Console-ing Passions

Image: Rowan Heuvel

Saturday 4th November, 2017

Rachel O’Neill

The international feminist media studies conference Console-ing Passions (CP) marked its 25th anniversary this summer with a three-day conference at East Carolina University in Greenville, NC. A crucial swing state, North Carolina voted Republican in the US Presidential Election in November 2016. Earlier the same year, the state legislature passed House Bill 2 — the so-called ‘bathroom bill’ — dramatically curtailing LGBT rights. These ongoing political events at both a national and state level provided an important point of reference in a programme that spanned a wide array of subject matter and every possible media form, the conference’s originary focus on television having long since given way to include all kinds of visual, audio, and new media.

There was a palpable sense of urgency at one of the first panels I attended, entitled ‘Trump Four Ways’. Attendees quickly filled the large auditorium, soon spilling over to line the stairs and fill the aisles. The first speaker, Chuck Tryon, examined how campaigns for media literacy had been high-jacked by growing media scepticism and ubiquitous references to ‘fake news’. Citing Kamau Bell’s call for white people to “come get your boy”, Karen Petruska described having to negotiate political schisms the election had opened up within her own family, and argued for the importance of forging uncomfortable alliances wherever possible. Undergraduate student Arianna O’Connell examined how caricatured representations of Trump supporters in the media as “redneck gun-nut racist homophobes” has served to further entrench political antagonisms.

In a moving conclusion to the panel, Communications scholars Emily Yochim and Julie Wilson offered up a ‘modest manifesto’ for navigating an increasingly volatile political landscape. Drawing on the work of AnaLouise Keating and Donna Haraway respectively, they argued that feminist media scholars must find ways to “occupy the thresholds” and “stay with the trouble”. Their discussion highlighted the importance of looking beyond the more spectacular dimensions of mediated political culture to examine the mundane entanglements this generates in everyday life. This mode of scholarship is exemplified brilliantly in their recent book Mothering Through Precarity. Taken as a whole, the panel was compelling in diagnosing the rise of Donald Trump as an acute symptom of a more pernicious social disease that has long been present within the American body and is now metastasising at an alarming rate.

Later that evening delegates gathered for the ‘Founders’ Conversation’, which saw conference founders Mary Beth Haralovich and Lauren Rabinovitz in dialogue with CP board member Brenda Weber and CP@ECU host committee chair Amanda Klein. Reflecting on the conference’s twenty-five year trajectory and relating this to broader shifts in academia in general, and media studies in particular, discussants contemplated the fact that despite significant inroads being made “feminism still falls to the feminists”. This issue had already been raised earlier in the day with a paper by Caitlin Lawson on ‘celebrity feminist branding’, which highlighted the disjuncture that exists between feminism’s discursive power and the actual structural change this coalescence of movements has produced. Such considerations parallel wider debates currently taking place over the shifting landscape of postfeminism, marked as it is by new feminist visibilities, and raise further concerns about how feminist scholars can effect change within academia, issues very much alive in British sociology also.

Unlike many of the media studies conferences I have attended in the UK, and for reasons that became increasingly clear during my time in the US, militarism was a major theme at this conference. One such session, examining the constitution of the ‘Soldier Subject’, considered how media is deployed to maintain troop morale abroad and manage conflict-related trauma at home. Rebecca Adelman provided a truly illuminating analysis of how Sesame Street for Military Families — which supplies dedicated videos, games, and apps — trains children to endure parental absence by schooling them in techniques of stress management. On the same panel, David Kieran spoke about the American military’s ‘Shoulder to Shoulder’ anti-suicide campaign, which attempts to recast help-seeking behaviours long considered ‘unmanly’ as ‘good soldiering’. Military children are thus encouraged to cultivate resilience in response to domestic upheaval when their parents go to war. Meanwhile, soldiers are exhorted to guard against the violence they may do to themselves so that they can continue to perpetrate violence against others. In each case, panellists noted, the wider political circumstances and material interests that govern contemporary warfare are camouflaged.

The conference concluded with a keynote address by oral historian and folklorist Michelle Lanier of Duke University, who spoke about place- and meaning-making in Afro-Carolinian landscapes. Densely lyrical and deeply poetic, Lanier’s lecture traversed tobacco fields and kitchen tables, enjoining us to “witness what the land has witnessed”. She told the story of Laura Marie Leary, who in 1963 became the first African American student to attend ECU full-time. Forced to negotiate a host of daily indignities, Leary was surreptitiously cared for and supported by the many African American groundskeepers, cooks, and custodians who sought to bolster her with comforting words and nourishing meals. Later, a young African American woman stood up to say that as a student at ECU today this has also been her experience, a comment that threw the elisions and complicities that continue to characterise academic life in the US as well as the UK into sharp relief. Lanier further discussed the founding of nearby Freedom Hill (now Princeville) in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, describing how formerly enslaved peoples had “used a tear in our nation’s fabric to walk through and take their freedom”. Tethering past to present, blending analysis with cathexis, this keynote was vitalising in a way all too rare in academia. The emphasis was not on knowing about, but feeling with, as Lanier created a much-needed space in which to collectively acknowledge: this is where it happened, and this is where it is still happening.

I had misgivings about attending Console-ing Passions this year, knowing that in the current political climate this was simply not an option for many of my friends and colleagues. I was also aware of just how much such events are needed, for precisely the same reasons that make their attendance by international scholars so fraught. As the host committee stated: “CP@ECU is part of the change needed in our state: to educate, to agitate, and to rally our community towards a more productive dialogue about gender identity and representation, civil rights, and public policy”. As testament to this, the conference included multiple roundtable sessions on House Bill 2 as well as a highly successful fundraising event for ECU’s LGBT Resource Centre.

As an outsider with no prior experience of the American South, the weight of history in this place impressed itself upon me forcefully. While well-aware of their existence, it was still a shock to encounter monuments to the Confederacy — as I did upon arrival in Raleigh, where a 75 foot commemoration towers over the downtown area — and be confronted with the audacity of racism forged in bronze and carved in stone. Partially because of this, there were numerous points where I found myself wondering how slavery and its legacies were not more prominent points of discussion at this conference. While questions of ‘race’ were certainly on the agenda — and allowing for the fact that with multiple parallel sessions I could only attend a fraction of all panels — I nevertheless felt that issues of racial injustice and economic inequality were at times overlooked, such that the social disease identified early on was not more comprehensively addressed. With the stakes as high as they are right now, feminist media and cultural studies scholars may need to redouble our efforts to ensure our scholarship not only reflects but also realises our political commitments.

The next instalment of Console-ing Passions will take place in Bournemouth, UK, in July 2018, and will focus especially on the intersections of feminism and migration. The Call for Papers is now open.

Rachel O’Neill is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Sociology at the University of York. She tweets at @DrRachelONeill.

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