The subtitle for today should read “In which all the provided NOTES pages at the back of the program become filled”
After a nearly disastrous morning where my hosts caught me moments before I inadvertently set off their house alarm trying to leave without waking them, I caught the bus downtown for the first day of the conference. For some reason, I had expected the event to draw mostly undergrad and graduate students, so I was surprised to find myself one of the youngest people there. I would say the mix is probably 80/20 faculty/graduate students, which is both exciting and adds a little pressure to my presentation.
I attended several sessions today, with mixed results. Perhaps a brief recap of some of the more memorable/interesting bits is in order:
Session 1: Mediated Heroes - Real or Imagined? (Faculty from the Mass Comm department at CSU Pueblo)
This was easily my favorite panel of the day. The faculty who presented (Justin Bregar, Sam Ebersole, Sam Lovato, Richard Joyce, Jen Mullen, and Leticia Steffen) were engaging, interesting, and made for a varied but cohesive panel. The topics varied from A-list bloggers and Erma Bombeck to the odd interactions of the statuses of celebrity and hero in the media and why we don’t value journalism heroes like we do those of sports or military. I even learned that there is someone who makes social theory trading cards and Reclaim the Media makes Media Heroes ones (and Joyce gave each of us three of them)!
The question of whether there is (or should be) a line drawn between “heroes” and “celebrities” arose repeatedly in the presentations and discussion. I purposely chose not to engage with the issue in my own paper for the conference (for simplicity’s sake), although I think it is an interesting and important one in our day and age. The discussions always remind me of Joseph Campbell’s insistence in a difference between the two, and how important that is for societies. I do not have my copy of The Power of Myth with me at the moment, but I believe his important distinction between the two is that the hero does what s/he does for the good of the community while the celebrity has personal motives.
Session 2: Frontiers
I was initially quite excited about this panel, as I am finally channeling my own interest in the frontier, the cowboy, and so on into actual academic output this semester. While all the presentations were fascinating in their own way, the one that truly stuck out for me was Matthew R. Turner’s Black Sheriffs and Villains in White Hats: The Image of the Hero in Western Parodies. Focusing specifically on Blazing Saddles and Rustler’s Rhapsody, Turner delineated the ways in which parodic representations deconstruct and subvert the traditional Western hero - the black sheriff, the use of clothing & humor in Rustler’s Rhapsody to question the masculinity of the “singing cowboy” persona, who wins the shootout when both gunmen wear white hats?, etc. These representations rely on and remain in the tradition of the genre to an extent, though. Because of this, they are an evolution of the genre and in some ways presaged/paved the way for the more postmodern, deconstructed, or complicated/ambivalent Western heroes of recent years (Unforgiven, etc) - not the end of the genre, as some called Blazing Saddles. It was utterly fascinating, and I am excited to look up some of the theorists and authors mentioned in the presentation.
Session 3: Representations
This was one of a number of panels at the conference with a less-than-informative title, but the panels all focused on art at some level. I initially attended to hear Ziad R. AbiChakra’s presentation Carving Heroism in Stone: The Contested Space of Lebanon’s World War I Martyr’s Statues, which was extremely fascinated. One of the courses I am taking this semester is on memorializing trauma, and we spent the first several weeks of class discussing World War I monuments and memorials. Our focus was primarily on Europe, so I relished the opportunity to hear about Lebanon’s (especially since Lebanon was not an independent nation until after the war). AbiChakra detailed the erection, evolving meanings, and contestations of the two monuments in Beirut’s Martyr’s Square, and how the government’s recent recasting of the current monument to stand for all the martyrs of Lebanon’s past (instead of just the WWI-related martyrs it was originally intended) actually works to strip the monument of any real meaning for the people.
The surprise of this panel was Andrew J. Huebner’s presentation on memorials to non-Cubans in Havana, Cuba. Apparently, Havana is home to a number of monuments and memorials to individuals like John Lennon (as in the above photo), the Rosenbergs, Abraham Lincoln, the USS Maine.... memorials that, at first, seem out of place but are presented as fitting within anti-capitalist, anti-imperial, anti-racist, and anti-American discourses at the core of official Cuban rhetoric. While his presentation was largely preliminary work and thoughts on the topic, I found it one of the most intriguing of the entire conference.
Session 4: Re-Imagining Masculinity
I’m still not entirely certain how to unpack this panel, presented by three professors from the US Air Force Academy. The first spoke from a philosophical, rhetorical approach on the need for a more inclusive, less “definition-oriented” approach to masculinity, and the last on the need for empathy as an aspect of the warrior hero ethos (particularly as defined by the USAFA). Wedged between these was a professor who spoke on the use of Christian agape love as a model for masculinity, which, in theory, is not so bad. However, his argument (in both his presentation and the Q&A) devolved into a very heteronormative, heterosexist one founded on ideas like the biological difference between men and women that indicates women should not be in combat, that men are built to protect their nations, families and women, etc. It was intensely frustrating to listen to, as it seemed so proscriptive and limiting. There was no space for queer men (whose motivation may not stem from romantic love of women) or for women who are drawn to or more physically suited to what he described as appropriate “masculinity” (women who are physically strong, fast, or aggressive). The audience and the third panel member took him somewhat to task, but he remained stalwart in his (admittedly un-official and not indicative of the Air Force) opinion.
As you may have noticed, it took me a while to get this recap up and running. Life caved back in on me when I returned - as it is wont to do - and I just couldn’t carve out the time to express all my thoughts on the presentations I attended. I will likely cover the rest of the conference in one post, picking out just a few presentations or panels that struck me. There might be other, unrelated posts before then, however...
My undergraduate program didn’t place much (read: any, that I was aware of) emphasis on going to conferences. I wasn’t even aware that there were conferences for undergrads. Imagine my surprise to enter my first semester of graduate school and find my peers already accepted to and attending conferences! I feel a little as though I’m playing catch-up in that regard.
...All of which is a wordy lead-in to the fact that I am attending my first conference ever this week - the Society for the Interdisciplinary Study of the Image in Society’s conference in Colorado Springs, Colorado. This year’s theme is “The Image of the Hero in Literature, Media, and Society”, and I will be presenting a rebooted and streamlined paper from an undergraduate honors seminar titled “Of Cowboys and Ubermensch: Romantic Strains in German and American Heroes”. I’ll also be moderating a panel, which, I’ve been informed, will consist mainly of informing panelists of their time constraints. I’m hoping it will all be a low-key, smooth introductory experience that will boost my confidence to submit to larger, more prestigious gatherings.
While I usually reserve this site for “academic” meanderings, I thought I would mix it up with a daily blog during the conference. In addition to this being my first conference, it is also my first time couch surfing - bunking down with strangers who have kindly agreed to open their homes and their spare bedrooms for traveling souls. I made the decision based on my lack of funds for a hotel room and the desire to touch back in with some of the principles around simplicity & community I committed myself to while living in an intentional community. All in all, this week should be an interesting confluence of academic, social, and personal experiences.
That being said, follow the link to the full episode for a blow-by-blow of Day Zero - Leavin’ On a Jetplane (not everyday will be such a literal accounting of my time)