Theoretical Spirit Animals

Once again, I gave my grad students a really strange writing assignment for their blogs:

I had dinner the other night with a job candidate (for a film studies professor job) and two other professors. A playful topic of conversation/parlor game came up that went something like this: "Who are your theoretical spirit animals?" How would you answer this? How might you be tempted to adjust your answer from the perspective of someone trying to get a job? How might you interpret this as the odd-person-out (e.g. An artist among theorists/historians, or a theorist among artists)? I'll share my response at the end of the week too.

I think I confused a couple folks, right off I started getting questions like "should I actually name an animal?" So, I'll work on the wording for next time. It was just such an interesting conversation—a really good job candidate and a few friends, but with the added conversational ballet of the job interview, I had to bring my grad students into it.

Anyway, I was the only maker at the table, so for me there was the immediate feeling "aw man, I get to look like the least well-read person at the table again." There's often this inferiority complex that sets in among artist-academics when we're around theorists and historians, like we have to pretend we're equally enamored with and fluent in critical studies as we are with making art. I feel it sometimes, and I fight it. That whole thing's another blog post.

Point is, here's this job candidate facing this question over dinner, knowing that even though we're clearly friendly and easy going, we're still here to pass judgment. So where do you take this? Do you choose safe influences? Do you try to toss out an theorist that might be totally unheard of?

I flashed back to my very first tenure-track job interview at Penn State, where during the job talk, someone asked me to talk about my filmmaking influences. I can't remember all the people I named, but among them were Dziga Vertov and Andy Warhol... and my explanation behind them was that I was particularly moved by filmmakers whose work was just as much a manifesto as an artwork. It was a good talk and I got the job.

But back to dinner. Names flew all over the place. Ah, of course, Foucault. Ah yes, Marks. And Marx. Begrudgingly, Derrida. Many of the theorists names I'd not read very much, some not at all, and some I had never even heard of. And I'm a pretty smart guy. Ah well. My answer that night at dinner came last, I preceded it with the caveat that these were my picks "this week." They were:

Stan Brakhage, who made me really understand how personal making art could be, and whose writing was plain spoken and curious to understand deeply.

Hollis Frampton, who could make something that was at once so beautiful, so profound, and so silly.

David Foster Wallace, who is currently captivating me with turns of phrase that are stark and devastating and perfect.

And Chick Strand, for whom genre was irrelevant, and every film felt immediate and fresh, as though it was being discovered at that exact moment.