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Film Theory and Visual Culture Seminar

The Film Theory and Visual Culture Seminar fosters dialogue among faculty and graduate students interested in film, visual culture, art history, literature and media studies, as well as in theories of the image, philosophies of perception, aesthetics and critical theory, media histories, and the history of vision. Each semester we host scholars from leading programs in film and media studies (and adjacent fields), as well as scholars from our own Vanderbilt community. See our line-up of speakers below and please join us for the conversation! See a list of previous speakers.

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Spotlight Seminars

Film Theory and Visual Culture Seminar: Sept. 17, 12:30-2:00 p.m. Live and in person at the RPWC. James McFarland (Vanderbilt University) “George A. Romero’s Knightriders and the Utopian War Machine”  Register

James McFarland  is an Associate Professor of German and Cinema and Media Arts at Vanderbilt University, the author of Constellation:  Friedrich Nietzsche and Walter Benjamin in the Now-Time of History, and co-editor of  Hannah Arendt’s The Modern Challenge to Tradition and Eichmann in Jerusalem for the Critical Edition of the Works of Hannah Arendt.

Abstract:  There is nary a zombie to be found in Knightriders, George A. Romero’s 1981 follow-up to his hugely successful zombie movie Dawn of the Dead (1978). Centered on an itinerant troupe of motorcycle daredevils staging Arthurian-inspired jousting tournaments in rural Pennsylvania, Romero’s favorite among his own works was a commercial flop and soon disappeared from movie screens. Yet in retrospect, the bizarre anachronism that powers the movie, and its skeptical interrogation of charismatic authority, spectacular entertainment, and voluntary collaboration, reveal a surprisingly cogent critique of American sovereignty just at the moment its democratic legitimation was entering into terminal decline. Using Deleuze and Guattari’s opposition between state apparatus and war machine, as well as Hannah Arendt’s idea of constituent power as collective empowerment, this talk examines Romero’s oblique modernism to discern beneath the film’s overt ridiculousness a daringly surreal appropriation of the cinematic apparatus in the interest of an actual utopian potential that the nihilistic consolidation of commodity capitalism would soon effectively extinguish, but that deserves to be recalled and reconsidered in our disillusioned day and age.


Film Theory and Visual Culture Seminar: Oct. 29, 12:30-1:30 p.m. (CT) (Zoom discussion of a prerecorded presentation, which will be available a week before).  Nicholas Baer  (University of Groningen)  “‘Films of Thought’: On Hegel, Adorno, and the Good of Cinema”

Nicholas Baer is Assistant Professor of Film Studies in the Department of Arts, Culture, and Media at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. He co-edited the award-winning The Promise of Cinema: German Film Theory, 1907–1933 (University of California Press, 2016) and Unwatchable(Rutgers University Press, 2019). Baer has published on film and media, critical theory, and intellectual history in journals such as Cinéma & Cie, Film Quarterly, Leo Baeck Institute Year Book, Los Angeles Review of Books, Public Seminar, and October, and his writings have been translated into six languages. During the 2021–22 year, he will be a Junior Fellow at the Alfried Krupp Institute for Advanced Study in Greifswald, Germany.


Film Theory and Visual Culture Seminar: Nov. 12th  12:30-2:00 p.m. Live and in person at the RPWC.  Caetlin Benson-Allott  (Georgetown University)  “Expanding the Scene of the Screen: Material Cultures of Film and Television”

Caetlin Benson-Allott is Professor of English and Film & Media Studies at Georgetown University. She is the author of The Stuff of Spectatorship: Material Cultures of Film and Television (University of California Press, 2021), Remote Control (Bloomsbury, 2015), and Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens: Video Spectatorship from VHS to File Sharing Television (University of California Press, 2013). She is also Editor of JCMS, the scholarly publication of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, and writes a regular column on politics, platforms, and contemporary media for Film Quarterly.

Abstract: Film and television create worlds, but they are also of a world, a world that is made up of stuff, to which humans attach meaning. Think of the last time you watched a movie: the chair you sat in, the snacks you ate, the people around you, maybe the beer or joint you consumed to help you unwind—all this stuff shaped your experience of media and its influence on you. The material culture around film and television changes how we make sense of their content, not to mention the very concepts film and television. But while scholars have spent decades studying how human identities, human bodies, and various technologies influence media reception, little attention has been paid to the material culture around the viewer and their screens. Focusing on the material cultures of film and television reception, my new book, The Stuff of Spectatorship, argues that the things we share space with and consume as we consume television and film radically alter viewers’ sense of themselves, their media, and their world.