Film Theory and Visual Culture Seminar
Hosted by Vanderbilt’s Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities and coordinated by CMA faculty, this seminar meets three or four times a semester to hear presentations by visiting scholars or by Vanderbilt’s own faculty and graduate students. The topics are wide-ranging and include the following areas of inquiry: film, visual culture, art history, literature, cultural studies, as well as theories of the image, philosophies of perception, aesthetics and critical theory, media histories, and the history of vision. Attendees should RSVP for individual meetings through the Robert Penn Warren Center website. All seminars are free and open to the Vanderbilt community.
Friday, Oct. 30, 12:00- 1:00 p.m.
Yuriko Furuhata (McGill University).
“Manufacturing Perfect Weather: Cold War Geopolitics and Climatic Media”
Friday will be a discussion of a pre-circulated video presentation.
Abstract: In the past few years, film and media studies has witnessed “environmental” and “elemental” turns. This has led to an expanded understanding of media, beyond the narrower purview of telecommunication and storage technologies, and towards thinking about the material and infrastructural operations of natural, chemical, and synthetic “elements” as part of media environments. This talk presents a genealogical account of today’s media environments by offering a transpacific take on the intertwined developments of geoengineering, architecture, and networked computing in Japan and the United States in the mid-20th century. To do so, I focus on air conditioning and weather control as a set of cultural techniques. I will refer to these as “climatic media.” Climatic media reflects a desire to secure a livable future environment, whether through engineering the atmosphere itself, or engineering the built structures. My argument is that in the 20th century the technological control over the weather through climatic media took a central stage. To this end, this talk will look closely at mediatic techniques of controlling natural elements in order to manufacturing artificial weather and artificial climate.
Bio: Yuriko Furuhata is Associate Professor and William Dawson Scholar of Cinema and Media History in the Department of East Asian Studies and an associate member of the Department of Art History and Communication Studies at McGill University. She works in the areas of film and media studies, architecture, visual arts, and critical theory. Her first book, Cinema of Actuality: Japanese Avant-Garde Filmmaking in the Season of Image Politics (Duke University Press, 2013), won the Best First Book Award from the Society of Cinema and Media Studies. Her second book, entitled Atmospheric Control: Transpacific Experiments of Climatic Media (forthcoming Duke University Press) explores geopolitical connections across environmental art, weather control, climate engineering, and cybernetic architecture in Japan and the United States.
Friday, Nov. 20. 12:00- 1:00 p.m.
Iggy Cortez (Vanderbilt University): “Deathlessness: Nocturnal Economies as Media Ecologies in Leos Carax’s Holy Motors.“
Friday meeting will be a discussion of a pre-circulated video presentation.
Of interest: Holy Motors is available to stream through Vanderbilt’s subscription to Kanopy.
Abstract: Through its ceaselessly mutating narrative and obsessive references to film history, Leos Carax’s Holy Motors has been viewed as an elegy for photochemical cinema that thematizes its own conditions of digital production in the broader context of networked capitalism. This talk assesses the undertheorized significance of the night in Carax’s film as a visual threshold for digital cinematography; a symbolic conceit for technological remediation; and a visual metaphor for the permeability of geographic, temporal, and intersubjective borders. In a certain reading, the film’s focus on nighttime reflects how this temporal domain has become associated with a range of processes that disrupt normative cycles of laboring and rest through the ubiquitous activities of communication technologies. Such activities range from the “sleepless” persistence of our online personae, our involuntary participation in data surveillance, and the value-investing effects of digital consumption. But Holy Motors, I argue, does not limit its attention to prevailing but politically narrow narratives that merely describe the deep and putatively intractable structures of 24/7 capitalism. The film instead mobilizes the night to provoke reflection on cinema’s specific affordances that arise not despite but in response to digital convergence. Through this lens, the night serves as a locus for reclaiming perceptual acuity towards encounters with the world that resist optical certainty, totalizing comprehension, or rapid consumption. Through these symbolic and perceptual coordinates, the nocturnality of Holy Motors refuses to reproduce the dominant cognitive conditions of capitalist participation and rejects the transformation of social presence into quantifiable categories for networked knowledge and control. This talk will thus explore how cinematic nighttime, as both a horizon of darkness and site of envelopment, reflects two central paradigms for conceptualizing the broader media ecology in which film operates today: “the atmospheric,” a term denoting the saturating pervasiveness of modern technologies, and “opacity,” a concept alluding to both the indecipherable tactics of “surveillance capitalism” as well as activist strategies that refuse uninterrupted exposure to extractive forms of categorization and assessment. As a result, if the night symbolizes the digital image’s purported lack of material closure or distinction from digital technics, Holy Motors harnesses a distinctly nocturnal and digital aesthetic that thematizes anxieties regarding the loss of gendered and racialized privileges in European art cinema while also queering cinema’s existing cultural and technological genealogies.
