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Observations from SWTXPCA/ACA

An Englishman in New Mexico
Observations from the Southwest/Texas Popular Culture and American Culture Association 31st Annual Meeting, 10th - 13th February 2010.

Dean Conrad

When conferences convene there is always a danger that the affair will resolve either to mutual affirmation or, at best, a polite bun-fight. Subject-specific dialogue can be valuable, but the self-referential recycling of information, and the display of a subject posturing at itself, can be less so. The annual meeting of the Southwest and Texas chapter of the Popular Culture and American Culture Association seeks to avoid these particular dangers through the sheer diversity of its subject areas.

Boasting panels on ‘Computer Culture’, ‘Southwestern Literature’, ‘Politics’, ‘Arab Culture in the US’, ‘Ecocritcism’ and more than sixty other topics, this year’s meeting in Albuquerque, NM, tempted audiences with papers and presentations ranging from ‘The Counter-hegemonic and Contradictory Pleasures of GTA’ through ‘Third Reich Westerns between Profit and Propaganda’ to a notably brave attempt to define ‘The Real Value of Women’s Luxury Shoes’.


In short, it was the perfect place for Intellect to pitch up and advertise its growing list of Arts and Culture journals. And it was an ideal opportunity for this Englishman, curious about the ways of American cultural theorists, to experience an impressive range of things to be said and ways to say them. Impressive, but at times, frustrating. Let me explain.


Central to this huge event’s strength is the sheer number of novices floating about; novices, that is, in the numerous subject areas in which they are not presenting - areas for which their knowledge is limited or absent. I, for my part, contributed considerably to this latter constituency, offering my own brand of naïve question during discussions at the end of a number fascinating presentations. Questions from the novice provide, I think, a valuable academic checking mechanism - a learning experience for the teacher, if you will. At least I thought so, until I asked the wrong question.


‘Punk’, for me, conjures images of The New York Dolls, The Sex Pistols, The Clash and a few others from a movement that I thought faded away in the early ‘80s. Not so, according to a paper on contemporary ‘punk labour’ in urban communities. Intrigued by what sounded to my naïve mind remarkably similar to a ‘hippie’ movement (surely divorced from the nihilistic antics of late 1970s’ youth), I requested a definition of ‘punk’. Mistake. “To attempt to define my subject is to do violence to me”; the response still feels somewhat surprising, both from an academic perspective, and in the context of such a diverse inter-disciplinary event.


Adilifu Nama may not have been so surprised. Present at this meeting to collect a well-deserved award for his book Black Space: Imagining Race in Science Fiction Film, Dr Nama’s key-note speech warned of the dangers of allowing popular cultural discourse to drift towards internally-audited elitism. His call to the cultural theorists gathered in the Grand Pavilion of the Hyatt Regency was to ‘be careful that the struggle for relevance does not become an “alienation of nomenclature”’. Popular culture, continued Dr Nama, is at the forefront of the study of society, but the papers don’t necessarily speak the language of society. He’s right. But it doesn’t stop there.


What struck me about some of the education on display in these panels was the sense of a ‘pedagogic industry’. Facts divorced from meaning, as students, teachers and scholars presented papers in order to present papers; in order to tick a box and move on to the next rung of an academic ladder. Tightly focused, in-depth papers felt rather like a skate across the pond of knowledge, with brief stops to dig holes in the frozen surface. The result: lots of perfectly formed holes in the ice, but no real view of the pond. The casualty seemed to be context and understanding.


This approach was neatly summed up by Australian PhD student, Glen Donnar, whose well-rounded presentation on Bryan Bertino’s 2008 film The Strangers opened with a critical response from Shawn Levy at The Oregonian: “...The Strangers doesn't comment on a damned thing”. With his own response, ‘Ye of little faith, Shawn; academics can always make it say something’, Donnar hit the nail on the head. For, joking aside, this really did feel too often like the key note of the conference: make it say something - anything! But who are we saying it to? The conference motto (drawn from this year’s science fiction and fantasy theme) felt at times ironically apt: “Alien to You? Not to Me”.


However, this is a skewed and unfair picture of what was an impressive and strikingly friendly event. With ‘extra-curricular’ activities and discussions, film showings, and even a Buffy sing-along (which oh so sadly clashed with a prior appointment I had in the bar), the impression quickly became that of a temporary but tight community, formed for five days on a desert plateau in New Mexico.
The feeling of being a visitor, looking in on America talking to itself, may always remain (and is perhaps more a comment on the visitor than the host); however, the SWTX PCA/ACA organisers should be proud of the international mix of their speakers - drawn from as far afield as Japan, Korea, India and Australia, from all over Europe, and from closer to home in the Americas. Just as the variety of panel topics forces interaction between disciplines (whether welcomed or not), the diversity of the international voices gathered by the Southwest/Texas Popular Culture and American Culture Association can only encourage a move away from tried and tested approaches towards more engaged and engaging dialogues. This in turn can only strengthen the association, as it strides towards what Dr Nama suggests as the role of the popular culture scholar: ‘to create clarity; not to reveal truths’.


The 32nd Annual Meeting, convenes in San Antonio, TX, in 2011; it promises to increase the international presence from its current 25%. This Englishman fully hopes and expects to be amongst them.

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Dean Conrad teaches film, theatre and creative writing at The University of Hull, England. His current research  projects include a book-length historical overview of the role of women in science fiction film.
 

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