June 11, 2008
Looking at the Convergence Culture Consortium with a Critical Eye

Being part of the team that helped launch what became the Convergence Culture Consortium and being at the center of the group's work for the past few years, I am interested in how C3's work is situated at an intersection amongst fandom, media companies and brands, and the academy. I feel that positioning is what energizes the group's work, but it can likewise lead to skepticism and scrutiny, especially as the perspective here on the blog and elsewhere balances positions that are sometimes oppositional or more often of little interest to one another.

Some industry folks who attend C3 events or read this blog might find it "a little too academic for them," while some academics might find it "a little too corporate." Likewise, C3 may see itself as advocating the interests of the audience to corporate partners, but that doesn't mean there can't (or shouldn't) be skepticism from fans and scholars alike as to what such a dialogue means, what's left out of the conversation, etc. After all, this is media studies: while cynicism is often unhelpful, where would we be without a healthy dose of skepticism?

I've written in the past about criticisms of the Consortium that I felt were somewhat off-base (look here and in the comments here for more). As the Consortium's PI Henry Jenkins often does over on his blog, I've attempted to describe the philosophy and approach our group takes toward talking with industry and other constituencies (such as here).

But the most thorough and thought-provoking critique (and by that I don't mean critical in the pejorative but rather as reasoned and thought-out) of the Consortium's position I've seen came recently from cryptoxin on LiveJournal. Anyone interested in these issues should read cryptoxin's post and the intelligent debate that follows it.

Building off a reaction I wrote to Elana Levine's latest work on the masculinization of television, cryptoxin takes some principles from Levine's work to critique C3's balance between its academic work and its use of corporate rhetoric. He writes:

I'm not necessarily automatically against industry-academia partnerships, but I am inherently wary of them and they do pose a host of issues and problems -- especially around influence and autonomy.

The convergence culture paradigm (or, if you prefer, faddish buzzword) seems particularly problematic to me to in how it ultimately converges around the 'product' -- as in, 'the property' and 'the franchise'. This marks a departure from alternate disciplinary orientations such as audience studies and fan studies, which focus on how people watch, respond to, and interact with culture, or television and film studies, which draw upon the tools of the humanities to analyze cultural texts.
The vast majority of my work for the Consortium over the past three years has dealt with fandom, not only in the topics and interests I covered here on the blog but also in the projects I completed within the Consortium. But I think cryptoxin's points illustrate that C3's broader interests and focus are often quite distanced from what people have come to see as the perspective of the "convergence school of thought" in media studies.

Along with Henry Jenkins and William Uricchio--C3's two principal investigators--I've been with this project since it's inception, yet I all but refuse to watch Lost, was increasingly disappointed in Heroes, and don't even get a little giddy when someone mentions The Matrix. I guess if those are the primary texts of the church of convergence, I've backslidden, as they'd say back at Echols General Baptist Church. My time's better spent with Stewart and Colbert, Larry David, the Dillon Panthers, the Hugheses, and Good 'Ol J.R.

But I don't claim to speak for C3, especially now that I've left my position in managing the project. Of course, no one can really "speak for the Consortium," since the core project at MIT is intended to be part of a larger initiative bringing together companies, academics, and fans who are interested in the intersections and complications of how audiences and fans communicate with one another, texts, and the producers of those texts. It's important to have more transparent dialogue about what that means and the inherent tensions involved (the ambivalence, as crytpoxin and I have been discussing over on the LJ thread) when looking across these various perspectives.

I'm engaged in both C3 work and the ongoing Gender and Fan Studies/Culture conversations most recently taken up with the workshop at Console-ing Passions and the launch of Transformative Works and Cultures. I think the work from each perspective might have different audiences and angles, but I also think a holistic approach to studying contemporary media should take both into account without compromising either.

I wanted to start by writing these initial clarifications and to otherwise encourage C3 blog readers to look at crytpoxin's LJ thread. I hope this is only the first part of an ongoing conversation--if not between these questions and C3 as an official entity, then at least in relation to my own perspective on work I've done under the "convergence" title and how I reconcile that with the concerns expressed in that thread.

Thanks again to cryptoxin and all the people who replied to his thread for starting this discussion, and sorry to be drawing attention to it a little late. (A move to Brooklyn, starting a new job, and grading final papers are all top on my list of excuses.)

Thoughts? Questions? E-mail me at samford@mit.edu.