Audience studies, through cultural studies

November 18, 2014 § Leave a comment

As usual, David Bordwell’s post on the psychology of movie-watching is essential reading as it surveys a whole century of theories trying to explain what happens in audiences’ minds as they watch movies, engage with them or (as some theories have it), submit to them. It ends, unsurprisingly, with a plea for a naturalistic, cognitivism-based explanation of movie-watching: basically, we make sense of movies because of thousands of years of visual cognition that have allowed us to read visual clues, make inferences, test visual hypothesis about movement, danger, and so on. Films (of the Hollywood narrative kind) are popular because they are easy to follow because they ask for cognitive skills that we are born with.

True as this certainly is, I cannot help but think that there is one aspect of film studies that is conspicuously missing from this account: cultural studies. Yet (especially British) cultural studies have been quite vocal, since the 1980s (30 years ago!), that audience activity in making sense of what they watch had to take into account viewing contexts, local cultures, family habits, and so on. See David Morley’s pioneering work on British TV audiences, or more recently Martin Barker’s work on young audiences to action movies. But none of this makes it into Bordwell’s account, where the drift in explaining movie-watching is universalising, all-encompassing, and in the end so general as to fail to truly explain anything. It’s almost as if Bordwell is looking for the killer-app here: groomed into the fight against Grand Theory, which he has masterfully waged and, in my view, won, he seemed to still be looking for the one theory that will make all theories moot–and that this theory is cognitivism, supported by the non-humanistic (ergo vague?) science of the brain. End of history, end of quest: humanities resting on the firm ground of experimental medical science.

But meaning-making is what we still need to explain: every act of movie-watching is particular. Our eyes may, indeed, spend more time on average looking at the center of the frame — but they do wander to the edges, too. What does a close-up of a tropical plant mean for an audience in Sumatra? In London? to an audience of Polish immigrants in London? How do we account for dreaming at and with the movies? What of the processes of remembering a film to account for the pleasures of cinema? And so on and so forth. Cinema, as proliferating ethnographic studies of audiences establish, still today, in our so globalised world, does not mean at all the same to different audiences around the world… And its circulation, in cultures, memories, expanding media, continues to force us to confront movie-watching as a rich phenomenon.

It seems to me, to simplify, that cognitivism explains why audiences, when confronted to a film, are able to see a coherent object rather than an unrelated hodgepodge of visual stimuli. Just as cognitivism may explain how we are able, when confronted with the multiple stimuli of everyday life, to make make sense of the world around us — as opposed to perceiving a mess of visual impulses. But it does not address the question of meaning. And it certainly does not do justice to the richness of the processes, strategies, imaginaries deployed by audiences when watching a film.

CfP Velvet Light Trap — Performance and the Body

October 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

Readers of this blog may find this CfP interesting:

Historically, studies of performance have often been tied to star images, focusing on issues of celebrity in professional, public, and private spaces. As a result, a large body of research has explored how the star is constructed through extratextual discourses and how this off-screen persona may shape perceptions of on-screen performance. However, scholarly attention to performers has been shifting from star image and celebrity to acting and performance. Several collections on film acting and performance – most recently Cynthia Baron and Sharon Marie Carnicke’s Reframing Screen Performance (2008) and Aaron Taylor’s Theorizing Film Acting (2012) – have extended our knowledge of the historical evolution of acting practices. The editors of The Velvet Light Trap would like to further the ongoing conversation surrounding performance studies by focusing attention on the relationship between performance and the body and the ways in which the body is being performed across the mediums of film, television, and new media.

Such unavoidably embodied performances as Buster Keaton’s physical comedy and Misty Copeland’s athletic Under Armour ad serve to foreground a fundamental, yet often taken for granted, premise: the body is the central locus of performance. Through movement, gesture, facial expressions, and vocalizations, the body provides the basic physical language of performance. Yet this language is neither fixed nor ideologically neutral but is instead continuously shaped and reshaped by historical and cultural pressures brought to bear on the body as contested site of identity. Much scholarly work has been attentive to identity construction and the body: Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990), Kathleen Rowe’s The Unruly Woman (1995), and Deborah Harris Moore’s Media and the Rhetoric of Body Perfection (2014), for example, have explored identity issues pertaining to body shaming, body disorders, bodily violence, expressions of sexuality, and gender and sexuality performativity. Moreover, as Baron, Diane Carson, and Frank Tomasulo argue in More than a Method (2004), performative mediations of the body “lie[] at the intersection of art, technology, and culture” (p. 1). Thus, the representational practices through which bodies are enacted offer particularly fertile ground for interrogating the production and reception of performance from both interpretive and historical perspectives. Recent developments in new media (such as video games, social media, YouTube) and digital technologies (such as motion capture, 3D, and Photoshop) may have shifted how the body is viewed, visualized, and altered. The body can now appear in otherwise impossible situations or be changed into otherwise impossible shapes.

