Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Reading Day

Today, Reader’s Mine, is Reading Day, the day before exam week begins where there are no classes and students have the opportunity to catch up on sleep and study for the upcoming final sprint. I celebrated Reading Day by sleeping very late, lingering over a couple of cups of good dark-roast coffee, and getting my head straight for the tasks ahead. There are two relatively minor essays to be written today and then I’ll be hitting the notes from Russian History until 1900, and beginning my review for my Latin exam Monday. It’s been a good semester; though with unexpected surgery to replace my ICD and the PCA/ACA conference, I’ve managed in some areas to miss fully two weeks of class here in the second half. Fortunately, my profs have all been very understanding and completely willing to cooperate (and it doesn’t hurt that I’m a pretty good student, if I do say so myself). Nonetheless, that’s made the last few weeks something of a crunch, and I have e-mails of notes from very kind friends and professors which I haven’t even looked at yet for being up to my eyeballs in various papers.

All of which is to say that, for today, I’m taking a break from the review of PCA/ACA, and hitting the books. Look for the conference wrap-up in the next day or so, and probably a rambling screed on H. Beam Piper after that, and then… well, who the hell knows? Stick around and find out!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

PCA/ACA Conference Day 3

Well Readers Mine, today is the day when my guest post goes up on The Great Buffy Rewatch over at Nik at Nite, so hopefully some of you reading this are new to Solomon Mao’s. If so, welcome. Basically, this is the place where I post at least semi-regular notes on books, movies, TV, popular culture, politics, academia, conferences, higher education, and occasionally other URS*. I also tend to shill for the various blogs you see under Solomon’s Blogs to the lower left, and for friends and authors doing good work across the media spectrum. There’s also a bit of construction going on around here, so please excuse any sudden format changes, I’ll try and quit messing with things shortly. So, come often, read a bit, visit some of the other writers linked, and feel free to drop a comment or two if you get the urge.

We now return to our blog-in-progress covering recent adventures at the Popular Culture/American Culture Association national conference in San Antonio, Texas:

Friday was a short day for me, conference-wise. As usual, I was up and ready to face the world by 11:30 with the Life and Works of Jack London panel. Here George Adams took us into the deep end immediately with a look at what London concealed and revealed in his John Barleycorn. I have to admit to being a bit snowed under by specialized vocabulary with this one, but the gist I got from Adams was really good. He posits that London practiced the fine art of avoidance in his “Alcoholic Memoir,” rather than simple deception or denial. Thus in reading this and similar autobiographical works, the reader must pay close attention to what is mentioned in order to note what is carefully being not mentioned. Next up was Michael Martin, who gave a thoroughly enlightening and enjoyable paper on Jack London as the premiere, and usually uncredited, American road novelist, drawing on The Cruise of the Snark and The Road to demonstrate London’s mastery of this perhaps quintessentially American form, and even giving us Ernest Darling as a kind of early 20th century Dean Moriarty/Neal Cassady. Great work there, and a lot of fun. The next presenter, and Jack London Area Chair Jay Williams, examined London’s young adult fiction published in the magazine Youth’s Companion from June of 1899 to February of 1903. The magazine was chartered as a vehicle to encourage and help instill “industry, thrift, and upright Christian living and family,” and Williams posits that London’s sea stories unintentionally subverted the magazine’s mission statement by extolling travel, adventure, and a life apart from the traditional family structure. He also points out that the youth market was important for allowing London to experiment generically during this early part of his career, giving him the opportunity to stretch as a writer. I really loved this panel. It was somehow exciting and comforting to be among a group of scholars who are so passionate about London and his works. He is an author too often ignored, to our detriment.

