New Works in Fan Studies

It’s always nice to see friends doing well, and in the case of Kristina Busse, there’s an added reward — seeing her name in print always means that something new and interesting is being said in the world of fan studies. In this case, it’s a double-header: the latest issue of Transformative Works and Cultures, the online journal Nina edits with Karen Hellekson, is up; and there’s a special section of the new Cinema Journal entitled “Fandom and Feminism: Gender and the Politics of Fan Production.” Both are well worth checking out, but I’m particularly excited about the CJ piece, which collects a number of writers I count myself lucky to know — among them Julie Levin Russo, Louisa Stein, and Alexis Lothian — and focuses a critical lens on exciting areas of creative practice in new media. Tables of contents are quoted below. Well done, Nina, and keep up the great work!

Transformative Works and Cultures, Vol 3 (2009)

Editorial

Extending transformation HTML
TWC Editor

Theory

The labor of creativity: Women’s work, quilting, and the uncommodified life ABSTRACT HTML
Debora J Halbert
Sex detectives: “Law & Order: SVU”‘s fans, critics, and characters investigate lesbian desire ABSTRACT HTML
Julie Levin Russo
On productivity and game fandom ABSTRACT HTML
Hanna Wirman

Praxis

Sites of participation: Wiki fandom and the case of Lostpedia ABSTRACT HTML
Jason Mittell
Identity and authenticity in the filk community ABSTRACT HTML
Melissa L. Tatum
The Web planet: How the changing Internet divided “Doctor Who” fan fiction writers ABSTRACT HTML
Leora Hadas

Symposium

The magic of television: Thinking through magical realism in recent TV HTML
Lynne Joyrich
The future of academic writing? HTML
Avi Santo
Repackaging fan culture: The regifting economy of ancillary content models HTML
Suzanne Scott
Snogs of innocence, snogs of experience HTML
Dana Shilling
Playing [with] multiple roles: Readers, authors, and characters in
Who Is Blaise Zabini?”
HTML
Anne Collins Smith
“A Jedi like my father before me”: Social identity and the New York Comic Con HTML
Jen Gunnels
The Hunt for Gollum: Tracking issues of fandom cultures HTML
Robin Anne Reid
Pattern recognition: A dialogue on racism in fan communities HTML
TWC Editor

Interview

Interview with Verb Noire HTML
K. Tempest Bradford
Interview with Mark Smith and Denise Paolucci HTML
zvi LikesTV
Interview with Chris Bouchard HTML
Emma Dollard

Review

“Camgirls: Celebrity and community in the age of social networks,” by Theresa M. Senft HTML
Adriano Barone
“Introduction to Japanese horror film,” by Colette Balmain HTML
Alessia Alfieroni
“Pride and prejudice and zombies: The classic Regency romance?Now with ultraviolent zombie mayhem!,” by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith HTML
Craig B. Jacobsen

Cinema Journal 48.4 (Summer 2009)

A Fannish Taxonomy of Hotness – Francesca Coppa

A Fannish Field of Value: Online Fan Gift Culture – Karen Hellekson

Should Fan Fiction Be Free? – Abigail De Kosnik

User-Penetrated Content: Fan Video in the Age of Convergence – Julie Levin Russo

Living in a Den of Thieves: Fan Video and Digital Challenges to Ownership – Alexis Lothian

Conspiracy in the Classroom

Finishing the first week of a new school term always leaves me feeling as though I’ve launched some kind of ship — like I’ve broken a bottle of bubbly against the side of a vessel that then rolls proudly out of drydock. (Not that I’ve ever performed this particular action in real life. Like so many of my mental referents, it’s a composite of media memories: scenes from movies like Titanic, or the wonderful, ballsy opening shots of Star Trek: Generations, in which a champagne bottle tumbles through space to smash across the prow of the Enterprise-B.)

In this case, we’re talking two inaugural voyages: the first, a retooled version of my Animation and Cinema class, and the second, an entirely new course called Conspiracy. I’ll detail the Animation rethink in a future post, but for now, I want to share the Conspiracy syllabus, which I’m pretty proud of. Putting it together was a pleasurable summer’s labor: I watched dozens of movies, read reams of articles, and basically dug deep into the viny undergrowth of suspicion and speculation that anchors the U.S. political system (or at least our collective perceptions of it). The original inspiration for the class was simply my love of The Parallax View (Alan J. Pakula, 1974), which seemed marvelously strange and icily labyrinthine when I first watched it in the early 1980s. It, along with Phil Kaufman’s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Peter Hyams’s burnt-sienna cheese platter Capricorn One (1978), and Sydney Pollack’s 1975 film Three Days of the Condor (which has not aged well, sad to say) still exerts a special hold on my imagination, and I’m thrilled at the opportunity to explore it and other texts with a class of talented students.

