What year is this? Predicting Best Picture (and everything else)

We’ve got a nail biter this year! After coming out swinging with most of the critics, British Academy (BAFTA), and earning the most nominations this year, The Power of the Dog is at risk of losing to CODA, which only earned three Oscar nominations–and zero technical nominations–but has collected top prizes from the Producers Guild (PGA), Writers Guild (WGA), and Screen Actors Guild (SAG). Dog picked up the Directors Guild.

Betting odds currently give CODA frontrunner status, and all the other movies seem to have dropped out of existence. So, who will win?

That depends entirely on what “year” you think this is. Let me show you what I mean:

The 2006 Year: Little Miss Sunshine wins the PGA, the SAG, and the original screenplay award at WGA. The Departed wins the DGA and the adapted screenplay award at WGA. Neither film won the Golden Globe nor the BATA. The Departed ended up winning Picture and Director, with Sunshine winning Screenplay. A big ‘tell’ in this win was that Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, Sunshine‘s directors, were not nominated and the movie was not nominated for Best Film Editing (I’ll come back to this, but that category remains the sole kingmaker).

The 2018 Year: Here, Green Book won Picture, Supporting Actor, and Screenplay (conveniently, the exact three awards CODA is nominated for, though Green Book was an original script as opposed to CODA‘s adapted). It beat Netflix front-runner Roma, which had been poised to be the first non-English feature to win Best Picture (an honor that went to Parasite the next year). Green Book was nominated for the DGA and not nominated for the SAG Ensemble award. It won the PGA and Golden Globe. Roma won the DGA. Green Book‘s win was seen as anomalous mostly because Peter Farrelly was not nominated for Best Director. But Argo also won Best Picture without a Director nomination (in a year where Ben Affleck’s ‘snub’ became a story in and of itself). This year demonstrated a directing nod was no longer as important with the weighted ballot for best picture, where a movie that is well-liked can end up with more votes at the end. Long story short: CODA seems like a winner if it plays well on the weighted ballot that the Oscars have used for Picture since 2011, hitting enough #1-4 spots on people’s ballots to do better than any other movie.

The 2019 Year: Parasite was a big upset after it only won the SAG Ensemble and the rest of the awards had coalesced around 1917. This looked like a conventional year, but it also showed the weighted ballot can create upsets (see also Moonlight, which beat La La Land after the musical had won most precursors and the most awards that evening). And here’s where Best Film Editing comes back: The only movie to win Best Picture without being nominated for Best Film Editing since 1980 is Birdman, a movie designed to look like it was all in one shot. You could have increased the betting odds on Parasite by examining 1917‘s lack of support in Editing (though it, too, was a “one shot” trick movie).

The 1932 year: CODA‘s lack of support in any technical category means its victory would be stranger than when Spotlight only won 2 awards (and Spotlight had directing and editing nods). As many have pointed out, CODA‘s win here would be the closest thing The Grand Hotel‘s 1932 win in Oscars history: a movie that was only nominated for Best Picture and nothing else.

So, what’s the prediction? I’m betting Power of the Dog will win Best Picture, but it’s gonna be a close one. We’ll see if the statistics hold, or if CODA makes history.

Other races:

Directing: Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog

Lead Actor: Will Smith, King Richard

Lead Actress: Jessica Chastain, The Eyes of Tammy Faye (this category seems primed for an upset but I just don’t know who to put money on. Chastain hasn’t won yet, and it feels like ‘her year’)

Supporting Actor: Troy Kotsur, CODA

Supporting Actress: Ariana DeBose, West Side Story

Original Screenplay: Kenneth Branagh, Belfast (another tight category that feels very up in the air between almost all the nominees–Don’t Look Up‘s editing nomination shows it has technical support and its WGA win last week could indicate momentum)

Adapted Screenplay: Sian Heder, CODA (this is one to watch–CODA must win this award to win Best Picture. If Power of the Dog wins early in the evening, the race could be over. If there’s an upset and Drive My Car wins, then buckle up [pun intended]).

Documentary Feature: Summer of Soul

Animated Feature: Encanto (another place you can try to win your ballot and go with The Mitchells vs the Machines or Flee)

International Feature: Drive My Car

Cinematography: The Power of the Dog (betting odds have Dune comfortably in the lead here–if Dog wins Best Picture, I think it needs to win at least one technical category and will have to ‘upset’ Dune somewhere)

Costume Design: Cruella

Film Editing: King Richard

Makeup and Hairstyling: The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Production Design: Dune

Score: The Power of the Dog (see note on Cinematography above. I think Dog wins one of the two and Dune wins the other, but I’m willing to take a loss somewhere to try and predict Dog‘s tech win)

Sound: Dune

Song: Encanto (if Disney had just pushed “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” this wouldn’t even be close, but I’m still betting on it to come out ahead of No Time to Die)

Visual Effects: Dune

The Top Ten Movies of 2021

While I no longer see nearly as many movies I used to (just over 30 from 2021, as opposed to the 70 or so that was more normal for me), parenting has taught me to really savor the movies I am able to watch. I had to choose movies carefully, and enjoyed almost everything I watched this year (I’m looking at you, Don’t Look Up, you dumpster fire of a movie). I did not go a movie theater in 2021–I haven’t been to one since January 2020. I was grateful to be able to watch all of these movies at home, and I hope we can continue to find a way for theaters and streaming/rental platforms to cohabitate.

