EDGES BLOG: CSC Interview with Caetlin Benson-Allott

The Cultural Studies Program’s colloquium (CSC) series features talks by distinguished scholars from across the disciplines. Graduate student Christina Kappel interviewed Caetlin Benson-Allott, Associate Professor of English at Georgetown University.  See below for the transcript. 

In Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens you offer close readings of films within the horror genre to confront paranoia wrought by the new technology of the video tape. You argue that films within this particular genre make visible “motion pictures’ relationship to distribution and exhibition.” Can you further explain why you chose to focus on horror?

In terms of why of I chose horror, there is the highfalutin’ reason and there is the real reason, but they are closely related. The real reason is that I chose horror is that horror is the genre that I know best. I spent my childhood watching horror movies rented from the video store. Why as a small child did I get into horror at my local video store? Because horror more than almost any other genre, exploded in the 1980s from the direct-to-video market. So, the reason I was watching so much horror as a video kid in the ‘80s is because that’s what my video store had. Granted, they also had Kurosawa, and eventually I started watching Kurosawa. But, horror was a personal archive, and when I started delving into how the money from video revenue changed film production in the 1980s, I realized that what seemed like an idiosyncratic choice was in fact entirely overdetermined by the funding structures of film-making in the 1980s.

 Yes. In the book you clearly point to the fact that low-budget horror films generated in the 1980s were intentionally geared towards the VHS platform, which is a completely different market from the cinema.

Right, so it’s a completely different kind of viewer, a different apparatus, a different architectural space, different lighting conditions. The argument of the book is that we see filmmakers working through the question of how the viewer’s temporal control [due to the VHS platform] affects the way that narratives will arranged, or depth of field will be arranged, or what-have-you.

At times in Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens the text is anthropomorphized in that it can speak. How does the text speak its meaning, and through what mediations is that meaning produced?

For me, the text speaks because the film or movie is the product of collective effort on the part of a few dozen to a few hundred people, and so, except where there is historical evidence to do so, it doesn’t make sense to me to talk about the filmmaker or filmmakers. I don’t go in for auteurist criticism unless there’s a prevailing historical reason why we should. And yet, I think that films do convey messages – they teach us about the world that we live in. So, who would we say is talking then? If we can’t say it’s a filmmaker, and unless we have access to historical information, we can’t say who on lighting design, or which of the camera people made a specific decision, then I see the film as the collective voice of this not undifferentiated, but anonymous collective behind the work and all of the social forces that are conditioning its production.

In Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens you delineate a shift from cinematic spectatorship to post-cinematic spectatorship and explicate the VHS platform as having a direct effect on a spectator’s subjectivity. Are we now in the age of post-post-cinematic spectatorship, or digitized spectatorship, given the myriad of media platforms that have emerged?

I would say that we’re still in an era of post-cinematic spectatorship, and the reason that I say that is because, as was the case with VHS and DVD, the cinema still holds this cultural capital, this symbolic place in the distribution chain. As long as cinema continues to be a screen through which we understand movie consumption then I would call this a post-cinematic era. Because of the advertising revenue and promotional tie-ins that come with a cinematic premiere, I don’t see this post-cinematic era ending anytime soon. If I had to be a prognosticator, I would say that within the next five years, the studios will figure out how to embrace second-screen spectatorship, how to incorporate your cell phone into cinematic viewing, and we will see a boost in cinematic spectatorship again.

How do you think identifications with mechanisms of power have changed as a result of new digitized platforms?

What’s really interesting to me right now is the prevalence of Video On Demand, which various cable distributors and media conglomerates have been trying to push for over a decade, maybe more like fifteen years at this point. And now it is becoming the norm of televisual spectatorship, whether it’s DVR–create your own On Demand–or actual On Demand. And yet what does On Demand really mean? In some ways it’s like ordering at a restaurant where you can never order off-menu.

It’s a prix-fixe menu.

It’s a prix-fixe menu, yes. Demand – and this is what I get into in the conclusion of Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens is a control over temporality, but it’s not power. I’ll say more about that in the talk this afternoon.

Yes, in the last chapter of Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens you really specify that it is simply this idea of power that the VHS platform allows for, because the spectator is circumscribed within a menu of play, fast-forward, pause; it’s only temporal power that the spectator has. On Demand is the same in that it is such a limited scope of power; I can press play, but I have to choose from a predetermined list of options.

