What is global theater? or, What does new media studies have to do with performance studies?

Abigail De Kosnik

University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, California, United States

[0.1] Abstract—This piece summarizes some key historical points of connection between new media studies and performance studies, beginning with Marshall McLuhan's concept of telecommunications networks as constitutive of a global theater. In combination with Kurt Lancaster's and Francesca Coppa's theories of fan works as performances, the global theater model can yield new insights into the nature and purpose of Internet fan fiction and fan fiction archives.

[0.2] Keywords—Fan archives; Fan fiction; Fan performance; Global village; Erving Goffman; Marshall McLuhan; Performance theory

De Kosnik, Abigail. 2015. "What Is Global Theater? or, What Does New Media Studies Have to Do with Performance Studies?" In "Performance and Performativity in Fandom," edited by Lucy Bennett and Paul J. Booth, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 18.

1. McLuhan's global theater

[1.1] What does performance studies have to do with new media studies? Or, why use performance studies in an analysis of Internet cultures and digital phenomena? My answer: New media studies has had quite a long history of borrowing metaphors and frameworks from the fields of drama, theater, and performance, and while this genealogy may not be well known to either performance scholars or new media scholars, it is an important one. I situate my work within this robust, if unheralded, school of thought. I will briefly review the major intersections between new media studies and performance studies, then explain why I believe that it is useful to think of new media and performance together when studying online fan cultures and fan archives.

[1.2] Marshall McLuhan, one of the key founders of what we today call new media studies, first compared new media to performance in 1970, when he began to replace his 1962 term, global village, with a new term: global theater. In From Cliché to Archetype, McLuhan writes, "Since Sputnik [launched in 1957] put the globe in a 'proscenium arch,' and the global village has been transformed into a global theater, the result, quite literally, is the use of public space for 'doing one's thing'" (1970, 12). The global village has become the global theater (apparently in 1957, even before McLuhan first mentioned the global village—but let us not scrutinize McLuhan's chronology too closely) because of the telecommunications networks that cross the world, making every place on the planet a potential performance space.

[1.3] McLuhan's replacement of village with theater as his preferred metaphor is read by John Tinnell (2011) as a commentary on live video transmission. Tinnell writes,

[1.4] Widespread televisual applications of satellite technology cultivated a tele-performative space, which…added an awareness that whatever took place in the presence of various electronic recording devices could be broadcast to and seen by large audiences all across the world, in real time and for all time. This awareness becomes a force of enculturation; one does not need to possess a video camera to be ontologically affected by the cultural (f)act of televisual recording and worldwide broadcasting.

[1.5] While I agree with Tinnell that McLuhan had global live television in mind when he declared that the world is now a theater, the implications of McLuhan's global theater extend well beyond the medium of television.

[1.6] The Internet, more than television (indeed, the two are increasingly converging), is a public space for doing one's thing, with participants generating their own content—putting on their own show, as it were. The Internet "turns the globe into a repertory theater to be programmed" by its participants (McLuhan 1970, 9–10). The Internet realizes McLuhan's vision of a space that serves as a stage that is theoretically open to an infinite number of players, each doing their thing for others to witness, and thus contributing programming to the nonstop theater. McLuhan is even clearer in his prediction of a networked participatory culture in his 1972 book, written with Barrington Nevitt, Take Today: The Executive as Dropout. They write of

[1.7] the institution of a new kind of global theater, in which all men become actors and there are few spectators. The population of the world is both the cast and content of this new theater. The repertory of the theater consists of a perpetual happening, which can include the retrieval or replay of any previous happenings that men choose to experience. (145)

[1.8] Thus is introduced the link between new media and theater, predicting future telecommunications platforms that will be open to participation by all (all who can gain access to the platforms and have the knowledge to use them, that is). From McLuhan and Nevitt's phrase "perpetual happening," and their statement that "all men become actors and there are few spectators," we can see the influence of 1950s and 1960s performance culture—specifically, the famous Happenings by Allan Kaprow and others—on early 1970s new media theory. The connection that McLuhan perceives between performance and new media is interactivity, and McLuhan would not be the only new media theorist to see this resonance. In The New Media Reader, Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort write that "the idea of interaction associated with Happenings [in the 1950s and 1960s] was profoundly inspiring and has remained so for decades" because that idea "reflected and provoked a desire to break down distinctions between creator and audience—a desire and activity now central for many new media practitioners…The 'Happenings' are a touchstone for nearly every discussion of new media as it relates to interactivity in art" (2003, 83).