What’s odd, of course, is that what once seemed in the fantastic sweep of its paranoia to be a close cousin of science fiction — indeed, in movies like Capricorn One and Coma (1978), the generic boundaries dissolve almost entirely — today comes across as naive, obvious, or both. Conspiracy narratives in the 1970s were like hushed whispers of a truth too terrible to dredge into daylight, yet too destructive to ignore; now our ears are deafened by the angry bellows of right-wing pundits, angry town-hall protesters, and certain Republican party leaders who believe our President is a socialist, that health-care reform involves the instigation of death panels, and that vaccinations cause disease. Those who aren’t actively enraged are cynically passive: why fight the system when it’s already become, Matrix-like, the fabric of everyday life? As with another topic I teach, fandom, the cultural polarities of conspiracy seem to have reversed themselves over recent decades: subculture becoming superculture, margin becoming mainstream. And if fandom is by and large about the production of pleasure within convection currents that link fringe and center, then conspiracy, following similar fluid dynamics, generates a darker miasma of dread and distrust.

The syllabus that follows is built around two topoi: the assassination of John F. Kennedy anchors the first half of the semester, the events of 9/11 the second. I’ve tried to address all the major permutations of conspiracy theory in the United States, including supernatural and feminist variations, yet I know there’s much more we could be looking at (and I welcome any suggestions for tweaking the lineup). The fun part has been coming up with a reading list that mixes “authoritative” academic perspectives with raw, disreputable textual troublemakers from the heart of conspiracy country. One of my hopes is that the course will take us from a time when conspiracy seemed an isolatable, nameable, unusual thing to one in which the digital remapping of media culture has multiplied the theories, speculation, and accusation to an unnerving din. Another hope is that students will ultimately come to think self-reflexively about their own practices of textual production and legitimation, and by implication the larger politics of a college education: their place in a system that turns economic capital into cultural capital. And maybe, by the end of the term, this small shared plot, this classroom conspiracy (it tickles me to note that conspire literally means to breathe togetheran apt description of our biweekly meetings) will yield, for them and for me, some major insights.

———————————————————————-

FMST 43: Conspiracy – Fall 2009

This course investigates the texts, narratives, and cultures of conspiracy as they are constituted in film, television, digital, and print media. We will concentrate less on the “truth” of any given conspiracy than on its popular and public impact and meaning — what it says, or might be saying, about ourselves, our world, and our times. The subject, then, is both conspiracy theory and theories about conspiracy. As this is a Film and Media Studies course, we will also pay attention to factors such as representation, technology, narrative, audience, and industry, and their relationship to both dominant and resistant ideologies.

Our focus is on the half-century dating from the late 1950s to the present, a period that extends from the Red Scare, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the Apollo moon landings to Waco, 9/11, and contemporary controversies about Barack Obama’s citizenship and an all-encompassing New World Order. Confining ourselves to the United States, we will explore the ways in which public perceptions of conspiracies spread and evolve through media practices both inside and outside the mainstream, as a mode of education, entertainment, and political activity. Areas we will explore (moving from specific to general) include:

  • The tropes, recurring patterns, and characteristic forms of conspiracy
  • The role of different media in shaping perceptions and understandings of conspiracies
  • The relationship of conspiracy narratives/theories to other media modes such as journalism and documentary, and genres such as horror, science fiction, and mystery
  • The light shed by conspiracy narratives on the production and legitimization of knowledge
  • The possibilities and limits of “diagnosing” conspiratorial trends in relation to specific historical and cultural moments
  • Conspiracy theory as an element of democratic discourse, grassroots political movements, and ideological critique

Textbooks & Readings

  • The Rough Guide to Conspiracy Theories. James McConnachie and Robin Tudge. Rough Guides Reference, 2008.
  • Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture. Mark Fenster. Revised and Updated Edition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.
  • Additional readings marked [PDF] will be distributed via Blackboard.

Assignments

15% —Participation: assessed throughout term; for more, see note below.

