MIT Communication Forum – Politics and Popular Culture – 2/26/09

I can’t get over how fortunate I am to have MIT across the street from my office. There’s just so much going on there. Last week was the first Communication Forum event for 2009 and it was really exceptional. It featured three speakers: Steve Duncome, NYU, David Carr, NYT and Johanna Blakley, USC. It was moderated by Henry Jenkins who is leaving MIT after 20 years to join the faculty at USC.

The topic of the event was Politics and Popular Culture and it looked at the intersection and relationship between these to areas. The event essentially looked at three questions: what is the relationship between politics and pop culture? What does that relationship tell us about each? How are these two channels of American life influencing each other and is this relationship a good thing?

That there is a relationship no one doubted – but there isn’t a whole lot of research on the topic. Yet.

Each of the panelists took a few minutes to give their background and whatnot. Carr was the most interesting – discussing the strong part popular culture played in the recent election – particularly by the democrats. During the campaign Obama release 70 videos, including a behind the scene look at the DNC in Denver. And lest anyone thing that it’s only entertainment that attracts attention, Obama’s speech on race relations has had more than five million views.

Carr thought that what was most interesting about the campaign was that it became a self-organizing entity – especially around the user-gererated content. He saw the campaign as a mashup where cultural and political identity merged, where online and offline merged and where all kinds of people began creating and consuming content in new and interesting ways.

Duncome recounted one of his favorite moments from the campaign:

What made this so special? It showed he could move beyond the criticism, showed he understood youth culture, distanced himself from his opponent; it also got remixed and mashed up and spread around; and it made him cool. It also showed that politicians can use pop culture productively.

Duncome went on to describe three views of the relationship between popular culture and politics:

Pessimistic – pop culture is a distraction from politics that should be eradicated. It decreases the time spent thinking and resoning that’s needed for a civic culture. Worse, the messages of pop culture is emotional and base and isn’t in keeping with serious issues.

Populist – this is an uncritical celebration of pop culture; Nascar as rugged individulaizm; world music as appriciation of diversity, etc. In this context pop culture is an expression of popular will.

Mobilization – takes a more constructive view. How can pop culture be used politically? Pop culture expresses the dreams (or nightmares) of a group. It’s the fantasy element of pop culture that makes it useful to politics – it allows an exploration and playground to explore our dreams and aspirations.

Jenkins asked the panel to discuss the Obama brand and his role as a transmedia candidate.

Carr was interested in the way Obama (the brand) developed over time – as both a political identity and as cultural touchpoint. From a cultural perspective, according to Carr, supporting Obama said you were ready for the future and knew what was going on. In many ways, Obama was less about race than youth.

Blakley found it interesting to see pop cultureal literacy play out in the campaign. When working with popular culture it’s easy to make a mistake – Obama didn’t. McCain, on the other hand, tried and failed when he used celebrity to attack Obama.

One of the most interesting things Blakley presented were details on a USC Norman Lear Center/Zogby survey of likely voters done in August 2008. The goal was to see how political preferences matched with cultural preferences (which was the case) and whether there were and cultural commonalities (which was not the case).

Her research identified three distinct and culturally mutually exclusive groups:

Red – love sports, get most of their news from cable and talk radio and not so interested in foreign entertainment or entertainment that don’t reflect their values.

Purple – prefer their local newspapers for the news, more likely than the other groups to turn to the Web for shopping, fashion and entertainment information and turn to TV as their favorite leisure-time activity.

Blue – prefer their news online, Web surfing is their favorite leisure activity, they’re more likely to blog and socialize online than the other groups and tend to like foreign entertainment.

These differences aside, 84 percent of people believe that entertainment carries political messages.

Duncome observed that Blakely’s research showed the merging of cultural and political identities. It isn’t that fiction necessarily contains overt political messages but that entertainment is political in ways we might not recognize – which characters we care about and which we despise, whom we hope will win or lose are all political in some sense.

Carr made the observation that Americans’ core expertise is consumption – so that the volume of consumption becomes a measure of self worth and leads to consumption as a form of political expression. Off the consumption track, Carr also went on to talk about Obama as a vessel for people’s aspirations and his making it cool for politics to be a cultural marker.

Jenkins raised the issue that connecting popular culture and politics might trivialize important issues; that it would be a problem if substance were to be sacrificed for the sake of glitz. On the other hand, if glitz gets more people involved it can be positive. The big issue though is whether the combination of popular culture and politics can be done with integrity. Where pop culture is a method – rather than content – for getting people engaged.

Carr discussed the fact that pop culture isn’t just a tool for the hip. In 2004 Bush won on style, appealing more successfully to cultural groups than Kerry was able to; but not the same groups that Obama was able to reach in 2008.

The use of popular culture in politics isn’t new. Duncome pointed to Roosevelt’s use of radio in 1933 as an example of the adoption of a new medium to convey the President’s style and substance. Something that he thinks Obama is doing now as well with new social media channels.

The next topic of discussion was the role of humor in politics. Carr thought there’s been a big change. In 1988, he said, political comedy was Mike Dukakis in a tank. Now though we’re putting all these tools and capabilities into peoples hands and there so much out there. He suggested that Saturday Night Live was essentially moribund at the start of campaign but were able to ride it back into the public consciousness.

Duncome observed that a lot of the humor in this cycle was satirical – leaving people to attach their own meaning to it. Blakely had a concern that some people were turning to humor as a kind of shortcut to their political positions, relying on Stewart and Colbert to provide the dry Cliff Notes version of an opinion that showed they understood what was happening and were cool.

After showing a number of cartoons and user-generated images likening Obama AND Bush to chimps, Jenkins warned that in the world of participatory culture we need to be aware of the issues behind the messages of the content.

Overall, it was a totally interesting topic. There’s no denying there’s a strong linkage between popular culture and politics and that this is largely being driven by increasing levels of participation by regular people encouraged more or less effectively by the campaigns and candidates. While it’s wonderful and exciting to see people becoming engaged in the process and content of politics, people need to be aware and thoughtful of the context and subtext of the content they are consuming and creating.

[tags]MIT, MIT Communications Forum, Politics, Popular Culture, Henry Jenkins, David Carr, Johanna Blakely, Steve Duncome[/tags]

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One thought on “MIT Communication Forum – Politics and Popular Culture – 2/26/09

  1. I think that politics and pop culture have always been intertwined, but that relationship never looks the same in any election. Abraham Lincoln was elected as the “Rail Splitter”, a popular image of a man’s man, but certainly not a job description in Lincoln the candidate’s life. I would venture to say that the public knew that this deep thinking lawyer who lived in the Illinois state capital and argued the law for big industry was not a rail splitter, but the message carried by the popular image spoke to a deeper truth. The interface of politics and pop culture hasn’t changed as much as pop culture has changed on its own. I like the comparison of Roosevelt’s use of radio to Obama’s use of social media, but Roosevelt used radio primarily as the president, while it seems as though Obama’s use of pop media has dramatically decreased since he was elected. It’s still too early to draw any conclusions about that but 4 or 8 years from now will reveal a fuller story. Pop culture, always fast moving and changing, has become faster still and it will be interesting to see if Obama wants or needs to be as deft in its new uses during the next election cycle as he was in the last.

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