English faculty speak on scholarship in pop culture

by Kyla Parkins

How do Batman, Bono and Stephen Colbert relate to scholarship? On Oct. 14, Fred Johnson and John Pell, professors in the English department, explored those connections in a presentation called Scholarship in Pop Culture.

Room 102 of the Lied Center for the Visual Arts overflowed with attentive spectators, some forced to stand or sit upon tables in the back.

At 7 p.m., Johnson began with Batman. He showed the audience illustrations created by various artists.

“There are so many different kinds of drawings of Batman that you can really easily put two up against each other and think about the differences, so it makes a really vivid example,” Johnson said.

Although the pictures were diverse in style, he explained that Batman was still recognizable because of criterial aspects. If he’s wearing the Bat Suit and fits the criteria, Johnson said we generally infer that Batman is pictured.

“When you look at a comic, you’re reading the image almost as fast as you’re reading the words,” Johnson said.

Because of this, we read an image to be Batman. However, what happens when a character changes too much?

Johnson talked about that with his next pop culture example.  Bono is the frontman of the band U2. According to Johnson, Bono has undergone numerous changes in identity and the ways in which he represents himself.  He explained that when U2 started out, they were characterized by an iconic image and the public viewed them in a specific way. Seeking reinvention, Johnson said U2 fully changed their style.

“How far can you go before it’s not Bono or not U2?” Johnson said.

They became so different that Johnson claimed the old version of U2 would never have agreed with the new version. Likewise, the new version would never agree with the old. Johnson said this creates a lot of confusion about who U2 really is.

In fact, Johnson said that U2 virtually does not exist because the band has changed too much to have a core identity. The U2 on one album is different than the U2 on the next, so a real U2 isn’t sustained.

Assistant professor of English John Pell speaks to students about scholarship in pop culture. Janik Emmendorfer | Photographer

When Johnson finished, it was Pell’s turn to talk about scholarship and pop culture. His example was TV personality Stephen Colbert.

“I think when you do rhetorical studies like I do, it’s better to pick examples that people have access to,” Pell said. “One of the things when you talk about political rhetoric is that it can make people uncomfortable because you talk about policy and parties and these big issues. But I think if you show a clip of the Colbert Report…It allows a little bit of release. It helps people wrestle with these ideas and not get offended politically.”

Pell explained that Colbert’s humorous style allows him to mock corrupt processes in a subtle way. For example, Pell shared a clip of Colbert’s Super PAC ad starring Buddy Roemer. Roemer said that the Super PAC paid for the ad even though they aren’t supposed to coordinate with candidates. However, because the ad is presented as an issue ad, Roemer stated that he can star in it regardless. In the end of the ad, Colbert appears with a unicorn. The ad mocked Super PAC advertising.

“The point is that his mocking of that process is completely indistinguishable from the process,” Pell said.

Colbert’s humor has the capability to teach us things, Pell said.

“I think humor is pretty serious, actually. I think it’s actually an important human mechanism for getting at truth,” Pell said. “I think we don’t talk about it enough. We sort of see it as that tearing down process of making fun of but I hope we also see humor as inventive and constructive.”

Overall, the presentation offered Johnson’s and Pell’s perspectives on scholarship in pop culture for the audience’s interpretation.

“This presentation taught me the importance of storytelling and how we are influenced by pop culture. Also, how everything we see in pop culture is more or less a façade,” senior Kaurie Albert said.

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