25% —Activity on class blog: will be assessed three times during term for frequency and content of contributions. For more, see blogging handout.

25% —Midterm paper: due October 8, this 5-7 page paper will respond to the first half of the term by locating a pattern, theme, or idea that ties together a group of conspiracy materials (visual, written, or other). These texts should include both academic and nonacademic content we have looked at together in class, along with material you have explored on your own. In addition to identifying and defining a unifying element, the paper must make some kind of interpretive argument about its significance.

35% —Conspiracy wall display and reflection paper: due the penultimate week of class, this project represents the culmination of your experiences in and thinking about Conspiracy. Working in teams, you will create a public display at McCabe Library, a “conspiracy wall” of texts and images mapping out an existing conspiracy or one of your own design. You will also turn in a 3-5 page reflection paper that discusses the conspiracy and the presentation you have given it. Further details will be given later in term.

A Note on Materials and Methods

In this course we will explore a range of content from different points on the cultural spectrum, from academic articles to photocopied screeds and angry websites, from Hollywood blockbusters to digitally-shot and -distributed underground video. Navigating this material will mean paying attention to origins and rhetorical stance (i.e. where it’s from and what it’s saying) while simultaneously setting aside too-quick distinctions between true/false, logical/illogical, legitimate/illegitimate. While I don’t want to lose sight of “common sense,” I also don’t want the course to devolve into arguments about who really shot JFK. Our assumption will be that we can dabble in conspiracies and conspiracy theories without buying into them — or their counterarguments.

CALENDAR

Week 1 (Sept 1-3): Course Introduction; Types of Knowledge

Read for Thursday: Fenster, “Introduction: We’re All Conspiracy Theorists Now”; Birchall, “Know It All” [PDF], Lisker, “The MADE Manifesto” [PDF]

Screen: Conspiracy Theory (Richard Donner, 1997)

Week 2 (Sept 8-10): Reading and Paranoia

Read for Tuesday: Shapiro, “Paranoid Style”; for Thursday, Fenster Ch 4, “Uncovering the Plot” (pp. 100-117)

Screen: The Game (David Fincher, 1997)

Week 3 (Sept 15-17): Red Scares and Pod People

Read for Tuesday: Fenster, Ch 1 “Theorizing Conspiracy Politics,” Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” [PDF]; for Thursday, Steffen-Fluhr, “Women and the Inner Game of Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers“?[PDF]

Screen: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956)

Week 4 (Sept 22-24): JFK

Read for Tuesday: Marcus, excerpts from “The Manchurian Candidate“?[PDF]; for Thursday, Fenster Ch 4 “Uncovering the Plot” pp. 118-142, Simon, “The Zapruder Film” and “JFK” [PDF]; Hidell, “The Center of the Labyrinth” [PDF]

Screen: JFK (Oliver Stone, 1991). Watch on own time before Tuesday’s class: The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer, 1962).

Week 5 (Sept 29-Oct 1): The Seventies

Read for Tuesday: Kael, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” [PDF]; for Thursday, Simon, “The Parallax View” [PDF], “Project Mind Kontrol” [PDF]; Hidell, “Who Killed John Lennon?” [PDF]

Screen: The Parallax View (Alan J. Pakula, 1974). Watch on own time before Tuesday’s class: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufman, 1978)

Week 6 (Oct 6-8): Feminism and Other Science Fictions

Read: Tiptree, “The Women Men Don’t See” [PDF], Valerius, “Rosemary’s Baby, Gothic Pregnancy, and Fetal Subjects” [PDF]; Hidell, “Is There a Satanic Child Abuse Cover-Up?” [PDF]

Screen: Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968). Watch on own time before Tuesday’s class: The Stepford Wives (Bryan Forbes, 1975)

Due: Midterm paper

Fall Break

Week 7 (Oct 20-22): Space Invaders I

Read: Fenster Ch 5, “Plotting the Rush”; Bara, “The Secret History of NASA” [PDF]

Screen: Excerpt from Capricorn One (Peter Hyams, 1978), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Moon (Bart Sibrel, 2001), Astronauts Gone Wild (Bart Sibrel, 2004). Watch on own time: Mythbusters, “NASA Moon Landing Hoax”

Week 8 (Oct 27-29): Space Invaders II

Read: Fenster Ch 4, “Uncovering the Plot” pp. 143-end; Graham, “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been? Conspiracy Theory and The X-Files” [PDF]; Bell and Bennion-Nixon, “The Popular Culture of Conspiracy/The Conspiracy of Popular Culture” [PDF]

