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Cultural pundits have recently caricaturized the blurring between fact and fiction in political discourse as a symptom of our “post-truth” zeitgeist, where media no longer fulfills its role as an objective communicator of truth, but rather reduces civil discourse into hyperrealist spectacle. While the nature by which new media is transforming civil discourse may be unprecedented, dystopian sentiments about how mass media erodes our moral compass originated much earlier at the turn of the 20th century with the rise of cinema, a medium no less popular and controversial than social and digital medias today.

The Spring 2018 offering of ENG420, entitled “Advanced Studies in Film and Media Theory,” examines major theories, positions, and issues related to how cinema shapes and is shaped by individual and collective perceptions of reality. As the most influential mass medium of modernity and the “template” for 21st century new media (streaming media, virtual reality, augmented reality, and interactive stories), cinema is naturally a hotbed for critical theorizing regarding the effects – both dystopian and utopian – of media on our experience of modernity. Thus, since the first film audiences flocked to nickelodeon theaters, scholars have perennially asked questions of what cinema is, how it signifies, documents, or transforms reality, while simultaneously mirroring and distorting the spectator’s perception.

Students explore the development of film and media theories roughly chronologically, engaging in close readings of primary writings by the most influential thinkers in the field, including Sergei Eisenstein, Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, Christian Metz, Louis Althusser, Laura Mulvey, Fredric Jameson, Homi Bhaba, Henri Lefebvre, Gilles Deleuze, Lev Manovich, and David Rodowick, just to name a few. Foundational schools of thought are explored in terms of how they contributed to intellectual understandings of the relationship between media and modernity, ranging from classical film theory, political modernism, (post)-structuralism, psychoanalysis, apparatus theory, feminist and queer film theory, postcolonial theory, cultural geography, and postmodernism, to new media studies. Viewings of key film and media texts from a variety of formats, historical periods, genres, and nations help to ground the class’s theoretical examinations. Students also enter into a reflexive dialogue with critical theories of new media by producing video essays, watching aesthetically groundbreaking virtual reality films, and shooting 360-degree VR experimental films.

These investigations culminate in a research-based, writing-intensive, and hands-on final project that tests students’ ability to carry out original research on how a key theme (e.g. postmodernism, authorship, counter-cinema, etc.) in film and media theory has evolved with the multiplication and proliferation of new media (e.g. streaming content, virtual reality, augmented reality, audiovisual essays, interactive and programmable media).

This year, in conjunction with Library Innovation Services, the English Department is proud to present eight VR video essays selected from these final projects as part of the 2018 JMU VR Video Showcase.

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