Cult Conversations: Interview with Julia Round (Part I)

I have had the honour and pleasure of working alongside Julia Round since I secured my first full-time post at Bournemouth University. Not only have a learned a great deal from Julia over the past four years but I have also been continually impressed by her keen insights and rigorous scholarship—her monograph Gothic in Comics and Graphic Novels (2014) is an exceptional work and I highly recommend it. In this interview, Julia and I discuss the Gothic, and the way in which comic books, especially in the UK, have engaged with the tenets and tropes of the phenomenon. I still have a lot to learn from Julia and consider myself a passionate student of her work, going back to when I was an undergraduate and PhD candidate at the University of Sunderland. Throughout our discussion, I was certainly surprised to learn about a relationship between the Gothic and comic books—Julia’s research uncovers the Gothic in “unusual places.” I hope readers find Julia’s insights as erudite and revealing as I have.

—William Proctor

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In your monograph, Gothic in Comics and Graphic Novels (2014), you begin by saying that: “At first glance it might seem that contemporary comics and the Gothic tradition are completely unconnected.” In what ways, then, do you think that the comic medium has included material infused with Gothic tendencies and characteristics? Was there anything in particular that instigated such a viewpoint?

 One of the more obvious examples of Gothic themes in comics is, of course, the American horror comics of the 1940s and 1950s. They were absolutely dominant for a short period of time, circulating over 60 million copies per month. Even non-comics-readers have probably heard of EC’s Tales from the Crypt – and there were many other imitators, all releasing anthology comics full of suspense and gore, alongside the equally shocking crime comics. Like the earliest Gothic texts, these comics went against the grain of social acceptability: they were sensationalist and transgressive. The problem was that they were sold on newsstands and to children, prompting widespread moral panic and a Senate investigation that forced the American industry to commit to a Code of self-censorship in 1954. In many ways this has shaped the comics medium in Britain and America today as it led to the dominance of the superhero genre and the rise of the underground.

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But for me, comics’ Gothic tendencies go far beyond horror motifs. There are historical parallels to be drawn, as comics have often been considered sensationalist, lowbrow and subversive – much like Gothic texts. Gothic themes also underpin many genres of comics – not just the obvious examples of horror comics. The superhero is a model of fragmented identity, as the alter ego and super-identity literalise the ‘Other within’ and are only held together through processes of exclusion. Superheroes’ physicality also relies on a monstrous and mutable body. Today the genre has developed away from its action-driven origins, moving towards introspection and confessional narratives. Meanwhile, underground genres such as autobiographix frequently hone in on trauma (Spiegelman’s Maus, Una’s Becoming Unbecoming) or illness (David B’s Epileptic), or explore the place of the individual within society (Sowa and Savoia’s Marzi, Satrapi’s Persepolis) and thus touch upon Gothic themes of isolation and alienation.

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The cultures that surround Gothic and comics also share similarities. They both carry a weight of cultural assumptions and stereotypes, for example Goths are seen as depressed, morbid and pretentious, while comics are the domain of geeky fanboys and fangirls. We might consider Goth as an identity performance using surface appearance and fetishized commodities: incorporating both creativity (DIY skill, imagination and daring) and purchase power (access and ability to afford high-end items, materials or particular brands). Comics cosplay performs similar tensions, as it asserts individuality (homemade costumes, the accompanying pose and performance, adaptations and subversions such as re-gendering) whilst still adopting an industry-controlled image. Both Goth and comics subcultures present outwardly as a collaborative group, while remaining split internally in defence of particular titles or types of knowledge. They’re based around images and properties that are strictly licensed, but cosplay and fanfiction thrive, and both groups exist in a fetishized relationship with their own media and artefacts.

Finally, I think comics narratives exploit Gothic in their storytelling structure and formalist qualities, and this is the main subject of my first book. Fans and scholars use Gothic language to talk about comics (‘bleeds’, ‘slabbing’, Charles Hatfield’s ‘tensions’ and Scott McCloud’s concepts of ‘closure’ and ‘blood in the gutters’). Formalist comics critics like Thierry Groensteen, Charles Hatfield, Scott McCloud and Benoît Peeters often draw attention to three shared points: the space of the page, the role of the reader, and the interplay between word and image. My own work synthesises and builds on these critics and uses Gothic critical theory to revalue their ideas. I use three key Gothic concepts (haunting, the crypt, and excess) to analyse the comics page. So I argue that the page is haunted by similarities with previous panels or layouts; that it uses multiple and excessive perspectives as our viewpoint jumps about (in and out of the story, from narration to dialogue – and words may address us directly while visuals immerse us); and that it exploits the hidden and the unseen (in the gutter or ‘crypt’ between panels). I suggest that if we use this holistic approach to evaluate comics, we will find that every page employs one or more of these three tropes to enhance its message, and the way that it is used will give insight into the story.

So for me, comics can be considered Gothic in historical, thematic, cultural, structural and formalist terms, and Gothic characteristics can be found in the most unlikely of places (one of my articles analyses the uncanny perspectives and destabilised narrative used in the Care Bears comics!). As for what started it – well I guess I’m drawn to the contradictions I see in Gothic literature and culture, and to the deconstruction of how stories work. The tensions and paradoxes between surface and depth have always appealed to me.

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When did your journey into comics begin? Would you consider yourself a fan first and foremost? Or was it academic study that sparked your interest in the medium?

That’s a hard question to answer – like a lot of scholars who are passionate about their subject, I’m not sure I can separate the two entirely. I read comics as a kid, but not obsessively. I don’t have an encyclopaedic knowledge of DC and Marvel. My comics fandom really started around 1990 when I became a teenager, and predictably enough with DC’s Vertigo titles. Hellblazer, Preacher and of course Sandman were the first ones I remember reading, thanks to my brother. They grabbed my attention and challenged my expectations of what I thought could be done with narrative and storytelling. They were also irreverent, parodic, and self-aware, and I loved that.

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My academic study did play a big part in honing my interest in comics though. When I began to encounter critical theory in earnest during my undergraduate degree (BA English Literature, Cardiff University), I became interested in genre theory and semiotics. In particular there were three units I studied that would shape my future research – Children’s Literature (taught by Peter Hunt), Romantic Literature, and Literature of the 1890s. The Vertigo comics told stories that I thought really pushed the boundaries of genre, and exploited the Romantic notion of the author, using structure and semiotics to create reflexive meaning. They enhanced my interest in dark Romanticism, decadent literature and formalist theory, and (after I completed an MA in Creative Writing at Cardiff University, awarded 2001) I decided that comics’ treatment of genre and narratology was what I wanted to explore in my PhD (awarded by Bristol University, 2006). This ended up being a project called ‘From Comic Book to Graphic Novel: Writing, Reading, Semiotics’. My supervisor was landmark Gothic theorist David Punter, which doubtless shaped my thesis as I explored the applicability and use of different genre models in contemporary comics, such as myth, the Fantastic, and Gothic. 

My study of children’s literature (which I also now teach at Bournemouth University) and my childhood memories of comics also combined to spark my most recent project. It’s a critical analysis of children’s horror comics, in particular two British girls’ comics: Spellbound (DC Thomson, 1976-78) and Misty (IPC, 1978-80). I’m fascinated by the presence of Gothic and horror in literature for children and young adults, which other critics such as Catherine Spooner, Chloe Buckley and Joseph Crawford are doing wonderful work on. My Misty project not only brought together my scholarly interests in sensationalist, Gothic and children’s literature (and comics!) but was also a very personal quest, as it partially grew out of a hunt for a half-remembered story that had haunted me for 33 years!

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Gothic doesn’t seem to be easily categorized. Can we think of “Gothic” as a distinct generic category? In your view, how might Gothic be best described?

 I think Gothic is hard to categorise because it is so wide-ranging. It takes on different forms at different times and in different media. Even if we just focus on Gothic literature, how can we find a definition that reconciles texts ranging from The Castle of Otranto (Walpole, 1764) to Twilight (Meyers, 2008)? They are miles apart in historical, philosophical, formal, generic and cultural terms. Gothic motifs have changed as the genre developed – Fred Botting identifies a turn from external to internal, and contemporary Gothic incorporates suburbia alongside the haunted castle. Its archetypes have also shifted – vampires are now sympathetic (Nina Auerbach), and zombies have moved from living slaves to cannibalistic corpses, and back again to an infected human. Critical approaches to Gothic are equally diverse, and many critics argue that Gothic is more than a genre, and may be better understood as a mode of writing or ur-form (David Punter), a poetic tradition (Anne Williams), a rhetoric (Robert Mighall), a discursive site (Robert Miles), or a habitus (Timothy Jones). Gothic is also full of contradictions – mobilising fear and attraction simultaneously and inviting us to read its texts as both shockingly transgressive (taboo acts and events) and rigidly conservative (as these acts are punished and order restored).

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Gothic remains notoriously hard to define in all these models, and somewhat tautological. Critics like Baldick and Mighall have pointed out that most definitions really tell us more about what Gothic does than what it actually is. Critics such as Catherine Spooner, and Chloe Buckley also draw attention to overlooked Gothics that are celebratory or playful and which rely more on aesthetics than thematics. So Gothic becomes multiple and mutable, ranging from parody to pain, and can appear as affect, aesthetic, or practice. It’s hard to identify it without just listing common motifs, and the most successful definitions are those that are wide enough to work across different eras and media. Punter and Jerrold E. Hogle both offer definitions that involve archaic settings/spaces, supernatural or uncanny effects, haunting and secrets. Fear is of course a key element, although subjective, and so many critics focus on its textual presence rather than speculating about reader response, and try to identify the various forms that fear can take – most famously writer Ann Radcliffe separates it into terror (the unseen and speculative) and horror (the dramatic and repulsive).

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For me, Gothic is a mode of creation (both literary and cultural) that draws on fear and is both disturbing and appealing. It is an affective and structural paradox: simultaneously giving us too much information (the supernatural, the unreal) and too little (the hidden, unseen, unknown). It is built on confrontations between opposing ideas, and contains an inner conflict characterised by ambivalence and uncertainty. It inverts, distorts, and obscures. It’s transgressive and seductive. Its common tropes (which are both aesthetic and affective) include temporal or spatial haunting, a reliance on hidden meaning (the crypt), and a sense of excess beyond control – and these are the three key components of my critical approach to comics. Within Gothic I recognize the distinctions that Radcliffe draws between terror (the threatening, obscured and unknown) and horror (the shocking, grotesque and obscene). Alongside these terms I also recognize horror as a cinematic and literary genre that privileges this second type of fear: a genre that shocks, disturbs, and confronts (see next question).

Is there a critical and conceptual distinction between the Gothic tradition and horror? Do you see these two functioning as a binary or do they possess a more closely knit relationship? Do you think that cultural distinctions have operated historically to canonize Gothic media as “high art,” while disparaging horror as cheap pop cultural ephemera? 

I think there is a distinction between Gothic and horror. Radcliffe’s famous divide between terror/horror has been explored by numerous later critics and creators, from Devendra Varma (1957) to Stephen King (1981). In general there is agreement that (Gothic) terror is psychological and insidious while horror is violent and confrontational (see for example Gina Wisker; Dale Townshend), although the categories sometimes cross and blur.

The relationship and hierarchy between the two has been defined in numerous ways, and scholars’ positions seem to vary according to the medium and historical perspective that they use. In general I agree with critics like Gina Wisker, who argues that horror is ‘A branch of Gothic writing’ (p8), but by contrast, Xavier Aldana Reyes defines Gothic literature as ‘the beginnings of a wider crystallization of horror fiction’ (p15).

I also think medium has also played a part in validating and distinguishing the two. So within Gothic I follow the distinctions Radcliffe draws between horror and terror, but alongside these terms I also recognize horror as a cinematic and literary genre that privileges this second type of fear. When it comes to horror I certainly think there has been a value judgement made of the type you suggest – but alongside this I would stress that only one particular type of Gothic has been canonised (the serious, weighty, literary and often historical). If we take a more inclusive view of Gothic that includes fashions, parodies, cute Gothic and so on, many these forms have been equally sidelined and denigrated as ‘low’ pop culture, just like horror (see for example Catherine Spooner’s Post Millennial Gothic and Joseph Crawford’s The Twilight of the Gothic). So within Gothic itself there is a tension and a disparagement of certain types – particularly relating to the tastes of particular audiences such as young girls.

What authors and artists do you think have successfully adopted the Gothic aesthetic in their works? Are they historically contingent or is it more widespread that we might commonly think?

I want to pick that question apart a little first as I think a Gothic aesthetic is different from a Gothic thematic. Critics such as Stephen Farber (1972) and Spooner (2017) (writing nearly 50 years apart and across different media) have defined the Gothic aesthetic as based around elements such as exaggerated shadows/chiaroscuro; distorted proportions; skewed angles; asymmetry; baroque or intricate ornamentation; and motifs of age or decay. These can be used in combination with pleasurable or playful tales – for example the work of Tim Burton – which Spooner argues draws on aesthetic over affect, and which she defines as the ‘whimsical macabre’.

These aesthetic Gothics are often denigrated and viewed as lightweight, and there is a danger that when we analyse them we resort to simply listing motifs. I think Gothic has a complicated relationship between surface and depth; where aesthetic motifs can be linked with affective themes, but can also be decoupled. Purely aesthetic Gothics are often denigrated, like the works of Burton, which have been criticised as lightweight and superficial. Fred Botting puts forward a wider argument that this sort of ‘candygothic’ is a commercialised representation of the genre, with its bite removed. But Gothic has always been populist, and if we trace a path back through the Romance, sensationalist and Decadent genres (as critics such as Crawford have done) we can see that Gothic is in fact very widespread, varied, and popular in all its different forms.

Q Your work examines what we might describe as “unusual places” that Gothic can be found. Your most recent work examines the British “girl’s horror comic” Misty, which was published in the late-1970s until its cancellation in 1980. However, Misty may be somewhat alien to readers outside the field and British geography. Can you explain what it is about Misty that you find worthy of academic enquiry?

I like the conception of my work as looking for Gothic in unusual places! And that’s a great question, because if there’s one thing I like it’s talking about Misty! It’s a girls’ mystery comic that was published in the UK by IPC/Fleetway from 1978 to 1980. It ran for 101 weekly issues and it’s fondly remembered today by a generation of readers who were, quite frankly, scarred for life! It was an anthology comic that combined serials and single stories, and it definitely didn’t pull any punches. The serials were generally tales of personal growth where a heroine is thrown into the middle of a mystery, for example by receiving a magic item, or strange powers. (I’d argue that they act as clear metaphors for adolescence, as unwanted powers or transformations must be overcome before the heroine can be happy with her new identity or place.) But the single stories were even better – horrible cautionary tales in which bad heroines were punished in a number of very imaginative ways! They might be trapped permanently in magical items such as crystal balls, snow globes, music boxes, or weather houses; aged prematurely; ousted from their bodies; or transformed into something monstrous! They can also die in a number of horrible ways. The outcomes are often poetic justice (maybe looking back to EC Comics) – for example Cathy cons an old lady out of a moodstone ring which then sucks all the colour out of her life (‘Moodstone’, #1); a gossip columnist is crushed to death by the books of names and notes she has kept on her acquaintances (‘Sticks and Stones’, #16); clothes-thief Ann is turned into a fashion dummy (‘When the Lights go Out!’, #18); cruel siblings Vivien and Steve trap a mouse in a maze until it dies of exhaustion but are in turn locked in a maze by sentient apes (‘The Pet Shop’, #24); Sally awakens a real ghost while teasing her scared cousin (‘The Last Laugh’, #29); and so on. The Misty stories did not pull their punches and, while horrifying, there is also something blackly humorous about this sort of poetic justice that chimes with Horner and Zlosnik’s research into Gothic comedy.

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Misty is currently enjoying a series of reprints by Rebellion publishing. I think it has stood the test of time due to some great storytelling and fantastic artwork. It grew out of 2000AD creator Pat Mills’ idea for a girls’ horror comic inspired by the psychological horror of the day (such as Stephen King’s Carrie and Frank De Felitta’s Audrey Rose). It also owes a lot to DC Thomson’s Spellbound – a competitor title that ended shortly before Misty launched. But the comic that Misty became was much more than just horror rewrites. Its first editor Wilf Prigmore introduced the character of Misty herself, its fictional host and editor, who is beautifully drawn by Shirley Bellwood and acts as a sort of spirit guide to its readers. Its main editor Malcolm Shaw was a wonderful writer who shaped Misty around his own literary interests in science fiction and myth. The art came from a number of British and European artists who were absurdly talented – many of the Spanish artists who worked on Misty were also drawing for American horror titles such as Creepy and Eerie (Warren Publishing) at the same time, and they did not pull their punches. While most girls’ comics of the time had an average story episode length of 3 pages, Mills used his 2000AD approach on Misty and instead set the story length at 4 pages, allowing for plenty of dramatic visuals, large opening panels and splash pages. Its art editor Jack Cunningham took his cue from 2000AD’s Doug Church and marked up some of the scripts that went to artists to make each page as dramatic and exciting as possible – there are lots of large opening panels, borderless images and so on. I led a small research project that combined qualitative and quantitative analysis of layout and used the findings to reflect on current formalist comics theory – the findings were very illuminating!

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I believe that pretty much everything is worthy of academic enquiry in some way, so I don’t want to make the case for Misty as an exceptional text – in many ways it is simply representative of the wider norms of the British comics industry at the time. So although it is a great example of Gothic storytelling structure and themes, I think Misty can also tell us a lot about the motivations and limitations of the British comics industry (see below), the aesthetics of comics storytelling, and (at a wider level) the intersections of genre and gender. My in-depth page analysis of Misty found that the vast majority of the pages were transgressive in some way, and I used these findings to reflect on established comics theory from scholars such as Thierry Groensteen and Neil Cohn. It led me to rethink many ideas about page layouts. The project also looks closely at how Gothic archetypes, tropes and themes are being reworked for a younger readership. As I mentioned above, the tastes of young female audiences have often been mocked and marginalised, and so there is a significant gap in scholarly material around these texts and their distribution that is only just starting to be addressed. Analysing the types of narratives that are offered to these readers tells us a lot about the cultural construction of gender and about the way in which genres like Gothic have been conceptualised and curated, excluding the tastes of particular demographics and privileging a narrow view of the genre.

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So although it began as an attempt to track down a half-remembered story and explore my ideas about Gothic in comics from a new angle, my Misty project has grown far beyond that. I’ve done a ton of primary research (creator interviews, archival visits, analysis of scripts and publishers’ documents) alongside theoretical investigation of girls’ periodical publishing, fairy tale, children’s Gothic, Female Gothic, and British comics. I’ve produced a database of all the Misty stories, which includes all known writer and artist credits, story summaries, and their publication details, at www.juliaround.com/misty. It's a significant piece of work because the stories in British comics were not credited, and so I am indebted to experts such as David Roach and comics community forum discussions for much of the information I’ve gathered. I hope my database will enable further research and be a useful tool to help fans and scholars find those stories that they half remember or that are relevant to their work. I’ve also published some of the interviews I have done on the same website, and last year I published an open access article that explores the idea of Gothic for Girls by comparing Spellbound and Misty. My full critical book Gothic for Girls: Misty and British Comics is due to be published by UP Mississippi in Summer 2019. It’s easily been the most rewarding work I’ve done to date and I’m very excited about it!

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Julia Round is a Principal Lecturer in the Faculty of Media and Communication at Bournemouth University, UK. She is one of the editors of Studies in Comics journal (Intellect Books) and a co-organiser of the annual International Graphic Novel and Comics Conference (IGNCC). Her first book was Gothic in Comics and Graphic Novels (McFarland, 2014), followed by the edited collection Real Lives, Celebrity Stories (Bloomsbury, 2014). In 2015 she received the Inge Award for Comics Scholarship for her research, which focuses on Gothic, comics, and children’s literature. She has recently completed two AHRC-funded studies examining how digital transformations affect young people's reading. Her new book Misty and Gothic for Girls in British Comics (forthcoming from UP Mississippi, 2019) examines the presence of Gothic themes and aesthetics in children’s comics, and is accompanied by a searchable database of all the stories (with summaries, previously unknown creator credits, and origins), available at her website www.juliaround.com.

Cult Conversations: Interview with Shellie McMundro (Part II)

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Let’s return to this notion of cultural trauma. I agree that films are “a product of the time in which they were made,” at least to some extent—refraction not reflection, however—and that tracking and charting the found footage subgenre, both diachronically and synchronically, can teach us important lessons about the shifting lens of what constructs the ‘real.’  Could you expand on the cultural trauma aspects of The Blair Witch Project in comparison to Quarantine and perhaps the social media horror, Unfriended?  As each film was produced in almost ten-year intervals, what can this tell us about the texts comparatively from a cultural trauma perspective?

I’m in no way saying that every found footage horror film somehow links to cultural trauma, but the subgenre is a really interesting and fertile ground for representations of trauma – especially in our ‘tape everything’ culture.

The element of The Blair Witch Project that I admire the most is just how oppositional it felt compared to other horror films of the late 1990s. Part of its effectiveness, I feel, is that we were so used to very glossy productions full of beautiful people getting killed off one by one, I’m thinking here of Scream, Urban Legend, and the like, where it was a given that at some point someone had to cleverly announce ‘It’s like were in a scary movie…’. The Blair Witch Project to me really felt like a visceral reaction against that kind of self-aware post-modern horror film. It is still a self-aware film, but with zero irony. Its effectiveness comes from the film very much returning to basics on the cultural anxiety front. You have, in The Blair Witch Project, a folk tale about a folk tale, in a way. There is the myth of the witch established up front, with the interviews from townspeople and Heather’s exposition, which was supported by the plethora of paratexts surrounding the film, and then the narrative uses that base cautionary tale to launch its own folk tale about the dangers of going into the woods that we have seen in Hansel and Gretel and Red Riding Hood, going back to this primal fear of being lost in the woods. A quote from the film that stays with me is when the trio begin to realise that they are hopelessly lost, and Heather says something like ‘It’s very hard to get lost in America these days, and it’s even harder to stay lost’. Then, later in the film, the group are talking about their situation and Heather argues that everything that is happening can’t actually be possible because ’This is America. We’ve used up all our natural resources’. There is something to be said of the film presenting this anxiety about America, being American, and the position of America on the brink of the new millennium. There is this resonance with the American frontier, and this overconfidence that at the brink of the millennium we have won against nature, we have beaten back this hostile force and have emerged victorious, but the film reminds us that there are still hostile places in America, places we cannot master.  

Moving onto Quarantine, this film is a really interesting case study, not only because it’s a great film, but because it’s also a remake of a great film! Quarantine is a remake of the Spanish horror film Rec, which only came out a year before it in 2007. It sticks pretty close to the original film, apart from the ending, which a lot of audiences didn’t like. In Rec we find out that the cause of a rapid spreading infection is of religious origin, whereas in Quarantine it is a doomsday cult that have developed the virus. It is reductive to say ‘all American horror films made post 9/11 are about 9/11’, and in a few years time I think we might see that replaced with the sentiment that ‘all American horror films made post 2016 are about the Trump presidency’. However, I can’t personally get away from the fact that in Quarantine, and in Rec, you have these images of reporters with cameras, firemen, and policemen, stuck in this tall building and they can’t get out. There is a definite factor there of what Adam Lowenstein calls ‘the allegorical moment’ in relation to 9/11.

Unfriended is a great film, and I was so excited to see how they built on it for Unfriended 2: Dark Web. What Unfriended did is really herald the emergence of a sub-sub genre within found footage horror, there are a lot of different terms for it, but I use ‘social media horror’. An abundance of films came out in the wake of Unfriended like SickHouse, which used apps like Snapchat as a horror format, and they work surprisingly well. Unfriended is especially affective if you watch it on a laptop, it’s an uncanny experience, and the first time I watched it, I got so involved that I instinctively tried to move the mouse pointer back when the character moved it! In terms of cultural anxieties, Unfriended uses what Jeffrey Sconce has termed as ‘haunted media’ – which he tracks back to telegraphy – to engage with themes like identity theft, cyberstalking, and cyberbullying. There is a thread that runs through the film which relates to the lifespan of the internet, or more, how long things remain on the internet once you have put them out there on the web. We have seen recently, for example with the controversy over tweets from James Gunn, how the internet has a long memory, and can come back around to haunt you. To be honest, tracking found footage horror over the last twenty years has been fascinating, because the anxieties emerging in Unfriended weren’t even on anyone’s radar back when The Blair Witch Project was released.

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There is a tendency in scholarly circles to analyse cultural objects as if they are reflections of the socio-political and cultural era in which they were produced and that historical context can be simply read off of the text. In Selling the Splat Pack, Mark Bernard deftly critiques this idea, arguing that (so-called) ‘reflectionist’ approaches  “is a quandary that affects all film studies” (2015: 31). In Bernard’s account, the idea of horror-as-reflection is a discourse that has been used by producers to authenticate the genre and imbue it with an aura that operates to circumnavigate its broader cultural low-status. Says Bernard:

“The genre has also inherited the tendency to be read as producing allegories of the anxieties and traumas of its particular historical moment without due consideration given to the industrial and technological factors that play a role in what types of films are produced, distributed and widely seen by audiences. If course, this interpretative strategy is not unique to horror film” (2015: 31).   

How might you respond to Mark Bernard’s criticism of ‘reflectionist’ approaches here?

I’m not a fan of the term “reflectionist”, I certainly wouldn’t position myself as someone who does “reflectionist” readings, as I don’t think that any cinema “reflects” the context in which it is made but is more a product of it. This is true of anything that comes out of a cultural moment, whether it be cinema, television, music, art, or slang. With my own research, I’m attempting to use cultural trauma as a framework, but am underpinning my findings with reviews and articles on the films from their release period, and with newer films, looking at the response to them on social media – how these films were/are talked about by fans, non-fans, academics, and aca-fans. The reason I’m supporting my analysis of the films with other evidence, is because I’m always aware that textual readings only tell us what one person thinks, and might not be what everyone who watched the film thought or got from it. I would argue however that if we get stuck in purely looking at industrial and technological factors, we just end up repeating facts and figures. However, if we put both together – or at least try to assimilate the two approaches – it would be far more fruitful.

I would also say that as with all approaches to cinema, no one approach covers everything. For example, a psychoanalytic reading of a film may miss something that a formalist reading would pick up and vice versa, it’s impossible for one method to do it all. For me personally, cultural studies and trauma studies was always the way I was going to go because of my background in history, but I’m completely open to other methodologies and expect I will adapt and engage with new approaches as I continue in my research career.

I find the idea that the horror genre specifically somehow has to be authenticated or legitimised – and that a way of doing this is through cultural readings – very odd. Although I started this project because I felt like found footage horror was unfairly perceived as a “low” form of horror, I don’t personally feel that the wider horror genre has to be legitimised scholarly, as we have already achieved that to a certain extent. Although, there certainly is still a strange hierarchy of horror both in horror fandom and horror scholarship. In summary, I would argue that with all methodologies, there will be an element that is not covered, but that doesn’t necessary make them a poor method to use.

Could you expound on your comment about “a strange hierarchy of horror both in horror fandom and horror scholarship.” What is this strange hierarchy and how do you view its operations both in fannish and scholarly contexts?

