The 17th Annual Graduate Student Conference, April 22-23, 2022 Department of Cinema and Media Studies, University of Chicago
“Well maybe it is stupid, but it’s also dumb!”
— Patrick Star, “The Camping Episode,” SpongeBob SquarePants (2004)
This conference takes its cue from the late Lauren Berlant in proposing “a counterpolitics of the silly object,”1 where studying popular media in the humanities entails handling silly, erratic, ephemeral, trivial, worthless, and even “disgusting” artifacts. The silly object often presents itself as being about nothing more than itself. In contrast to carnival, camp, satire, and absurdity, according to Jeffrey Weinstock, “silliness is gentler and takes on smaller targets. It plays acceptingly with the given world in ways we hadn’t realized or remembered were possible.”2 Rather than functioning as cogent or caustic social critique, it often presents itself as uncomplicated and ostensibly lacking a political dimension. In its seeming worthlessness, according to the OED, the silly is that which “provokes sympathy or compassion; that is to be pitied; unfortunate, wretched.”3 As Sara Ahmed also notes, the “etymology of silliness is striking. It comes from the word sael, originally meaning blessed, happy, or blissful. The word mutates over time; from blessed to pious, to innocent, to harmless, to pitiable, to weak and feeble. From the blessed to the feeble: we learn from the depressing nature of the genealogy of silliness.”4 Silliness thus negotiates both negative affects and “inappropriately positive affects” as its attraction inheres in its appearance of un-recuperability and “worthless happiness.”5 So, then, what does one do with something, as we have construed it here, that simply seems silly? And in trying to “do something” with silliness, is it possible to avoid recuperating it into a project of seriousness?
Not much work has taken up “silliness” as a key term. When it is taken up, however, it is often in a marginal way and simply used in place of “low taste” or the “bad object.” The “Silly Media” conference proposes a reinvestment in the aesthetics and politics of silliness and its objects. How does the silly register in and through different affects, forms, genres, modes, styles, structures, technics, etc.? What are its locations and modes of address? What contrary epistemologies and counterpolitics might emerge when we reimagine the “waste materials of everyday communication”6 as pivotal to the construction and experience of a public? The texts that constitute a “silly archive,” or “the small, the inconsequential, the antimonumental, the micro, the irrelevant,” as Jack Halberstam contends, “do not make us better people or liberate us from the culture industry, but they might offer strange and anticapitalist logics of being and acting and knowing, and they will harbor covert and overt queer worlds.”7 Similarly, Racquel Gates offers a detour from the serious objects of black visual culture. Pointing to rapper Flavor Flav and comedian Katt Williams, key “bad objects” of black popular culture typically viewed as black men “acting foolish for the pleasure of white audiences,” Gates embraces the silly counter-politics of these figures, arguing that these “negative representations serve as the repository for all of the feelings that positive images cast aside.”8 For these scholars, the “silly object” is an unstable object of cultural weight and consequence; it is the everydayness, ephemerality, and popularity of such texts that makes them worth reading.
Further embracing the silliness of all art, as Fredric Jameson does in his turn to Theodor Adorno’s “astonishing insistence on the deeper mindless silliness or ‘simplicity’ of all true art,”9 this conference asks if we must erode the possibility of the silly to engage with it. Instead of making the silly serious, can we make the serious silly? Can we embrace the possibility of failure and incoherence in our own work? This conference finally proposes that cinema and media scholars more deeply consider questions of disposition, feeling, and affect in our critical work. As scholars, we feel differently about our current position and pandemic moment: “instead of remaining serious in the face of self-doubt, ridicule, and broader ecological crisis,” as Nicole Seymour suggests, this conference hopes to embrace “the sense of our own absurdity, our uncertainty, our humor, even our perversity.”10 For is it a bad sign that defenders of the humanities become tongue-tied so quickly when non-academics ask what the humanities are, and why we should value them in crisis times? Perhaps the answers are downright silly.
Keynote Speaker: Racquel J. Gates, Associate Professor of Film at Columbia University
Potential paper topics might include, but are not limited to:
- Silliness and/as Genre, Style, Mode, Register, or Aesthetic Category
- Silliness and/as Affect, Minor Feelings, Negative Emotions, Inappropriately Positive Affects
- Queer and Trans* Forms of Negativity, Failure, Anti-Productivity, Inefficiency
- Blackness and the Popular Image, the Failed and Foolish, the Silly Objects of Afro-Pessimism
- Children’s Media, Cuteness, Wonder, Animation, Silly Symphonies, Gross-Up Close-Ups
- Horror Studies, Laughing and Screaming, Slashers, Shlock, Shock, Sleaze, and Trash Aesthetics
- Comedy Studies, Silent-Era Slapstick, Zaniness, Goofiness, Cringe, Gross-Out, Stoner Humor
- Porn Studies, Porn and Silly Registers, Only Fans and Virtual Sex Work, Fan Fiction
- Social Media, Silly Citizenship, Tik Tok, Letterboxd, Dank Memes, Cursed Images, CreepyPasta
- Pandemic Humor, COVID-19 Memes, Silliness in a (Post-)Pandemic, Nervous Laughter
- Digital Aesthetics of Failure, Inefficiency, Wasted Time, Buffering, Glitch, Noise, Decay
- Sound Studies, Sound Art, Popular Music Videos, Vaporwave, Accelerated Aesthetics
- Art History, Fluxus Art, Silly Social Disruption, Experimental Art Performances
- Avant-Garde Film and Cuteness, Lightness, Boredom, Slowness
- Crip Approaches to Silliness, Crip Humor, Disabling vs Disability Humor, “Freak Shows”
- Television Studies and Low Theory, Reality TV, Cooking Competitions, Game Shows
- Game Studies, Fun, Play, Casual Games, Fumblecore, “Queergaming” and Inefficiency
- Irreverence and Ecocriticism, Anti-sentimental Expressions of Environmentalism, Queer Ecology
- Silliness and Scholarly Seriousness in the Humanities and Media Studies
Please submit an abstract (~300 words) along with a short bio (~150 words) to the organizing committee co-chairs Basil Dababneh, Avery LaFlamme, Nicolas Rueda-Sabater, and Joel Sutherland by February 1, 2022. Email submissions to email@example.com. Please include “Name + Silly Media 2022 Submission” in the subject line. Conference presentations will be 15-20 minutes. We warmly welcome non-traditional, silly modes of presentation that can embody the spirit of the conference alongside traditional academic papers. Participants will be notified by mid-March. This conference will be held entirely in person.
1. Lauren Berlant, The Queen of America Goes to Washington City (Duke UP: Durham, 1997), 12.
2. Jeffrey Weinstock, “Bubba Ho-Tep and the Seriously Silly Cult Film,” in Science Fiction Double Feature: The Science Fiction Film as Cult Text (Liverpool UP; Liverpool, 2015), 235.
3. “silly, adj. 4.”. OED online. October 2021. Oxford English Dictionary.
4. Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness (Duke UP: Durham, 2010), 220.
5. Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness (Duke UP: Durham, 2010), 220.
6. Lauren Berlant, The Queen of America Goes to Washington City (Duke UP: Durham, 1997), 12.
7. Jack Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Duke UP: Durham, 2011), 20-21.
8. Racquel Gates, Double Negative: The Black Image and Popular Culture (Duke UP: Durham, 2018), 2.
9. Frederic Jameson, Late Marxism: Adorno, or, the Persistence of the Dialectic (Verso: London, 1990), 145.
10. Nicole Seymour, “Toward an Irreverent Ecocriticism,” Journal of Ecocriticism 4 no.2 (2012), 57.
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