First, the usual caveat that there’s always too much to watch, and this list can only capture this moment in time.

Second, some shout-outs to runner-ups that all vied for the #9-10 slot: Dune (a stunning technical feat that I appreciated more than loved), Pig (which completely surprised me. Cage is superbly affecting in it), The French Dispatch (and I say this as someone who hasn’t really liked any of Wes Anderson’s movies since Fantastic Mr Fox), Licorice Pizza (less about nostalgia, and more about trying to figure out what we value and how we reconcile that within culture), and The Last Duel (look, I was also surprised at how this movie sort of rules and how no one’s performance seems to be in the same movie).

And with that, here’s what I savored most and loved deepest from 2021:

10. West Side Story (dir. Steven Spielberg)

I regret ever being skeptical of Spielberg taking on his first musical well into his 70s. He, screenwriter Tony Kushner, and an astonishing cast haven’t remade West Side Story: they’ve reinvigorated it, reimagined it, made every second of it startlingly new and breathtakingly choreographed.

9. Tick, Tick…Boom! (dir. Lin-Manuel Miranda)

Similarly, I regret ever being skeptical of whether Miranda would lose himself in the transition to movie musicals. His vision for Jonathan Larson’s off-off-Broadway, semi-autobiographical tumble through the crisis of turning 30 is full of beautifully considered interplays between stage and screen.

8. Malignant (dir. James Wan)

I was already vibing on this delightfully weird, borderline nonsensical horror movie’s first hour. And then its twist comes, propelling it into the stratosphere. This is a bonkers madhouse of a movie. Please, every major studio in Hollywood, make more stuff as thrillingly fun as this.

7. Spencer (dir. Pablo Larraín)

The ghosts of Christmas past linger around Larraín’s haunted, fictional portrait of Princess Diana trying to hold herself together. Kristen Stewart, with merely a tilt of her head and a glance of her eyes, accesses a world of pain. It’s a remarkable movie.

6. The Tragedy of Macbeth (dir. Joel Coen)

And speaking of movies that feel more like hauntings, Joel Coen’s monochromatic, abstract adaptation of Macbeth is another astonishing reimagination of a beloved play. Kathryn Hunter, as the Witches, commands the entire movie.

5. The Matrix Resurrections (dir. Lana Wachowski)

What starts as a meta-movie about how we keep getting stuck on the treadmills we try to dismantle turns into not only the most romantic movie of the year, but–for me, anyway–a stunning recalibration of the entire Matrix franchise.

4. The Power of the Dog (dir. Jane Campion)

Jonny Greenwood’s staccato score is a good indicator that something isn’t quite right in the world of Power of the Dog, but the film withholds what’s really going on until the final shot, revealing slowly the layers of violence, cruelty, repression, sexuality, and sensuality that feed the characters’ motivations.

3. The Worst Person in the World (dir. Joachim Trier)

I’ve loved Trier’s work since Reprise, and in Worst Person he’s captured–with the poetic touches that make his films so special–the feelings of doubting what we’re doing and wondering and trying to figure out how to find joy from life. It wouldn’t work half as well without Renate Reinsve, whose performance here is a revelation.

2. Drive My Car (dir. Ryusuke Hamaguchi)

I haven’t been able to shake this movie from my head and I hope I never do. While every minute of its three hours is wonderfully acted, written, and filmed, the slow accumulation that builds to its climax is emotionally overwhelming. There’s no movie in recent memory so life-affirming in how it tackles with grief and the “making do” of life. This is a really special movie.

1. The Green Knight (dir. David Lowery)

David Lowery’s abilities as a director have moved into an entirely new level with The Green Knight. Every frame of it is absolutely gorgeous, it’s entertaining and vibrant, it’s thrilling and pensive, it’s affective and intellectual, mythic and complex. “Visionary” is a word that contemporary criticism likes to throw around a lot, but minute-per-minute this is the most visionary, entertaining, top-to-bottom exceptional movie of the year, and one I look forward to watching over and over.

A Last Last Lecture for COMM 2040

At the end of my courses, I provide a “last lecture” to summarize the course and end on a positive note. This semester, it is the last time I am teaching COMM 2040, Critical-Cultural Communication Theory, for Clemson University, as the course will be removed from the curriculum this summer. I taught it 7 times in the three years I have been here.

**This was delivered to a 2000-level undergraduate course. Yes, I know there are simplicities and shortcuts. No, don’t point them out to me. I may annotate this with citations and hyperlinks over the summer.

Stories We Tell (or, Paths on the Way Towards the Possible)

At the end of each of my classes, I’ve developed a tradition of delivering what I’ve taken to calling “The Last Lecture”—a way of summing up, and putting a bow on, the course material and all its complexities.

The title of this lecture is: “Stories We Tell (or, Paths on the Way Towards the Possible)”

It’s a bit different this semester because, as I’ve alluded to, this is the last time this course is being offered. It will be removed from our curriculum this summer.

I’ve taught this class every semester since I started here, including the summers. I totally redesigned it when I took it over, so this is a bit of a sad parting.