Yes, and the list is shorter than it’s ever been before. It’s shorter than the limited number of video tape options or DVD options than you had in a Blockbuster, which is a shorter list than you had in the independent video stores that preceded Blockbuster. So, it’s control over a certain arena, and that arena is always diminishing as our temporal “powers” seem to be increasing.

Somehow it doesn’t feel that way though; it feels like we have more choices, like we in fact do have increasing power, which is something I might argue is another illusion successfully conjured by the industry.

Yes. Unless you want something that hasn’t been advertised to you. When you go in and you look, you see a plethora. Whenever I turn on Netflix, even though we always complain about the limited options there, the interface is very well set-up to show you a cornucopia of entertainment options. If you’re interested in Czechoslovakian film though, you’re out of luck. If you want to watch Bergman’s oeuvre, you’re out of luck. I was just talking with some of my undergraduates who were complaining that I make them watch so many things, and they don’t have time,  claiming they can watch them after they graduate. And I said, no, you can’t! You’re going to have to buy them after you graduate. There are no more lending libraries where you have access to everything. Where are you going to go to get access to the entire set of Kurosawa other than a Barnes and Noble or an Amazon? You’re going to have to buy it, whereas I used to be able to rent it for a dollar a day at Lincoln Video. And that’s scary, right? That’s the limitation of choice.

In Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens you point to the anxiety of the MPAA in regards to VHS tapes and piracy, and offer a close reading of The Ring that explicates the threat and subsequent paranoia that this new technology presents for production companies. In an age where illicit downloading and free access is normative on the internet, do you see similar texts being produced now that convey new anxieties about the current, accessible forms of audiovisual technology?

I think that we were seeing that with the faux-footage horror movies, which have tapered off. Whenever you get a cycle of films produced cheaply and rapidly on the same subject over a period of roughly five to ten years, you get a bell curve, but I think we’re at the bottom of the bell curve vis-a-vis faux footage horror. But, when we saw a lot of reporting in the industry and the popular press about The Pirate Bay and public anxiety on behalf of the studios, that is when we also saw a lot of faux-footage horror movies. So that was the connection I wanted to make about piracy for the 2000s.

What I think is interesting about piracy now is the way that some studios, like Warner Bros. (who is really kind of leading the pack on this), have embraced piracy as a research tool. If you want to find out what people actually want to see, look at what they’re downloading. Warner Bros. has said that they’re still tracking piracy, but no longer prosecuting. So now, I think you might be able to say that many of the movies that we’re going to see coming out of the big corporate studios are shaped by piracy. When piracy becomes market research, and market research is the dominant logic of conglomerate filmmaking, then piracy becomes the predominant logic of conglomerate filmmaking.

I think it explains a lot about the superhero cycle, which is just refusing to die. There are a lot of other forces there. Most of them to do with conglomerate logic and synergy, but these movies do incredibly well on the pirate market; they’re very popular on torrent boards. I see that as a confirming logic for the perpetuation of this cycle. Ours is a very conservative film industry; they’re not breaking new ground and spending $150 million dollars to ask “will you like this? Do you want to try something new?” That’s not how they work.

Right, and the extraordinary cost of those films obviously dictates that they know that it will make a profit, and they continue to do it.

Yes, and that’s another reason why I was more interested in horror movies, because the budget on these films is minuscule by comparison. So distributors and studios are much more willing to take a risk and do something that is a response to a prevailing cultural anxiety or political issue because they’re doing it for $30 million instead of $200 million.

In “How the Remote Control Rewired the Home,” and presumably in Remote Control, you discuss the remote control as a technological advancement that altered the nature of spectatorship. Why the remote control?

At the end of Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens I use this incredible quote I found from Robert Stam, “His or Her Majesty the Spectator” with as scepter the remote control. I was just incredibly struck by that image. I was finishing up Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens and challenging myself to go beyond filmic or movie representations of video culture or video technology, and actually grab the thing itself.

I thought of Stam’s quote, and I thought about how, when I started my first paper on The Ring in my second year of graduate school, how annoyed I was that there were no books in television studies that were histories of television console design. There has been some good work on it, of course, but I wanted a design history of the television set, and such a thing did not exist. You could get a little bit from Lynn Spigel and you could get a little bit from Anna McCarthy, but I ended up focusing on the remote control instead of doing a bigger book, a bigger history of television design, because of that Stam quote.

