Getting Back to Abnormal: Politics, Narrative, and Rhetoric in Filmmaking

Dr. Paul Stekler, Professor in the Department of Radio, Television, and Film and the Wofford Denius Chair in Entertainment Studies, led the Faculty Fellows seminar on September 19th, beginning with a short overview of what brought him to politics, and more specifically, what brought him to making documentaries like Getting Back to Abnormal (2013). Dr. Stekler credited his family for his lifelong interest in politics, stemming back to conversations with his grandfather on Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his first job working for a Republican congressman, among other things. Stekler has worked in a variety of political contexts since then, from the George McGovern campaign in 1972 to working with pollsters from The New York Times. His family spanned both sides of the aisle–his father, a Republican, helped him to get his first campaign work, while his mother is a lifelong Democrat. Stekler earned a doctorate degree in Government from Harvard University, and after working in academia as a political scientist for a number of years, he found his calling as a full-time filmmaker with a focus on politics.

Stekler showed the Fellows a series of clips from an NEH-funded film he made in 2000, titled George Wallace: Settin’ the Woods on Fire. The film allowed him, he explained, a new context in which to apply his political knowledge and background, but the challenge was presenting this information in a narrative appropriate to a broader audience. George Wallace, for Stekler, represented a transition point for American politics, and a documentary presented a unique opportunity to bring his conversations within academia into the mainstream.

Participants asked Stekler about his methods, from how he finds his subjects and characters to his methods for mapping the trajectory of a documentary film. Stekler emphasized narrative fundamentals, such as conflict, but he also noted the importance of finding an accessible subject–someone who would not only be open with the filmmaker, but who would be compelling to watch on the screen. Though crafting a story is of the utmost importance, Stekler explained that as a documentarian he seeks to balance storycraft, accuracy of representation, and visual interest. Several Fellows pondered what exactly could be told best in the context of documentaries and other projects for public audiences, and what academic and discipline-specific projects offers alongside more popular works. Participants agreed that although some work can be translated into popular projects, teaching also offers a venue for transmitting one’s research to the public.

Participants also raised questions about Stekler’s development as a documentarian. Much of his knowledge about filmmaking, and more generally, narrative, Stekler said, was learned through collaboration with other creatives. Stekler credited the producer of Eyes on the Prize, one of his first films, for teaching him some of the fundamental aspects of filmmaking–mainly, that the goal was to keep the audience watching. Overall, he admitted, he learned much of what he now knows about story from experience.

The conversation turned more specifically to Getting Back to Abnormal, and the variety of New Orleans documentaries that had been made in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Having lived in New Orleans himself, Stekler explained he had found many documentaries of post-Katrina New Orleans lacking what he identified as the city’s true character. Stekler told the group that he and his collaborators wanted to tell the story of whether or not New Orleans had changed, capturing something of what he saw to be New Orleans’ contradictory nature. Stekler shared that at the Controversy & Conversation screening of the film the week before at the Austin Public Library, he had the chance to rewatch it with a number of engaged audience members. During the discussion he led, a member of the audience asked what the film would look like if he had made it in 2019. Although Stekler felt that his connections to the city have grown more distant, making him “not the right person” to make a present-day version of the film, he believes that the sway between the joys and sorrows of the city are unlikely to have changed.

Looking towards the future, Stekler stated he was working to raise funds for a film on the McDonald Observatory and astronomy–moving from the politics of the city to the stars.

See Dr. Stekler’s career reel here.

 

Talking Power and Narrative Control: Language as a Human Project

The September 12th Faculty Fellows seminar featured guest speaker and seminar leader Robin Lakoff, Professor Emerita in the Department of Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, and a pioneering figure in the study of language and gender. Dr. Lakoff presented the Faculty Fellows group with a series of articles past and present, including a series of unpublished “snorts,” or short articles on a variety of different topics relating to linguistics, politics, and current events. Dr. Lakoff’s appearance at the Faculty Fellows seminar was one of three events she offered across campus during her visit to Austin. Lakoff participated in a moderated conversation with Dr. Elizabeth Keating, professor in the Department of Anthropology at UT-Austin, and later lectured on “Narrative Control and the Human Project” as part of the Humanities Institute’s Distinguished Visiting Lecture series on “Narrative and Social Justice.”

In the seminar, Lakoff expanded on many of the themes she discussed in her lecture, including a shift on the part of the media from political candidates’ personal stories to a focus on who is “controlling the narrative,” or the cultural conversation. Many in the seminar discussed the breakdown of communication in politics as a whole, examining the ways in which cultural narratives around American civility have shifted to narratives of control. Others pointed out the ways in which these narratives appear in the classroom, brainstorming methods of teaching students to identify bias and model analytic skills.