It’s the last lecture of the semester, yes, but also the last last lecture of COMM 2040.

I’d like to do three things in this lecture: 

  • Reaffirm what the class has been about, 
  • Discuss the current attacks on critical theory in this country, and
  • Give you some things to carry with you in the semesters and the years ahead.

Story 1: Stories We’ve Told

On the very first line of the course syllabus, Gilles Deleuze—a friend and contemporary of Foucault, who dealt in complicated experiential philosophy—is quoted. He says: “A theory is exactly like a box of tools…it must be useful.”

As I told you at the beginning of class, critical work is not about judgement. It is, as we have discovered about change.

We have ended the class, well, with me, with the contention that debates about culture are increasingly returning to one of its formative definitions: agriculture, the tilling of the land and the arrangement of crops and animals. As Bailey Troutman and I define this, “an agri-cultural approach emphasizes how culture is sustained, contested, and potentially changed through articulations between environmental, economic, and political formations.” Land, infrastructure, humans, and their interrelationships offer us one way to grasp some of the messiness afoot in charting what’s going on.

I used to tell my students, at the end of this class, that cultures are always changing, and the things which appear to be settled are far looser than we’d like to imagine.

But COVID-19 has exposed how unsettled everything really is. The last year so has been characterized by total upending of our daily lives, an effort to contain a virus that has killed approximately 567 million Americans—more people in about a year than any of the wars our country has been part of except for the Civil War. And at 620,000 combat deaths in the Civil War, we’re getting frighteningly close to that number.

It is in these moments, Stuart Hall would argue, where the ground seems to be shaking under our feet, that the work of Cultural Studies and critical theory can be most productive.

Here, we might build meaningful understandings about communication and culture through using theory as part of analysis.

Here, we might sense how culture links up to the movements and velocities of the world, and how those movements and speeds push and pull on this thing we call culture.

The rhetorical scholar Kenneth Burke famously called poetry “equipment for living”—a pithy way of describing how poems are helpful for giving us ways to reflect on the world and consider the world. I’d like to do Burke one better and suggest, perhaps at risk of embarrassing myself, that critical theory is also its own equipment for living. 

But to what end?

This course has told several stories, stories that I believe constitute some of the foundational stories of critical communication scholarship and Cultural Studies. 

Stories that have pulsated through the academy, through culture, through politics, through the myriad constitutions of our world for the better part of two centuries.

First, this course gave you an abbreviated genealogy of critical theory. We placed its origins with Karl Marx and the critique of capitalist production, assessing the conditions under which Marx produced his theories and why they mattered so much to intellectuals and critical scholars. 

We examined the concerns about mass communication, community, democracy, and propaganda in the early twentieth century, and the fears that they would reshape our ability to engage meaningfully with each other.

We traveled to the Frankfurt School, where we met characters like Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, who were struggling to redefine Marx in their own time period, who were colored by the growing atrocities around them and struggling to see how they could develop a framework to think through fascism, to use their writing to help people understand something about the world. 

We fled to Italy, where Antonio Gramsci, imprisoned in his cell by a fascist regime intent on suppressing his beliefs, developed the theory of hegemony to describe the magnificent paradox of his situation: that his beliefs would never be crushed or eliminated. That that particular form of fascistic power would never truly win.

We spent some time looking at the preoccupation with culture as a concept through our original departure: Raymond Williams. Williams’s sympathy to the working class, to culture as a way of life, has guided our analysis for these months. 

We mustn’t forget that Williams’s piece, so cheery as it seems with its long story about a bus ride, is really a very angry plea to take seriously the lives of others. There is no such thing as masses, there are only ways of seeing people as masses. 

A growing preoccupation with our daily lives, with the reality that we make together, and which communication helps to make alongside us, was important to British Cultural Studies, which we took time to look at through the work of Stuart Hall as well as Williams.

As you’ll remember, these folks were trying to combine lots of different disciplines—sociology, anthropology, literary studies—to create an analytical, grounded approach to studying culture that nevertheless used theory to try and explain larger trends. 

We traveled to Toronto, where Harold Innis and later Marshall McLuhan would offer a radical definition of media as, in John Durham Peters’ interpretation of them, “crafters of existence,” those things which hold us together, where television has similar existential qualities as roads. They are mediators, connectors, both durable and ephemeral in how they structure our world.

We saw how this also established itself in America through James Carey and his commitment to rituals and cultures.

Cultural Studies has not only been a phenomenon of Britain and the United States; far from it. It has built strong footholds in Australia, Hong Kong, and South Africa, among other locations. Cultural Studies is a wayward spirit, an approach that demands a radical commitment to contextualization and connection, to the mobilization of theory in the spirit of understanding the articulations that make up our world. 

Another story through all of these interlocutors and thinkers and researchers has been one of structure. How do we conceptualize our world as a structure—as an intersecting set of relationships? How do we understand the reliance between, say, the government and the economy, between Hollywood and news outlets, between education and literacy? 

We have basically been making an argument, since week three, that Marx’s view on the structure was, to put it lightly, limited. Marx did not, by the end of his life, believe in the capacity of change in any way beyond the total overthrowing of the system. Remove the Base and install a new Base. That became, in his mind, the only way.

