Observations on the Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference

The Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference was held at the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal, March 25-29. 478 Panels and workshops were held over five days, usually with 24 held concurrently during each session. In the evenings were various interesting special events, including, for example, a roundtable discussion on “The Sony Hack” an its consequences for media studies; “Wind from the Middle East: An Evening of Music and Film”; “Satosphere,” a 360-degree spherical screen with 157 speakers; and a wonderful screening of restored Norman McLaren 3-D films. Also held in the evenings were the various receptions and social events sponsored by SCMS, universities with large graduate programs, and scholarly interest groups.

I attended several quality talks on topics ranging from the implications of D-Box technologies for cinema spectatorship to the ethics of documentary films such as Waltz with Bashir and The Act of Killing. The conference is very diverse, with something to offer nearly every film and media scholar. There is no better venue to speak with representatives of the major publishing houses and to see what sort of books the discipline is producing (and to pick up a few free desk copies along the way).

That being said, those interested in solely in media in relation to mind and psychology will likely be disappointed. SCMS scholars are not so interested in media and mind; talks and panels on race, ethnicity, gender, and especially lgbt issues are very prevalent. One can also find talks on technologies, media industries, stylistic and narrative elements of media, and media texts, genres, and makers.

I did an informal count of the number of times certain words having to do with spectator psychology and the spectator’s experience appeared in panel and paper titles. The results were as follows:

  • Body (and embodiment)     43
  • Affect                                       19
  • Emotion                                   3
  • Cognition                                 2
  • Mind                                         2

Although some scholars have curiously claimed that films have bodies, most of these references to the body and embodiment refer to the bodies of spectators. This interest in the body and bodily effects of media consumption is fine in itself. Unfortunately, it is often inadequately related to cognition in general. In fact, cognition is most often understood in relation to the computer metaphors of the 1980s, resulting in an avoidance of the term altogether as outmoded. “Cognition” has become a kind of “boo” word, or so it seems to me. One wonders whether this interest in the body can take us very far without more discussion of embodiment in relation to cognition.

The upshot is that few scholars in film and media studies are familiar with contemporary discussions of cognition, or of psychology generally. SCSMI is definitely the place to go if your primary interest is film and media in relation to spectator psychology.

On a positive note, the Cognitive/Analytic Scholarly Interest Group had a promising meeting at SCMS, attended by fifteen people, and ably chaired by Mary Feld, a graduate student from Georgia State University. She and Paul Taberham (who was unable to attend the conference) are co-chairs of this SIG. There was some discussion about whether to rename the SIG something like “Media and Mind.” There was also a push (from the SCMS powers-that-be, it seems) to merge the Cognitive/Analytic SIG with the Film-Philosophy SIG, a topic to be discussed among SIG members in the next month. We also had a fine meal at a local culinary school, courtesy of SCMS and its funding of each SIG for social or other events.

That’s the news from Montreal, where it was cold, but there were subtle signs of Spring.

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