Bear to Hamilton, from comic books to VR—for the vernacular through which they can express their discontent with current conditions.

A young activist uses YouTube to speak back against J. K. Rowling in the voice of Cho Chang in order to challenge the superficial representation of Asian Americans in children’s literature. Murals in Los Angeles are employed to construct a mythic imagination of Chicano identity. Twitter users have turned to #BlackGirlMagic to highlight the black radical imagination and construct new visions of female empowerment. In each instance, activists demonstrate what happens when the creative energies of fans are infused with deep political commitment, mobilizing new visions of what a better democracy might look like.

“An exceptionally well-conceived and thoughtfully assembled collection that resuscitates a cultural studies oriented toward the popular, in service of politically urgent questions about agency and resources for imagining otherwise. Across a wide array of case studies that span genres, media, and geopolitical contexts, the entries in this volume build on each other in a rich and versatile way.” ~Eva Cherniavsky, author of Neocitizenship: Political Culture after Democracy

Find the book here.

 

New Civic Paths and a Public Sphere of the Imagination: Article out Now

 

New Civic Paths and a Public Sphere of the Imagination: The Civic Imagination Project

Paulina Lanz, Tyler Quick, Mehitabel Glenhaber, Joan Miller, Ioana Mischie, Khaliah Peterson-Reed, Becky Pham, Steven Proudfoot et Paromita Sengupta

For a decade, our Civic Paths research team at the University of Southern California has sought to increase civic engagement through discourses of popular culture. In this article, we detail the theory and methodology informing the practice we call the civic imagination, which we define as “the capacity to imagine alternatives to current cultural, social, political, or economic conditions” (Jenkins, Peters-Lazaro, & Shresthova, 2020). Through critical reading and collective world building practices, we have worked with groups ranging from churches to colleges to build solidarity and articulate visions of social justice. Here, we share our best practices with you.

Read the whole article here.

By Any Media Necessary Released as Paperback!

By Any Media Necessary

The New Youth Activism

by Henry JenkinsSangita ShresthovaLiana Gamber-ThompsonNeta Kligler-Vilenchik and Arely Zimmerman

Now Available in paperback!

The participatory politics and civic engagement of youth in the digital age

There is a widespread perception that the foundations of American democracy are dysfunctional, public trust in core institutions is eroding, and little is likely to emerge from traditional politics that will shift those conditions. Youth are often seen as emblematic of this crisis—frequently represented as uninterested in political life, ill-informed about current-affairs, and unwilling to register and vote.

By Any Media Necessary offers a profoundly different picture of contemporary American youth. Young men and women are tapping into the potential of new forms of communication such as social media platforms, spreadable videos and memes, remixing the language of popular culture, and seeking to bring about political change—by any media necessary. In a series of case studies covering a diverse range of organizations, networks, and movements involving young people in the political process—from the Harry Potter Alliance which fights for human rights in the name of the popular fantasy franchise to immigration rights advocates using superheroes to dramatize their struggles—By Any Media Necessary examines the civic imagination at work. Before the world can change, people need the ability to imagine what alternatives might look like and identify paths by which change can be achieved. Exploring new forms of political activities and identities emerging from the practice of participatory culture, By Any Media Necessary reveals how these shifts in communication have unleashed a new political dynamism in American youth.

Reviews:

 

“Readers are given a nuanced picture of the successes and complications of youth activism and participatory politics in the current era.” ~Choice

“A far-reaching book that explores the many different digital strategies and platforms young people use to have their voices heard and their political agendas advanced. The case studies at the heart of this book are powerful, telling the story of how young people across demographic categories are using digital media to engage in a new form of politicsParticipatory Politicsthat is destined to significantly shape civic life for years to come.” ~Cathy J. Cohen,author of Democracy Remixed: Black Youth and the Future of American Politics

“A much-needed narration of political agency that tackles its many contradictions head on, without losing sight of nuance. The books case studies, rich in detail, are wonderful invitations to think more and better about the role of empathy, care, ethics, empowerment, and participation in our contemporary political realities.” ~Nico Carpentier,Uppsala University, Sweden

“An indispensable guide to the changing shape of civic and political agency in a digital age. With richly detailed case studies, Jenkins and his team have captured an origin story: the moment when participatory culture got hooked up with politics and the fundamentals of modern democracies shifted beneath our feet.” ~Danielle Allen,co-editor of From Voice to Influence: Understanding Citizenship in the Digital Age

“Understanding the connections between practices of media consumption andenduringcivic engagement is one of the most exciting challenges that cultural studies currently faces. For over a decade, Henry Jenkins has been exploring this issue, and now he and an excellent team of co-authors offer the most searching examination of this question for a U.S. context that we have. An inspiring and enlivening book, this is a definite must read!” ~Nick Couldry, London School of Economics and Political Science

“Fantasy is not an escape from our world; its an invitation to go deeper into it. The most relevant book of our era, it will undoubtedly inspire you and those you love to join the millions of people who are transforming our world: by any media necessary.” ~Andrew Slack,creator/co-founder of the Harry Potter Alliance

“By Any Media Necessaryis fascinating continuation of Jenkinss previous work and should be of great use for media studies scholars, as well as anyone interested in better understanding youth perceptions and actions related to the political realm.” ~Journal of American Culture

“In line with civic media scholarship that focuses on the opportunities for emerging technologies and digital cultures to buttress collective action, By Any Media Necessary suggests the important role of new media and technologies in facilitating political engagement and participatory practice. The notions of transmedia activism and mobilization are effectively analyzed to discuss how youth tap into the potentials of media platforms and networked communications—from social media, spreadable videos, and Internet memes—and use their digital skills in a collaborative and participatory manner in seeking to bring about political change.” ~International Journal of Communication

Exercising the Imagination Muscle: Notes from the Imagine 2040 Symposium on April 7, 2017

Reposted from the Civic Imagination Project website.

