By Øyvind Vågnes on 07.05.2011 (09:00).
I’m just back from Across Media: Contemporary Literature and Media Culture, a conference organized by scholars from the Department of Scandinavian Studies and Comparative Literature at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim involved in the research project Transcultural Aesthetics: Contemporary Literature and Media Culture. Going to this particular conference had a peculiarly symbolic quality to me, since I have a background from American Studies & Literature, Nordic Literature, and Contemporary Literature at the University of Bergen, before I found my way to the media studies department here. My inclination as a student of literature in early years was always to find movements across media fascinating and worthwhile, but at the time there wasn’t the kind of academic growth around this problematic that this conference in Trondheim must be said to reflect. It seemed only fitting, then, that W.J.T. Mitchell, whose Iconology and Picture Theory were revelations to me when I came across them a little more than a decade ago, gave the opening keynote lecture here, ”Seeing Madness: Insanity, Media, and Visual Culture.”
The talk, which was dedicated to the memory of Miriam Hansen and to Mitchell’s screenwriter son Gabriel, turned out to revolve around a course, more specifically a film seminar, that Mitchell has been part of teaching at the University of Chicago. ”What do the movies bring to madness?” Mitchell asked. ”And what does madness bring to the movies?” As expected, the talk was thought-provoking and opened up for a host of new perspectives on this double question, and I could have gone on listing the many associations the several memorable images, films, and quotes produced. But I’ll leave it to mentioning my favorite part of the talk, its second and according to Mitchell ”speculative” part, in which he rhapsodized on ”how smoke rendered the cinematic medium visible,” both on screen and in life. Remembering his visits to the cinema as a child, Mitchell described how he used to lay back in his seat to watch the beam of light, the passage between projector and screen – which was highly visible in those ”good old days” because visitors could enjoy a cigarette or two – and suggested that some of his fondest memories of going to the movies simply consisted of looking at smoke made visible by light. He then moved on from the anecdote to theory, from theater to screen, in describing how sharing a cigarette in noir classics created a ”bridge” or connection between characters which enabled a genuine meeting of minds.
Even if I had to leave early and missed a day of sessions, I had a great time in Trondheim and attended several inspiring talks, including: Jørgen Bruhn’s keynote on ”Scandinavian Misanthropology” (a phrase borrowed from Norweigan writer Abu Rasul AKA Matthias Faldbakken), which combined theoretical perspectives with close readings of poetry by Ursula Andkjær Olsen, a very unpleasant and engaging scene from the astonoshing movie Man tänker sitt (Hellström and Wenzel, 2009), and Rasul’s Unfun; a great panel on ”Theorizing Concepts” where Eivind Røssaak gave a dense and very inspiring re-reading of Derrida’s Of Grammatology from the perspective of its discussions of techne and with some reflections on implications for a conception of post-hermeneutics, and Knut Ove Eliassen gave an introduction to Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves; a panel on digital literature, of which I know little but am certainly going to find out more (Anders Skare Malvik talked about Simen Hagerup and Kristian P.’s ”Viva Zombatista”, Hans Kristian Rustad about Kate Pullinger et. al.’s Flight Paths, and Mette-Marie Zacher Sørensen about David Hjave Johnston’s ”human-mind-machine,” and everyone involved agreed that drawing up the boundaries between what to call digital poetry / fiction and net art was a complicated operation with many foreseen and unforeseen implications). My own talk, in a panel on visual culture, addressed what I describe as the ”ekphrastic impulse” in Don DeLillo’s most recent novel Point Omega, and in particular its descriptions of a fictitious visit to Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho.
In conversations, Mitchell – who together with Eyal Weizman and Joe Sacco will visit Nomadikon and Bergen in September, for a seminar on landscape, memory, and politics – told me about a new essay he’s finishing, ”The Historical Uncanny,” a sequel to his recent book Cloning Terror. It will be presented at an event at the University of Westminster on June 13, for those of you who will be in London at the time.