The Gains of an Open Call for Questions in the 2014 Flow Conference
Charlotte Howell / University of Texas, Austin

Greetings from Austin

“Television is about everything.”

“Television is about everything.” When Howard Rosenberg said this in the first ever Core Conversation at Flow 2014, little did he know that he was echoing the central idea of Flow, both the journal and the conference. Each Flow conference traces the centrifugal reach of television and television studies: reaching forward and backward from the present, beyond the television text, medium, industry, and technology to further understand the mediated world we inhabit. Just as television is ever expanding outward, so too is the Flow conference, this year more than ever before.

Among the changes to the conference this year, two major alterations stand out: the addition of Core Conversations, plenaries meant to serve as both shared texts for the conference-goers and engagements with the wider Austin and University of Texas community; and opening the call for questions to the wider media studies community to garner new questions and perspectives for the Flow roundtables. Other columns in this special issue will cover the Core Conversations which, like any grand experiment, could use some tweaking to improve future iterations. In this column, I mostly focus on an overview of the conference roundtables, the central, lively discussions that break down the standard conference format and encourage open, non-hierarchical conversations among media scholars. The roundtables continue to be spaces for interrogating the key concerns of media studies, television studies particularly. Each Flow conference, the organizers try to craft a program that allows for both breadth and depth of topics in the hopes that Flow can be a space for building the community and shared language of television and media studies. This goal is why we chose to open the call for questions for Flow 2014. Although certain concerns persist from Flow conference to Flow conference—streaming, franchises/ing, notions of quality and canon, and issues of representation continue to be unresolved conversations in media studies—this year featured many new kinds of questions to wrestle with at Flow.

Remote control

In the “By Design” roundtable, one of the responses to this year’s open call for questions, convener Caetlin Benson-Allott discussed the implications of the remote control among other media interfaces.

Among theses new topics were discussions of material histories of the interface’s design and the place of theory in media studies. Both roundtables brought theory into explicit focus to a degree new to Flow. Convened by Caetlin Benson-Allott, the “By Design: Material Histories of Media Interfaces and Cultures” roundtable brought issues of technological design, theories of technological containment and regulation, and media epistemology to Flow in one roundtable. The responses engaged across disciplines and theoretical borders, adding a layer of new understanding and new questioning of how we interact with media and technology. Although theoretical frameworks and key figures like Gramsci are in no way new or under-utilized at Flow conferences of the past, theory has a history of being overshadowed by questions of audience, text, and industry. “By Design” and “Theory: How Can Media Studies Make ‘The T Word’ More User-Friendly?” brought theory to the forefront of their discussions with new perspectives and concerns.

Planet Earth

In his approach to “the T word,” Drew Ayers uses post/nonhumanism to look at texts like Planet Earth, a concept also examined by Shane Denson on the roundtable

The “Theory: How Can Media Studies Make ‘The T Word’ More User-Friendly?” roundtable, proposed by Hollis Griffin, indicates toward the false dichotomy and institutional discourse that positions theory as oppositional to media studies. The roundtable itself spent much of its time discussing how to combat this idea of theory for our students, our departments, and our institutions, while asserting that “the T word” is integral to how media scholars do what we do. The respondents discussed both practical and pedagogical approaches to teaching and doing theory as scholars, including finding the balance between discomfiting our students and gaining victories as they progress in their study and use of theory. Eventually, the conversation dovetailed with another recurring concern that got a newly-focused place in the program: meta-discussions about the state of the field.

So What?

In the “Getting Back to the ‘So What?'” roundtable, Michael Kackman, Mary Celeste Kearney, Julia Himberg, Melissa Click, and Christopher Cwynar explored important questions about the relevance of TV and Media Studies today.

