Cocktail Parties and Archives: Historicizing Artists and Collective Experience

By Ricky Shear, HI Graduate Research Assistant

Dr. Ann Reynolds, Associate Professor of Art History, led the February 7th meeting of the Spring 2019 Faculty Fellows Seminar. Reynolds shared part of her current book project, In Our Time, and presented several of her primary sources from the Harry Ransom Center’s archives to the seminar for discussion. According to Reynolds, In Our Time “will provide a history of intergenerational relationships among New York artists circa 1940–1970 that were shaped by shared, if heterogeneous, commitments to Surrealism and its legacy, primarily through a love of film.” As in her first book, Robert Smithson: Learning From New Jersey and Elsewhere, Reynolds is conducting archival research to reveal the nuanced historical and social context for the work and lives of mid-20th century American artists in In Our Time. Reynolds’s discussion focused on a part of the book that explores the ways that cocktail parties provided a unique environment for New York artists and other socialites to develop and reflect on those relationships.

For Reynolds, the “cocktail party’s collectively recognized social etiquette allowed somewhat heterogeneous groups of individuals to know how to be together” and therefore “could provide the context for personal confirmations of or epiphanies about the constitution and character of different New York circles and an individual’s ever shifting position within them relative to others.” Because the cocktail party’s buzzing conversational and alcohol-loosened social space played a significant role in bringing artists and critics like Robert Duncan and Clement Greenberg into a fluctuating but ubiquitous (at least within the New York social scene in the 1940s) collective social experience, Reynolds examined descriptions and representations of cocktail parties in personal accounts, fiction, and film to generate a composite description of the cocktail party experience and its ability to provide people loosely structured and influential contact with each other. She explained that considering how narratives of prominent and common social events like cocktail parties can provide “indirect images of ‘forgotten’ relationships among individuals” and a “deeper sense of how collectivity and sociality were experienced” that may allow us “to imagine historical narratives differently.”

Reynolds provided additional perspective on the research methodology by putting the seminar face to face with the journals and scrapbooks of Parker Tyler, an American poet and critic during the 1920s and through the early 1970s. Though Tyler is relatively obscure now, he was a well-known film critic in his time. Reynolds emphasized the indispensability of archives to constructing historical narratives by noting that attending to information revealed by marginalia, personal letters, etc. often supports narratives significantly different from those crafted based on widespread assumptions. She also identified the challenges of constructing a historical narrative about Tyler, a central figure within the collection of artists on which In Our Time focuses, from photographs and journal entries in the Harry Ransom Center archives. In examining these documents the seminar saw how fragments of Tyler’s life such as the intentional arrangement of uncaptioned pictures of friends and Roman art works raise as many questions as they answer for someone attempting to piece together the story of an artist’s relationships with his craft and his companions.

In addition to expressing interest in aspects of the cocktail party such as when and how it enabled people of various racial and sexual identities to mingle and attendees’ awareness of and responses to parties’ social hierarchies, Faculty Fellows engaged Reynolds in a discussion of how and why documents like those in the Parker Tyler collection enter archives. The seminar’s discussion suggested that understanding why an artist, family member, or collector came to sell a collection to an archive—whether it was to support themselves, have their work archived next to that of an inspirational figure, or make their personal documents available to the public, for example—influences how we use and interpret archival documents to construct historical narratives about those who created them.

See the Humanities Institute’s website for more information about the Faculty Fellows Seminar and the 2018-2020 class of Faculty Fellows.

#Wherestherepresentation?: Transmedia Narrative and Erasure

By Ricky Shear, HI Graduate Research Assistant

Dr. Suzanne Scott, Assistant Professor of Media Studies in the Department of Radio-Television-Film, shared her work at the February 7 meeting of the 2019 UT Humanities Institute’s Faculty Fellow Seminar. Dr. Scott used examples from Harry Potter, Star Wars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and other well-known franchises to explore a phenomenon she calls “transmedia erasure.” Drawing on Henry Jenkins’ conception of “transmedia storytelling,” Scott defined the phenomenon as a “complex yet coherent narrative told across media platforms (e.g. film, comics, webisodes, novels, etc.).” Transmedia franchises like those mentioned above have become “increasingly central to…media production culture and companies,” but the increasing prevalence of transmedia storytelling has revealed a troubling tendency to put characters from “already marginalized or underrepresented” groups on the “periphery” of the complex narratives transmedia franchises create.

Transmedia franchises’ narrative peripheries consist of media platforms that reach smaller audiences and are relatively inexpensive to produce such as comics, by contrast with better known and more lucrative media platforms such as films. Scott also argued that transmedia erasure can be carried out when creators ascribe a marginalized identity to a character in an interview or tweet and then that identity goes unexplored in films. Examples of this include when J.K. Rowling tweeted that Albus Dumbledore is gay or when Solo co-writer Jonathan Kasdan revealed that Lando Calrissian is pansexual and neither Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald  nor Solo explicitly acknowledged these characters’ sexuality. According to Scott, where and how media producers decide to represent underrepresented characters in transmedia narratives reveals which demographics media producers are invested in cultivating or maintaining as fans and the extent of the producer’s “commitment to representational diversity.” “Low-risk” peripheral representations of underrepresented characters reveal a disingenuous interest in cultivating fans from marginalized groups and an inadequate commitment to representational diversity.