I’ve always been skeptical of this conclusion, one that seems in so many ways to be different from the writings of Marx’s earlier life, the ones on materialism and capital we spent time learning about together.

Cultural Studies and critical communication work, when it’s at its best, I think, reject rigidly structural thinking for what the theorists Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari call rhizomatic thinking, a way of conceptualizing relationships that is more indebted to multiplicityprocess, and complexity that allows us to think about the many dimensions, contradictions, and meanings of culture in a particular historical conjuncture.

The recent focus on infrastructure in this area, as Bailey and I take on in our piece, may point to one way to reclaim Marx’s early emphasis on historical materialism. That is to say: the materiality of data centers and aquifers provide new ways to assess how people make sense of culture, how people practice it, how economics and technologies are part of forces which alter our ways of life, and how—in the case of our study—communication outlets like local newspapers become ways to glimpse at how this contested terrain is established in particular areas and moments.

In doing this work, we might understand the crises of our time.

As you have seen, a critical disposition entails analysis and concern with understanding why problems arise over a longer period of time—For example, it entails asking, what are the forces driving the spread of misinformation, and what are the forces that cause lies to be seen as truth?

According to Stuart Hall, crises arise when “forces and articulations…come together or ‘con-join’ in the same moment and political space.” It entails asking about the condensation of forces, the settlements, the taken for granted elements of our particular and specific moment of time.

Part of my love of Cultural Studies has to do with the strange blend of theory from which critical-cultural work draws, and the essayistic blend of empirical reportage and theory-driven analysis that is its standard. And, indeed, this is why I’ve tried to explain at least a little bit of the history and context that gave rise to this theory, while we simultaneously tried to assess whether or not it remained useful—or timely, as the phrase may be—for us in 2021.

So this has been one story of the class: Theory as a history, as emerging within and responding to a particular set of conditions. Theory—at least, critical-cultural communication theory—is then very timely, as much as it may be able to traverse an array of temporalities.

This is a story that is ultimately about how theory is a political project. The people we read in this class developed theory out of very real problems that they saw in their worlds. Adorno and Horkheimer’s version of Hollywood was about Hitler. McLuhan’s version of television was about the Vietnam War. Foucault’s power/knowledge was about the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Marx’s understanding of capital was about working conditions in the 1840s. 

Another way to say this is that all of these writers wrote and taught and acted with urgency because they all believed in the capacity to change the world.

And here in 2021, we are all needing to believe the world can get better.

So that’s one story the class has told.

And this story is deeply personal to me.

I need to put some cards on the table.

We began with Raymond Williams. Williams, as I mentioned, was one of the founding editors of the magazine New Left Review. Stuart Hall was also a founding editor before he went to head the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham.

I need to fold in here a scholar named Larry Grossberg, who went to Birmingham and studied under Stuart Hall in the 1970s, where Hall trained him as a graduate student in Cultural Studies work, focusing on things like context and conjuncture

From there, Larry went to the University of Illinois to earn his PhD. There, James Carey was his advisor. After he finished his PhD, Larry was hired to the faculty at Illinois, and in 1983 he brought Stuart Hall to America for a series of lectures on Cultural Studies. 

So Larry becomes a force who connects Hall and Carey, Birmingham and the Midwest, and has been a major force in developing Cultural Studies in the U.S.

In the mid 1990s, UNC hired Larry away from Illinois to help develop an interdisciplinary program in Cultural Studies, and that’s where he still is—though I believe he’s on the verge of retiring. 

One of Larry’s first advisors after he arrived at UNC was Ted Striphas. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Ted was one of the first authors we read: He co-wrote the article on Netflix’s recommendation systems.

After receiving his PhD from UNC, Ted went to Indiana University.

That’s where I met him. Ted was my doctoral advisor: He directed and mentored my research for five years. As part of that work, he helped teach me this history.

Blake Hallinan—who co-authored the Netflix piece with Ted—was also one of his mentees. She and I met at Indiana University. We just last month published an enormous special issue of Cultural Studies focused on infrastructural politics.

This class is, in other words, a bit of a story of an academic family tree. This story of Cultural Studies is also a story of humans coming together to think and learn from each other, and pass that knowledge forward in collaboration, in the classroom, and through practical work in the world.

You are also part of this story now. I believe we all have an obligation to continue the best of this work, to try and continue the work Williams, Hall, Carey, Grossberg, and others have worked to build and share with their students.

Welcome to our family.

Story 2: Stories in Revolt

One area of critical theory we did not discuss this semester is critical race theory, which has become a lightning rod of sorts in the last two or so years.

Critical race theory uses many of the theories we discussed in this class to examine how racial identities and relationships are couched within historical and material power relations, using this analysis to point out oppression and marginalization, and to advocate for policies focused on equity and social justice.

It’s been around for a long time, but it went very mainstream last year during the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer, where scholars and activists were using platforms like Twitter to try and teach about critical race theory and explain their particular policies.

The New York Times’ “1619 Project,” which used such scholars and historians to offer a viewpoint of the U.S. as founded on and inextricably tied to the arrival of enslaved persons in the year 1619, similarly “mainstreamed” a lot of these ideas, spurring intense debate and, in many conservative outlets, condemnation.

Indeed, last Fall, then-President Trump called critical race theory “un-American.”