The study of horror cinema is definitely a field that has hard won its legitimacy, but seems to have retained this supposed stigma of being ‘low brow’. We can see this at work periodically, each time a horror film or a group of horror films are released and critics absolutely refuse to let them sit comfortably within the classification of ‘horror’. Most recently, we have seen it with the term ‘elevated horror’/’post-horror’ that has been used to describe films such as Hereditary, A Quiet Place, and It Comes at Night. To me, the term ‘elevated horror’ is such a backhanded compliment, it is really the carving out of a little niche that could be re-termed as ‘horror I personally enjoy’, as opposed to ‘horror that I think is trashy and ‘horror fans’ might enjoy’. I find it bizarre, and – I might be wrong in this – but you don’t really see this to the same extent in other cinematic genres, you don’t have ‘elevated drama’ for example.

In terms of scholarship, the horror genre is often positioned as being in a state of crisis, most often in reference to the multitude of remakes that were released in the mid 2000s. But we only need to look at the sheer volume of cinematic and televisual horror products in the last few years to see that is absolutely untrue. I read a journalistic article on last years IT recently, that posited that the film was ‘bad news for horror fans’. I thought that was interesting – why would IT be bad news for horror fans? – It seems to come down to this idea that horror fans are troubled somehow by horror being a successful genre. I’m not a fan studies scholar, so am unable to delve into how much truth is in that statement, but I can comment on my own possible bias as a fan of horror.

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In my work, I look into the response on social media to found footage horror films, and I’m reminded often of Mark Jancovich’s comments on horror fan response to the success of Scream. He argues that no one seemed troubled by how successful the film was apart from horror scholars and fans, going to on note that the response online was ‘guarded and even out right hostile’ (2000: 475). In turn, I admit that I am guilty of this myself at times, I have always been protective to a certain extent over the horror genre and its perceived status as an oppositional genre. For example, when I first started my research, I was vitriolic in my dislike of the Paranormal Activity films, and made a conscious effort to step back and address my own position on that series of films. I delved into how much of my distain for the series came from how I perceived their actual narrative and aesthetic qualities, and alternatively questioned whether it was the fact that they were so successful and therefore to my thinking, not “proper” horror that made me dislike them. I have endeavoured to avoid making judgements of “value” in regards to the found footage subgenre in my research.

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I have found a great deal of scholarly work holds contemporary horror up to a benchmark of 1970s horror cinema. For example, Reynold Humphries noted that ‘we shall see no more films of the calibre of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’  (2002: 195). While it is undeniable that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is an absolute classic of horror cinema – it’s brutal, it’s unrelenting, it’s amazingly shot, and has a fantastic score – I wouldn’t hesitate to place The Blair Witch Project in the same sentence as it, as it is also a horror genre classic, but this may seem like sacrilege to some! Matt Hills made a great point when he looked at horror scholarship and asked why some films were ‘canonically recuperated’ while others were not (2012: 111), and this is something I have attempted to address. It is something of a privilege, as a film scholar, to be in a position where you might be able to bring lesser-known films to wider attention, and there is definitely a shift in horror scholarship that seeks to redress the imbalance caused by so much focus being given to a relatively small pool of horror directors and movements. Overall, in our current age, with the internet and social media, there is far less opportunity for cultural gatekeepers to step in and tell us what we all “should” be watching – not just in horror cinema, but across all forms of popular culture – and this can only be a good thing!

And finally, what five films would you recommend that you feel represents ‘the best’ that found footage cinema can offer and why?

A lot of your questions have been tough to answer, but this is the toughest! I’ve missed out some great examples of the subgenre, but I didn’t want to go for anything really obscure or hard to get hold of, instead I have chosen films that I feel hit the key moments of the evolution of found footage horror cinema.  

The Blair Witch Project (Eduardo and Sanchez, 1999)

This one was a bit of a given, and I apologise for being thoroughly predictable! This film follows the story of three student filmmakers who want to make a documentary about a local legend – The Blair Witch. They enter the Burkittsville woods in Maryland and are never seen again. The film we watch is presented as the footage they captured before their disappearance, which was recovered from the woods. There is so much fascinating work available on this film, and the main reason for this is that The Blair Witch Project is – almost 20 years after its release – still such a compelling film. Made for so little money, it is a masterclass in constructing fear around suggestion. I would highly recommend searching out the accompanying documentary, The Curse of The Blair Witch, and watching that beforehand.

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The Bay (Levinson, 2012)

The Bay really shows how diverse the found footage horror format can be. Released in 2012 – post YouTube and iPhones – the film uses a variety of different types of footage (dashboard camera, handheld cameras, FaceTime messaging, Skype and webcams to name only a few), to present a narrative about a governmental cover-up of water toxicity in a small town on the Eastern shore, which has created mutant isopods (which are far more creepy than they sound!). There is a prevalent theme in the found footage horror subgenre of characters searching for truth or evidence, of media mistrust, and of the general public being in danger of becoming collateral damage. You can definitely see these themes in The Bay, as well as in Rec/Quarantine, Diary of the Dead, and many others.

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Quarantine (Dowdle, 2008)

You may wonder why I have chosen Quarantine here and not Rec, and my reasoning for that purely comes down to personal preference, Rec could just as easily be on this list. Either film would make for a great comparison viewing with The Blair Witch Project – both films use the same basic found footage format as The Blair Witch Project, but in terms of energy and visceral impact, take that form careening off in a massively different direction. Quarantine’s main character, Angela, is a television reporter who – along with her cameraman Scott – is documenting a nightshift with the local Fire department. They are attending what seems to be an odd but ultimately low risk call, when all hell breaks loose and they find themselves trapped within a quarantined zone. The reason I have selected this film is because of how quickly it descends into high octane chaos – a common complaint about found footage horror is the amount of dead time viewers have to sit through – this film wastes no time in placing the camera in the middle of panicked action sequences. I have a lot of favourite parts in this film, and overall it shows how the often maligned shaky, unsteady framing of found footage horror works so well within a high energy film – it adds to the atmosphere of dread and frenzy so well.

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The Sacrament  (West, 2012)

Years after watching it for the first time, I still can’t get over The Sacrament. I’m a huge fan of Ti West, and what he has created here is just superb. The Sacrament is a modern reimagining of The Jonestown Massacre of 1978. By featuring the real life media brand Vice, and their specific style of immersionist journalism, West presents to us an interpretation of what happened just before and during the Jonestown event. It’s an unflinching film at times, and has a level of emotional impact that still knocks me sideways each time I watch it. It’s an interesting film within the subgenre as well because it actually looks so good – if you watch this film after something like The Last Horror Movie for example, it looks so crisp and slick – with barely any shaky handheld moments that the subgenre at this point had become known for. This doesn’t detract from the film, far from it, it makes sense as the characters in the film aren’t a bunch of amateurs with camcorders, but professional journalists caught up in a newsworthy event.

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Marble Hornets (DeLage and Wagner, 2009 – 2014)

So this might be cheating a little, but Marble Hornets is a YouTube series which initially details a young man, Jay, looking through raw footage of an abandoned student film given to him by a friend, Alex, the film’s creator. Alex has forbidden Jay from ever trying to discuss the tapes with him. As you can imagine, the footage starts to become fractured, odd, distorted, and ever more creepy as the story progresses. I started watching Marble Hornets around 2011, and was instantly enthralled by it. Along with the YouTube entries, there were also Twitter accounts that tied into the storyline, and a side channel on YouTube, totheark, that also released videos that fed into the storyline. I don’t want to go too far into the background of this series, but it grew out of the Something Awful forum post that birthed Slenderman, and is the best Slenderman media product I’ve seen by a long way. I love how the flexibility of an online horror story like Slenderman enabled the creators of Marble Hornet’s to run with an idea and make a completely chilling and complex online narrative, watching it at the time when the entries were being released just made me as an audience member feel so involved with the story. A lot of copycat narratives have followed in the wake of Marble Hornets, none as brilliant, so I would wholeheartedly recommend giving the series a watch.

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Shellie McMundro is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Roehampton, where she is examining found footage horror cinema and its connection to cultural trauma. She has presented her work, on found footage horror and additionally on new media horror, period drama, and horror gaming, at a variety of conferences. Shellie has a forthcoming article in the European Journal of American Culture, which ties together research on American Horror Story, The True Crime fandom and school shooters. Her research interests are extreme horror, new media, trauma theory, online fandoms, and transmedial texts.

Cult Conversations: Interview with Shelley McMurdo (Part I)

This week’s interview is with Shellie McMurdo, a PhD candidate at the University of Roehampton. Shellie is researching the found footage sub-genre through the lens of cultural trauma for her PhD thesis. In the following interview, Shellie and I discuss found footage horror cinema, and the promotional/ paratextual ballyhoo that surround these films as a way to enhance them as “real.” I strongly believe that Shellie is an upcoming ‘scholar-to-watch,’ and hugely enjoyed reading her many insights into found footage cinema—and more! I have certainly learned a great deal during our various exchanges; Shellie’s energy and passion for the subject is inspirational. She has also agreed to contribute a chapter on the Blair Witch film series for Horror Franchise Cinema, an anthology which I am co-editing with Dr. Mark McKenna for Routledge. The interview is published in two-parts.

— William Proctor

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What is about the found footage horror genre that drew you to the topic? And how are you approaching it in terms of cultural trauma?

When I was studying Cult Film and Television at Brunel University, I started contemplating the idea of going on to do a PhD. I had a few false starts, where I went through a series of different topics as ideas for my PhD research. I thought at one point I was going to research torture horror, was very into rape revenge narratives for a while, and then I set my mind on examining the Slenderman phenomenon, which was back then in its infancy. In the end, I decided to study what I love, which is found footage horror.

I vividly remember watching The Blair Witch Project when I was around 15 years old, and being convinced it was real. I was unshakable in my certainty that I had just seen the last moments of three documentarians, and that their footage had somehow been found in the Burkittsville Woods and made into a film. You have to remember this was a good while before social media, and really, the internet back then was not the same internet we have now. I went on the Internet Movie Database, looked up the film, and saw that the cast members were listed as “missing – presumed dead” – My belief was solidified, they had been murdered and I had seen the footage of it! At school, the film was a hot topic of conversation, it wasn’t just me: we all believed it was real!

 Of course, that belief was relatively short lived, but that film, and my belief in its veracity, really stayed with me, as it was so unlike anything else I had seen at that point. I had been heavily invested in horror films since my older brother had forced me to watch The Evil Dead when I was seven, but there was something about The Blair Witch Project that made it scarier to me than the other horror films I had watched. I think it was the narrative’s alignment to the real world, the idea that it was all real.

 So, The Blair Witch Project definitely played a part in bringing me to this topic, and it sparked a passion for the found footage horror format. In the period between The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity – which it could be argued is the film that really brought found footage horror to a wider audience – in 2007, I would diligently seek out found footage horror films to watch, films like The Last Horror Movie, August Underground, and the superb Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. I think it’s fair to say though, that in that period between 1999 and 2007, found footage horror was still relatively uncommon in the cinema. It was only after the success of Paranormal Activity that found footage horror production boomed, and it started to seem like every other film was in that style.

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It was at that point that I started to feel quite protective of the found footage horror format. While it was true that there was a lot of absolute dross coming out in the wake of Paranormal Activity – the found footage “look” being cheap and easy to reproduce – there were some absolutely stunning films coming out too, like The Bay and The Sacrament among a whole host of others. These films would often get buried under the sheer volume of found footage horror being released, or dismissed as “just another found footage horror”.

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There is definitely a desire that has driven my research in that I almost wanted to be a champion of found footage horror, and of new horror more widely. There are so many articles in journalism and within scholarly accounts which compare new horror to older “classic” horror and find new horror wanting, and that’s always bothered me. I see the horror genre’s canonisation process as a never ending cycle, so perhaps in twenty years time, we will look back at found footage horror, or say, torture porn, and see them as classic subgenres. But perhaps not!

Primarily, what has kept me engaged with looking at found footage horror is a mix of my own experience with the format throughout my formative years, and how the subgenre continues to fascinate me by constantly reinventing itself. You have the shaky handheld camera of The Blair Witch Project evolving into Go Pro found footage horror with the “A Ride in the Park” segment in V/H/S/2, social media horror in Unfriended, and the Snapchat based SickHouse. It is a format that not only is able to evolve but needs to constantly evolve because it presents itself as part of our reality, so it needs to stay up to date with the audience in their current cultural moment. That adaptability is definitely one of the strengths of the subgenre. Another aspect that has contributed to its staying power is just how broad the variety of stories are that the format can lend itself to, which is great for me, as it has essentially allowed me to have so many different strands in my research!

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I’m approaching found footage horror from a cultural trauma perspective for a few reasons. My background, having studied History as my major at undergraduate level, gave me a keen awareness of the historical context different films were emerging from, and that has been a constant element in my work so far. I started looking at early German cinema for my BA in relation to the Weimar Republic, then in my MA I was relating the Hillbilly horror of American cinema in the 1970s to the Hoody Horrors emerging from Britain in the late 2000s. In a way, the research that I’m currently doing, is an amalgam of all the cultural trauma research I’ve done in my academic career up until this point.

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A trauma studies perspective fits found footage horror particularly well, because to an even greater extent than other horror subgenres, found footage horror is so hyper aware of its audience, its formal aesthetics, and its context. Occasionally this means that found footage films tend to date themselves very quickly, because they are always involved in this reflexive awareness of the technology that is around at the time of their production. But on the flipside, because of this constant dialogue with its cultural context that found footage horror has, it works so well as a commentary on what cultural anxieties were present at the time.

One of the things that I admire most about the horror genre more widely is how it evolves and adapts, and it has always been an early adopter of new media forms, much more so than other genres. The cultural trauma position made sense to me because of how much the films that I’m looking at are a product of the time in which they were made. The intention of my current research is to examine found footage horror in reference to cultural events that have changed Western society. So, for example, the expansion of the internet and emergence of social media, 9/11, and reality television – each one of these things have given us a new or different version of the “real”, or what we perceive the “real” to be or look like. As each of these events have happened, there have been accompanying new cultural fears that have come with them. For example with social media, there was panic over cyberbullying and easier identity theft, with 9/11 you have this long lasting, low level of constant threat and fear of attack, and with reality television you start to get into what is real, what is mediated, and almost a performative version of reality.

The chapter that I am currently writing is looking at the relationship between documentary and found footage horror. If we take Cannibal Holocaust as the starting point of the genre, we can see that the documentary format is something the subgenre consistently returns to. What is interesting is that now you have documentary films – the example I’m using being Cropsey – that are real documentaries, about real events, but which are using the visual lexicon of found footage horror to tell their stories. The first time I watched that documentary, I had to look it up on the internet to check to see whether it was real or a found footage film, and that’s really interesting, especially in the era of “fake news” and mistrust of the media.

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Moving on to the research I’m carrying out at the moment, the films that are the basis of my current chapter are The Sacrament and The Poughkeepsie Tapes, which are very different from each other while both functioning as fake found footage horror documentaries. With The Sacrament, the narrative is a reimagining of the Jonestown Massacre of 1978, but set in the modern day. It works to both address the trauma of Jonestown, an event that has only been memorialised publically in the last few years (despite being the largest loss of American life in history until the events of 9/11 in 2001), while resonating with current anxieties around religious extremism. And then The Poughkeepsie Tapes, which I spoke about in my most recent conference paper at the CATH post graduate conference at De Montfort University in June. The Poughkeepsie Tapes is a bit of a standout film in relation to the other films I’m looking at, in that its troubled release schedule has given it a unique quality the others don’t have. Basically, the film was originally scheduled for release in 2007/2008, and for some unknown reason it was pulled from the release schedule by MGM. Then, a few years later in 2014, it was released on a video on demand service, before it was quickly pulled from there after only a week. It wasn’t until late 2017, when Scream Factory gave it a DVD/BluRay release, that the film was available to a wider audience. So in the decade between the film’s original intended release date and its actual release, all kinds of myths and legends built up around it, with it being said that the footage in the film was real, and that it was somehow “too brutal” for even hardened horror audiences. Clips from the film would occasionally surface on compilation videos on Youtube, often under titles like “The scariest REAL footage”, and it remained a topic of conversation on horror forums and social media. This ephemerality of the film has just added to its mystique and the myths around it.

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The recounting of your lived experience with The Blair Witch Project is fascinating and I believe that this kind of response is what the filmmakers had in mind in promotional terms. There is usually a lot of ‘ballyhoo’ attached to at least some films in the found footage genre. We might describe this as a method of signalling authenticity through paratexts—of reality rather than the codes and conventions of realism. I am reminded of Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust— often cited as the first found footage film as you point out—and the way in which the discourse surrounding the film during the so-called Video Nasties moral campaign in the early 1980s became part and parcel of marketing the film as ‘illicit,’ ‘lurid,’ and ‘dangerous’ (the 2011 Shameless blu-ray proudly announces that the film remains ‘the most controversial film ever made, with Eli Roth emphatically declaring that ‘it is one of the most brutal, relentless, violent, realistic films ever made.’) Deodato was arrested on obscenity charges with the belief that he had made a legitimate ‘snuff’ film. Complicating matters further, the actors had signed a contract not to appear in other media for a year in order to construct Cannibal Holocaust as a legitimate documentary, and Deodato even had to produce the actors to show that they were indeed alive, before the court case was dropped. In your research, have you come across other examples of such ballyhoo and promotional gimmickry in relation to found footage films? You have mentioned The Blair Witch Project.

You are absolutely right, paratexts play such a huge part in a large amount of found footage horror films, whether this is an attempt to try to build some hype for a film, to encourage viewers to engage pre- and post- viewing, or a genuine attempt at trying to pass the film off as being real.

Cloverfield for example, had two websites, which were set up long before the film was released, in addition to Myspace profiles for the main characters. One of the websites www.1.18.08.com gave the user clues as to what the Cloverfield monster’s origins were, whereas the second website www.whencloverfieldhit.com encouraged users to upload their own videos addressing where they were when the attack in the film happened. To me, the second website is the most interesting because of the level of interaction and ‘call to play’ - to borrow Craig Hight’s term – it is encouraging. But the Cloverfield websites definitely fall into the category of trying to get viewers involved, rather than encouraging them to believe the film is real, which - given the content of the film - would be a bit of a stretch!

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Another good example is The Upper Footage, which drummed up interest by using Youtube to release several clips long before the film’s release. The most notorious of these was uploaded in 2010, entitled NYC Socialite Overdose, which showed people at a party with pixelated faces supposedly snorting cocaine.  Youtube subsequently removed the video – I think it may have been re-uploaded since - but confusion arose from several media outlets as to the veracity of the footage, and gossip websites began to speculate over the identity of celebrities that may have been involved.  Eventually the director, Justin Cole, released a statement in 2013 on Dreadcentral.com where he denied the footage was real. Most interestingly, Cole made a caveat in that interview that he was admitting the fictitious status of the footage with ‘much hesitation’, which to me implies that he genuinely wanted to pass it off as being real but perhaps was moved to debunk the footage because of the gossip sites and possible backlash. We won’t ever know for sure if he would have made a sustained attempt at passing the film off as real but perhaps The Upper Footage comes close to replicating the confusion both Cannibal Holocaust and The Blair Witch Project caused, although causing less serious issues than Cannibal Holocaust did for Deodato!

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What makes The Poughkeepsie Tapes so intriguing to me, is the confusion that has grown around the film’s truth status. What is even more intriguing is how this confusion is really kind of an accident due to the film not being released for a decade. A great deal of the online articles on the film also have this fixation on the idea that the film was banned, which it never was. There’s a recurrent argument in these articles that the reason behind the “banning” of the film is that it featured either real footage or footage so realistic and brutal that it was just ‘too much’ for cinema goers. This is key to The Poughkeepie Tapes appeal, that it is somehow a limit experience for the viewer, and these kind of statements are definitely replicated in online responses to the film on social media, some of which urge potential viewers not to watch the film because it is so upsetting/brutal/life changing, and then you get the extreme end of that where audience members are perpetuating the idea that the footage in the film is real. I must note though that it is unclear if they truly believe that or are playing into the idea of that possibility. The hype around The Poughkeepsie Tapes is reminiscent of how Cannibal Holocaust is positioned as this ‘illicit’ or potentially dangerous film.

It is however a remarkably brutal film and definitely stands out for that reason within found footage horror more generally. The eponymous tapes in the film also have that look that we have become familiar with through beheading videos, or through gore websites such as Rotten.com, a kind of “snuff authenticity”, and the film being released when it was, after the emergence of online real death videos - such as 3 Guys, 1 Hammer and 1 Lunatic, 1 Icepick – allows us to draw that parallel, although we have to remember that those two particular videos weren’t around during the film’s production. 

Shellie McMundro is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Roehampton, where she is examining found footage horror cinema and its connection to cultural trauma. She has presented her work, on found footage horror and additionally on new media horror, period drama, and horror gaming, at a variety of conferences. Shellie has a forthcoming article in the European Journal of American Culture, which ties together research on American Horror Story, The True Crime fandom and school shooters. Her research interests are extreme horror, new media, trauma theory, online fandoms, and transmedial texts.

The Politics of a Galaxy Far, Far Away

For those of you who are interested in our work on the civic imagination, I am happy to give you a case in point. The Library of Congress, a month or so back, did a screening of the original trilogy of Star Wars films and to accompany it, they hosted a public discussion of the ways these films represented politics. I was one of the speakers, and I used my time to stress the political activities which have taken place around Star Wars itself — ranging from its use by political candidates and social movements to the struggles over representation in the films and the issue of toxic fandom. It was a lively exchange with a bunch of smart panelists and well worth watching whether you are a Star Wars fan or not. Who can totally escape the influence of Star Wars on our culture? Well, apparently, the head of the Kluge Center, but few others…

Cult Conversations: Interview with David Church (Part Two)

What are you currently focusing on for your next project?

I’m currently working on a mini-monograph about the Mortal Kombat video game series from 1992-97, with particular focus on how the games spawned both a moral panic about video game violence and a transmedia franchise. Part of the project looks at the influence of martial-arts cinema upon fighting games, and how the games singled out by moral reformers all had especially cinematic qualities due to the digitization of photographed actors. Another piece explores how the controversy was rooted in parental fears about collapsing the disreputable space of coin-op arcades into the domestic sphere (shades of my previous work on grind houses) during the rise of 16-bit home consoles. Another connection back to horror and exploitation cinema is Mortal Kombat’s focus on gory fatalities as a generic innovation that became much-imitated by a cycle of poor-quality clone games, and debates between fans over whether the game’s blood/fatalities were a mere gimmick or a constitutive part of gameplay. So part of the project is also a reception study of the different games and how the constraints of their home ports became a referendum on not only fighting games as a genre, but also on the technological platforms where they were played.

And then there’s a long-simmering project on a recent batch of queer films that I see as nostalgically filtering past periods of queer history through a “post-ironic” approach to genre conventions, as a reaction to our homonormative present. I’ve already published chunks of the project that discuss It Follows (Cinema Journal, Spring 2018) and Interior. Leather Bar (Jump Cut, 2016), so that may or may not turn into a fully-fledged book, depending on whether the unpublished chunks cohere together or get parted out into freestanding articles.

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You mentioned earlier a ‘rather limited umbrella of texts that tends to be explored under the rubric of ‘fandom.’ Can you expand on that point? What are your thoughts about fan studies in 2018?

 Although my two books are very much interventions in the field of fan studies in their own way (and I also teach courses on fan cultures), I personally feel rather alienated from most of the objects that currently dominate that field. Since my own predilections tend to veer toward either end of the cultural-taste spectrum and I find most of today’s mass/ mainstream /middlebrow media difficult to get very excited about, which has meant that the mainstreaming of “nerd/geek culture” as synonymous with all of Fandom can be frustrating. Maybe it’s because I’m also a historian, but there are so many fascinating fandoms—including those devoted to old/retro media and past historical texts—that fall outside the purview of whatever is being shilled at Comic-Con this year, and thus prove an ill fit among the field’s presentist biases.

Although anyone working on fandom (myself included) is deeply indebted to his work, I don’t share Henry Jenkins’s “critical-utopian” faith in fans or scholar-fans working in conjunction with the media industries to make the world a better place—nor do I think community and mutual support outweigh competition and conflict as more constitutive forces within fan cultures. If anything, recent events like GamerGate, the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, and the rise of the “alt-right” prove that fans can be as toxic and corrosive influences upon society as anyone else—if not more so—and the field of fan studies is only belatedly coming to terms with that reality now that those voices are far more amplified (via social media) than they previously were.

More to the point, so much current scholarship on fandom tends to focus in a quasi-celebratory way on the micropolitical minutiae of how fans engage with the latest TV shows, Tumblr blogs, or social-media hashtags that more important macropolitical perspectives often get lost in the flow. For instance, too much work in fan studies becomes an implicit form of corporate boosterism by enthusing about whatever new show, new networking platform, new technology, etc. allows fans to do something vaguely interesting or politically progressive, and seldom returns to the bigger question of “so what?” By working in conjunction with media producers or hair-splitting to find micropolitical “silver linings” in whatever is currently trending, I fear that fan studies scholars are helping to further transform universities into neoliberal R&D wings for corporate interests. Perhaps this is a bit of leftist nostalgia on my own part, but fan studies needs a strong dose of old-fashioned Marxist scepticism if it wants to evolve beyond an inadvertent corporate cheerleader in our current moment.

 How do you think that ‘fan studies scholars are helping to further transform universities into neoliberal R&D wings for corporate interests”? Can you expand on this point further? I’m sure that fan studies scholars believe the opposite. How are fan scholars imbricated in corporate cheerleading from your perspective?

As a Foucauldian, I completely understand that the micropolitical is still political—but I also become concerned when much (but certainly not all) current research in fan studies takes such a micro-specific focus on the intricacies of individual case studies that it seems to miss the forest for the trees when it comes to the increased penetration of capitalist interests into what were once more de-centered subcultures. (Of course, I’m well aware that someone could just as easily say the same of my own work, so it’s not a very high horse that I’m sitting on!) Which is not to say that I subscribe to the old Birmingham School theories that subcultures are inherently “resistant” or “anti-consumerist,” but comparatively speaking, I think rediscovering the value of “resistance” is all the more apt at a time when major media conglomerates now pander to big-spending fan cultures and interpellate everyone as potential fans.

When I say “corporate cheerleading,” I mean a generalized (but not universal) tendency within much of fan studies to enthuse about the latest trending show, the newest wrinkle in social media, or the crumbs of progressive representation and aesthetic self-reflexivity increasingly sown into texts as fan service—all of which, even beneath the auspices of micropolitical critique, spiritually feeds back into lining media conglomerates’ pockets. Whether writing from their own fan investments or out of an understandable desire for one’s academic writing to have wider cultural relevance, it isn’t so much a conscious desire to collude with corporate interests—but it also comes at a time when many universities would love nothing more than their humanities departments to become think tanks for scholarship that can be monetized for the benefit of major companies. To put it another way, the question Jenkins poses in Convergence Culture about whether we should see working more closely with media industries as “buying in” or “selling out” seems a bit quaint for those of us precariously employed scholars among the “great unwashed” of the new academic caste system, struggling to pay rent and keep the internet on. I still feel myself part of the field of fan studies—even if the types of media objects I focus on tend toward the “cultish” margins—but at a time when the products of fan devotion, both inside and outside the university, are more monetized (directly or indirectly) than ever, it would be refreshing for more scholars to deprive as much oxygen as possible to the Disneys, Facebooks, Twitters, and other promulgators of fandom’s move into the mainstream.

