Backstory conducted a digital interview with Kyle Stevens (PhD 2009) shortly after the publication of his first book, Mike Nichols: Sex, Language, and the Reinvention of Psychological Realism (Oxford University Press), and found him well on the way to completion of his second.
Backstory: Why did you choose Pitt for your graduate study?
I applied to Pitt based on the recommendation of undergraduate professors at the University of South Carolina, who thought it would be a good fit for me. I chose Pitt, and perhaps Pitt chose me, because I was already accustomed to a Pitt approach to film and media studies. I was assigned to read articles and books by Lucy Fischer, Jane Feuer, and Colin MacCabe as an undergraduate, so I was excited to continue working with those whose work I already admired. I didn’t conceptualize it very well at the time, but I think that I was drawn to scholarship that was grounded in close analysis yet never strays from the goal of understanding a text’s significance to cultural history. On a practical level, I was living in Germany at the time and Eric Clarke was a fantastic long-distance recruiter. Plus, Pitt offered a Mellon fellowship for the first year.
At what point [during your undergraduate career] did you know you would focus on film?
I began my undergrad career as a theater major, singing and acting, and I was doing very well. Then I got interested in directing, and interpreting texts in their entirety, and I think that this prepared me to study the history of media in increasingly broad ways. Plus, I had already been looking forward to studying films in college—that wasn’t something that one could do in high school back then (in fact, one probably still can’t study films in North Carolina schools, and perhaps soon one won’t be able to in public universities, either). Both Ina Rae Hark and Dan Streible were so great, and made thinking about film history so much more illuminating than topics in my literature and philosophy classes. But my biggest influence was probably Susan Courtney, who assigned everyone from Christian Metz and Mary Ann Doane to Freud and Habermas. In a way, I think I believed that critical theory, cultural studies, and film studies were all part of the same discipline, as that’s all I really knew. So, film classes were the place where thinking about social and political issues clicked for me. Nowadays I’m less comfortable with the idea that the aim to grasp expressive culture has to be coextensive with activism, but I still think it’s crucial to urge students to be aware of patterns and trends in mass culture.
Were there particular graduate classes that you still consider influential?
Oh sure. I think about Marcia Landy’s History and Spectacle class all the time. That class, along with Lucy Fischer’s Cinema and Desire and Valerie Krips’s Ideology and Criticism, was vital for giving me not just a picture of the stakes in our field, but how those stakes have been approached differently over time. I also think a lot about two of Colin MacCabe’s courses, The Image Now, co-taught with Isaac Julien, and History and Philosophy of Science for Humanists, co-taught with Peter Machamer. Both of these courses pushed me to think in lines outward from the field. I have to add that I still reflect back on conversations with faculty whose classes I never took, like Dan Morgan, Steve Carr, and Dave Bartholomae. I increasingly appreciate how collegial everyone at Pitt was.
I know your committee members were all significant influences, and I wonder if this carried over into the transition between dissertation and book. Did you feel particularly well-prepared to revise your dissertation into book form?
I was perhaps too well prepared! After I had a few chapter drafts under my belt, both Lucy and Colin encouraged me to begin to envision the dissertation as a book. As I grew close to finishing, they both expressed confidence that it would be highly publishable and advised me on crafting proposals for university presses. Then, after I graduated, I sent off the manuscript to a couple of presses who replied immediately—within a week or two—that they did not consider unrevised dissertations. So I put the project aside and worked on some other articles. When I returned to it, I still sent off the unrevised dissertation and received enthusiastic responses, including from one of the places that had earlier rejected it! It all turned out well in the end, and Oxford University Press has been great.
Your book has been very positively reviewed. But, for the real (perhaps impossible question): What is it like to have your book receive such praise from scholars like Timothy Corrigan and Amy Villarejo?
It’s breathtaking, of course. Being in touch with Tim has been a great and unexpected windfall of this process, and I idolize Amy and her scholarship so much. I hope that their kind words help readers to find the book’s theoretical interventions into realism, affect, performance, and dialogue, subjects that I think are urgent but that might not be obvious through the focus on Mike Nichols—though that’s partly the point. Still, I need people to read it in order to get that point.
Where are you in process with your second book, Crazy Voices, and how did you manage to get your edited volume into production at the same time? I am amazed by your productivity. (Oh -- that's not a question).
That’s funny to hear, since, although I work very hard, I'm not nearly as productive as I’d like to be. The edited collection came together beautifully. Murray Pomerance and I make a good team. We agreed on the need for a collection that studies in detail important performances in specific films, rather than thinking about performance abstractly or through the lens of stardom. It also helps that almost everyone we asked said “yes” immediately. The collection will span two volumes, one US and one international, with twenty-five essays apiece by amazing contributors. As for the voice book, I’ve presented material from three separate chapters, so it’s taking shape. Last summer I published a portion of chapter one in World Picture. I concentrate on Brief Encounter in this essay, which, I argue, uses voice-over to depict thoughts as a withdrawal from the world—and which, in turn, situates suicide as voice-over’s logical extension. Here, voice-over embodies the clash of private desires and the fear of public detection, but it also presents a paradox by presenting “inner” thought as audible speech. The book will move through such instances of formal and thematic vocal deviancy in order to rethink the narrative functions and qualities of different kinds of voices, while also chronicling their effect on cultural identities. It’s my hope that doing so generates tools necessary to achieve a critical understanding of our increasingly sonic contemporary media environment, from telephonic aesthetics to the recruitment of celebrity voice-overs in video games.
With all of your research and writing, I also know that you value your teaching work a lot, and your students similarly appreciate your teaching and mentoring. I wonder if there are teaching moments (or a teaching moment) you'd like to share -- whether as an extraordinary success or as a learning moment for yourself.
Successes and failures happen every day, and even the successes are learning moments. In fact, something I’ve been thinking about lately is the difficulty of replicating successful moments. Students appreciate our spontaneity in the classroom, times we discover with them or allow for productive tangents. Having made such discoveries we want to include them in future classes, but then we are back in the position of relaying information, which lacks the same oomph, or we end up trying to lead the conversation in a specific direction, which students sense as artificial right away. Exactly how much to “bake in” to a class plan or syllabus is a question I ask myself more often as the years go by.
I see that you are also taking over editorship of New Review of Film and Television Studies. Are there any upcoming projects I've missed?
Those are the big ones, I think. There are a few smaller projects, and a million more that I hope to get to. One reason I’m excited to become editor of New Review is that I will be free to solicit special issues on subjects I feel are especially urgent.