Bio: Iggy Cortez is Mellon Assistant Professor in Cinema & Media Arts. His research and teaching interests include world art cinema, critical race studies, diasporic thought, the visual and sensory culture of digital media, and questions of sexuality, cinematic performance, and embodiment. He is currently at work on a book project on nighttime as a conceptual and sensory threshold across recent world cinema. Through a global range of films by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Leos Carax, Diao Yinan, Mati Diop, Barry Jenkins, and Tsai Ming-liang, among others, this project looks at the relationship between technologically-mediated perception and the affective and sensory dimensions of the historical present. His article “Licking for the Nation: Auntie Genealogies in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Rak ti Khon Kaen (Cemetery of Splendour)” is forthcoming in the Journal of Cinema and Media Studies (formerly Cinema Journal) and a second article “Incestuous Wanderlust: 35 Shots of Rum’s Atmospheres of Circulation” will appear in Camera Obscura. With Ian Fleishman, he is also co-editing a volume of essays on the relationship between negative affect, cultural politics, and acting through the lens of Isabelle Huppert’s performances.
Tung-Hui Hu (University of Michigan)
Abstract: The digital economy relies on platforms which turn human workers into technical objects, as in Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s description of Amazon Mechanical Turk workers as “artificial artificial intelligence.” In turn, this makes technical interactions increasingly resemble other forms of service work, such as call center operators, wait staff, and even sex workers, where protocols restrict client-server interaction to simply “inputs and outputs and no access to our or anyone else’s inner life” (Peter Galison). By investigating the dissociative performances in Julia Leigh’s film Sleeping Beauty (2011), about a young waitress that agrees to be unconscious while naked and fondled by her clients, this talk argues that we might be moving away from the modernist premise of a subject’s interiority and towards a cybernetic model of “black box” consciousness. This is not a nihilistic move, however, but an opportunity to reconceive what liveness, privacy, and humanness are today, and, as a result, what we take to be political action by workers who simply wish to endure rather than resist.
Bio: Tung-Hui Hu is the author of a study of digital culture, A Prehistory of the Cloud (MIT Press, 2015), which was described by The New Yorker as “mesmerizing… absorbing [in] its playful speculations,” as well as three books of poetry, most recently Greenhouses, Lighthouses (Copper Canyon, 2013). Hu has received awards from Yaddo, MacDowell Colony, the NEA, the Berlin Prize from the American Academy in Berlin, and the San Francisco Foundation. He is an associate professor of English and digital studies at the University of Michigan.
Alex Dubilet (Vanderbilt University)
“Impossible Futures (On Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s Lorna’s Silence)”
Abstract: What futures are imaginable in neo-liberal Europe and what forms do they take in the present? What kind of psychic attachments do these futures produce and what violences result from them? This talk thinks through these questions via an analysis of the work of the filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. In Lorna’s Silence (2008), the complex narrative and visual imbrication of sites of futural investment (the circulation and accumulation of money, the desire for a child) demonstrates that the future, which is always imminent, nevertheless remains fundamentally foreclosed: the future cannot arrive. Lorna remains attached to her dreams of possible futures even though attempts to realize these futures not only fail, but produce ever-intensifying violence. Unable to metabolize the violence in which she, despite herself, has been complicit, Lorna finds her very psychic coherence undone. By the end, there are no possible futures left, and the film has become a site for the articulation of an impossible ethics for confronting irredeemable violence.
