Philadelphia Stories



-- There's a snagged, snaking line of traffic on the highway as we head to the Cleveland airport early Thursday morning, on our way to the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference, but the conversation in the car is warm and friendly. I'm glad I'm not the only person from Cineville going to Philadelphia: riding to the airport with friends is much nicer than a cab or a shuttle. As we walk from long-term parking to the terminals, my friend crinkles her nose at the man walking by. "I'm aesthetically offended," she whispers to me, and i can't say I blame her: a cowboy's suede jacket--complete with frayed edges and some doubtlessly 'bad-ass' hieroglyph stitched in the back--is not really a great sartorial choice, especially on a cool winter morning.

While I mix cream into my coffee at the airport food stand, a piercing buzzing noise engulfs the airport: some kind of security alarm has gone off. I don't know why, and it ends a few minutes later, but while most of the travelers in the lounge cover their ears, make mad faces or scream "turn the damn thing off!," several aiport employees stand around laughing and taking it all in. Cleveland Hopkins International Airport: we hate our customers, and it shows.

-- Riding the shuttle in from the airport to the downtown hotel/conference site, I crane my neck and try to take in the sites that pass by. Watching films is like viewing architecture, Walter Benjamin wrote: both move by so fast that it becomes impossible to absorb it all in a contemplative way, and one gets only bits and pieces as it flits across the eye. Riding in a crammed shuttle-- people reading, revising papers or notes, and chatting on their cellphones-- is kind of like sitting in a crowded theater (because it's early evening, it even has some of the dusky dark of a movie theater pillbox). I've never been to Philadelphia, and wonder how it will match the images I have of it from popular culture: Hall and Oates, Will Smith, Gamble & Huff, Elton John's "Philadelphia Freedom," The Verdict, Trading Places, Rocky. The closer we get to the city, the more people start to chat with one another in the van, as if entering the space was an initiation that needed to be commemorated. One guy is a fellow SCMS participant (and like me, he will be talking about television); two of the other men in the van do a GLBT podcast, and had stories to tell about different interview subjects. As we get closer to the hotel, we drive past a lot of colonial architecture and statuary. Very cool to a history geek like me. The shuttle pulls up to my hotel and the driver calls out its name-- "Loews"!-- but it turns out to not be my hotel, after all; mine is across the street, which I don't find out until I'm given a quizzical look by the reservations clerk at the other hotel. Welcome to Philadelphia.

--The hotel is shiny, new, metallic, with artfully low lighting and sharply reflective marble floors-- maybe it's all the Crime Story I've been watching recently, but I feel like I've stepped into a Michael Mann movie. It's also something of a labyrinth, which makes it a good metaphor for a conference with hundreds of panels, screenings, workshops and receptions spread across four days: it's really pretty, it's kind of overwhelming, and it's very easy to get lost. Good thing friends are here! I hook up with folks from grad school (including old pal and weekend hotel roomie Brendan), and we decide to skip the reception and its schmoozing for a more relaxed dinner on our own. The concierge-- after resisting the urge to scrunch up his nose at our enthusiasm over a restaurant described in our food guide as "homestyle cuisine served in a Brady Bunch atmosphere"-- recommends The Continental. It's very nice-- two levels, high ceilings, wicker chairs that hang from the ceiling and twirl-- and the tapas-style cuisine is excellent.

The tricky thing about conferences is balance-- how to go to panels, catch up with friends, and see the city, all in the limited amount of time provided. The best part of the weekend is undoubtedly seeing folks from other institutions that I haven't seen in years, and hearing each other's stories. A number of them center around families and children-- sons, daughters, nieces, nephews, etc. It's kind of a nice sign of the times, and a way to stay centered amidst the jargon, ideological positioning and performativity that conferences always engender.

