Two Days with Linda Williams – Eminent Film Studies Scholar, Pioneer in Academic Pornography Studies and Genuinely Great Feminist Idol
On June 20th and 21st we had the unique chance of getting to know, listening to and exchanging ideas with Professor Linda Williams from the University of California, Berkeley. We are extremely grateful for the VDA’s support in making Williams’s visit to Vienna possible. During her stay, Linda Williams gave a talk in the Academy of Fine Arts’ Atelierhaus as part of their ‘Feminist Idols’ lecture series. Her talk, entitled “Motion and E-Motion: A Feminist Perspective on the ‘Frenzy Of The Visible’” also formed part of the distinguished lecture series Screening Pleasure, which was held at the Department of English and American Studies and organised by the VDA members Timo Frühwirth, Iris Gemeinböck, Elisabeth Lechner and Eugenie Maria Theuer. Linda Williams also agreed to hold a workshop on the topic of “Embodied Feelings” at the University of Vienna the following day that was also organised by us.
Linda Williams is Professor of Film & Media and Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley. She is a leading film scholar specializing in the study of popular moving-image ‘body genres’: especially melodrama, comedy, horror, pornography. Her books include Hard Core: Power, Pleasure and the Frenzy of the Visible (1989), Viewing Positions: Ways of Seeing Film (1993), and Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O. J. Simpson (2001); her 2014 book, On the Wire, investigates the HBO television serial.
As avid readers of her work dealing with cinema, the moving image, and popular culture in general, we were very excited to hear her talk “Motion and E-Motion: A Feminist Perspective on the ‘Frenzy of The Visible’.” However, shortly before the official start of the event, it turned out that not even the most renowned scholars are immune from technical glitches. So, before we could let in the waiting crowds, who were eager to find out more about moving-image pornography, we had to come up with last-minute solutions to a presentation that, ironically enough, refused to show moving images.
Yet, as the saying goes, all’s well that ends well, and after some quick troubleshooting, Linda Williams finally gave her engaging talk that kept the audience at the Atelierhaus– a location so grand it is perfectly suitable for feminist idols – listening with rapt attention. Her lecture moved from erotic pieces of art to the origins of film and cinema, the invention and ongoing existence of the camera obscura model of vision to Muybridge’s oeuvre and, finally, moving-image pornography, without, however, suggesting a linear journey from one to the other, but complicating the history of pornography and critically reviewing her own classic Hard Core.
After the talk and a lively discussion we ended the day with some well-deserved, genuine Viennese food and drinks. A nice evening at the Heuriger did, however, not stop us from getting up early for our workshop on “Embodied Feelings.” Our workshop was divided into three panels, over the course of which we heard five presentations that were commented upon by Linda Williams. William’s insightful and honest feedback was not only very helpful for the presenters but also a useful source of advice and inspiration for those participants of the workshop who did not present their projects.
As our presenters were at varying stages of their research and as they came from diverse universities, different methodological and theoretical backgrounds, as well as different areas and subjects, we had a challenging morning with fruitful discussions rich in variety. Our first presenter was Elisabeth Krieber from the University of Salzburg, who gave a talk on “Resistance and Re-Signification: Subversive Female Performances in Visual Media.” Despite the fact that she is only at the very beginning of her PhD-project, her talk was well-received and met with constructive criticism so important at the initial stages of conceiving a dissertation. Elisabeth’s presentation was followed by Lea Sophie Schiel’s talk on “The Subversive Potential of Sex Performances”, who draws directly on the concept of on/scenity by Linda Williams, which she tries to develop further in her PhD project by phenomenologically describing in great detail her experiences while watching a live sex performance in Amsterdam.
After a first break I continued with my presentation on “Too much information!? On the New Visibility of ‘Disgusting’ Female Bodies in Contemporary Popular Culture,” in which I tried to think critically about the new cultural formation around femininity and disgust that I refer to as ‘popfeminist body positivity.’ My talk was followed by another presenter from the University of Vienna, namely Stefan Ossmann, who introduced us to his intriguing project about “Polyamory and its Media Visualisation.”
Our lunch break turned into one of the highlights of our workshop: During the break, we had a 16mm feminist film performance entitled “Her* hands and his shape” by Masha Godovannays & Sílvia das Fadas from the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna – a contribution arising from our fruitful collaboration with the Academy. The full film performance will again be presented as part of the ARN Conference Hauntopia/What If, in the Research Pavilion in Venice on September 9th, 2017.
Our workshop was closed with a presentation by Paul Fagan (affiliated with both the University of Vienna and the University of Salzburg), who talked about “The Celibate Lives of James Joyce’s Dubliners” and who, in reference to Benjamin Kahan’s Celibacies: American Modernism & Sexual Life (2013), challenged us to rethink the realm of the non-sexual in the modernist moment as a spectrum of sexual, political, and artistic identities.
Here are some impressions from our workshop with Linda Williams, whose ongoing passion for cutting-edge research, as well as her not shying away from asking probing questions and challenging the status quo, will stay with us for a long time.
For an interview (in German!) with the Austrian daily newspaper DerStandard click http://derstandard.at/2000059959107/Williams-Ich-fuehlte-mich-wie-eine-luesterne-alte-Lady.
(7.9.2017, Elisabeth Lechner & Jenny Theuer)