A post has been a long time coming. This summer has been over-packed with excitement, opportunities, and good times, but it has also remarkably distracted me from the actual writing of my dissertation. I spent a week going through the Ken and Roberta Williams Collection at the Strong Museum of Play and then spent a week at Princeton University at the 2nd annual Princeton-Weimar Summer School for Media Studies (where I met the amazing Hiilei Hobart, Jacob Gaboury, and Dylan Mulvin). I'm effortfully pulling together a panel for SCMS 2013 on interventions within media archaeology, and prepping a paper for SHOT in Copenhagen this October. I just got interviewed about Internet Memes by an independent journalist writing an article for PCWorld. I taught a section of CCS101: Intro to Cinema and Media Studies, and have had a blasty-blast with my students discussing everything from Foucault to modernity to semiotics to Peter Lunenfeld's The Secret War Between Downloading and Uploading. I used Tumblr in class for the first time, and it's been a great success--students are always throwing up links, clips, quotes and images that remind them of course content. Tumblr is proving an amazing archive for our course investigations. I also have a few projects that shall remain top secret until further verification (so the 3 of you who read this blog, stay posted).
But throughout the summer, I was having a horrible time actually working on my dissertation. First I'd committed to writing a methodological article on a feminist materialist critique of media archaeology--but every time I sat down to do the lit review or aim my sights at Wolfgang Ernst, I felt myself getting sucked into a black hole of philosophical vitalism (a Bermuda Triangle of Spinoza, Bergson and Deleuze). I felt like I couldn't write anything without having the entire weight of continental philosophy in my back pocket (which, not being a philosopher by training, was presenting a problem). I felt impotent to even know where I could start, as I stared down the barrel of a 300 page project that loomed ominously empty on the Word document before me.
However, this summer I also got recruited to join a Feminist Writing Group organized by the insightful Laura Portwood-Stacer, who I met at Now! Visual Culture. "Feminist Writing Group?" my friends scoffed. "Doesn't seem like your kinda thing." I tend to be a little too aloof and much too cantankerous for such dynamics. I'm often the student who would sit in seminar and doesn't make a peep, and loathes the eyes of strangers on my work. But I volunteered some work for the second session, thinking it would be good motivation to get my Copenhagen paper written--and as a straight up history, I figured it would be safe and not too over-exposing. However, when my one-week deadline emerged, I was still days behind on having something to show. I couldn't bail on the group, but also knew I couldn't send a 4-page lit review and retain any self-respect. I hit the panic button, and emailed out the only other reasonable paper I had relating to feminism, a Feminist New Materialist Critique of Media Archaeology that I'd presented at the New School that past spring and planned on presenting at SCMS in 2013.
I spent the week on edge. This was intense theoretical work, couched in brazen, sometimes arrogant writing. I'd never exposed this to any of my professors, or anyone who even really had a background in feminist critical materialism (i've pretty much taught myself). I also, perhaps predictably, thought the piece was damn near perfect, and hadn't anticipated revising it much for SCMS. I was in a cold terror about what others might say, and nervous that no one would have anything to say. When the day of the actual group arrived, the group was almost twice as large as the first meeting, and all new people, and mostly university faculty (a "real world" step up from my grad student status, however much I take myself seriously).
I gave a stuttery introduction and prepared for the worst--and instead, lo and behold, I got the best. Not ceaseless praise or neck-wringing admonishments, but critical attention trained at making this work better while still highlighting what I did well and where I could push further. I've only occasionally ever received such honed, invested, and engaged feedback from peers or profs. And amazingly, this active, brilliant group of lady-minds managed to help me shed the cloak that had been holding me back from writing for almost two months. Stop trying to dismantle someone else's work. You know what you're doing, so just move forward with your own ideas. Show us what you're really capable of. When I woke up this morning, I could stop thinking--"what if I did this? what if I argued that?" Suddenly I realized the first chapter of my dissertation had been sitting in my Dropbox all along, just mangled into a bunch of different pieces I'd been too hesitant to pull together. I woke up at 8, was at the library by 11, and had my own intervention written by 12. By the time I tapped out for happy hour at my favorite bar, I had 17 pages of a chapter--cobbled, slapped together, in terrible need of stitching, but a start, with a clear outline of what I'm doing and where this project is going.
The mental deep freeze is over. I'm going to write this bastard. And all it took was showing my work to a group of strangers invested in questions of knowledge production, sensitive to the struggles of a grad student, but not willing to let something half-wrought slide by: a lesson in feminist orientations and co-relationality if ever there was one.
Today I had the distinct pleasure of teaching Natalia Ilyin's Chasing the Perfect in the college-level Graphic Design History class I've been teaching as an adjunct. Teaching graphic design history has been a curious and illuminating throwback to my prior, "almost-famous" life as a graphic design critic (a long tale for another blog day).
As a scholar with a BFA in graphic design, an MA in English, a pending Ph.D. in Cultural Studies and a grad certificate in Women's Studies, I'm a pretty sloppy disciplinarian. Thus, I didn't bat an eyelash at putting a memoir as the capstone reading for my graphic design history syllabus. And thank god I didn't, because Chasing the Perfect was the perfect culmination to a long, trotting list of dead white Western men and the ever-so "important" designs they made.
Forgive my snideness--it's not that they weren't important, but moreso, as Ilyin might phrase it, "at what cost have they been made important?" Throughout the book, Ilyin maps the controlling, masculine tactics of modern design against her own ironically observed and amusingly described life events. Ilyin raises a simple question: Do you design out of fear, or do you design out of love? The moderns, to her, especially Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, designed out of fear, designed to build a utopia that would protect them from the horror and brutality they witnessed in WWI. What that wrought was an unsustainable belief that design could control the mess of life, and Ilyin tracks this tendency with witty aplomb through homes of the future, graphic design grad school, the empty offices of modernist furniture designers, and through her own psychic space--Ilyin's mental breakdown is given central space but isn't overloaded. It is written with the humor and clarity that only comes with mature distance and sincere self-observation. There's no victim here, just raw life.
One moment in the book, however, particularly held my interest. Near the end of the book, Ilyin discusses the fallacy of linear history--the impression we are given that graphic design began in the caves of France and has only marched forward on an unalterable course. Describing the art history staple of the slide lecture, she writes: "These slides link together the unlinked. They make the design past appear seamless, premeditated, a logical progression out of the caves and into the sunlight. It is as though [...] a celestial plan of progression is borne out in those slides, and that it was only a matter of time, say, until Futurism developed from all that had gone before. Which is not true. Which is picking up only one thread of a wide weave" (115).
My media studies brain perks up here--it's the practice of the slide lecture, the use of the carousel projector or power point presentation that presents a "seamless, premeditated, a logical progression" of all those images. In a wonderously clever turn, Ilyin's indites the foundation of art history teaching for misrepresenting history through its own mechanical/digital mode of presentation. As I asked my students "When I show you one slide, and then click to another slide, did you ever wonder what happened in that gap?"
I know I'm going to re-arrange the hell out of my syllabus for this class when I teach it again, but Chasing the Perfect isn't going anywhere. It's the perfect companion to Meggs, and I'm not sure I can imagine graphic design history without it.