Passions: Promises and Perils
Communication Department Conference
The phrase was posed by Dr Lisa Henderson (Chair of the Communication Department) in the Q-and-A following Dr Rey Chow’s keynote address. Lisa was musing out loud about (what I am describing as) a mapping of cinematic representations designed to invoke fear/horror and the possible range of affective responses called into subjective possibility by a film’s staging. I thought Lisa’s formulation suggested a label for a puzzle emergent in the cumulative discourse of the first day’s worth of conference workshops.
My ‘map’ of the flow of the “Passions” conference discourse traces only my own path through the set of concurrent workshops, so it can hardly be considered complete. However, I wager that it has potential to serve as an adequate preliminary structuring for other conference participants to amend. [The conference forum remains available for de-briefing, networking, further development, etc.] Dr Chow traced a complicated path from a theory of “rupture” by Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin to contemporary pornographic and obscene exposures that no longer generate the ruptures that Brecht (and many others) argue spark heightened consciousness.
The problem of rupture failure is acute when theory is challenged to demonstrate its relevance in the face of practice, such as when analysis of film’s effect as a media is confronted with real life effects. This occurred in two instances during the post-keynote Q & A, when cinematic depictions of violence are cast against documentaries of actual violence, and when extradiagetic factors are included as relevant to the understanding of a story.
It is given in many fields that growth often comes from contact with something new, unfamiliar, even strange. Brecht used art to try and inspire people’s conscious perception and applied intelligence. Chow’s idea that “reflexivity becomes increasingly inseparable from a self-conscious type of performativity” obviously brought my own blog to mind, but her analysis is to the ways in which extreme applications (especially in film) tend “more and more…toward violence.” Part of the performativity that I cultivate with my self-conscious ‘thinking out loud’ is the challenge of finding moves through everyday interactions and conversations that veer away from violence without flinching from confronting the violent – even (or perhaps especially?) at the level of the mundane. For instance, the ways in which we academics do our work that results in collusion with the larger infrastructures that we explicitly aim to change.
Later that evening, I relaxed by reading a bit of science fiction.
“No alarming art here, thank you. Nothing ‘disturbing’ was even allowed in public places … the Imperium achieved its final state, the terminally bland.
Yet to Hari, the reaction against blandness was worse…a style based solely on rejection. Particularly among those Hari termed ‘chaos worlds,’ a smug avant-garde fumbled for the sublime by substituting for beauty a love of terror, shock, and the sickeningly grotesque. They used enormous scale, or acute disproportion, or scatology, or discord and irrational disjunction.
Both approaches were boring. Neither had any airy joy.”
Gregory Benford, Foundation’s Fear
p. 17-18, 1997
The beauty and the bane of science fiction is that it generally presupposes no evolution for homo sapiens. In order to remain sensible to readers in the present, people in the imagined future act out trends of behavior palpable in the present and the past. The downside of ensuring recognition (at the level of familiarity, if none other) is that it can feed a kind of fatalistic predetermination about the human condition: always and forever (it seems) we are destined (however one locates the source) to play out the same dynamics, even to be channeled into a limited number of roles, as if identities are possible only in finite quantity.
I anticipated the second day of the “Passions” conference, wondering what the discourse would bring. Everyone acknowledged that the conference was smaller than desired, yet many expressed satisfaction at what the size enabled. Being steeped (this semester) in a course on media historiography, I was attuned to the valorization of experience that permeated many of the presentations (ref Joan Scott, “The Evidence of Experience”). Experience seemed to justify a need and drive to create safety, as many (but not all) panelists focused on the “promises” of passion instead of on its “perils.”
Maybe (I muse), the graduate students in the Communication Department dealt with peril in the 2006 CommGrad Conference, “Communication in Crisis“? To imagine such a thing, however, means conceiving of some kind of group cohesion over time – a mode of thinking not much in style. Even if at some levels most of us know there is something credible about group dynamics and the enactment of identities and roles…i.e., of the socially-constructed basis of individual experience, it is really, really hard to step back and try to perceive how anything that feels so intimately like my own experience is a reflection of what society allows/determines that experience to be. Just because we get reflexive doesn’t mean we move beyond category! (Dammit.)
So I was absolutely fascinated in the closing de-briefing session at the response from conference planners when a UMass CommGrad requested that the “race” and “objective” panels (her terms) should have been mixed up more, because then she could have gotten some of both. The conference planners had not realized the thematic separation. Several people (planners and participants) had been questioning the presence of dichotomies in the conference throughout, but this one seemed to have slipped past everyone’s radar until the very end. The conversation at this point was intriguing, including logistical reasoning (e.g., ‘we can only group by what seems similar in the abstracts’) and matter-of-fact avowals from some who chose to follow the “race” track: ‘this is me, I didn’t even think about the other choice’ (both are rough paraphrases, just to show the sense).
What does this have to do with rupture?
Or – perhaps – everything, or at least a lot!
A critique could be leveled that the conference was “too” this, or “too” that, but it is probably more constructive to imagine that the conference was just what it was – an interactive, group-level gathering of academics with common (or at least overlapping) interests, which happened to enact an unplanned division between matters primarily concerning race, and other, shall I say, non-race-based issues. In other words (one could imagine), a mirror representation of a society that wants to treat race as a separate concern for those who are interested in it by dint of personal experience.
During one of the panels during the second day, I suggested that – in light of contemporarily inured subjectivities – maybe we need to develop our communicative skills for generating ruptures in and among, with and for each other. This is not necessarily safe! Yet doing so, I suspect, might enable us to expand tolerances for handling radical contingency – the ever-present chance that, at any moment, things might go or be understood differently than we expect.