Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Conference fatigue is real #SCMS18

This past week was the 59th annual conference of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies. I'm an historian, not a media scholar, but my interests often gravitate towards the quirky and pop culture, so it made sense to be surrounded by the quirky and pop culture for a while. Since it was happening in Toronto, I went along. After all, when you have a chance to attend a global conference without incurring hotel bills, you might as well go.

This was by far the largest conference I have ever seen. Spread over five days, there were a total of 445 panels, which roughly equates to 1,700 papers! More than once, I had to pick one panel over another (who knows what I missed!). In short, conference fatigue is REAL. This was especially apparent on Sunday, when panelists outnumbered the barely conscious audience.

As a scholar-in-training, you will eventually encounter the monster conference of your discipline, so having dry-runs without presentation anxiety is really valuable. You quickly pick up conference etiquette, learn how to plan which papers to attend, and (very important!) how to eat lunch in the middle of six hours of papers. It is also a great opportunity to meet people with similar interests from all over the world. Networking doesn't have to be Machiavellian; simply asking a question after a paper you found really interesting counts just as much - and is probably more sincere.

As one of the few historians in attendance, I probably stuck out like a sore thumb. My eyes would glaze over as people excitedly debated the inner workings of many, many isms I have never heard of. Instead, I would get really frantic about dates and context, so it all evened out in the end. This is not meant to say that one discipline is better than another. In fact, I came away with many interesting ideas, including a few theoretical ones which might help me understand my own work. It never hurts to see what other scholars are doing - especially when you are approaching the same material from completely different angles. I chose panels based on what looked interesting, from petroculture to horror, toys to fan studies. These are a few of the papers I thought really stood out:

Ila Tyagi, "Extending the Eye: Vision and Technology in Midcentury American Petroculture"

Looking at the promotional material of the American Petroleum Institute, this paper made me think about all the lobbying that corporate America did (and still does). Petroculture is a very hot field right now as scholars realize that, although oil is ubiquitous, we don't pay much attention to it.

Jonathan Rey Lee, "Deconstructing Construction Toys"

Other than the fact that Lego is amazing, this paper questioned our assumption that construction toys are somehow neutral. Rather, they are embedded in complex frameworks of gender and social structures.

Kartik Nair, "Grotesque Surfaces: Tracking Bombay Horror's Unfinished Special Effects"

I had never thought of makeup and film prosthetics as being material culture, but they are and what a fascinating topic to study. In particular, I was intrigued by how makeup and latex extend the boundaries of the body.

The Entirety of Panel Q12, "Materiality and Merchandising in Screen Consumption Cultures"

This was by far my favourite panel as Matt Hills, Ross Garner, Paul Booth, and Rebecca Williams took my mind on a delightful journey through Doctor Who auctions, Funko, the Rickmobile, and theme parks. Fan studies, and the material culture associated with fans, it a really interesting field of study and very much linked to my interests in toys. Now if I could only figure out what paratexts are, they sound really useful...

Heather Davis, "Plastic Media"

Plastic is oil, oil is petroculture, and petroculture is so hot right now. Davis, who is writing a book about the theory of plastic, explored how plastic has redefined our world. Plastic never really goes away, it just gets smaller. In short, we are all plastic now.

Kenneth Rogers, "Pathways Diversions: Plastic Media and Neuro-ecologies"

Tupperware parties: plastic meets the social. A domestic (ie. safe) way to be introduced to the exciting new world of oil-based plasticity. Speaking of which, need to figure out plasticity too...

Media studies and critical theory are very different disciplines from history. History remains one of the most theory-averse subjects and I generally agree with this. Theory is dense, often full of overly complicated language and becomes a sort of fence to keep out the uninitiated. That said, when applied by someone who can explain it well, there are moments when theory jumps out as being just what is needed to explain something. Having said that, for the sake of us backwards historians, please use it sparingly!

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the world of cinema and media. If you happen to be in Seattle next March, I suggest you check out the 60th SCMS conference. It will be worth it.