Thursday, May 3, 2007

cms 101 question

I enjoyed David's talk about wrestling in relation to ancient theater and Dell'Arte. The parallels are convincing; the performative structures and melodramatic mode are very similar. I was especially interested to hear about the audience participation in ancient theater, as well as the strategies of actors for comminucating between eachother and the audience. The Bret Hart/ British Bulldog match we saw demonstrated wrestling's versions of these tactics.

I had some lingering question as I left class yesterday, that has now blown up in my head into a more broad inquiry...

What does a really successful comparison of pro wrestling to ancient theater give us? (I don't mean for that to sound as skeptical as it does; it's an earnest question...). Does it prove that there are some universal values or theatrical structure in pro wrestling because it relates to a performance history? Does it validate wrestling/ give it credibility? Or are wrestling and Commedia Dell'Arte being compared in order to describe/ understand the other? If the relational study of wrestling offers us a new lens through which to read it, what is the new vision (besides the lens itself)?

I mentioned to Sam at some point that I thought it was interesting that almost every text we read had an obligatory section validating the study of pro wrestling. In Sam's Foley article, for example: "Pro wrestling shows are then particularly rewarding texts in which to study the ways in which its character and narratives reflect values and conflicts in American culture, as this case study of Foley has demonstrated." I guess for me it boils down to a question about whether we're studying culture through wrestling, wrestling through culture, or some interactive version of the two.

Forgive me, there's a whole lot I don't know about CMS. I took this class as a 'poacher' more than anything, importing inspiration and theoretical grapplings from the material into my art practice and thesis development. I have done some of the 'comparative' part, mostly in relating what we see to what I know in order to make sense of it. But in writing the paper, I suppose I have some confusion about what hat I'm wearing. Am I an artist thinking about wrestling? Or a student of wrestling adding some thooughts from other discourses? Or an MIT grad student with an obligation to try to grasp what this CMS animal is and work within its rules/ discourse?

I'm glad we've been encouraged to bring our own expertise to the class/ to the blog posts. CMS does strike me as a field based on transgressing boundaries of study, which is why I was suprised at the disdain about the non-cms posts at a certain point. This really got me confused: "CMS classes constantly have this problem - a bunch of kids think 'ooh, a class on tv/wrestling/movies! no way!' and move in, so self impressed that they're managing to get college credit for their weekend amusement that they fail to realize that CMS is actually a disciplined study, which here in CMS we take just as seriously as you take CS, or chemistry, or mathematics. And so class discussion goes to pot, we spend classes re-explaining readings, and those of us who are capable of trying to integrate the theory, practical, and intense body of literature relevant to this field are left to walk each other places after class, bemoaning the difficulties of learning at MIT." Does this mean that CMS is about a comparative study practice only from the starting point of CMS itself?

Does it devalue the work and thoughts of the class that, for me, the endpoint is not in fact a scholarly attempt at reading a pop culture phenomenon within a larger cultural framework or historic trajectory, but to take those ideas and chew them around and spit them back out into my own practice, which is not in CMS, but more closely related to the wrestling content itself (in that it's performance-based)?

Sorry about the ramble; I'm just trying to resolve some discomforts with my position in this... and it helps to look at what other people's goals are in studying this topic (like David and his comparison to ancient theater).


abbalene said...

As a non-critical studies person I'm not sure I have any answers to Kate's questions. But I think I'm in the same boat of trying to understand the discipline while not being formally trained in it. I had some of the same thoughts as Kate is discussing after attending the conference which CMS hosted this past weekend. There were a number of papers which I listened to while thinking things along the lines of, "Yes, you can apply this analytical framework to this situation - but why? Does it help us understand the situation better? Does it show us something about the situation we might not have noticed before? Or is it just something you thought was interesting?" That's not to say that people shouldn't be doing work that they are enthusiastic about, but I suppose the traditional academic side of me (yes, there is one :) ) wanted to feel that the analysis was actually contributing something to my understanding of the subject. And there were a few presentations where I felt like I came away knowing more about the presenter and his/her particular enthusiasms rather than about the subject s/he was supposedly discussing. Not that there shouldn't be a personal perspective to research, but the traditional side of me keeps nudging me in the ribs and saying that the work is supposed to be about the subject of interest, not about the researcher.

Sam Ford said...

Kate, I know we got into some of these issues yesterday in class, but I wanted to respond to your questions here as well, as they are significant ones. David's talk is an interesting example in it provides the comparison of two media types--Dell'Arte and wrestling--and I think that provided some valuable information and a new way to look at pro wrestling. However, your question about what it gives us is an intriguing one. I won't speak for David himself, but I know that his actual written thesis would get into this more than his talk did.