Issue #77 of TVLT, “Performance and the Body,” seeks both to advance discussions of the centrality of the body to performance studies and to encourage greater scholarly attention to performative bodies across mediums. The editors are particularly interested in work focusing on the performance of the body through movement and voice; the aesthetic and ideological construction of performative bodies through fashion, makeup, body modification, and digital manipulations; and digital performance of virtual bodies. For this issue, the editors seek to bring together original scholarship that engages new theoretical frameworks, archival sources, and historical perspectives that encourage re-evaluations of this crucial aspect of media studies.

Suggested topics include, but are by no means limited to:

●      Performative bodies and the construction of identity (gender; sexuality; queerness; transgenderism; race; ethnicity; nationality; age; ability; political beliefs; nationalism)

●      Body modification as a performative practice (body augmentation and plastic surgery; extreme weight changes; the use of makeup and prosthetics)

●      Training the performing body (athletic training; military training; dance training; musical training; vocal training)

●      Performing bodily excess (representations of the drugged or drunken body; the grotesque body; death; illness; bodily violence; sex acts)

●      Performing the Other (blackface performance; racial masquerade; performing queerness; cross-gender performance; stereotyping bodies; voices; and accents)

●      The performance of the body through costume and dress

●      Laboring bodies (body doubles; stunt doubles; stand-ins; Steadicam operators)

●      Digital technologies and performance (performance in video and role-playing games; virtual reality user performance; digital resurrection; Photoshopping or airbrushing the body; robotic and non-human performers)

●      Performing animated bodies (vocal performance; motion-capture; rotoscoping; anatomical studies in producing animated bodies)

●      Supporting bodies (background performers; stand-ins; stunt performers)

●      Social media and YouTube (selfies; Instagram; YouTube makeup/fashion tutorials)

●      Non-traditional body performance studies (animal performance)

●      Genre and performance (action film performance and “hard bodies”; performing bodily humor; “body genres”)

●      The body and performance style (early cinema; silent/transitional; classical; Method acting; pastiching performance styles; performance styles in an actor’s “body of work”)

●      Performing “real” bodies (biopics; performers playing themselves; cameo performances)

●      Multiple bodies performing a single character and single performers representing multiple bodies (double casting; body/voice doubles; replacing performers in long-running texts)

●      Fans as performers/producers (reenacting and reproducing performances through cosplay; adjusting celebrity bodies in photo manipulations; fan art; and fan vids)

Submission Guidelines

Submissions should be between 8,000 and 10,000 words, formatted in Chicago style. Please submit an electronic copy of the paper, along with a separate one-page abstract, both saved as a Microsoft Word file. Remove any identifying information so that the submission is suitable for anonymous review. The entire essay, including block quotations and notes, should be double spaced. Photocopies of illustrations are sufficient for initial review, but authors should be prepared to supply camera-ready photographs on request. Illustrations will be sized by the publisher. Permissions are the responsibility of the author. Send electronic manuscripts and/or any questions to velvetlighttrap.austin@gmail.com.

About the Journal

TVLT is a scholarly, peer-reviewed journal of film, television, and new media. It publishes articles and interviews written with the highest scholarly standards yet accessible to a broad range of readers. The journal draws on a variety of theoretical and historiographic approaches from the humanities and social sciences and welcomes any effort that will help foster the ongoing processes of evaluation and negotiation in media history and criticism.

Graduate students at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the University of Texas at Austin coordinate issues in alternation. TVLT’s Editorial Advisory Board includes such notable scholars as Charles Acland, Richard Allen, Mark Betz, Michael Curtin, Kay Dickinson, Scott Higgins, Jon Kraszewski, Nicholas Sammond, Jacob Smith, Jonathan Sterne, and Cristina Venegas. TVLT’s local advisors include: Mary Beltrán, Ben Brewster, Jonathan Gray, Michele Hilmes, Lea Jacobs, Derek Johnson, Vance Kepley, Shanti Kumar, Charles Ramírez Berg, Thomas Schatz, and Janet Staiger.

Courtesy of digra.org.

The Football World Cup for Smart People 6 – The round-up

October 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

In Media Res has a special round-up week (starting today!) on the Football World Cup. Short incisive insights to be expected, starting with Thomas Corrigan’s thinly veiled hopes that media broadcasters would have learnt their Napster lesson and would, this time around, go for a more inclusive approach to illegal streaming of football matches. Fat chance!

More to come this week.

The Internet of Things is Coming — yes, but…

July 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

..but who will be doing all the work?

This paper argues that automation (machines operating on their own) is being replaced by heteromation (human labor, often low wage or unpaid, being used to fuel the operations of machines: think FoldIt or Google, where we input the data…).

