51st Conference of the French Association for American Studies
University of Nantes
May 22 - 24, 2019
We are organizing one (or two depending on the number of proposals) panels around the theme‘An undisciplined discipline: challenges of Pop Cultural Studies’ which is itself part of the 51st Conference of the French Association for American Studies, centered this year around the notions discipline/indiscipline. The conference will be held from May 22 to May 24 at the University of Nantes in France. In order to participate, panelists will have to become members of the Association (50euros) and will also need to enroll for the conference (an additional 40euros). If you need any more information feel free to send an email to Charles JOSEPH (firstname.lastname@example.org). Proposals should be sent before February 28.
Over the past decades, more scrutiny and attention have been given to pop culture objects and they are now considered valuable research objects in the field of American studies, pop culture is apprehended through and associated to the broader terminology of cultural studies. Yet when it comes to cultural studies as a branch of research, the notion of discipline is crucial, mostly because intersectionality is at the core of what it stands for. Even more so, the field of research itself has been challenged by the rise of popular culture studies departments that have appeared in now several American universities, complexifying that much more a field of research that, in essence, should appear as more unified. It is interesting to note that very few theoretical writings are devoted to the field of popular culture studies, and the MPCA/ACA organization itself remains also somewhat cryptic as to the challenges and endeavors it needs to address. While popular culture studies are often described as a merger of cultural studies and communication studies, thus now opposing cultural studies and popular culture studies, it could also very well be argued that this theoretical distinction should not exist. Indeed, the excessive segmentation of American research, supported by the needs of universities to have their own specificities in order to remain competitive seems to have contaminated cultural studies.
As argued by John Fiske in his essay “The Culture of Everyday Life,” “cultural studies has always been concerned to examine critically and to restructure the relationship between dominant and subordinated cultures; interrogating the relationship between academy and the rest of the social order” (Grossberg, 164). Arguing for popular culture studies would thus deny how cultural studies as a whole, has evolved gradually, generating new theoretical tools that did not ignore their filiation to cultural studies as the aptly entitled collective volume of Vicki Mayer, Miranda Banks & John Thornton Caldwell Production Studies: Cultural Studies of Media Industries. The semiotics and hermeneutics of popular culture objects and their production processes, marketing strategies, systemic franchising and reception have always been at the heart of cultural studies, and asserting that popular culture studies is a result of a combination of communication and cultural studies simply denies their common ancestry as well as their ongoing common goals.
Requiring popular culture studies to be recognized stems from a need for pop culture objects to be deemed worthy of academic interest. The fact that the key notion of ‘popular’ is absent from the very name of the field of research dedicated to its analysis could be one of the reasons which precipitated the emergence of these new departments. However, cultural studies is not dead, nor has it been overgrown or supplanted by popular culture studies theoretical works. In his 2005 concluding remarks to Cultural Studies, Simon During observed that cultural studies “is a globalizing academic field with a strong commitment to maintaining differences between communities and cultures on the grounds that the transnational imposition of common interests, values, styles, etc. is a mode f hegemony” (During, 214) thus leaving enough space for any new approach to emerge. According to him, cultural studies is not without contradictions, loose ends or frictions, but for During, “this is not to be thought of as a crippling problem or failure but rather as what energises the discipline, what keeps it fresh, exciting, open to the future.” (During, 214) As a result, instead of opposing cultural studies and popular culture studies as two faces of the same coin, shouldn’t we advocate for pop cultural studies, thus legitimizing pop culture objects of research while carrying forward the legacy of a vastly rich and ongoing theoretical background?
Because cultural studies are at the crossroads of several fields of research and are grounded in transdisciplinarity might explain why defining precisely such a discipline has often proven to be unsatisfying. Because the field of research has never ceased to densify, it could also be one of the reasons which prompted new disciplines emerge. Not only has the discipline itself sparked the emergence of many different fields of research such as film studies, TV series studies, comics studies, music studies, fan studies etc. but it also has, because of its inherent diversity, an amorphous approach towards its many objects, adapting its theoretical framework depending of the cultural object selected. Borrowing sometimes from literature, often from history, regularly from other fields such as sociology, semiology, philosophy or ethnology, the theoretical background for a pop cultural studies field of research seems to be restless. But these constant shifts regarding what should be considered the backbone of the discipline could be perceived as twofold: on the one hand it might indicate for some the wealth brought by these intellectual challenges; while for others, this lack of stability might point to the fact that pop cultural studies are not an actual discipline.
