Thinking Media Through Space

Lagos, July 2011
[Ed. note: this post is part of a Q&A session on a new edited volume, Global Cinematic Cities. For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here. All contributor responses in this series have been lightly edited for length and clarity. Click on the contributors’ names for more information about their work.]

We asked the contributors of our edited volume, Global Cinematic Cities, five questions about their own chapters in the book in the larger context of their thoughts about the cinematic city, its role in scholarship, its impact on urban living, and its future. Our first question was: “what does a spatial or geographical perspective have to offer film and media studies today?” Our contributors’ responses are below.

Joanna Page, Director of the Centre of Latin American Studies, University of Cambridge:

Spatial and geographical perspectives are vital in challenging the universalist pretensions of many contemporary theories of society, culture and media, which are very quick to discount local practices if they do not fit their frameworks. … They encourage us to think about difference without falling into essentialism. For years now I have found Doreen Massey’s notion of place very useful in thinking about how national cinemas negotiate a position within global culture. For Massey, place does not have to be bounded or defined by being in counterposition to the “outside.” Instead, it is constituted by the particularity of the links it forges with that “outside,” which therefore becomes part of what constitutes that place.1Massey, Doreen. Space, Place, and Gender. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994 In my chapter for Global Cinematic Cities, I explore contemporary theories of mediatization and media ecology that for me bring a very useful counterbalance to those discourses that emphasize the rise of virtual experience, wireless networking, and globalization. They help us to understand the extent to which both spectatorship and urban experience are always embodied, and thoroughly embedded in the material and the local.

 

Christian Long, Honorary Research Fellow, University of Queensland:

A geographic perspective can make a generalization like “American” much more specific about the where of America, and how it has moved around the map. In a lot of film studies, “Hollywood” describes an ideology and it describes an industrial process, but it doesn’t describe the actual suburb of Los Angeles. To even say “Los Angeles” assumes a kind of uniformity that doesn’t exist. Suburbia (Spheeris, 1983) and Lethal Weapon 2 (Donner, 1989) both take place in Los Angeles, but Downey and the Hollywood Hills are two very different places, from their built environment to their socio-economic profile to their demographics. To explain why I use a geographical and spatial approach in my research with an anecdote: I didn’t have strong feelings about Burt Reynolds before I noticed that of all the hit movies of the 1970s, only Burt Reynolds movies consistently took place in the contemporary south, which was the only region of the country that saw its economy and population grow over the decade. Once I saw the map of hit movie locations, I started to like Burt Reynolds, because “Burt Reynolds as a movie star is a symptom of a re-orientation of the US’s cultural centre of gravity” is the sort of argument that a person outside of academic film studies might actually want to read.

 

Igor Krstić, Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Reading:

Back in 2012, I taught an undergraduate seminar at the University of Mannheim titled “World Cinema and the Topos of the Slum,” which gave me vital impulses for the completion of my PhD thesis on the representation of slums, favelas, bidonvilles etc. in world cinema (a revised version of which has now been published). Interestingly, the class discussions focused on the urban geographies shown in these films (how they map the respective city centres in relation to their outskirts) or on the relation between on- and off-screen spaces (differences between real and represented slums), rather than on ethical questions regarding the representation of the urban poor (what I was actually expecting) or on generic classifications (whether there is a “slum film” genre and how one should define it). Given its strong appeal to younger students as well as to more experienced researchers, it is no surprise that the spatial perspective has become such a well-established paradigm in our field today. However, looking at it from my – let’s call it “slums-eye” – perspective, I still feel that there is a lack of proper engagement with the “politics of space” or with the “production of spatial inequalities,” as well as with non-Western cities and geographies.

 

Malini Guha, Assistant Professor, Carleton University:

Such perspectives allow film and media studies to engage with some of the most pressing political questions of our times that have everything to do with space and place. Certainly conflicts unfolding across the globe in relationship to migration, ecological devastation, police brutality and terrorism (to only name a few), are spatialized in their orientation. To emphasize the significance of the spatial and the geographical within studies of film and media cultures is to assert that space/place continues to matter to the mechanics of globalization. However, the emphasis on circulation, as the primary optic through which cinemas of the world should be viewed, is in danger of eclipsing the spatial politics of circulation, which must also be emphasized in relationship to larger geopolitical understandings of the globe across various historical periods.

 

Jonathan Haynes, Professor, Long Island University:

It’s especially important to understand a film industry’s spatial conditions when we’re dealing with an industry like Nigeria’s Nollywood, where assumptions formed in the North will lead us astray. I start with James Ferguson’s account of how neoliberalism skips across Africa, creating nodes of connection with global capitalism but leaving out most territory—and most people. Abdul Maliq Simone’s notion of “fragmented incorporation” is also influential in the Africanist circles I move in: he shows how Africans construct precarious individual connections to the global economy, but their cities as wholes are left disembedded. It’s hard to keep up with Africa: these theories, written in the days of “Afropessimism,” don’t describe the sudden intrusion of foreign direct investment in the last ten years or the conflict between transnational capitalism and Nigerian institutions—informal ones, but institutions nonetheless. I’m trying to produce a complex understanding of a complex reality.

 

Pei-Sze Chow, Researcher, University College London:

Spatial perspectives are valuable in that they encourage a refocusing of our critical lens to understand how screen texts are embedded within a larger “ecosystem” that includes not only screen practitioners and institutions, but also environment, landscape, policy, and transnational mobilities. For me, thinking spatially and geographically about film and TV in small nations means thinking beyond the image to understand the interplay among culture, history, and politics at local and global scales, and how this produces the texts that audiences view on (different) screens.

[Global Cinematic Cities is available in the UK on Sept. 7 and in the US on Sept. 13]

 

Notes   [ + ]

1. Massey, Doreen. Space, Place, and Gender. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994

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