Mellon Foundation funds Yale seminar series on the ‘genealogy’ of screens

We are surrounded by screens — whether on our television, computer, tablet, or smart phone, or at the cinema. Their rise to pervasiveness and their influence on our perceptions of the world will be the focus of an interdisciplinary seminar series led by a trio of Yale humanities scholars.

“Genealogies of the Excessive Screen” is the brainchild of Francesco Casetti, Film & Media Studies Program; Rüdiger Campe, Department of Germanic Language and Literatures; and Craig Buckley, Department of the History of Art. The program is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation as part of a long-running program, the Sawyer Seminars on Comparative Cultures.

“Rethinking the genealogy of screens offers an important opportunity to bring the field of media studies into a wider conversation with other disciplines,” Casetti says. “The screen is a typical ‘interdisciplinary’ object. Its current explosion in number, size, function, and placement challenges our usual consideration of this object. Moreover, it challenges the intellectual framework through which we look at the present.”

A central aim of the series is to better understand the cultural origins of the current “explosion,” which came about not only through technological innovation, but also through currents in literature, visual art, and drama that took shape centuries before the invention of television and smart phones. “Functions and aspects of the screen have shaped the presentation of cultural artifacts, including literary artifacts, for a long time in history,” says Campe. “The page of the codex, instead of the scroll, is one important example; the theater stage in its development toward the modern fourth wall is another. The panel and later on the canvas painting, with the characteristic forms of framing it acquired in Renaissance art, have been the pattern for both the book page and the framed stage alike. These devices for inscription and appearance determined the experience of verbal and pictorial presentation.”

In addition to tracing this historical background, the series will examine how screens shape culture, sometimes in ways that are both unexpected and profound. Buckley cites architecture as an example. “Architects find themselves confronted with an ever-expanding array of screen technologies,” he notes, “ranging from the spectacular — programmable building envelopes that make entire buildings into 3-dimensional screens — to the banal; the expectation is that some type of screen be present in almost every space we occupy. The screen is also the site where virtually every new building today is designed. For these reasons alone, the subject matters greatly to the architectural discipline.”

The focal point of the seminar is a series of thematic sessions in the spring 2017 and fall 2017 terms. This series gets under way Feb. 15–17 with a program of discussions exploring the many forms screens have taken. A collaboration with the Yale University Art Gallery, the introductory program will feature Yale faculty and distinguished visitors, including visual culture theorist W.J.T. Mitchell and art historian Noam Elcott. In April, a three-day program in collaboration with the Yale Center for British Art will focus on screens in the Enlightenment. Information on the schedule of programs and other activities of the seminar series can be found at the seminar’s website, http://dev.screens.yale.edu.

In anticipation of the formal launch of the seminar series, the Film & Media Studies Program is offering a course this fall, “The World of Screens,” which is open to graduate students and advanced undergraduates. Casetti is teaching the course in tandem with Bernard Geoghegan, a visiting professor on leave this semester from the Coventry University School of Media and Performing Arts. Geoghegan will return to Yale for the fall 2017 leg of the series.

“Genealogies of the Excessive Screen” is the first Sawyer Seminar to be held at Yale in more than two decades. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation previously supported Sawyer programs at Yale on migration and human rights; the millennium and millennialism; and the comparative study of genocide.

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