Open Review: "Shakespeare and New Media"

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 2 Cyberspace and race are both constructed cultural phenomena, not products of “nature”; they are made up of ongoing processes of definition, performance, enactment, and identity creation.

—Beth E. Kolko, Lisa Nakamura, and Gilbert Rodman[1]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 It is a widely accepted notion that media interactivity is power.

—Lisa Nakamura[2]

1. Introduction

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 It is now a common pedagogical practice to incorporate performance into the Shakespearean classroom. As Samuel Crowl explains, “The past twenty-five years have seen a revolution in performance approaches to teaching Shakespeare. Many professors . . . have turned their classrooms into rehearsal spaces where students spend more time on their feet speaking the text to one another than at their desks taking notes on imagery, characterization, theme, or historical context.”[3] While the incorporation of performance in the classroom no longer seems surprising, what has come as a bit of a surprise is the willingness of our twenty-first-century students to upload their performance projects onto the internet: their willingness to beam these performances through cyberspace for anyone to watch and comment upon. Despite the fact that it is often like pulling teeth to get our students to volunteer to read Shakespearean verse in the classroom, these same students feel comfortable inviting strangers to view their readings, recitations, and full-blown performances online. Oh, brave new world, indeed.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Although there are many internet sites that enable video file sharing, YouTube has quickly become the most popular. Founded in February 2005, officially launched in December 2005, and purchased by Google in November 2006, YouTube advertises itself as “empowering [people] to become the broadcasters of tomorrow,” and the company’s official tagline is “Broadcast Yourself.”[4] Having grown up with the notion that broadcasting one’s life online is de rigueur, our students frequently upload materials produced in our classrooms: lecture notes, exam questions, entire essays, and filmed performance assignments. Casually typing “Shakespeare” into the YouTube search engine, one might suffer a paroxysm of anxiety from the thought of viewing over 25,000 videos related to Shakespeare: a strange combination of Do-It-Yourself (DIY) videos, pirated film and television clips, music videos, and mashups (mixing different media sources together, like the visuals from a film and the sound from a popular song).

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 2 And yet YouTube offers a unique space to analyze the ways performances of Shakespeare, performances of race, incorporations of popular culture, presentations of visual culture, formations of pedagogy, and appropriations of interactivity are negotiated by “Generation M”: that is, Generation Media, eight to eighteen year olds who have grown up with, and on, the internet.[5] In other words, Shakespeareans can learn a great deal about the intersections of race and performance in our classrooms from analyses of YouTube videos. YouTube enables us to record, compare, and interact with the ways our students are navigating constructions of Shakespeare, race, and performance in dynamic ways. While internet sources are somewhat ephemeral and often treated as too unstable and of-the-ever-fleeting moment for serious consideration, Shakespeareans have a new opportunity to encourage dialogues within the academy and the classroom about the ethics of performance-based pedagogy and the methodologies for analyzing online performance projects. These opportunities are dynamic precisely because of the interactivity these sites, like YouTube, encourage and enable. YouTube is not just a site for passive viewing, but one that exists through response and dialogue (i.e., interactivity). Participants are encouraged to respond to postings in textual and visual comments: dialogic moments abound on YouTube. Therefore, this essay will move from a close reading of three YouTube videos, demonstrating the unique interpretative opportunities these videos reveal, to a discussion of the pedagogical implications exposed by these unique interpretive opportunities.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 4 More specifically, in this essay I analyze the ways Asian-American students conceptualize, contest, and perform American blackness within their amateur Shakespearean performances of Othello. In the clips discussed, Othello is unmoored historically, linguistically, and narratively. Like many online student performance videos, these videos update the language, setting, and even the plot of Othello. In addition, these videos unmoor Othello racially with casts comprised solely of Asian-American students. Therefore, Othello’s difference from the rest of the characters is visually unmoored (unlike performance videos that feature a black Othello or employ blackface). But the clips are disturbingly moored in a familiar performance strategy: they update Othello’s narrative by framing it in a fantasy of contemporary, black-American culture. As I am sure many have discovered, the number of rap or “gangsta” adaptations of Othello on YouTube is immense; this, I think, can partially be attributed to (or blamed on?) the popularity of showing and employing the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s Othello-rap in the classroom.[6]

