The Annual Conference of the Popular Culture Association (2013)

I spent much of the past week at the conference of the (cumbersomely-monikered) Popular Culture Association / American Culture Association in Washington DC. This was my third time at this annual dance, easily among the most exciting of the academic conferences on offer to intellectuals with non-traditional interests.

The PCA/ACA comprises a vast and highly diverse collection of some 2,500 international scholars who come together to share their work on what many people might dismiss as “hobbies” — video games, comic books, sci-fi films, fantasy literature, kink and BDSM, vampires, internet culture, pulp fiction, the ’60s, pop music, whatever and etc. And, the detractors are sort of correct. This conference is largely about intellectual engagement with “hobbies”. But, importantly, it is designed to offer a space in which the meaning(s) of such “hobbies” can be taken seriously.

The best of this scholarship seeks to clarify and explicate the world in which we actually live by refusing to brush off popular pursuits (what we used to call low culture, I suppose) as intellectually inert.

By exploring much of what is truly relevant to the average person living in our media- and pop culture-saturated 21st century scenes, the best of this conference can feel positively revelatory. The sudden shock of So this is what that entertainment might mean can take on a kind of ecstatic quality in our addled world.

Of course, at its worst the conference wallows in the same kind of dreary navel-gazing nonsense that one is bound to find at any academic gathering on such a gargantuan scale. You have to choose wisely among the dozen+ simultaneous panels lest you wind up watching some deeply unprepared and/or undertalented academic as they stumble through a surface-level interpretation of, say, the Beatles’ album covers or (god forbid) the Twilight series. (I mean, just take a look at the amazingly expansive conference program!

Plus, the sheer number of presenters means that panels run mostly uninterrupted from 8:00 am to 10:00pm for almost four straight days, challenging even the most committed academic’s attention. Let’s face it: if a conference is willing to let 2,500 people present their work, basic math suggests that you’re in for a pretty wide range of quality (and more than a few tiny audiences). So, there’s that to contend with, which is a real shame. If this thing were half the size it’d be an extraordinary event. As it is, it’s kind of a mess.

But, when your random guesswork works out, you wind up at a panel that opens your eyes to ideas, themes, underlying structures, connections, and tropes you may never have thought to find.

Highlights for me this time around: a quite brilliant panel on African-American culture which offered (among other things) a paper on the phenomenon of TV shows like A Different World inspiring enrollment at historically-black colleges and universities; a panel on black metal and neo-Nazism which made wide and worthy use of Adorno; a paper offering a radical reading of the blues that was all shot through with Nietzschean aesthetic theory; and a complex sex-positive feminist reading of Fifty Shades of Grey and the ways the kink community has responded to the mainstreaming of the “lifestyle”.

For my part, I participated in a terrific roundtable on the ways the “Long Sixties” framework has too often come to act as a stand-in for baby boomer memory and autobiography, occluding themes and events which don’t “fit”. Unfortunately, for the other panel in which I was involved — I presented on a much-neglected Canadian film from 1969 called Prologue, easily the most sensitive film about the counterculture I’ve ever encountered — our audience was comprised of three people, one of whom fell asleep. Not my best performance, then?

The main event and keynote for the conference took place on Friday night. Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick, the co-creators of the multi-part series The Untold History of the United States which ran on Showtime over the past several weeks, screened one of their episodes and then took questions for about an hour. It was generally agreed that this was an unmitigated disaster (at least among those in my vicinity who chuckled and guffawed through the absurdly over-the-top film and the ensuing rant-heavy public performance), but at least it was entertaining. The highlight came when a man stood up about a hundred feet over my right shoulder and tried to shout down the leftist filmmaker, denouncing him for his “lies” and distortions and his apparent apologia for the Soviet Union. For a minute it felt like something dramatic was about to happen — but Stone, no stranger to such pushback, just kept talking. Never even stuttered or paused. Just kept talking while the man yelled at him. Eventually, the heckler just gave up and sat back down. And Stone kept right on talking. A metaphor for his entire career.

The 2014 conference for the PCA/ACA will be held in Chicago. See you there?