Media In Transition 6: Global Media panel recap

[Originally written for the Convergence Culture Consortium blog]

This weekend, as some of you might know, is the 6th Media in Transition conference here at MIT. The theme this year is “Stone and Papyrus, Storage and Transmission” and centers on question around the preservation, circulation, and migration of media between places, formats, platforms, and text and the cultural implications these changes carry:

What are the implications of these trends for historians who seek to understand the place of media in our own culture? What challenges confront librarians and archivists who must supervise the migration of print culture to digital formats and who must also find ways to preserve and catalogue the vast and increasing range of words and images generated by new technologies? How are shifts in distribution and circulation affecting the stories we tell, the art we produce, the social structures and policies we construct? What are the implications of this tension between storage and transmission for education, for individual and national identities, for notions of what is public and what is private?

I will myself be speaking on transnational audiences and fan-driven circulation of East Asian television dramas on Saturday.

Though the bulk of activities begins today, the conference has its official launch last night, with a communications forum on Global Media featuring C3 consulting researchers Jonathan Gray and Aswin Punathambekar alongside University of Georgia professor Carolina Acosta-Alzuru and award-winning African filmmaker Abderrahamane Sissako, moderated by our own Henry Jenkins.

A few of the key points and provocations brought up during the panel:

Looking carefully at the flows of media circulation in addition to production and consumption, provides us with a new and important means to understanding media on a global scale.
Brought up by Aswin towards the beginning of the panel but echoed in different ways by all of the speakers, the importance of circulation as a site of media power was one of the central problematics discussed. The question of how media gets from one place to another, through what channels, at whose behest (or against whose wishes) reappeared in different forms throughout the talk. Aswin discussed the varied, criss-crossing flows of Bollywood content. Carolina’s discussed different national forms of the telenovela throughout Latin America and which ones travels with the help of or despite national governments. Jonathan described the almost entirely pirate-led circulation of VCD and DVD films in Malawi and how media circulation into spaces neglected by corporations due to their unprofitability forces us to rethink the temporality, as well as the spatiality of global media. And Abderrahamane linked the power of distribution, of being able to show and export your media, to representation. He suggested that the unevenness in the transmission of media perpetuated the cultural domination upon Africa because as a place that often receives media from the outside but does not produce and distribute its own images, Africa is constructed as a place that has no culture to share.

Not just a question of legal versus illegal circulation
Another key issue was that role of piracy in global media, since illegal distribution channels are often the only means through which much of this media can move. Aswin was first quick to point out that illegal/extralegal versus legal was a false binary, that in actuality the systems are far more complex and overlapping. Jonathan added that, in a case such as Malawi, piracy takes multiple forms, the first being that piracy is the only way to bring outside media in because there is so little profit to be made in Malawi that media corporations never address the area. The second is that piracy stops production of local media because it makes it incredibly difficult for Malawian musicians to make money. In the case of telenovelas, piracy can also be an act of resistance, when national governments crack down on the export of media through official channels. And in Africa, the routes of media circulation are so complex and it is often difficult to trace where any given film comes from. Ultimately, the false binary between legal and illegal circulation makes us overlook the fact that cultures of distribution are simultaneously cultures of production

Down with “industry lore”
Finally, coming out of a discussion of which genres of media circulate, the panelists warned against the trap of “industry lore.” As Jonathan points out in the case of Malawi, that even as general patterns emerge as to what genres and forms are popular, there are constantly exceptions to every rule. Thus we must be careful not to make too broad of generalizations about what audiences want to see and why based on assumptions and speculations.

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  1. [...] me thinking back to the discussion on “industry lore” at the kick-off plenary panel at Media in Transition 6 last year, where the panelists discussed the prevalence of executive [...]

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