Shanghai again

Just back from Shanghai and an amazing set of presentations at the “Film Theory in Media History: Nodes and Edges” conference.  This was a first for me, attending an entire conference in simultaneous translation.The goal of the event was to think about how concurrent recent developments in media history and transnational film studies (the “nodes and edges” of the title) might push us to rethink our inherited (Eurocentric and apparatus-centric) models of film theory. I’m not sure there was a single “takeaway” answer to that question, but the conference left me (and I’m sure many others) thinking about my own institutional positioning, and in that sense, it achieved something important. The most interesting aspect may have had less to do with content than with process: observing how difficult it was to establish a dialogue between the Chinese-language and English-language presentations. This was partly due to technical challenges (as the translations could only give a rough sense of what the papers were actually arguing). But it was clear that something more was at stake here, as the groups were largely asking different questions. Some of those differences came out in the open on day two in the discussion following Victor Fan’s paper on Buddhist concepts in early Chinese film theory. That discussion made clear that the legacies of colonialism are very much still with us in our universities today. And that the question of what counts as “legitimate” film theory — what questions it asks, what modes it adopts, what work it seeks to do, and not least of all who gets to speak for it — is inseparable from those colonial legacies. While my own paper (on digital advertising screens) contributed little to that discussion, the event really left me wondering about The Promise of Cinema and how future sourcebooks of national film theory — of which there are several forthcoming, as I learned — will reflect on the cultural work that our changing definitions of “theory” are doing right now. Jane Gaines’s paper made the point eloquently: we shouldn’t act like we’re simply “finding” and “restoring” lost voices from the archive, as if they were just waiting in boxes to be opened by scholars; rather, we should start out from our present, articulate the cultural work we want to do right now, and then decide what pasts we need “to have been there.”

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