I skipped the 1:15 panels in order to grab some lunch and take care of another important piece of conference business: buying books. Various academic publishers always show up at conferences, setting up tables of their books and usually offering pretty generous discounts, which is great because even the cross-over presses (i.e. presses which sell to a wider market than just schools and libraries, i.e. most of them these days) do limited runs, making a trade-paperback size book run anywhere from $25 - $40, and the hard covers even more. So I always try and pick up a pile of books when I’m at a conference. Okay, so this is a lie. I’m a bibliophile, so I always try to pick up a pile of books. Period. End of statement. True to form I found some great titles, and had a thoroughly good time doing so and chatting with the various reps from the publishers. I don’t have the books here in front of me however, having sent them back to the house with Mockingbird after we got home so as not to be distracted during this last week of school and exams. But fear not, Readers Mine, you’ll be seeing them in one or another o my regular my regular reading posts here as I crack them one by one.

Refreshed and gloating over my new acquisitions, I headed to the 3:00 panel on H. P. Lovecraft: New Perspectives. Great panel. The session began with a look at arctic places as liminal spaces by Jasie Stokes, who traced the use of such places through Mary Shelly, Edgar Allen Poe, and of course, Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. Stokes theorizes that each author’s treatment of the arctic and Antarctic reflects how they and their society viewed science. For Shelly, science would undoubtedly take us in new directions and change the world, but how and to what ends? Hers was a largely pro-scientific view, but also advocated for restraining scientific investigation and exploration to safe areas. Poe, on the other hand encourages bolder exploration of unknown spaces, in spite of – or perhaps because of – the fear such unknown places evokes in us. Finally Lovecraft, though a life-long admirer and proponent of science and scientific endeavor, has the most profoundly anti-science stance of them all, the horrors of the Antarctic mountains being so terrible as to drive his protagonist, an explorer extraordinaire, to devote himself to putting an absolute end to all further exploration of the continent. There was a lot in this paper and Stokes got the audience churning with all of the possibilities in her approach. Next Connie Lippert took a deep dive into intertextuality in Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, a fictional tome containing forbidden knowledge that even reading it is an invitation to madness. Lovecraft encouraged the sharing of his work and his worlds, and the phenomena of the Necronomicon has continued to grow not merely in works of fiction (think the Evil Dead trilogy, among others), but to manifest itself in several versions and editions purporting to be the true lost grimoire, at least one of which is actually used as a book of spells and rituals by groups practicing “chaos magic” in the real world. (Or at least in the physical world. How real these folks’ worlds are remains open to debate.) Brilliant paper that is almost infinitely expandable. Lovecraft is intertextuality writ large, crossing from horror to fantasy to science fiction to mystery to film to television, and back and forth from all of them again. Finally, Carl Sederholm called for a wider scholarship on Lovecraft, beyond biography and examinations of single works, to an approach to Lovecraft’s body of work as a whole, and used an examination of Lovecraft’s views on sex to demonstrate. See, Lovecraft doesn’t do sex, except in the most negative way (“pulsing, dripping monstrosities”). He seems to have had a philosophical objection to it as something bestial, and beneath the notice of true human beings. Sederholm just gave a brief glimpse of the possibilities inherent in this subject, and I hope that others will follow and take up his call for a wider scholarship.

After this panel broke, up it was time for a late lunch/early dinner with a whole passel of friends, when some 25 of us descended en masse upon a nearby Italian restaurant and gave the staff something to do during the afternoon lull. The meal was good, and the company better as Mockingbird and I met and got acquainted with a couple of new friends, Dominick Grace and Lisa Macklem who had presented on Steven King and Supernatural, respectively. Unfortunately, I didn't get to see either presentation, but after meeting them, I certainly wish I had, and will certainly be looking out for future opportunities to hear them both. A good time and lots of carbs were had by all. Then Readers Mine, I was forced to retreat to the hotel room where I spent the next four hours grudgingly working away on an historiographical essay for my Russian history class. It was the biggest assignment for that class this semester, and with the conference falling at the end of the term, I knew I’d have to buckle down and bust it out eventually, which I did, pouting all the while because I was missing the showing and sing-along of Joss Whedon’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. I was cruelly separated from my people by the tyrannical demands of higher education!!! Woe! WOE, I SAY!!

Oh well. “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do” after all.