Photo by RB Photography

April 7th, 2017 marked an important step forward in the emerging work that the Civics Path Group is carrying out around the idea of the Civic Imagination. With support from the USC Collaboration Fund and the MacArthur Foundation, Civic Paths and the Civics and Social Media research groups convened a one-day symposium on the USC campus called “Imagine 2040.” The event brought together a widely diverse set of scholars, practitioners and activists from across the country and Mexico to think about the civic imagination and to consider key questions that have emerged from our initial work in this area.

We will be continuing to explore the outcomes and ideas from this day for the next several months and will have more in-depth analyses to share as we go forward. But we wanted to get things started by giving a quick account of the event along with some high-level takeaways and reflections from the organizers.
For more background on the civic imagination and previous activities please see our About section and Chronicles page.

​Photo by RB Photography

The Event

Although many of the participants of “Imagine 2040” are already harnessing civic imagination in their work in one form or another, we wanted to create a shared foundation of concept and experience to ground the event so we began our day with a brief presentation from Henry Jenkins and an abbreviated worldbuilding exercise. Dr. Jenkins provided an overview of how we define the civic imagination within our work and how that definition aligns and diverges with others. From there, Sangita Shresthova and Gabriel Peters-Lazaro led the group through an abbreviated version of a worldbuilding workshop similar to one that Civic Paths ran internally in the fall of 2016 in which we collectively imagined the world we’d like to live in in the year 2040.

After a wide-ranging whole-group brainstorm about the future, participants worked in smaller groups to develop and share back narratives about how that world came to be that included stories about sentient birds, participatory pedagogy and sustainable agriculture. Before breaking for lunch we spent a little bit of time reflecting on the process from the morning. Participant Susu Attar, who also helped create the very first worldbuilding workshop that we ran as part of the Media Activism and Participatory Politics (MAPP) project, shared these thoughts:

I think the thing that I really love about the design of this is that you’re considering life on earth and then you’re engaging people through  imagination and creativity about future problems but also future solutions. And that requires listening and building consensus and then making something together….It exercises all the tools you need to really ever do anything in this life.

On our return from lunch we organized the afternoon based on The World Cafe model of discussion. Civic Paths research assistants Samantha Close, Raffi Sarkissian and Yomna Elsayed each led a round of discussion. Each round started with the introduction of a topic related to our collective inquiry into civic imagination, framed with a brief introduction and key points for consideration. Participants then spent 20 minutes discussing these points in small groups around their tables. Notetakers from Civic Paths stayed at the tables to share back summaries of the discussions from each group after each round. For each subsequent round, participants would move to new tables creating new discussion groups.

Discussion leaders Close, Sarkissian and Elsayed share their topics of inquiry and brief accounts of participant responses in the following sections below.

Photo by RB Photography

Round One: Imagination from escapism to escape – Yomna Elsayed

Topic Introduction

 To many parents and educators, daydreaming is negatively viewed as a sign of withdrawal, a kind of solitary confinement by choice that should be resisted for the sake of better involvement with the world around us. Inspirational videos circle the web urging young people to stand up and do something, anything. Somehow doing is more valued than imagining. The rapid pace of our modern lives, and the severity of much of our modern day tragedies, be it the Syrian civil war, the rise of ISIS, transnational migration crisis, all push us to act, and act quickly. After all, we cannot see what someone is imagining, even our tools of description be they language, art or technology repeatedly fail us at capturing the exact details and at the same time vividness of our imagination when constrained by words, materials, colors or what is technologically possible. But like world events have become ephemeral phenomena, so have many of our actions and their effects. How can civic imagination slow us down to come up with civic, possibly better, alternatives that work to reimagine the world we live in, rather than just mend it?

In his 2013 talk, English author and fiction writer Neil Gaiman urged us “We all – adults and children, writers and readers – have an obligation to daydream. We have an obligation to imagine. It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything that we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field. But the truth is, individuals change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.”

To Gaiman, “pretty much every form of fiction [including fantasy] can actually be a real escape from places where you feel bad, and from bad places. It can be a safe place you go, like going on holiday, and it can be somewhere that, while you’ve escaped, actually teaches you things you need to know when you go back, that gives you knowledge and armour and tools to change the bad place you were in. So no, they’re not escapist. They’re escape.” (link)

These divergent views on imagination got us asking: when is imagination ‘escape’, and when is it ‘escapist’, and if there is a difference between the two? Whether imagination is self-sedating or if it can be used to pass critique and/or question reality? And if so, when does imagination become civic?

Key Insights From Round One

Imagination is an active process.

Initially, someone lost in their thoughts, a fiction book or a game, might seem to be a passive contributor to this world, occupying physical space without really contributing to it. Participants however, suggested that imagination can be a processing space, one that is suitable for building fiction, which can itself move us one step closer to a solution. In building up a fiction, authors have to strip away constraining details, thus allowing themselves, even in imagination, to move beyond physical limitations, noted one of the participants. In other words, to many, imagination can be a safe dynamic space for experimenting with ideas.

Participants suggested that even technologies that are often accused of distracting people from “real-life” such as social media and virtual reality sets, have a double function, to both engage and escape. Virtual reality technologies for example, can be used as escapism but also as a tool for empathy, they noted.

Imagination is crucial for activism.