I started to think that, as interesting as the television console is, since the mid-1980s the remote control has been our dominant tactile and psychic connection to the television. I decided that, if the period of analysis that I’m branding myself with is the 1980s on, then rather than consoles I should be focusing on remotes. I did a fast search to see well, when was the first remote control? It was 1929, for a radio receiver. That was it, I was hooked. Because, I asked, why would you need a remote control for a radio receiver? And why had I never heard that remote controls started in the 1920s? This was the aha moment; I thought this was a weird problem, and I wanted to figure it out. I wanted to know why no one has written about remote control history, and how it would change our understanding of spectatorship and the televisual viewer if we read that subject position through the history of a single object.

In “How the Remote Control Rewired the Home” you point out that the universal remote control never became popular because most people feel that assigning so much power to one device is risky. Why is the remote control distinct from, for example, a smartphone in this sense in terms of creating an anxiety around a singularly powerful technological object?

With the remote control, I’m tracing it back to the anxiety about controlling radio when it first came into the home in 1929. Radio becomes the first broadcast medium to penetrate the private sphere. It’s not the first mass medium, and it’s not the first entertainment medium, but you bring a phonograph into your house, you bring a newspaper into your house. These [radio’s] voices are just there; even when you turn off the radio, they’re around. There was a lot of cultural nervousness, and some really great fiction, some horror stories, around this anxiety about the information in the air at the turn of the century.

So, I think the remote control becomes part of a dialectic between the medium and the listener where the remote control allows the listener to believe that they are in control of the voices entering their house. Yet, at the same time, its physical presence in the house reminds the listener that the medium is taking control of the house, which makes the listener want more control. The more control they have, the more aware they are of how the media is controlling them, and they want more control, and the media controls them, etcetera. I think the universal remote is the apotheosis of this trend. It seems like the scepter of total control, but once it has total control – not you, but it – then you’re forced to realize that it’s now the hub of the system, not you.

Whenever we lose the remote, we’re helpless. We have this existential encounter with the void, with our own powerlessness. Because we’re not the center of the media universe in our own house, that universal remote is. If you don’t program it, however, the system remains dispersed. If there are five different remotes, there are five lifelines to defend us against that powerlessness.

In “Going Ga Ga for Glitch” the glitch is characterized as a pause that produces desire, which derives from a theory of fantasy from LaPlanche and Potalis. What do we make of binge-watching when it comes to the perceived control that the subject has in relationship to desire?

That’s an interesting way to think about it, in terms of binge-watching and LaPlanche and Pontalis’s theory of fantasy. So, according to LaPlanche and Pontalis then, commercial interruption would have been constitutive of desire because we want the show to come back. On the other hand, when you think about the ecstatic way people have been talking about Gilmore Girls now that it’s on Netflix, and two years ago no one cared about Gilmore Girls – it was a great memory, but no one was dying to re-watch it…. well, the fact of its plenty, now, is also constitutive of desire.

I think we’d have to revisit LaPlanche and Pontalis and ask ok, if what a fantasy wants is to never end, and if the fantasy of binge-watching is that it never has to end, then what can they tell us about the new architecture of the entertainment industry that we’re seeing here? The other thing I would want to wonder about is if what desire wants is its prolongation, then one would think that an infinitely serializable narrative – like The Simpsons, or Seinfeld – that such a sitcom form would be better for binge-watching than extremely well-arced narratives like Breaking Bad. Breaking Bad has a terminus in a way that The Simpsons does not – it could go on forever. The rhetoric of binge-watching is most commonly attached to narratively complex television shows, and that’s not something that I have a very firm handle on yet, although it’s something I’m interested in. I was just at the FLOWTV conference at UT Austin where someone claimed that we only binge-watch quality television, meaning narratively complex prime-time soaps. I was thinking, well, sorry, I binge-watched Keeping Up with the Kardashians! I watched all of that in like a month, I got all caught up!

I think we need to do a gendered analysis, too, of the kind of fantasy structures that we’re rhetorically developing, right? As in, this is for men, and it’s something that men do around masculinist television drama. Or, binging as a feminine behavior, or what has been denigrated as a feminine behavior, and how that pairs with television’s denigration as a feminine genre, and these programs that we still can’t admit we binge. Some binging is socially acceptable, and some binging is not. It’s acceptable to binge-drink, which is marked as a masculine behavior, but binge-eating, we can’t do that, because that’s marked as feminine.

In both Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens and “How the Remote Control Rewired the Home” you make clear your personal positioning in relationship to the discourse at hand. How and why did you make the choice to explicitly reference your position?