[1.9] Numerous new media theorists after McLuhan (though none cite him) have argued that all human-computer interaction, and not only computer-based art making, is most fruitfully conceptualized as a form of interactive performance. Brenda Laurel's Computers as Theatre (1991), Sherry Turkle's Life on the Screen (1995), Allucquére Rosanne Stone's essay "Will the Real Body Please Stand Up?" (1991), and Stone's book The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age (1996) all argue that new media actions and engagements are types of performance because they invite, and often require, computer users' interactions with hardware and software and/or other users via digital networks. Laurel, an interface designer, relates that designers often regard theatergoing as a model for human-computer interaction: "As researchers grapple with the notion of interaction in the world of computing, they sometimes compare computer users to theatrical audiences" (1991, 16). Laurel's own view is that users resemble actors more than they do audience members: "People who are participating in the representation [of actions on their computer screens] aren't audience members anymore…They become actors—and the notion of 'passive' observers disappears. In a theatrical view of human-computer activity, the stage is a virtual world" (17). Turkle writes that the interactivity of computer use has the potential to boost each user's sense of being an autonomous individual, of "being an actor in one's life" (1995, 274). Stone states that "computers are arenas for social experience and dramatic interaction, a type of media more like a public theater" than like prior forms of electronic media, such as cinema (1996, 16).

[1.10] Erving Goffman's 1959 book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life also began to be explicitly cited by new media theorists in the 1980s and 1990s, as performance studies (of which Goffman's is a foundational text) became established as a discipline—or what Shannon Jackson (2004, 30) calls an "antidiscipline"—in the US academy. Goffman proposes that every person is an actor playing a variety of roles in his or her daily life—that anytime "the individual is in the immediate presence of others," the individual expresses himself or herself and tries to manage others' impressions, and in doing so, performs ([1956] 1959, 1–4). Goffman's concept of everyday social performance resonates with McLuhan's notion of a global theater in which all are actors; Joshua Meyrowitz's No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior (1985) was the first to combine Goffman's and McLuhan's concepts. Although Meyrowitz's analysis centers on television and has limited application to contemporary network technologies, he forwards the notion that "electronic media [effect] a very discernible rearrangement of the social stages on which we play our roles" (1985, 4). Goffman has been by far the most influential performance theorist on new media scholars (Chan 2000; Waskul 2005; boyd 2006; boyd and Heer 2006; boyd and Ellison 2007; Pearson 2009; Aspling 2011; Markham 2013). Goffman's perspective on performance comes through clearly in statements such as this one, from a recent essay by Annette Markham (2013) called "The Dramaturgy of Digital Experience": "Regardless of which device or interface I'm using, what I'm wearing, or where I'm located I am performing multiple roles on multiple simultaneous stages with a globally distributed range of actual and potential audiences" (280).

[1.11] McLuhan, Laurel, Turkle, Stone, and the diverse and growing group of Goffman-influenced new media theorists all stress that network technologies facilitate what Mark Poster calls many-to-many communication ([1995] 2012). In a global telecom network, everyone can perform; the networks are like open stages that users fill with their performances. Importantly, liveness or presence is not a defining characteristic of performance for any of these thinkers. What is regarded as an essential feature of performance to many performance theorists—physical bodies that are copresent with one another at the time and place of action—is not at all necessary for performance as conceived by new media studies. Stone directly addresses this issue, stating, "We have to rethink some assumptions about presence" as major "shifts in cultural beliefs and practices" are giving way to "repeated transgressions of the traditional concept of the body's physical envelope and of the locus of human agency" (1996, 16). In other words, human agency, and therefore human presence, is no longer located exclusively in the human body. Stone claims that the computer is "a technological object that acts as a channel or representative for [physically] absent human agencies" (16–17) (Stone acknowledges her indebtedness to Laurel on this point). But Stone is rare among new media theorists who explicitly deal with the challenge that metaphors of online interaction as performance pose to definitions of performance as presence. Most new media scholars simply assume that bodily presence is not necessary for performance, and that, following McLuhan, Goffman, and the aforementioned theorists, people perform on the virtual stage of the Internet each time they post a comment, share a link, publish a fan work, or build an Internet archive.