Responding to questions about how she came to her more recent interest in political rhetoric, Lakoff described both her current interest and her development as a scholar in linguistics. As she explained, she began her undergraduate studies at Harvard as a classicist, studying languages, philology–everything but classical literature itself, which she said was at that time typically left as the last step in a long path. Lakoff told the group how she had found herself becoming impatient with the pace of her program, and how she eventually began visiting Building 20 at MIT, the province, she said, of the “not-quite-academic” fields. There, she began to work with students in linguistics, who were in the active process of building the field from Noam Chomsky’s principles. They had thought, she reminisced, that they would eventually get a universal grammar through their work, but eventually linguists such as herself came to recognize the improbability of that task. Her own interests turned towards pragmatics, and her interest in gendered language began in that context.

Participants discussed the difference between Lakoff’s and Chomsky’s turn to politics (his pursued apart from linguistics, hers within it). Lakoff admitted that she did not consider herself a feminist scholar at the beginning of her career, but noted that a shift occurred when she began to delve more deeply into gendered semantics. She became fascinated by the way language represented intimacy and power dynamics through its more performative aspects.

The seminar participants discussed Lakoff’s assigned readings at length, including pieces discussed during Lakoff’s public talks. Participants pored over Lakoff’s article examining the concession and acceptance speeches of candidates during the 2000 presidential election. Some noted their surprise at speeches’ success, given the fraught state of affairs surrounding the Florida recount. Yet Lakoff asserted the importance of each speech act in reunifying the country, covering over the election’s drama with “business as usual.” Lakoff evoked again her concluding paragraph in the final minutes of the seminar, noting that the candidates headed off a constitutional crisis through a call to inaction–a prizing of social nicety over alarm, or action.

Biography as Political Science Methodology in The Strategist

Much like the previous week, seminar leader Bartholomew Sparrow began the Faculty Fellows seminar September 5th with a question: what qualities of biography make it most amenable to or consistent with science (specifically social science), and how can biography fit within academic research? Dr. Sparrow, Professor in the Department of Government, discussed the ways in which academic disciplines can determine narrative methodologies in relation to The Strategist: Brent Scowcroft and the Call of National Security, his 2015 biography of the former National Security Advisor of the U.S.

In his 2016 article published in Perspectives on Politics, “Why Would a Political Scientist Write a Biography?” Sparrow interrogated his own desire to write life stories. He in turn invited the seminar to discuss the merits and drawbacks of biography as a form of scholarship. Participants in the seminar pondered the methods that their own disciplines use to posit theories or hypotheses, uncover previously unknown facts, and discuss new approaches to problems. Many noted that the Fellows were discussing different ways of approaching truth, or approaching knowledge as a whole. One participant noted that disciplinarity was similar to upholstery–depending on your discipline, a scholar might be more inclined towards making their reader comfortable and their prose more accessible, but (despite some views to the contrary) “upholstering” one’s facts with more accessible language does not necessarily remove its structural integrity as a piece of scholarship.

The seminar’s conversation turned to academia’s frequent struggles to position researchers in relation to their audience, and to their subject matter. There might be a desire to view certain disciplines as more objective, but as participants noted, acknowledging one’s own position as interpreter, observer, and/or researcher does not necessarily make a work less truthful, or less valuable. Biographies, as some participants noted, are not infrequently sold for either entertainment or for a more political agenda, making their status occasionally uncertain within the academy. However, others noted that elements of biography appear in a variety of fields, from anthropology to psychology, and that certain works of biography occupy areas of heady scholarship. Biography can serve as a potential case study, some suggested, or narration of biographical subjects’ individual agency in the historical periods in which they exist. Humanities might provide a “softer chair,” offering material that general audiences find easier to digest, but using a humanities methodology such as biography can yield potentially significant results.

Sparrow noted his own struggles with such questions, particularly with respect to writing about one specific person whose historical period is only a few decades in the past. His biography owed much to his political science background and grounding scholarship, but it additionally owed thanks to the Scowcroft family, Scowcroft’s colleagues, and Scowcroft himself, all of whom provided interviews. Working with a subject who primarily operated behind the scenes could prove difficult for Sparrow’s research, and his work was further complicated by being first–Scowcroft had not yet had a biography written about him, making Sparrow’s task both more flexible and more linear, or prosaic.