With many of our participants working in activists spaces, the question “does escapism contradict with being woke?” came up more than once. Asked differently, can escapism or even escape be valuable to activism?

While the literal meaning of staying-woke may sound contradictory to the image of someone lost in their thoughts or daydreams; figuratively, however, staying woke is about staying informed and aware of the underlying workings of systems of power, which does not necessarily stand in contradiction with the act of imagination. As one of the participants suggested: escape in itself can be a retreat, a recharging period to reflect, make sense of the world and imagine alternatives.

For marginalized communities, imagination becomes a necessity when reality does not seem to be offering them much to work with. Therefore, they have to start by first pushing boundaries in their imagination: one has to imagine themselves in a particular space first before they can participate in it; it thus takes a leap of faith, sometimes. A similar tension occurs between art and activism, where art needs room to dream and imagine while activism needs a space to act.

Our participants partially concluded that instead of pitting escapism and “woke-ness”, art and activism, against one another, we should view them not as goals in and of themselves but as active and dynamic processes that work together to enable action. Once imagination is actionable, noted one of the participants, it is transformed from being an escapist route to becoming an escape route.

Round Two: Civic Imagination as a mechanism? Civic Imagination as a valence? – Samantha Close

Topic Introduction

Carrying on the thread from the last prompt, one of the enduring debates about both media and technology are whether they are, at their basic levels, empowering for everyday people and conducive to progressive political change or empowering for existing governments and corporations and conducive to conservation of the status quo.  Others argue that media and technology are fundamentally neutral; means that can be turned to a variety of ends.

You could ask a similar question about the civic imagination.  But this might not be the most productive question to ask—at least at first.  Rather than starting off debating if the broad idea of a civic imagination is just a tool, a way of doing things, or if it carries an inherent political and ethical charge, we are interested in when and how particular civic imaginations have been thought up and put out into the world in particular moments.

We asked participants to think of examples of civic imagination that scare, worry, or repulse them—what kind of civic world do they imagine?  How is that imagination expressed?  Then we encouraged them to think of some civic imaginations that inspires them or in which they share.  How are those imaginations expressed rhetorically or put into material practice?  Do these different examples of civic imaginations share anything, either in the ways in which they are expressed or put into practice?  In what is imagined?  If not, where do they diverge—what are the differences in how they are expressed, what they imagine, and how they are materialized?

After considering these questions we asked participants to try to pull back to the abstract level.  If civic imagination is like a mechanism, a way of thinking and doing, what are its key components?  What does an idea need to have or do to be both civic and imagining?  Is it possible to distinguish the progressive or inspiring civic imaginations from those that scare and concern you, to say something like “an ethical civic imagination will have these things”?

Key Insights from Round Two

Imaginations are civic when they are shared.

Participants had little trouble coming up with examples of civic imaginations, pulling together civic imaginations from current politics, history, and popular culture genres from music videos to video games.  But there seemed to be a minor divide over a deliberative/collectivist view of civic and an aesthetic, somewhat solitary, view of civic. According to the first view, when imagination is shared, it moves from the private space of our own minds to a shared public space in which it is engaged in conversation. Some ventured to suggest that even sharing one’s imagination is action in itself (and to a member of a marginalized community, an act of courage). The second view however, suggested that even private imagination is value unto itself, as it is also changing the person who is doing the imagining.

Collectivity is a necessary means but not a good end.

A sense of collectivity is a necessary means, part of the mechanism of any civic imagining, but it is not an ethical end.  Ethical civic imaginations must be built on the fact that there are and will be important differences between people—there will always be people fighting for what they believe in.  Civic imaginations that scared the group generally had in common that they imagined a collectivity of sameness, futures where everyone was alike in the most important ways.

To imagine a civic world, you must also imagine power.

It is essential to imagine power: what it is and where it comes from.  This is a shared feature of many civic imagination examples.  There does not need to be only one kind or source of power, but knowing what they are and how they are accessed is essential.

Round Three: From Imagination to Civic Imagination to Action – Raffi Sarkissian

Topic Introduction

The final prompt brought the discussion of the civic imagination to the work that each of the participants do in their professional and civic lives. In this round, we asked each table to think about how the ideas and approaches discussed throughout the day reflect or reinforce the principles and practices of their own projects. Is the civic imagination active or compatible with their own work? Alternatively, we wanted the groups to discuss potential obstacles to adopting the tenets of the civic imagination across the fields and spaces, both physical and digital, they occupy and intersect. Ultimately, we wanted them to think through ways we can put the ideas of the symposium into practice.

The ensuing conversations around each table were rich with inspiring work participants were already engaged in and raising important provocations as they synthesized the collective thoughts and experiences that informed the discussion throughout the day.

Key Insights from Round Three

Many of the participants shared that key principles of the civic imagination were already present in their work. The discussion around several tables centered on the role of media-makers in creating narratives of the civic imagination beyond what is available in existing popular (and often hegemonic) texts and formats. For instance, one group gave pushback to the confines of the traditional, linear model of storytelling, which included the world-building exercise from the morning session. They raised questions on how to tell stories about individuals doing great work in marginalized communities but avoid the hero/leader trope. How can we expand existing stories and avoid fixed narrative structures in order to tell stories about collective action?

Several groups brought up social media and technology as double-edged swords in that they can foster networked communication but also act as obstacles often slowing us down, whether by trolls, distractions, or exhaustion. Some cited the need to keep resistance alive but push it to the backdrop and instead use imagination to move us forward. Others noted the constant pressure they feel for civic content and outreach to be entertaining. Another table discussed the trade-off between depth of content and breadth of its reach in regards to alternative media narratives, especially in local artist communities. A few others discussed the challenges of inclusion when considering the reach of the civic imagination–how can the civic/political be inviting without being prescriptive?–and recognizing that some groups have been consistently fighting for these goals way before November 2016.

