Between Politics and Pop Culture: Watershed Takes on Fall 2019
This semester, Watershed members tackled the space between politics and pop culture with critical analysis of our post-truth world. Though formal critical theory often takes a step back from popular culture, many scholars are now turning their attention to the role that media plays in manipulation of politics - with both positive and negative outcomes. Constance Duncombe argues that “we must consider how popular culture is grappling with this environment, how is both reflects and attempts to constitute political subjectivity. Popular culture offers us a vector through which we might understand the political and social responses to the turmoil of this post-truth environment” (543-44).
Attention to popular culture allowed Watershed members to critique the public spectacle of post-truth, with posts ranging from presentations of disability is popular television to the ethics of video games. Watershed members also presented a frank look at the tangible realities and effects of post-truth popular culture, looking at the influx of mediatization of riots, cultural fear of automation, and the erroneous downplay of physical labor. In the ‘show’ of post-truth, these critiques are necessary and vital to surviving. As Lilly Goren says:
“Examining, interrogating, exploring, and integrating popular culture into our understanding of political science blurs and sometimes confuses distinctions between scholarship and commercial capitalism, but it also provides scholars, decision-makers, and citizens with commonality and an often interactive arena where politics of all kinds are on display and are engaged” (482).
Here are the ways that this semester’s collective made sense of and posited new ways of thinking in our post-truth world.
Phillip Howells opened up this semester by previewing our first Humanitie on the Edge (HoTE) lecture of the 2019-2020 school year, Annie McClanahan. McClanahan investigates the not-so-friendly cultural realities of our stifling economy in our new age of raise stagnation and risky markets. Howell took notes of McClanahan’s previous publications and invited eager minds to the lecture.
Following up on the preview, Phillip Howells then reviewed the Annie McClanahan HoTE lecture, which focused on the insecurity of labor in the post-truth world. In particular, McClanahan’s lecture followed the idea “gig economy” through the lens of HBO’s “WestWorld” - a show in which mindless automatons are exploited to service guests in a variety of ways. McClanahan argues that our economy forces those who are doing gig-work and tip-work - service workers - into the same sort of exploitation as the automatons. Howells concludes that McClanahan’s lecture ended on a bleak note, but a hopeful call to keep our eyes on these systems.
In the third post of the semester, Adam Hubrig kept with the pattern of critiquing the economic conditions of our post-truth world. Here, Hubrig used Blade Runner to argue that in an automated future, we will all be disabled. By using pop culture as a lens, Hubrig was able to call attention to unpaid compensation of automated labor, and the ways in which this is already a reality for many disabled peoples, who are paid significantly less than their abled counterparts. As such, he argued that the dystopian, automated future than many workers fear is already a dystopian present for disabled people and that we should not have conversations about automation and the economy without acknowledging that.
Next, Sydney Baty tackled an ever-growing form of popular media - video games - and the ethical dilemmas it often presents for its participants. Baty first discussed Dungeons and Dragons (or, DnD), a popular board game that led to the creation of PTC, a group highly concerned with the violence presented in games. She then points to how even the most ‘peaceful’ of games carry some forms of violence and questions the situational ethics surrounding the creation, selling, and consumption of these games.
In keeping with the medium of video games, Joshua Renner then discussed procedural rhetoric within The Sims 3. Renner posits that this rhetoric is seen in the sandbox-style of play of The Sims 3, wherein the goal is not to win or end the game, but simply proceed within the possible space and the few and far in between rigid structures of play. Ultimately, Renner argued that the choices that players make within procedural rhetoric games can very much mimic the real-life actions and reactions. By studying these habits and behaviors, rhetoricians can better understand persuasive possibilities within its audience.
Luke Folk then moved the conversation back to the notions of post-truth by discussing the ideas of sovereignty and power. In particular, Folk looked at the relationship between current U.S. President, Donald Trump, and North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Un. While the latter position would certainly seem like the one with more sovereign power, Folk posited that sovereign power actually lies in the ability to ‘kill people’ and gestures at both the nuclear power of the U.S. and the horrific detainment camps in North Korea as methods of welding this form of sovereign power.
