Notes on MAPACA18

I attended the 29th annual conference of Mid-Atlantic Popular & American Culture Association (MAPACA) last week in Baltimore, MD. I’ve been to this conference before and it has always been a fun time, full of interesting talks and learning about things I didn’t know. It’s also nice to catch up with scholars that I know (some of whom I know mostly through social media) and meeting new people (some of whom I can’t believe I don’t already know). Below are some of my notes on the conference. Enjoy!

On specific talks

In my own talk, I spoke about code-switching in comic books. I focused on two characters: Black Lightning and Supergirl. The former code-switches to help hide his true identity, while the latter code-switches sometimes out of necessity and sometimes out of preference. Black Lightning switches between varieties of English and Supergirl between Kryptonian (her L1 and a conlang) and English (at least in the original versions of the books; there are obviously translations for when the book is sold in other countries). You can read my abstract here. I’m going to talk about my findings in a separate post (and maybe update this post if I ever get around to turning the research into a paper). Enough about me.

There was a session on memes and viral media which was great. Laura Dickinson and Ellen Santa Maria both spoke about memes and how they are used. In the Q & A I learned that there isn’t a great definition for memes at the moment, but rather a range of definitions. Some scholars are very narrow in what they consider a meme, while others are broad. Ellen stressed that Limor Shifman’s book Memes in Digital Culture is an absolute must for someone who wants to know how memes work. Shifman takes the idea that ideas are viral as a starting point and then adds on to it but proposing a typology of memes. Very cool. I gotta read that.

Ellen Santa Maria talked about memes as discursive objects and the roles they play in discourse. She said that memes promote opinion echo chambers and they violate social media netiquette. On the other hand, memes can spark deeper thought and spark conversation. Her research was based on questionnaires and interviews. See her abstract here.

In the same session, Abigail Rogers talked about the Norwegian TV show SKAM. That show was blowing up TVs all over Finland last year (and apparently other places as well). Abigail discussed it and made a comparison to US TV shows which discuss similar topics, such as sexual assault and online shaming. Check her abstract. In her talk, she said that US TV shows often have “dramatic, over-the-top, CW-esque story lines.” I love that description.

I saw Scott Manning talk about the use and exploitation of Joan of Arc and her story by Ringling Bros. It was very interesting and Scott even had a poster of the show set up during his presentation. Next level stuff right there. Scott told me later that night that he was late to my talk because he had to do an interview on NPR. Lookit this guy!

Andy Yzaguirre had a talk called “Secret identities and anonymity in the webcomic Sharp Zero”. The main points included how secret identities of superheroes come and go, but the idea is no longer central to the stories (see Iron Man, Superman, etc.). The secret identity brings readers closer to the character – they know who the character is and they want to be part of the secret. Also, the person behind the mask could theoretically be anybody (there have been multiple people behind Batman’s cowl). But it can’t really be anybody. If you wanna be Superman or Captain America, you gotta be big and buff (aka, not Jimmy Olsen or pre-super serum Steve Rogers). In the webcomic Sharp Zero, this isn’t the case. It made me wonder whether new, non-DC/Marvel superhero comics have more opportunities to play around with the theme of secret identities? Because the traditional superhero stories may stray from the alter-ego theme, but they always come back to the original story (they reset, reboot, etc.). The answer is yes and one of the reasons is that readers of webcomics do not have the same expectations as readers of DC/Marvel books. They don’t need the story to come back to the original plot. For the webcomics, it’s not that the secret identity isn’t there, it’s just not as important. Andy also said “Batmans.” Nice. I like it. “Batmen” just doesn’t mean the same.

I also saw many more talks that were great and that I didn’t take notes for (I was listening too hard!). Thank you to all the speakers.

Grad student get-together

Scott Manning also ran the grad student social and it was great. We walked down the street to a comic book shop and got to know each other over an ice-breaking game. There were prizes (I got a comic book!) and the store gave us 20% off (I bought a poster! Couldn’t bring more books back across the sea with me). Besides that stuff, I think this was a wonderful way of giving grad students a way to talk in a comfortable atmosphere. We had to find people who met certain characteristics (they were presenting on a different topic than you, they have never seen Justice League, etc.) and then get their name and email. Conferences can be intimidating for grad students – there are many people who are more accomplished (more publications, higher academic posts, etc.) than grad students, so it can be hard for them to get a word in edgewise and easy for them to shrink into the shadows (even is the grad student social is held at a bar). MAPACA and other conferences should do this in the future.

Other stuff

I missed the John Waters exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art. I really wanted to go. If you’re in Baltimore before Jan. 6, 2019, you should go. https://artbma.org/exhibitions/waters

I learned about the Lavender Language conference. I probably won’t be able to go next year, but I’m going to keep it on my checklist. https://lavlang26.wordpress.com

Bad stuff

There were, of course, some not so good things. First, something that isn’t so bad: I’m sick of people standing up and reading papers to me. If I wanted to read a paper, I’d do that from my hotel room. I came to hear you present your research. Make a powerpoint! Or something! Especially if you’re talking about a visual medium! I mean, I get it, your paper is ready to go, so why not read it for everyone. But pictures!

Second, something which is much worse. This was the second conference I’ve been to where a white presenter said the n-word to the audience. Again, the person said it while quoting someone else (in this case Muhammad Ali), but that’s not an excuse. No matter how non-racist you are, you don’t get to say that word. Knock it off.

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Author: Joe McVeigh

I'm a linguist who researches email marketing. I also teach at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland. I write about language and linguistics on my blog, ...And Read All Over, and I write about language and marketing on my other blog, Email and Linguistics.

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