Influential think-tank The Heritage Foundation described critical theory around the same time as “an unremitting attack on all of America’s norms and traditions.”

A Cornell Law professor created a website that tracks where the “radical ideology” of critical theory and critical race theory are taught in universities around the country

The National Review calls critical theory “a dangerous and divisive ideology”

The Federalist, earlier this month, labeled it, “The Left’s QAnon”: “not education but indoctrination.”

Earlier this year, Florida governor Ron DeSantis introduced proposals that would “expressly exclude” the examination of topics related to critical theory and the subset of critical race theory in all public schools in the state.

Bills that would forbid the teaching of critical race theory in particular—and critical theory by extension—are being or have been considered in Arkansas, Iowa, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and West Virginia, at the very least.

I could go on, but suffice to say: critical theory has reemerged as the target of ire for some parts of the political right. We critical theorists, such as myself, apparently exist to “brainwash” you, to “suppress” you, to bring you into a “cult.”

So, apparently, I have been teaching you some of the most dangerous ideas in the world over the last four months. As far as critical race theory goes, we might remember our day reading and examining Policing the Crisis, and how Hall and his co-authors were able to argue that policing institutions were operating in systemically racist ways that were trying to suppress waves of black immigrants in the 1970s. 

It makes me sad, if not sick, to hear the work I do described as anti-American, or un-American, or worthy of attack and derision. The removal of this course from our curriculum is an enormous loss for me. I have loved working to make this literature accessible to students at Clemson, to try and show them how we analyze power, identity, social relationships, and so on to understand what we might call “the bigger picture.”

I have never thought that my job is to tell you what to think. How foolish a pursuit that would be, to believe I can control the minds of such strong-willed humans!

Rather, I want to offer you a way of considering how to think. Critical theory and Cultural Studies, as I discussed already, are built around exploring systemic forces and arrangements.

We have described this throughout our class as a series tensions:

  • Who has power, and how do theye exercise that power?
  • How is communication a part of power relations, expressed not only interpersonally but through things like television, journalism, algorithms, platforms?
  • As we grapple with producing a more democratic and just world, what are the real limitations of this project, and how are those limitations baked into systems or practices that are quite hard to undo or remake?

We grapple with these tensions as we try and make do and make things better

But we need to hold things together in tension if we’re going to get anywhere. We need to be looking at the complex, multiple points of view and histories and motives that go into producing something. As Bailey and I point out in the piece you read for today, Google’s relationship to South Carolina is many things at once; it is not reducible to any of those things. All of those things made the relationship between the data center and the aquifer so complicated.

So when I hear someone describe this work as un-American, my heart genuinely breaks.

Let us think again about this core idea of the tension. America is a country of tensions:

  • We were founded under the principles of freedom, democracy, giving people the capacity for the pursuit of happiness in a rejection of being a subservient colony
  • At the same time, we had enslaved persons build the White House and the US Capitol, and over the course of the first two centuries in North America we actively participated in the suppression and genocide of Native persons.
  • To point out this contradiction is, I think, not an unpatriotic thing to do.
  • We might do well to turn to the Preamble of the Constitution, which asks us to form a more perfect Union through establishing Justiceinsuring domestic Tranquilityproviding for the common defense, promoting the general Welfare, and securing the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.
    • These lines form a project of the United States—to form a more perfect union
    • Nations, like cultures, are far from stable things. They are in flux, they change, they transform, and always there are tensions
  • Consider, for instance, the oft-cited measure that we have what is considered to be the second-best education system globally, but many of our benchmarks test in the 20s or even 30s of the rankings.
  • Consider how much food we produce, yet people still go hungry
  • Consider how much wealth we have in this country, yet people still are in poverty
  • Consider how much value we place on life and liberty, yet people still are shot dead all too often

It is not anti-American to point this out. It is patently American: to suggest we must do better to realize our project, to point out its flaws, to build something that might work for as many people as possible.

Critical theory—and this includes critical race theory—is at its best when it is a project of making better. Of advocating for transformations and trying to teach people in a way that empowers them to be more democraticmore open to others, more focused on undoing harm.

I will miss teaching this material week in and week out to our undergraduates. I will miss encouraging them to make connections, to ask hard questions about our everyday lives.

If nothing else, I sincerely hope you walk away from this class not believing the venom spewed about this work via many politicians and journalists. I will continue fighting for good, meaningful critical theory in our communities here, and continue positioning it as an important tool kit.

Which brings me to:

Story 3: Stories still to tell 

The final story is about theory-as-possibility.

You might think, for instance, about the ways our class has brushed against political conversations, especially in our last two meetings, and my insistence that there is much that is political about culture—and the other way around.

We saw that again in the final piece for today, on culture and infrastructure, where Bailey and I contend that various political forces shape how we make sense of our cultures and our moments.

Again, when I say “political,” I do not mean only the contestations between Democrats and Republicans over the shaping of laws, but political in the sense of how, traditionally, citizens relate to the city—or, the state, or the government, broadly considered. 

We may say that today, this thing called “the political” has to do with articulations of power and populations, how people come to negotiate power within lived experiences and ways of life that inform and shape how they practice their cultures.

I’ve not just used political examples because it’s an election season and they are convenient, but also because critical work believes there is something political about culture.