The talk is part of an on-going collaborative project (with Joshua Craze) that theoretically reexamines the import of the films of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, tentatively entitled,The Afterlife of Attachment.
Bio: Alex Dubilet is currently a Senior Lecturer in the Departments of English and Political Science at Vanderbilt University. Dubilet works across a number of fields, including contemporary continental philosophy, critical theory, philosophy of religion, critical study of secularity and secularism, and, more recently, film and film theory. He received his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from the University of California, Berkeley in 2014.
His first book, The Self-Emptying Subject: Kenosis and Immanence, Medieval to Modern was published by Fordham University Press in 2018. He has co-translated (with Jessie Hock) into English François Laruelle’s General Theory of Victims (Polity Press, 2015) and A Biography of Ordinary Man: On Authorities and Minorities (Polity Press, 2018) .
His recent work has sought to theoretically reconfigure the contours of political theology through a re-examination of figures such as Meister Eckhart, Karl Marx, Mikhail Bakunin, Georges Bataille, and Louis Althusser. He has co-edited a volume (with Kirill Chepurin) German Idealism and the Future of Political Theology: Kant to Marx, which is currently under review with Fordham. With Kirill Chepurin, he is also currently working on a speculative reassessment of 19th-century Russian thought through the lens of contemporary philosophical concepts, including immanence, nothingness, and utopia – the first fruits of which are appearing this year in the journals Theory & Event and Angelaki.
The talk he is giving is part of a different collaborative project (with Joshua Craze) that offers a reexamination of the films of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, tentatively entitled, The Afterlife of Attachment.
Pooja Rangan (Amherst College)
“Inaudible Evidence: Counterforensic Listening in Contemporary Documentary Art”
Abstract: My talk examines the work of three contemporary artists whose speculative practices of listening stage a conversation between documentary and forensic aesthetics. Alison S. M. Kobayashi, James N. Kienitz Wilkins, and Lawrence Abu Hamdan all listen with forensic scrutiny to recorded voices as the basis of their artistic practice: a decades-old amateur wire recording, a downloaded transcript of a 2006 public hearing in a New York town, and cassette tapes of audio tests employed by immigration authorities. They listen for testimony that eludes the forensic gaze and ear and materialize the practices of listening whereby documentary evidence becomes audible. I situate their work in a long history of reflexive documentary practices that have sought to trouble the evidentiary basis of documentary realism. Kobayashi, Wilkins, and Abu Hamdan diagram the usefulness of documentary as a civilian art of counterforensic listening: one that seizes forensics from state control and democratizes the forum of its interpretation.
Bio: Pooja Rangan is a documentary scholar and writer based in Western Massachusetts and Brooklyn. She is the author of Immediations: The Humanitarian Impulse in Documentary (Duke UP, winner of the ACLA 2019 Levin Prize for Outstanding First Book), a book that examines the humanitarian ethic of giving voice in participatory documentary. Rangan is Associate Professor of English and Film and Media Studies at Amherst College and Board President of the Flaherty.
Nadine Chan (Claremont Graduate University)
“Colonial Worldmaking in an Unruly Medium”
Abstract: This talk draws from the author’s current manuscript-in-progress, A Cinema Under the Palms: Colonial Worldmaking in an Unruly Medium. Through a study of colonial educational films in British Malaya and Singapore from the 1910s to the present, this project conceptualizes film as an unruly medium that is animated by both colonial and counter-colonial energies. On the one hand, cinema’s ability to rupture space, rearrange time, and visualize the empire are forms of imperial worldmaking and extensions of the historicizing and ordering work of colonialism. Indeed, these very properties persuaded officials that film would be an excellent medium for mass education in the colonies. However, the “unruly” qualities of the cinema—its clumsy technology, slippery indexicality, untethered time, and untamed reception—reveals a medium that verges on the edge of precarity rather than positivism. Thus, while the author argues for a new genealogy of the cinema that locates its technologies, theories, and aesthetics in the logics and material practices of late 19th and 20th century colonialism, this project is also invested in the unruliness of the medium—in how its slippages, lapses, opacities, and irrationalities inadvertently lend themselves to riotous counter-colonial possibility. Bridging scholarship in postcolonial and environmental media studies, this particular talk focuses on the worldmaking endeavors (and representational limitations) of “extractive cinema”—empire films that not only feature the colonial tropics as zones of resource extraction and capitalist expansion, but whose aesthetic and mechanical qualities echo the logics of colonialism itself.