You mention Henry Jenkins’ work and what you describe as his “critical-utopian faith in fans or scholar-fans.” Can you expand on this? What do you think of Jenkins’ more recent work into ‘the civic imagination’ and his project’s empirical findings that clearly demonstrate that some fans are ‘doing politics’ through the lens of popular culture (and not necessarily from social media platforms, either)? Admittedly, much of that political participation is targeted through a “rather limited umbrella of texts explored under the rubric of fandom,” which is to say that it does tend to be (so-called) ‘geek texts’ that provide the lens that fans tap into regarding the micro-politics of participation. But perhaps that side of things is more to do with the fact that it often is the ‘geek’ contingency that are ‘doing politics’ through this limited umbrella, in empirical terms. I am, for example, unaware of political activists tapping into vintage porn or grindhouse cinema as a site of the civic imagination (but I stand to be corrected on this). I am neither defending nor criticising Jenkins—not least because of where this interview is published. But on a personal level, I strongly believe that Jenkins’ has often championed the exploration of texts that cannot be located within “the limited umbrella of texts” of which you draw attention to. For example, Jenkins has also written on porn, such as in Pamela Church Gibson’s edited collection More Dirty Looks: Gender, Pornography and Power (2010), and on this very blog, as well as being on the editorial board of the Porn Studies journal. He has written about exploitation cinema—for example, on Stephanie Rothman’s Terminal Island—on Matthew Barney’s The Cremaster Cycle; on WWF wrestling; on Kelly Sue Deconnick’s Bitch Planet and other comic artists and writers not considered part of the ‘big two’ machinery of DC and Marvel—and so on and so forth. Could you expand also on what texts you see as being part of the “limited umbrella of texts explored under the limited rubric of fandom”? What is missing; and what directions do you believe fan studies as a discipline should be exploring to avoid limitations of this sort?

There’s a lot to unpack there, and I’ve already jabbered on too long! I fully agree that Jenkins’s own scholarly object choices are more wide-ranging than the ones dominating the field of Fan Studies proper that his work largely spawned—although some of his work on more eclectic topics tends to be less focused on fandom per se. I suppose this could be a logical case of following the most visible manifestations of civic engagement via pop culture—hence why fandoms that generate fewer participatory or transformative works may fall to the margins (though I would argue that some fan-made retrosploitation media are deliberately political in theme, much as some folks in the vintage porn world are trying to “de-shame” historical forms of porn by bringing them out of the private sphere to change the public conversation around male sexual privilege, the stigmatization of sex work, and so on).

At the risk of vastly oversimplifying the concept, Jenkins’s “critical-utopian” ethos suggests that fans as dedicated media consumers-cum-participatory producers actively enter the feedback loop of cultural production via social media and other de-hierarchized platforms. By leveraging a combination of discursive buzz and spending power, fans can pressure the major media industries into both improving “official” products and also creating more equitable space for fans to make their own “unofficial” types of participatory culture. When I teach the idea of media convergence to first-year students, I often show HCD Media Group’s 2009 video of Jenkins explaining some of the underlying concepts (collective intelligence, transmedia storytelling, etc.)—but I tend to cringe when he discusses the 2008 Obama presidential campaign as the biggest success of transmedia storytelling as applied to the political sphere. In hindsight, it’s not so much the cruel optimism that rings hollow, but rather the knowledge that our current President’s rise to power was fuelled by these same transmedia storytelling practices. Fans are indeed “doing politics” through the lens of pop culture, but which politics is another question altogether. We can readily admit that toxic forms of fandom don’t comprise the majority of fans (even if they may be among the loudest voices), but when our reality-TV president still garners such high approval ratings among his own fans by using his Twitter megaphone to promote social division and push us toward nuclear war, a “critical-dystopian” perspective on fandom might make more sense. Much as I repeatedly caution my Cinema Studies students that the “newest” in movies does not always equal the “best,” “smartest,” or most “enlightened” stuff out there, a wider historical perspective could be useful for the field of fan studies to push back against its breathless fetishization of “the new” and instead cast a wider net toward other types of fandoms—but those are my own biases showing!

As a closing aside, since you mention his foreword to the Church Gibson anthology, I think Jenkins’s views on porn pedagogy are quite valuable—although the piece perhaps shows its age in his caution that scholars hold off on teaching porn until after earning tenure. I myself was casually cautioned that a book on pornography would be best left as a post-tenure project—but, in today’s job market, when even tenure-track jobs have become a luxury of the privileged few, I think it behoves junior scholars not to shy away from difficult topics, even if it means taking bigger risks to confront the chilling effects created by a larger social reticence to reinvest in the humanities for their own sake. As an example, during a very depressing two years between earning my Ph.D. and gaining full-time academic employment, I lived in a notoriously expensive city where adjunct work was nearly impossible to find. I worked for minimum wage in a mouse-infested factory by day, scanning used books for online sale at the same time I was finishing up my second book by night. I also taught community-education courses a few nights a week through the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF)—including a very popular class on the History of Porn, which subsequently evolved into the Seattle Erotic Cinema Society (SECS). Because SIFF was more adventurous in that regard than many universities would be, I also had a far wider variety of students than found in most university classrooms—including older women, adult industry workers, new media professionals, members of the local kink community, and even fellow academics. With their second annual SECS Fest erotic film festival upcoming shortly, I’m often reminded that there are a far wider range of fans out there, beyond the ones whose visibility becomes reinforced in the university fan-studies classroom. But, like I said earlier, we all try to find our own silver linings!

And finally, what five films would you recommend that you feel represents ‘the best’ that exploitation cinema can offer and why?

 If only five choices are allowed, then I’m not going to go for dark-horse favorites or deliberately obscure choices here. Nor are these necessarily the most influential or historically significant ones. In fact, one of the pleasures of studying exploitation cinema comes from less of a focus on individual “great” texts than looking at multi-film cycles and generic cross-pollinations that follow novelty value into strange tangents. But these ones all seem to crystallize some major trends from one of the big decades for exploitation films.

Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion (Shunya Itō, 1972)

This Japanese production is miles ahead of any other women-in-prison movie, in my personal opinion, with plenty of pure genre thrills and a compelling mix of realism and deliberately theatrical staging. Meiko Kaji, who would also star in the Lady Snowblood films, features here as a young woman who has been sentenced to hard time for attacking her corrupt ex-boyfriend, a police officer who left her to be raped by the yakuza. Fending off rival prison gangs as she plots her escape to take revenge, there is action, violence, and nudity galore—but the film’s energetic visual style marks its superiority to other women-in-prison films, bringing it closer to the flashiness of the era’s best chambara films.

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 Coffy (Jack Hill, 1973)

Not one of the most important Blaxploitation movies, but one that leans into that cycle’s most outrageous excesses while also creating a singularly strong female star in Pam Grier, who had previously worked with director Jack Hill in several of his women-in-prison films for New World Pictures. Grier combines the ass-kicking charm of Russ Meyer’s women with a more politicized vigilante subplot about ridding the Black community of drug dealers, pimps, and the corrupt local politicians in their pockets. In Coffy, she also avoids the sexual victimization her character faces in the quasi-sequel Foxy Brown. And I’d like to think the rather abrupt ending signals something about the macropolitical futility of the vigilante’s quest, even if refigured here as a quasi-feminist icon instead of the macho vigilantes of the 1970s.

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 The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974)

Soaking in Southern-fried atmosphere, this is among the greatest (and most darkly humorous) American horror movies, and was a big hit on the drive-in circuit throughout the 1970s. Made on a shoestring by a low-budget crew of then-amateurs, the film has since become seen as a treatise on such diverse topics as class conflict, industrial mechanization, animal rights, patriarchy run amok, the death of the counterculture, and so on. Despite all these possible readings, I keep going back for the little details of weirdness that make it feel like such a “lived-in” film, from the macabre set design of farmhouse, to unexplained cutaways of local color, to the assaultive editing of the dinner-table scene, and the eerie use of musique concrete throughout. (Gratuitous name-drop: Nicolas Winding Refn was very impressed when I told him that I used to go to sleep to this film most nights during high school!)

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 Cannibal Holocaust (Ruggero Deodato, 1980)

The main generic predecessor of found-footage horror movies, this notorious Italian production represents another nation that made many exploitation films for the export market. Coming near the end of a cycle of cannibal-themed jungle-horror films that drew upon the 1960s Italian mondo tradition (verite-style depictions of “savage” indigenous rites, actual animal mutilations, etc.), Cannibal Holocaust is easily the most fascinating (if hard to watch) entries because of its ideological contortions. A film deeply divided against itself, it criticizes Western racism toward indigenous cultures, the mass media’s sensationalism of violence, and so on—yet makes blatant use of these same audiovisual discourses in the process! The film’s blurring of political stances becomes mirrored in its blurring of very life-like special effects with unsimulated animal deaths, creating an extremely strong affective brew where it becomes more difficult to know where ballyhoo ends and reality begins.

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 Café Flesh (Stephen Sayadian, 1982)

Since you asked about vintage pornography, I’ll jump over sexploitation and instead include this deservedly “cult” title from the end of the so-called “Golden Age of Porn.” This remarkably self-reflexive story about a post-nuclear world where 99% of the irradiated population are physically unable to have sex with each other, and are now merely relegated to pathetic spectators of the unaffected 1% who can still perform in a sexual cabaret show, could hardly have more contempt for the typical “raincoat crowd.” Even more timely, the film’s central conceit was one of the first to deliberately engage with the then-burgeoning AIDS crisis. I want to say this is the only post-apocalyptic, sci-fi, hardcore adult film out there, but there were actually several others a few years earlier! This one, though, has more of a punk/new wave sensibility (as did this creative team’s previous film Nightdreams) combined with a surrealist/avant-garde aesthetic during its sexual numbers—plus an ending that actually manages to have an emotional payoff as well.

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David Church is a Lecturer in the Department of Comparative Cultural Studies at Northern Arizona University, where he coordinates the Cinema Studies program. He earned his Ph.D. in Communication and Culture at Indiana University, and is the author of several books: Grindhouse Nostalgia: Memory, Home Video, and Exploitation Film Fandom (Edinburgh University Press, 2015) and Disposable Passions: Vintage Pornography and the Material Legacies of Adult Cinema (Bloomsbury Academic, 2016). He is also the editor of Playing with Memories: Essays on Guy Maddin (University of Manitoba Press, 2009), and is currently writing a mini-monograph on the Mortal Kombat video game series.

Cult Conversations: An Interview with David Church (Part One)

Interview with David Church (Part One)

In the following interview, published in two-parts, David Church and I discuss exploitation/ grindhouse cinema, the state of fan studies and more besides. David first came to my attention with the publication of Grindhouse Nostalgia: Memory, Home Video and Exploitation Film, a truly insightful and valuable study that Richard Nowell, author of Blood Money: A History of the First Teen Slasher Cycle, “ranks among the most important contributions to a recent upsurge in historical studies of lowbrow Anglophone cinemas” and “destined to become a seminal work in the field.” It was an honour exchanging ideas and issues with David, and I hope readers enjoy this lively, and perhaps contentious, interview as the first part of the ‘Cult Conversations’ series.

In your first book, Grindhouse Nostalgia, you examine the Grindhouse phenomenon that was a key feature of fringe cinema in the 1960s through to the 1980s. How would you explain the characteristics of grindhouse cinema for someone who has little knowledge about the historical context?

“Grindhouse cinema” has really become a synonym for exploitation cinema—that is, low-budget, luridly advertised genre films capitalizing on some sort of timely or controversial subject matter—that linked these films in the popular imagination to what were called “grindhouse theaters.” Grind houses were another name for movie theaters, typically located in downscale inner-city areas with low(er) rents and high foot traffic, which had fallen onto economic hard times and switched to a lower-than-average admission price for continuous shows of double- or triple-feature programs. Although there is a common misconception that the name comes from the “bump-and-grind” style of burlesque dancing, it actually comes from “grind policy,” a trade term referring to the repeating of such programs of films or other popular entertainments (sometimes for up to 22-24 hours per day) for a flat fee that would typically ratchet up over the course of the day, thus stressing quantity of viewers over quality of clientele. Actual grind houses often showed a wide variety of films, including many subsequent-run Hollywood films that were either just about to drop out of circulation or were sold off to independent distributors for revival on the states’ rights market. Meanwhile, the downscale but demographically diverse environs of these theaters gradually created reciprocal associations of disrepute between these cut-rate exhibition spaces, their transient patrons, and the movies that played there. By the 1960s, “grindhouse film” had become a way of describing a low-budget film that seemed destined only for play at such theaters, much as the term “drive-in movie” served a similar purpose—despite the fact that drive-ins also played far more sub-run Hollywood films that is often assumed today.

In the book, I explore the history of both drive-in and grindhouse theaters in relation to their more recent adoption by cult/exploitation movie fans as privileged sites of cultural memory. In particular, I look at how the increased availability of exploitation films during the DVD era and beyond—including in newly restored and remediated forms—has engendered a greater subcultural nostalgia for grindhouse and drive-in theaters as a means of compensating for the fact that the films themselves are no longer difficult to acquire. Moreover, I look at how the idea of the “grindhouse” has become as sort of transmedia concept associated with the surface aesthetic of badly worn celluloid and the abbreviated thrills delivered by trailers, and how this revaluation of physical degradation relates to the symbolic value of the grindhouse theater as an imagined site for not only justifying fans’ more earnest revaluation of culturally denigrated movies but also justifying the mid-2000s production cycle of what I call “retrosploitation” films and media aping the look and feel of antiquated exploitation cinema. If there is a big takeaway for scholars of fandom, it would be an increased attention to the diverse uses of nostalgia and other forms of cultural memory in motivating fan practices, and how the materiality of “old media” opens onto a wider variety of fandoms than are typically figured into fan studies’ predominant emphasis on new media and the rather limited umbrella of texts that tends to be explored under the rubric of “Fandom.”

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What facilitated your interest in the topic? Was it based in your own fandom initially? Or was it sparked by academic interest first and foremost?

 I always loved watching horror and exploitation movies while growing up, and some of my earliest experiences with them were in remediated forms—such as old VHS tapes and Joe Bob Briggs’s MonsterVision TV show. By the time I was moving from undergraduate to graduate studies, VHS tape trading was quickly becoming a thing of the past, with DVD and online access to such films becoming far more common. I was also very much inspired by the work of Jeffrey Sconce and Joan Hawkins on taste cultures and the potential areas of overlap between very high and very low culture—although I have been rather interested in how some fans approach exploitation films with far more sincerity than a merely ironic or “paracinematic” approach, especially now that easy ironic readings have become such a mainstreamed reading mode (“old” = “bad” = “funny”) among younger folks with little interest to acquire enough historical perspective to appreciate such films on their own terms. So the ways that a sense of historicity—whether in accurate documentation or in the distorted form of nostalgia—becomes encoded into the remediated editions of such films is a topic that my most recent books have engaged.

With Grindhouse Nostalgia in particular, I was most intrigued by how a bygone exhibition context like the “grind house” became such a trendy concept for a few years, brought back into wider cultural circulation by the eponymous 2007 Tarantino/Rodriguez anthology film. I saw it at a packed opening-weekend screening in San Francisco, where the audience was very appreciative and it was a lot of fun—though I constantly wondered what kinds of overlapping reading strategies might be in practice there. A few weeks later, I was at a six-screen drive-in theatre in San Jose, where double features of the latest multiplex films were playing—and while I was watching some disappointingly Hollywood-style remake of a 1970s horror film, I kept being distracted by watching Grindhouse playing on an adjacent screen reflected in my rear-view mirror. There’s probably a good metaphor in there somewhere—but suffice it to say, simultaneously watching a very contemporary Hollywood horror film that doesn’t look like it belongs in a drive-in vs. a film deliberately made to look like a decayed old drive-in movie in this same setting got me thinking about how cultural memories of specific exhibition spaces can so vividly color our experience of different genre films and how we might value them based on our own ability to imaginatively project ourselves into past screening contexts that we never personally lived through. Most of my deepest experiences with fandom actually come from various music subcultures, especially around bands and subgenres three or four decades old, so it’s probably no surprise that the negotiation of pastness and generational tension is something that animates much of my work in this area.

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Your concept of ‘retrosploitation’ sounds interesting, especially given the wave of films that seem to ‘borrow’ from so-called low cultural forms, such as grind house and exploitation. You mention Tarantino and Rodriguez’s Grindhouse as perhaps sparking a contemporary cycle or revival of sorts. What other films or media objects do you see as part of this cycle? And why do you believe this is occurring in an era of digital effects and more widely, and cheaply, available production tools? Does it seem odd to you that films that have been viewed historically as ‘cheap and nasty,’ or in other pejorative terms, to become part of mainstream media?

There were some examples of these retrosploitation films, trailers, posters, music videos, TV shows, and other forms of media released before Grindhouse, but that film’s high profile and wide theatrical release definitely accelerated a brief cycle that peaked around 2009-2012 and has since largely abated (though not vanished altogether). Grindhouse itself came at a time when shooting and releasing films on celluloid was about to be supplanted by digital video (DV) technologies in cinematography and exhibition. Rodriguez and Tarantino have admitted that their film was a nostalgic reaction in that regard, as well as the fact that so many exploitation films were being re-released in restored form on DVD and lacked the auratic quality of a decayed film print. One other aspect worth noting, though, is how 1960s-70s exploitation films became so ripe for reinterpretation because they were often made on very low budgets by independent filmmakers, much as the mid-2000s coincided with a new generation of filmmaking with even lower barriers to entry, in the form of YouTube and prosumer-grade DV. Retrosploitation films seemed ideal for recapturing a similar spirit of scrappy, rough-edged DIY production through more contemporary means—but in more of a tongue-in-cheek tone.

Of course, some creators did more with this than others. It became quite easy to see which ones were simply the Tarantino fanboys jumping on the bandwagon, using a digitally created veneer of aged celluloid as an excuse for lazy shock value or a cover for subpar creative skills. The connotations of 1970s grindhouse films as “cheap” and “schlocky” can be revived here to condescendingly internalize a self-parodic acknowledgment that these retro-styled films and other media are just a bit of mindless fun or not worthy of being treated with the respect of other media. Indeed, many examples of retrosploitation media work far better as paratexts (e.g., trailers, posters, etc.) than as feature-length films in their own right—which could also be said of many period-era exploitation films as well. But some of the most interesting examples of retrosploitation media actually do more with the concept by putting different temporalities into dialogue via pastiche. Whereas some creators simply used the nostalgic aesthetic as an excuse for contemporary viewers to wallow in “nasty,” politically unreconstructed attitudes, more thoughtful creators set up a productive friction between political past and present by asking us to imagine ourselves as viewers occupying two historical periods at once—and therefore able to assess what has or has not socially changed between the 1960s-70s and today. It’s this ability for different nostalgias to overlap and conflict with one another within the same text (and not merely be used to privilege a more conservative past) that makes nostalgia, as an affectively charged mode of historically informed imagination, such an important thread stretching across most of my recent books and articles.

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Can you add a little to the above about what media objects you have noticed coming in the retrosploitation cycle? I’m sure readers would love to hear more! Also, if the cycle has fizzed out, how would you explain Blood Drive? And what about films such as Machete etc. coming as they do out of the Grindhouse project of Rodriguez and Tarantino? Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno (2013)? Hasn’t the exploitation aesthetic become part and parcel of mainstream culture? Or do you see new directors and creators that were inspired by exploitation cinema carrying the torch for a gentrification of grindhouse at least?

Some of these later entries in the cycle were either held up in distribution limbo (e.g., The Green Inferno [released in 2015]) or didn’t last very long (the one-season TV series Blood Drive [2017]), which demonstrates how the gimmick of a retro-styled aesthetic had largely played itself out by then and had to evolve into something else. A film like The Green Inferno, for instance, seems like little more than Roth’s cynical attempt to “troll the libs” by depicting some college-age do-gooder types getting eaten by the same ‘Scary Brown People’ they go to save from Amazonian deforestation (compare this to a film like Get Out [2017], which calls out white liberalism far more insightfully). But the film’s xenophobic politics, consistent as they are with many of Roth’s other films, were honestly less offensive to me than the film’s sheer laziness in its attempts to outrage. I can more easily forgive a film with ideologically reprehensible content if it’s at least doing something interesting or innovative on another level, but The Green Inferno didn’t even have the courage to try to “out-gore” its Italian referents, so to me it just fell flat as an over-hyped and empty provocation.

On the political flip side, Rodriguez’s Machete films (2010, 2013) were fun in their blaxploitation-style glorification of Mexican-American culture, but I also felt they became too cartoonish and lost a lot of their edge when stretched out to feature length (a good example of how I prefer the original Machete trailer to the fully realized film). Among the more interesting later examples in the cycle, the comic book Bitch Planet (2014-17) is a smart reworking of the 1970s-80s women-in-prison exploitation cycle into a feminist sci-fi parable (somewhat akin to Stephanie Rothman’s 1973 film Terminal Island)—although a far more mainstream show like Orange is the New Black (2013- ) certainly has some influence from the same type of exploitation films. I’d also point to low-budget films like Spring Breakers (2012) or The Purge franchise (2013- ) as great examples of the exploitation tradition—including their capacity to incorporate politically subversive messages about into sensationalistic genre material with mainstream crossover appeal—carrying on beyond where the retrosploitation gimmick ran out of gas as an idea that gentrified and genrified the idea of the “grind house” into a retro aesthetic choice that vastly oversimplifies how fascinating those historical exhibition sites actually were.

 

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Q: Do you see your most recent book, Disposable Passions: Vintage Pornography and the Material Legacies of Adult Cinema, as continuing the work you began in Grindhouse Nostalgia? What did you discover about vintage pornography through your research? And why do you think this kind of retroactive history is valuable for the academy?

 Porn fandom is a good example of a major media industry whose fans behave very much like other media fans in many regards, but whose objects of fandom fall quite far outside the purview of “Fandom” as reinforced by the field of fan studies. (Compare, for instance, San Diego Comic-Con and the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas as the premier annual promotional venues for their respective products, fostering very similar dynamics between fan-attendees and producers/personnel.) At the same time, though, many of the exploitation and “grindhouse” movie fans explored in my previous book will readily admit (softcore) sexploitation films to their retrospectively constructed canon but arbitrarily cordon off hardcore adult films as outside the bounds of their fandom, despite the fact that hardcore pornography made up the bulk of grindhouse programming by the late 1970s and early 1980s. Whereas Grindhouse Nostalgia focuses in large part on the class and gender inequalities that fans reinforce through their selective remembrance of drive-ins, grind houses, and the films that supposedly played at them, Disposable Passions looks at how other fans have taken the reins in sincerely reappraising adult films that have otherwise been neglected by most formal archives and film preservationists. Here we have an entire genre whose history runs parallel to the history of cinema itself, and whose historical diversity indexes an important variety of changing attitudes about sexuality—but which has been very poorly preserved on both aesthetic and political grounds. What this book does is track the history of pornographic cinema through the various archive-dependent figures (including fans, historians, archivists, preservationists, and entrepreneurs) whose desires animate which material traces are left behind and on what terms they are revalued.

Overall, the book focuses on how the history of pornographic cinema has been funnelled into the catch-all category of “vintage” porn, which treats historicity itself as a source of eroticism. The project came partly out of questions of what it means to eroticize a sense of pastness (much as the pastness of celluloid decay was crucial to the retrospective construction of “grindhouse-ness”) and how even academic scholarship is not immune to the erotics of the archive as ephemeral texts come into and out of visibility like a sort of archival “striptease.” Much of my research was conducted at the Kinsey Institute, where I also discovered a 35mm print of a long-lost sexploitation film (The Orgy at Lil’s Place [1963]) that has since been preserved and released on Blu-ray, so much of the book asks how historiography and affect intersect with each other over which films and filmmakers get written into history or forgotten to time. Whereas Grindhouse Nostalgia explores how home video formats reframe bygone exhibition contexts, Disposable Passions explores how the ethical issues raised by the sometimes-problematic sexual attitudes within adult films affects the ethics of film preservation performed by different generations of home video distributors. The fact that there is such a broad swath of film history yet to be written—and the labor of multiple generations of sex workers yet to be fully valued—is all the more reason to pick up the baton from adult film fans and begin filling in these gaps.

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In your essay on horror films between 1991-2006 for Offscreen, you touch upon “the minor development in horror during the 1990s,” that is, the so-called ‘race horror films,’ such as Candyman, The People Under the Stairs, Tales from the Hood and Bones, “which each took racial inequality as their basis, often using African-American characters as protagonists, and some directly targeted (however exploitatively, recalling the blaxploitation horror films of the 1970s) to African-American youth audiences through links to rap culture.”  Do you think that the recent Oscar and box office success of Jordan Peele’s Get Out can be linked retroactively to that minor development? What are your thoughts regarding race, cult media and the horror genre in the contemporary moment? And what of scholars working in cogent fields? Is it predominantly white men? Or is there a broader spread of gender and ethnicities studying cult media and horror cinema in the academy?

In retrospect, I think some of those 1990s “race horror” films were unduly written off by a lot of critics and scholars because the films seemed too closely aligned with the supposed excesses of the hip-hop subculture, whereas other films like Candyman seemed more accessible because they still had white protagonists and didn’t rely so much subcultural tastes for their appeal. Although an all-around better film, I also suspect Get Out will stand the test of time because it seems more resonant with the renewed activism of the Black Lives Matter era. Of course, one thing that makes Get Out so interesting is the question of who the film is really made for—and whether the bourgeois white critics, scholars, and viewers who so effusively praise the film’s satire are also implicated in Peele’s critique of white liberal complicity with systemic racism. Since the film is so clearly framed to present its Black male director/protagonist’s perspective on the horrors of being Black in America, it seems to at least have that much in common with the “hood” films, but is more attuned to the spatial politics of how race operates beyond non-white enclaves. When you compare the upcoming Peele-produced Lovecraft Country HBO series with the recent uproar among Lovecraft apologists over the bust given out at the World Fantasy Awards, it’s a good moment for reassessing what’s so horrific about the deeper roots of racism.

Women and queer-identified people continue to make up a sizable demographic of horror and adult film scholars, but I think white scholars still tend to predominate the ranks—though that might be more broadly reflective of academia in general. When it comes to the more nebulous realm of cult film scholarship, Anglo-American scholars are perhaps more likely to exoticize as “cult” certain films that scholars from other ethnic backgrounds might be better able to contextualize as part of their own national-cultural tradition—but I also don’t want to make too broad of an overgeneralization here.

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What are your thoughts on exploitation cinema as ‘trash,’ or, to use Jeffrey Sconce’s label, ‘paracinema’ as a way to describe ‘lurid’ and ‘distasteful’ films that lie outside the mainstream? It seems as if the current panoply of lavish blu-ray releases of cult objects—with all their extra features activating the cult fan as connoisseur, as various scholars have argued (Chuck Tryon, Mark Bernard, Janet Staiger)—work paratextually to imbue cult cinema with an auratic prestige of authenticity, and so forth. Does this discursively function as a gentrification of trash/ exploitation/ cult as a mode of championing paracinema—thus picking it from the gutters and transforming texts into an art/ pop dialectic? Cult fans seem to buy into the notion of ‘trash’ as a signifier of sub-cultural capital, but I wonder what your thoughts are about the label ‘trash’ per se. I recently equated Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (1964) with Alfred Hitchcock work, to rumbles of mirth amongst academics.