Scott discussed the “#Wheresrey?” phenomenon as another example of transmedia erasure, an argument laid out more fully in her essay, “#Wheresrey?: Toys, spoilers, and the gender politics of franchise paratexts.” Here Scott argues that the social media campaign criticizing Disney’s decision to exclude Rey from the initial toy release for Star Wars: The Force Awakens revealed Disney’s lack of investment in cultivating fans who identify with a female protagonist. Scott understands toys as a medium that fans (particularly young fans) use to participate in and transform transmedia narratives. For such fans, which toys get produced and how they get marketed can significantly affect their experience of a transmedia narrative’s meanings and implications. Scott’s understanding of toys as tools for narrative creation derives from her definition of narrative as a “circuit of meaning produced between [the industry, audience, and text].” For Scott, fans playing with toys and/or writing fan fiction (which often foregrounds characters with underrepresented identities) are not only narrative consumers but are also narrative producers who shape the meaning of transmedia narratives through their own narrative creation and interpretation.

Faculty fellows responded to Scott’s presentation by questioning the consequences of fan fiction that is racist or misogynist, noting that fan participation in transmedia narratives can also take the form of viciously denigrating marginalized people or groups. Other faculty fellows found ways to apply Scott’s observations about the nature of transmedia narrative and fans to texts from their own fields, including ancient biblical texts and Homer’s Odyssey, indicating that transmedia storytelling, fan fiction, and fans’ desire to participate in the creation of transmedia narratives are by no means recent developments, even if they have historically specific forms and significance.

For more on transmedia storytelling and transmedia erasure see these sources:

“Transmedia Storytelling 101”—(Confessions of an ACA-Fan)

“Lando Calrissian’s newfound ‘pansexuality’ is bullshit” –(The Verge)

“Dumbledore Won’t Be Explicitly Gay in Fantastic Beasts 2—but Why?” –(Vanity Fair)

See the Humanities Institute’s website for more information about the Faculty Fellows Seminar and the 2018-2020 class of Faculty Fellows.

Comprehensive Care and the Stories We Tell About Ourselves

By Ricky Shear, HI Graduate Research Assistant

Dr. David Ring, Associate Dean for Comprehensive Care, professor of surgery and perioperative care, and courtesy professor of psychiatry at the Dell Medical School, led the first Spring 2019 meeting of the University of Texas Humanities Institute’s Faculty Fellows Seminar. In keeping with the FFS’s theme, “Narrative Across the Disciplines,” Dr. Ring suggested that attending to and understanding personal narratives is essential to providing comprehensive healthcare. When Ring meets with patients he not only considers how best to treat their broken hands or sore shoulders but also strives to understand the narrative they have constructed about themselves and their health in response to injury or illness. Is the patient a musician who sees her broken hand as  having the potential to bring  a tragic and irreversible end to her passion and career? Or is he a high school swimmer who views his sore shoulder as a painful obstacle that should be fixed as quickly as possible? A proponent of the “biopsychosocial paradigm of medicine,” Ring believes that “thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and context are as important as or more important than pathophysiology (when the body is not working as designed)” to getting and staying healthy. Therefore, attending to patient narratives like those outlined above enables him to understand how care may influence or be influenced by patients’ narratives and their associated contexts, thoughts, and emotions. This helps clinicians provide treatment that guides patients to construct narratives that enhance resiliency.

In his article (co-written with Dr. Claiborne Johnston, Dean of the Dell Medical School), “Your Best Life: Resiliency and the Art of Medicine,” Ring cites several studies which suggest that patients’ resiliency (defined by Ring as “the underlying ability to respond positively to adversity such as that brought about by disease”) can positively influence the intensity and magnitude of their symptoms (the reduction of the intensity and frequency of chronic arthritis pain, for example). Ring argues that patients can develop and deploy resiliency by constructing certain kinds of narratives, and that doctors invested in comprehensive care can provide patients with tools to restructure their narratives and develop their resiliency. According to Ring,constructing healthy narratives is the essence of disciplines such as cognitive behavioral therapy with health benefits that are strongly supported by scientific evidence. Ring points out that lines of evidence, including those related to the placebo effect (when people feel better and can do more even when interventions are inert), emphasize the importance of establishing personal connections between doctors and patients, and he writes that having a “trusting and compassionate patient-doctor relationship, where the physician encourages the patient to be involved in their own care” is one of the “core elements of a comprehensive approach to healthcare.”

A number of seminar participants responded to Ring’s take on narrative and comprehensive care by reflecting on the role(s) that narrative has played or could play in their own health and medical experiences or those of their friends and family. That it felt natural to make connections between personal experiences and Ring’s discussion of the importance of narrative to health and comprehensive care suggested that the discussion struck many as potentially impactful in their day-to-day experiences with illness and injury as both patients and caretakers. These reflections on personal experiences related to health, healthcare, and narrative also led seminar participants to interrogate the group’s use of the word “narrative” and pose a pair of questions that will likely pervade seminar meetings going forward: how do we define narrative and what counts as narrative and what doesn’t? Puzzling over and making connections between faculty fellows’ various answers to these questions will likely be an exciting and thought-provoking component of future seminar meetings. Ring’s own answer is that human identity itself counts as a narrative. It is “the story we tell about ourselves,” the kind of story that needs to be sought out and heard by healthcare providers, because stories we tell about ourselves as resilient, vulnerable, inadequate, etc. may impact our health in ways too significant to be ignored.

Click the following links for more information about the Humanities Institute’s Faculty Fellow Seminar and the Faculty Fellows themselves.