Jim Combs: For scholars, there are no final answers, but we can use our curiosity to look wide and deep in the world

James Combs is Professor Emeritus at Valparaiso University in Indiana, USA. He is author and editor of a wide variety of books and articles, primarily on subjects related to social and political communication and popular culture. He is currently participating in the ‘Meet our Authors‘ campaign: his full testimonial follows below.

I come to this honor with two reservations. First, I never feel totally comfortable in “tooting my own horn”, engaging in self-praise. And secondly, I also am humbled by association with scholars who are so truly distinguished. For many years, I taught at Valparaiso University in Indiana, USA, a college associated with the Missouri Synod Lutherans, which was formed as the German branch of American Lutheranism. Although I had no ethnic nor religious ties, I found teaching there rewarding, and enjoyed doing that for over twenty years. But I had academic ties to people interested in researching and writing about topics of interest in the social sciences and humanities. So I started writing on subjects that interested me.

These interests initially led me to focus on the dramatic metaphor for human life, as pioneered by such figures as Kenneth Burke, spreading through such areas as sociology, with Hugh Duncan and Erving Goffman. I used the “dramaturgical” approach to political dramas, and over time used it again in such topics as “the comedy of democracy”. I became interested in related subjects, first the burgeoning field of political communication and then the new academic discipline of popular culture. It seemed to me to be the case that such fields have yet to be fully cultivated, even though their importance in how people view and act in the world seems enormous. I did some work on “mediated political realities”, inspired by the work of Ernest Bormann. I began finding myself more and more intrigued by the vast world of moving pictures. This was largely ignored by popular culturists and communicators, since “Film Studies” had tended to be housed in English departments, and then increasingly in a separate Film Studies department.

As the twenty-first century began, I felt that my interest in motion pictures would not find a publishing home. Most of my previous publishers and contacts were absorbed in corporate mergers and suchlike, and since I had quit academia and now lived in a cabin deep in the southern Appalachian mountains, I was also remote from publishers who might be interested in me working on cinema, film, and just plain old movies. That was unfortunate, but also not unprecedented, since being out of circulation also often means isolation. Fortunately, a friend at a nearby school had been contacted by a new pubco in England, and they then contacted me. I was both flattered and elated, and went to work writing for them.

The rest, as they say, is history. I had already done some work on motion pictures. One early effort was entitled American Political Movies, attempting to ascertain the political situation and atmosphere in which significant movies were made during the time in which they were made and popularized, a kind of variant of the elusive and ancient relationship between art and society. Subsequently, I addressed the uses and development of film propaganda for politics, including the spectacular role of propaganda during wartime. And in more general terms, I did a critical book entitled Phony Culture, outlining the ways in which communications such as propaganda and overblown rhetoric helps create the conditions for a culture of exploitation and misdirection. More directly, I wrote a tome entitled Play World, which saw the rise in importance of ludenic values and activities impelling people to desire and practice playing and noting the cultural responses of providing opportunities for having fun, and the consequences of such an innovation, (Obviously, one of the major sites of fun is moving pictures, ranging from movies on the big screen to hand-held devices.)

So the appearance of Cambridge Scholars out of the English blue was a welcome and fortunate turn of events. I have used their efficient and congenial organization to look at various dimensions of moving pictures, including the temporal rhythms of movies (Movie Time), the importance of movie comedy (Comic Grace), the evaluation of the “great movies”(Wit’s End), the role of motion pictures as a site of having fun (Magical Suspension), and the educative potential of moving pictures for human learning (Cinematic Learning). I am currently at work on a speculative effort about the future of motion pictures (The Lasting Picture Show). All in all, I hope that these works have contributed to the study of moving pictures and enhanced the library of Cambridge Scholars books, which every year becomes more and more remarkable in its apparently infinite variety and high quality. I am glad that I could be part of that grand publishing enterprise.

I think I have just about completed what I wished to say about the remarkable cultural innovation of moving pictures. The last book was done with the sure and certain hope that the questions I raised and concepts I championed might inspire future generations of scholars in the twenty-first century to use, reject, amend, or whatever, but in any case to try to make sense out of the pervasive ubiquity of this most universal medium. It will be a daunting task, but one worth the challenge, and Cambridge Scholars will no doubt be around to publish your analysis. Wherever I am, I will be much interested in what you come up with!

This last paragraph is not meant to be valedictory, since even though I am now 77 I am still interested in writing about subjects of interest and import. For scholars, there are no final answers, but at least we can use our curiosity to look wide and deep in the world to see what we can find out. The true, the good, and the beautiful are as always worth knowing and expressing, and I for one just can’t stop looking and asking.

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