A friend of mine, Amelie Hastie, writes a column for Film Quarterly called “The Vulnerable Spectator” where she’s trying to consider how we, when we go to the movies, make ourselves emotionally vulnerable to a filmmaker, to a narrative, to a movie. So maybe we can call my approach “The Vulnerable Critic”? It’s incredibly nerve-wracking publishing this stuff, and I’m still terrified to read the comments on The Atlantic page! But, giving those personal anecdotes puts the vulnerability on the table.

I don’t think we can be naive enough anymore to think that a critic making their identity position clear can be an entirely transparent move, or that it will change the totalizing political structure that is built into a certain piece of criticism. But, I feel a strong urge to include a personal angle so that the critical act remains a relation between you and me. Even if we hadn’t met, the sense that there once was a woman who got this weird idea about zombies in her cheap apartment in Ithaca, New York – I want the reader to see that there is a humanity there, and that these ideas are coming from that humanity. And I want them to see mine the way I hope to see theirs.

When you are speaking in Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens about subjectivity and how the technological platform effects that subjectivity, do you consider yourself that subject?

Yes. I mean, I have to, right? It’s coming out of my personal experience viewing these movies. But, I think that the subject is a position that’s created by the film that we occupy or don’t. I’ve definitely gotten feedback from people saying “well, you can claim that the spectator feels this or that, but I hated that movie.” And I say, that’s totally true, I am with you, and the reaction you’re descibing is what reception theory covers, and audience studies covers. But, the film still constructs a position, there is still the subject of spectatorship, and that’s what I’m interested in.

Personally, I tend to occupy that subject position until something jars me out of it. That is what I wanted my work to in a way answer to the trend towards reception theory and audience studies over the last twenty years. Because, I am with Stuart Hall, we do all negotiate our relationships to these visual objects, but in order for us to negotiate with them, they have to be making a position, and that’s what I feel film studies had stopped talking about. Film studies certainly had not talked about how video created a position differently from film. When the movies started anticipating the video mode of exhibition, the position they were creating changed, so what we are going to negotiate with changed. I decided that this is the part of the puzzle that I am going to focus on, and hopefully there will be other people that will do that empirical kind of research.

And hence the technique of close-reading, right?

Yes. As an undergraduate I was just incredibly affected by Carol Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaws, especially by the movies that she describes in that book that I hadn’t seen. I think it was incredibly generative for me to see how close reading of one text could change the way you see another text. So, that has always been my methodology. I can thank Carol for that.

Would the close-reading of one film lead you to another one when you approached Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens? Or did you have a set of films you wanted to examine?

The book started in my second year of graduate school with a term paper on The Ring. And then there was a horrifying moment at the end of my qualifying exams when the committee asked what my dissertation would be on. I said, I don’t know! Video spectatorship? And they said, good, that was a good paper, you can do that.

 So you were gently pushed?

I was gently nudged, yes. And then I started outlining chapters based on movies where I saw a video spectator explicitly being constructed or addressed. It was actually only at my dissertation defense that my committee pointed out that these are all horror movies, except for one chapter on Y tu mamá también which is now an article that is on Jump CutY tu mamá también was censored on DVD – the menage-a-trois was removed from some editions – and I argue that in those editions, the entire political argument about NAFTA within that film falls apart.

 So, there was this one chapter on a Mexican queer melodrama, and the rest of the dissertation was on horror. The committee said that for a book, I should have a bit more cohesion and acknowledge the fact that I saw this happening in horror. And they instructed me to push myself on why horror? Why horror? And that’s how it came to be.

Being in the place that I am in my own scholarship, it is rewarding to hear about how projects get delineated and come to be.

It was a very gentle nudge from the committee. I hadn’t published The Ring chapter as an article yet, but people sat up a little bit more when I talked about it as opposed to other papers I was writing. When I said I was writing about The Ring and the killer video cassette people would ask “the killer what now?” When people are actually interested in your research, then you know you’re onto something. And then again, when I told people I was writing a history of remote control devices they said “yeah … remote control devices are everywhere!”

So responses can be generative of what direction to go in?

Yes. Especially in Cultural Studies, right? Ask yourself “have I found a thread that is actually going to unravel or reveal something about the landscape underneath?” I think looking at people’s reactions to your ideas as you are developing them is a great way to figure out whether you’ve got a hold of the right thread.

It looks like we’re out of time, but thank you so much!

Thank you!