Bio: Nadine Chan is Assistant Professor of Cultural Studies at Claremont Graduate University. Chan has articles published in Cinema Journal, Studies in Documentary Film, Periscope for Social Text, Spectator, and in the new anthology Screening Race in American Nontheatrical Film. Chan’s current manuscript-in-progress examines colonial cinema in British Malaya and Singapore through the framework of cinematic “unruliness.” She is also researching a second project on visualizations of the Anthropocene in Southeast Asian rainforests. Her dissertation, “A Cinema Under the Palms: The Unruly Lives of Colonial Educational Film in British Malaya,” received an Award of Distinction from the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS). Her research has been supported by a Social Science Research Council International Dissertation Research Fellowship, a Global Asia Postdoctoral Fellowship from Nanyang Technological University (Singapore), and other fellowships and grants. Prior to joining CGU in 2019, she was a Harper Schmidt Fellow in the Society of Fellows at the University of Chicago.
Samantha Barbas (University at Buffalo School of Law)
“How the Movies Became Speech”
Abstract: How the Movies Became Speech
In its 1915 decision in Mutual Film v. Industrial Commission of Ohio, the Supreme Court held that motion pictures were, as a medium, unprotected by freedom of speech and press because they were mere “entertainment” and “spectacles” with a “capacity for evil.” Mutual legitimated an extensive regime of film censorship that existed until the 1950s. It was not until 1952, in Burstyn v. Wilson, that the Court declared motion pictures to be, like the traditional press, an important medium for the communication of ideas protected by the First Amendment. By the middle of the next decade, film censorship in the U.S. had been almost entirely abolished.
Why did the Court go from regarding the cinema as an unprotected medium to part of the constitutionally-protected “press”? The standard explanation for this shift is that civil libertarian developments in free speech jurisprudence in the 1930s and 40s made the changed First Amendment status of the movies and the fall of film censorship inevitable. Challenging this account, I argue that the shift was also the result of a dynamic I describe as the social convergence of mass communications. Social convergence takes place when the functions, practices, and cultures associated with different media come to resemble each other. By the 1950s, movies occupied a role in American culture that increasingly resembled the traditional press. At the same time, print journalism took on styles and functions that were like those historically associated with the movies. The demise of film censorship reflected not only more capacious understandings of freedom of expression, but also convergent communications. The article focuses on the efforts of a nationwide anti-censorship movement, between 1915 and the 1950s, to engineer the reversal of Mutual using an argument based on media convergence.
This significant, lost chapter in the history of modern free speech has much to tell us about the ongoing relationship between the First Amendment and new media. It illustrates how courts and the public in an earlier time dealt with a question that is still pressing today: should the medium of communication have significance for free speech law? Illuminating historical patterns of judicial responses to new media, the work offers insights into what we may predict about the regulation of mass media in our own era of media convergence.
Bio: Samantha Barbas is Professor of Law at the University at Buffalo School of Law. She researches and teaches in the areas of legal history, First Amendment law and mass communications law. Her work focuses on the intersection of law, culture, media and technology in United States history. Barbas is the author of five books on media law and history: Confidential Confidential: The Inside Story of Hollywood’s Notorious Scandal Magazine (Chicago Review Press, 2018); Newsworthy: The Supreme Court Battle Over Privacy and Press Freedom (Stanford University Press, 2017); Laws of Image: Privacy and Publicity in America (Stanford University Press, 2015); The First Lady of Hollywood: A Biography of Louella Parsons (University of California Press 2005); and Movie Crazy: Fans, Stars, and the Cult of Celebrity (Palgrave Macmillan 2001).