*Utterly Random Shit.

Sunday, April 24, 2011


I’ve fallen a couple of days behind in my conference posting, Readers Mine, but once you read the next couple of posts, you’ll understand how a fella could get a bit distracted.

Day two of the PCA/ACA national conference began at the crack of 9:30, so we could make it to an 11:30 panel called Civil War and Reconstruction: Images of the War: Photography, Iconography, and Cultural Tradition. This was a big one on my list, having just spent a semester delving into the craft of using photographs as historical evidence and writing a term-paper on a series of photos taken by Timothy O’Sullivan during the war. I was not disappointed. Jennifer Lynn Gross started things off with “Confederate Widows: Icons of the South,” in which she examined the strange cultural phenomenon after the war where the widows of Confederate general-officers became something like professional widows, and saw themselves as owners of their husband’s stories. These remarkable women were responsible for writing their husbands memoirs, founding the Daughters of the Confederacy, and taking an active role in what would become known as the Lost Cause presentation o Southern history. Next James Lundberg took a different look at the times surrounding the war with “Picturing Manhood, Picturing War: Photography and Facial Hair in the American Civil War.” Lundberg became fascinated with the truly incredible facial hair sported by American men in this period, and proposes that the reason may not stem from years of camp life and missed opportunities to shave during the war, but may well have been at least partially the result of photography itself. The primitive technology tended to wash out a clean-shaven face, the bright light required for photography often erasing subtle facial structures. Structures which were enhanced and given more shape and shadow by, you guessed it, moustaches, beards, goatees, sideburns, and soul-patches of every possible description. A really well researched, fun paper. Finally, Pamela Venz wound the panel up with “Survivors in Silver: Photography’s Relationship with American Civil War Medicine.” Venz focused on the attempt by photographers, newspapers, and the Army to show the modern, clean, and up to date medical care the troops were receiving both at the front and in hospitals back home. Of course, such photographs were all highly composed and carefully staged, but their very existence reveals the concern with the availability of medical care for the Union soldiers.

From the Civil War we proceeded to fan studies for the panel entitled “Fan Culture and Theory: Reimagining Convergence.” this turned out to be a really interesting panel. First, Lincoln Geraghty spoke about the strange transformation of collectables, from action-figures to autographed photos of favorite series actors, into objects of memory in the hands of their possessors, showing how a collectible figure purchased at, say, Comic Con, becomes not merely evidence of one’s pleasure in the show or comic or whatever represented by the figure, but also a key to memory of Comic Con itself, and moving from the commercial to the purely personal. Then the incomparable Tanya Cochran delivered a stunning presentation, “’Past the Brink of Tacit Support’: Fan Activism in the Whedonverses.” Suffice it to say that Joss Whedon and his fans provide a really fascinating example of a fan base that practices activism well beyond the realm of “save our favorite show,” and into the realms of real-world political, social, and cultural activism. There’s a story to how this activism began, but Mockingbird’s Nest has it better than I could put it, so follow the link. Cochran is working on a book focusing on this fan activism, and from her presentation, it’s going to be a must read. To wrap things up, Stephen Andon talked about a different, but equally dedicated type of fan activism. With “Sports Apparel DIYers: Circumventing Corporate Authority and Subverting Hypermasculinity in Sports Fandom,” Andon presented the audience with a look at a group of dedicated fans, particularly baseball and American football fans, who spend enormous amounts of time, energy, and effort to hand-make their own jerseys. In these hyper-regulated sports where the NFL will land on you like a ton of bricks if you try and sell merchandise and aren’t Nike or Adidas/Reebok, individual fans are making unique, high-quality gear for their personal use and thus avoiding the corporations that “own” the teams, merchandising rights, etc. We’re talking about very manly-men taking the time to learn to sew like professional tailors, and whose attention to detail is incredible. These men take great pride in their work, and may be using it as a way to claim their own “ownership” of the teams they love so much. Good stuff.