Screen: Episodes of The X-Files TBA; Conspiracy, “Area 51”

Week 9 (Nov 3-5): Politics and Race in the Digital Era

Read: Fenster Ch 3, “Finding the Plot” (review material on Clinton); Knight, “Fear of a Black Planet: ‘Black Paranoia’ and the Aesthetics of Conspiracy” [PDF]

Screen: The Clinton Chronicles (Patrick Matrisciana, 1994); watch on own time The Obama Deception (Alex Jones, 2009)

Week 10 (Nov 10-12): New World Orders

Read: Fenster Ch 2, “When the Senator Met the Commander”; Heimbichner, “The Idiot’s Guide to the Cryptocracy” [PDF]; Weidner, “The Culling: A Speculative Look into the Global Apocalypse” [PDF]; Weston, “FEMA: Fascist Entity Manipulating America” [PDF]

Screen: Endgame: Blueprint for Global Enslavement (Alex Jones, 2007); watch on own time Waco: The Rules of Engagement (William Gazecki, 1997)

Week 11 (Nov 17-19): 9/11

Read: Fenster Ch 7 “A Failure of Imagination”; Helms, “Lingering Questions about 9/11” [PDF]; Meigs, “Afterword: The Conspiracy Industry” [PDF]

Screen: Loose Change (Dylan Avery, 2007); watch on own time before Tuesday’s class: United 93 (Paul Greengrass, 2006)

Week 12 (Nov 24): Looking Forward to the End of the World

Read: Fenster Ch 6, “The Prophetic Plot”; Marrs, “What Will Happen in 2012?” [PDF]; Wallace, “Four Horses of the Apocalypse: A Color-Coded Key to the Cryptocracy” [PDF]

Screen: TBA

Thursday (Nov 26): Thanksgiving Break

Week 13 (Dec 1-3): Encoding/Decoding History

Screen: The Da Vinci Code (Ron Howard, 2006), National Treasure (Jon Turtletaub, 2004)

Due: Conspiracy Wall displays and reflection papers

Week 14 (Dec 8): Last day of class

Student evaluations

Where I’ve Been

Although I frequently share with students my airy notions about online communities being organic things like bonsai trees, growing in unexpected directions but shaped by our collective attentions, I’ve never felt the aptness of the metaphor quite as pointedly as I do today, coming back to Graphic Engine after a long — make that extremely long — absence. It feels rather like unlocking the door to a musty-smelling office that I haven’t visited for months, only to find some poor dead shrub, abandoned and dessicated in its pot.

Fortunately, I’ve always had a green thumb (lie: I’ve always just poured a bunch of water on the zombie plant and hoped it would spasm back to life like Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s character in the single most grating scene of The Abyss), so I’m hoping my handful of loyal readers will forgive the lengthy silence. Such things are acceptable, I know, in the fitful, idiosyncratic world of blogging, but only when the blogger takes the time to communicate up front that he or she will be taking a few weeks (or in my case, months) off. I didn’t do that, preferring the guilt-free but rather callous path of Lee Iacocca’s “never complain, never explain.” In any case, no disrespect or disregard intended toward those lovely souls who have read and commented on this blog in the past. I hope I haven’t lost you forever.

So what was up? Well, I meant to take a breather after my string of posts counting down the series finale of Battlestar Galactica. (You can follow the archive link, or simply look below.) But then Star Trek happened. I found it hard — indeed, impossible — to write about the J. J. Abrams reboot, for reasons that I’m still sorting through. (I plan to be done with the sorting, and actually post something, by the time the 30th anniversary of Star Trek: The Motion Picture rolls around on December 7 — or maybe as soon as November 17, when the Blu-Ray hits.) Not that I didn’t like the movie; it would take a truly puppy-stomping disposition to dislike it. But its release unexpectedly marked the death of some part of me, and in monitoring the shift in my heart of Star Trek from a living, vital pleasure to a glass-encased museum piece, I got a bit lost in myself. It led to a summer’s worth of soul-searching about certain things, among them my publishing priorities, and while I worked on myriad other projects, nothing quite made it to the blog stage.