 I don’t care for the label “trash,” because even when used to ironically celebrate low-budget exploitation films, it still has that a priori value judgment built in. Too many scholars have neglected Sconce’s all-important caveat that “paracinema” names less a body of films than a specific reading strategy that’s all about the ironic inversion of taste categories to elevate “bad” films that are readable as inadvertently avant-garde. And although it didn’t originate there, the paracinematic reading strategy flourished during the pre-internet, pre-DVD/Blu-ray era of VHS bootlegs whose lo-fi, fifth-generation qualities merely heightened the supposed “trashiness” of such cultural detritus. To go back to a generic example mentioned earlier, that’s certainly been true of 1970s-era adult films, which were very seldom re-transferred to formats beyond VHS and often existed in poorly transferred and re-edited forms—at least until a recently emerged generation of video labels like Vinegar Syndrome has come on the scene to respectfully restore such films in as pristine condition as possible and provide well-researched paratexts to place these films within their proper historical context. Adult films are especially interesting in that regard because, although it’s readily possible to laugh at the awkward set-ups and dated mise-en-scene of a very “Seventies” porno, the fact that said film’s continuing ability to arouse can cut through the mirth and still strike the present-day viewer on a visceral level, very much as originally intended, requires a far more circumspect, less historically chauvinistic approach.

As I’ve mentioned in Grindhouse Nostalgia, many scholars without much investment in taking exploitation films seriously have over-used Sconce’s “paracinema” appellation as a convenient shorthand that allows them to reductively label an object and then move on—not unlike the dismissive attitude of many undergraduate students who see unintentional “humor” in classical Hollywood films because they seem dated, but who then don’t move past those apparent deficiencies to take the films on their own terms. After all, not all low-budget genre films are uniformly and objectively “bad” in their execution, so an ironic reading strategy is simply one possible mode of reception—but a bit of an analytical dead-end for scholars who want to do more than enjoy some campy derision. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard complaints from friends who attended rare repertory screenings of films by Bava and the like, only to have the experience spoiled by the hipster contingent cackling throughout in ironic default mode. That said, “paracinema” itself is not going anywhere, as evinced by Tommy Wiseau’s cult reputation, video blogs like Everything is Terrible, or the recent revival of Mystery Science Theater 3000—but in an era when even the most obscure films can be easily accessed on DVD or Blu-ray editions, ironic laughter/celebration seems like an increasingly empty gesture. Still, if we could place a ten-year moratorium on Hitchcock scholarship and instead devote that time to earnestly investigating underappreciated films like Italian gialli, I certainly wouldn’t complain!

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The term ‘exploitation’ seems to be quite tricky to explain. On the one hand, it seems to signify low-budget B-movie products, often with lurid or ‘distasteful’ subject matter; and, on the other, the term has been described as the way in which exploitation cinema ‘exploits’ successful cycles of mainstream fare. For example, Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) inaugurated a cycle of so-called ‘sharksploitation’ or ‘aquatic horror’ titles, such as Orca (1978) Joe Dante’s Piranha (1978). Then again, more recent titles seem to demonstrate that it’s less an exploitation cycle than perhaps a genre, with the Sharknado franchise (2010—); 47 Metres Down (2017); Mega Shark vs. Crocosaurus (2010), and The Meg (2018). The term also seems to connote ‘trash,’ and carries the weight of value judgement within its label, as you mentioned above. Scholars often conflate B-movie, low-budget, micro-budget, cult, grindhouse and exploitation as interchangeable concepts, which certainly problematizes their usefulness as analytic categories. How might you describe what ‘exploitation’ means to students, scholars etc. who are approaching the topic for the first time?

Following Eric Schaefer, I tend to think of “exploitation” as more as of a mode than a discrete genre, since that can include production concerns (low budgets; independent producers; lack of stars), exhibition/distribution patterns (grind houses; drive-ins; independent distributors; four-walling), textual qualities (lurid, timely, or sensationalistic subject matter; cyclical imitation of other films), and so on. Perhaps more importantly, the term itself comes from the mainstream Hollywood studio practice of creating stunts, gimmicks, and tie-ins with local businesses to help “exploit” the latest major-studio film that was coming to your town in the era before day-and-date wide releases. The majors often had advertising people working in in-house exploitation departments, and trade publications like Film Daily would publish exploitation tips for theater owners wanting to make fun enticements tied to a specific film. But “exploitation film” became more of a dismissive label in the trade press for a non-studio film that, because lacking decent production values, big stars, or subject matter with a built-in audience, seemed to rely on exploitation hooks alone (gimmickry, etc.) for its entire existence. So “exploitation” gradually shifted from a term used within the mainstream Hollywood industry to a marker of deviance—but I think it’s still useful to see exploitation films as films marketed in very lurid ways, which helps explain how the quasi-generic label “exploitation” might seem more apt (and empirically grounded in period usage) according to historical period and viewing context. For instance, it helps account for the mutability of how the same film—such as an imported art film—could be luridly marketed as a sexploitation film when it played in grind houses or as a serious work when it played at more austere art houses—and, seen from another angle, how many art theaters switched to showing sex films when they fell on hard times, but still used “art” as a self-defensive cover to skirt various censorship restrictions.

So, to return to your question, high-concept Hollywood films from Jaws onward have increasingly used exploitation-style publicity tactics, but if there are recognizable stars (even B-list genre stars like Jason Statham) and enough passable special effects, the web of influences between exploitation cinema to Hollywood cinema can be a two-way street—as is especially visible in the realm of low/micro-budget horror. It’s no surprise that Roger Corman, who is still producing movies like Sharktopus and the like, saw the writing on the wall when Jaws was released, remarking that it was basically a big-budget, more prestigious version of the monster-from-the-deep films that he’d been making since the early 1950s. And indeed, with the subsequent rise of blockbuster marketing and release strategies that accelerated with Jaws and are everywhere today, the major studios began colonizing theaters that had previously relied on exploitation films, thus pushing the independents into other markets, like direct-to-video and today’s streaming platforms. Maybe it’s just easier for movies like The Meg or kaiju movies like Pacific Rim to basically do upscaled versions of exploitation films when the cachet of a major-studio release allows audiences to not feel that these pleasures are not too guilty when they become mainstreamed enough for collective comfort!

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There is a ubiquitous discourse in mainstream media regarding horror cinema and the way in which the genre is undergoing a ‘renaissance’ of some kind at the moment, with the second decade of the new millennium being described as a ‘golden age of horror cinema’. How true do you think this is? Or is this an example of mainstream entertainment journalists over-amplifying such claims?

Between social relevance (Get Out) and huge box-office returns (It), horror is having one of its many generic moments in the sun, but I don’t buy the “renaissance” or “golden age” claims—even if there are some interesting generic threads of late. If it weren’t a genre with a lingering air of disrepute (and a film type that a lot of people simply dislike altogether), then such a consistently popular genre wouldn’t still be treated like an underdog that keeps periodically surprising industry watchers who don’t otherwise pay it much attention. It was too much of a “popcorn” movie for my tastes—the Marvel/Disney equivalent of a horror film—but I’d personally rather re-watch the first season of Stranger Things (which I loved).

What I find far more intriguing are what I’m calling the “new prestige horror” films—a new wave of independent art-horror films crossing over from film festivals to multiplexes, earning critical acclaim but proving very divisive among audiences. Films like It Follows, The Witch, It Comes at Night, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, Hereditary, and mother! tend to have a cold, minimalistic aesthetic, including a stately narrative pace, slow and distant camera movements, lengthy shot durations, and tend to displace a clearly identifiable monster in favour of protagonists dealing with grief, guilt, trauma, and other negative emotions. These films all tend to generate strong feelings of apprehension and dread, refusing to alleviate those affects with either jump scares or reassuring narrative closure—and therefore seem much closer to art cinema’s forms and affects than the populist associations that most widely released horror films tend to have. Judging by viewer comments, a lot of people feel duped by the marketing of these films, which they alternately dismiss as boring, confusing, depressing, pretentious—neither conventionally “scary” nor “fun.” In other words, viewers with lower amounts of (sub)cultural capital are put off by these films, but the fact that the horror genre has more crossover appeal than, say, a dour chamber drama (despite the fact that these films bear more than a similarity there) means that these films are landing in front of multiplex viewers who might not otherwise expect something closer to an art film. So that clash of aesthetic styles, affective shifts, and audience expectations is really fascinating to me—over and above the fact that are lot of these new prestige horror films are also really damn good! But one generic subcurrent doesn’t make a “golden age.”

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David Church is a Lecturer in the Department of Comparative Cultural Studies at Northern Arizona University, where he coordinates the Cinema Studies program. He earned his Ph.D. in Communication and Culture at Indiana University, and is the author of several books: Grindhouse Nostalgia: Memory, Home Video, and Exploitation Film Fandom (Edinburgh University Press, 2015) and Disposable Passions: Vintage Pornography and the Material Legacies of Adult Cinema (Bloomsbury Academic, 2016). He is also the editor of Playing with Memories: Essays on Guy Maddin (University of Manitoba Press, 2009), and is currently writing a mini-monograph on the Mortal Kombat video game series.  

 

Cult Conversations: A Series on Horror, Exploitation and the Gothic

An Introduction and a Provocation

By William Proctor

Over the past year or so, horror cinema has been discursively underpinned by what entertainment critics have described as a “new golden age,” a “renaissance” that is demonstrative of an unequivocal cultural, industrial and attitudinal shift. As SyFy’s Tres Dean claims,

The past five years or so have seen the release of such a wide array of genre-defining horror films that it may be time to go ahead and call a spade a spade: We’re experiencing a genuine horror renaissance.

Likewise, Daily Beast’s Jen Yamato argues that

The mainstream horror movie is, sadly, the last place anyone who’s ever seen a mainstream horror movie would credibly look for critical acclaim—not that horrorhounds wouldn’t love to see an impeccably crafted four-quadrant slasher sweep the Oscars.

According to Michael Rothman for Consequences of Sound, “horror isn’t just having a resurgence, it’s taking over.”

Writing for the BBC, Nicolas Barker claims that, in historic terms, horror has traditionally been the black sheep of the Hollywood genre system,

 a slightly embarrassing, bargain-basement alterative to mainstream drama […] You can understand why [horror films] might not appeal to a producer with an Oscar- or BAFTA-shaped space in their trophy cabinet.

Some critics argue that this so-called “new Golden Age” is best exemplified by the rise of Blumhouse productions, with Jason Blum’s ‘cheap and nasty’ economic model outperforming blockbuster franchises and films, at least as far as return-on-investment (ROI) goes. The Oscar nod for Jordan Peele’s Get Out is, of course, most often heralded as ‘proof’ that horror is transitioning out of the cult ghetto and into mainstream prominence. “For the first time ever,” exclaims Scott Meslow for GQ, “the most critically lauded movie released [in 2017] is a horror movie.” Blumhouse has “cornered the market on inventive horror,” argues Tracy Palmer.

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Writing for The Guardian in September 2017, Anna Smith asked:

So how did these once fringe-films move into the heart of the mainstream?

 Smith’s question, perhaps a rhetorical flourish more than anything substantive, suggests that the terms ‘mainstream’ and ‘horror’ are not easy bedfellows, setting up a binary between popularity and fringe (or the incredibly amorphous term, ‘cult’). The second decade of the new millennium is, as many critics have pointed out, a high generic watermark represented by ‘quality horror,’ ‘smart horror,’ ‘high concept horror,’ ‘elevated horror,’ ‘horror-adjacent,’ and ‘post-horror,’ terms that, in Nicolas Barker’s account, operate as “back-handed compliments,” bolstering the notion that the genre is much maligned.

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But has it not always been the case that horror cinema has been historically less a coherent category than, as with all genres, a system of currents, cycles and trends that have pumped valuable oxygen and blood into “the heart of the mainstream” for almost a century? For if Hollywood “has always relied on horror movies,” then the suggestion that the genre has recently been elevated from the margins and thrust into the spotlight is little more than discursive ballyhoo, I would argue. Indeed, the suggestion that contemporaneous horror media is somehow indicative of a widespread ‘renaissance’ would mean that there has been a fallow period from which the genre has risen into prominence once more.

 But has horror ever really gone away? Is the genre truly a niche or cult object? And would it be at all accurate to claim that horror cinema has historically been categorically despised and maligned?

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In cinematic terms, the genre has inarguably been a key organ in “the heart of the mainstream” since the turn of the twentieth century. Prior to the coming of sound, entrepreneur and pioneer, Thomas Edison, produced the first film adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1910, drawing on the gothic tradition at a time when the horror genre was in utero. Lon Chaney, “the man with a thousand faces,” was perhaps the first star of (proto) horror cinema, most famously playing lead roles in The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1923), and The Phantom of the Opera (1925), the former of which was Universal’s “super jewel,” the most successful mainstream picture for the studio at that point. With the inception of sound in the early 1930s, Universal’s Carl Lemmle Jnr continued to green-light adaptations of gothic literature, leading into what has been termed the first Golden Age of horror films usually illustrated by the seminal ‘Universal Monster’ cycle. In 1931, Tod Browning’s Dracula and James Whale’s Frankenstein shattered box offices across North America, resulting in horror sequels and series swiftly becoming a major cash nexus of the Hollywood motion picture industry.

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During the period, it was not only Universal that tapped into audiences’ appetite for blood-curdling cinema, but other studios produced a welter of horror pictures as well. Alison Peirse aims to redress this gap in After Dracula: The 1930s Horror Film, emphasizing “the diversity of horror film production during the 1930s”:

Many of the films that appeared over the next few years [after Dracula] diverged quite significantly from the mechanics of Universal’s gothic vampire story. The Gaumont-British film The Clairvoyant (1933) is grounded in spiritualism and British popular culture; Murders in the Zoo (1933) is a story of lip-sewing sadism and murder set amongst real-life big cats and snakes; while The Black Cat (1935) is an occult shrine to modernist architecture and design.

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Paramount also boarded the horror bandwagon in 1931, producing Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, featuring Fredric March as the eponymous split personality, a performance deemed so incredible that March walked away with the Best Actor in a Leading Role Oscar at the fourth annual awards, as well as Most Favourite Actor at the Venice Film Festival.

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And while classic horror films might well seem excessively camp or outmoded to audiences today—my own undergraduates tend to laugh at Whale’s Frankenstein, for instance—the emergence of horror pictures during the transition from silent cinema to “talkies” attracted the ire of censors and moral campaigners. As recounted by Peirse, an administrator of the Production Code asked of Hays: “is this the beginning of a cycle that ought to be retarded or killed?” It was thus not the attack on The Exorcist in the 1970s, or the so-called “video nasties” in the 1980s that first put horror cinema in the dock.

Between 1931 and 1936, horror cinema remained at the epicentre of Universal studios’ output, so much so that the decision to cease producing horror pictures in order to address criticisms of the conservative moral brigade, as well as implementation of the production code and the introduction of the H-Rating in the United Kingdom— H standing for horror—ended up leaving Universal on the cusp of bankruptcy. It was only by returning to horror in 1939 with Son of Frankenstein that Universal’s fortunes shifted once again, meaning unequivocally that horror saved the ailing studio. Decades before the rise of the contemporary blockbuster in the 1970s, then, Universal’s horror pictures stood out as examples of what we would now describe as “tent-pole” productions.

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By drawing upon gothic literature, adaptations and remakes were key in the genre’s formation, but Universal pushed the envelope further by producing films that remained branded with recognizable staples of the gothic tradition, while radically manoeuvring outside of the parameters of the source material, most notably with the Frankenstein films. Considered by many critics as the frontispiece of classic horror cinema, James Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein was the first horror sequel in film history, setting out numerous codes and conventions that continue to characterise the genre contemporaneously, especially the central motif that the monster will rise again (and again, and again).

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The second wave of horror pictures followed hot on the heels of Son of Frankenstein, although Universal moved from lofty A-picture budgets to B-movie economics. This second cycle, said to have lasted from 1939—1946, included the House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula “monster mash” films, a protean precursor to the “shared universe” model currently employed by Marvel Studios; and as the Universal monsters moved further into parody, the Abbott and Costello films. Other studios developed and deployed horror pictures during this second cycle, including Val Newton’s RKO, Colombia and the Poverty Row studios. Indeed, “all the major studios contributed to this cycle,” and “commentators believed they were witnessing an unprecedented boom in horror film production,” as Mark Jancovich put it.  

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The Universal Monster canon would recycle once more in the late 1950s and early 1960s with the inception of television and the rise of “Monster Culture.” As ‘monster kid,’ Henry Jenkins has written in a special issue of The Journal of Fandom Studies, “the Universal monster movies had been part of the large package of ‘Shock Theater’ Screen Gems sold to television stations in the 1950s and still in active use on second-tier local stations in the 1960s.” The publication of Forest J Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine signifed an emergent fan culture that sat around the TV set, dressing up as their favorite monsters and consuming merchandised elements, such as the Aurora model kits. In 1964, Universal produced TV comedy series The Munsters to capitalize on this new audience of baby boomers as horror become part of the domestic furniture.

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In the United Kingdom during the same period, Hammer Film Productions, like Universal, tapped into the gothic tradition, with director Terence Fisher’s Dracula, The Curse of Frankenstein and The Mummy offering “the loveliest-looking British films of the decade,” several critically regarded film series (although such regard has been retroactively applied in many cases). Over time, the quality of Hammer’s output dipped, moving from serious, though melodramatic films, to absurdly camp—although that did not prevent the studio from winning the Queen’s Award for Industry in 1968 for managing to entice $4.5 million from North America and into the UK economy. This was the Golden Age of British Horror.

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In the 1960s and ‘70s, literary adaptations once again became the life-blood of the genre, at least in part. Alfred Hitchcock’s translation of Robert Bloch’s Psycho led to the Director’s nomination for an Academy Award as well as Janet Leigh for Best Supporting Actress, for which she won the Golden Globe, and John L. Russell for Cinematography. And for many critics, Psycho set the groundwork for what would later become known as the “slasher film” in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. But it was the publication of Ira Levin’s neo-Gothic thriller Rosemary’s Baby in 1967 that would spark (apparently) a new Golden Age of horror cinema. Directed by Roman Polanski and starring Mia Farrow, the film adaptation of Levin’s neo-Gothic thriller was certainly controversial, with conservative critics and moralizers criticising the film for its “perverted use of fundamental Christian beliefs,” as recounted by David J. Skal in The Horror Show. This, however, didn’t prevent the film sweeping up a lion’s share of box office receipts in 1968, with Ruth Gordon winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, and a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. Gordon also won the Golden Globe in the same category, while Mia Farrow was nominated for Best Actress.

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Following on from the success of Rosemary’s Baby, William Friedkin’s adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s novel, The Exorcist, was a cause célèbre, a film that was both excoriated and celebrated in turn. As Mark Kermode explains, The Exorcist was

 written by a Catholic, directed by a Jew, and produced by the vast multinational Warner Bros., this was a movie that was championed by sometime political radicals such as Jerry Rubin, picketed by concerned pressure groups, paid for by millions of eager punters, praised by the Catholic News for its profound spirituality, and branded satanic by evangelist Billy Graham. Never before or since has a mainstream movie provoked such wildly diverging reactions.

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The Exorcist demonstrated that horror cinema continued to be legitimately mainstream, becoming the second most popular film in 1974—after Paul Newman and Robert Redford vehicle, The Sting—and receiving nominations for ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture (the first horror movie to be nominated in that category) and Best Director, as well as eight Golden Globes, four of which it won (including the coveted Best Picture and Best Director). At the box office, The Exorcist became the highest-grossing horror film in history, and remains so to this day (more on that below).

In 1976, Brian De Palma adapted Stephen King’s debut novel, Carrie, starring Sissy Spacek and Pippie ‘dirty pillows’ Laurie. As explained in Simon Brown’s excellent Screening Stephen King, it was De Palma’s adaptation that catapulted King from horror fiction niche to household name as opposed to the novel itself. Carrie received Oscar nominations for Spacey and Laurie for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively.

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Adaptations were not the only dish on the horror menu, however. Richard Donner’s The Omen, also in 1976, earned over $60 million at the box office, garnering critical plaudits and Academy Award nominations for Best Original Score, which Jerry Goldsmith won. Further, Billie Whitlaw was nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category at the BAFTAS and won the Evening Standard British Film Award for Best Actress, while Harvey Stephens was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Acting Debut.

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While not in the same league as The Exorcist in box office terms, Tobe Hopper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre converted a budget of $80K into $30 million—an ROI of 37,400%—thus demonstrating that films ostensibly created for the exploitation circuit could puncture the “heart of the mainstream,” just as George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead managed to take $30 million in box office receipts on a budget of $114K in 1968.   

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The 1970s also became the petri dish for blockbuster/ franchise cinema, and it was a horror film that arguably started it all: Stephen Spielberg’s Jaws. Although George Lucas’ Star Wars would turn producers towards science fiction—even Bond went into space with Moonraker—Ridley Scott gave us sci-fi/ horror hybrid Alien in 1979. Yet, Jaws, Star Wars, and Rocky Balboa all engaged with serialization, more commonly known as ‘franchising.’ However, as discussed earlier, it was the Universal Monster canon that experimented with serialised filmmaking four decades earlier and should perhaps be viewed as early (or proto) franchising even though the term was not in use during the period, as Derek Johnson has emphasized. Horror cinema was not immune to the industrial turn to blockbusters and “sequelization” that started in the 1970s. George A Romero produced the first sequel in his Zombie continuity-less franchise, Dawn of the Dead, in 1979, while a year earlier, John Carpenter’s Halloween sparked what has been described as the ‘Golden Age of Slasher Movies,’ a cycle that is said to have existed between 1978 and 1984, comprising well-known films such as Friday the 13th, Prom Night and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Each of these films grew into powerhouse franchise properties, assisted by the rise of video in the 1980s, a medium that extended the life span of cinema from theatrical exhibition into the domestic realm, as well as introducing the capacity to, re-watch or record if broadcast on television. As with the Universal Monster canon, eighties’ monsters such as the stalk-and-slash triumvirate of Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, and Freddy Krueger, would return from the dead again and again, the ideal recipe for the franchise blueprint. Other characters emerged in the ‘80s as well that would lead to franchise development, including possessed doll Chucky from Child’s Play and Clive Barker’s demonic Pinhead from Hellraiser.

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The 1990s horror film shifted, at least partly, towards psychological horror, with Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs, an adaptation of Thomas Harris’ best-selling novel, winning the big five Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay. In mid-decade, Wes Craven’s final Freddy film A New Nightmare surprised critics with its smart meta-narrative, leading to Scream (1996) initiating a second Slasher cycle, but flavoured with postmodern commentary and self-conscious reflexivity. The success of Scream led to sequels Scream 2 (1997) and Scream 3 (2000), all of which spun box office gold—especially the first film, which made $170 million from a £15 million budget—as well as cycle films such as I Know What you Did Last Summer (1997), and Urban Legend (1998). In 1999, The Blair Witch Project popularised the found footage subgenre with a marketing campaign that has since gone down in history.

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In the new millennium, the genre mutated once more (although I would insist that the genre has never quite been static). Spearheaded by the phenomenal success of James Wan’s Saw, the so-called “torture porn” cycle was born—more of an invention of the press than a discrete genre, as emphasized by Steve Jones—and over the next few years, explicitly violent films became part and parcel of mainstream cinema. The Saw franchise produced eight films over eight years, with the law of diminishing returns temporally halting production until the ninth part, Jigsaw, surfaced in 2017. This was the era of “the Splat Pack,” with ambassadors Rob ‘The Devil’s Rejects’ Zombie and Eli ‘Hostel’ Roth flying the flag for excessive splatter, gore and, in their own accounts, political transgression (see Mark Bernard’s brilliant monograph on the topic). Often admonished by the critical establishment, these films nevertheless became key elements of mainstream horror cinema and raided the box office.

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The post-millennial landscape was also replete with remakes, reboots and re-adaptations, many of them coming from Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes, ‘a remake house’ in all but name at that point. Described as “the deja-vu boom,” this convincingly shows that the genre need not be subservient to a single, univocal cycle but involves cross-breeding across and within sub-generic elements, a dialogic array of different manifestations of what we might describe as “horror” at any particular historic juncture.

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In 2007, Jason Blum’s Blumhouse entered the scene, with found footage film Paranormal Activity setting box offices alight with a remarkable, record-breaking ROI. By converting a shoestring budget of 15K into box office receipts of $193 million, Paranormal Activity set the ground for what has become known as “micro-budget” horror filmmaking in the twenty-first century.

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Paranormal Activity led to a further five films in the series between 2009—2014, but the second decade of the new millennium is also marked by a shift from extreme representations of gore and violence and back to atmospheric ghost stories, including the Insidious franchise, also from Blumhouse, and James Wan’s The Conjuring films and spin offs. This is not to suggest that so-called “torture porn” has disappeared, however: Pascal Laughier’s An Incident in Ghostland is certainly an intense ordeal as is the Australian film, Hounds of Love. Cycles wax and wane, but the genre is much more than this-or-that cycle at any given moment.

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Are we experiencing a “new Golden age of horror films,” then? I certainly agree that the genre is in rude health at the moment, and that the Blumhouse economic model of “micro-budget” horror cinema is giving the majors a run for their money (so much so that I am researching Blumhouse for a monograph—tentatively titled Cheap Shots). But as this potted history shows—and it is very piecemeal, I admit—I definitely do not accept that horror cinema has been unquestionably fringe, unmistakably cult, emphatically marginal and wholly disparaged.

In 2017, Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Andy Muschetti’s re-adaptation of King’s IT were most often invoked as heralding the new Golden Age in press discourse, the former primarily because of the way in which it confronted the politics of race and was nominated for an Academy Award—certainly not the first to do either—and the latter because it shattered box office records for the highest-grossing horror film in history.  

Except, it wasn’t. The common trend of citing economic performance without attending to inflation is patently ludicrous. In adjusted dollars, The Exorcist unarguably slaughters IT in no uncertain terms, standing at number one for horror cinema, and at number nine in all-time box office charts regardless of genre. Comparatively, IT stands at number 225. Moreover, The Exorcist out grossed every Star Wars movie, barring Lucas’ first instalment (now subtitled A New Hope).

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As far as disparagement goes, it is more likely, I would argue, that it is popular cinema generally that is largely sneered at by the critical establishment, just as adaptations, sequels, remakes and franchising have been castigated as symptomatic of Hollywood’s creative inertia and decline. Many press accounts tend to deal explicitly in hyperbole of this sort, ignoring the history of cinema and the way in which adaptation and remaking practices have been with us since the very start, as pointed out by various scholars such as Constantine Verevis, Carolyn Jess-Cooke and Luzy Mazdon (to name a select few). But I wonder—and I don’t know the answer to this yet—if horror cinema has managed to attract as many critical plaudits and establishment trophies and nominations than other so-called “genre pictures”? How many science fiction films, for example, have been nominated for an Academy Award comparatively? If establishment awards are any indication of mainstream success, it is certainly true that superhero films lag far behind horror cinema in terms of the trophy cabinet.