To put much of this work into context, one of the tables likened the civic imagination to a muscle, which needs exercise to grow and see its full potential. While many activists are already engaged in this work, those who are not as attuned to practicing imagination need to work out and flex that muscle. This was an apt analogy to cap off the productive day of collaborative imagination.

Connecting Imagination to Action needs a nudge.

One of the workshop participants, an educator by profession, noted that sometimes all students need is a nudge, possibly referring to constraints of an assignment or a project that encourage students to flex their imagination muscles and equips them with tools for tying their imagination to action. However, the nudge can be anything from a symbolic to a physical limitation that pushes people to experiment with other creative ways of circumventing their apparently constrained realities.

This is of course is not an encouragement for educators or decision makers to become more authoritarian so as to breed creativity, but it is an illustration of how civic imagination need not be only a goal, but also a starting point, better a methodology, whereby imagining civically is one of the ways for carving out an “escape route”.

Photo by RB Photography

Conclusions and Next Steps

One of the primary challenges of conducting such a rich and wide ranging event with so many thoughtful people is to harness and catalog the ideas and energy that emerged from that day. Our group is currently in the process of conducting one-on-one interviews with symposium participants. This gives us and them a chance to let some of the ideas settle and to reflect in depth on the themes and questions of the day as well as to explore possible future collaborations across the emerging network seeded at the event. This work is ongoing but we are already excited to hear from participants about ways the work of that day has stayed with them and about the kinds of creative actions that we are already beginning to plan going forward.

In addition to interviews and written work that we will continue to grow and share on this website, we were also fortunate to have the talented Greg T. Whicker with us as a graphic recorder. Throughout the day, John listened closely to the ideas and conversations flowing through the room and at a steady and focused pace, translated those words into colorful visual representations. Beside being a recommended component of World Cafe, we found the participation of a graphic recorder to be a valuable tool and wonderful complement to our engagement with civic imagination; helping to bring ideas to life in the visual realm and to expand a collective sense of vision and action.

The “Imagine 2040” symposium was a valuable experience for our work and has already influenced the direction of our next steps, helping us to continue to expand and hone our theoretical frameworks around the civic imagination. We are also looking forward to running more events in this model, bringing new voices and perspectives into conversation and growing the network as much as we can. We want to extend a huge ‘thank you’ to everyone who participated in our April event and who helped to make it possible. And we want to encourage any readers who may be intrigued by this account and these ideas to reach out to us for more information or to get involved.

Summary by: Gabriel Peters-Lazaro

 

Imagine Us, 2040

“Imagine it’s 2040 and everything turned out OK; in fact, things have have turned out fantastically. What does the world around us look like?” This was the opening question of the worldbuilding and civic imagination workshop that we, the members of the Civic Paths research group based at the University of Southern California, asked ourselves on November 28th, 2016, only three weeks after the presidential election. After brainstorming our collective answers to that question we each wrote a personal projection or story envisioning that future world and we share those stories here.

Imagining the United States as we would like it to be in 2040 may seem like an unusual way to respond to what may well be one of the most divisive moments in America’s history. It might seem that it is a reaction that rests on escapism and distraction from vital issues. But for us at Civic Paths it seemed like the best way to respond to a difficult moment. It felt like exactly what we needed to do to begin to collect our thoughts, mobilize as a community, and figure out how to guide our own responses to issues of politics and justice as they continue to evolve and arise. Giving ourselves a little space to take a deep breath and reflect on what we really care about and channel just a little bit of energy into visualizing a future world that we really want to live in seemed like a good way to face that moment and all the moments ahead. Now, having seen what the transition and inauguration have brought, we feel all the more affirmed in the necessity of this approach and invite you to read the stories we came up with about the world in 2040 and maybe even share your own.

Access the full Imagine Us, 2040 publication here.

Civic Paths Hotspot: Remixing the U.S. Presidential Campaign

Introduction by: Henry Jenkins

Donald Trump for President? Don’t make me laugh!

Well, actually, laughter may be one of the most effective forms of political speech in an election cycle with so many over-sized personalities, so many odd twists of fortune, so many outrageous statements from all the parties involved. We are reminded of an earlier political advertisement from the 1972 U.S. Presidential election where laughing away the opposition turned out to be a key gesture.

Over the past term, the Civic Paths research group has been developing a shared framework for thinking about contemporary politics, one which has been inspired by the groundwork we had done for our recently released book, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism. Here are a few of the defining traits we’ve been talking about together:

  • Activists have always promoted social change by tapping the civic imagination. That is, before you can change the world, you have to imagine what a better world looks like. More and more, young people are using popular culture references as a shared frame of reference for debating the kinds of future they want. This form of the civic imagination tells us what we are fighting for.
  • The civic imagination may also require us to envision dystopian alternatives — worlds gone bad, evil triumphing — so we know what we are fighting against.
  • Activist media is designed to circulate — it is spreadable — through informal social networks both on-line and off, and one of the most effective ways to insure circulation is to make people laugh.
  • These new forms of activism rely on the mechanisms of participatory culture: young people — many of whom would not have been politically active otherwise — are being drawn into engagement via what researchers are calling participatory politics.
  • So, one of the ways to bring these insights together is to be attentive of the ways popular culture and politics are remixed into memes which circulate within and sometimes spread beyond participatory culture communities.