2. What is fan fiction?

[2.1] Fan scholars have made a strong case that performance studies and theater studies offer the best frameworks for understanding what fan fiction is as a creative genre.

[2.2] Kurt Lancaster (2001) uses Richard Schechner's theory of "restored behavior" (1985, 35–36) to describe fan fiction writing and reading:

[2.3] Memories of […] actors' performances of [their] characters reside within the fan texts, and writers as well as readers restore these performances through this work…[A] fan fiction author places strips of behavior garnered from watching episodes of [a television show] into new contexts. The reader of the fanfic imagines the immaterial behaviors occurring in the story as being concrete, or performed. (Lancaster 2001, 132–33)

[2.4] Schechner argues that all performance, "from shamanism and exorcism to trance, from ritual to aesthetic dance and theater, from initiation rites to social dramas," consists of restored behavior, by which Schechner means "living behavior treated as a film director treats a strip of film. These strips of behavior can be rearranged or reconstructed" (1985, 35). In Lancaster's conception of fan fiction, fan writers do not physically rearrange or reconstruct the strips of behavior that they witness actors performing into new live performances ("living behavior"). Rather, they effectuate such reconstructions through their fan fiction and so produce performances in their readers' imaginations. Fan fiction stories therefore resemble performances and operate according to performance principles more than other kinds of fiction stories do because fan stories, at least those that are based on audiovisual media texts, intentionally and explicitly strive to evoke actors' physical actions and vocal intonations in written form, and readers of fan fic understand that they should create mental images of specific actors performing scenes that the fan author describes. They know that they should envision those actors playing the scenes that the fan author has written for them.

[2.5] Lancaster's reasoning suggests a comparison between fan fiction and screenplays, and Francesca Coppa's essay "Writing Bodies in Space" makes this comparison explicit. Coppa relates that "some fan fiction has been written in script or teleplay form, often by fans who aspired to write for [a] produced show…To write in script form would be a sign of a writer's aspiring professionalism" in the 1970s and 1980s (2006, 234–35). "But the script form has always been unpopular among readers," Coppa states, "so a fan whose primary audience was other fans rather than the television industry was more likely to tell her dramatic story in prose" (235). Coppa's point is that even though most fan fiction stories are written as prose rather than in teleplay format, all fan stories are essentially scripts: "The existence of the teleplay [as a format that fan authors occasionally use] helps to demonstrate fan fiction's roots as an essentially dramatic literature, but the larger part of my argument is that fan fiction directs bodies in space even when it's not overtly written in theatrical form" (235). Coppa echoes Lancaster when she writes that fan writers and readers "bring our memories of [actors'] physicality to the [fan] text, so the [fan] reader is precharged" (236)—that is, ready to imagine the actors playing out the scenarios written by the fan writer. "We've met these characters already, and now we're seeing them again. In theatre, we call that a production," writes Coppa (236).

[2.6] To think of fan fiction as a performance genre is a similar move to the one that the global theater thinkers make in identifying networked communications, including textual communications, as performances, as theater. For Lancaster and Coppa, as for the global theater theorists, writing can be performance. But the concept of global theater is that each person puts on a performance online, that each of us is an actor on the virtual stage constituted by digital networks, while Lancaster and Coppa propose that fan writers script and direct the action of what Coppa calls bodies in space, the actors whose screen performances fans admire, and the fan-directed enactments of these bodies take place on a virtual stage that is not online but rather in fan writers' and readers' imaginations. We know, from the existence of fanzines and other earlier print-based forms of appropriative fiction, that fan fiction as performance predates the Internet; the virtual stage on which these performances take place—the mind's eye of audiences—certainly has a longer history than the virtual stage of telecommunications networks on which global theater plays out.