In Michael Kackman’s “Getting Back to ‘So What?’” question, he posited, “As the objects and cultures we study have diversified, so too has our field — but at the cost of some of the political and cultural resonance of our arguments.” In the neoliberal university environment, how do we negotiate television studies’ political roots within systems that are resistant? The respondents of this roundtable offered practical means and polemical calls for action to wed our scholarship with social change. A focused space in which to turn our collective critical eye toward our own field can be difficult but is imperative, which is why in the past it often occurred in other roundtables that tangentially related. This roundtable, like the theory roundtables, provided space, time, and people to attempt a collaborative critique and way forward. This roundtable, in many ways, is a paragon of the Flow conference: its roundtable participants included senior and junior faculty and a graduate student; its question is one that we often talk about between panels at other conferences; the topic was relevant to both the field and our place in it; the roundtable featured a deep connection to the past while looking to the future; discussion was lively and engaging with the audience; collaborative, pedagogical, and practical responses were offered; and the community of television and media scholars was strengthened.

New perspectives, new questions, and new voices are what will keep Flow progressing in the future. Opening the call for questions from the start of planning is the best way to do that. This year, that was one of our greatest (and easiest) triumphs while planning the conferences; the level and types of questions we received once we opened up the call were wonderful and eye-opening. The community of scholars who attend Flow and are invested in the conference continues to grow and produce some of the best questions and discussions about television and media in the academy. That community continues to be strengthened as we all work together every two years to grapple with the questions that need discussing, seeing old friends, meeting new colleagues, and becoming reinvigorated for our work. Television is about everything, indeed, especially as you clink you Shiners at Flow conferences and proclaim “Texas Forever.”

Image Credits:
1. Greetings from Austin
2. Remote control
3. Planet Earth
4. So What?

Please feel free to comment.

The Fantastic, Feminist Religion of Wonderfalls
Charlotte Howell / FLOW Staff

Jaye and wax lion

Jaye Tyler, holding a wax lion, the first voice

Jaye Tyler hears voices. The protagonist of the short-lived 2004 FOX series, Wonderfalls, Jaye is a twenty-four year-old graduate of Brown University, working a minimum wage job at a Niagara Falls tourist shop, when the cheap collectibles and animal figurines around her begin to open their mouths and speak. This is the fantastic premise of the show, pushed to its whimsical limit by creators Bryan Fuller and Todd Holland. Beyond the whimsy of seeing a “smooshed-face” wax lion—among others—tell Jaye what to do, however, I argue that the program can be read as doing serious work regarding the gendered negotiations of religion. This is a subject that I am personally interested in as a feminist television scholar whose personal belief system is syncretic and flexible, for I seek to analyze the ways in which religions are portrayed as closed or open—or somewhere between—on television and, in this essay, particularly on Wonderfalls.

This feminist approach borrows from both Mary Daly’s assertion in Beyond God the Father that feminists must move beyond the phallocentric language-symbol system of Christianity and Teresa de Lauretis’ postulation of feminist work in the margins. Daly writes, “The method of [religious] liberation, then, involves a castrating of language and images that reflect and perpetuate the structures of a sexist world. It castrates precisely in the sense of cutting away the phallocentric value system imposed by patriarchy.” (( Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1973), 9.)) In Wonderfalls, this manifests as Jaye’s refusal to label her experiences with the voices within the Christian language system, though she was brought up within it. Jaye says in the first episode, “Are you Satan? Are you God? If you don’t say anything in five seconds I’m going to assume you’re Satan. 1, 2, 3, 4—oh god, I’m a crazy person.” (( “Wound-Up Penguin,” Wonderfalls: The Complete Series.)) That moment of realization, played for laughs, reveals at one level that Jaye thinks she might be crazy for hearing the voices. However, the shift from direct address of Satan or God through the voices to the use of the colloquial phrase “oh god” as an interjection highlights the way in which the word has already in a sense been linguistically “castrated.” After that moment, Jaye’s questioning shifts to why they speak to her instead of who is speaking. The shift away from labels to more personal and practical connections invited by the “why?” question opens the voices to interpretation as symbols for which there could be many meanings. Meaning-making shifts from the speaker to the questioner.

assorted muses

The voices speak through many objects.