These memes can deploy a range of different media, as we will see — from the tangible to the digital, from images to videos. We are thus seeing a Bernie Sanders-themed musical, modeled upon Hamilton, and Donald Trump as a evil warlord in the world of Game of Thrones, to cite just two examples, of the civic imagination at play.

Sanders ( Bernie Sanders + Hamilton ) from Tabitha Holbert on Vimeo.


We hosted a show and tell session where members of our research group identified examples of grassroots mashups of the political process that were circulating within their own communities. We brought them together for comparison and analysis. And what follows here are short pieces intended to share some of the conversation they engendered. Many of these, as you will see, use parody to express ideas about what is going on out there on the campaign trail and to share what it might mean for the people who will be most impacted by the outcome.

We’ve love to see examples you encounter in your own social networks and especially we would love to see examples of how these same practices may be deployed by conservative groups, given that most of our examples take a more progressive stance. These materials are ephimeral, but significant, in understanding how politics works today. So, we are trying to assemble our own archive for future research and teaching.

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“Participatory Aesthetics” by TJ Billard

Untitled

hyperakt (hyperakt.com), Brooklyn, NY

Untitled1Shawn Hazen (hazencreative.com), Chicago, IL

Both of these pictures demonstrate the way appropriating the graphic elements–and in particular typeface–of Obama’s campaign allows citizen content producers to contribute to the campaign’s messaging. The first of these pictures is interesting for two reasons: it uses Gotham (the typeface used by Obama’s campaign) to tie the image into the campaign’s official content, and it uses the famous picture of Barack and Michelle as well; but it also riffs on Shepard Fairey’s HOPE poster, engaging simultaneously with the official campaign content, as well as other citizen-created content. The second image more simply reflects the appropriation of the campaign’s official typeface and color palette, blurring the lines between citizen-originated content and campaign-originated content.

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Mark America Great Again by Yomna Elsayed

We have witnessed some extreme, sometimes “surreal”, political rhetoric this election season. But, many times the response to surreal rhetoric such as that of Trump or Cruz, was equally surreal, even hilarious. After all jokes are a temporary displacement from the control of the conscious to the arbitrariness of the subconscious[1]. Hence it was not surprising to see comedy flourish in atmospheres of fear and racism. Lawrence Levine in his Black culture and black consciousness records how slaves used humor for a variety of purposes from self-control, by releasing a wide range of inhibiting energies and feelings, to subversion and control of the social situation, by using the majority’s stereotypes in their humor “in order to rob them of their power to hurt and humiliate”. Jewish humor was also utilized as a “political weapon and as a provocative form of entertainment during (and in response to) an extreme state of a culture under threat of extermination”[2]. In either case, one can say that humor was a response to a situation that goes beyond human reason, one that deals with primitive human feelings of hate and fear. Humor certainly entertains, but it also works to challenge our perceptions by inviting us to reconsider taken-for-granted assumptions in a different light, bringing about cognitive dissonance to our clearly defined unproblematic understanding of the world. It does so, without necessarily incurring our resistance, but rather clandestinely encouraging us to laugh at ourselves in the company of others. Ultimately, notes Levine, laughter is a social phenomenon.

At a time of conflict, our response to jokes depends not only on how clever they are, but on our relation to their subjects and butts as well. Therefore, the more we identify with a leader the less we are going to enjoy jokes at his or her expense[3]. Hence jokes demarcate by defining those who share the joke as ‘we’, and those who don’t, as the ‘other’. But to muster the will to laugh at someone is to exert power on oneself and others; a power to overcome one’s helplessness in response to what appears to be a ridiculous situation on one hand, and to turn the tables and laugh at those in power (a temporary exchange of places) on the other. In colloquial Egyptian, if someone successfully ridicules someone we’d say, “He has left a mark on them” and that’s precisely what humor does. Humor could be a temporary release of energy, but it is also one that leaves visible marks on what once seemed to be unconquerable.

This election season, Trump has been the subject of many comedy shows from SNL sketches to the daily show’s satirical commentary. His outrageous comments regarding minorities, coupled with his unrestrained trolling, made him an amusing figure to media pundits and comedians alike. Other less professional ones, focused on Trump supporters by attending Trump rallies and recording their reactions to seeing an unlikely face. Though others suggested that this maybe an opportunity to reach out to Trump supporters (who “identified with Trump for a reason”) rather than simply ridicule them. However, of the funny videos circulated around Trump, “Your Drunk Neighbor: Trump” stands out to me.

“Your Drunk Neighbor: Donald Trump” has so far garnered over 1 million views since its release in October 2015. The video appeal lay in its use of incongruity, and surprise to draw laughter from viewers. This was one of the few sketches that removed Trump from the presidential candidate podium to a more familiar setting and character: a drunk neighbor. By juxtaposing Donald Trump speeches with the familiar image or frame of “your drunk neighbor”, it exposes the irrationality and lack of seriousness in choosing Trump as a presidential candidate: much like choosing your drunk neighbor for president. However, this video would not have been as successful if it did not build its humor on grounds of a non-threatening familiar situation1, such as that of drinking beer over your porch’s rocking chair in a warm summer afternoon. Furthermore, a recent survey by the university of Quinnipiac, showed that Trump’s name had a polarizing effect “on Americans attitudes about general statements and policies” advocated by the presidential candidate. With such polarization, humorous videos like “Your Drunk Neighbor”, can take away the edge of political criticism, inviting viewers, supporters or not, to assess their position in a non-threatening light situation of both entertainment and release. For Trump himself, one can say, at the very least, it “leaves a mark”.