Of course, I am not suggesting that Oscars, BAFTAs, Golden Globes etc., are signifiers of quality, but I use the cases above as a way to illustrate that horror cinema has cut across cultural distinctions at different historically contingent moments. Thus, rather than view ‘the horror film’ in binary terms, as either operating on the cultish fringe or sneaking surreptiously into the mainstream, the genre is much more expansive than dualisms of this kind allow. There is no such stable or concrete generic category as ‘horror,’ but a matrix of forces and factors that may account for the way in which the term has been discursively employed historically. To be sure, there are certainly aspects of horror cinema that have attracted a fair share of controversy and condemnation: from the Universal Monster cycle, The Exorcist, the so-called “video nasties,” the rape-revenge film, “torture porn,” The Human Centipede, The Bunny Game, A Serbian Film, etc. etc. But these currents and trends do not make up the genre that we understand as horror entirely. Horror cinema is neither wholly maligned or critically celebrated, but exists in a more complex and complicated array of dialogic utterances and discourses that often cuts across cultural distinctions.

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I would also add that the proliferation of new media affordances such as streaming giants, Netflix and Amazon Prime, both of whom produce their own films and series, have dallied in horror, Mike Flanagan’s adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix being a particularly fine example of serial horror (and the third adaptation of Jackson’s novel). But do these texts illustrate a “renaissance,” or a “new Golden Age”? Or are there simply more media platforms to populate with content? There is no way, I would argue, that the quantity—and quality—of horror series, serials and films being produced at the moment outweigh other cycles and currents in previous decades.

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Over the next few weeks or so, Confessions of an Aca-Fan pays host to a new series comprised of interviews with several academics centred on aspects of cult media, horror, exploitation, the gothic, and more besides. And while the focus is not entirely on fandom, interested readers will no doubt recognise that the majority of these scholars could certainly fit in with the definition of what Henry Jenkins would describe as ‘aca-fandom,’ even if they do not identify as such themselves in direct terms. I asked similar questions of our contributors at times, while at others hone in on individual research endeavours, with the hope of producing a discursive debate of kinds.

We hope you enjoy the series and if anyone would like to contribute an essay or propose a topic, please email at bproctor@bournemouth.ac.uk.

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William Proctor is Senior Lecture in Transmedia, Culture and Communication at Bournemouth University in the UK. He has published widely on various aspects of popular culture and is currently writing his debut monograph, Reboot Culture: Comics, Film, Transmedia (Palgrave). Along with co-editor Matthew Freeman, William has recently published the edited collection, Global Convergence Cultures: Transmedia Earth for Routledge. He can be reached at bproctor@bournemouth.ac.uk.

 

 

 

Do We Still Believe Networked Youth Can Change the World?: A Special Issue

A special issue of the bilingual (Spanish-English) journal, Working Papers on Culture, Education, and Human Development, dropped recently, sharing three essays on the theme of “Do We Still Believe Networked Youth Can Change the World?” The exchange started with the plenary session I did with activist/entrepreneur Esra’a Al Shafei at the Digital Media and Learning Conference a year or so back. An edited transcript of that memorable exchange about social change movements in the Arab world and some reflections on it open this issue. My long-time friend James Paul Gee, a major figure in the education world and someone who writes often about games and learning, responded with some fairly strong critiques of the concept of “participatory politics” as it has been shaped by the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics research network and others in recent years. And I, in turn, responded clarifying and defending our core concepts and also trying to speak to the similarities and differences between Gee’s concept of “affinity spaces” and my own work on “participatory culture.'“ The two are sometimes used interchangeably but I see significant differences (although some overlap) between the two. If you want to read this lively back and forth, you can find it here.

Here is a brief sample from the exchange.

James Paul Gee:

Why talk about affinity spaces and distributed teaching and learning systems? Why isn’t talking about participation and connection enough? Think of an empty affinity space (no one is any of the spaces at the moment). Each of these is sitting there (really or virtually) with tools and resources to create certain sorts of learning, teaching, and appreciative systems. Each is like a restaurant resourced to cook certain sorts of food in a certain way, though food for the mind and action in the case of affinity spaces.

Such spaces are most often the historical product of mutual top-down and bottom-up design and organization. As people move through them they are guided/directed/taught by the tools and resources— and the practices they facilitate—available to them and, in the act, over time they transform them. But at no point are people innocent of directive frameworks and teaching as design whether done by a tool, resource, or person. It is the shared appreciative systems, skills, and identities that give fellow-travelers (some more than others) power in the sense of directed agency of a characteristic, focused, social, and socialized sort.

In the end, I argue that we need to focus on capacities, design, resources, values, beliefs, and norms and not media or even participation per se. The latter are constrained by and facilitate the former.

Henry Jenkins:

I am often asked about the similarities and differences between Gee’s notion of “affinity spaces” and my own conception of “participatory culture.” I have always seen potentially productive overlaps between the two. But, Gee’s suggestion here that we think about an “empty affinity space” suggests some important differences. Gee has sought to distinguish “affinity spaces” from the affiliation or sociality conjured up by a word like “community.” Starting from a focus on games, game designers, and game players, Gee is interested in shared resources and activities, rule sets and affordances, which are to some degree built into the designed environment. Starting from my personal focus on fandom, my participatory culture model emphasizes the social ties, cultural traditions, shared norms and values, and expressive practices that support informal learning. Fans cluster around existing cultural works produced by others, often commercial producers, but they read them in relation to their own lived experiences and draw from them resources that help them to better articulate their own perspectives. While commercial producers want consumers, they have not always welcomed fans and for that reason, their attempts to build platforms to facilitate fan interactions -- to set the terms of fan participation -- have largely failed. Fandoms emerge from other fandoms as diasporic knowledge spreads from one site of community engagement to the next. Mentorship is practical but not hierarchical: those who know teach those who need to learn without regard to age or authority.

Fandom is not a space; fans interact with each other across a wide range of different platforms and environments, drawn to them because they offer certain affordances that allow them to pursue their shared goals and interests.  Fandom’s power comes from its potential to persist despite top-down limits that shape the design and operation of various platforms. Shut it down here and it will spring up somewhere else. The ways commercial producers and platforms enable, limit, or seek to profit from fan engagements has become increasingly central to fandom studies research, but most of us recognize that the fan community (a word too valuable to reject) is not limited to a single platform and its affordances.  There is no such thing as an “empty” fandom; fandoms only exist when groups of people are brought together through their shared social interactions. The spread of fan knowledge and practices is better understood in terms of mentorship (including peer-to-peer mentorship), tradition, and emergence (grassroots experimentation and innovation) rather than design.

Affinity spaces and participatory cultures are not mutually exclusive; one can imagine many potential overlaps between them, but we can not assume that every affinity space constitutes a participatory culture or vice-versa.  I share Gee’s sense that we should be paying more attention to how we build stronger bridges between different participatory cultures, how we find the common ground we need to rebuild the kinds of democratic culture many of us desire. But I would have said that participatory politics movements, such as March for Our Lives, demonstrate the power of such coalitions to take collective action.


There’s a lot more where this comes from — translated into Spanish as well as English.

Rediscovering 1940s American Cinema: An Interview with David Bordwell (Part Four)

Knowing you to always care deeply about the quality of academic prose, I was struck by your close attention to stylistic issues in looking at these writers. What might contemporary film studies scholars learn from a closer rhetorical engagement with the expressive practices of these writers? You write in your introduction, “They remain far more provocative and penetrating than nearly anyone writing film criticism today.”

I do think that film scholars, like most academics, could try to write more crisply. Of course I read things I’ve written over the years and cringe: Did I really have to say things so clumsily? I struggle first to achieve clarity and then, I hope, for a certain neatness, even felicity. I think I had a fairly cogent academic style, but I think writing our blog entries over the last dozen years has made me a more conversational, and I hope, user-friendly writer. I would urge people not to try to imitate any of those critics (especially Farber) but to concentrate on developing fresh, defensible ideas about cinema and putting them forward with nuance. After all, we academics have the luxury of more space than reviewers can command, so there’s no reason we can’t go into more depth.

Developing our blogsite after retirement has given me a forum for long-form para-academic essays, and the ease of putting color stills and clips into an online platform have allowed me to follow my wayward interests (even some on politics). I don’t know that any journal would have published most of what I’ve written there, but I think the informal tone of the work did help me find publishers for our books, two of which (MINDING MOVIES and THE RHAPSODES) were revised blog entries. I think every academic researcher in the humanities should find some admirable writers of haute journalism (for me, Shaw, Hitchens, Robert Hughes, Susan Sontag, Kenneth Tynan, Elizabeth Hardwick) and study how they do it.



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As we read these critics, one has a sense of their passionate love for cinema as a medium. There has been a contemporary discourse which talks about the loss of cinephilia within contemporary culture. Do you agree with this assessment or is this just grumpy old people not recognizing the same faces and perspectives dominating the conversation? Do you still find things to love in contemporary cinema?

I do feel myself split. Almost every year brings several films I straightforwardly love. This year, that list includes THE GREATEST SHOWMAN, GAME NIGHT, and THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS. I look forward to films from directors I admire: Spielberg, Panahi, Kore-eda, Kitano, Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, Nolan, Wes Anderson, the Coens, Burton (only the weird projects like BIG EYES), Damien Chazelle, Spike Lee, Agnès Varda, David Koepp, Steven Soderbergh, Lucrezia Martel, Lynch, Wong Kar-wai, Johnnie To, Jaime Collet-Serra, etc. I also enjoy genre items like entries in the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY series, and I’m a sucker for anything that strays into my research zone (A SIMPLE FAVOR, SEARCHING, etc.). But the Star Wars cult leaves me scratching my head, and the superhero films I mostly don’t get, which is odd because I read Batman and Superman (and MAD) as a kid. (Though like everybody else, I loved GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY.) Kristin and I go to film festivals to catch up with current work; at Venice and Vancouver this year I think I saw over fifty new titles.

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Still while, preparing entries in our FilmStruck/Criterion Channel  series, I was reminded of how uniquely rich classic cinema is. Studying Duvivier’s LYDIA (1941), which I also write about in the 40s book, HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR, and Mizoguchi’s STREET OF SHAME, brought home to me how tight, economical, and “dense” or “thick” a film could be. In less than two hours—in the Mizoguchi, less than ninety minutes—we have an intense, “saturated’ experience of cinema, not to mention life. Appreciating this requires concentration, though, and I do believe that people’s devotion to “multitasking” has led to a loss of one aspect of film geekery, the ability to shut off everything else and sink yourself into a circumscribed experience. For me, the early films of Kiarostami and Hou Hsiao-hsien approach this quality.

I guess I really do believe there’s a difference of some sort between silent cinema and classic studio cinema (in many countries, including Japan and India), “modern” cinema (say 1950s-1970s), and contemporary cinema. I like all of those periods, but I do sense a difference.

On the whole, though, I think “cinephilia” has become more or less a taste marker (and a branding device for film festivals). I think the idea in its recent form emerge from CAHIERS of the 1980s, when video was starting to take hold of consumers, and film fans felt the need to justify their attraction. Let’s just admit that nearly everybody loves some kinds of cinema, as they do some kinds of music or literature.



Earlier this year, I shared some thoughts with media literacy advocate Tessa Jolls about why the media literacy movement should pay more attention to the cognitive side of your work, and I’d love to get your reactions to that exchange. To what degree do you see your work as contributing to media literacy? Clearly Film Art is widely taught at the undergraduate level, but as film becomes less central to the ways media literacy is taught in high schools, say, are there more general principles for teaching media we might extract from your work? Do you think of media comprehension as a form of “literacy”? Or are there better metaphors for thinking about what we do when we make sense of a media text?

I think I’m out of my depth here, but I’ll try. 

If media literacy means making people aware of how they interact with media, then I’m wholly in the game. Everything I’ve done takes for granted that form and style shape viewers’ experience to some degree.  In terms of a cognitive perspective, you and Tessa clearly understood the interactive side of my interests. Films don’t totalistically demand a single response; but also they can’t mean any old thing we want. 

In POETICS OF CINEMA I floated a cognitive model that suggested that at as we move up three levels, from perception through comprehension to appropriation, the filmmaker’s power wanes as the viewer’s power increases. The filmmaker “structures the stimulus,” as some might say; at the level of comprehension, there’s a kind of collaboration, in which there are prompts for inference-making powers (we collaborate in making the narrative cohere); and at the level of appropriation (including interpretation, but also any use we might put a film to, including in a classroom discussion), we as viewers can build off the film in many directions completely unforeseen by its makers. (Emotional response operates at all three levels, I think.) This still seems to me a decent first approximation of how to think about the dynamic of control and freedom posed by media texts.

On the pedagogical front, I think that what we tried to lay out in FILM ART may hold good in several respects. First, all moving-image media involve the basic techniques we surveyed, from mise-en-scene to sound. Second, the idea of analyzing a media text’s form and style still seems appropriate. Just this morning I read a review of the Netflix MANIAC that suggested that the style of director Corey Fukunaga is so striking that it’s an aesthetic appeal in its own right. Writers like Jason Mittell and Jeremy Butler have shown how these ideas can invigorate analysis of televsion. 

Concepts of narrative and stylistic strategies seem totally applicable to comics too; I tried my hand at applying them in a few blog entries (http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2010/07/30/tintinopolis/http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2009/09/02/archie-types-meet-archetypes/ http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2016/10/22/eep-omigosh-urk-smerp-and-other-archie-epithets/)  and I hope to do more. The newish book HOW TO READ NANCY does this sort of analysis at great length, and of course Scott McCloud’s books have a lot in common with FILM ART.

Third, I think FILM ART’s application of Wölfflin’s idea that “not everything is possible at all times” could nudge media scholars into considering the historical norms at play in various periods and places. Finally, in our most recent editions, we observed that most of our readers would be image-makers. This is a fairly new development in film history. Kids are growing up shooting photos and films on cellphones, editing on computer, posting them for a public. So as teachers we introduced the angle that students of cinema should try to think like a filmmaker. Our book tries to suggest that the creative response to a choice situation isn’t just what Big Filmmakers Out There are doing, but rather something that the readers would confront every time they use a camera. That’s media literacy too, I suppose: reminding readers that they too have the power to make images and tell stories. To do that effectively involves knowing what the creative options are and thinking about the alternative effects that they can generate. I think this is in harmony with what Tessa and you are up to, yes?

David Bordwell is an American film theorist and film historian. Since receiving his PhD from the University of Iowa in 1974, he has written more than fifteen volumes on the subject of cinema including Narration in the Fiction Film (1985), Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema (1988), Making Meaning (1989), and On the History of Film Style (1997). His most recent works are The Rhapsodies: How 1940s Critics Changed American Film Culture (2016) and Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling (2017).

With his wife Kristin Thompson, Bordwell wrote the introductory textbooks Film Art (1979) and Film History (1994). With aesthetic philosopher Noël Carroll, Bordwell edited the anthology Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies(1996), a polemic on the state of contemporary film theory. His largest work to date remains The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (1985), written in collaboration with Thompson and Janet Staiger.

Bordwell spent nearly the entirety of his career as a professor of film at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he is currently the Jacques Ledoux Professor of Film Studies, Emeritus in the Department of Communication Arts. He and Thompson maintain the blog "Observations on film art" for their recent ruminations on cinema.




Rediscovering 1940s American Film culture: An Interview With David Bordwell (Part Three)

It will not be a great surprise that I was especially interested in the links you draw here between film evolution and what was happening in other media during this same period -- particularly literature and radio drama, but also theater. What accounts for these parallel developments across media?  This is not simply cinema absorbing influences from the other arts but also the other arts catching up with cinematic devices and practices. What models might you offer us for thinking about the logics shaping exchanges of practices across media? How might we apply such models to think about the relations between games, film, comics and television at the current moment?

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I don’t think there’s a single broad explanation for what I call the “media swap meet” that grew intense in the 1940s. There were close institutional/economic ties among film, radio, theatre, and publishing, so that properties and schemas could pass pretty quickly across platforms. Writers went to Hollywood and sold book rights as well; I discovered a real treasure trove in a weekly column in PUBLISHERS’ WEEKLY devoted to sales to studios, as well as studio competitions for new novels. Magazines, which we tend to overlook, weren’t just part of book publishing but also furnished many stories and writers to Hollywood. Many film people did moonlighting jobs in radio, which was in a way what TV became—a vast torrent of narrative material drawn from all manner of sources. LUX RADIO THEATRE featured stories drawn from films and was even hosted by DeMille. I thought of your trans-media storytelling idea when I learned that SORRY, WRONG NUMBER became an annual event (starring Wisconsin’s own Agnes Moorhead); people huddled around their radios to hear it again and again, which in turn posed problems when a feature film had to be made from it. (So it had to be padded out with a plotline involving a young actor named Burt Lancaster.) And of course Hollywood invested in Broadway plays so as to get the film rights. Interestingly, the influence went both ways: I point to novels obviously influenced by Hollywood, and plays (GLASS MENAGERIE, DEATH OF A SALESMAN) openly modeled on film techniques.

The give-and-take is not so different from the system now, I think. Conglomerates openly own various entertainment venues, but there’s still a lot of prowling and snapping-up of free-standing IP. I don’t know of general models, but I think that heuristically we need to trace out the local, fine-grained relations among media creators, so that we might be able to build models of “creative networks” among these media artists.

Your use the term, “middlebrow modernism,” to describe some of the experimentation taking place across popular culture during this period. The word, “middlebrow,” originally carried some degree of disdain or distaste. Does it do so for you? How might we relate this “middlebrow modernism” to the kinds of experiments in the low or popular arts in the following decade which J. Hoberman called “vulgar modernism”? Are we watching the modernist impulse work its way down the cultural hierarchy as its influence on the culture is more fully absorbed?

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I didn’t mean “middlebrow” to be taken as disdainful, and one of the luckier consequences of the reviews REINVENTING has gotten is that readers don’t seem to have taken it that way. To me, there is important and valuable art that many consider middlebrow—OUR TOWN, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, etc. Arguably, most of Hollywood’s prestige output is middlebrow. My chief claim was a neutral one: that narrative techniques from turn-of-the-century writers like James and Conrad, amped up by High Modernists like Woolf and Faulkner, were visible on the cultural horizon of ambitious American and English writers. But those writers also realized that High Modernism was difficult, so they set about making those techniques user-friendly. My prototypes are people like Thornton Wilder, Rumer Godden, Maxwell Anderson, etc. Indeed, even Welles and Hitchcock could be considered middlebrow. I trace some of the 1940s innovations to this vein of literary culture.

At the same time, mystery fiction was changing and becoming more formally complex, and those works fed into Hollywood’s increasingly dense narrative experiments. In general, both “literary fiction” that makes High Modernism more user-friendly and “popular fiction” that mixes those elements with the inheritance of older conventions (e.g., the C19 novel) seem to me primary sources for narrative strategies we find in the 40s. Actually, I’m digging into this area more right now, and trying to compare it with the present—particularly the recent cycle of female thrillers centering on women’s culture (e.g., GONE GIRL, THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, and corresponding novels). 

Hoberman’s concept of “vulgar modernism” seems to me very specific to certain figures (Fuller, Chester Gould, Weegee) and depends on Brecht as a prototype of modernism. I’d locate Fuller and most comics in a more purely popular tradition of eccentric storytelling.

About video games, I know nothing. I do find it interesting that films like HARDCORE HENRY and WRECK-IT RALPH (excellent movie) derive some of their technique from videogames; but then the first-person camera is an old cinematic device, so I suppose first-person video games are indebted to that.

Your book, The Rhapsodes, works in parallel to Reinventing Hollywood to describe shifts in the critical language around film during this period. You discuss an exceptional group of critics -- Otis Ferguson, James Agee, Manny Farber, and Parker Tyler. Were these critics lucky to have such a rich and innovative set of films to write about? Was Hollywood lucky to have such intelligent and innovative critics to help sort through the experiments which were taking place during this key period? In what ways did shifts in critical practice impact film culture more generally during this period?

THE RHAPSODES was a chip from the workbench. In starting my research on the 40s I read the critics you mention, and I wanted to use them as a way of registering the innovations I tried to track. But interestingly, I found that they didn’t have much to say about them. They weren’t especially attuned to the new conventions of the period, which suggests that general audiences may not have registered them much either. This might be a good example of a historian discovering novelty that the audience wasn’t particularly aware of—that is, that the novelty appears as such only in a historical perspective.

I’ve said at various points that for me ideal film criticism includes not only opinions but information and ideas, all of the above to be delivered in engaging prose. For me, my four critics accomplished this, and the book tries to make that case.

Apart from their remarkable writing skills, what struck me about my quartet was their willingness to take Hollywood seriously as an artistic endeavor, a popular form that shouldn’t be judged by the standards of high art. They seemed to me to be forging, in different ways, a perspective on Hollywood that showed its peculiar artistic value. That meant paying attention to detail, noticing technique, trying to see films as expressive vehicles (and not the reflection of a cultural zeitgeist). In short, and given the limits of their resources (no access to prints, let alone video), they were analyzing and interpreting films to a depth not previously seen in American film criticism.

I think they mostly had no influence on the industry, but they did establish a tradition of the film critic as a literary figure. Agee was the most prominent example, but by the 1960s, when US film culture was ready, they were prototypes of the “celebrity critic” (Kael, Sarris, John Simon). They never had the power of that later generation, but for me they formed the start of a powerful tradition that persists in strong, knowledgeable writers such as Sara Imogen Smith, Manohla Dargis, Michael Phillips, Geoffrey O’Brien, Matt Zoller Seitz,Peter Debruge, Todd McCarthy, and Phillip Lopate.) But I wanted to introduce readers to these extraordinary writers and their ideas about the films of their period.



David Bordwell is an American film theorist and film historian. Since receiving his PhD from the University of Iowa in 1974, he has written more than fifteen volumes on the subject of cinema including Narration in the Fiction Film (1985), Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema (1988), Making Meaning (1989), and On the History of Film Style (1997). His most recent works are The Rhapsodies: How 1940s Critics Changed American Film Culture (2016) and Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling (2017).

With his wife Kristin Thompson, Bordwell wrote the introductory textbooks Film Art (1979) and Film History (1994). With aesthetic philosopher Noël Carroll, Bordwell edited the anthology Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies(1996), a polemic on the state of contemporary film theory. His largest work to date remains The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (1985), written in collaboration with Thompson and Janet Staiger.

Bordwell spent nearly the entirety of his career as a professor of film at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he is currently the Jacques Ledoux Professor of Film Studies, Emeritus in the Department of Communication Arts. He and Thompson maintain the blog "Observations on film art" for their recent ruminations on cinema.

How Do You Like It So Far? Podcast: Wu Ming 1 and Benjamen Walker on Conspiracy Theories

This week we talked about conspiracy theories with Wu Ming1, of the collective Wu Ming, whose books inspired one the main conspiracy theorists on the internet, and Benjamen Walker, whose podcast often focuses on conspiracy theories. We cover: The art of blurring fact and fiction, and non-fiction, discrediting gatekeepers, can we ever really debunk, the role of satire, the hunger for complexity, pizzagate, the “deep state,” QAnon, and of course, president Trump.

Benjamen Walker tackles just these sorts of trends on his podcast, “Theory of Everything,” many of which trace back their current toxicology to 9/11. In a recent episode he delves into: when the truthers were gone, and how truthers merged into “hoaxers.” He identifies that with Sandy Hook, these hoaxes turned it into a “darker form.” He is a bit pessimistic since: “Looking for a way forward… I haven’t found it yet.”

Wu Ming is a pseudonym for a group of Italian authors formed in 2000 from a subset of the Luther Blissett community in Bologna. Previous to coming together, four members of the group wrote the novel “Q” in 1999. On 28 October 2017, references to Q emerged from the message board 4chan. In a thread called “Calm Before the Storm,” Q transformed into a government insider, with top security clearance who knew the truth about a secret struggle for power involving Donald Trump, the “deep state”, pedophile rings, Robert Mueller, and the Clintons.

The poetry of debunking

When reflecting on Q, the transformation and viral spread of something clearly originating as a work of fiction, leads us to ask: are we at a point where we cannot debunk any more? We move from “don’t believe what you read, believe me” to “don’t believe what you see, believe me only.”

Conspiracy theories work precisely because they discredit the authority trying to debunk the theory, and authority writ large is exactly what the hoaxers are rejecting. So how do you get around this? Wu Ming suggests that a game-like way of debunking could ultimately compete with the interestingness of the actual theory.

Wu Ming1 also shared his thoughts on the art of weaving fiction and non-fiction.

“Ordinary debunking doesn’t work. Because even if you debunk, believers keep believing them…. Conspiracists provide people with something they need. There is always a kernel of truth, hidden inside a conspiracy theory, because otherwise it wouldn’t work… when we debunk a conspiracy theory, we should be aware of that a kernel of truth.”

Wu Ming proposes that one way to combat this trend is “showing the stitches” — meaning that white hats should open up about about the amount of work required to create works of fiction like Q (similar to showing how a magic trick is done). What we need, he argues, is a “poetry of debunking” that makes the truth more interesting than the conspiracy theory itself.

Please join us to hear this and more in what was a very interesting episode. Plus check out more links below for more content.



Rediscovering 1940s American Film Culture: An Interview with David Bordwell (Part Two)

As you know, I have always been interested in the concept of the “bounds of difference” (from Classical Hollywood Cinema) which raises the question of how much elasticity there is within a system of norms and whether there are periods or genres that stretch against those bounds. For me, my original interest was the ways Hollywood absorbs performance practices from Vaudeville during the early sound era but we could see your recent work on the 1940s as potentially representing a similar moment in American film history, where there is a high amount of experimentation and innovation (a period of “reinvention”). (It was fun to read you writing here about Hellzapoppin and Crazy  House, by the way). So, building on the quote above, what factors opened up those “new possibilities”? Do some of these experiments prove too much for the studio system? Does a new stability eventually emerge or do we see the Hollywood system as always a bit unpredictable and uncontrollable?

Yes, this was a period of innovation not unlike the late 1920s-early 1930s, as your research shows. But there the innovation centered on technology, camera technique, performance, and genre, and these are important trends throughout the 1930s. I think filmmakers worked very hard on developing sound mixing, a fluent style (emphasizing camera movement), new genres (the gangster film, the musical), and performance styles for the sound cinema. (One of my favorite critics, Otis Ferguson, was very sensitive to some of these changes.) But the 1930s also saw a shift away from the narrative fluidity that had become canonical in silent film—the use of crosscutting, the willingness to employ subjective techniques, a freedom of time thanks to flashbacks. 

To put it too grossly, 1930s narration was “behavioral” and “theatrical” to a greater degree than earlier; we have to figure out characters' minds and hearts from externals, as in a play. (Here again, performance matters a lot.) Again to be heavy handed, in the late 1930s and the 1940s, we could say, Hollywood became somewhat more “novelistic”—willing to probe inner states, to shift time scales, etc. As Sara Imogen Smith pointed out to me in a FILM COMMENT podcast, this goes along with a more interiorized performance style (Mitchum, Lancaster, Widmark, even Crawford and Davis). The narration is giving us the psychology, so the actor can be more impassive.

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But to get to your point about the boundaries: I think the boundaries are flexible. We don’t know how far we can go until someone tries. Who would have predicted the elaborate formal contraption that Sturges gives us in UNFAITHFULLY YOURS? Or the psychological intricacies of DAISY KENYON and SWELL GUY? Today, who would have thought we could have such an elaborate time machine as DUNKIRK? I do think that genre helps keep experimentation within bounds; but then again genre encourages experiment, exactly because we know the norms.