At 3:00, I ate, rested, and reviewed my paper, “’No Half Measures’: Violentization and Emotional Realism in Breaking Bad” which I presented in the 4:45 session.

My co-presenter (our third didn’t make it) was Carlen Lavigne, who’s “Two Men and a Moustache: Masculinity, Nostalgia, and Bromance in The Good Guys” gave us a look at a show that had an all too brief run and which I had honestly never heard of. Lavigne delved into how the show played with nostalgia for 1980’s cop-shows, riffed off of modern conceptions of the “sensitive man” and connected with the long history of buddy films and television shows in the US. Excellent paper that made me want to watch the show. My presentation went well too. I was using Lonnie Athens’ theory of violentization to illuminate the characters of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad and how such a realistic portrayal of violence creates a level of emotional realism that draws the viewer into the show and evokes a feeling of emotional complicity in the violence portrayed. I was very pleased with the Q&A session afterward, where the questions were excited, probing, intelligent, and let me know that the audience were definitely wanting to hear more. I left floating about 6 inches off the floor. Good day!

Finally, we took in the 6: 30 session The Works of Joss Whedon: teaching, Translating, and Tracing Symbol in Whedon’s Buffy. Jeffrey Bussolini led things off with a funny and intriguing look at how Buffy is dubbed into French and Italian. It turns out that the Italians do a better job with all the various “Buffy-isms,” colloquialisms, and oddities than do the French, though both seem in desperate need of Oreo cookies, as the cookies popular in Europe have chocolate on the inside and vanilla or something on the outside, and thus mangle one of Willow’s better jokes. Next Nikki Fuller gave a Campbellian reading of Buffy with her “Death and Sacrifice: Season 5 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” examining in particular the episodes “The Body” and “The Gift” and the gang’s forced confrontation with the facts of death and life, sacrifice and loss. It was a brilliant, poignant presentation, and a nice look at Buffy’s particular hero’s journey. Finally, Erin Waggoner approached Buffy in the classroom directly, looking at visual rhetoric in “Hush,” where the town is struck silent by the uber-creepy Gentlemen, and everyone must figure out non-verbal ways to communicate, and where the audience and cast/crew of the show much communicate non-verbally as well. It is a reminder of how we really do speak to one another, even when using all of those troublesome words.

After that, Mock’ and I decided that it was time for some TexMex, and so strolled down San Antonio’s beautiful riverwalk until we found the Lone Star Café, where we snarfed down huge plates of enchiladas smothered in cheese, gravy and with sides of real, fresh, refried beans. To top it off we retreated to an upper-level ice cream parlor and sat on the balcony watching the people and river go by as we cooled down with some cold sweets. Which was (and is) pretty much a perfect ending to a fine Texas day!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

PCA/ACA National Conference, Day 1

Day one of the PCA/ACA national conference dawned groggily, or maybe that was just me. I tend to forget how travel, nowadays stripped completely of any remaining glamour it once had, can just wear you out. Fortunately, the conference didn’t get rolling until 11:30, and I didn’t get rolling until 3:00 well after a big-ass omelet smothered in salsa and a nap.

The first panel for me was Critical Approaches to Mystery Science Theater 3000 I, a subject both Mockingbird and I are highly interested in, as we own every MST3K box set save three, and most of the stand-alone DVDs. Diving into the deep end, we were treated to examinations of MST3K as metafilm by Nathan Shank, as postmodern meditation on technophobia and technophilia by Kevin Donnelly, and as cinematic palimpsest a la Bakhtin’s theory of heteroglossia by Ben Wetherbee. All three of these scholars are young and if these presentations are any indicator, you can probably expect to hear more from them.