[1] Douglas, M. (1968). The social control of cognition: Some factors in joke perception. Man 3(3), 361-376.

[2] Kaplan, L. (2009). In Jenkins, H., McPherson, T., & Shattuc, J. (Eds.), Hop on Pop: The politics and pleasure of popular culture. Duke University Press Books.

[3] Lewis, P. (2006). “Divided We Laugh”. In Cracking up: American humor in a time of conflict. University of Chicago Press, pp 1-20.

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Collection of Election-related folk art for sale on Etsy by Samantha Close

etsy

From left to right:

“Ted Cruz Republican Leading the Fight” from ConservativeArt

“Feel the Laser Bern” from DanSchaubDesigns

“Women for Hillary jewelry” from slrfreespiritjewelry

“Donald Trump doll” from TobeyTimeCrochet

 

The stuff of politics is never supposed to be important.  Signs get taken down, pamphlets get thrown away, and people move on to laws, policies, and budget disputes.  In traditional thinking, this arena of financial appropriations and negotiating which and what laws make it on the books is the important political “stuff,” the way you see what the candidates are really made of.  There is a lot of truth to this.

But, as Stephen Duncombe (2007) points out, this is also a highly intellectualized, rationalized, and cerebral way of understanding politics that misses out on much of what inspires and motivates people to take part.  The craft and folk art objects related to candidates in the 2016 presidential election that are pictured here suggest a different, more affective and emotional relationship to politics that requires an outlet in durable, material stuff that will remain long after the candidates are selected and the election concluded.

The contemporary political climate in the United States, as many of my comrades are pointing out in this discussion, is often highly cynical.  Political talk is heavily inflected by irony, humor, and sarcasm—to the extent that, at first glance, many might wonder if the folk art pictured here isn’t taking the piss rather than being sincere.  It’s an elitist, urban—Duncombe might say traditional leftist—sensibility that sees a hagiographic woodcut or hand-penciled (and sharpie-d) portrait as parody rather than proud declaration of identification and admiration (Sweeney, 1997).

Particularly in communication and cultural studies scholarship, this kind of highly invested affective relationship is more familiar in the realm of fandom—we would have little pause in characterizing a Harry Potter amigurumi doll as made out of love.  It is past time that we take as much care and bring as much nuance to analyzing how identification works on an emotional level in the domain of political communication as we do in the domain of popular communication (for one example of such analysis, see Liana Gamber-Thompson (2016) on Libertarian fandom).

Such a politics is at once more and less empowering for the average citizen and very different from how we were taught that our political system works in sixth-grade civics.  It much more closely resembles the Christian “What Would Jesus Do?” philosophy, oriented towards the impact of identification and belief in daily life rather than in official spheres (Jackson, 2006).  This is in line with the religious overtones and symbolism of much candidate-related folk art.  This election folk art suggests a different interpretation of the ubiquitous question “does my vote matter?”  It matters because it matters to the voter, not necessarily for them.

References
Duncombe, S. (2007). Dream: re-imagining progressive politics in an age of fantasy. New York: New Press ; Distributed by W.W. Norton.
Jackson, G. S. (2006). “What Would Jesus Do?”: Practical Christianity, Social Gospel Realism, and the Homiletic Novel. PMLA, 121(3), 641–661.
Jenkins, H., Shresthova, S., Gamber-Thompson, L., Kligler-Vilenchik, N., & Zimmerman, A. M. (2016). By any media necessary: the new activism of American youth. New York: New York University Press.
Sweeney, G. (1997). The King of White Trash Culture: Elvis Presley and the Aesthetics of Excess. In M. Wray & A. Newitz (Eds.), White trash: race and class in America (pp. 249–266). New York: Routledge.

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It’s Over 1000! by Rogelio Lopez

crbergen

I came across this on my Facebook newsfeed and thought it was funny/interesting. The piece is by artist CR Bergen and was apparently posted to his Tumblr on April 5, 2016. The illustration re-imagines a scene from the Dragon Ball Z animated series, where the characters Vegeta and Nappa sense the protagonist Goku’s increase in power as he becomes enraged. The scene became a widely circulated meme on its own, due to the hilarious voiceover for the phrase “It’s over 9000!” Bergen uses the scene to interpret the unexpected populist rise of Bernie Sanders, comparing him to DBZ protagonist Goku. At the same time, Hillary Clinton is compared to Vegeta, an antagonist of the series. The image clearly provides a comical critique of Clinton and the DNC by associating her to imperialist villains from DBZ, while showing support for Sanders. The “Feel the Bern” pin on Sander’s characters while he is engulfed in blue flame is a nice touch.

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Hashtag #HillarySoQualified  by Limor Shifman

hillarysoqualified

Zach Haller ‏@zachhaller

#HillarySoQualified she can only win by buying votes

The story of this hashtag, which started as a pro-Hillary response to Bernie Sanders’ assertion that Clinton is not “qualified” to be president and was quickly hijacked by Sanders’ supporters, is particularly revealing. What it seems to expose (beyond Clinton’s inferiority in this scene) is that some forms, or templates, of participatory “positive” commentary are almost by default inviting cynical responses. Hashtags which are cynical, or ironic, to begin with are thus more likely to maintain their original agenda (e.g. ##distractinglysexy,  #benCarsonWikipedia).

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Donald Trump and Mean Girls by Chloe Yuqing Jiang

I came across this video shared by a friend on my own Facebook news feed last week.

