Madison Rehashed


I’m leaving Madison today, after a few days of nostalgic rushes and chances to catch up with a range of friends, old and new. I haven’t been back to Madison for 8 years, and while much has changed, I still felt like all the faces I saw on the street were familiar. The basic Madison type hasn’t changed…

My dual missions had mixed success. My trip to the archive yielded no smoking guns, but a few scattered bits of evidence about how the TV industry and creators tried to incorporate seriality into primetime programs. The highlight of the archival trip was a chance to hear the Bat Masterson theme song – very catchy.

The Society for Cognitive Study of the Moving Image was not the conference I anticipated it to be. My own exposure to, and interest in, cognitive film studies is through the work of David Bordwell, one of my graduate mentors. I would characterize David’s work in this area as “cognitive poetics,” focused on how the artistic choices made in films intersects with our understanding of mental processes – how does perception, memory, reasoning, etc. help explain the poetics of film? Alas, this approach to cognitive film studies was not the dominant one in the papers I saw (although I’ve been told that I missed a few good ones that would have matched my interests more fully). András Bálint Kovács gave an interesting account of different levels of narrative causation that viewers perceive in films, and Stephen Prince outlined the ways that digital effects are changing the conceptual categories of film form (such as the “long take”) in novel ways. The best paper I saw was Michael Newman‘s historical exploration of the ways “attention span” has been framed in relation to media, especially children’s TV and Sesame Street, and how different media at various times can be understood to offer a dominant “cognitive style” of engagement – hopefully he’ll blog it, as it’s a great project.

The two more prevalent threads at SCSMI, judging by both the papers I attended and those I chose not to, were less directly relevant to my interests and academic tastes. One mode of research was explicitly empiricist, using laboratory experiments to measure viewer perception and cognition of films and television. I’m not opposed to this research, as long as results are properly contextualized and caveat-ed (which those I saw were). But the research questions that such scholars were asking just weren’t particularly compelling to me – if anyone had been researching questions about long-term recall in serial narrative, or comparative comprehension between first and subsequent viewings of a text, I’d be much more interested. Alas, the questions about visual perception that scholars like Tim Smith were exploring just doesn’t pique my interest.

The other thread of study was more problematic – it seemed that at least half of the papers were focused on the philosophy of film, steeped in the tradition of analytic philosophy. I find such work ultimately quite problematic, as it seems to aim toward divining airtight definitions of concepts in the abstract, rather than grounded in their historical instances. Throughout such papers, it seemed like scholars were more interested in disproving previous claims than making their own accounts that offer much explanatory power about film or media. While I’ve become more methodologically eclectic and inclusive than during my Madison years, I still have a hard time seeing the use in restrictive and ahistorical definitions of concepts that are much more fuzzy, contingent, and shifting in actual practice.

My own presentation went quite well, with a receptive audience that did not bristle at me as an interloper forcing them to watch television! I didn’t get the constructive feedback I’d most wanted – someone pointing me to cognitive work that explicitly tackles questions of narrative memory – but it was definitely nice to receive positive and productive reactions. My slides are below, although the clips are reduced to stills. Someday I’ll be posting a version of this work with embedded video, but that’s for another episode…

2 Responses to “Madison Rehashed”

  1. 1 Ted Nannicelli

    Dear Jason,

    I wanted to introduce myself at the conference, but did not get the chance. I wanted to say that I really enjoyed your paper and after hearing about this blog just checked it out and found your May 27 essay on the The Wire, which I found intriguing (although not particularly compelling because I don’t know much about video games or game theory). However, I wanted to touch base with you about generating a critical mass for some sort of on-going or more formal academic discussion about The Wire–a conference or special journal issue somewhere, perhaps? I am so surprised that there isn’t more academic discourse around the show (or maybe I’m not looking in the right places).


  1. 1 Previously On: Prime Time Serials and the Mechanics of Memory « Just TV

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