But never mind: it’s September 1, the start of a new month and of a new school term, and my goal for today — before I run off to the first screening of my Animation and Cinema class — is to put in at least a token appearance and assure the world that I’m not dead, abducted, or overtaken by Luddism. In between the work-cracks of the summer, I got in a lot of reading and viewing, and there are lots of things I plan to write about in future posts (chief among them, District 9 and the Avatar trailer). I promise to get to them soon, and I apologize for having stretched your patience. Here’s hoping the bonsai tree still has some green in it.

Transformative Works and Cultures, Vol 2

The second issue of Transformative Works and Cultures, an online peer-reviewed journal devoted to popular media and fan communities, is now out — another splendid and substantial package of theory, praxis, and reviews. The theme for Volume 2, which was guest-edited by Rebecca Carlson, is Games as Transformative Works.

My favorite piece of the bunch is probably an essay by Will Brooker, “Maps of Many Worlds,” on computer-game fandom in the 1980s. It’s smartly written and full of insights, as one would expect from Brooker (whose work on Star Wars fandom has been enormously productive for me), but it’s also unexpectedly — and rewardingly — personal, recollecting his own imaginative engagement with the graphical realms of games played on the Sinclair ZX Spectrum. My own U.S.-based cognate for this was the Commodore 64, but Brooker’s observations hold true across the cultural and commercial borders of computer culture. I’m currently working on an essay about retrogames for an upcoming MIT Press collection on “Spreadable Media” (if you’re reading this, Henry and Sam, don’t lose faith! the piece is on its way), and so found Brooker’s discussion of, and evident reverence for, 8-bit graphics not only entertaining but useful. I highly recommend it, along with the rest of the issue.

Regarding upcoming volumes of TWC, I quote below the words of co-editors Kristina Busse and Karen Hellekson:

We are soliciting and reviewing for our general issue No. 3 (Fall 2009) at the moment, as well as two forthcoming special issues, one on the CW show _Supernatural_ (“Saving People, Hunting Things,” edited by Catherine Tosenberger; see CfP http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/announcement/view/5) and one on history and fandom (“Fan Works and Fan Communities in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” edited by Nancy Reagin and Anne Rubenstein; see CfP http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/announcement/view/6). If you have any questions, please contact us or the special editors directly.

TWC 1 Arrives (with Gaming CFP)

The first issue of Transformative Works and Cultures is now available. Table of contents below, along with a call for submissions for Issue 2, on Games.

Editorial

TWC Editor: Transforming academic and fan cultures

Theory

Abigail De Kosnik: Participatory democracy and Hillary Clinton’s marginalized fandom

Louisa Ellen Stein: “Emotions-Only” versus “Special People”: Genre in fan discourse

Anne Kustritz: Painful pleasures: Sacrifice, consent, and the resignification of BDSM symbolism in “The Story of O” and “The Story of Obi”

Francesca Coppa: Women, “Star Trek,” and the early development of fannish vidding

Praxis

Catherine Tosenberger: “The epic love story of Sam and Dean”: “Supernatural,” queer readings, and the romance of incestuous fan fiction

Madeline Ashby: Ownership, authority, and the body: Does antifanfic sentiment reflect posthuman anxiety?

Michael A. Arnzen: The unlearning: Horror and transformative theory

Sam Ford: Soap operas and the history of fan discussion

Symposium

Dana L. Bode: And now, a word from the amateurs

Rebecca Lucy Busker: On symposia: LiveJournal and the shape of fannish discourse

Cathy Cupitt: Nothing but Net: When cultures collide

Bob Rehak: Fan labor audio feature introduction

Interview

TWC Editor: Interview with Henry Jenkins

Veruska Sabucco: Interview with Wu Ming

TWC Editor: Interview with the Audre Lorde of the Rings

Review

Mary Dalton: “Teen television: Essays on programming and fandom,” edited by Sharon Marie Ross and Louisa Ellen Stein

Eva Marie Taggart: “Fans: The mirror of consumption,” by Cornel Sandvoss

Katarina Maria Hjarpe: “Cyberspaces of their own,” by Rhiannon Bury

Barna William Donovan: “The new influencers,” by Paul Gillin

And here is the CFP for Issue 2:

Special Issue: Games as Transformative Works

Transformative Works and Cultures, Vol. 2 (Spring 2009)
Deadline: November 15, 2008
Guest Editor: Rebecca Carlson

