Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Of Screen, Glasgow and Gortex

Martin O'Shaughnessy reports back from the (very rainy) annual Screen Conference in Glasgow.

I went up to Glasgow last week for the Screen Studies conference. which takes its name from the seminal journal Screen. Screen was at its height of fame / notoriety back in the 1970s when, drawing on a powerful, heady and often tyrannical mix of Althusserian Marxism and Freudian psychoanalysis, it was right at the cutting edge of screen theorising. It is now celebrating its fiftieth anniversary and has just brought out a special number that maps out where screen theorising is today. Working in the same vein, this year’s conference sought to map where screen theorising has come from and where it needs to go. Conference plenaries delivered by conference luminaries tended to emphasise the ‘coming from’ angle and looked back to the intense, heady days of the seventies with a mixture of relief that it was over and a sense of nostalgia for its lost passion, excitement and political radicalism. Conference panels, of which there were many this year (meaning one missed much more than one heard) were more likely to look at the contemporary period. The panels helped the conference open up to screen theorising and not simply Screen Theory while taking it away from a narrowly UK-centred understanding of screen studies (I heard, for example, a very good panel on African screens).

A conference is a multi-bodied, multi-voiced beast so that what was said in it always defies easy summation. One insistent note that did emerge however was a sense that the object of screen studies had changed so profoundly over the years that we were no longer sure what we should be looking at or how. Screen had once existed in a world where cinema studies was only an emerging discipline and where television struggled to achieve recognition as a worthy object of study. Now the talk is more likely to be of the ‘death’ of cinema and the demise of television as a core national entertainment with a mass and sometimes family audience. Faced with the proliferation of screens big and small, the multiplicity of TV channels, the fragmentation of audiences, the dematerialisation of the digital image and the diversification of viewing practices, it is no longer clear what we should study or how. Can those of us who teach film and television even know any more what our students might be watching and what grounds we can meet them on? One way to respond to this frighteningly shifting terrain is clearly nostalgia: nostalgia for the old concentrated communion between film spectator and sacred cinematic texts; nostalgia for the days when the nation sat in front of Dennis Potter or Coronation Street; nostalgia for the solid materiality of the cinematic image and its indexical relationship to the real. But nostalgia doesn’t take you very far. The past is best used as a resource for comparison and critical distance rather than as a place of retreat.

Glasgow, when we arrived, was in the midst of a deluge, as the Scottish clouds perhaps shed tears for Andy Murray’s sad, semi-final defeat. It was then that my trusty blue Gortex, not as old as Screen, but more useful in a rainstorm, came to my rescue, keeping me dry from the knees up. I was nonetheless drenched from the knees down. Should I confess that my first act on arriving at the conference was to retreat to the bathroom to try to dry my trouser bottoms with the hand dryer? Thankfully no-one came in while I was doing this. Trying to explain to an eager conference goer why you are standing on one leg in the washroom is not the easiest thing to do. Explaining Screen theory, on balance, is probably easier (and much dryer).

(Photo credit: garybirnie; permissions)

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