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Contemporary Fiction Seminar – Autumn 2011

Postgraduate Forum: Infinite, authentic, longing: A Survey of Postgraduate Research on Contemporary Visual Culture

Monday 21st November 2011

S261, Senate House



This was our first postgraduate forum for doctoral students in the humanities, who presented aspects of their ongoing research.  The focus was on contemporary visual culture, and all of the presentations rather pleasingly problematised notions of both the ‘contemporary’ and the ‘fictive’ in different, but complementary, ways. Daniel Marrone (London Consortium) presented a brief delineation of the starting point for his research on comics and nostalgia. Chris Holliday (Kings College) gave a paper on the fluctuating iterations of anthropomorphism in computer-generated animation, particularly the recent films of Disney’s Pixar. Holly Geisman (Roehampton) discussed the theoretical and practical processes that inform her film documentaries of authenticity in London restaurants. Although the topics covered in the papers differed wildly, each addressed the way the form of their subject challenges and resists ideas of meaning that the viewers and readers bring to the text.


Daniel Marrone delivered the first presentation of the evening and in many respects his discussion of comics and nostalgia, and the gaps and ellipses in which a reader might construct meaning, continued to resonate throughout the session – particularly in the way that Chris positioned the viewer in relation to anthropomorphic characterization, and the way Holly framed the ‘backstage’ areas of restaurants and film-making.  In his paper Daniel sought to make an articulation between representations of memory and the formal properties of comics; a comparatively undertheorised field, but one full of potential.  Nostalgia and longing have long been fertile subject matter for literature, as seen in the examples of Proust and Benjamin.  Referencing Svetlana Boym’s The Future of Nostalgia (2002) and distinction between restorative and reflective nostalgias, Daniel proposed that comics’ fractured, hybrid surfaces were particularly suited to represent longing.  This is especially evident in alternative comics by contemporary North American creators, such as Seth and Chris Ware, but is also something noticeable in more mainstream fare such as Superman (who is after all an exile). 


Chris Holliday’s paper dealt with a different kind of drawn figure: the animated anthropomorphs of Pixar-land. The tenet of Chris’ thesis is to define the generic traits that render computer-generated animation distinct from other animated forms. His paper discussed changing definitions of the term ‘anthropomorphism’ and drew these definitions into the evolving world view of Disney characters; from Mickey Mouse driving a steam boat to Buzz Lightyear filling up the tank at a gas station, with particular attention paid to Remy the rat of Ratatouille. Chris argued that the extended frame offered by digital animation enables directors to position the audience view point as that of the character (the toy/rat/panda); the viewer then navigates the space of the story world as that character. This glossing of viewpoints remediates the balance of the human-other ratio of anthropomorphism; making the animated protagonists of these films at once more identifiable for humans and less identifiable as human.


Fitting that Chris expounded his argument through a reading of the film Ratatouille, a film about food (and rats); Holly Geisman’s paper was also about food, particularly about the authenticity of restaurants and of the challenges of documenting them. Ignoring the images of some of the best looking steaks this audience member has ever seen, Holly’s paper was a discussion of the principle arguments of her thesis, a practice-based study of authenticity through the twinned representational modes of restaurants and documentary films. Her research brings together anthropology, tourism and film studies to discuss the structures and artifice of staging authenticity on film and in public. Her reading of restaurants as sites of performance enabled closer scrutiny of her own creative practice – documentary film-making – as the two were drawn as sites of studied representation and artifice.


All three papers traced theories of narrative and form through modern and postmodern creative cultures to arrive at discussions of particularly contemporary modes of representation. Each paper expounded an interdisciplinary argument to great effect. The first Contemporary Fiction Seminar Postgraduate Forum taught us much about current approaches to particular media: comics, animated film, documentary film. It also proffered themes that clearly resonate beyond media specificity; themes that are a concern for all who work in the broad field of contemporary fiction: that is how cultural objects today produce meaning and affect through, and despite, the visions of artifice that postmodern and poststructuralist critical discourse bequeathed them.  


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