Being one of the biggest fans of Mean Girls, I found this video extremely interesting and captivating (probably given the fact that I could memorize the whole script by heart). The video “stars” Donald Trump as Cady Heron and incorporates some of the key arguments Donald Trump has been making. It also highlights these arguments which makes it amusing to watch. The video was posted on April 3, 2016 under the account TheCrazyGorilla, a YouTube channel made by two guys who produce funny videos weekly. With 185,456 views on YouTube, I think it is a smart idea to combine politics and entertainment to raise more awareness on election, especially for those who are less tuned in with political issues. This video might inspire more young people to create more relatable content like this and share the message through social media platforms to reach more audiences.

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Bernie of Hillary Meme by Michelle C. Forelle

meme1 meme2 meme3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is a meme I’ve been seeing all over my Tumblr dashboard. According to Know Your Meme, the meme originated from a 12-image post simultaneously put up on Tumblr and Reddit on January 28, 2016 by user ObviousPlant, with the caption “Left in the streets of Los Angeles”. It is clearly designed for people to mess with, with big text fields that are very easily Photoshopped. What’s particularly interesting about it is that the blank template could be used by supporters of either candidate – when it’s blank, there is no indication who is favored. Interesting note that I found on the KYM entry for this — there is a Facebook group, now with over 436,000 members, called “Bernie Sanders’ Dank Meme Stash”.

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#Time2Escalate: A movement of movements by Emilia Yang

The Black Lives Matter organization, the anti-deportation campaign Mijente (#Not1More), and the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance (which works on global issues including climate change) promoted a call with a hashtag first popularized by the white-ally network Standing Up for Racial Justice: #Time2Escalate to agitate Drumpf through the GOP’s summer convention and beyond in order for white allies to join and take a stance.

Anti-Trump protesters aren’t trying to change anyone’s mind. Here’s their strategy. (Vox explainers)

The action and the push towards escalation is based on some of these assumptions:

http://us3.campaign-archive1.com/?u=ccd613dafe6681329ae72b256&id=e90f9c901c&e=5649f5c71f

http://mic.com/articles/139615/wisconsin-s-white-people-want-to-stop-donald-trump-too#.9hiDklRz3

Bernie is almost as cute as Mujica <3

http://thingstolovefor.tumblr.com/post/142065321382/every-time-i-see-something-like-this-im-on-the

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Trump’s Bizarre Election by Yining Zhou

makeamericagreat

I found this image on my facebook stream, repost by several friends whose interest lies in the intersection between manga and politics.  Trump was put in a scene from Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure (JJBA) series. In its third series, Stardust Crusaders, JJBA introduced the concept of  supernatural power called “Stands”, which was the semi-physical manifestation of the user’s psychic powers resembles a spiritual familiar standing next to them.

On one hand, the picture offers a critique, pointing out Trump over emphasises “the stance” all the time. On the other hand, it is hilarious smart to juxtapose Trump election with Jojo’s adventure, implying that both of them are kind of radically idealistic and bizarre.

By Any Media Necessary (Part Six): To Trump Trump’s Wall (and Hate)

Reposted from Henry Jenkins’s blog (April 14, 2016).

This is the sixth and final entry in a series of posts showcasing the archive and resources we have assembled around our book project, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism, which is being released by the New York University Press. This book was funded by the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics Network and written by Henry Jenkins, Sangita Shresthova, Liana Gamber-Thompson, Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, and Arely Zimmerman.

To Trump Trump’s Wall (and Hate)

by Emilia Yang

Donald Trump, real estate magnate and reality television star (against all odds and many people’s disbelief) is still running and leading in the primary elections of the Republican Party. During his campaign Trump has made various statements regarding illegal immigration using derogatory and generalizing terms to refer to the Latino population and even proposing to ban people from “Muslim countries” from entering the country. At the same time, various white supremacists and neo-Nazis organizations have shown support for Trump. Sadly, Trump’s hateful rhetoric not only has had a political effect on his fellow candidates’ positions about immigration, but it has also materialized through violence toward various racial groups, growing exponentially since I first started researching this topic in September 2015 [1].