Participants praised Sparrow’s writing style, noting how approachable the chapters they read from the biography are. Many also noted the structures that emerged from Scowcroft’s story, highlighting Sparrow’s work to both uncover the person and the larger system and bureaucracy in which he participated. As seminar participants discussed, biography operates as a means of individualizing history, preserving subjects’ agency while also uncovering facts about the systems in which they participate, or in which they find themselves caught.

Biography might have the added possibility of describing the ways individuals move or are moved through their historical period, providing readers the experience of what a historical period might feel like, rather than what it has wrought. Biography–and narratives in general–might be chronicles of these waves of agency and passivity within an individual life, mirroring, perhaps, the scholar’s own impulse to write. The seminar concluded with the firm affirmation that participants were eager to read more of Sparrow’s biography to find out just what happened next.

Rewriting the Story of Similes in Epic Poetry

The Fall 2019 Faculty Fellows Seminar began on August 29th with a session led by Dr. Deborah Beck, Associate Professor in the Department of Classics. Dr. Beck shared her unpublished interdisciplinary project on epic simile, entitled The Stories of Similes in Greek and Roman Epic. The book aims to engage with epic simile as a linguistic comparison between two narratives given equal weight–the mythological story (or plot) and the simile. Dr. Beck’s book will also emphasize the importance of simile in five ancient epics, including Homer’s Iliad and Apollonius’s Argonautica.

Similes proliferate throughout common speech, containing complex thoughts and concepts in everything from day-to-day conversation to novels and stories. Rather than ornamental, similes fulfill a specific narrative function for epic poems, creating complex webs of relationships between similes across the work. Extended similes–or similes that span more than the simple standard of “x is like y”– in epic poetry in particular cover repeat topics, for instance using a span of several similes to vividly portray a shepherd and his flock. Beck noted that she herself was engaged in a kind of simile or at least complex comparison in her own project, comparing the story outlined in these similes to the mythological story as mutually constitutive. Essential to Beck’s own complex interweaving is the project’s digital component, a database that catalogued the 486 extended similes that appear in these epic poems. This database will stand as its own scholarly resource after the book’s publication.

Both in her assigned blog post, “On Reading (And Writing) for Pleasure” and in the seminar, Beck advocated for an approach to narrative that would “create conversations about specialized ideas in which both the learned and the not-as-learned can participate with enjoyment.” She aimed to begin her seminar with similar considerations, questioning seminar participants’ own use of narrative and storytelling, and questioning the ways in which they found their own discipline intersecting with Beck’s readings for the week. Before the seminar began to unpack the details of Beck’s work, Beck provided participants the opportunity to reflect on the assigned readings with a short freewriting icebreaker, asking the seminar to consider the connections to their own discipline and anything  they found surprising about what they had read. This beginning exercise opened several lines of conversation between participants, including the benefits and/or drawbacks of viewing The Iliad as solely an oral text versus a written text, and the kinds of listening/reading engagement that epic poetry encourages by including extended similes. Some participants declared that the similes made the poems much more porous than they otherwise would have been, providing multiple ways of engaging with the work, while others noted that rather than consistent active engagement, the similes allowed a looser reading or listening style, allowing readers to focus on the similes they most preferred.

Some seminar participants responded to  Beck’s emphasis on distinguishing  narrative from story. Beck affirmed that her formulation of narrative had more to do with the story that arises from both the similes and the mythological story (plot). In other words, “story” refers to the events being narrated, while “narrative” also includes the way those events are presented to the audience, including the use of abundant interrelated similes in the case of The Iliad.  Pursuant to this, participants noted that what struck them about the selections of The Illiad they had been tasked to read was the humanist message that arose from the interplay of simile and story. Similes have a visual, and indeed almost performative quality that forces the reader to consider themselves in relation to the text, interpolating their own viewpoint and experience. Additionally, many noted that the project’s digital database lent itself to a  non-linear approach to narrative.

The conversation turned to the kinds of narratives participants frequently draw on in their own disciplines and in their own writing. Beck and seminar participants pondered the ways in which storytelling, simile, metaphor, and language as a whole structures their own work, including how accessible to non-specialists their work is or isn’t. Beck herself noted in college, she only fell in love with The Iliad after she read Book 24 in Greek and found herself deeply affected by the power of Priam’s plea to Achilles for his son’s body. Similarly, seminar participants noted, the power of storytelling lies in its ability to promote empathy for more than one side of a conflict. Storytelling can create unexpected inroads for readers across disciplines–a feature session leaders may yet explore over the course of the fall seminar.

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