For CMS, usually the idea is to use comparisons pragmatically, in order to, in the end, address some particular question. The fascinating thing about our study, though, is what interdisciplinarity really means. What you are asking, more or less, is whether CMS is drawing from various disciplines as a way to study across them or whether it is a complete discipline within itself, which has its own rules and particular scheme.

I would say that there is definitely some of both involved in what CMS does, and what this class does. I hope that each of your final projects draws on what you know from your own discipline that you bring into the class, but also that through this class you have been introduced to other ways of looking at the issue that might help inform your approach.

This does tie into what seemed like the obligitory justification line, as I had to include in that Foley essay getting it published as a book. Most places would say that the scope of people studying pro wrestling is too small for you just to make a contribution to the undersatnding of that particular phenomena, so we need to know how your work applies to those looking at other entertainment/sport/pop culture forms. In this class and our discussions, what it says about wrestling IS the focus, but we are still thinking about how to look at things in general, using wrestling as the particular subject...

As for your three questions about which hat you are wearing, I think it's somewhat of a false dichotomy. In your case, it makes sense above all to be an artist thinking about wrestling. In the process, though, we are all students of wrestling this semester with a variety of discourses coming in and providing their particular take (the social sciences, the humanities, theater, business, and on and on), and I would think that, above all, it would indeed be a benefit for you to get a consise definition of what CMS is. And when you get that figured out, let the rest of us know!

So no, CMS does not require you only coming from the starting point of CMS itself, as it is empowered by this cross-discipline dialogue. But I think the struggle for CMS as a department, in a science-based school and in an academic world still not completely comfortable in some regards with studying pop culture seriously and certainly not with interdisciplinarity, must try to assert its seriousness as a discipline so that it doesn't become a place where people feel you can basically do anything and get away with it, a free-for-all or no-holds-barred academic setting with no discipline at all. Interdisciplinary doesn't mean no discipline, in other words.

I think the key to CMS is that it is somewhat audience-centered and comes from a school of believing that meaning is always changing and that you can never KNOW the truth, and also from the fact that the receiver is as important in determining meaning as the authorial intent. So we tend to be interested in audience more than many traditional humanities, but not in the hard quantitative way that the social sciences lean toward. And I think CMS students are encouraged to adopt multiple lenses but always to ask, "For what purpose?" Hence my concern with making sure I know not just what you all are planning to research but to what end, for what point.

This gets into the pitfalls that Fiona brings up from the conference, though. Of course, few of the people at MiT5 were from the CMS department, but it raises this same question: "You can, but why?" I think anyone working on research has to ask themselves at the outset, as it makes the different between an interesting report and an intriguing conclusion. If you have no answer to that question, then your results will only be of limited value.

As for the other issue you raise, Fiona, I think studies can become most empowered the more honest the researcher is, in putting themselves forward and their own interests. But you are quite true that people start to slip from academic writing to memoir writing in a way that becomes no longer useful, if they are not careful. I think the life of the researcher is interesting only inasmuch as it adds further knowledge about the study at hand, but that's a hard balance to strike. I think the walls have been so closed in academia for so long toward including any personal voice at all that some people then lean too far in the other direction when they find a space that allows them to do so.

david everard said...


Well, first of all, I'm coming at it mostly from a historical approach. I see theatre as a structural dynamic which is inherent in pro-wrestling. So, does this mean that wrestlers need to know theatre history? No, not anymore than a kid who picks up a guitar and bangs out "Louie, Louie" needs to know anything about music theory!

You may not need to know how something works to do it, but rest assured there is a reason why things work the way they do.

One of the things i discovered during my studies was how similar the performance dynamics were throughout theatre history.

What worked in the ancient theatre works now because of the simplicity of the art. Any good actor knows when to pause and when to hit the payoff because they know how to read an audience and then apply the skills of their craft accordingly.

And while the craft has been in practice for almost 3000 years, it really hasn't changed much over that time. Actors and authors are using the same theatrical techniques that Aeschylus and his actors used in the Theatre Dionysos back in 472BC.

Looking at pro-wrestling through a theatrical lens has helped me understand the performance dynamics more clearly.

I studied theatre history because it gave me a perspective and I think that's all you can ask of any discipline.

I studied professional wrestling in the context of theatre because it was fun and it seemed like a lock to me.