And this is where my own story comes in, I guess, as a way to talk about this second story.

I was first confronted—the right word choice, I think—with Michel Foucault over a decade ago. I was a freshman in college, and ambitiously took a higher-level class that was packed to its gills with complicated theory.

And I hated it. I saw all of this as truly nonsense.

What changed for me with theory is probably as simple as this: recognizing that it’s one mode of problem-solving. 

Most theory, when it’s good at least, is trying to give us ways to understand the myriad problems, crises, tensions, and predicaments that make up our culture. 

Good theory helps us tell better stories.

Stories about power. 

About publics. 

About technology. 

About identity. 

About resistance. 

About oppression. 

About ideology. 

About the shape of the world. 

About why we do what we do, and why things work the way they do.

About—and here’s another phrase from Stuart Hall—our conditions of possibility

Those things that we call, broadly, the possible

The possible asks us to think about what we can do, what we might do, and what we will do.

There is no single explanation for the world. 

The world is a mess of contradictions. 

Good theory recognizes that, and it revels in the contradictions, rather than tries to smooth them over.

I found theory because I needed theory to understand culture. I needed to understand the vibrant complexities of our many ways of life

I teach theory because I want to help you understand these things, as well.

If Deleuze is right that theory is exactly like a tool, we should probably, I guess, say exactly what that tool is supposed to do.

I quote Foucault: “[Theory] is a struggle against power, a struggle aimed at revealing and undermining power where it is most invisible and insidious. It is not to ‘awaken consciousness’ that we struggle…but to sap power, to take power.”

Another way to say that: theory is, in part, about imagining a different world, with a different power structure, a more humane and ethical way of living, and hypothesizing ways to get there.

We can only really get to the possible once we understand fully what, to borrow from the Birmingham School, is going on now. We cannot, as Raymond Williams put it, leap to the future. We have to do the hard work of understanding the present.

In the event that I’m losing you here, let me clarify:

I believe the discipline and work of Communication has a responsibility to architect a democratic, empathetic, bonded, inclusive public sphere. 

Communication is one of the most primal things we have to give to one another.

Communication is not, and has never been, simply about the sending and receiving of messages through various channels. 

That definition has never paid full service to the deeply existential work of Communication, and how it participates in the governing, maintenance, and sense-making practices of human affairs, how it contributes to our ways of life. 

We have lived, and in many ways are still living through crisis.

Our world turned sideways, and then upside down in 2020.

What COVID-19 has done is to expose how everything is interrelated in staggering ways: a public health crisis becomes a jobs crisis becomes a supply crisis and an infrastructure crisis and more and more. We were all exposed to these compounding crises.

As someone who is now fully vaccinated, I do feel we are coming to the other side of this, but we know full there will be ramifications from this past year spilling out into years to come. 

As Cultural Studies teaches us, crises don’t just end. They linger and transform, and we will not know what to make of all of what’s happened this year for a long time.

We cannot expect to know what to make of all this yet

We will need to rebuild our communities, and to work on rearchitecting and changing the world to help one another

The ways to fix these—and other—crises in the places where we live and work will likely differ for each of us. Indeed, while we all share many commitments, we have a lot of different perspectives, beliefs, and ideologies. 

It is, as I’ve already said, not my job to litigate the beliefs you hold. It is my job, I believe, to outfit you with tools that ask you to use your morality for the betterment of our culture, to turn communication into practices and processes that do good in this world.

We might do well to remember Raymond Williams: We over-invest in what is technically good—what are best practices—at the expense of investing in what is morally good—what are practices of being better

The throughlines of this class have focused around recurring themes of daily life, power, structure, and change.

The utility of theory provides a framework for approaching the world that I do honestly believe enhances your ability to understand and respond to problems across a wide array of communication-based jobs and opportunities. 

Our material can, I believe, illuminate important things about the world. 

It can help you use communication to make something happen

To reinvigorate that which is possible.

Our theory can inform and guide your praxis. 

It can help steer you towards doing good.

Coda: Stories for community

Okay. As Steve Jobs used to say: One more thing.

Let us return to the relationship between “communication” and “community.”

They both share a Latin root: communis, “common, public, general.”

If we still struggle to understand the task of Communication in this tumultuous world, it might be to work on finding the common ground between our communities.

This is something like what the scholar Jurgen Habermas calls the public sphere—the space where individuals are able to come together and voice their concerns collectively—and it’s one that our course has been building towards. 

It is worth remembering, again, that culture comes to us in part from the word agri-culture, and its associations of tending to the soil, of growing, harvesting, and caring—above all, caring—for the physical world and its products. 

As Ted Striphas has put it, this perhaps now antiquated understanding of culture “demanded—and still demands—patience, persistence, studiousness, and craft, and above all attention to the mundane details of one’s conditions of existence.” We might then suggest, ultimately, a cohabitation—an articulation—between criticism and care.

The dash that binds critical-cultural together then signifies, at last, the necessity for critique—the judgments and analysis conferred in the name of responding to perceived and actual crises and concerns—to operate in the service of the cultural—as not only ways of life, but also the maintenance and care and craft that sustain the course of human life.

This is why I have told you the story of Critical-Cultural Communication Theory.

It is now your responsibility to carry forward the lessons of this course. 