Net up it was homecoming with the Whedonites for Fans, Time, and History in Whedon. Alyson Buckman led off by examining the characters and Serenity herself through the lens of Bakhtin’s chronotope, where time, place, and genre interact to create the narrative flow, and especially the idea that we make our place and out place makes us. (I have a feeling I need to read Bakhtin.) Next up Susan Fanetti gave us a looking inside the Whedon community on the interwebs, via an examination of the community’s reaction’s to bloggers taking on either rewatches or first time viewings of Buffy and/or Angel, and the conversation between fans and the blogger(s). To finish up the panel, K. Dale Koontz went intertextual and showed how The X-Men inspired Whedon and eventually, through Kitty Pryde, helped give birth to Buffy Summers, and how Whedon, in turn paid homage to his past and the work of Chris Claremont in his run later on Astonishing X-Men. The audience, myself included, was completely enthralled (and I’m not just saying that because I’m lucky enough to be married to the woman. She had ‘em all hooked good.)

Finally (and to be honest, my notes for this panel are sketchy because Solomon was beginning to fade by this point), we took in another Whedon panel, this one on Power and Whedon where first, Mae Mendoza asked whether Firefly and Serenity actually portray a society in which the U. S. and China have merged politically and culturally, or is just a mash-up of Asian techno-culture as constructed by the West. Whedon doesn’t come out so good in this one. For all the random Mandarin phrases dropped into conversation, there just aren’t really any Asians in the ‘verse. Next, the incomparable Sherry Ginn took a look at aggression and violence in Firefly. Sherry always seems to be digging into the most interesting psychological spaces and this presentation was no different. Then came a truly exciting look at Whedon’s Dollhouse by Samira Nadkarni, who used the golem myth and its evolutions (think Frankenstein) to interpret Whedon’s “actives” who come to life only after being infused with the personality (spirit) needed for their current job. Wonderful!

After that, my brain being full of new ideas, and my body weary, it was time for a long, conversation and laughter filled dinner with Mock’ and old friends, and then to bed, so we can get back to it today.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

"The Stars at Night...."

I seem to be starting off each of these posts with an apology lately, so from now on when it has been a while between posts here, just take the apology as read and move on.

It’s crunch time in the Land of Academia, with an historiographical essay, an essay on St. Augustine’s Confessions, the usual homework, exams within 9 days, et cetera (literally “and the rest; the remainder”). First up, though, there’s the Popular Culture and American Culture Association national conference!

Yep, this here blog is being written from the great state of Texas, which Mockingbird and I flew into around noon local time, landing in the truly wonderful city of San Antonio. Everyone who’s been raving to me about the city over the past few months has been proven right, and it looks like things are lining up to be an absolute blast. Oh sure, I have three papers of varying length to work on while I’m here, but that still leaves plenty of hours for conference fun. The main problem facing us now is the sheer number of sessions to choose from. Seriously, Readers Mine, the frakkin’ program comes in at 468 pages in length!

So far I’ve managed to figure out my plan of attack for Wednesday and Thursday, with a few must-see sessions scoped for Friday and Saturday. This week, I’ll get to hear papers on Mystery Science Theater 3000, Fringe, Jack London, H. P. Lovecraft, Civil War photographs, how to get a job out of graduate school, Breaking Bad, and, of course, Joss Whedon. Lots and lots of Whedon as I catch up with some of my favorite folks (who also happen to be some of the smartest people you’ll ever meet) from Slayage, PCA/ACA South, and that’s just a starting point, being the subjects I spent a couple of hours highlighting in my program this evening.

As for my own doings, I’m presenting a paper called “’No Half Measures’: Violentization and Emotional Realism in Breaking Bad” somewhere between 4:45 and 6pm local time on Thursday. One of my fellow panelists is also presenting on Breaking Bad, but as far as I can tell we’re the only two out of some 3000 presenters, which means (hopefully) that we’ve got an opportunity to shine and do some original work. We’ll see. In any event, Mock’ and I are in a kind of academic-geek heaven for the next few days, and are determined to enjoy it. (She is presenting in the same time slot as I am, but a day earlier, a paper entitled “Pryde and Prejudice: the Origins of Buffy in The X-Men,” and believe me when I tell you, she’s done some absolutely incredible work, as usual.)

So, I’ll try and throw up some posts throughout the week, but no promises. There’s much to do here at the Alamo, after all.