John David Rhodes (University of Cambridge)
“The Prop and its Properties”
Abstract: The prop names a category of ubiquity: props are everywhere in cinema. The term, short for property, is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “any portable object (now usually other than an article of costume) used in a play, film, etc., as required by the action.” The straightforwardness of this definition, however, belies the strangeness of the prop. The prop begs questions of scale, ambience, contingency, commodification, objecthood, and narration. In the context of narrative cinema, props seem as necessary as actors, sets, and locations. Regarding cinema through the lens of the prop—which is the lens of property—helps us to see how an ontological instrumentality courses through the very nature of the cinematic medium. This talk, which will veer from theory to history to questions of close reading, emerges from my recent book on domestic architecture and cinema, The Spectacle of Property: The House in American Film (2017). In the talk I hope to show how foregrounding cinema’s prop-ness summons into view some of the medium’s most curious and most unsettling features.
Bio: John David Rhodes is the author and editor of six books, including Spectacle of Property: The House in American Film (2017), Stupendous, Miserable City: Pasolini’s Rome (2007), and Taking Place: Location and the Moving Image (2011). He is the Director of the Centre for Film and Screen at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of Corpus Christi College. He is also a founding editor of the journal World Picture.
Michael Wedel (Vanderbilt University)
Akshya Saxena (Vanderbilt University)
Abstract: How do we read language in film, and what can it tell us about reading literature? To answer this set of questions, this talk examines the visual and sonic ways in which the question of language manifests in a range of films from postcolonial India. Specifically, the talk pays attention to the cinematic production of English in an ex-colony, including the practices of censorship, subtitling, and dubbing that shape what is read under the sign of “English”.
Bio: Akshya Saxena is assistant professor of English at Vanderbilt. Her current book project, “Vernacular English,” brings together law, literature, and film to examine the life of the English language in post-independence India. Her scholarship has been supported by the American Council of Learned Societies and the Social Science Research Council, and has appeared or is forthcoming in Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies, South Asian Review, Cultural Critique, and LARB.
Lisa Gitleman (NYU)
“Emoji Dick and World Communication”
Marco Abel (University of Nebraska)
“Is School Out?; or, The Berlin School as Event.”
Haerin Shin (Vanderbilt University)
“Posthuman Microagression: The Asian”
Brian Jacobson (University of Toronto)
“Raw Materialism, Refined Form, and The French Art of Oil”
Michael B. Gillespie (City University of New York)
“Death Grips: Film Blackness and Contemporary Cinema”
Rob King (Columbia University)
“The Revelations of Bill Hicks, or, Rethinking Standup Comedy as a Mode of Social Critique.”
Joseph Jeon (Pomona College)
“Wire Aesthetics: Tube Entertainment’s Flops and the Protocols of Late US Empire”
Johannes von Moltke (University of Michigan)
“Of Humans and Things: Classical Film Theory as Media Theory”
Davide Panagia (UC – Los Angeles)
“Sympathy, Solidarity, Montage: The Moviola’s Political Ontology”
Laura Mulvey (Birkbeck College, University of London)
Lutz Koepnick (Vanderbilt University)
“Michael Bay’s World Cinema”
Jean Ma (Standford University)
“Cinema and the Edges of Sleep”
Se Young Kim (Vanderbilt University)
“Techniques of the Armed Subject: The Militarization of Mass Culture Since the ‘War on Terror'”
Karl Schoonover (University of Warwick)
“The Cinematic Life of Petroleum”
Sara Blair (University of Michigan)
“On Location: D.W. Griffin, Early Film, and the Lower East Side”
Akira Lippit (University of Southern California)
“Jacques Derrida’s Echopoiesis and Narcissism Adrift”
Karla Oeler (Emory University)
“Thinking as Interior Monologue, or Eisenstein and Exteriority”
Nick Sousanis (University of Calgary)
“Unflattening: Reimagining Scholarship Through Comics”
J.D. Connor (Yale University)
“Hollywood Math after Math: Dataculture and the Obama Era”
Candice Amich (Vanderbilt University)
“Neoliberal Repetitions: Regina José Galindo’s Acts of Ritual Violence”