Transformative Works and Cultures (TWC) invites essays on gaming and gaming culture as transformative work. We are interested in game studies in all its theoretical and practical breadth, but even more so in the way fan culture shapes itself around and through gaming interfaces. Potential topics include but are not limited to game audiences as fan cultures; anthropological approaches to game design and game engagement; on- and off-line game experiences; textual and cultural analysis of games; fan appropriations and manipulations of games; and intersections between games and other fan artifacts.
TWC is a new Open Access, international peer-reviewed online journal published by the Organization for Transformative Works. TWC aims to provide a publishing outlet that welcomes fan-related topics and to promote dialogue between the academic community and the fan community. The first issue of TWC (September 2008) is available at http://journal.transformativeworks.org/. TWC accepts rolling electronic submissions of full essays through its Web site, where full guidelines are provided. The final deadline for inclusion in the special games issue is November 15, 2008.
TWC encourages innovative works that situate popular media, fan communities, and transformative works within contemporary culture via a variety of critical approaches, including but not limited to feminism, queer theory, critical race studies, political economy, ethnography, reception theory, literary criticism, film studies, and media studies. Submissions should fit into one of three categories of varying scope:

Theory: These often interdisciplinary essays with a conceptual focus and a theoretical frame offer expansive interventions in the field of fan studies. Peer review. Length, 5,000-8,000 words plus a 100-250-word abstract.
Praxis: These essays may apply a specific theory to a formation or artifact; explicate fan practice; perform a detailed reading of a specific text; or otherwise relate transformative phenomena to social, literary, technological, and/or historical frameworks. Peer review. Length, 4,000-7,000 words plus a 100-250-word abstract.
Symposium: Symposium is a section of concise, thematically contained essays. These short pieces provide insight into current developments and debates surrounding any topic related to fandom or transformative media and cultures. Editorial review. Length, 1,500-2,500 words.
Submission information: http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/about/submissions

Science of Special Effects: Deadline Extended

Back in June I posted a CFP for The ‘Science’ of Special Effects: Aesthetic Approaches to Industry, a set of panels I’m helping organize for the upcoming conference Film & Science: Fictions, Documentaries, and Beyond in Chicago (October 30-November 2). My co-chair Michael Duffy and I have already received and accepted a number of great proposals covering topics from posthumous digital performances to visual effects in war films and the “obstructed spectacle” of Cloverfield — to name just a few. But there’s always room for more, and now that the deadline for proposals has been extended to September 1, we hope to see even more papers come in through the electronic transom. The area outline is below; submissions can be sent to me at brehak1@swarthmore.edu or Michael at michael.s.duffy@googlemail.com.

The ‘Science’ of Special Effects: Aesthetic Approaches to Industry

This area examines the industrial, technological, theoretical, and aesthetic questions surrounding special-effects technologies. Presenters may investigate historical changes in special and visual effects, as in the gradual switch from physical to digital applications; they may focus on the use of visual effects in film or television texts that do not fit into typically spectacle-driven genres (i.e., effects in drama, comedy, and musical narratives instead of in action-adventure, science fiction, or fantasy); they may consider the theoretical implications of special/visual effects and technology on texts; or they may concentrate on neglected historical and aesthetic values of effects development.

Possible papers or panels might include the following:

  • An investigation of the terms “Special Effect” and “Visual Effect,” what they constitute, and how their definitions have been delineated and complicated by changing technologies.
  • Special/visual effects “stars” such as Stan Winston, Douglas Trumbull, or Richard Edlund, and their impact on the construction and application of visual effects images for mainstream/non-mainstream cinema.
  • The changing relationship between visual effects technologies and pre-production, i.e. looking at “previz,” at the development of films “around” their effects sequences, or at the use of physical materials such as maquettes as templates for eventual CG elements.
  • How contemporary visual-effects practitioners negotiate and incorporate real world
    “physics” into their design of digital characters (“synthespians”) and environments.
  • How visual effects contribute to the formation of complete “environments” on screen, how they are incorporated into narratives, and how meaning is affected when a physical environment is entirely fabricated.
  • The implementation of special/visual effects by costume and motion-capture “artists” and actors, and how studies of these practices can offer insight into classic and contemporary working relationships between effects practitioners, actors and crew.
  • The Visual Effects Society and its impact on the industry and filmmaking throughout the organization’s history.
  • How directors or other creative personalities use physical and digital effects in their projects (e.g., Robert Zemeckis’s application of digital technologies or Guillermo Del Toro’s proclaimed interest in keeping a 50/50 balance between physical and digital effects).