Daniel Mainwaring claimed that he wanted OUT OF THE PAST to be narrated by the deaf-mute boy at the beginning, but that was ruled out as too farfetched. Would it be today? And the peculiarities of THE CHASE, which I talk about in both the book and a series of blog posts, seem to have been taken in stride by both critics and audiences. It’s not that anything goes, but we don’t know what doesn’t until somebody tries.




I could not help but read Reinventing Hollywood in relation to the ongoing debates about the status of film noir, which is often treated as a particular genre, style or mode, operating on the fringe of American film practice. But, your book suggests that many of the narrative innovations, such as flashbacks, experiments with subjective camera, nonlinear stories, etc., associated with film noir are actually visible across a range of different genres -- melodrama or romantic comedy, say -- during this same period. So, to put it bluntly, how have people missed this? More generously, how might insights from your book force us to reconsider some of the claims that have been made about film noir?

I start from a historicist position on film noir: that is, I see it as a category invented by later critics to illuminate a range of films that have some common features. It wasn’t a term for Hollywood filmmakers of the period, and so they categorized films quite differently. In the book, I point out that what we’d call thrillers, as well as some detective stories, were lumped in with horror films. 

We can’t enter the historical agents’ minds, but we can get a sense of the norms they seem to hold. So, yes, many of the techniques I study were quite general across a range of genres. I don’t know why researchers haven’t emphasized this enough, but maybe because the power of the idea of film noir (and the glamor of it, I admit) steered people away from noting the strategies elsewhere.


Genre becomes increasingly important as we move deeper into the book and you discuss how the various “narrative schemas” you identify operate in relation to such tendencies in 1940s cinema as the pseudodocumentary procedural, the fantasy film, the psychodrama, the self-reflexive comedy  or the murder mystery. How might we think about the relations between narrative experimentation and the emergence of these genres? Do the genres motivate the formal experimentation? Do these genres emerge as filmmakers seek ways to motivate the devices you have identified?

You raise a fascinating point. Genre is crucial to both narrative norms and narrative innovations. In several cases, I tried to show how genres in other media shaped filmmaking; the most complete example is the rise of the literary and theatrical thriller. As you say, the process goes both ways: existing genres offer opportunities to try out storytelling techniques. This happens with “unreliable” narration in the thriller, for example—something that is rare in other genres. Once the family saga was established with FOUR DAUGHTERS, HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, etc., the possibility of downgrading the individual protagonist was there to be exploited further in war pictures. And comedy, as you know better than anyone, offers a huge range of options for playing with structure and style.

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At the same time, I do think that the emergence of certain strategies favored the development of genres that could motivate them. Whatever the cultural appeal of Freudian subjects and themes was at the time, I don’t think the “psychoanalytical” would have appeared quite so strongly without the new armory of subjective techniques. I think the dynamic you point to is especially evident today with technology. The development of analog, then digital special effects from the 1970s onward surely stimulated the development of horror, fantasy, and SF films. They motivate the use of such techniques in a way that wouldn’t be as vivid in other genres.

You title your introduction, “How Hollywood Told It,” which invites comparison to your How Hollywood Tells It book. What parallels are you drawing, implicitly and explicitly, between contemporary Hollywood storytelling and the kinds of innovations you discuss during the 1940s?  How is your interest in new narrative and narrational forms in the 1940s linked to your interest on your blog and elsewhere regarding contemporary “puzzle films”? Does taking this larger historical perspective offer us any insights into the space for innovation in contemporary films?

At the very end of REINVENTING, I floated the idea that the much-vaunted “New Hollywood” of the 1970s emerged out of conditions similar to those that nurtured the 1940s innovations I tried to chart. The industry was regaining health after a period of deprivation, some blockbusters had put money into the system, a new generation of filmmakers emerged to take advantage of opportunities, and some ambitious filmmakers tried to make formal innovations. It’s simply a parallel, but it does suggest that there were periods of intense renewal in Hollywood that we haven’t taken sufficient measure of. 

The more proximate period, and the reason I evoked THE WAY HOLLYWOOD TELLS IT, was the post-1960s era, when many narrative innovations emerged. They emerged most intensely, I think, in the 1990s-2000s, and a lot of those involved revising the schemas at work in the 40s. The network narrative, from Altman and others in the 1970s, got further elaborated, and the play with time and subjectivity we saw in, say, PETULIA in the 1960s or THE CONVERSATION in the 1970s became much more generalized during the later decades. The saying became “Form is the new content,” and films like PULP FICTION, MEMENTO, MAGNOLIA, and seemed to me ambitious reworkings of the tendencies that had emerged in the 1940s. I floated that tentatively in THE WAY, but returning to the 40s—initially under the aegis of a series of lectures I gave for the Flemish Summer Film College in Belgium in 2011—allowed me to develop my hunch in detail.

David Bordwell is an American film theorist and film historian. Since receiving his PhD from the University of Iowa in 1974, he has written more than fifteen volumes on the subject of cinema including Narration in the Fiction Film (1985), Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema (1988), Making Meaning (1989), and On the History of Film Style (1997). His most recent works are The Rhapsodies: How 1940s Critics Changed American Film Culture (2016) and Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling (2017).

With his wife Kristin Thompson, Bordwell wrote the introductory textbooks Film Art (1979) and Film History (1994). With aesthetic philosopher Noël Carroll, Bordwell edited the anthology Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies(1996), a polemic on the state of contemporary film theory. His largest work to date remains The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (1985), written in collaboration with Thompson and Janet Staiger.

Bordwell spent nearly the entirety of his career as a professor of film at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he is currently the Jacques Ledoux Professor of Film Studies, Emeritus in the Department of Communication Arts. He and Thompson maintain the blog "Observations on film art" for their recent ruminations on cinema.







Rediscovering 1940s American Film Culture: An Interview with David Bordwell (Part One)

David Bordwell has been a hyper-productive film scholar since his early 20s and now, more than a decade into his retirement, he is still running strong. He is blogging, updating his old books, writing new ones, and jetting off to film festivals around the world. In the past few years, he has published two new books — The Rhapsodies: How 1940s Critics Changed American Film Culture (2016) and Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling (2017). — which give us fresh takes on American film culture in the 1940s, a period that seems all the more innovative and transformative through his characteristically close analysis.

I was lucky enough to be have Bordwell as my dissertation advisor in the late 1980s at the peak of the so-called “Wisconsin” project. He was a breathtaking presence in the classroom — we routinely stayed an hour or more after class until he felt his lecture was complete — and he was generous as a mentor — making sure each student found their own voice even if or especially if they disagreed with his premises. It is hard to imagine writing my first book, What Made Pistachio Nuts?: Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic, without his influence and I draw on things he taught me regularly even if my work has taken me far from cinema studies in recent years.

I am proud to be able to share with you a bit of our lifelong conversation together. Here, he situates his new books on the 1940s in relation to concerns which run throughout his career. His responses are, as always, substantive and probing, showing the continued evolution of his thinking on some core issues.

If I look across your body of work, there are books dealing with exceptional filmmakers (Ozu, Eisenstein, Dreyer, not to mention recent writing about Wes Anderson and Christopher Nolan) as well as books which adopt a more normative approach looking at samples of typical or average films (such as The Classical Hollywood Cinema, The Way Hollywood Tells It, and Reinventing Hollywood). What do you see as the relationship between these two approaches? How do they fit together in your conception of film studies as a field?



I should say at the start that I try to proceed from questions that intrigue me and that seem to me to remain unanswered (or not satisfactorily answered). The questions tend to come within three broad areas: (1) The history and creative resources of film forms (especially narrative); The history and creative resources of film techniques (i.e., style); and The principles governing activities of spectators who respond to films. As you know, I approach all those within a framework I’ve called a poetics of cinema—the probing of princples that filmmakers develop and that viewers learn to apprehend.

So the filmmakers you mention are those who seem to me to occupy niches in those areas. To take the recent examples you mention: Nolan seems to me to have developed a distinct “formal project” in his handling of narrative—essentially testing how crosscutting can create different temporal zones—while Anderson works both at the level of narrative and a distinct pictorial style. But because I’m interested in principles of narrative and style, I see those as shared and spread through a community of creators, so that norms are created that more or less shape what’s possible (or discouraged, or encouraged) in different contexts. The norms, I’ve stressed from the beginning, aren’t single mandated rules but rather range of more or less permitted options.

 In the books on Hollywood, I’ve tried to spell out the principles shaping form and style within that powerful community. The most recent book on the 1940s goes the farthest, I suppose, in trying to construct the “menu” from which filmmakers work. But the innovative filmmakers expand the menu by showing possibilities in the norms that others haven’t realized. Sometimes those possibilities themselves become normative, as, say, complex flashback construction became normative in the 40s. The same sort of process, I think, went on in Hong Kong cinema from the 1980s through the 2000s.

As for Ozu, Dreyer, and Eisenstein: In all those cases, I tried to show how the individual filmmaker worked both within and against emerging norms of form and style in their most proximate context. For Ozu, the context was Japanese studio cinema; for Eisenstein, the emerging Soviet avant-garde; for Dreyer, the “language” of international European cinema (though from my perspective today, I think I missed many chances to relate him to important trends—I just didn’t know enough!).





Auteur filmmakers such as Hitchcock, Capra, Wyler, Welles, or Sturges do make appearances in Reinventing Hollywood but often to show how their practices were in conversation with those of less well remembered films and filmmakers of the same period. You write, “To a greater extent than their contemporaries, they carved out new formal options. But their very originality created problems of competition. Once the new schema are out there, anyone could imagine telling a story through multiple flashbacks, embedding a film within a film, restricting our knowledge to a single character, or ringing changes on thriller premises. To stay prominent, Welles and Hitchcock had to outrun their imitators and themselves.” One of your very first widely read essays dealt with Citizen Kane. What does this more robust map of this cycle of innovation during the 1940s help us to see within this film you would not have seen before?



Because of its length, REINVENTING HOLLYWOOD allowed me to deal with changes within norms to a degree I couldn’t before. Both THE CLASSICAL HOLLYWOOD CINEMA and THE WAY HOLLYWOOD TELLS IT build up a general picture of norms of storytelling and style. They do address some local changes—e.g., early sound shooting style, deep-focus cinematography in CHC and the emergence of “network narratives” and “worldmaking” in THE WAY. But the 1940s book let me dig more into the dynamic of how narrative strategies develop in a short time span. 

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Once I conceived Hollywood as a community built on “cooperative competition,” I was able to sense the extent to which a film like KANE did two things: It assimilated several storytelling strategies that had emerged in films and other media; and it provided a template for further revision, by Welles and by others. Again, it came down to different questions. That very early essay on KANE, and the better analysis I wrote for the editions of FILM ART: AN INTRODUCTION, were concerned with functional explanations—providing an analysis of how the film worked. The 40s book was more concerned with causal explanation, asking what narrative schemas were available to be synthesized by Welles and his collaborators, and how those in turn became available to others. 

I came to appreciate the notion that filmmakers were making films not only for audiences but for other filmmakers, as part of a give-and-take of influence and, perhaps, rivalry. Certainly I think that the great number of “Hitchcockian” thrillers that followed Hitchcock’s emigration to the states shaped a sense of competition in him: he had to outrun his imitators. He did this with some very outré projects, like LIFEBOAT, SPELLBOUND, ROPE, and UNDER CAPRICORN, but he also managed to perfect the “Hitchcock touch” in NOTORIOUS. Filmmakers, I’m convinced, can be quite aware of the pressure to innovate, especially when they become famous.


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You write: “The collective nature of the Hollywood enterprise yielded remarkable achievements, and the results were never perfectly controllable or predictable. When collective effort was blended with individual abilities and fresh opportunities, new forms -- not formulas -- could emerge, expand, and mingle. We’re confronted with two levels of artistry: tried-and-true conventions executed with more or less skill, and innovations that open up new possibilities.”  So, what are some of the “new forms” and “new possibilities” that emerge during this period?

Broadly, the 1940s sees a crystallization of several narrative options (as well as stylistic ones, which I try to deal with in other work). There’s the flashback narrative, in all its myriad forms; the multiple-protagonist film (probably seen best in the combat picture); the  “psychological” film (e.g., THE LOST WEEKEND, THE SNAKE PIT); the social-comment film; the “new realist” film (e.g., INTRUDER IN THE DUST); the film relying on subjective imagery and voice-over; and the self-consciously stylized film, which acknowledges its ties to or breaks with earlier film history (e.g., HELLZAPOPPIN, THE PERILS OF PAULINE). I also place a lot of emphasis on the emergence of the psychological thriller, either based on the man-on-the-run or the woman-in-peril; in the 1940s, the thriller became central to mainstream cinema, as it remains today. None of these options was absolutely new at the period, but in the 1940s they coalesced and developed in new variants very rapidly.

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In a sense, I tried to do for narrative strategies what genre critics have long done. A critic studying the musical or the Western or whatever casts a wide net, looking for basic conventions and less-common innovations that are taken up, or not. I tried to do the same for narrative devices. For example, in 1940-1941 every studio makes at least one prestigious picture based on flashbacks. This was an uncommon option in the 1930s. By the end of the 1940s, flashback films are a mainstay of Hollywood storytelling, and some films—eg, BACKFIRE—have flashbacks of an intricacy that no one in 1941 would have attempted. This is the sort of “expansion and mingling” that I tried to capture.



David Bordwell is an American film theorist and film historian. Since receiving his PhD from the University of Iowa in 1974, he has written more than fifteen volumes on the subject of cinema including Narration in the Fiction Film (1985), Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema (1988), Making Meaning (1989), and On the History of Film Style (1997). His most recent works are The Rhapsodies: How 1940s Critics Changed American Film Culture (2016) and Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling (2017).

With his wife Kristin Thompson, Bordwell wrote the introductory textbooks Film Art (1979) and Film History (1994). With aesthetic philosopher Noël Carroll, Bordwell edited the anthology Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies(1996), a polemic on the state of contemporary film theory. His largest work to date remains The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (1985), written in collaboration with Thompson and Janet Staiger.

Bordwell spent nearly the entirety of his career as a professor of film at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he is currently the Jacques Ledoux Professor of Film Studies, Emeritus in the Department of Communication Arts. He and Thompson maintain the blog "Observations on film art" for their recent ruminations on cinema.









Popular Religion and Participatory Culture Conversations (Final Round): Sarah Banet-Weiser and Hannah Scheidt (Part 2)

Hannah: Thanks for sharing this introduction to your current project. You define and develop key concepts for understanding the current sociopolitical climate and its media stage. One concept or theme that intersects with my own work (and that religious studies can offer some insight into) is that of “narratives of injury.” You identify a narrative of injury at work in the contemporary white nationalist movement, and an accompanying narrative of restoration or redemption of sorts, though this side of the story seems perhaps less visible (let me know if you disagree). 

This basic story line, which involves a threat, a victim, and the violation or disruption of the status quo, is familiar to me as a narrative of persecution. Scholars of religion have explored the operation of these types of narratives in countless religious communities, from ancient Judaism and early Christianity to New Religious Movements. 

Specifically, though, because we are talking about the modern American context, I thought immediately of Christian Smith et al.’s sociological study (now two decades old) on American evangelicalism: American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving. Smith argued basically that evangelicals are not only “embattled” and “thriving” but are thriving because embattled. His notion of “subcultural identity theory,” suggests that groups take advantage of “embattled” status in their projects of identity formation. Identity construction is a process of drawing symbolic boundaries; categories of differentiation and comparison vis-á-vis outgroups aid in the project of collective identity formation and promote solidarity. 

“Subcultural identity theory” is obviously portable, and some have applied it (rightly, I think) to New Atheism, within which a narrative of opposition and persecution exists (hence the need to “come out” as atheist) (Cimino & Smith 2011,LeDrew 2015). What I find interesting in contemporary atheism is that this narrative of an embattled minority exists in tension with other formative narratives: that there are actually more atheists than polls and statistics account for, for example, or the understanding that secularization is an immutable process and that “reason will reign.” 

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It is worth noting that in both of our work, opposing movements or cultures employ similar narratives of persecution and of injury (atheism and evangelicalism, feminism and white nationalism). I wonder if we could start to talk through a more robust accounting of how similar logics and strategies operate in competing or opposing groups. I think you could find examples of how each group imagines an alliance between the opposing ideological group and “the mainstream” (institutional powers that be, the mainstream media). This is essential, as the threat must be imagined as dominant, structural, hegemonic – not as another subcultural minority.

The media studies perspective contributes an analysis of how narratives of injury circulate, and the form they take in the “economy of visibility.” I am curious about the transmutation of politics into visibility, as you describe it, in the case of coverage of white nationalism. I do wonder if a media outlet’s focus on, for example, the fashion choices of a neo-Nazi could be read as intended not to normalize but to unnerve – a version of the handsome and charming serial killer narrative. So instead of reading “Nazis, they’re just like us,” the consumer comes away with “Nazis…they could be anywhere.”

Sarah: hmmm, I’m not sure.  I don’t think the mainstream media generally try to unnerve, even if that may well be the effect of some representations. I think that the mainstream media, and journalists in particular, are in a difficult place in the contemporary moment, in the context of misinformation, disinformation, and post-truth.  I see stories such as “The Nazis next door” as part of that context, which works for the mainstream media to normalize in the name of “we cover different perspectives;” in this sense, it is related to Trump’s statement about the racist Unite the Right rally at Charlottesville as having “very fine people, on both sides.” 

 I really like the idea of “thriving because embattled” because I see that affect increasingly gaining currency in the contemporary context. We hear about white men in the US being victims all the time—this sentiment was on glorious, devastating display in the Brett Kavanaugh hearings.  He claimed victimhood through his white masculine rage, a rage that was then bolstered by Lindsey Graham’s similar explosion where he vowed to “not ruin a man’s life” over accusations of sexual assault.  Tragically, it is no surprise that women’s lives, and how they are ruined over and over again because of sexual violence and not being believed, was not part of Graham’s rant. We can see, in the contemporary media and cultural climate, how claiming male (especially white male) victimhood actually strengthens and supports masculine hegemonic status.  

I’ve been writing about what I’m calling “feminist flashpoints,” stories that get wide immediate visibility in the media, but then quickly are obscured by the circulation of yet another story, another abuse of power.  In terms of white nationalism, I think that a focus on “fashy fashion” or the fact that Nazis buy milk just like the rest of us, is part of this obfuscation. The temporality and rapid circulation that mobilizes an economy of visibility often means constant production, not reflection.  In the current media economy, the need to constantly gain new followers means that there needs to be constantly new and potentially flammable material. And rage is perhaps the most flammable material—but we need to remember that white men are not only encouraged to be full of rage, it gives them even more power.  In contrast, the rage of women and people of color is routinely dismissed as hysteria, insanity, or ignorance.  

 Sarah Banet-Weiser is Professor of Media and Communications and Head of the Department of Media and Communications at LSE.  Professor Banet-Weiser earned her PhD in Communication from the University of California, San Diego.  Her research interests include gender in the media, identity, citizenship, and cultural politics, consumer culture and popular media, race and the media, and intersectional feminism.

Hannah Scheidt recently completed her PhD in religious studies from Northwestern University. Her dissertation, a cultural study of contemporary atheism, was informed by perspectives from religious studies and media studies. The dissertation shows how "atheism" is constructed through a complex relationship with "religion" - a relationship that involves critique and contrast but also imitation and resemblance. Her other research interests include religion and science, transhumanism, and (newly) American craft and maker movements.  

Popular Religion and Participatory Culture (Final Round): Sarah Banet-Weiser and Hannah Scheidt (Part 1)

Hannah: My work explores contemporary atheist culture. My goal is to determine how “atheism” operates today as a source of identity and community – how it comes to be associated with a host of meanings, messages, and values amongst self-identified atheists beyond the simple definition of a “lack of belief in god(s).” As a scholar of religion, I am particularly interested in the ways that atheism is defined and “filled out” alongside religion, in a complex negotiation that involves appropriation as much as it does conflict as critique. 

If religious studies is one “pillar” of my work, media studies is the other. New media technologies have played an integral role in the development of contemporary atheism, as others have acknowledged. The challenge comes in developing methodologies and frameworks that allow us to organize and analyze the huge stores of material – the cultural “texts” in their varied media formats – that exist across multiple platforms. My work draws from diverse sources, including atheist fan art and digital comics, popular television programming, moderated debates, and observation of grassroots Internet communities. Throughout my analyses of these varied formats and media, I pay attention to the ways atheists circulate, interpret, and remake the stories, images, characters, and “facts” that they encounter. This allows me to piece together a living narrative of contemporary atheism: a narrative that involves a variety of voices with different degrees and kinds of power that alternately cooperate, compete, and conflict.

As mentioned above, atheism’s main cultural “conversation partner” is religion, and much of my work deals with exploring just how religion is imagined in contemporary atheist discourse. What kinds of authorities, institutions, and modes of social organization do atheists see as “belonging” to religion? What kinds of identities and ways of knowing are “religious”? When should atheism oppose or contradict religion, and when should atheism mimic or borrow from religion? 

Studying atheism as participatory culture – operating in spaces supported and structured by new media and defined by the creative and critical involvement of consumer/producers – reveals that contemporary atheism has a host of other cultural conversations partners as well. As one would expect, the contours of and divisions within the atheist network are shaped by affinities with countless other contemporary subcultures and movements: gaming culture, sci-fi and fantasy fandoms, popular therapeutic culture, and the LGBTQ movement, to name a few. 

One movement that has made its presence felt in contemporary atheism – and this is where my work has confluence with Dr. Banet-Weiser’s – is anti-feminism (and, relatedly, men’s rights activism). I have been aware of New Atheism’s less-than-subtle “woman problem” for years, having followed the “Elevatorgate” incident of 2011 (atheism’s “Gamergate”) as well as coverage of sexist remarks made by New Atheist leaders. I knew, from work on the fan followings of New Atheist leaders, of the reluctance among some atheists to unsettle traditional structures of power, at least when it came to white male hegemony. The tension or irony (and the reason that the existence of anti-progressivism within atheism surprises some people) is that atheist movements have historically been invested in a critique of traditional authority as part and parcel of religion.

But it was my attendance at an atheist-conference-turned-men’s-rights-rally about a year ago in Milwaukee that opened by eyes to the extent of this trend: its health, its energy, its populism. The conference featured a session on identity politics in the atheist movement. The conversation, between an anti-progressive YouTuber and a mainstream liberal podcast host, took up questions of censorship and political correctness (do campaigns to stop cyberbullying threaten free speech? what are the limits of the liberal commitment to free speech?) and social justice and equality (do contemporary feminist movements and Black Lives Matter address “real” injustices and inequalities? do progressive efforts to counter the effects of inequalities and injustice actively repress white men?) 

The event felt like a YouTube comment section come to life: anarchic, offensive, agonizingly circular: a real-life “flame war.” There were obviously a number present who were confused and alarmed by the direction the conference, which to them felt only tangentially related to atheism, had taken. But a good portion of the audience had obviously come for this battle. 

Why does this affinity exist? Or, as one colleague asked when I described this experience, “What’s the throughline?” The internal logic – the way atheist critics of the “regressive left” explain it is this: feminists, progressives, moral relativists, and other “Social Justice Warriors” (SJWs) have turned liberalism into “ideology”. Ideology is understood as inherently authoritarian and antithetical to the autonomous exercise of reason (read: religion). Identity politics = ideology = enemy of reason, out of touch with reality. “Reason” is big in atheist discourse, and many (even those who don’t follow the train of logic all the way to anti-feminism) appeal to reason as a means of freeing people from the corrupt influences of institution and authority. 

A full explanation of the existence of anti-feminism within atheism also involves an account of how the social norms of Internet spaces have shaped the development of the culture. Work in cultural studies and media studies shows how aggression, harassment, and antagonism became the “social norms” in early Internet spaces, and how these norms persist in some Internet communities. It is some of these same white-male-dominated spaces that hosted communities and conversations dedicated to atheism, and from which the stereotype of the “Internet atheist” (an aggressive and socially-inept white male who trolls the Internet looking for religious people to debate and ridicule) emerged. Of course, now in the age of Trump, these social norms seem to have crept off the Internet.

Sarah: Thank you for inviting me to be part of this conversation – it is really great to engage with Hannah and to get to know her work. Like many others in this series, I am not a scholar of religion—my recent work focuses on popular feminism and popular misogyny. In particular in my recent work I analyze contemporary forms of gendered power through an analytic of visibility – what I call an economy of visibility. 

As I’ve argued, feminist media studies scholars, critical race theorists, and cultural studies scholars have long been invested in studying the politics of visibility. The politics of visibility has thus long been important, and continues to be, for the marginalized. To demand visibility is to demand to be seen, to matter, to recognize oneself in dominant culture. The insistence of marginalized and disenfranchised communities – women, racial minorities, non-heteronormative communities, the working class – to be seen has been crucial to an understanding and an expansion of rights for these communities.

Politics of visibility are clearly still important, and have real consequences. But alongside the politics of visibility, we are witnessing the ways economies of visibility increasingly structure not just our mediascapes, but also our cultural and economic practices and daily lives. Within this context, visibility often becomes the end, rather than a means to an end. The visibility of these categories is what matters, rather than the structural ground on and through which they are constructed. 

For me, what is really important about this shift to economies of visibility is that it reshapes what political struggle looks like. And this gets us to an interesting intersection between Hannah’s and my work, or between media scholars and religious scholars more generally. Here, I suppose I’m thinking more of a religiosity rather than religion itself.  

The demand for a visibility politics competes with an economization of visibility, resulting in quite different goals and consequences. This kind of visibility is in line with what Nabil Echchaibi calls hypermediation: the ubiquity and interactivity of emergent and residual media circulations. This hypermediation then authorizes and enables a visibility of religious practices, as Hannah points out in her work on atheism.  

Part of what I noticed when researching online misogyny is the increasingly normative visibility of white nationalism, where media representations of white nationalism often are framed as a hybridized kind of public secular religiosity. 

How does this work?  I think that economies of visibility connect politics, religion and visibility in specific ways. The messages that circulate easily within this economy are those that require little labor to be seen and understood, they rely on familiar narratives, ones that are easy to incapsulate in an image, a slogan, a product.  

One of these familiar narratives that has found traction within an economy of visibility in the contemporary moment is that of injury and capacity. In my book, I think about this in terms of popular feminism and popular misogyny, and how these discourses and practices tap into a neoliberal notion of individual capacity (for work, for confidence, for economic success), but both also position individual injury as a key obstacle to realizing this capacity. For women, the injury is found among other places, in centuries of sexism, misogyny, and gendered violence. 

For white men, however, the injury in the contemporary moment is one of displacement; white men feel displaced by women in general and feminists in particular, and in the US, by immigrants and people of color.  We’ve seen in all realms of culture – in the technology industries (as Hannah mentioned, perhaps most visibly in GamerGate), in online communities in the violent responses to the apparent threat posed by women and people of color simply because they exist; in politics, with Trump leading the pack in his relentless ranting about how white men are disadvantaged.  

I see these tropes of injury and capacity as the crux of white nationalism as it circulates within this media economy. In this moment of hypermediation, white nationalists distribute their racist and nativist message with religious fervor, as a recuperative mission, a pursuit to restore whiteness and patriarchy, to repair injuries caused by women, people of color, and immigrants, and to return capacity to white men. An economy of visibility creates an environment where white rage is mobilized by using media outlets to emphasize hopelessness and fear. Indeed, hypermediation stokes this rage, and the dynamic of visibility validates a reactionary response to the perceived displacement of white men, which then manifests as a structural violence.  

