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Friday, September 19, 2014

A Report from the 2014 Dartmouth “Futures of American Studies Institute”

By Christy Pottroff


The 2014 Futures of American Studies Institute at Dartmouth College was an intense, exhausting, and transformative week-long experience featuring twenty-seven plenaries by distinguished American Studies scholars. While the Institute benefited my scholarship, my academic networks, and my morale, in this post I want to focus on how one of the plenary lectures – CUNY Graduate Center Professor Duncan Faherty’s “’Revolution, molasses, spirits, and sugar’: Isaac Mitchell, Narrative Temporality and the Haitian Revolution,” transformed the way I understand my own work.

Professor Faherty, author of Remodeling the Nation: the Architecture of American Identity, 1776-1858, began his plenary remarks by calling to mind Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant” that was then on display in Brooklyn.

"A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby" by Kara Walker
Walker’s exhibition, Faherty noted, allows us to view simultaneous temporalities in the same space. If you’ve made the trip to Williamsburg to see the monumental sculptures, you can attest to this: the sugar figures recall the history of slave labor in the Caribbean and the soon-to-be-demolished factory stands as the once leading sugar refinery in the United States. While viewers take pictures with their phones the sugar babies’ bodies sweat molasses and break under their own weight. All at once the immense temporary exhibition speaks to race, slavery, womanhood, sexuality, commodity, consumption, labor, and economics from the late 18th century to the present moment.  Faherty observed how the exhibition forces viewers to confront the historical roots and routes of global economic production. The exhibition’s global economic subject matter and textured temporalities, he asserted, have an unexpected resonance with the early American novel.

Faherty’s lecture focused on these unexpected resonances by looking at the aesthetic practices of a neglected swatch of novels written in the United States between 1800-1820, among them Isaac Mitchell’s The Asylum (1811). Like Kara Walker’s installation, these early 19th-century novels address slavery, revolution, and the global market with temporal moves that collapse, skip, and echo traditional narrative structure.  Faherty demonstrated how these temporal shifts are related to a contemporary preoccupation with revolution. References to the American Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, and other insurrections fold into one another; in doing so, the novels suggest that these revolutions—what might seem like geographically and temporally disparate events—all arose from the same revolutionary energy. By bringing past histories of revolution together, these early novelists sought to arouse revolutionary action against present injustices. These early 19th-century novels are unfamiliar and, frankly, weird for twenty-first century readers—they are messy and disjointed, with unbelievable plots and geographically expansive settings. Duncan’s lecture suggested ways to “read” these novels and absolutely convinced me that the period deserves more consideration. It was an exciting talk, and it will shape my current research in two ways.

First, Duncan’s explanation of the novels’ aesthetic practices is directly relevant to texts that fall within the scope of my dissertation. As Duncan has shown, the recent attention to what Thomas Allen (2008) has called “America’s manifold temporal cultures” gives us the tools to read these texts. I won’t dismiss Anne Royall’s The Tennessean (1827) for its countless imprisonments, fast-forwards, flashbacks, mistaken identities, and unexpected reunions (one with a long-lost horse!). Instead, I will consider what these strange moments might say about an evolving and revolutionary national identity.

Perhaps even more energizing than Duncan’s model for reading was the scope of his lecture. By making a comparison between Kara Walker’s 2014 exhibition and novels from 1800-1820, he shows why the humanistic study of materials from the early nineteenth century matters. These peculiar novels were not merely distractions from reality in the early national period, and current scholarly engagement with them is not simply an act of isolated nostalgia. Instead, attentive and close reading of these texts—much like “reading” Kara Walker’s exhibition—can be central to understanding our reality. Early national novels speak to the complex history of race, revolution, and global exchange, factors that are relevant to contemporary national politics. Following Duncan Faherty’s example, I hope that my own work will succeed in drawing connections between historical texts and current events without sacrificing the complexities or specificities of either.

Editor’s Note: Christy Pottroff, a Fordham English Doctoral Candidate, attended the Summer 2014 Dartmouth Futures of American Studies Institute on a Fellowship awarded by the Fordham American Studies Program and GSAS. This is the second of two posts from Fordham participants in the Dartmouth Futures Institute and is part of our new online initiative to foster dialogues on and in American Studies.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Selfhood and Society in the 21st Century: A Report from the 2014 Dartmouth “Futures of American Studies Institute”

By Julia Cosacchi


Individuality and community are themes that lie at the heart of the field of American Studies. The 2014 Dartmouth Futures of American Studies offered many opportunities to reflect on how the emergence of social media and data-based decision-making affect the relationship between the individual and the community.

