Five Questions With Stephanie DeBoer

This week we pick up our semi-regular series of conversations with Framing the Global Fellows by exploring the concept of “location”.

Stephanie DeBoer is an assistant professor in Indiana University’s Department of Communication and Culture whose research is often focused on film. She’s also taught several classes in the department seeking to place media and communication in a global context.

In No Hard Edges: Contingencies of Chinese Digital Film, Media, Space, DeBoer will focus on the way new media arts and new urban geographies impact her global entry point of location.

She spoke with Rosemary Pennington about her project.

Rosemary Pennington: What drew you to Framing the Global?

Stephanie DeBoer: The possibility of conversation with an interdisciplinary group of folks was very appealing.  I’m a film and media scholar and critic, with interdisciplinary training in cultural, transnational, and East Asian area studies.

movie sign

Display in a Shanghai movie theater. (Image by Ethan Hein via Flickr.)

In my ongoing work on regional film and media co-productions in East Asia, and in my current project on new media arts and new urban locations in greater China, I am often challenged to find vocabulary and perspectives that adequately account for the contingencies and competing scales at play in the production of film and media.

There has been much talk within my field, as with many others, of how the “national” is no longer an adequate frame for inquiry.  Yet certainly this means something other than simply shifting our focus of analysis “beyond” the national and “out” to transnational or global arenas.  There is something else to articulate here.

To my mind, methodologies matter.  They are frameworks that enable us to see one thing and not another.  Disciplines come with methodological assumptions – how we link theory to context, what constitutes our arenas or objects of study, and to what ends we interrogate them, for example.

In engaging in conversation with other Framing the Global fellows, I was looking for ways to better address the multiple scales at play in the production of film and media.  But I had only an inkling of how to address this in any coherent way.

We can address the significance of film or other screen media from the larger scales of global culture industries, or from the smaller-scaled arenas of producers, film and media makers, distributors, or audiences.  We can also engage in a sustained analysis of film and media texts, content, or aesthetics.

The frames from which we situate ourselves will often influence the assertions we make about film and media’s relationship to cultural globalization.  Is the latter a homogenizing force or not – this is too easily the confining question we ask.  But there is much to be gained in approaching cultural globalization as constituted in a set of negotiations across multiple scales.

I’m by no means the first to say this.  Disciplines such as cultural geography have been saying this for a long time.  Yet within the realm of film and media production, how we do this – how we hold all these relations in one frame – remains in question.  Cross-disciplinary methods might help us to address this, it seemed to me.  I thought, at least, that the conversation might be interesting.

 RP: What is your entry point and why did you choose it?

SD: My entry point is location.  I’m finding this frame to be useful in understanding the particularities of film and media production in its transnational or global contexts.

In my project for Framing the Global, I’m concerned with the senses of location that are produced at the interface of new media arts and new Chinese urban geographies.  Here, location becomes a rubric for examining the relations among, on the one hand, the practices that make up film and media cultures and, on the other, the contested processes of cultural globalization.

How might “global” or “transnational” frames of inquiry help us to see more fully the competing scales involved in the practices of location shooting, or the contingencies of site-specific new media arts installation, for example?  How might the concerns of film and media bring to our address of cultural globalization recognition of the problems of indexicality, or of the politics linked to particular aesthetics?

My entry point of location is clearly linked to a wider set of interdisciplinary debates on the formation of place and space.  The field of cultural geography has, again, been especially prolific here.  These theorizations on space/place are often productive in orienting our work toward an interrogation of the competing scales, relations, or geometries of social power.

But how might these dynamics be addressed within particular contexts of cultural production – for me film and other screen media?  And how might global or transnational experience be best articulated as a central concern for the study of culturally situated film and media?  Their locations are often sites across which both the problems and possibilities of global, regional, national, or local experience are fought and contended.

RP: What challenges have you faced as you’ve navigated the global this way?

SD: The challenge is often to refrain from limiting my analysis to things that overtly announce themselves as global – “look that is global, this is not.”  Some good may come out of this kind of conversation, but we don’t get very far with this kind of analysis.  What is more important are the kinds of questions and modes of inquiry we form in relation to transnational processes, and the ways in which they help us, or don’t help us, to address particular culturally-situated contexts of, for me, film and media production.

RP: In her introduction to the upcoming book, Dr. Hilary Kahn writes that one of the questions scholars of the global are faced with is “How do we know its global?” How do you answer that question in your work?

SD: I think about the global in two ways, and I use the term transnational just as often if not more so.

shanghaistreet

Shanghai street at night. (Image by Mengjie Jo via Flickr.)

On the one hand, the global is an aspirational term.  It is the desire for the idea or status of the “global” that encourages people and institutions to act in particular ways, whether they aim to engage with the global city, with global media networks, with global capital, etc.  For my own project, film and media locations, here produced in relation to site-specific media art, have been developed and promoted by state institutions or urban municipalities as means for moving up a perceived hierarchy – from the local or national, on to the regional, and then on to a status on par with the perceived heights of other global cities and media capitals.  Over the past few decades, in particular, cultural and creative industries have linked new media arts and technologies to the social benefits generated by economic globalization. This has occurred in Shanghai, for example, in the wake of a wide range of other municipal centers such as London, Melbourne, or Seoul.

But these media locations are also produced in dynamics that are particular to each context.  This is where my second notion of the global comes in.

The global to me is less about the label than the questions and reframings it incites and inspires.  It is an opportunity for interrogation.  And in this way, my use of the global has more affinity with the ways in which scholars and critics have tended to use the term “transnational.”  Alongside the more heightened or spatial qualities often linked to the global are a significant range of differently scaled interests, ideas, and concerns.  For my project, for example it is equally important to recognize how new media arts might elsewhere be used to sidestep the Chinese state’s aspirations toward global economic vistas, for example. Global frames can here signal the imperatives for inquiry into the competing identities, powers, practices, or ideologies that make up the grounds for what we consider the global.

RP: How have your discussions on the space of global studies within the Framing the Global interdisciplinary group affected your view of your home discipline?

SD: In our conversations, I have found that many if not all the projects and fellows linked to Framing the Global fellows are grappling with some problem of scale.  We are also all equally concerned with understanding the global (or the regional or the transnational) as a process, as opposed to object.  It was reassuring to find a set of colleagues aligned with the broader questions I’ve been asking – on scale, on the global and transnational as process.  Yet we have rather different ways of articulating and addressing these concerns.  This shared yet cross-disciplinary conversation has challenged me – I think productively – in the development of my vocabulary, terms of analysis, even my sense of audience.

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