Thus, questioning what the discipline of pop cultural studies is aiming at and stands for in 2018 challenges its very identity but also its relationship or even parenthood to other fields that it sometimes aggregates with or encompasses, to create something new. Hence the discipline itself needs to be addressed and updated as ever-changing, rooted in multi-, cross-, inter- and transdisciplinary dynamics, making of its undisciplined quality its first defining element. As argued by John Storey in Culture and Power in Cultural Studies, in order to academically apprehend pop culture objects, “cultural studies has gradually come to define culture as the production, circulation and consumption of meanings” (Storey, 10). But for those meanings – whether of the pop culture object itself and/or of its reception process and results – to be deciphered and analyzed, different theoretical prisms have sometimes to be built.
Moreover, or precisely because of this specificity, analyzing pop culture objects is also the locus to question normativity and the power of discipline, a notion that compels culture and the arts to correspond to a norm, or to imprison diversity with labels. Such is the case for instance by opposing high to low culture (what Herbert Gans calls taste cultures), pop music to opera, or hard science to soft science, etc. But pop culture objects can be read on many different levels to accommodate the greatest number and as such, they are precisely a mixture of different elements of society. As argued by Storey, “we cannot think of culture as a realized signifying system, as something that happens after reality has occurred, because it is through culture, as a realized signifying system, that the reality of ourselves, the reality of our society, is constituted and contested – and always entangled in relations of culture and power.” (Storey, 10) Because pop culture is a reaction to people’s perception of themselves and their own reality, it will always need to be apprehended according to theoretical frameworks that will need to be adapted to these objects and their place and time of emergence. Because pop culture is undisciplined in its essence, pop cultural studies needs to integrate a similar characteristic, while trying to maintain academic credibility.
Pop culture productions would thus question this segmentation, as well as representation of society through their diversity and their ability to mix different arts and mediums. Maybe there is no limit to what popular culture can do, precisely because there is no specific definition for the field of research that it is intimately linked with. Popular culture is defined by its lack of discipline, or more likely by its undisciplined nature which makes it what it is: an exponential object that questions society in its impaired functioning by showing how disruptive and ill it may be or become (through novels, comics, TV shows, games, etc.). It can also be used by or use the system it is based on (a capitalist economy) and thus reproduce sameness to sell a lot, or make only a few copies to sell them at a very expensive price. Bansky’s latest coup is a good example: shredding his “street art painting” to pieces when it was sold at an auction was meant to criticize the art market and show how ephemeral art and money are, but at the same time, the event increased the value of the work of art by making it even more unique (half shredded). Thus, pop culture works of art are meaningful not only because of what they say, show, deal with, but also by their very belonging to an economy they cannot seem to escape, even less so subvert.
The papers could thus be related either to the theoretical aspects of “discipline-indiscipline-no discipline” aspects of pop cultural studies, or/and to the contents of pop culture objects as they criticize “law and order”, “normativity”, “self-constraint”, etc. or when they advocate an absence of rules, a liberty to play with them, etc.
Papers can deal with, but are not limited to:
- science-fiction (“The Handmaid’s Tale” or “Westworld” for instance when it comes to the very notion of discipline and indiscipline imposed upon a society, or on some groups of people; etc.), fantasy, horror (“Halloween”, etc.), adventure (“Black Sails”)
- comics (“Sin City”, “My So-Called Secret Identity”, “Deadpool”, etc.)
- games (video-games, Table top RPG with games to be played by the rule or the new forms asking for an emancipation from any rules and giving players the freedom to invent the story)
- street art (now used to ornate city walls, but also street art to criticize society)
- music (punk, rap, …. How music has been created and used through time to go against or to break free from)
- sports (where self-discipline is necessary but where people can also express their indiscipline towards social problems, such as American football player Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem to protest against police brutality, etc.)
- literature (exploding the way novels are written or were written (blank pages, words that form a drawing, deconstructed sentences, Newspeak, etc.))
- Collectibles & franchising consumerism
- Transmedia narratives (Buffy seasons 8 to 11 in comic books, Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales, etc.)
- Competing trends in pop culture
- Social media & pop culture (as means of transmission, expression, art or consumption, etc.)
In a transdisciplinary perspective, the workshop is open to all approaches which may further the understanding of these questions. Proposals (from 300 to 500 words approximately) may put forward different fields of study and theoretical frameworks and approaches.