--Saturday afternoon, Brendan and I grab lunch with Chris and Dave, two old friends, then sneak away from conference goings-on to do what Brendan has termed a "nerd tour" of historical sites in Philly. This totally appeals to my inner Sarah Vowell, and when Brendan suggested it at dinner that first night, I immediately said yes. If I hadn't gone into English and film studies, I probably would've been a history guy (political science was my other undergraduate major), and I get a geeky rush as we walk through the wind and rain towards Independence Mall-- there's Independence Hall! There's the Liberty Bell building! We get to the visitors' center just as the deluge hits-- ducking inside, we are surrounded by enough Ben Franklin kitsch to make even Andy Warhol weep. Banners, statues, a cardboard cutout of an actor playing Ben, with a cartoon dialogue bubble urging you to "wake up with Ben!" for a morning buffet (a young couple does dirty poses with the cutout as we head outside, grabbing at Ben's crotch and snapping photos). Even in this kind of touristy environment, though, there are still the paintings of 18th century life and the old documents from the period to pique your interest. As we browse in the gift shop (where you can buy Rocky t-shirts), the rain stops, and we head over to see the Liberty Bell.

Did you know it wasn't called "The Liberty Bell" until the 1830s, and was dubbed that by abolitionists who used the rhetoric of the Revolution as a way to promote their cause? Did you know it's been an object of photographic posing for everyone from Nelson Mandela to visting Korean schoolchildren (you can see the photos in large reproductions in the museum)? DId you know it cracked on its journey from England, and was thought unusable until it was recast in the United States, and "rang more sweetly than ever," according to documents of the period? Do you care about any of this? If not, you're no friend of mine-- I absorb the historical trivia with relish, and pose for a photo by the bell.

We started our tour late in the day, so many of the historical buildings are closing by the time we get to them, but we are able to walk around Independence Hall, and take in a "workingman's home" that's been preserved from the colonial period. As we walk through the park, we see a wedding just ending: a bride, her bridesmaids, and the groom and groomsmen are all posing for photos outside a building with Doric architecture (there's a box of shiny white umbrellas off to one side, in case it starts to rain again). Heading back to the hotel, we pass a hipster theater showing Juno, Be Kind Rewind and other mainstream indies; across from the theater is a shop whose display window is filled with Rocky paraphenalia-- that guy is everywhere!

--Oh, right-- there are panels at these things, too! Brendan has done a good job detailing the highlights; I would add that I also saw great papers on music and image in contemporary cinema and tv (especially a brilliant paper on composing in Buffy and Angel), an immensely informative panel on anime that I regret having to leave early, and an enjoyable and diverse look at the history of movie chains, regional theaters and film distribution. The most engaging (and at times infuriating) panel was actually a workshop, on "Academic Writing In The Digital Age." As someone who only started blogging in August, perhaps I come to it with the misguided enthusiasm of a convert, but I was fascinated by how traditional the discussions around it ended up being. I am very glad SCMS did the panel, and appreciate the very thoughtful and diverse ideas and experiences of the presenters in terms of establishing some broad parameters for conversation; my frustration is not a reflection on the individual presenters (or, indeed, any one person in the crowd), but how the discussion ended up feeling symptomatic of the kinds of resistance and anxieties that too often seem to define my profession's responses to "new media." For every interesting presentation on how to use blogs, YouTube, Sophie and other online resources for different kinds of writing; for every project that seemed to be interested in thinking about how these new forms were not only outlets for writing, but shapers of writing (for instance, Jason Mittell's interesting ideas about the serialization of the academic narrative-- you can check out his blog at the right); for every comment that suggested some degree of passion or enthusiasm about the possibilities of a "digital age," there was an equal and opposite reaction, one which proved the arguments of theorists who claim that discussions about new media will cluster around old issues and familiar shibboleths. Professionalization (how will this count towards tenure? What will my institution think about this?), pedagogy (is this really 'teaching"? Or "writing"?), and ideology (what do we mean by "community" or "activism" or "access"?), as well as concerns about identity, students and academic etiquette ended up dominating much of the talk.

