Friday, 22 February 2013

Report on Media & Cultural Studies @ NTU Symposium


Ben Taylor reports on our symposium, Media and Cultural Studies @ NTU - the past, the present, the future - held on 8 February 2013

While Nottingham Trent University has long been associated with media, cultural and communication studies (a Communication Studies degree was first established here in the early 1980s), the annual Media & Cultural Studies symposium this year marked the 21st birthday of the launch of Joint Honours degrees in the subject at the institution. It used this anniversary to reflect on the current state of the discipline, on its history, and on emerging issues and developments.  The organisers were pleased that a Belgian scholar, who was visiting NTU on an Erasmus exchange, was able to contribute to the symposium. They were also happy to be able to welcome back some graduates and former colleagues as contributors.

The first session saw Ben Taylor (NTU) talk about the way in which waste has been neglected within media studies. Focusing in particular on e-waste, he argued that, while the discipline has successfully explored the dynamics of media production, the emergence of new media, and the way in which media technologies have been integrated into everyday life, it has tended to ignore the way in which we replace and discard those technologies. He called for the discipline to extend its analysis of the consumption of media technologies so that the dynamics of e-waste (planned obsolescence, recycling, disposal) could be more carefully addressed. The session also saw Bob Jeffery (Sheffield Hallam) talk about his research on the impact of gentrification in Salford. Bob located his initial interest in urban sociology within the discipline of cultural studies, and he used Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of hysteresis to examine the friction between the habitus of young people who had been brought up in Salford, and the new forms of urban living ushered in by the development of middle-class housing facilities, work and retail spaces. Drawing on ethnographic work he had undertaken in the wake of the 2011 riots, he showed how these new geographies had exacerbated social divisions within the area.

In the second session, Georgia Stone (NTU) reflected on the development of media practices over the last 21 years, and she screened some work made by students at NTU in the early 1990s. It was fascinating to see this work, not only because it demonstrated how significantly media technologies have changed in the intervening years, but also because, in many cases, the work nevertheless still stood up in its own right as examples of good film-making, often taking familiar, everyday practices (crossing the city in heavy traffic, cutting a piece of cheese) and rendering them unfamiliar.  Gary Needham (NTU) then explored the proximity between the discipline of cultural studies and the work of Andy Warhol. While Warhol’s interest in popular culture has often been noted (evidenced by the subject matter of many of his screen prints, for example), Gary turned instead to Warhol’s Time Capsules, a series of 600 cardboard boxes in which, month by month, Warhol placed the ephemera of everyday life. Gary argued that, with this interrogation of the prosaic, Warhol shared one of the central preoccupations of cultural studies, and he suggested that his work was thus of significant pedagogic value to the discipline.          

In the third session, Alexander Dhoest (Antwerp University) considered the nature of media research in Belgian, and specifically Flemish-speaking, universities. He argued that such research tended to work within social scientific, and often quantitative, paradigms, and that it regularly had an explicit policy-related perspective. He proceeded to show how British media and cultural studies, with its more qualitative foundations, nevertheless had had an impact on the field, and he used this to reflect on some of the strengths and weaknesses of both the British, and the Flemish, traditions. It was really useful to think about the geographical, as well as the historical, development of the discipline, and about what happens to fields of academic enquiry as they are taken up in different national contexts. 

The final session brought together two papers which focused on female performances in recent film and television. Donna Peberdy (Southampton Solent University) undertook a detailed analysis of the opening scene of David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method (2011), in which Keira Knightley’s character, Sabina Spielrein, first visits Carl Jung. Donna showed how Knightley’s performance of hysteria had proved controversial in reviews of the film, and how she had been accused of over-acting. Rather than simply endorsing such reviews, however, Donna reflected on the difficulties of performing perversion, and the manner in which the condition of hysteria is represented in the film as a whole. Estella Tincknell (University of the West of England) then addressed two serials which have dominated Sunday night television schedules in the UK in recent months: Downton Abbey and Call the Midwife. Both set in the past (1912 onwards and the 1950s respectively), Estella contrasted the politics of nostalgia in each serial, and the way in which social class is located in each. What the programmes shared, however, she argued, was the centrality they gave to ageing women in a culture where such representations tend to live at the margins.

The symposium allowed participants to take stock of media and cultural studies, and the range of topics addressed across the papers reflected the diverse and eclectic nature of the discipline. It thus served as a useful way to mark this particular anniversary at NTU. Unfortunately, one of the planned contributors, Roger Bromley (University of Nottingham), was not able to take part on the day, so we look forward to hearing his paper, about the origins of cultural studies and John Berger’s A Seventh Man (1975), on another occasion.       

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