Graphic Anniversary

I don’t often use this forum to comment on the act of blogging itself, but it seems worth noting that today marks the one-year anniversary of Graphic Engine — my very first post, on the 3D Imax screening of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, went up on July 26, 2007. Overall I’ve very much enjoyed the experience of keeping a blog, and have no plans to quit. That said, the commitment has turned out to be more stressful than I imagined; something about the constantly beckoning space of my WordPress dashboard converts every hour into a guilty idea-search, a constant quest for good stuff to write about.

My original goal was to put up new content at least twice a week, but — considering that this is only my 58th post — the actual rate has worked out to just over half that (1.1 posts/week). And for all the pleasure I draw from the sound of my own voice (as transcribed into screentext), the real joy has been the site’s visitors, a group of friends, colleagues, students, and strangers who have been generous enough to read and leave feedback for me in the comments section. I value you all, and hope you’ll continue to share your reactions in weeks and months to come.

Since no post would be complete without some item of graphical interest, I share with you a serendipitous discovery from this very afternoon. My wife and I were cleaning out a back room, getting it ready to house some guests who arrive tomorrow night. Moving an old wooden chest of drawers, we found a beautiful accident of a stain on the floor, so direct in its signification that something — an eldritch power from beyond the edge of time, perhaps, or the equally profound chaotic chemistry of trickling fluid and uneven tilage — must have authored it. Even better than the face of the Virgin Mary tattooed on a taco shell, what we found was the graven image of a dog: Katie says a chihuahua, but I maintain it’s a dachsund. In any case, the canine apparition appears below, by itself and in a two-shot with our good-hearted mutt Quincy [click to enlarge].

Thanks again for making Graphic Engine a stop on your itineraries through cyberspace!

CFP: The Science of Special Effects

There’s an exciting conference coming up this fall — Film & Science: Fictions, Documentaries, and Beyond, (October 30-November 2 at the Westin O’Hare Hotel in Chicago). I’m involved as an area chair on the topic of special and visual effects, sharing the honor with my friend and colleague Michael Duffy, whom I met in 2004 at a London conference on Eadweard Muybridge and spectacle. Since earning his doctorate at the University of Nottingham, Michael has returned to the U.S. and is an active and valued contributor to this blog. We share a passion for special visual effects and a strong interest in thinking “outside the box” about them; we hope the readers of Graphic Engine will be inspired to contribute a proposal for the Chicago gathering. Here’s our CFP:

The ‘Science’ of Special Effects: Aesthetic Approaches to Industry

This area examines the industrial, technological, theoretical, and aesthetic questions surrounding special-effects technologies. Presenters may investigate historical changes in special and visual effects, as in the gradual switch from physical to digital applications; they may focus on the use of visual effects in film or television texts that do not fit into typically spectacle-driven genres (i.e., effects in drama, comedy, and musical narratives instead of in action-adventure, science fiction, or fantasy); they may consider the theoretical implications of special/visual effects and technology on texts; or they may concentrate on neglected historical and aesthetic values of effects development.

Possible papers or panels might include the following:

  • An investigation of the terms “Special Effect” and “Visual Effect,” what they constitute, and how their definitions have been delineated and complicated by changing technologies.
  • Special/visual effects “stars” such as Stan Winston, Douglas Trumbull, or Richard Edlund, and their impact on the construction and application of visual effects images for mainstream/non-mainstream cinema.
  • The changing relationship between visual effects technologies and pre-production, i.e. looking at “previz,” at the development of films “around” their effects sequences, or at the use of physical materials such as maquettes as templates for eventual CG elements.
  • How contemporary visual-effects practitioners negotiate and incorporate real world “physics” into their design of digital characters (“synthespians”) and environments.
  • How visual effects contribute to the formation of complete “environments” on screen, how they are incorporated into narratives, and how meaning is affected when a physical environment is entirely fabricated.
  • The implementation of special/visual effects by costume and motion-capture “artists” and actors, and how studies of these practices can offer insight into classic and contemporary working relationships between effects practitioners, actors and crew.
  • The Visual Effects Society and its impact on the industry and filmmaking throughout the organization’s history.
  • How directors or other creative personalities use physical and digital effects in their projects (e.g., Robert Zemeckis’ application of digital technologies or Guillermo Del Toro’s proclaimed interest in keeping a 50/50 balance between physical and digital effects).

