Well, I returned from the Console-ing Passions Conference at Notre Dame without any hardship, and I had a wonderful time exploring topics that are very much foreign territory for me. I think we, as academics, can learn a ton by attending and participating in events that are outside of our field, even if slightly. Here are my takeaways.
- There was a lot of good discussion about issues of representation in everything from television to film to video games. Even my own paper focused on indigenous representation as frame of analysis. But during the forum “Back to Black: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Contemporary Media Industries,” Kristen J. Warner (University of Alabama, @kristenwarner) was reflecting on representations of blackness on TV and asked a question of the audience that has stuck with me: “Does representation even matter?” Do we cede ground in the fight when we accept a plastic or superficial representation just for the sake of diversity, rather than fighting for a nuanced, complex, and dynamic representation of race and gender. When so many arguments revolve around seeing diversity on TV in a visual manner, what happens when these fictional characters lose the texture of their culture, and the only thing authentic about them is literally surface? And is this really okay with us? Throughout the panels, this was a question that kept sneaking its way in to conversations, and one that I’m grappling with presently…
- Another issue that was raised by presenters like Ron Krabill (University of Washington, Bothell) was regarding participatory media and a notion of radical reciprocity. He investigated the rhetoric of “global citizenship” ever present in college and university mission statements, and how this notion of becoming a global citizen is paired with creating global subjects. We strive to educate and “culture” students, and sending them abroad is a major component to this puzzle, but I do often find that students come back and talk about their own experiences and what they saw, rather than the communities they engaged with and people they met. I wonder why we do not discuss reciprocity in the discipline of art history or visual culture? How can we encourage this deeper kind of collaboration between students of different cultures so it is not just about a singular “experience”? After all, visual culture travels, and there is a lot of untapped potential in comparing different cultural approaches to its creation and analysis.
- But the last thing that struck me was how much work needs to be done in other cultural contexts. The conference was great in so many ways, but many of the panels (and media studies/TV studies itself) seemed to be very focused on the United States. As the keynote, Aniko Imre (University of Southern California) explained, we often forget that media like television permeated a variety of cultures, including those east of the wall. She discussed soap operas in Eastern Europe (work that comes out of her new book, TV Socialism), and what fascinated me was how certain genres such as the soap opera take on entirely new dimensions when examined in a Czech, Polish, or Hungarian context. In effect, it destabilizes certain reified definitions of genre. Even in my own classroom on Japanese visual culture, my students watch portions of Japanese TV (commercials and all), and they are occasionally surprised at how the experience of watching television can be so radically different from their own. This kind of analysis raises crucial questions regarding how the medium itself communicates across space, and in the case of Imre’s work, challenges our perceptions of how TV under socialism operates.
The conference was enlightening for me, and I’m looking forward to engaging more explicitly with scholarship in this vein when I teach visual culture. I’ll be curious to see how different this will be from work that explicitly focuses on Japan at this year’s Mechademia at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.