My academic interests involve community formation and identity, and one of my favorite aspects of the Institute was a distinctly 21st century experience of community: following the Twitter conversation generated by the hashtag #FASI14. Tweets throughout the plenaries distilled the presenters’ main ideas and posed questions that generated discussion in the Q&A period after each talk. Tweets in between sessions fostered professional and intellectual networking, highlighting the particular strain of humor shared among a hundred-plus American Studies scholars. Since the conclusion of the Institute, I’ve been considering the two communities generated over the course of the week—the live community and the virtual community—and so in this blog post I’d like to write about some of the approaches to contemporary issues of selfhood, representation, and community in a hyperconnected, data-driven world presented by speakers at the Institute.

Annie McClanahan presents "Credit, Debt, and Social
Personhood" / Image courtesy The Futures of American 

Studies Institute, Dartmouth University
University of Wisconsin Professor Annie McClanahan’s talk struck at the crossroads of the digital and the “real” world: she examined creative projects that critique our data-driven world and reclaim the possibility of self-representation despite the weight of the external and qualitative stereotypes imposed upon us. Cornell English Professor Michael Cobb’s talk addressed the problem of how to go about interpreting these new, digital modes of representation while preserving old modes of connection and relationship.

McClanahan’s talk “Credit, Debt, and Social Personhood” resonated in particular with the Institute’s graduate student majority—people who are all too familiar with the ways that contemporary culture judges individuals on the basis of their credit scores rather than their characters. Taking as her starting point the commercials from FreeScore [dot] com that “personify” healthy credit scores as robust, young, white men (and an unhealthy credit score as a balding, paunchy, masked, though still caucasian male), McClanahan traced the history of credit scoring and juxtaposed it with transformations in narrative representations of character in contemporary novels. Early methods of credit scoring relied on moral characteristics (is this person reliable, honest, trustworthy?) until the quantitative revolution in the late 1970s ushered in an interest in demonstrated behaviors (has this person made monthly payments regularly?). This shift led to the practice of using empirical data and mathematical algorithms to predict human behavior—in this case, the likelihood of an individual defaulting on their loans.

McClanahan likened this shift in credit scoring methods to shifting modes of narrative characterization in contemporary novels, drawing a helpful analogy to frame her reading of passages from Gary Shteyngart’s novel Super Sad True Love Story (2010): old modes of credit scoring : realist novels : : new modes of credit scoring : contemporary novels. In the second half of her talk, McClanahan focused on contemporary artistic representations of debt such as Mathew Timmons’ print-performance-art work CREDIT (2009), “a book the author himself lacks the cash or credit to buy,” and Cassie Thornton’s art that visualizes and debt as a material object (for example, as a giant rock treated like a beloved pet, as in “How I Feel” [2012]).

Similar ideas about individuality in tension with digital and quantitative representation also appeared in Cobb’s presentation, “Your Love Life in Ruins,” which was a hybrid of academic lecture and performance art. Cobb assessed the state of desire in the twenty-first century’s “new mediated landscape”: a landscape that fosters the narcissistic impulses of the millennial generation. Cobb observed that digital media—Facebook, Tinder, Twitter—distance the objects of our desire even as they increase our intimacy with data-based representations of selfhood via painstakingly curated profiles and posts. In response, he proposed a new, slower-paced mode of interaction with these fragmentary self-representations. Cobb’s talk focused on the ways that an awareness of fragments, which make sense only when considered or imagined as parts of a larger whole, can help us to recalibrate our engagement with the swirling vortices of new media in today’s hyper-connected age. Advocating for the “interval of the statue,” Cobb suggested that instead of swiping and refreshing our screens and devices, we take time to pause in contemplation and reflection, allowing ourselves to more deeply engage with and more fully understand the whole that is only represented and implied by selected fragments.

In this new, digital age, the ways that we represent ourselves and others are changing and concerns about representation are taking on new meanings. One of my takeaways from the Futures Institute--and from #FASI14--is that representation and community formation are deep concerns of American Studies at every level and in every era. As McClanahan and Cobb both suggested in their talks, communities evolve in response to shifting modes of representation, and it is our task as scholars to level a critical eye at these changes if we are to bring our collective understanding up to speed.