The deadline for proposals is August 1; send them to me at brehak1@swarthmore.edu or Michael at michael.s.duffy@googlemail.com. We’re also happy to kick around ideas, so even if you don’t have a completed paper, feel free to get in touch!

Gearing up for Santa Barbara

I leave in a few days for the Console-ing Passions conference in Santa Barbara. I’d be excited just because of the location (the conference concludes with a beach party, for gosh sakes) or the nature of the professional gathering itself, since I had a wonderful time at Console-ing Passions in New Orleans in 2004. But most of all I’m thrilled to be taking part in a workshop discussion that grew out of the gender-and-fandom debates hosted by Henry Jenkins last summer. My colleagues Julie Levin Russo (Brown University), Louisa Stein (San Diego State University), Sam Ford (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), and Suzanne Scott (University of Southern California) all participated in those male-female pairups, and we formulated the CP workshop as a space not just to present our own research, but engage in a dialogue about where that massive, months-long conversation has left us as fan scholars who confront issues of gender, power, privilege, and creativity

The workshop, which takes place Friday morning, is entitled Gendered Fan Labor in New Media and Old. Each of us will speak briefly about a current research interest or project, based on a text or media artifact that raises questions about creative media fandom in both its historical and contemporary dimensions and which focuses on gendered labor as an axis intersecting multiple concerns: taxonomies of fan practice, shifting economic relations between consumers and producers, questions of legitimacy and legality, the impact of new technologies, and the increasing visibility in popular, industrial, and academic discourses of heretofore marginal(ized) fan communities. Second, we hope to perform a kind of post-mortem on the summer’s debates: highlighting certain recurring themes, tendencies, and absences that structured the discourse, unpacking problematic areas, and reflecting both on what went well or badly in the past, and where we might productively go in the future. Here are the others’ projects, full versions of which are viewable on LiveJournal’s fandebate (thanks to Kristina Busse):

  • Julie Levin Russo, “The L Word: Labors of Love”
  • Sam Ford, “Outside the Target Demographic: Surplus Audiences in Wrestling and Soaps”
  • Suzanne Scott, “From Filking to Wrocking: The Rock Star/Groupie Dialectic in Harry Potter Wizard Rock”
  • Louisa Stein, “Vidding as Cultural Narrative”

My own project, “Boys, Blueprints, and Boundaries: Star Trek‘s Hardware Fandom,” examines a subset of Trek fandom that devotes itself to the literal mapping of Trek‘s canonical universe and recreating in material form its diegesis through activities such as the drafting of episode guides and concordances, the manufacture of costumes, props, and model kits, and the making of technical manuals and blueprints. The first paragraph is quoted below; you can also read the full (short) paper at LiveJournal. Comments on the project welcomed and appreciated!

The recent legal dispute between J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter novels, and Steven Vander Ark, a Michigan librarian who has compiled an internet guide to the Harry Potter “universe,” raises many interesting questions about copyright, authorial power, and what might be called a double standard of contemporary media production in which potentially infringing online publication is tolerated, even welcomed, by copyright holders, while the equivalent publication in print form is energetically resisted. But viewed through the lenses of fandom and gender, the Rowling / Vander Ark case illuminates another and much older conundrum, consisting of a linked pair of problematic binaries. On one hand, there is the contrast between fan-produced materials which creatively transform an original work (like fanfic, slash, vidding, filksongs, and artwork) and those which “merely” document, map, or archive the original work (like concordances, episode guides, blueprints, and technical manuals). On the other hand, there is the apparent gender split between the traditionally female fans who produce work considered to be transformative, and male fans whose productivity tends instead toward the technical and archival. The relationship between male fans and what I will call “blueprint culture” is the subject of this short paper, in which I consider gendered fan labor as it is manifested in fantasy and history; ways of rethinking this labor as creative and transformative; and current trends that reflect the growing impact of blueprint culture in both industrial and academic domains.

Spring Break

You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t been posting as frequently in recent weeks. It’s not for lack of desire or interesting things to talk about; I’ve just found my to-do lists growing lengthier rather than shorter, and the accumulation of projects and obligations is taking its toll.

Hence, Graphic Engine will be going on temporary hiatus as I turn my attention to several areas of work that need attention before the end of spring semester. I plan to be back soon, however, so watch this space! And in the meantime, take care.