Use them to understand how power interacts with everyday lives. 

Use them to see how dominant forms often exist at the expense of others. 

Use them to fight, as Foucault put it, the battle over the nature of truth. 

Use them to understand how each of us utilizes platforms and channels and media to try and have our identities, our selves count in some way.

As you do, insist on cultivating a radically contextual, complex analysis. 

Insist on growing, rather than diminishing, our public spheres. 

Tend to culture. 

Bridge divides. 

Cultivate and care. 

Grow the world, rather than inflict harm upon on it.

This is our task. This is our responsibility.

This is Not a Solidarity Platform


This is a Not a Solidarity Platform

First: Black Lives Matter. That is the position from which all conversation must begin right now.

Second: These are inherently incomplete and imperfect thoughts. I apologize for omissions, lack of clarity, or any language that in any way does not signal my commitment for justice and equity. I am writing this in the spirit of sharing thoughts as crisis unfolds. Please communicate any ways this post could be improved, and I will gladly make edits.

I want to write about the Black Tile. More specifically, I want to write about the problem of the Black Tile.

Continue reading “This is Not a Solidarity Platform”

#TeamParasite: What to Watch for during the 92nd Oscars

Screen Shot 2020-02-08 at 11.00.24 AM

Best Picture:

Will Win: 1917
Might Win: Parasite

Look, if Parasite can pull this off, it will be one of the most genuinely amazing Oscars victories of the last…20 years? But don’t hold your breath. Despite broad love and a Screen Actors Guild victory, this is 1917‘s to lose: After winning the Golden Globe, the Producers Guild, the Directors Guild, and the BAFTA, it’s a functional lock for Best Picture.

The proper comparison here is Roma last year, a movie I got tricked into predicting would win Best Picture. Despite winning Director, Roma could not pick up both International Feature and Best Picture, and it seems like that’s going to continue to be the trend.

Having said that, the Best Director category makes this something of an interesting race (I guess?): Since the Oscars moved to a weight ballot system for Picture in 2011, Picture and Director have gone to two different movies five times, and the same movie three times (The ArtistBirdmanThe Shape of Water). There is a demonstrable shift in how Director is awarded–often to more technically complex movies (like 1917), with Picture going to the more “generally popular” movies the Academy likes to reward (with the exception of last year’s Movie That Shall Not Be Named). So it’s possible–though unlikely–Mendes will win Director as part of a 6 or so win evening for 1917, while Parasite wins 3-4 (Picture, International Feature, Screenplay, and maybe Editing).

The other recent history folks making this argument will point to is 2016, where La La Land won all the major awards 1917 has, won 6 Oscars including Director, and still lost–famously–to Moonlight. But that year was a clear anomaly, and part of what made Moonlight‘s victory so special (envelop faux pas aside) was that it was an actual upset.

Don’t use anomalies to make bets. The consensus is around 1917.

Best Director

Will Win: Sam Mendes, 1917
Could Win: Bong Joon-ho, Parasite

Golden Globe + DGA + BAFTA mostly lock this for Mendes.

Best Actor

Will Win: Joaquin Phoenix, Joker

The acting categories are all a snooze fest this year in terms of competition, but at least three actors I adore will finally get Oscars. And also Renee Zellweger will get a second Oscar.

Best Actress

Will Win: Renee Zellweger, Judy

Best Supporting Actor

Will Win: Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Best Supporting Actress

Will Win: Laura Dern, Marriage Story

Best Original Screenplay

Will Win: Bong Joon-ho and Han Jin-won, Parasite

After winning the Writers Guild and the BAFTA, Parasite is in a good position here and I would love to see it win (and if it wins here, that can add some fuel to the fire of its potential upset at night’s end). Tarantino has the Globe and broad support for his film. He’s won this category twice (most recently, with Django Unchained), which both helps and hurts him here.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Will Win: Taikka Waititi, Jojo Rabbit

I’m leaning on Jojo winning after it nabbed both the BAFTA and WGA, but The Irishman won the Scripter Award and jeez I just want Little Women to win this so dang much. Really hoping for a delightful surprise in this category.

Best Animated Feature

Will Win: Klaus

Best Documentary Feature

Will Win: For Sama

Best International Feature

Will Win: Parasite

Best Cinematography

Will Win: 1917

Best Costume Design

Will Win: Little Women

Jojo won the Costume Designers Guild, where Little Women was somehow NOT nominated, and Women won the BAFTA. I have a slight hunch Jojo will repeat at the Oscars because of the film’s broad appeal, but Costume Design is usually a place for a film to earn its only win, and it is a category that routinely awards period pieces with lots of dresses.

Best Film Editing

Will Win: Parasite

This one seems largely between Parasite and Ford v. Ferrari, the latter of which is exactly the kind of movie that wins this category quite often. Both seem like very solid predictions. I’d say Parasite needs to win here if it’s ultimately going to upset the evening.

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

Will Win: Bombshell

Best Production Design

Will Win: Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

I’m betting on OUaT‘s “home field advantage”–its recreation of late-60s Los Angeles is one of its major selling points, and can edge out 1917, the other likely candidate to win this. If 1917 wins here, it could be part of a wider, 7-8 win evening.