That is, hypermediation and an economy of visibility are validated and amplified in a particular political economic context: As Wendy Brown has argued, the retraction of social services, and the return to a kind of statism and nativism as we are witnessing now in the West, means for many that a “need” for a strong authority is produced, to secure order, boundaries, borders, as well as to reclaim and restore a way of life for a declining white middle and working class, since the contemporary life has apparently been destroyed by immigrants, people of color, feminists, terrorists, refugees (Brown, 2018).  An economy of visibility provides the platform for the circulation of this “need” through images, misinformation, lies, and obfuscation. 

Here, white nationalism transmutes into a sort of distorted understanding of what Stewart Hoover calls the guiding principles of Christian masculinity, “provision, protection, and purpose.” Religious values get co-opted and distorted within this economy.  As Hoover has argued, Christian men define themselves by their ability to provide and protect their families and by identifying their purpose as head of the household and as breadwinner (to be clear, these principles are also based in patriarchy). White nationalists also claim to be guided by provision, protection, and purpose, but because they have lost these principles. They can no longer provide because immigrants and women have taken their jobs. They protect white masculinity, often through violence.  And their purpose is to destroy all “others” – and in particular women and people of color.  

These principles become legible then only as a threat, one posed by people of color, feminists, immigrants – the threat becomes the religion. Provision, Protection and Purpose are re-routed and severed from spiritual grounds, becoming rather only about the supposed decline of white people, and white masculinity in particular.  

Aided by the economization of visibility, where visibility becomes an end in itself, masculine Christian principles of Provide, protect and purpose are transmuted into violence, attacks that are waged within the logic of the conviction that the white race is perpetually in peril; threatened by racial integration, by “political correctness,” by multiculturalism, by all others.   

This economy of visibility also works to normalize white nationalism. For example, the style politics of celebrity Nazis like Richard Spencer, or alt-right spokespeople like Milo Yiannopoulos, have been profiled alongside some of the ideologies they espouse, effectively both normalizing them and distracting us from their anti-woman, anti-immigrant, racist, and nativism by their clothes and their dandy style. The visibility of the celebrity hatemongers is what matters, rather than their politics and the way they incite violence. For example, Mother Jones wrote about Richard Spencer: 

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“An articulate and well-dressed former football player with prom-king good looks and a “fashy” (as in fascism) haircut—long on top, buzzed on the sides—Spencer has managed to seize on an extraordinary presidential election to give overt racism a new veneer of radical chic.” 

GQ has commented on Milo: “And while much of the media focus was on Yiannopolous's behavior, his clothes were worth noting, too. On a weekend when debating what it means to respect the American flag became a national pastime as big as, well, watching football, Yiannopoulos showed up on campus in an American flag-print hoodie from the streetwear brand Supreme.”

Claiming that public figures give “overt racism a new veneer of radical chic” or that Milo’s “clothes are worth noting, too” is part of the dynamic of an economy of visibility, where visualizing every experience rather than interrogating the grounds of that experience, is what circulates, accumulating likes, clicks, and followers.  

The consequence of this is both to distract from the structural ground of racism and misogyny and to normalize.  

For example, as many people have noted recently, mainstream media such as the New York Times has routinely profiled Nazis in a kind of US Magazine style of “Nazis! They’re Just Like Us!” – portraying them and their lives as “normal” US citizens who just happen to hate women, people of color, immigrants, non-heteronormative people. As the New York Times in their profile of white nationalist Tony Hovater framed it:  

“He is the Nazi sympathizer next door, polite and low-key at a time the old boundaries of accepted political activity can seem alarmingly in flux. Most Americans would be disgusted and baffled by his casually approving remarks about Hitler, disdain for democracy and belief that the races are better off separate. But his tattoos are innocuous pop-culture references: a slice of cherry pie adorns one arm, a homage to the TV show “Twin Peaks.” He says he prefers to spread the gospel of white nationalism with satire. He is a big “Seinfeld” fan.”

Profiling white nationalists in this way transmutes the political logic of what it means to be racist, a political subjectivity invested in shoring up gender and race inequities, into what a nazi looks like, his visual representation. 

The clothes and the bodily style are the politics;  the politics are contained within the visibility. This works effectively to defang the violence of these politics, to transform them into “radical chic.” The identification, and announcement, of one’s visibility is both the radical move and the end in itself (Gray, 2013).  Economies of visibility do not describe a political process, but rather assume that visibility itself has been absorbed into the economy; indeed, that absorption is the political.

The economy of visibility within which these logics are circulated often dresses them up in a cool outfit, an ironic tattoo, as a way to distract publics, shifting attention to the “chic” rather than the racist. But we need to remember that the common sense of this moment is not consensus (achieved through normalization) but rage and violence. Within this context, white nationalists, Nazis, klansmen can gather in a “free speech rally” as “freedom fighters” and fascism is understood as authenticity.  


Sarah Banet-Weiser is Professor of Media and Communications and Head of the Department of Media and Communications at LSE.  Professor Banet-Weiser earned her PhD in Communication from the University of California, San Diego.  Her research interests include gender in the media, identity, citizenship, and cultural politics, consumer culture and popular media, race and the media, and intersectional feminism.

Hannah Scheidt recently completed her PhD in religious studies from Northwestern University. Her dissertation, a cultural study of contemporary atheism, was informed by perspectives from religious studies and media studies. The dissertation shows how "atheism" is constructed through a complex relationship with "religion" - a relationship that involves critique and contrast but also imitation and resemblance. Her other research interests include religion and science, transhumanism, and (newly) American craft and maker movements. 

How Do You Like It So Far Podcast: Rohan Joshi, Captain America and News Comedy in India

This week Henry talked to Rohan Joshi, from the comedy group All India Backod, who walks us through how to use comedy to confront social issues, particularly in the Indian context.   Joshi recently spoke at the Indian Culture Lab ,highlighting insights Indian audiences could learn from Captain America.

How do we still have a Captain America?... how has avoided the potential campiness of it? He is always asking ‘what does it mean to be a Patriot?....He is a symbol of a soldier, propaganda, etc. But he never allows himself to just be that mindless drone. He is essentially driven by one question: “how do I use this for public good?... that’s what keeps him away from being a cog in the system…

…..In the 70s, during the era of Nixon,  there was a captain America storyline… you may not know this because it was not in the movies… the thing that breaks his heart is when he finds out that the head of this terrorist organization is the president of the United States himself... Captain America is so disillusioned by this breaking of this American ideal that he gives up his suit entirely, and decides to become this state-less creature known He’s so disappointed that he takes off his suit and becomes “Nomad”.  He asks, when is it time to stop being a good citizen, and become a good person?

In his chat, Joshi also gets into other successful civic interventions that can be mounted through comedy.  An example was the massively viral video, from 2013 called “It’s your fault” that dealt with the issue of rape, focusing on the irony of victim-blaming.. They decided to create it after many high profile cases of sexual assault in India and the clumsy political and legal responses surrounding the issue. The sarcasm-heavy video mocks ignorant statements that high profile figures made in response to the assaults. Joshi described the process of creating the video, sharing that at one point, they passed it by academics and activists to “make sure we were using the right language and tone and not somehow replicating the same mistakes we had been hearing.” They also asked actress friends to perform the script. The worldwide response was much more than they expected, with people reaching out to ask if they could replicate the video as a means to combat widespread patriarchal issues..

The video, called “it’s your fault”:  


When reflecting on what to call this form of civic intervention, Joshi shared that simply calling it  “standup,” is too small , because of the impact and way it’s being used across different languages around the country: is it a movement of comedy that manages to better explain issues going on in India? Is it civic entertainment? Can we call it so?


Join us as we delve into these questions and more!






Popular Religion and Participatory Culture Conversation (Round 7): Nabil Echchaibi, Yomna Elsayed and Kayla R. Wheeler (Part 2)

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Yomna:

 Nabil, I really enjoyed how you historicized the rise of popular religion in the Middle East and connected it with the events of 9/11. It was particularly refreshing to see you contextualize the Khaled phenomenon and recognize it as an effort to rearticulate religious traditions. This is an essential point.

While my personal experience and that of the youth in the digital spaces I study convey a general disenchantment with the figure of Amr Khaled, as a form of popular religion, this does not discount the fervor with which his phenomenon was received. To me, this betrayed a thirst for reconnection with tradition, and a quest for a genealogy of the modern Muslim self.

Khaled only happened to scratch the surface of this underlying need. His mix of religion and entrepreneurship as you describe it, however, did not hold up to the depth of this need and the test of the Arab Spring. Likewise the self-help genre (Tanmiyya Bashareyya) that was coincident and intimately interwoven with Amr Khaled’s message did not withstand the Arab Spring developments. A disillusionment in this genre surfaced in the form of sarcastic memes and parody videos that took aim at Khaled and not surprisingly this same genre within which his lessons predominantly fell. To this end, I agree with Donald Hall when he argues in Subjectivity that self-help messages tend to fall within the interests of laissez-fairepolitical interests, absolving the government of their role in social welfare. 

To me, utilizing sarcasm in critiques of religious figures, was a tell-tale sign that a relationship was transforming; it signaled that the religious top-down communication has been fragmented and replaced with a two-way one, whereby youth could critique the credibility and the message of the speaker, even if it was religiously framed. Perhaps the very fact that Khaled was not religiously trained, provided the youth with the license to venture into religious negotiation. 

Many theorists understandably refuse to describe the Arab Spring as a movement and constraint it to the bounds of a temporally-bound uprising without consequence, especially with the situation in Egypt becoming more draconian than before. But that would be true, if we were to restrict ourselves to the political reading of events. Those uprisings launched a wave and a movement whereby many social practices and beliefs, from personal relationships to religious teachings were being recalibrated (at least in the minds of young adults) based on the ideals of the Arab Spring and its demands for “’Eish, Horreya, ‘Adala Egtima’ya: Bread, Freedom, and Social Justice.” 

However, as many of the researchers of this highly misrepresented, and misunderstood MENA region, I always run the risk of being misquoted in an attempt to reinforce orientalist binaries—East/West, Civil/Barbarian, Modern/Traditional—that we as, postcolonial scholars, constantly fight in our work. I worry that those critiques may be read as a sign of religious reformations that contest premises not execution, mirroring the Christian reformation, thereby canceling the agency and particularity of Muslim subjects and societies. This concern is further complicated by the fact that Muslim societies, like any society, struggle with their own marginalization of racial, and religious minorities. This is why a critique from within, such as Kayla’s is ever more pressing, where we criticize Western hegemony all while acknowledging and critiquing our own. 

Despite the fact that we study Muslims in different parts of the world, we make surprisingly similar observations. Young Muslim Adults, in both the US and the MENA region, are challenging forms and expressions of what they consider a bygone nationalistic era that does not reflect their current aspirations nor challenges. Our research continues to show, how arts, culture and fashion are utilized as means for challenging the long established political, cultural and religious institutions. It is quite fascinating to even witness this shift among American Muslim descendant from Arab-speaking parents, and how they are gravitating towards, as well as adopting, Black Muslims’ fashion trends and expressions. On one hand, it could be their way of asserting their American identity by embracing the fashion styles of Black Muslims whose history in the US dates back to the antebellum era. On the other hand, it could also be their way of carving out a new “cool” identity, as Kayla describes it, that is expressively different in essence and appearance from that of their parents.

With continuously maturing sensibilities flourishing in digital participatory cultures, are we witnessing a demise of the traditional religious sermon: A process of disentangling religion—I would not say from politics—but from dogmatic authority? Is the interplay of Arab Spring agency, Black Muslim women self-assertion and digital technologies powerful enough to reorganize centuries-old ways of accreditation and preaching? What I see us doing in our research is analyzing this slow cultural build-up (towards a movement, an uprising, or a revolution, albeit slow one), by studying the more main-stream/less famous border-line professional/border-line activists who are able to translate the language of activism and sometimes religion to that of subject classes through arts, culture, and fashion. 

 

Nabil:

Yomna, you raise a critical point about the disenchantment with the Amr Khaled phenomenon. I’d join you in your assessment and state even further that his form of popular preaching has been substantively vacuous in terms of its engagement with tradition. Khaled’s popularity was due in large measure to his success in re-socializing Islam based on a neoliberal program of consumption and individual emancipation, particularly among the middle and upper class of Egypt and other Arab countries. I would also say that his waning popularity today is arguably a good proof of this disillusionment in substance and his inability to forge a more compelling Islamic ethos that is not overly determined by neoliberal logics and practices. Just to be clear, Amr Khaled has never been an agent of Islamic reform, nor has he been an advocate for a critical engagement with Islam. My point, however, is that various accounts and analyses of Amr Khaled and other popular preachers not only in Egypt, but also in Turkey, Malaysia, and Indonesia, have focused exclusively on the novelty of this genre of popular religion and its striking similarities with evangelical Christianity that they miss any connection with a long-standing tradition in Islam of non-official and unsanctioned forms of preaching which have left indelible marks on how Muslims practice and experience their faith today. This oversight can devalue Muslims’ ability to engage, contest and rework the pull of tradition and the pressures of modernity and how Muslims deal with various epistemologies of and innovations in religious mediation. 

It bears repeating that Khaled’s intervention is indeed not about critical reform, but his brand of consumer Islam and visual devotional programming has recast faith as an engine of social mobility and self-improvement which directly competes both with state power and religious opposition groups like the Muslim Brotherhood or mainstream religious authorities like the clerics of Al-Azhar. It was not a coincidence when the Mubarak regime banned him from preaching in public. Khaled’s realignment of Islam with consumer culture, self-help, and social mobilization was a political affront and cannot be discounted because it also focused the nexus of social action on the self and the need to reform the Muslim individual first in order to enact a larger program of social change. 

This individualization of Islam and the privatization of faith allow for an intensification and expansion of the political beyond the habitual spaces of political activism as in political parties, voting, large scale protests, etc. There are important arguments against the risks and limitations of deploying individual solutions to structural problems, but there are also compelling theoretical reasons to focus on the complex intersections of personal and collective identity in Muslim lived experiences without reducing this phenomenon to neoliberal logics of individualism and consumerism. The work of Turkish sociologist Nilüfer Göle on this emerging manifestation of Islam through the lens of identity and difference is exceedingly instructive in this regard.  

This is why the work Kayla is doing on historicizing Islamic fashion as a fluid bodily ritual is so important now. The concept of “cool Islam” is a complex category that reflects both the specific lived reality of Muslims in various locations, but it also marks an important contestation of dominant and normative standards of modesty, agency, and liberty. Muslim fashion and other artifacts of material culture foreground an alternative public imaginary of the interaction between beauty, modesty and public space. This new contested visibility of Muslim identity in non-Muslim majority contexts complicates not only the performative nature of piety, but it also challenges the received definitions of the religious and the ethnic in secular societies. In the context of fashion and black Muslims in the anthropological work of Kayla, blackness and Islam are equally interrogated in terms of how they inspire the cultural production of black Muslim women while resisting hegemonic forms and narratives of proper piety and modesty within Sunni Islam. I also appreciate the historical sensibility of this research as it analyzes black Muslim fashion in the context of the American Muslim black experience which cannot be simply reduced to its connections with Islam in the Middle East or other Muslim-majority societies.    

It is refreshing to see how our research complicates the study of Islam in various geographical locations and based on different cultural experiences of Muslims around the world. I would agree that we are arguably witnessing the decoupling of Islam from its old moorings in dogmatic authority, causing significant disruptions in how Muslims re-imagine the symbols, values, and codes that inform their identities. But this kind of Muslim self-fashioning aided by elaborate circulation networks of digital communication cannot be studied only in terms of its difference and contestation of dominant secular arrangements. A question I come back to quite often now is: do we study Islam and Muslims simply to underscore this difference and intensify some sort of Muslim distinction, an alternative modernity of sorts? Or is our work still invested in questions of the universal, albeit a more lateral form of the universal?

 

Kayla:

 

Yomna and Nabil, I really enjoyed learning more about your research. I agree, we all have a lot in common. Identity production through consumption seems to be central to all our research, whether it is buying modest clothes, spreading memes, or watching sermons online.  What I love the most about the study of popular religion is that it highlights youth’s voices, who are often pushed to the margins both in scholarship and everyday life.  Yomna, this is something you introduce towards the very end of your post, when you talked about digital spaces helping youth rediscover what brings them together based on their intersecting identities. However, I wonder how by focusing on people who have the time, money, and other resources to engage with media, we might be ignoring even more marginalized groups, like the poor and elderly. Who is the Amr Khaled for Egyptians living outside of urban areas, who might not have the same rates of access to a steady Internet connection or have different relationships to religious authority? In what ways does place dictate how we consume religion?

I am also interested in how a focus on popular religion can reveal transnational dialogue.  Media allows people in the diaspora to connect to struggles back at home, but to also introduce them to people dealing with similar struggles. I’m thinking of how Khaled M and El Général cited Tupac as a major influence for their music produced during the Arab Spring or how Palestinians sent Ferguson activists advice on how to deal with tear gas. On the flipside, this mass circulation of art, culture, and fashion allows for local practices to be appropriated and decontextualized.  I agree with you, Yomna, Arab American youth are using Black Muslim culture to claim their American identity.  I’ve watched non-Black Muslims monetize Black Muslim culture without making space for Black Muslims and at times, embrace anti-Blackness. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer’s book Muslim Cool: Race, Religion, and Hip Hop in the United Statesdoes a great job of breaking down non-Black Muslims’ relationship to Blackness. 

I appreciate how you both have placed Amr Khaled within the history of sermonizing in Islam, rather than solely comparing his trajectory to evangelical Christian ministers. Religious Studies, as a field, has not developed a common language for discussing non-Christian practices/beliefs/rituals/traditions without making comparisons to Christianity.  I often wonder how much different our conversations would be if Religious Studies was able to rid itself of its Protestant influence and we, as scholars, were not so concerned with the Christian gaze. Yomna, I can relate to your concerns about your work being misused and weaponized.  I grapple with theses tensions a lot in my work because covered women are hypervisible in the media and in scholarly writings on Islam and they experience harassment and violence due to anti-Muslim sentiment at disproportionate rates in their everyday lives.  I worry about how my work may contribute to the fetishization of covered Muslim women, reducing them to walking hangers, while simultaneously erasing women who don’t cover. Nabil, do you think that as mainstream media in the U.S. has begun to present more varied depictions of Muslims (not just the dangerous Brown man and oppressed Brown woman) that it has gotten easier for scholars of Islam to just do their work without constantly worrying about how it might be mis/used?

Nabil writes that we must ask ourselves “Who do we focus on when we label our research as work on Islam?” I would add to that question by asking, who are we including in our definitions of “Muslim”? I hope our focus on popular religion provides us with an opportunity to center non-Sunni Muslim voices, like members of the Nation of Islam, who have been engaged in political activism and reimagining religious authority since its creation.  When I was reading both of your introductions, I kept thinking about Elijah Muhammad and Louis Farrakhan and how they have both used media (radio, journals, social media) to share their message of self-improvement. How do they, and other non-Sunni Muslims outside of the MENA region, fit into your genealogies and analyses? How might a deeper engagement with critical race theory shift our work? What does Islamopolitanism look like when Black people (on the African continent or in the Diaspora) are at the center of our analyses? If you don’t already engage with their work, I think Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, Sylvia Chan-Malik, and Jamillah Karim’s would be especially helpful.  How can our explorations of popular religion help us to redefine or reimagine our citational politics?  

I am excited to see how your projects continue to develop and look forward to continuing these conversations!

 

Yomna Elsayed holds a PhD in communication from the University of Southern California. In her research, she examines the interplay of popular culture, social change and cultural resistance. Her dissertation examined how popular culture mechanisms, such as humor, music and creative digital arts, can be utilized tosustain social movements all while facilitating dialogue at times of ideological polarization and state repression. 

Nabil Echchaibi is chair of the department of media studies and associate director of the Center for Media, Religion and Culture at the University of Colorado Boulder. His research and teaching interests include religion, popular culture, postcolonial and decolonial theory, and Islamic modernity. His work has appeared in various journals and book volumes. His opinion columns have been published in the GuardianForbes Magazine,SalonAl Jazeerathe Huffington PostReligion Dispatches and Open Democracy.

Kayla Renée Wheeler is an Assistant Professor of African American Studies and Digital Studies at Grand Valley State University. Currently, she is writing a book on contemporary Black Muslim dress practices in the United States. The book explores how, for Black Muslim women, fashion acts a site of intrareligious and intra-racial dialogue over what it means to be Black, Muslim, and woman in the United States. She is the curator of the Black Islam Syllabus, which highlights the histories and contributions of Black Muslims. She is also the author of Mapping Malcolm’s Boston: Exploring the City that Made Malcolm X, which traces Malcolm X’s life in Boston from 1940 to 1953.

Popular Religion and Participatory Culture Conversation (Round 7): Nabil Echchaibi, Yomna Elsayed, and Kayla Renee Wheeler (Part 1)

Yomna Elsayed

University of Southern California


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Outside Al Hossary Mosque in Greater Cairo, crowded young, mostly affluent, Egyptians. Their bodies blocked the entrance to the mosque, while their double-parked cars congested its street (a common sight in overcrowded Cairo). It was short after sunset, the time for the then-popular Muslim televangelist, Amr Khaled, weekly lesson. His lesson was about sincerity, which he intercepted with jokes, storytelling and a teary supplication towards the end. It was the start of the millennium, when Amr Khaled seemed to be attracting a strong following of young Egyptians desperate for enchantment in what seemed like a country ruled with an iron fist, when Mubarak was still in power (apparently, it is now ruled with a “steel-fist”). Khaled’s lively lessons and animated character stood in contrast with the traditional cloak-wearing, state-approved Azhar clerks on one hand, and the Jilbab-wearing, arguably state-approved, fundamentalist Salafis on the other. With his shaven face, tieless suite, and wide smile, Khaled looked more like themselves. He enlivened the same stories they monotonically heard as children with detail and personified the Prophet and his companions—from which Muslims draw their life-style—through affective rhetoric. He was soon named by the Times asone of the most 100 influential people in 2007. This arguably put him in a perilous situation with the Egyptian government that was historically weary of religious figures turning popular. Amr Khaled was therefore judicious in steering away from politics. Nevertheless, in the minds of his adoring fans, this left room for speculation as to a possible double meaning in some of his lessons, and/or choice of stories. Soon, there was a wave of religiosity sweeping Egyptian society especially among upper middle-class Egyptians; gradually, many young men and women started practicing religion publicly. They observed their daily prayers and frequented the mosques, especially Ramdan’s night prayers, while many young females started wearing the headscarf. 

I was one of Khaled’s young fans, a late-adapter nevertheless (if we can liken Khaled to a new technology). Skeptical of religious rhetoric at the time, I was afraid that someone would make me feel guilty about my wavy hair, tight top and jeans. As a Muslim woman I am required to dress modestly and cover my hair. It was not until, I indulged myself in Islamic philosophy and the writings of Al Ghazali, that I decided to cover my hair during my last year of university against the objection of my family. I was proud to have worn it without the influence of religious figures, or family. At which point, I started listening to Khaled, and was surprised at how he did not limit a woman’s expression of religiosity to the way she dressed as some fundamentalist Salafis liked to do. In fact, very few of his lessons touched upon the physical appearance of the Muslim, whereas most focused on their piety and interactions with society. His words about sincerity, his animated storytelling and teary supplications are still vivid in my memory. I remember them now with bitterness. I, like many of his fans, was struck by what many would describe as Khaled’s transformation.

Following the January 25thuprisings, Egyptian media was rampant with hostile accusations of treason against young protesters who were scrambling for voices of support. To the youth’ dismay, Amr Khaled, whom they brought to fame, stayed silent on the subject. He was not alone in that; many popular religious figures followed suit, or worse, attacked the protests as un-Islamic or unpatriotic. Khaled did not speak, until it was apparent that Mubarak would resign and eventually concede. His statements remained ostensibly impartial, urging “everyone” to exercise temperament. However, with so many victims to state brutality, staying on the side-lines was no longer acceptable to his young fan base, of which many participated in the uprising. His popularity, however, did not sharply sink, until a video surfaced for him following the 2013 military coup where he was addressing Egyptian soldiers and providing them with religiously-framed arguments for blindly following commands. To many in my generation, this was the last straw. 

In my research on cultural resistance post-Arab spring, I examinehowthe energies of the Arab Spring have transformed to the participatory, ephemeral and relatively ambiguous spaces of humor, music and creative digital arts. Unable to publicly criticize cultural and political authorities, young Egyptians reveled in their ephemeral digital triumphs over the low hanging fruits of authority, its cultural productions. Amr Khaled, with his watered-down rhetoric, turned from a religious heart-throb to yet another state-media talking head. The prudence that worked for him pre the uprisings, worked against him following the military coup, after countless victims were lost to police brutality. Hence, it came as no surprise that the once admired figure of Khaled on one hand, and the once revered self-proclaimed Salafi Sheikhs on the other, became the object of ridicule in memes and parody videos of online youth. While some may see those parodies as signs of dystopic cynicism, I see them as a sign of maturing sensibilities that reject any attempts at misleading them into previous complacency. Not surprisingly, this was also paralleled by a rejection of favorite childhood entertainment figures, such as Mohammed Sobhy, for their moralistic rhetoric and state support. 

However, this rejection of religious figures should not be mistaken for a rejection of religion altogether; to say so would be disregarding a central aspect of life in the Middle East. It, however, signaled that those young adults were now consuming religion in a much more critical fashion. As someone trained in cultural and post-colonial studies, I continually emphasize that part of the acclaim that the Arab Spring uprisings received from western media analysts and commentators was not only inspired by its promises of political reforms, but also—what some viewed—as a promise of subsequent social reformations to an inherently flawed ‘other’. Such discussions of religious reformations, trying to replicate the Christian reformations, are both patronizing and counterproductive and have little to do with the societies these populations live in, as Shadi Hamid from the Brookings Institute once asserted. An uprising against an old order does not necessarily translate to an uprising against its heritage and tradition; it could rather simply imply a rejection of one appropriation of that tradition but not the other. 

While traditional religious spaces may have been viewed as part of the institutions social movements were trying to resist, this resistance may have only been to the state-abiding aspect of these institutions; other aspects such as the religious rituals or promotion of social justice and advocacy may continue to be sources of inspiration to some of the activists. In my research, I have seen youth both emphasizing continuity with tradition side by side to, discontinuity or resistance to some of its state-abiding aspects. So their relationship to tradition, and childhood texts is better described as a negotiation, a site of struggle over the role of religion in their social and political lives; this relationship still exists, however, on their own negotiated terms, ones that do not sacralize individuals all while respecting difference.

Last Ramadan, marked in my opinion a sad, yet telling, ending to the phenomenon of Amr Khaled, when he appeared in an adfor army-produced chicken, emphasizing the  need to consume healthy food products, aka army produced ones, to enable proper worshiping in the month of Ramadan. The criticism on social media was predominantly sarcastic. To young adults, the irony was self-evident, yet one mixed with disappointment over what could have been a possible meeting point between tradition and change.I can now see Egyptian and Arab youth weaving this connection in their participatory spaces, breaking the sanctity of individuals on one hand, all while rediscovering what brings them together as Egyptians, Arabs or Muslims. 