Those issues are valid and important, and certainly things to address, and people did so with a great deal of passion and intelligence; I learned a lot and didn't necessarily disagree with all of their concerns. At the same time (and this came up), it felt slightly disingenuous to act like those things aren't already issues, anyway-- did nasty remarks from fellow academics (say, on email lists, peer reviews, readers reports, hallway gossip) not already exist? Do we not already debate what counts as "writing," or have anxieties about student access and interaction? Does technology introduce these problems, or merely put a new spin on them? And as Jeff has pointed out: isn't writing a "technology," too? It felt like a limited way to approach what the technologies could do (this might just be me, but I'm not even sure "community" is my primary concern with digital writing. It's part of it-- one links out and forms bonds and has blog comments and all-- but I think whatever we think of as "digital" also has other, more Barthesian qualities to it). I guess it depends on how you want to read the title of the workshop: is "digital writing" an object ("this is a blog; this is digital writing")? Or an approach, a la Derrida, or Ulmer, or Barthes, whose qualities are as much formal and textual (compression, say, or the links between word and image, or what it means to "link" at all), full of instability and ambiguity, as individual and aesthetic as they are communal or political? The panel had a lot of good things to say about the former, but less to say about the latter, and I think the latter is, as the kids used to say, where it's at.

Roland Barthes wrote of a method of working that was quite different, one whose practitioner would start from "a sensuous object, and then hopes to meet in his work with the possibility of finding an abstraction for it, levied on the intellectual culture of the moment." This way of working feels "digital" to me, and to carry Barthes' economic analogy a bit further, we don't know what its rate of exchange is yet, and shutting down the market prematurely would be intellectually disastrous. Still, the fact that the conference decided to emphasize the "M" in SCMS and hold the workshop at all is a hopeful sign for the future.

--I return to Cleveland Sunday afternoon, and discover that two feet of snow has blanketed northeast Ohio. Is it spring yet?

Comments

digital_sextant said…
Here's the photo of the liberty bell.

If you want print quality copies of any of the photos I took, let me know and I'll email it along (or you can download it from Flickr -- the original one is photo quality).
dave said…
Hey, Great post! And great seeing you in Philly. I found the pic of us on digital sextant's flickr, which was cool (I may ask him how to get print quality, etc.).

Your comments about digital writing as both object _and_ approach are also interesting here (particularly in the context of a blog entry about digital writing). Do you find the context of the blog has encouraged your own criticism to be more given to a style that is, in your own words, "as much formal and textual (compression, say, or the links between word and image, or what it means to "link" at all), full of instability and ambiguity, as individual and aesthetic as they are communal or political"? Has this approach on your blog inflected your writing in more "traditional" technologies (i.e. the academic essay)? Or has the blog allowed you to explore a style of writing you had already been interested in prior to starting it? Is it a bit of all of the above?

Just curious--anyway, a very stimulating post. Thanks for writing.
Brian Doan said…
Brendan--
Thanks for the photo (and the nice comments on your blog)!

Dave--
Has this approach on your blog inflected your writing in more "traditional" technologies (i.e. the academic essay)? Or has the blog allowed you to explore a style of writing you had already been interested in prior to starting it? Is it a bit of all of the above?

Those are really great questions, and I think it is "a bit of all the above." I found as I was working on my SCMS paper that I was almost writing it like a blog post, which was helpful because I wanted it to have that poppy, floating quality (given that I was talking about THE OC), but also a little frustrating because it made it harder to pinpoint the precise argument being made (which, hopefully I did in the end). But I'm not sure that's all to the bad-- I often feel like writing (or at least my writing) is as much about effects as arguments, and that the "electracy" ideas we were exploring on our panel really play with that line between argument and effect, anyway.

I think in part doing this blog for the last several months has conditioned me to think that way, but I also think I was headed in that direction, anyway, which might be why I like to blog-- when you write a dissertation about and as a series of anecdotes, it really gets you thinking about compression, connection, and criticism-as-story.

All of which is probably more than you wanted (:, but I do think (for me, anyway), it really speaks to the ways technology can play with your head, and to those eternal questions about what counts as "knowledge" or "meaning" in the first place.
boolise said…
Great photos! B-Dawg is rockin' that goatee! :)

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