A far cry, the authors point out, from the dreams of “augmented intelligence”, a fusion of human mind and machine-driven computation such as Licklider’s “man-computer symbiosis“.

Unless labor-relations (with the exception of data-entry jobs) is not the right tool to view the on-going developments in interface/wearable tech/body hacking. Does entering a search in Google qualify as “labor”? Does playing a video-game qualify as “labor”? I agree it qualifies as cooperation with machine intelligence, but in this sense, heteromation would actually designate some sort of magical working with digital tools that we’ve become, indeed, quite familiar with–unless I really am my computer’s slave.But then again, aren’t we all?

The Internet of Things is Coming — yes, but…

July 12, 2014 § Leave a comment

…but what language will it speak?

Well, maybe this one.

What about a world where all objects speak “material design”, immersive, easy on the eye, clear in their functionality, elegant, coherent?

The Football World Cup for Smart People – 5 – BFI, 1975

July 9, 2014 § Leave a comment

Football on Television, London: BFI Television Monograph, 1975: a small collection of essays attempting to decode British TV coverage of the 1974 World Cup.

putting to use early findings of semiotics and the importance of codes (visual, cultural, poetic codes) in reading images (even, or especially, images that pretend to ‘realism’), these essays break down British TV coverage in terms of its constituent components: shots, shot-length, shot types, color, music, commentary, credit sequences, and so on. The point is to denaturalise the understanding of TV coverage, especially as it relates to sports.

 

“this monograph challenges the accuracy of the popular position (that TV offers factual reproduction). It casts doubt on the centrality of the distinction between ‘fiction’ and ‘actuality’ in the mass media; it argues that ‘real’ events are–when perceived via the media–as structured as fictional programmes” (8)

 

There would be an interesting update to be done on the 2014 World Cup coverage, based on similar premisses: comparing shot lengths game to game, analysing the frequency (or lack of!) of replays (are there fewer replays in fast-moving games or in slow-moving games?), the use of “secondary images” (coaches, players on the bench, faces in the crowd)

The Football World Cup for Smart People – 4 – Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, 1978

July 8, 2014 § 1 Comment

This is a more scholarly addition to the debate than Eco’s essay, and is to be found in Screen 19.4, Winter 1978 (45-60).

If you’re ever in a fix and need a source for the oft-quoted pronouncement that “football is about winning”, this is the place to go. Just add (56) right after that quote, and you’re the toast of the party.

The real question of the article, though not fully explored, is whether “Argentina” did indeed win the 1978 World Cup, and which “Argentina”. It’s not fully explored because the article folds all issues back to whether the military junta in power won or not, which is a much more narrow focus than the general cultural implications of which “Argentina” won. The conclusion, that the political regime came out all right, mainly through the fact that TV coverage of the World Cup was normal (read: similar to previous World Cups) and therefore non-political, is in line with frequent criticisms of televised sport (again, see Eco: all circuses, little panem).

It’s a disappointing conclusion as the article also sets up “football” as more than a game and as a culture, or rather a cultural field, through which lots of social, cultural, emotional attachments and histories are negotiated. It makes the great point that the Saturday football match is merely one stop in the cultural flow of football (the friends one talks to, the football related news and rumours one reads, etc.), that football is as much about the match as it is about “recall”.

Once it gets to Argentina, however, it forgets this intense plurality of meanings and this temporal flow of football cultures to focus on the “blue” of Argentina, concluding that the “Argentinian nationhood [became] axed around football (…)  from which any other Argentina (…) was for the time being evacuated.” (58) Apart from the analyst’s intuition that this was the case (based, no doubt, on the desire for football at the 1978 World Cup to have done more to fight the political battle), what is this based on?

The World Cup, through TV, is here seen as articulating several overlapping sets of oppositions, Nordic vs. Latin (for European countries), Portuguese-speaking vs. Spanish-speaking (for South American nations), North vs. South (rather than East vs. West, with both USSR and USA absent from the competition) — a set of oppositions that could still be argued to inflect much analysis and football coverage today.

But does TV coverage really erase football partisanship? Is football really just about partisanship? Because TVs (on long shots) are positioned at the half-way line, is that a sign of TV attempting impartiality, trying to make us forget that is is merely a representation, not a reproduction of the event? Yes the annoying shots of people in the crowd help us being “present” in the event — but is that enough to put us, politically, to sleep?

It is a bit surprising that, for an article that looks at the game of football, it does not look at the gaming dimension of football TV reception — or how audiences may have fun with TV coverage. The main problem, of course, is that, as was then the case in film studies, spectatorship is essentialized: it is derived from an analysis of content — although, at the same time, there is insistence on the fact that TV audiences cannot be viewed as homogeneous ! It’s TV spectatorship in limbo, waiting for the David Morleys of this world to extend our understanding of what it is that audiences do with TV.

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