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Politics and Popular Culture (MIT Communications Forum)

02/26/2009 5:00 PM Bartos theater
Henry Jenkins, Provost's Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California; ; Johanna Blakley, deputy director of the Norman Lear Center, usc; David Carr, culture reporter and media columnist at the New York Times. ; Stephen Duncombe, professor of media, culture, NYU

Description: The 2008 presidential campaign may have fused politics and entertainment once and for all. Three panelists and moderator Henry Jenkinsdiscuss the nature and implications of this convergence.

To Johanna Blakley, political candidates who understand the meaning of style "can communicate volumes," and to her eye, Barack Obama "has amazing skill." His campaign, dubbed "brand Obama," engaged celebrities and pop music, utilized the internet, broadcast and cable TV, and "rarely made a misstep," says Blakley. In fact, McCain "desperately tried to make Obama look bad for being in synch with popular culturebut it ended up biting him on the ass." Blakley also discusses her survey work with Zogby International, which creates political "typologies" of the American public not simply by asking about political affiliation but examining the intersection of political beliefs and entertainment preferences. The partisan divides among Red, Blue and Purple hold up in people's cultural affiliations. Whatever the ideology, the "entertainment experience always ends up leaking into real lives."

While at the Democratic Convention, David Carr was conversing with Craigslist founder, Craig Newmark and found "a kid to my right live blogging our conversation. I thought, it doesn't get any more meta than this." The "miracle" of the Obama campaign, Carr believes, was how it "organized itself," through an "adhocracy self"assigned by geography and expertise." People picked tools provided by the campaign that suited them. Blogging, videos, and mash"ups emerged without much campaign oversight. Says Carr, it "became kind of a style thing, an expression of who you are." People didn't call and ask for support so much as ask, "Have you seen this video by will.i.am. --let me send it to you." Watching Saturday Night Live and Tina Fey's Sarah Palin became an "expression of cultural identity which became a part of political identity. " Citizen"generated content took over this campaign, and isn't going away for the next election cycle. But, warns Carr, this "mass niche of like minds," can be "a tool for marketing democracy and/or fascism."

Stephen Duncombe recalls a brilliant move by Obama after a bruising debate with Hillary Clinton: he brushed the shoulder of his suit jacket, quoting a music video by rapper Jay"Z, "Dirt Off Your Shoulder." He instantly distanced himself from Clinton on the cultural level, and was embraced by American youth, who remixed the Obama moment, and unleashed it on the Web. To Duncombe, this moment crystallized how politicos "can start to think about popular culture in a productive way." Pop culture is a "unique laboratory of fantasy that can be explored, understood, mobilized and actualized through political practice." Obama succeeded by imbibing a variety of pop culture icons and ideals and said, "I'm a mixed race, latte"sipping urban guy who likes basketball and hip hop." Duncombe says that the conflation of politics and culture need not degrade politics, if people "do it with integrity, with honor."

About the Speaker(s): Johanna Blakley conducts research on celebrity culture, global entertainment, and digital technology. She's a member of the Entertainment Computing working group in the International Federation for Information Processing.

Before coming to the Lear Center in 2000, she was a web producer/web analyst for Knowledge Adventure, and a web consultant for Blueprint R&D.

Blakley has an M.A. in English from the University of Oregon, and a Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Santa Barbara. David Carr began working at the Times in 2002, covering the magazine publishing industry for the Business section. Prior to arriving at the Times, Carr was a contributing writer for The Atlantic Monthly and New York Magazine, writing articles that ranged from homeland security issues to the movie industry. In 2000, he was the media writer for Inside.com, a web news site focusing on the business of entertainment and publishing.

Previously, Carr served as editor of the Washington City Paper, an alternative weekly in Washington D.C. for five years. During that time, he wrote a column, "Paper Trail," which focused on media issues in the nation's capital. In 1997, Carr received first place in the media category of the Association of Alternative Weeklies annual awards for "Good News "

From 1993 to 1995, Carr was editor of the Twin Cities Reader, a Minneapolis"based alternative weekly, and wrote a media column there as well. Before serving as editor of the Reader, Carr worked for a variety of business, entertainment and sports publications in the Twin Cities area. Stephen Duncombe teaches the history and politics of media and culture and is the author, most recently, of Dream: Re"Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy(2007). Other books include The Bobbed Haired Bandit: a True Story of Crime and Celebrity in 1920s New York, with Andrew Mattson (2006), and Cultural Resistance Reader(editor, 2002). He is working on a book about the art of propaganda during the New Deal.

Duncombe has been a professor at NYU since 1999. He received his M.Phil. and Ph.D. from the City University of New York in Sociology.

Host(s): School of Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences, Communications Forum

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