Monday, May 30, 2016

Mad Men: The Conference

Mad Men: The Conference was a great success. Martina and I just finished watching the series a week ago -- after getting married, I've watched more television and film in the last five months than I have in the last 18 years. (Never in my life have I owned a television, but then Pop Culture pulled a fast one on me by inventing Hulu and Netflix.) Anyway, we loved Mad Men and, despite my pro forma elitist sneer at narratives in new media, not even I can deny that Mad Men has easily surpassed the vast majority of literature I've read. Martina, for her part, was extremely excited to participate in an academic conference -- although working at university administration for 18+ years, she never really did the academic-y side of academia before. Granted, we both went to the fantastic Tolkien Seminar in Leeds last summer, organized by the Tolkien Society, but that was smaller and less formal than most conferences. (The quality of the papers, however, was just as good if not better.)

So she was super excited about Mad Men: The Conference. We actually did 1 1/2 days of the two day conference, since I was conferenced out by noon of the second day. (I tried telling her, of course, that real academics actually hate conferences and try to attend as few panels as possible, but she would have none of that.) We saw a number of smart papers, including some by fellow MTSU people, and Martina and I especially liked final keynote speaker, a professional television critic named Matt Zoller Seitz.

Although a journalist and not an academic, his insights and observations were easily superior to many of the jargon-filled academic papers we listened to. That led Martina and I to briefly discuss the whole "academic vs. non-academic" thing, a topic which Seitz himself also addressed. Basically, the whole distinction is rather superficial, obviously, but people on both sides place inordinate amounts of emphasis on it. This issue applies to Tolkien studies as well, since so much good work is done outside of peer-reviewed publications. I actually came up with a list of what I see as the specific advantages of non-scholarly scholarship:

  1. Reading blogs, you get a better sense of someone's interest and where they're coming from than if you just read their scholarly articles. This is important, since I find myself understanding their articles better after I get a sense of a scholar's personality and interests. We all know that biography is important for literary criticism, but it's just as important for understanding scholarship.
  2. You also find out what other people think about the articles you've already read. In one sense, of course, that's what official reviews are for, but blogs give allow people a bit more freedom in expression.
  3. It's easier to pick up "factoids" through blogs. To this today, I have a tough time keeping everything in Tolkien straight -- gotta look it up before I write about it. Blogs are one way of keeping up with the factoids that interest people, which also helps to re-focus my attention on stuff I had initially thought less interesting.
    1. Especially useful is when people point out "fake facts" that various people have uttered. Indeed, only thanks to one such post did I realize that Gandalf's power resides in his staff -- a completely obvious point once you think about the Edoras scene, but one which I had paid insufficient attention to. I've had dozens of cases like that.
  4.  Blogs also make it easier  to find who who's influencing who and denote the various circles in Tolkien scholarship. 
Granted, I almost never look to fan blogs for interpretations -- generally, they just aren't as illuminating as the interpretations in the peer reviewed stuff. (Even there, there's a good amount of scholarship that stops short of working its arguments into a broader context.)

None of that, though, really applies to Seitz, who, although a journalist, differs from an academic only in that he explicitly addresses a general audience -- as he noted of Rogert Ebert, Ebert could easily keep up with any film semiotician on their own turf, and the same applied to Seitz as well. Seitz further excels at situating his Mad Men criticism into both journalistic and academic contexts, and Martina immediately subscribed to his twitter account.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting look at the difference between academia/ not. When I took the history graduate courses at MTSU vs. English, they had quite the opinions about "us" too ;) So glad you enjoyed the Mad Men conference. I used to be obsessed with the wit, mendacity, & humanness of that series! <3