Friday, September 12, 2014

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

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 three 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).

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Peppard on Pope Francis: ". . . he's a lot more Karl Marx's economic analysis meets Jesus in the underbelly of 21st century capitalism."

Christiana Peppard on Pope Francis' Evangelii Gaudium
Earlier this week Pope Francis released an apostolic exhortation denouncing economic inequality and free market ideology, noting that:

"While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation."

Fordham American Studies and Theology Professor Christiana Z. Peppard, who specializes in ethics, joined Bloomberg TV's Street Smart to discuss the Pope's Evangelii Gaudium and summed up the Pope's position: "He's not Milton Friedman — he's a lot more Karl Marx's economic analysis meets Jesus in the underbelly of 21st century capitalism." Peppard praised the potential of the Pope's exhortation to turn Catholic's toward "the broader swath of Catholic social teaching." See the full interview with Professor Peppard on Bloomberg TV.