Film Strip image from Wikimedia Commons

Film Strip image from Wikimedia Commons

Monday, November 27, 2017

Event Summary: Graduate Student Panel with Ilana Emmett and Mikki Kressbach

On November 16, the Chicago Film Seminar held its annual Graduate Student Panel, featuring talks by Ilana Emmett of Northwestern University and Mikki Kressbach of the University of Chicago. University of Chicago professor James Lastra provided a response to the talks, which explored, respectively, the role of sound and silence in creating domestic spaces and listener identification on 1940s and ’50s American radio soap operas, and the effect of wearable fitness tracking devices on perceptions of everyday habits and health and fitness.

Emmett’s talk, titled “Sound and Silence: Conversation, Emotion, and the Creation of Domestic Spaces on American Radio Soap Operas,” focused on examples from the long-running radio serials The Guiding Light and Ma Perkins in order to show how soundscapes dominated by voices, simple and ordinary sound effects, and silence are able to create the sense of an intimate domestic space that mirrors the listener’s own domestic space. While the sparseness of the soundscapes point to the financial and temporal limitations of the programs’ production schedules, Emmett argued that these very same limitations also allowed for easier listener identification through the very vagueness and familiarity of their sonic outlines. Emmett went on to explain how listener identification in these programs was also encouraged through the use of first-person-plural or second-person narrators, who could overtly invite the listener to place herself within the narrative, even taking on the identity of different characters. The soap operas thus create, Emmett argued, an uncanny (i.e., simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar) listening experience for their audience, in that they allow the possibility of occupying unfamiliar roles while foreclosing the possibility of moving out of familiar, domestic spaces, at once expanding and limiting the listener’s world. 

Kressbach began her talk, “Does Data Determine Our Situation?: Wearable Fitness Tracking Technologies and Quantifying the Everyday,” by inviting attendees with iPhones to take them out and open the “Health” app, asking how many were previously aware of the app’s automatic tracking of number of steps walked, flights climbed, and distance covered each day. This opening exercise provided an illustration of the ways in which such fitness tracking devices (including the Apple Watch, Fitbit, and Jawbone) have become an increasingly common part of everyday life, whether one was previously unaware of the app’s tracking of daily movements or an active participant in what has come to be known as the quantified-self movement. In transforming the everyday actions of walking and climbing stairs into quantifiable data, Kressbach argued, these devices transform users’ perception of their everyday habits through the lens of health and fitness. In an attempt to move away from polemical, totalizing interpretations of wearable technologies as either devices of empowerment or surveillance that position users as alienated subjects, Kressbach shared her own experience using Fitbit and the Apple Watch as well as her students’ reflections on using fitness tracking technologies in order to provide a phenomenological account of the ways in which these devices produce the impression of scientific authority sufficient to inspire attachment and affect users’ behaviors, even as users become aware of the devices’ fallibility and grow increasingly anxious in their use of them. 

Lastra began his response by acknowledging a point of contact between the two talks—the everyday—and, more specifically, the attempt to fathom changes wrought to our experience of the everyday through mediating technologies, before going on to respond to each talk individually. Addressing Emmett’s discussion of the creation of listener identification through the use of second-person narration, Lastra suggested that identification is only one possible result of this rhetorical device. In radio, it can also be used to mark the shift to soliloquy or internal monologue, and in popular music and literature, the second-person can open positions beyond simple identification. Reading a passage from Jay McInerney’s novel Bright Lights, Big City as an example, Lastra claimed that the second-person could be used to create distance from which to view the self. Turning to Kressbach’s talk, Lastra brought up the paradox of belief inherent in the use of the fitness tracking device—that users doubt the device’s ability to perfectly record their movements, even as they act as if it does so—and related it to an older technological paradigm, that of photography, which inspires a similar paradox of trust/belief. Finally, Lastra suggested that the anxiety that many notice while using these devices—that the device will fail to record movement or a user will forget to wear the device during exercise—is a kind of anxiety that has always attended habitual exercise, but what is different now is how the anxiety is mediated by the device. 

In the question-and-answer session, the discussion of anxiety continued, as Kressbach acknowledged that the tendency is indeed longstanding, but that mediation expedites the appearance of anxious feelings, and one attendee made the point that anxiety surrounding everyday behaviors seems to be increasingly normalized or even mandatory, where once it was more likely to be considered pathological. There were also questions concerning the importance of competition in the use of fitness tracking devices and the theorization of space in Emmett’s talk, in which the use of the narrator seems to run counter to the common notion of the domestic as confining. A final question tied the two talks together under the themes of surveillance and seriality.

Attendees of the panel included:
Benjamin Aspray
Nicholas Baer
Simran Bhalla
Joao Pedro Cachopo
Will Carroll
Michael DeAngelis
Cara Dickason
Samantha Freeman
Matt Hubbell
Ian Jones
Nicole Morse
Miriam Petty
Ariel Rogers
Zoran Samardzija
Jordan Schonig
Hannah Spaulding
Shannon Tarbell
Alex Thimons
Mimi White
Pam Wojcik

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