 

Nabil Echchaibi

University of Colorado Boulder

 

I began my work on religion immediately after 9/11, that fateful event that has ushered in a perpetual state of emergency and fear about Islam and Muslims. I was writing my dissertation on second and third-generation French and Germans of North African descent and how they navigated the political philosophies of assimilation and integration in their countries through media production. Up until this moment, these minorities had confronted a relentless form of cultural and institutional racism in which religion didn’t figure so prominently. French North Africans, for example, were referred to as “les Maghrébins” or “les arabes”, terms that were replaced overnight with the ominous label of “les musulmans”. This new ascendancy of militant Islam in the West precipitated a public scrutiny of Islam and exacerbated anxieties about the motives of Muslim minorities. Questions multiplied and quickly turned into paranoid interrogations of the loyalty of Muslims and the compatibility of Islam with modernity. 

Suddenly, Muslims were called to provide theological answers to questions about jihad, niqab, hijab, sharia, and suicide bombing amidst a media climate of deep semantic and cultural confusion about the meaning of these words and their relevance in a Western secular democracy. 

I became interested in the sources Muslims both in the West and in the Middle East were urgently consulting to confront the suspicious tenor of these allegations. Although these emerging questions about Islam pertained as much to politics and Western foreign policy as they did to religion, Muslims turned to various forms of popular religion to ask their own questions and challenge the narrow premise of fixed binaries and regressive traditions. Oil monarchies of the Gulf flooded satellite television with religious programming, some of which inaugurated innovative forms of preaching and religious entertainment in the form of reality television, game shows, and music videos. The political ramifications of this Islamic revivalism through networks manipulated by Saudi Arabia was hard to miss, but I was also intrigued by the novelty of this style and the large following it commanded around the world.  

Popular preachers like Amr Khaled, a former accountant, pioneered a creative breed of religious programming with an effective mix of religion and entrepreneurship. He later adapted Donald Trump’s The Apprenticeto a program about Islamic charity. Moez Masood, a former advertising producer, created a slick twenty-part television series in which he toured the streets of London, Cairo, Jeddah, Al Madinah and Istanbul interviewing Muslims about spirituality, romance, homosexuality, drugs and veiling. And two British Muslims launched a record label company that specialized in devotional music and Islamic entertainment. Critics of this popularized form of preaching called it “air-conditioned Islam’ or “Islam light”, accusing its producers of simply mimicking or importing the religious performance genre that helped popularize American evangelical Christianity through the adoption of modern media and popular culture. I began, instead, to explore the aesthetics and rhetorical import of this televised and digitized Islam in a way that did not dissociate it from the rich history of sermonizing in the Islamic tradition. To me, this phenomenon had more to do with a historical tension within Islam over religious knowledge and its transmission, which made many Western accounts of these preachers too shallow and predictable. Television and the Internet only complicated an oral/aural/visual tension in the devotional experience of Muslims and I wanted to capture that continuity.   

The point of my research was not to argue that there was nothing new in these emerging forms of mediated Islam. Rather, I wanted our analysis to also adopt a historical approach which contextualized the complex theological, ethical, and cultural dimensions of mediation and circulation within Islam. This part of my research has largely benefitted from the work of Talal Asad, Saba Mahmood, Mahmood Mamdani, and others who argued, persuasively, for an intimate engagement with the intellectual and political history of Islam in order to recognize the vitality of Muslim efforts to re-articulate their religious traditions and adapt them to their modern condition. This is not simply a return to a bounded notion of tradition, although it is for some, but a negotiation of traditions to make sense of the world.   

Drawing on postcolonialism and decolonial critiques, my recent work focuses on emerging material expressions of an Islamic strand of cosmopolitanism that is deeply invested in this effort of sensemaking. I call this ‘Islamopolitanism’, a combination of popular religion and an intellectual engagement with what it means to be modern and Muslim today. Specifically, I ask how our analysis of new Muslim digital spaces and aesthetic formations can reveal emergent cultures of Muslim cosmopolitanism, a cultural sensibility and a way of dwelling in the world intimately born of the complex tensions between religious universalism and particularism, cultural mixity and purity, and authentic piety and neoliberal commodification. I argue that this form of Islamopolitanism is primarily rooted in a cultural aesthetic rather than a political conviction. Its proponents call for a remix of Islamic culture that arguably resists the nativist visions in the dominant narratives of Muslim identities. 

It is precisely this epistemic disobedience against the duality problematic of modernity and tradition that is still absent in our accounts of Muslim lived experiences. Moroccan postcolonial thinker and novelist Abdelkebir Khatibi insisted on demystifying both Western and Arabo-Islamic logocentrism in favor of a double critique that springs from tradition but only to create new ideas, new questions, and new ways of knowing. I invoke Khatibi’s postcolonialism in my research because it resists narratives of melancholy, victimhood, shame, malaise, loss, or existential uprootedness. Instead, his invitation was to find a discourse of possibility, an epistemology of suspicion, an idiom of Muslim syncretism, and a path toward intellectual independence. 

Other Muslim thinkers call for a similar open engagement with the particularism of Muslim cultures, local intellectual and political histories, and religious doctrines to deliver Muslims from the long grip of the slogans and the blackmail of Western modernity. In his provocative thesis that postcolonialism has ended, Hamid Dabashi argues that we have reached a moment of epistemic exhaustion that marks the “implosion of the ‘West’ as a catalyst of knowledge and power production.” The Arab uprisings of 2011 were, according to Dabashi, only the beginning of this new defiance. Senegalese philosopher Souleymane Bachir Diagne, who advocates for decolonizing the history of philosophy, also calls on Muslims to keep Islam an open project, a doctrine in movement ready to drop all forms of identitarian chauvinism and to listen and absorb other voices inside and outside its tradition.     

Islamopolitanism is an open-ended project that shares these sensibilities and aspirations. I explore the work of performance artists, activists, devotional musicians, and authors who have developed sites, aesthetics, and cultural tastes to interrogate the mediation of Islam and the making of Muslim subjectivities beyond the limitations of traditional Islam and secular modernity. My aim here is also to expand the object of study in Islam beyond simply the visibly pious adherents of this faith. In fact, what are we studying precisely or who do we focus on when we label our research as work on Islam? My own approach is concerned with unpacking the complexity as well as elusiveness of the Muslim subject. As Achille Mbembe and Sarah Nuttal remind us in their writing about cities of the South and their dwellers as subjects ‘en fuite’ (on the run), I want to theorize Muslims as subjects en fuite- in the sense that they “always outpace the capacity of analysts to name them.”

 

Kayla Renée Wheeler

Grand Valley State University

 Throughout jumaah at the Annual Muslim Convention, I awkwardly tugged at my khimar. Unlike the times I had spent doing fieldwork in predominantly Arab and South Asian mosques, I wasn’t worried about making sure my neck and flyaway hairs were covered.  Instead, I was repositioning my khimar to make my slicked down baby hairs visible and to show off my dangly earrings. I wanted to fit in. I was surrounded by Black women in every possible head covering imaginable: berets, kufis, turbans, hoodjabs, and Shayla khimars.  Their wax print and bogolan maxi skirts made them appear to float elegantly down the rows, their layering techniques would have made Bonnie Cashin jealous.  They were performing what anthropologist Su’ad Abdul Khabeer calls, Muslim cool, a form of embodied resistance that privileges Blackness.  I had finally found home.  

My experience at the Annual Muslim Convention was one of the few times where my loosely tied khimar and 3/4-length sleeve shirt had not been met with side eyes from Muslim aunties.  None of the aunties at the convention chastised me for not dressing modestly or “Muslim” enough, something that often happens in the small college town mosques that I visit across the U.S.  These critical aunties, who are quick to call my outfits inappropriate and even haram, are invested in what I call “hegemonic Islam,”  which is Sunni-centric and privileges Arab expressions of Islam as the most authentic based on the belief that geographic or cultural proximity to Prophet Muhammad’s native land dictates one’s religiosity.  Hegemonic Islam is naturalized as “true Islam” and marginalizes those who do not fit within its framework.  It proves problematic for African-American Muslims who can only trace their natal history to the Americas.  Hegemonic Islam is inherently anti-Black because it devalues practices and beliefs created within African-American Islam.  

I developed the term, hegemonic Islam, in my dissertation, which explores how Black Muslim women use YouTube fashion and beauty tutorials to create alternative images of the ideal Muslim woman.  I traced the development of hegemonic Islam back to postcolonial movements in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) beginning in the 1960s, during which Muslims critiqued Western political and cultural dominance across the world.  Many sought to create an alternative shared identity for Muslims that would transcend social class and geography.  One way this shared identity was expressed was through dress.  Regionally specific clothes and styles, such as the abaya and thobe, were transformed into the only authentic Muslim dress.  This new shared identity created a new social hierarchy, where Arab Muslim cultural practices are placed at the top and African-American Muslim practices are at the bottom.  Wearing clothes that had once been specific to the MENA region became a sign of one’s commitment to Islam, instead of the materialist West. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer calls this pious respectability, where it is assumed that the more “religious” a Muslim becomes, the more they will shift aesthetically towards MENA.  I am interested in exploring how Black Muslim women have used fashion to reimagine pious respectability and resist hegemonic Islam.  

In my book, I explore how Black Muslim women in the United States have historically used fashion to construct alternative femininities that disrupt Eurocentric beauty norms and create transnational networks of belonging based on a shared identity as Black Muslims.  Through my research, I explore how the Nation of Islam (NOI) and Imam W. Deen Mohammed community’s (IWDMC) emphasis on racial uplift via entrepreneurship and patronizing Black businesses have been essential to building what I call the Afro-Islamic Diaspora fashion industry.  These organizations host charity fashion shows, house bazaars at annual conventions, and build women’s only spaces where women and girls can learn how to sew and design, providing women with the opportunity to monetize their talents and promote Black self-determination.

I situate my work within Islamic fashion studies.  The field is underdeveloped because scholars have historically understood fashion to be a product of the Christian West, originating in the Renaissance during the rise of early capitalism when people moved to urban areas and sought ways to individuate themselves.  These fashion origin stories create a binary between the West as a site of modernity and the East as being stuck in the past, which replicates Orientalist tropes.  This leads to scholars viewing Muslim women’s covering practices as static and geographically bound, but that is not reflective of what is happening on the ground. What fabrics, colors, and silhouettes are considered trendy is constantly shifting.  Five years ago, Khaleeji hijabs were “in”, now it’s turbans. It has been important for me to avoid looking for motivations as to why Muslim women cover—they are often numerous and fluid.  Instead, I am interested in examining what clothes communicate to others, what bodies are produced through dress choices, how definitions of modesty are constructed, and how objects become “Islamic”.  This approach prevents me from fetishizing Muslim women and their clothing.

It has been interesting watching the rise of modest fashion within the mainstream Western fashion industry.  2015 seems to have been a major turning point in the industry.  Not only did high-end brands like Tommy Hilfiger, Dolce & Gabbana, and Monsoon begin selling Ramadan collections, many of which were only available in the Gulf region, more affordable brands like Nike, Uniqlo, and Macy’s have created permanent lines.  In general, the fashion industry has embraced longer hemlines and higher necklines.  On a personal note, it’s been so exciting to ditch my collection of cardigans and leggings that I used to use to make outfit more modest because so many brands now cater to my tastes.  While the move from body con dresses to maxi shift dresses could be a result of the cyclical nature of fashion, I think it’s also a recognition of Muslims’ growing global buying power.  The fashion industry is finally seeing Muslims as consumers.  

From my research, I’ve learned that the mainstream Western fashion industry’s embrace of Muslims as consumers has had negative consequences.  Independent Muslim designers are being pushed out by fast fashion brands that can make their products quickly and at significantly cheaper prices.  Many of the clothes sold by fast fashion brands like H&M are produced by Brown Muslim women in Indonesia and Bangladesh who work in unsafe work environments at low wages.  Mainstream fashion advertisers have slowly begun to use Muslim models who regularly cover in their marketing campaigns.  However, these models are primarily young, thin, visibly able-bodied, light-skinned, and non-Black.  I cannot deny the importance of positive representation of Islam for young Muslim children’s self-esteem, especially considering the rise of anti-Muslim, which disproportionately affects visibly Muslim women.  However, these advertisements reproduce the image of Islam as a “Brown” religion, contributing to the marginalization of Black Muslims.  They also uphold Eurocentric beauty standards, leaving many Muslim women outside the realm of fashion.   

The new focus on modesty in the mainstream Western fashion industry is mirrored by an uptick in scholarship about Muslim women’s dress that focuses on Muslim women outside of MENA.  While I have been happy to see the decline of veil historiographies, which dominated the field of Muslim dress studies in the 1980s and 1990s, I am disappointed that the scholarship still privileges women living in Muslim-majority countries, including Turkey, Indonesia, and Iran.  When Muslims living as religious minorities are discussed, race and racial difference are often ignored.  The United States provides a unique case study because there is no racial or ethnic majority among Muslims, but there is a clear racial hierarchy in terms of defining Muslim authenticity.  Despite Black Muslim women, specifically African-American women associated with the Nation of Islam and the Imam W. Deen Mohammed community, making it “cool” to cover as early as the 1920s and creating and building a fifty-year old fashion industry, they’ve largely been ignored by scholars.  I hope to correct that.


Yomna Elsayed holds a PhD in communication from the University of Southern California. In her research, she examines the interplay of popular culture, social change and cultural resistance. Her dissertation examined how popular culture mechanisms, such as humor, music and creative digital arts, can be utilized tosustain social movements all while facilitating dialogue at times of ideological polarization and state repression. 

Nabil Echchaibi is chair of the department of media studies and associate director of the Center for Media, Religion and Culture at the University of Colorado Boulder. His research and teaching interests include religion, popular culture, postcolonial and decolonial theory, and Islamic modernity. His work has appeared in various journals and book volumes. His opinion columns have been published in the GuardianForbes Magazine,SalonAl Jazeerathe Huffington PostReligion Dispatchesand Open Democracy.

Kayla Renée Wheeler is an Assistant Professor of African American Studies and Digital Studies at Grand Valley State University. Currently, she is writing a book on contemporary Black Muslim dress practices in the United States. The book explores how, for Black Muslim women, fashion acts a site of intrareligious and intra-racial dialogue over what it means to be Black, Muslim, and woman in the United States. She is the curator of the Black Islam Syllabus, which highlights the histories and contributions of Black Muslims. She is also the author of Mapping Malcolm’s Boston: Exploring the City that Made Malcolm X, which traces Malcolm X’s life in Boston from 1940 to 1953.

Popular Religion and Participatory Culture Conversation (Round 6): Brandy Monk-Payton and Patrick Johnson (Part 2)

Brandy Monk-Payton:

I’m so glad you mentioned Aretha Franklin’s homegoing ceremony.  I grew up in a Southern Black Baptist church environment and the entire event was so visually and sonically familiar. While I was only able to catch bits and pieces of it, I’m thankful that Black Twitter was able to provide me with a rundown online. Participatory culture in a digital era is enhanced by racialized social networking practices.  

The appearance of the church within many Black media objects is such an important observation. While you focus on nineties sitcoms in your research, I can’t help but think of a figure like Tyler Perry. I wrote an essay for the edited collection From Madea to Media Mogul: Theorizing Tyler Perry (University Press of Mississippi) titled “Worship at the Altar of Perry: Spectatorship and the Aesthetics of Testimony” that attempted to account for the fandom (especially southern black churchgoing female fandom) around hugely successful African American media maker Tyler Perry through the framework of religion. I argued that Perry transformed the cinematic experience into a sermon with his on-screen parables. While Perry is not an actual pastor, it seems that Black religious leaders have a fan culture unto themselves - certainly the African American mega-church preacher is a mainstay in Black culture that garners much adulation. 

Your use of haunting to describe how Blackness resonates across popular media forms is intriguing. The TV programs that you mention seem to always be present in Black cultural discourse as specters. Scholars such as Alfred J. Martin are bringing them back into focus as valued objects of study, because they are frequently obscured in traditional archives of television programming history. Additionally, Black fans have notoriously been excluded from examinations of fandom (see Rebecca Wanzo’s important essay “African American Acafandom and Other Strangers: New Genealogies of Fan Studies” in the journal Transformative Works and Culture). 

The recent Emmys broadcast commented on these mainstream erasures with Michael Che’s bit “Reparations Emmys” in which Black TV sitcom actors like Marla Gibbs from The Jeffersonsand Kadeem Hardison from A Different World were given Emmys for their influential roles in iconic Black-cast television programs. African American communities have been exposed to these legends through a kind of televisual “inheritance” that you speak of passed on from generation to generation.   

 

Patrick Johnson:

When Che gives Kadeem Hardison his Reparations Emmy for his role as Dwayne Wayne, he tells him, "I don't think you realize how many young brothers you actually inspired to go to college." My study's participants echoed these sentiments, citing A Different World as a key influence on their ability to see themselves as college students. In the 24 years since the show's series finale, it has remained the primary scripted televisual representation of Black college life. There is a generation of Black folks (myself included) who probably made some major life decisions informed by their A Different World fandom and who proudly identify as alums of the show's fictional Hillman College. Emmy-winning writer and producer Lena Waithe, who named her production company Hillman Grad productions, described her affinity for A Different World and The Cosby Show in an interview with NPR's Terry Gross. "I was just lucky that I was a kid watching it, seeing not myself yet in A Different World. I was seeing who I wanted to be and I saw so much of myself and so much of what I wanted to be in those shows. What television did for me is that it taught me how to dream, it taught me what to dream about." In this sense, fandom, like religion, can be understood as aspirational, providing the guidelines for the kind of person one hopes to become. 

 

Brandy Monk-Payton:

The Cosby Show is such a difficult text to engage with now. And Bill Cosby himself represents a kind of crisis, ideologically and affectively, in Black fandom. I think in part because of the way in which Black icons make meaning, spiritually, with Black audiences. The symbolic power they can hold over culture really puts us in a tough position when/if they fall from that position of “grace.” The Boondocks episode that critiques R. Kelly (and R. Kelly fans) perfectly depicts such a crisis.

I’m interested in what you think of these Black Americans deemed exceptional across fields (television, music, sports) and examples of how we have participated in their elevation.  

 

Patrick Johnson:

As a basketball fan, coming of age during the 1990s, there was no player more important than Michael Jeffrey Jordan. Crying Jordan meme, dad jeans, and "the ceiling is the roof" aside, Jordan remains a largely unassailable figure amongst basketball fans. While like Beyoncé, Jordan clearly appeals to a broad spectrum of people, there is a special place within Black culture for "his Airness". Writing about Jordan in the early 1990s, public intellectual and theologian Michael Eric Dyson identified "a religious element to the near worship of Jordan as a cultural icon of invincibility" and argued that Black youth made a particular "symbolic investment in Jordan's body as a means of cultural and personal possibility, creativity, and desire". The Black youth of the 1990s have grown into adults who remain fiercely loyal to Jordan and are particularly invested in him remaining a cultural icon. Make any earnest attempt to discuss the greatest basketball player of all-time and you quickly learn that there is little room for arguments that do not have Jordan firmly at number one. In the words of Krs-One, for many fans Jordan is not only number one but "number one, two, three, four, and five." In recent years, most conversations about the GOAT involve comparing Jordan's credentials against those of Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (whose King James nickname is perhaps too on the nose when it comes to religiosity and sports). At some point in the debate, the pro-Jordan fan offers MJ's perfect 6-0 record in the NBA finals (compared to James' 3-6 record) and his intangibles such as his "heart" and "killer instinct" as evidence of his superiority. The latter traits, while not quantifiable, are nonetheless felt by the fan. The anti-LeBron argument will often come back to a single moment in his career when he was viewed as "quitting" on his team, perhaps the ultimate sin that an athlete can commit. What on the surface seems like a conversation about who is the better ball player is really one about faith, about which player you can believe in. 

 

Brandy Monk-Payton:

I’m wondering if this all comes down to a reconceptualization of faith to account for how Blackness signifies in popular media culture...how Black folk make meaning and create symbolic worlds to believe in as we navigate discrimination and oppression. The hope, across generations, that is put in representation (especially as epitomized by our icons) becomes vital.

 

Patrick Johnsonis a Ph.D. candidate in the Social and Cultural Studies program in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley. His research interests include critical media literacy, Black fan studies, cultural memory, and the residual circulation of past media.

 

Brandy Monk-Paytonis an Assistant Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University. Her research on theories and histories of African American media representation and cultural production has been published in the journals Film QuarterlyFeminist Media HistoriesThe Black Scholar, and Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture. Other work has appeared in various edited collections and is forthcoming in the anthology Unwatchable(Rutgers University Press). Her first book project examines Black celebrity in late twentieth and early twenty-first century U.S. public and popular culture.

 

 

 

 

 

Popular Religion and Participatory Culture Conversation (Round 6): Brandy Monk-Payton and Patrick Johnson (Part 1)


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Brandy Monk-Payton:

I’m so excited to be part of this series of discussions with Patrick! Thanks to Diane, Sarah and Henry for the invitation. My research is located at the intersection of Media Studies and Black Cultural Studies. Specifically, I am working on a manuscript emerging from my dissertation that explores the aesthetics and politics of Black celebrity across television and digital media. I’m especially interested in logics of public exposure and the construction of racial notoriety. 

A sense of religion has always undergirded our experience with stardom. The title of Richard Dyer’s seminal book Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society(1986) references the godlike quality that we attribute to screen personalities. While I am not a scholar of religion, I often think about fame in relation to the act of worship. It’s a topic that dovetails with Kathryn Lofton’s useful book on Oprah Winfrey. In Oprah: Gospel of an Icon(2011), Lofton examines how Winfrey’s image and brand are predicated on popular forms of spiritual empowerment. Participatory culture here transforms into a commercial experience of reverence towards a divine figure.

Enter Beyoncé Knowles. Now I’m not inclined to get into debates about the beloved pop star, lest the Queen Bey’s very vocal Beyhive (her community of most devoted fans) begins to buzz. Yet it seems that Knowles exemplifies celebrity worship and, even more so, a particular type of Black celebrity worship. 

Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah writes about her pilgrimage to a Beyoncé concert: “I am not a Beyoncé fan but I felt like crying tears of joy all three times I saw the Mrs. Carter show. Because while other pop stars may sing about throwing some glitter on it and making it rain, only Beyoncé could literally soar over us, climb up over our heads and our real lives, climb over her kingdom, to actually throw down over us what looks like bits of pollen, golden confetti, and make it rain bits of her dream all over her fans who love her so, and who would do anything for their Queen.”

I have never been to one of her concerts, but I know many people who have, who describe it in some way, shape, or form, exactly like the above. Indeed, Beyoncé has devoted followers in her “kingdom” and on the face of it, this is no different from any other adored musical artist. Yet this icon, this Black icon, carves out a sacred space in the public imaginary with every performance. I’m reminded of her April 2018 appearance at Coachella (coined “Beychella”), which turned the site into a large-scale HBCU football halftime show. That performance included a rendition of the Black national anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”  

While her appeal is widespread, I would argue that she mobilizes histories of Black expressive culture in order to generate collective memory amongst her African American audience. The interaction between Beyoncé and her fans resonates in terms of folk traditions as epitomized by the Black church.   

The discourse of racial iconicity hinges on both veneration and denigration, per Nicole Fleetwood. It is the communal and oftentimes ritualistic aspect of the veneration amongst Black fans that I find most fascinating.    



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Patrick Johnson:

First of all, I would like to thank Henry, Sarah and Diane for putting together this series. I have really enjoyed learning about everyone's work. As a scholar whose research does not explicitly engage religious studies, these conversations have been particularly fruitful for helping to expand the terms in which I understand my scholarship. My work sits at the nexus of television studies, Black cultural studies, and education. My dissertation looks at how 1990s Black sitcoms such as MartinThe Fresh Prince of Bel-AirLiving SingleA Different World,and Moesha function as a form of heritage and inheritance for Black millennials. I am broadly interested in understanding what the relationships between Black music cultures and television can tell us about Black cultural memory. I employ the concept of haunting to think through not only the resonance between Black media forms but the ubiquitous nature of the televisual past within Black popular culture.  

One of the major points of intersection between my work and that advanced through religious studies are around issues of inheritance and collective memory. Most of my study's participants, who were between the ages of 18 and 24 at the time of the study, worked under the assumption that most Black people have some awareness of the aforementioned 1990s Black sitcoms. While participants had varying orientations to the programs (many with strong negative critiques of the shows, especially Martin's gender politics), they expressed feeling that they had to at least contend with them. Most of study's participants described inheriting their 1990s Black sitcom fandom from their grandparents, parents, or older siblings. The ability to be conversant in the shows, knowing the characters, catchphrases, and major storylines enabled them to participate Black cultural conversations that connected them to previous generations of Black folks. They understood their literacy in the shows as granting them access to both imagined and actual Black communities. This brings to mind a quote from a participant in Jonathan Gray’s study on The Simpsons who stated, “Even though I don’t watch this show, I don’t like this show, uh, I have to know about it to a certain degree…otherwise I will be excluded from the conversation of my friends” (p. 71). In this sense, I wonder how might religious studies help us think through the fandoms that can almost be read as compulsory. 

The Black church has been a central institution in Black life. As a result, there is a certain literacy that many Black people have with the Black church regardless of their religious affiliation. Beyond the Black cast, the Black church is often employed in Black sitcoms as one of the many signifiers that connotes Blackness to the audience. The success of scripted shows like OWN's Greenleafand Bounce's Saints and Sinners as well as reality shows such as the Preachers franchise, proves that there is an appetite for programming that centers the Black church within its narrative structure. 

However, as I think about the convergence of religion, participatory culture, and Blackness, the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin's homegoing service is perhaps the show that cogently brings together these elements. The service with all it's pageantry provided space for Black people to collectively laugh at some of the ridiculousness that took place. Through social media and our offline discussions, Black people engaged in what Beretta Smith-Shomade (2016) describes as playful piety. Our running commentary on fashion choices, singing ability, and audience reactions should not be read as incongruent with religiosity but instead reflecting a means through which we "enjoy the foibles, fallacies, contributions, and even grace of black religious ways of being" (p. 321). This infusion of humor was part of celebrating Aretha Franklin's life and achievements. 

 I am interested in any site where multiple eras of Blackness come together, and the homegoing service would definitely qualify as such. Haunting has been useful for thinking about the “always thereness” of not only certain figures and cultural artifacts but the seemingly antiquated ideologies that continue to resound in the present. We can look at the service and think about Bishop Charles E. Ellis III’s interactions with Ariana Grande or Rev. Jasper Williams’ rebuke of Black Lives Matter and understand them as representing regressive ideologies that linger when left unconfronted. However, the mediated and spectacular nature of the service ensured that their problematic behavior and statements would not remain within the confines of the sanctuary. Rather their actions were subject to scrutiny by Black folks in real-time via social media.

Patrick Johnson is a Ph.D. candidate in the Social and Cultural Studies program in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley. His research interests include critical media literacy, Black fan studies, cultural memory, and the residual circulation of past media.

 Brandy Monk-Payton is an Assistant Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University. Her research on theories and histories of African American media representation and cultural production has been published in the journals Film QuarterlyFeminist Media HistoriesThe Black Scholar, and Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture. Other work has appeared in various edited collections and is forthcoming in the anthology Unwatchable(Rutgers University Press). Her first book project examines Black celebrity in late twentieth and early twenty-first century U.S. public and popular culture.