His proposal for “stopping” illegal immigration is to build a giant wall that would be called “The Great Wall Of Trump”[2]. It is evident that Trump and his supporters do not understand nor care about the humanitarian catastrophe that this would represent. Immigration and security experts warn that historically, US government border enforcement strategies have resulted in a massive increase in border crosser deaths [3]. As Gloria Anzaldúa writes in Borderlands, “The U.S.-Mexican border es una herida abierta [is an open wound] where the Third World grates against the First and bleeds” (1987). Untitled Source: Ian Cleary, “The great wall of Trump”, August 26th, 2015 In a parallel context, students at USC and many other Universities across the Nation are struggling to call attention and overcome structural racism. Even though Trump’s hate speech does not directly link to the discrimination lived by the students on campus, it is disproportionately present in the media discourse that we are exposed to. The recognition of these issues provides a context for discussions about the realities of ethnic minorities such as the Latino community. In response, I created a media art project borrowing ideas from participatory co-creative media, agonistic design and installation and participatory art, which I called To Trump Trump’s Wall. The main objective of the project was to test different participatory frameworks (a workshop and an art installation) where a political issue is discussed, imagined, and represented in situ. A secondary objective was to find the difference in results between these two frameworks, and the third objective was to inspire fellow students, activists and academics to work with media making methodologies as communication alternatives that challenge both their perceptions of difference and their political engagement. The first iteration of this project was in the 2015 West Coast Organizing Conference hosted by the Student Coalition Against Labor Exploitation (SCALE) in what I will call the workshop framework. At this conference, student leaders from across the West Coast reunited to teach, support, learn from and inspire each other in their fights for justice. This inspirational weekend featured panels, caucuses, and workshops including To Trump’s Trump wall workshop, as discussion spaces for transgender, women, queer, people of color, working class, and people with disabilities. The second iteration of this project was presented in in the lobby of the SCI Interactive Media Building in the School of Cinematic Arts at the “Against Method” Exhibition that presented five ongoing PhD. student projects in what I will call the installation framework. During the organizing conference I was given a time frame of one hour to enable a discussion about undocumented issues with 20 participants. I was inspired by Think Critically – Act Creatively: Harnessing The Power Of Fiction For Social Good workshop [4] created by my colleagues Gabriel Peters-Lazaro and Sangita Shresthova, along with Karl Bauman, Ilse Escobar and Susu Attar in collaboration with community partners, artists, and activists and presented in the website By Any Media Necessary. This website provides resources that enhance and illustrate the forthcoming book By Any Media Necessary: Mapping Youth and Participatory Politics authored by Henry Jenkins and the Media, Activism & Participatory Politics (MAPP) group. In this world building workshop model, facilitators use prompt cards and ask participants to produce a one-word response to their prompt. Then they ask participants to imagine a future world set in a specific year (i.e. 2044) where fantastical things are possible and to come up with a narrative of what happens in this world, relating it to one of the themes fleshed out in the brainstorm. At the end, participants have to come up with a way to perform the story back to the whole group. Similarly, in Trump Trump’s wall workshop, I asked participants to discuss issues of immigration prompted with cards, reflecting on the immigrant experience, and then craft a message that they would like to inscribe in Trump’s wall if it was built and they had it up front. These are some examples of the cards given to the participants: Untitled yang2   The participants of the workshop engaged in very interesting discussions in groups. Their message was first drafted, both in words and visually on a storyboard, and then created and projected in the form of stop-motions animations. This mechanic enabled participants to learn how to animate figures and understand the logic of stop-motion animations while doing them. yang3   The installation piece enabled an interactive experience of facing the wall, listening to a soundscape of the US/Mexico border. As in the workshop, participants where asked to create a character with a message that would face the wall with the materials and objects available. yang6 The results are a large amount of media creations that will have a longer life than both frameworks. The animations created by the participants were politically charged, thoughtful, with calls for action. Participants stated that this was an innovative way of discussing any subject and they were interested in doing similar activities in their organizations and sharing their creations online. Despite being different frameworks of engagement, both enabled multiple discussions with diverse voices of students and faculty. These conversations generated media creations that address a relevant political theme with a playful approach. Overall, I believe that the collaborative and public creation of media activates new spaces for political debate and possibilities of expression within the participants, tapping into practices associated with participatory culture. My proposal for critical participatory making is to recognize us in others and harness the power of imagination to think otherwise. I propose participation as the place where real, inclusive and contested communication can take place, without erasing difference. I hope for participants not only to empathize with a real situation like the immigrant experience, but also to imagine an alternative positioning where they feel that they can confront this reality creatively. In this sense, I align with Henry Jenkins’ call to stimulate the civic imagination. For him, change emerges from the possibility of imagining a different world, infusing this imagination with a sense that change is possible, and understanding ourselves as agents capable of helping to drive that change. Thus the duality between “this is our reality” and “how we would like it” are displayed not as two isolated and abstract events, but as a contested open space in the present that we can transform through the encounter between reality and desire.   In the case of Trump’s hate, racial discrimination and active calls for the enactment of violence, I believe we are entering into a completely different reality than the one I foresaw when developing the project, and we have to address this with multiple practices of civic imagination. The animal we are facing has mutated drastically. Lives are at risk and we have an ethical and moral responsibility to Trump Trump’s wall and hate by any media necessary. Citations: [1] Gabe Ortiz, “TIMELINE: Trump’s Racial Demagoguery Is Having Dangerous, Real-Life Consequences”, America’s Voice, September 16, 2015, http://americasvoice.org/blog/a-timeline-trumps-racial-demagoguery-is-having-dangerous-real-life-consquences/ Dara Lind, “What the hell is going on with violence at Trump rallies, explained”, March 14, 2016. http://www.vox.com/2016/3/14/11219256/trump-violent [2] “Trump on border: We’ll call it the great wall of Trump”, August 20, 2015, Real Clear Politics, http://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2015/08/20/trump_on_border_well_call_it_the_great_wall_of_trump.html [3] Clare Floran, “Trump’s Immigration Wall May Have Lethal Consequences”, August 25, 205, National Journal, http://www.govexec.com/management/2015/08/trumps-immigration-wall-may-have-lethal-consequences/119371/ [4] Workshops: “Think Critically – Act Creatively: Harnessing The Power Of Fiction For Social Good workshop” http://byanymedia.org/works/mapp/activity-1?path=activities References Anzaldúa, G. (1987). Borderlands: la frontera. San Francisco, CA: Aunt Luke Book Company Emilia Yang is an activist, artist, and militant researcher. Yang is currently a Ph.D. student in Media Arts + Practice in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. Her work has been interconnected with digital communications, performance, and public art. Her research focuses on participatory culture and its relationship to media, arts, and design. She is interested in transmedia storytelling framed through the question of how it can foster social change and civic engagement. Her art practice utilizes site-specific interactive installations, interactive documentaries, performance, and urban interventions, all of which explore social justice issues in participatory ways. Emilia completed an M.A in Communications at Penn State University. Her Master’s project researched the first social media protest to make it to the streets in her home country Nicaragua. She developed a participatory transmedia storytelling hub in a site called ocupainss.org with the objective to present the maximum number of stories and violations of human rights around this protest.