Keynote at the Political Screen, London

26 06 2015

Saturday, june 20, I made a day trip to London to speak at the Political Screen conference, organised by Shakuntala Banaji of LSE and Lee Greveson of UCL. I attended a great panel about industrial films of the 1950ies, used in France and Italy to promote the oil and coal industry as clean and modern business. The Marshall plan too was promoted through film, with subtitles and sound dubbings in about 27 languages. I was honored to be introduced by Laura Mulvey, the author of that seminal 1975 work about the male gaze. My talk focused on the premediation of political scandal, zooming in particularly on one of my favorite series Person of Interest.

Political screen

This is the abstract and with a little luck I’ll turn the presentation into an article as well:

Popular TV and film representations of electoral politics are among the many resources for citizens to learn and make sense of moral, social and political issues. Scholars of politics and political communication have begun to address this potential, coming to no definite conclusions. It is clear, on the one hand, that film and TV stories of politics demonstrate the features of their particular national political cultures. On the other hand, anecdotes abound of these stories feeding back into real life political processes. A recent case of such convergence of real and fictional politics can be seen in the CBS series Person of Interest (PoI), currently (2015) going into its fifth and probably last season. The story revolves around two heroes, two heroines and ‘the machine’, a government AI that is capable of predicting terrorism and crime on the basis of monitoring all forms of digital communication. “You are being watched. The government has a secret system that spies on you every hour of every day” is the first sentence of the voice over in the opening credits showing street images from CCTV cameras. The show premiered in 2011 and raised some initial doubts among audiences about its credibility. Such discussions halted when in 2013 Edward Snowden revealed the massive scale of NSA tapping and monitoring activities. Many commentators claimed this was no surprise to those who had been watching Person of Interest, thus suggesting one could learn more from fiction than from real life politics or journalism that both had failed to identify the NSA practices. In this talk I will use the case of PoI to discuss if and how political drama offers resources for citizens to make sense of politics and particular political issues. Audience discussions tapped from online forums and social media form the main data for my claim that political drama is a paradoxical resource: while it offers frames of interpretation with strong rhetorical power, its public meaning is limited and ephemeral.




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