Within the narrative of Wonderfalls, Jaye never gives the voices a label. Different characters at different times call them God, Satan, figments of Jaye’s psyche, or spirits. Jaye refers to them always in pronouns—you, they, them, but rarely it—and the credits label them “muses.” Jaye explains her position: “I believe in something, sort of, and it does talk to me and may actually be God, but has never said so specifically [. . . ]They sometimes keep me up all night [. . .] I don’t even know what they are. However, I do know they talk—or something talks through them.” (( Ibid.)) The thrust of Jaye’s monologue is not what is doing the talking but how the talking affects her, bracketed by indeterminate hedging on the matter of who or what. This keeps the possibilities of meaning open for Jaye and for the viewer.

Her movement away from a religious system of language and symbols also reflects de Lauretis’ assertion that women and feminists move within the “space-off [. . .] spaces in the margins of hegemonic discourses, social spaces carved in the interstices of institutions and in the chinks and cracks of the power-knowledge apparati.” ((Teresa de Lauretis, The Technologies of Gender, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), 25.)) Jaye not only speaks in willfully indeterminate terms of the voices but she also positions herself—and moves the voices—to the margins of the capitalist system. Jaye chooses to move within the “space-off” of capitalism by working a minimum wage job, living in a trailer park, and stealing the tchotchkes through which the voices speak. Her movement to the margins of the capitalist system, however, is part of her wider movement in that “space-off” that I find most provocative in terms of religion.

Trailer Park

Jaye’s home at the High and Dry Trailer Park

Jaye exists within the hesitancy of the fantastic, defined by Tzvetan Todorov as the uncertainty between two explanations of a fantastic experience for characters within fiction: an uncanny illusion of the senses or an affirmation of the marvelous unknown. ((Tvetsan Todorov, “The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre,” Fantastic Literature: A Critical Reader, (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004), 136.)) Jaye’s position in the “space-off,” however, draws power from this position of hesitancy as it fits into the marginal worldview. The “space-off” allows for shifting power from the two possible outcomes of the fantastic event of hearing voices—insanity or God, both of which would give power to who or what is speaking—to the one who experiences the event. Within the moment of hesitancy, all possibilities are open. Jaye’s refusal to move away from the fantastic by labeling the voices or the experience within a known language-symbol system sustains the possibilities of both the uncanny and the marvelous explanations. Jaye has the power to choose either or to maintain her fantastic position with the openness of both.

Jen Why

Bianca as Jaye as “Jen Why?”

Jaye has the power to open religious space for young feminists because the show explicitly creates her—and allows her to create herself—as a metonymic symbol for Generation Y. In “Karma Chameleon,” Jaye discovers herself the subject of a young journalist’s investigative article about Generation Y. By the directive of the voice of that week, a plush chameleon, Jaye writes the article herself but submits it under the name of the young journalist, Bianca Knowles. Bianca dresses as Jaye and is pictured on the magazine cover, advertising “The Truth About Generation ‘Y’.” Through this mutual appropriation of identity—Jaye writes as Bianca and Bianca dresses as Jaye—Jaye becomes the arbiter of the truth of Gen Y. Jaye’s significance, thus, expands to the wider world not only within the text but also outside of it. By giving Jaye that mantle within the text, the writers draw attention to Jaye’s possible role as symbol outside the text. She can be “Jen Why?” for both the text and the world which it resembles—the world of the audience.

As the symbol for a generation of young women, Jaye perhaps creates a new path for feminist religion on television: maintaining the openness of the fantastic hesitancy and embracing the pragmatic power of religion by paradoxically refusing to use religious labels. She can work toward a castration of phallocentric language systems while refusing to reify her position either against that system or within a new system. In this, Wonderfalls may provide a new way of looking at religion for Generation-Y feminists.

Image Credits:
1. Jaye Tyler, holding a wax lion, the first voice
2. The voices speak through many objects.
3. Jaye’s home at the High and Dry Trailer Park
4. Bianca as Jaye as “Jen Why?”

Please feel free to comment.