Editor’s Note: Julia Cosacchi, a Fordham English Doctoral Candidate, attended the Summer 2014 Dartmouth Futures of American Studies Institute on a Fellowship awarded by the Fordham American Studies Program and GSAS. This is the first of two posts from Fordham participants in the Dartmouth Futures Institute and is part of our new online initiative to foster dialogues on and in American Studies.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

American Studies Director Micki McGee Wins ASA Claude Award for Neurodiversity Article

American Studies
Director Micki McGee

The American Sociological Association's Claude Award was presented to Professor Micki McGee this weekend at the ASA's Annual Meeting in San Francisco.  McGee received the award for her essay on neurodiversity published in Contexts in Summer 2012.  The Claude Awards are designed to recognize "outstanding contributions to Contexts . . . as judged by the members of the magazine's editorial board." The award series is named after Claude Fischer, the ASA magazine's founding editor.  Please join us in congratulating Professor McGee on this honor.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Christina Greer's Black Ethnics Wins 2014 W.E.B. Du Bois Distinguished Book Award

American Studies and Political Science Professor Christina Greer’s Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, and the Pursuit of the American Dream (Oxford, 2013) has been awarded the National Conference of Black Political Scientists’ 2014 W.E.B. Du Bois Distinguished Book Award. One member of the awards committee noted that Professor Greer's scholarship fundamentally reorients the way that we must think about African American politics and race relations in the United States, observing that the book is “game changer in the fields of African-American politics and racial and ethnic politics.” Congratulations to Professor Greer on this exemplary professional recognition!

Anthropologist and American Studies Professor Ayala Fader Garners NSF Support

Professor Ayala Fader
Anthropologist and American Studies Professor Ayala Fader has been awarded a National Science Foundation grant to support her project, "Religious Orthodoxy and New Media Technologies."  The project builds upon Dr. Fader's research on non-liberal Jews in Brooklyn and shows how the contemporary struggle over the Internet and other new media is part of a wider generational backlash against a "slide to the right."  More broadly, Fader's scholarship shows how new media acts as a lightening rod for wider changes and debates about morality, citizenship, difference, and shifting communal boundaries. Congratulations to Professor Fader!

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Catch Christina Greer on NY1 News Tuesday Evening After the State of the Union Address

American Studies and Political Science professor Christina Greer
comments on the inauguration of Mayor Bill De Blasio, January 1, 2014.
American Studies and Political Science professor Christina Greer —who has been a featured commentator on NY1 News throughout the recent mayoral race — will provide analysis on NY1 again this coming Tuesday evening, January 28th, after the State of the Union address.

Tune in on Tuesday evening around 10pm (or just after the President's address wraps up) to catch her stellar commentary, or check out her recent Op-Ed in the New York Times. You can also follow Professor Greer on Twitter @Dr_CMGreer.

Greer is the author of the recent monograph Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, and the Pursuit of the American Dream (Oxford University Press, 2013).

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

American Studies Senior Thesis Symposium & Annual Celebration | Monday, December 9th, 11-5:30

Please join us for all or part of the American Studies Senior Thesis Symposium and Annual Celebration next Monday, December 9th. The talks run from 11am to 4pm in the O'Hare Special Collections Room on the 4th floor of Walsh Library, and are followed by a gala reception that runs from 4 until 5:30.


Topics this year include: masculinity in the American West, hair straighteners and black identity, the rise of zombie dystopias in The Walking Dead, street art, the closure of Brooklyn's 5Pointz and other adventures in hip-hop culture, Irish dance and the Irish diaspora, the NFL and the U.S. military, the transfeminine prison experience, black Dandyism and street etiquette, disposable culture and the Solo cup, choral arrangements of spirituals, U.S. intervention in Peru, the perils of the "Hastert Rule," critical analyses of Breaking Bad, Beverly Hills 90210 and Gossip Girl, and much, much more.

Faculty discussion moderators will include Seminar Directors Professors Christiana Z. Peppard (Theology) and Dennis Tyler (English) along with Professors Margaret Schwartz (Communications), Kirsten Swinth (History), O. Hugo Benavides (Anthropology) and American Studies Director Micki McGee (Sociology).