I had the honor to speak at the UCLA Cinema and Media Symposium yesterday.  My topic was multimedia scholarship and silent film history, specifically how the Scalar platform can be used to “enact” the scandal surrounding Mabel Normand in received history.   Great questions from the group especially regarding how a praxis focused approach does (or does not) shift the method or analysis in critical media studies.

Below, is my slideshow and an abstract from the talk with links to the Scalar project.

Abstract for the presentation is here:

In this discussion I will look at how writing a multimedia history, a digital scholarly essay (using the platform Scalar), might facilitate an understanding of the “scandal” of the silent film director and star, Mabel Normand.  The idea of “scandal” typically associated with Normand is one of criminal and moral notoriety, but here I am referencing the scandal of Normand’s place in film history, which is largely absent, misunderstood, or underappreciated. Ultimately, I will argue that Normand’s absence is due to a particular professional and personal style of performance by the star that I would call “infelicitous.”  It is a style that foregrounds the contingency of our world, language, and identity.  It is performance mode that multimedia essays, like Scalar, can begin to chart out not by an essential quality of any particular media employed, but by the gaps and slippage from format to format of expression and in pathways that break away from seamless narratives of film history. Such essays can relay or enact the contingency of our language and write new histories of figures such as Normand, either by the design of the essay or by the choices of the readers.

By contingency here I am following Richard Rorty’s  “repudiation of the very idea of anything – mind or matter, self or world- having an intrinsic nature to be expressed or represented” (Irony, Contingency, and Solidarity, 4).   In Irony, Contingency, and Solidarity, Rorty referencing Donald Davidson, asks us to set aside language as a medium of the true, or middle party between self and reality and instead understand language not as representation but as metaphoric redescriptions of life, science, culture (14-16).   Rorty places us in the world of the metaphor and the performative –that is a world less about the relation of communication to external truth  — than to a sense of the context, convention, and intent of the speech act.   Digital media such as Scalar are particularly useful since as Alexander Galloway notes in The Interface Effect they do not produce an object so much as an effect and function not as a representation but as a simulation, moving us away from essences and ontologies to practices and ethics.   In other words, Rorty’s and Normand’s contingency of world, language, and identity is simulated in the multimedia essay not reproduced as a thing.


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Writing Contingency: Data Acts: (on the Scandal of Mabel Normand) by Vicki Callahan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.