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Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Question Concerning Convergence


Convergence Culture is the inauguration of a new era in consumption and production – like all of Capital’s epochal changes, its movement is caused by a confluence of forces, “technological, industrial, cultural and social”(3). Convergence is not just a congregation but also a collision, the contradictions between new and old, grassroots and corporate, and consumer and producer grow ever more complex. Jenkins toes the threshold between the pious followers of the Convergence cult and the unwavering dogmatism of “critical pessimists”(258). Convergence Culture is not necessarily good or evil, just potentially dangerous, Jenkins’ critical utopianism resists the view of technological determinists, “rather, convergence represents a paradigm shift – a move from medium specific content toward content that flows across multiple media channels, toward the increased interdependence of communications systems, toward multiple ways of accessing media content” and increasingly “complex relations between corporate media and bottom-up participatory culture”(254).  The changes in media technologies generate new consumption habits, the postmodern economy is not limited to the old marketing strategies and essentialist identity formations but caters to niche markets. American Idol and The Matrix are examples of “affective economics” in which “the line between entertainment content and brand messages” are blurred (20).  The transformation of brands into “lovemarks” entails a shift from passive to “active, emotionally engaged, and socially networked” consumers that produce, an example of how the medium becomes the message (20).  The Matrix, Star Wars, and Harry Potter, all fantastic or fictional stories have succeeded in “transmedia storytelling”(93).  Jenkins discussion of political coverage and news media’s cyber-interfaces shows “participatory culture’s power to negate” as well as “old media’s power to marginalize”(278). Ultimately, Jenkins think that “increasing participation in popular culture is a good thing,”(259) a progressive tool that will lead to “a more ideal society”(258).  How we will get there and what technologies will be the machinery of resistance is a question for the democracy-to-come. 
Jenkins Playing Guitar Hero

In the end Jenkins accomplished the goal of his book, which was necessary but insufficient. Jenkins never claimed to possess all of the answers or that he had a specific politics embedded besides his basic normative claim that communication and popular culture are good activities. Jenkins' focus on the way culture circulates rather than is produced  lacks a theoretical framework for evaluating competing claims. The substance of Jenkins’ method of critique has become as virtual as his object of study. Granted dogmatism is a vice, but Jenkins merely seeks out the possibilities of "consumer-based politics"(260). The only discussion of the "process (expanding access to the means of media production and distribution)" is posed as an offhanded question (252). Should we really expect any fundamental change in the marketplace if we are only focused on the products created rather the method by which they were given life? Does the liberatory potential of Convergence Culture, within the economic realm anyway, simply mean the expansion of marketing strategies to better assimilate the diversity of identities, social niches, idiosyncratic consumption behaviors etc..?  Jenkins vision of empowerment mystifies an ideological background of exploitation. He attacks the symptom of a process that exceeds his object of concern. Unless you criticize the fundamental structuring principles of media culture one will only end up putting a human face upon one facet of larger systemic forces of irrational violence and destitution. Jenkins is right that convergence culture cannot be dealt with through an all or nothing approach, but bracketing the discussion to how to make corporations respond better to consumer preferences is ultimately an even more disempowering and cynical way of relating to one's own role as a critic and a consumer. It fulfills our desire to conceive of capital as a rational system, that if only we have more information about the products created we can reconcile its contradictions. It feeds the fantasy that if corporations knew what we really wanted they'd make it for us. But this evades the stark reality of the culture industry; the culture industry does not just rationally respond to people's clear-cut demands, but rather produces desires and proliferates them through a leveling process. 

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