3. What are fan fiction archives?

[3.1] If we consider fan fiction to be performances, as stagings, as variants of source texts that are not derivative but are simply diverse productions of popular play scripts, and if we also take into account that these sorts of fan performances are far older than electronic network technologies, we must define fan fiction archives as institutions that attempt to preserve interrelated performances. Lancaster's and Coppa's theories of fan fiction as performances lead me to ask a speculative question about fan archives: What if a fan archive were structured to preserve all of the fan fiction in a given fandom with an eye to the fact that every fan story is a unique performance of a source text, or a new performance of specific elements found within the source text, such as specific actors' manners of speaking and moving when they embody their characters?

[3.2] In fact, I argue that fan archives preserve fan fiction stories in just this way—as new extensions and versions and augmentations of source material. Fan archives are typically defined by their fandoms—that is, by the media texts that serve as the sources for fans' stories—and so every fan fiction archive is, in some sense, a concrete, visible incarnation of a wide variety of performances based on that source material. The Lord of the Rings archive, the Avengers archive, the Romeo and Juliet archive are all virtual meta-archives. A meta-archive cannot be seen; it is a construct, a metaphor that allows me to describe the relation of adaptations, transmediations, remixes, and fan texts to one another and to their sources. Lancaster's and Coppa's theories allow me to assert that fan fiction archives embody and make perceptible these formerly virtual-only meta-archives. A meta-archive grows without limit; it keeps growing as long as audiences keep encountering the source material and become fans of it. Before Internet fan archives, it would have been impossible to visualize any single always increasing meta-archive, except possibly by placing every fan fiction zine in a given fandom on the same shelf—and even then, only the fans who had physical access to that shelf would have been able to read through all of the contents of that collection. But Internet fan fiction archives make visible and accessible multitudes of stories that have been written in a given fandom.

[3.3] Fan fiction archives put all of the (public and published) performances based on a given source text on display for fan readers' engagement. It is as if Shakespeare enthusiasts were able to see all (or at least many) of the performances of Hamlet being produced simultaneously in one giant theater space containing innumerable stages, each stage occupied by a different company offering a unique take, revision, or reworking of Hamlet. Shakespeare fans could walk from stage to stage to stage inside that enormous theater, watching Hamlet after Hamlet after Hamlet, and when they reached what they thought was the last stage and the last version of Hamlet, they might find that the theater had the capacity to expand infinitely, and that new stages, with new performances of Hamlet being played out on them, were being added to the theater all the time.

[3.4] What does it matter whether we can "see" a meta-archive or not? What does it signify that fan archives make visible these constantly growing meta-archives that were, before the Internet, only conceptual? One significance is that fan archives finally put to rest a question that has been asked about consumers of popular culture and popular media for centuries: Are audiences of mass texts passive or active? Do they merely receive ideas and ideological messages that are injected into them by the media they consume (the hypodermic needle theory of media reception) (Katz and Lazarsfeld [1955] 2009; Lowery and DeFleur 1995; Berger 2012), or is there some kind of active response engendered in them by their acts of consumption (the active audience theory of media reception) (Fiske 1987)? For decades, cultural studies scholars have argued that audiences are active, that they make their own meanings of texts, that they are never wholly passive in their intake of media (Fiske 1987; Lewis 1991; Hall [1981] 1998; Hebdige 1988; McRobbie 2000). Fan scholars, without exception, have made the same claims. But online fan archives, and all collections of remix—in fact, the rising popularity of remix as a new literacy, made possible by the affordances of digital and Internet technologies—offer visible evidence that audiences actively and imaginatively engage with media texts. Internet archives of fan appropriations and remixes are deeply important because the massive quantities of creative output that they contain serve as a kind of proof that audiences are not "cultural dupes" (Hall [1981] 1998, 446)—that is, the dupes of mass culture—but rather are users of mass culture, who take from media texts what they desire to incorporate into their own creative productions.

4. Acknowledgment

[4.1] A version of this article appears in my book Rogue Memory, forthcoming from MIT Press. The book examines what I call digital cultural memory—how we use networked technologies to collectively remember culture—through the case study of Internet fan fiction and fan fiction archives.

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