Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Common Language Problem

There is an interesting discussion going on the Visible Evidence listserv right now about the definition of propaganda. Interesting for what individual contributors are saying but also interesting because a number of those emailing seemed to think that matter was basic and settled but the discussion showed precisely how little agreement documentary scholars had on exactly how to define propaganda.

I won't summarize the debates but in short they point to one key problem in defining propaganda. Film scholars have a set of critical priorities that lead us to avoid the term propaganda. It's value-laden, it obscures more than it reveals, and it revels in a Manichaean division between good and bad nonfiction. The problem is that the term has a wide popular usage. There is no reason scholars cannot (and should not) resist popular terminology and usage, but they can resist it only to a point. For instance, we do not need to label Thin Blue Line a propaganda film simply because it has a strong polemic and in journalistic terms is not "balanced." But by nearly every measure the Why We Fight series are propaganda films and no amount of desisting the term is going to change that. We could come up with a less value-laden term like "persuasive rhetoric film" just as we could invent a "Manichaean frontier narrative film" to replace "Western." But that's little guarantee that scholars won't substitute "propaganda" or "Western" in their mind as familiar concept-clusters. The popular term has irrevocably shaped the object study and at least some aspect of how we understand it.

At one point in his Craft of Sociology, Pierre Bourdieu notes that the scientist makes a break from common language but the social scientist has to work with common language to some extent. This is one instance that I'm fine with insisting on analytical clarity to our vocabulary but think this analysis needs to take into account the common language usage as well.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Why Scholarly Apparatus is Useful

This week had me rereading (for teaching) Deleuze's Cinema 2, or at least a chunk of it. It's a book that provokes new reflections every time I read it. Sometimes the thought-provoking parts are those that aren't even central to his core argument. The bit players are worthy in their own right.

And yet those throwaway claims can be frustrating. At one point he casually mentions that the Japanese don't have much use for science fiction. Which is an intriguing idea, but is it true and, if so, how? Is this something Deleuze himself concluded after watching a lot of Japanese films? A common view of area scholars of Japanese culture? A pet theory of a friend of his? A guess? We don't know, because there is no footnote.

I know Deleuze is not an applied scholar or a film historian and he's not going to have an apparatus of footnotes like I might expect those scholars to have. And I'm fine with that. Philosophy is a different kind of writing. And Deleuze's project is not ultimately about describing Japanese culture with veracity.

But this instance is a good reminder - useful particularly because cultural stereotypes are potentially at stake  - that the fussy apparatus of scholarship serves a useful purpose. In itself footnotes are no guarantee that scholars (or reviews) get it right. Deleuze could have cited a flawed or contestable study, or even if he cited a sound study then a given reader might not have the time or expertise to judge it. But it would be one check, a path for reexamination of the claim.

I know this is no earth-shattering stance. I just think there's a tough line to draw with evidentiary standards in theoretical work.

Friday, April 05, 2013

CFP: New Directions in Sound Studies (VLT)


The Velvet Light Trap
Issue #74: On Sound (New Directions in Sound Studies)

Submission deadline: August 1, 2013

The medium of sound, long placed in a secondary position to the visual within media studies, has experienced a considerable increase in scholarly attention over the past three decades, to the point that “sound studies” is now a distinct field of scholarship. Within media studies, sound-related research today expands well beyond the film and television score or soundtrack to include a broad range of scholarship on radio and popular music. And while sound studies still tends to cohere around media studies departments, an increasing amount of sound media research is interdisciplinary in nature. A “sonic turn” is under way across the humanities and social sciences with sound studies work coming out of philosophy, sociology, anthropology, history, science and technology studies, cultural geography, American studies, art history, and cultural studies. Recent issues of differences (2011) and American Quarterly (2011) and anthologies like The Sound Studies Reader (Jonathan Sterne, 2012) are just a few examples of this expanding range of interest.

This issue of The Velvet Light Trap aims to build upon many of the new lines of inquiry that are coming out of this intersection between sound media and various other scholarly perspectives. In that spirit, we are seeking essays for an issue on the research and study of sound in and across a range of media.

Potential areas of inquiry may include, but are by no means limited to:

  • analysis of music, voice, and sound effects in film, radio, television, video games, podcasting, and other digital or “new media, ” including significant developments in audio aesthetics and style
  • convergence of sound and visual media
  • sound art and experimental forms of sound media
  • materiality of sound, including sound reproduction and other technologies of sound
  • media industries, production cultures, and issues related to sound labor, audio production practices, or the commodification of sound
  • histories of audio media and archaeologies of mediated sound
  • aural representations of identity, power, difference and the politics of sound media
  • mediation of voices and language, noise and silence, and muteness, deafness, and other issues of the body and disability
  • listening practices and sound media in perception and everyday life
  • psychoacoustics and cognitive studies of sound media
  • architecture, acoustics, and space, including “soundscapes” and sound media in relation to public health and public policy
  • theoretical and methodological approaches to the study of sound media

Submissions should be between 6,000–7,500 words (approximately 20-25 pages double-spaced), formatted in Chicago style. Please submit an electronic copy of the paper, along with a one-page abstract, both saved as a Microsoft Word file. Remove any identifying information so that the submission is suitable for anonymous review. The journal’s Editorial Board will referee all submissions. Send electronic manuscripts and/or any questions to All submissions are due August 1, 2013.