Philadelphia, Pa.—College students everywhere can swap stories about the flights of fancy English professors take when they go off topic. Still, I was not quite prepared for the derailment I got when I attended a forum on “Terrorism, Technology and Visual Media” and found myself watching a slide show featuring an apparently naked artist sitting on a pyramid the hard way.
Even at the Modern language Association’s annual convention, whose Division on Popular Culture sponsored the panel, the presentation helped show just how loosely the higher education establishment now defines the term “liberal arts.” Because the next slide of the same unrobed artist was more complicated, the presenter, UC-Riverside associate professor Jennifer Doyle, felt compelled to offer some narration.
“Ron Athey, who was prominent in the NEA wars of the 1990s, does a self-exhibit in which he lay naked on metal rods,” Ms. Doyle explained. “As you can see, he’s got a baseball bat rammed up his a**.”
“Athey invited members of the audience in New York to touch him,” Ms. Doyle reported. “All of those who did so were women.” So the photos were not the art itself but a recapturing of the work in progress. Ms. Doyle’s presentation was entitled “‘The Agony of Touch’: Mediated Feeling.”
Arguably, Ms. Doyle’s co-stars on the panel—George Mason University’s Cynthia Fuchs and Boston College’s Cynthia Ann Young—stayed closer to the topic at hand, although their talks did make one wonder whether anyone reads books anymore, even with an advanced degree. “I watch a lot of TV,” says Dr. Fuchs, who heads GMU’s film and media studies department. “I am not an expert on Battlestar Galactica.”
“I know 24 and Sleeper Cell cold, which is kind of scary.” She showed clips from all of the above but added a note on the sexually charged vignette the audience got to see from Battlestar Galactica. “The frenzy of this left a friend of mine wondering if I should be showing this to academics,” Dr. Fuchs said. Evidently her friend never caught the Ron Athey show.
For her part, BC’s Dr. Young is “wondering why after 9/11 black men on TV are leads, not sidekicks.” She views the heroes as “black male bodies protecting white bodies.”
She sees in the war on terror a “Neoconservative Imperialism”—
• “Empire is built on conquest, genocide, enslavement and imperialism,” she explains.
• “The Bush Agenda is a desire for white majority order,” she offers.
As evidence, she points to The Unit, “a Top 20 show nobody in the room watches and it’s on CBS so it’s not a fringe thing.” The author of Soul Power: Cultural Radicalism and the Making of a U.S. Third World Left, Dr. Young heads the Black Studies department at BC.
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