CCT Professor Highlight: Matthew Tinkcom

Posted in Announcements

CCT is excited to feature Professor Matthew Tinkcom in our latest professor highlight!

Tinkcom earned his Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh, his M.A. from the University of Texas at Austin, and his B.A. from the University of California at Berkeley. His research interests focus on the history and theory of film and other popular media, critical theory and cultural studies, and queer studies. Many different things have shaped his intellectual work, the first being his foundation as a film historian. His film historian background influenced his interests in the longer history of moving images at the beginning of the 20th century, namely film, then TV, then social images. He is most attracted to the two-hour feature film as an analyzable moving object. In addition to his focus on film, Tinkcom has training in gender, sexuality, and queer theory, namely how human life is organized around socialized ideas of what are or are not appropriate forms of sexual attraction/ideation/embodiment/practice. He elaborated that this concept is inherently political because it ties into questions of power, domination, inclusion, and exclusion, along with connections to intersectional factors such as race and location. He was trained on the academic side of feminism and queer theory to think critically about the politicization of how bodies are allowed to be represented. Another element of his training is the concept of postmodernism as a way of talking about foundational shifts in political economies of capitalism that saw globalization unfolding, and the increasingly interlocked marketplace economies that combine production and consumption together on a global scale. Yet, simultaneously previously industrialized economies in the west were dismantled and reinstalled than in Asia. In the postmodern space, he thought about how the experience of globalization would inevitably be represented by a whole host of cultural objects such as music, literature, film, etc., in this new age of information capitalism. Tinkcom has studied cultural icons ranging from Andy Warhol to Ryan Murphy, and wrote on a variety of different subjects. One of his books was about a film entitled Grey Gardens, and focused on how this film brought perceptions of intimacy, private life, gender and sexuality, and the household as an economic unit into documentary cinema. Told through handheld cameras, Tinkcom drew lines between this documentary and the current age of reality programming and TV. His book was published by the British Film Institute as the first installment in their BFI Classics series where they ask an author to explain the importance of a film of their choice to a broader audience of readers. Tinkcom’s pick of Grey Gardens was the first documentary anyone had proposed and opened an avenue for the series to include nonfiction and documentary films.

Tinkcom is also one of the founders of the CCT program at Georgetown University. Initially, he was one of two professors (including linguist Colleen Cotter) recruited to CCT with a joint faculty appointment in the English department, as Professors Diana Owen and Martin Irvine were already at Georgetown and affiliated with designing the program. Tinkcom, Cotter, and William McHenry (a GU Business School professor) taught the first version of the 505 introductory course to CCT. Together, they were designing out the program from the moment he arrived. Over the first several years they determined required courses, methods requirements, and constructing a thesis track (and whether it was to be conventionally scholarly or mediated via film or digital objects). He remained at CCT for 10 years before being recruited to build Georgetown’s new campus in Qatar, where he stayed for two years as a faculty member and faculty chair, then as dean of academic affairs. One of the things he appreciated about this opportunity was that he was able to recruit those undergraduate students into CCT for their Master’s.

During the first decade of CCT, Tinkcom noted the longevity of the program was not guaranteed, but in 2004 he was the first faculty members moved over entirely to CCT as it was brought into the graduate school. He has always taught the Critical Theory and Contemporary Media class which he considers a foundational course in his area. He was inspired to create this course due to his own grad school experience where he found theories scattered across different courses but not gathered together under the umbrella of critical theory or explained as a bigger picture. He wanted a course where students could explore a variety of topics through the lens of various theories and learn about semiotics, post structuralist theory, Marxism, feminism, critical race studies, queer theory, and more. He aimed for it to be an immersion experience for someone new to the topic but familiar with some theories to begin to discern how they shaped critical thinking in the past. He noted students read a lot of primary text from Hengel, Freud, Simone de Beauvoir, and others before being tasked with thinking about media and objects in their lives through the lens of semiotics and apply the critical theory lens. He brings the critical theory, and students bring the contemporary media.

Tinkcom’s other course he will be teaching this spring, Global Science Fiction Film, ties directly into his current research. During the fall 2023 semester he took a sabbatical to focus on his upcoming book centered around science fiction cinema. In particular, he is interested in what the robots and synthetic life forms featured in these films and related media say about what it means to be human. He views the robot as an embodiment of a set of assumptions and ideas of what it means to be human, and therefore inevitably bring aspects of gender, sexuality, race, age, and other sets of social distinctions with it, as well as the nature of labor and the robot as a worker. His research looks at Alan Turning’s work on AI with The Turing Test of how a human agent could discern whether they were corresponding with another human or synthetic/AI. He also looks at Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was the first time a synthetic agent was not embodied in a recognizable human-like form but as the voice of the HAL computer onboard the spaceship, and the underlying tones of gendered sexuality and queerness. Ex Machina also ties into gendered ideas of labor and robots in film, and how humans exert control over our technology.

In addition to teaching, one of Tinkcom’s long standing practices is to mentor CCT students with thesis topics that align with his work. He helps guide students to decide whether the thesis path is the right option for them, and always insists that theses should be based on actual genuine questions that are unresolved in their mind that they want more time to work on, as opposed to a set conclusion they’ve already come to and just want to report on. He counseled that the start of “this is what I do not know” and a result of either “now I know this” or “now I know what I don’t know” is what a thesis is for. In particular, he’s very interested in topics that he keeps seeing resurface over the years on AI and the Metaverse. This technological fixation on technologies and synthetic environments that the tech industry keeps working on but without the intended outcomes. He has mentored thesis projects on versions of the Metaverse, including SecondLife and Cyber Town, which are framed as utopian environments for social innovation, yet they fail and go away and pretend to be invented all over again. He is fascinated with the ways in which these failed iterations show the disconnect between the industrial side of what companies think consumers wants and what consumers actually find useful. He sees this in motion pictures as well through the various film industry attempts to change its product in the name of consumer demand, but really fueled by market competition between companies seeking to differentiate their products. This began from the earliest attempts at hand coloring movies, synchronizing sound, the incorporation of color film stocks, 3D movies, etc.

A fun fact about Professor Tinkcom: He was at an all boys boarding school in Bristol England, and then attended Deep Springs College in California where he worked on a ranch and alfalfa farm in the Sierra Mountains.