I'm glad I wrote my thesis, not so much for the degree as for the journey. The destination was obvious, but the journey was enlightening.

And, most of all, it was fun!

I hope your own journey is informative not only for the coursework, but for what you will learn about yourself in the process!

Best of luck in life and love,


Sam Ford said...

David, thanks for weighing in on this. We've been having this discussion as a class over the past couple of weeks, especially as everyone nears their essay deadlines for this class...

The question that a lot of people are wondering of any research project at this point, since I have asked the same of my class, is what the consise "thesis statement" would be for a work. What argument is being made? The students did not see the written version of your work, but what would you say would be the hypothesis or main argument that your thesis sought to address?

narwood said...

I've been quoted! So I suppose I should answer. My best approximation of a concise definition of CMS is: the study of contemporary cultural artifacts and trends through comparative analysis. So long as it's rigorous and justified, it doesn't matter what the 'lens' of analysis is, or even what you're trying to discover. We compare A to B not necessarily to discover some truth about one or the other, but to look for commonalities and differences. And then we can compare these sets of commonalities and differences with other sets, etc. In, yes, the pursuit of truths.

Disdain? I would say exasperation, but I get 'disdain' a lot so I'll roll with it. I feel like I've responded to this before, and Sam covered it pretty well. But to add one point, my objection covers more than individual posts, which may be entirely useful to the individual poster.

Any field is defined by the set of words and ideas that form the basic assumptions. Everyone needs to know these to participate, just like to be a wrestling fan I need to know some stuff about wrestling so I can dialog. CMS does have these too, ideas, words and concepts most people familiar with the field are aware of. This lets us communicate, build on each other's thoughts, and bring far flung conjectures back to the core issues.

This is not what happens when a bunch of people from different disciplines post on a blog together. A more valid objection to my objections would be that it should be MY responsibility to facilitate translation of these different posts into a coherent 'CMS-type' narrative, because I am in a learned position to do so. No one bothered to point that out though.

Because the importance of 'CMS' - insofar as 'CMS' has come to be this giant ambiguously shaped cloud over our heads - is the space within which we can communicate with each other in a productive fashion. Why this space is a failure (or even if other's think it is) has never been my concern, but the failure itself does not in fact reflect on any individual (which is weird because everyone keeps responding personally to what is, at heart, a structural problem).

narwood said...

Oh- to answer most of the 'so what?' : Sometimes just proving something exists is an end unto itself. What it then gives us is something to reference when we want to use the notion of these parallels in other work.

Re: "Does it devalue the work and thoughts of the class that, for me, the endpoint is not in fact a scholarly [one]... but... my own practice, which is not in CMS, but more closely related to the wrestling content itself (in that it's performance-based)?"

Not insofar as we welcome voices from all fields, but to be an academic CMS class the main goal has to give us enough to tie it to the discipline as a whole. An extreme example: would the class have been better or worse if Mick Foley taught it?

Sam Ford said...

Tess, you raise a couple of points that I find interesting. First is about the blog. I think CMS, or any program that thrives on interdisciplinary study, runs into these issues. What I have found is that, in class discussions, this does not remain an issue. People who don't speak the common language of CMS just don't speak up, or choose their moments to speak.

Introduce a blog into the mix, though, and everyone is required to write about their own ideas. So the lack of a common language becomes more apparent than it ever would have in class discussion because everyone must speak "on their own." The forum brings these disconnects to the forefront, and sometimes it might seem like a "Tower of Babel" without a shared language...

As for your "extreme example" (apt pun, by the way), I'm sure someone out there would think this class would be infinitely "cooler" if Mick taught it, but your point is well taken. We encountered this type of argument once upon a time in journalism school, when there was always disagreements about whether to bring in Ph.D.'s for faculty positions or people with professional experience in the industry...

Omar said...

I too was very much intrigued by David's talk. I never would have thought that the traditions of professional wrestling could be trace to so ancient a source. The parallels he makes are right on the money and more convincing than any I have yet encountered. At the same, yes, it is important to consider where he is going with this.

The kind of ethnographic and social studies approaches to professional wrestling we have encountered throughout the semester naturally have social/cultural implications. When I think about David's studies, I get the same feeling I first got when starting this class. Why would anybody study this stuff?

Sam Ford said...

As insulting a question as it may seem, I do think it's important to always be ready to be asked "so what," though, as you point out Omar. That doesn't imply that there isn't a valid answer, but it always helps to have one ready to articulate, especially in a field like media studies where the texts being studied are not considered "high art" by the cultural elite many times.