Best Score

Will Win: Joker

Best Song

Will Win: “I’m Gonna Love Me Again,” Rocketman

One of the moments I’m most looking forward to, actually.

Best Sound Mixing

Will Win: 1917

Best Sound Editing

Will Win: 1917

Best Visual Effects

Will Win: 1917

Although really want The Irishman to just win something.


The Best of the Decade


In the great spirit of list-making and marking the transition from one decade to another, I offer you my 25 Favorite Movies of the 2010s.

I made a ground rule for myself: Because I am, in my heart of hearts, an auteurist, I decided to only include one film per director, lest this become an overflow of love for folks like Scorsese, Lanthimos, Gerwig, and PT Anderson, whose work routinely hit me hard and deep throughout the decade.

Additionally, it often takes me several years to really figure out how I feel about a movie, so there ended up being an odd and unexpected lack of 2018-19 movies on this list. This is in part because of the auteur rule above. For instance, Lanthimos’s The Favourite was my top movie in 2018, but I chose his The Lobster for this list. If I were to make this list again in a year, who knows what would be where.

Finally, I’ve chosen to present these without commentary, but I’d like to include a note on why Twin Peaks: The Return is on this list. One of the most interesting “stories” of this decade, for me, is the increased blur between what “counts” as a movie and as a television series. Twin Peaks is kind of both to me–and I think it’s kind of both for Lynch and Frost, who have explored Twin Peaks as television series, movie, and novel over its lifespan–and it’s here mostly because I can’t help myself.

It’s all for fun, don’t read too much into things. But in the event that you do, my apologies for my evident biases and obvious omissions.

25. The Immigrant (dir. James Gray, 2014)


24. Spring Breakers (dir. Harmony Korine, 2013)


23. Two Days, One Night (dir. The Dardennes, 2014)


22. Arrival (dir. Denis Villeneuve, 2016)


21. It’s Such a Beautiful Day (dir. Don Hertzfeldt, 2012)


20. Taxi (dir. Jafar Panahi, 2015)


19. Phoenix (dir. Christian Petzold, 2015)


18. Star Wars: The Last Jedi (dir. Rian Johnson, 2017)


17. Foxcatcher (dir. Bennett Miller, 2014)

Foxcatcher Steve Carell.jpg

16. Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuarón, 2013)


15. The Other Side of the Wind (dir. Orson Welles, 2018)


14. Hugo (dir. Martin Scorsese, 2011)


13. Get Out (dir. Jordan Peele, 2017)


12. Inside Llewyn Davis (dir. the Coens, 2013)


11. The Master (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)


10. Killing Them Softly (dir. Andrew Dominik, 2012)


9. Carol (dir. Todd Haynes, 2015)


8. The Lobster (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos, 2016)


7. Boyhood (dir. Richard Linklater, 2014)


6. Twin Peaks: The Return (dir. David Lynch, 2017)


5. Moonlight (dir. Barry Jenkins, 2016)


4. Lady Bird (dir. Greta Gerwig, 2017)


3. Mad Max: Fury Road (dir. George Miller, 2015)


2. The Social Network (dir. David Fincher, 2010)


1. The Tree of Life (dir. Terrence Malick, 2011)


The Personal Canon: Summer 2019 Update

Over my first year at Clemson, almost all of my colleagues have asked me: So what are your favorite movies?

In the spirit of answering that question, I’ve returned to and overhauled my Personal Canon of favorite movies for the first time in five years. Instead of ranking by preference–a task that increasingly seems herculean–I’ve listed these chronologically, and with no real captions or context.

Here are one hundred movies I love, and that have special resonances and meanings to me. There are many biases, there are many omissions, but here ya go:

Continue reading “The Personal Canon: Summer 2019 Update”

Communication and Community

Preface: In an effort to be more reflective and public about my teaching, I am trying to find time to blog about my courses. I will keep these relatively abstract so as to protect my students’ right to privacy, and they will all be written somewhat hurriedly to try and offer a brief way to collect and distribute thoughts and connections I find meaningful. Please forgive any lack of precision or rigor, and please accept this as an invitation for further conversation.


This past week in my undergraduate Critical-Cultural Communication Theory course, we have worked through what the concept of culture means, and how this concept can help orient the study of communication. I had students read Raymond Williams, “Culture is Ordinary,” and James W. Carey, “A Cultural Approach to Communication.”

The idea here was to help students see that theory does not have to be abstract, but works best when we ground it in lived experience, and use it to create larger understandings of complicated phenomena.

There were two main nuggets I hoped students would get to take away with them as we started this course:

Continue reading “Communication and Community”

The Ache of Ephemerality: On a Return to Blogging

As I start my work at Clemson University, I wanted to re-launch my blogging. Since I went to Indiana in 2013 to begin my PhD work, I’ve mostly relied on Twitter for blogging, preferring its ephemerality and compactness, and the ability to get immediate and direct feedback.

For a number of reasons, I’m growing tired of Twitter. Yes, the caustic anonymity of the site is a problem, as is its (intentional or not) harboring of supremacist viewpoints. But I’ve been inspired by a quote from Siva Vaidhyanathan’s recent Anti-Social Media (and I’m paraphrasing):Facebook is good at declaration, and bad at deliberation.

Continue reading “The Ache of Ephemerality: On a Return to Blogging”

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