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 3 I am focusing on Asian-American students precisely because “they inhabit a range of positions in relation to the Internet,” Shakespeare, and American popular culture.[7] First, Asian Americans appear to be one of the least visibly represented groups in contemporary Shakespearean performance. There are very few Asian-American actors employed in Shakespearean theatre companies, and there are even fewer represented in contemporary film adaptations.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Second, while Asian Americans are often stereotyped as digitally gifted, a type of “model minority” when it comes to cybertechnology, they often inhabit a precarious position in relation to the production of popular American culture. As Lisa Nakamura argues, “Asian Americans are far less visible as producers of a distinctive and commodified ‘youth culture’ than are African Americans.”[8] While urban African-American youth are assumed to be the producers of what is cool—like hip hop, urban attire, and contemporary slang—Asian Americans are often positioned as the consumers of the commodified versions of this popular youth culture, despite the fact that they frequently have greater access to both cybertechnology and the sophisticated tools for interactivity.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 3 And third, because, as Francesca Royster argues, “Othello is often retold as a story of the black experience in white culture,” Shakespeare’s Moor is frequently performed through a fantasy of black, urban, gangsta culture.[9] If Asian Americans are not assumed to be culturally related to Shakespeare—the “naturalised American poet,” to borrow Kim Sturgess’s phrase—they are also not assumed to be culturally related to his othered characters.[10] So it is revealing to watch how these students attempt to access popular American culture through Shakespeare. As a group that is often stereotyped as being the consumers instead of the producers of trendy “youth culture,” Asian-American students create fascinatingly rich cyberproductions: important pieces that reveal their tenuous positions as those who straddle being inside and outside of popular American cultural production. These videos not only tell us something about the desire for, and problems with, identity tourism online, but also the limits of the Shakespearean text as a vehicle to address contemporary cultural and racial formations. While videos like these traffic in a regressive performance strategy—one that consistently alienates blackness as irredeemably Other—they also provide some progressive alternatives for unmooring the tale, Shakespearean research, and Shakespearean performance-based pedagogy.

  • [1] Beth E. Kolko, Lisa Nakamura, and Gilbert Rodman, “Race in Cyberspace,” in Race in Cyberspace, eds. Beth E. Kolko, Lisa Nakamura, and Gilbert Rodman (New York: Routledge, 2000), 1-13, esp. 10.
  • [2] Lisa Nakamura, Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures on the Internet (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2008), 176.
  • [3] Samuel Crowl, “‘Ocular Proof’: Teaching Othello in Performance,” in Approaches to Teaching Shakespeare’s Othello, eds. Peter Erickson and Maurice Hunt (New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2005), 162-168, esp. 162.
  • [4] For YouTube’s rhetoric about its own creation see: http://www.youtube.com/t/about.
  • [5] See Donald Roberts, Ulla Foehr, and Victoria Rideout’s collective study for the Kaiser Family Foundation: Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year-Olds; A Kaiser Family Foundation Study (Menlo Park, CA: Kaiser Family Foundation, 2005).
  • [6] Reduced Shakespeare Company, dir. Paul Kafno, perf. Adam Long, Reed Martin, and Austin Tichenor (Acorn Media, 2003).
  • [7] Nakamura, Digitizing Race, 171.
  • [8] Nakamura, Digitizing Race, 184.
  • [9] Francesca Royster, “Rememorializing Othello: Teaching Othello and the Cultural Memory of Racism,” in Approaches to Teaching Shakespeare’s Othello, ed. Peter Erickson and Maurice Hunt (New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2005), 53-61, esp. 53.
  • [10] Kim C. Sturgess, Shakespeare and the American Nation (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004), 33.
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    Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/ShakespeareQuarterly_NewMedia/thompson-race-in-performance-based-shakespeare-pedagogy/1-introduction/