Jaclyn Swiderski lodged a critique more central to the ties of popular culture by looking at the way popular reality show, Queer Eye, presents its disabled participants. By looking at an episode in which the hero's disability is overlooked and rhetorically manipulated, Swiderski argues against the supercrip narrative. By seeing his disability as something he can heroically overcome, rather than live with, the Queer Eye guys push him further into the margins. Swiderski ultimately argued that we need more than just this one, stereotypical interpretation of disabled representation.
On a week of double posting, Linda J. Pawlenty first discussed the dimensions between intellectual and physical labor, and way we often position our labor exclusively within the body or the mind. Pawlenty argued that both intellectual and physical labor should be seen as simultaneous acts within body and mind, and that this thinking may lead to less prejudice against physical laborers. In the second post, Keshia Mcclantoc moved back to pop culture by examining the Halloween cult hit, Hocus Pocus and its complex of ideas of gender. Through explorations of the ways the stereotype of the witch and discussion of virginity are handled throughout the film, Mcclantoc posits that Hocus Pocus can be read as a piece of radical feminism.
Hannah Kanninen then previewed our next Humanities of the Edge speaker, Claire Colebrook. In this review, Kanninen covered the ways Dr. Colebrook looks at post-apocalyptic cinema and the human race’s place within the apocalypse. In keeping with the Halloween spirit, Kanninen urged eager crowds to attend the lecture.
In a review of Colebrook’s HoTE lecture, Gretchen Geer discussed the ways Dr. Colebrook presented an appropriately spooky Halloween lecture. By looking into post-apocalyptic cinema, both new and old, Dr. Colebrook questioned the value of human life, and the ways we could/should view life in potentially post-apocalyptic worlds. This included discussions on both the zombiefication of society and simultaneous worlds of others. Geer ended the review by mimicking Colebrook’s questioning of what we would do to survive the apocalypse.
Next, a guest post by undergraduate Lexus Root, analyzed James Brunton’s poetry on queer identity and intimacy. By going through different pieces within Brunton's collection, Root touched on topics of HIV and bug-chasing, replicating ideas of homophobic self-hatred, and the way in which place positions and roots queerness. Root ultimately discussed the survival strategies of queer peoples, and the way Brunton’s poetry posits queer survival as an act of affirmation an embodiment.
In our only co-authored post of the semester, Luke Folk and Will Turner tackled the very place where pop culture and politics collide by looking at the ways in which media negotiates and projects riots and protests. Through an examination of several prominent riots within the last decade, Folk and Turner posited that the media has the power to both neutralize and agitate a protest into riot and vice versa. Regardless of how it wields this power, this defines the singular meaning of the riot; it is memory of a singular meaning that we should work against.
In the final individual blog of the semester, Sydney Baty returned to examine histormix - a trend within popular musicals wherein the stories of historical figures (esp. white, straight, male historical figures) are remixed and reconfigured with new messages on race and gender. By looking at the specific examples of Hamilton and Six:The Musical, Baty argued that these sites in popular culture can be a powerful form of social change and history telling.
Throughout this semester, the Watershed collective created an archive of blog posts that pushed the boundaries between pop culture and politics. In a post-truth world where media often has a heavy hand in creating memory and action, it is important to rid ourselves of scholarly ego and dive into pop culture.
This is exactly what the writers of Watershed achieved this semester. As knowledge in real life is rarely neatly bounded, neither should critical theory be bound within rigid structures. I certainly enjoyed this collection of cultural artifacts, and the work it did to challenge existing divisions of knowledge and providing new ways of thinking about the world.
As always, the Watershed team is grateful to the English Department at UNL and Dr. Marco Abel. I especially want to thank my wonderful partners in Watershed Administrative team, Adam Hubrig and Zoe McDonald. Watershed will return in Spring 2020 - I cannot wait to see what new boundaries we break next.
Duncombe, Constance. “Popular culture, post-truth and emotional framings of world politics.” Australian Journal of Political Science, vol. 54, no. 4, 2019, pp. 543-555.
Goren, Lilly. “Politics and Popular Culture.” Society, vol. 53, no. 5, Oct. 2016, pp. 482–486.