Friday, July 2, 2010

An Intense Week at The Futures of American Studies Summer Institute

Hello American Studies majors and enthusiasts. My name is Marty Northrop and I'm a graduate student here at Fordham, working on a PhD in American Literature. This spring I was honored with a scholarship, administered by the Fordham American Studies program and funded by the Fordham GSAS (thanks!), to attend the fifteenth annual Futures of American Studies Institute at Dartmouth, June 21-27. The institute gathers both a "faculty" of top American Studies scholars and a pool of "participants" (graduate students and junior professors) for a series of plenary lectures, faculty-supervised workshops, and collaborative speculation on the state of the field. Professor Glenn Hendler invited me to report what some of these speculations were and to share my thoughts on the experience of attending the institute. It was an intense and transformative experience whose full impact on me will require at least the rest of the summer to comprehend and inventory, but in the meantime here is a sketch of the intellectual conversations that preoccupied us and the productive moments of contestation (scandal!) that frequently dramatized them.

Before reporting and commenting on the content of these converstions, I'll try and evoke for you what it was like to attend the institute. Two plenary sessions (all faculty and participants in one room) each day, three and a half hours each, plus a three-hour seminar session in smaller groups during which participants share their own work. In between, the conversations continue over meals and socializing, and then deep, deep sleep during which the conversations sometimes spill into dreamlife. It's hard to find an analogy that works. Institute Director and American Studies don Don Pease refers to it affectionately as a kind of "boot camp," but as apt as that comparison it, it misses the intense intellectual and, for me, mystical component of the experience. I grimace to write it, but there is a hint of Burning Man here--again, this might be a reaction localized to me, but the severity of concentration for what amounted to ten and sometimes eleven hours a day put me into a kind of trance state, and after the third day, rather than feeling exhausted as the day wore on, I felt increasingly energized by the intensity, even dependent upon it. It's rather incredible how in so short a time one can adapt to a completely different daily routine, even a different way of being in the world. Needless to say, I was inspired anew by every plenary and seminar talk, and made many invaluable new friends and contacts.

One of the things that make the Futures program so inspiring and so intense is that no one throws around terminology casually. In fact, many of the plenary lectures interrogated the meaning and currency of such key American Studies terms as "African-American literature," "multiculturalism," and "exceptionalism," such that the very concept of "American Studies" as a practice (with futures?) truly became a primary object of re-evaluation. Robyn Wiegman initiated this strand of conversation in her opening-night talk "The Ends of New Americanism," in which she took issue with the tendency of American Studies in the last two decades to desire an object of study--America--which it can never love, but instead only critique. The desire for critique, she argued, comes with, among other faults, a pedagogical weakness--for those of us still struggling to acquire a working vocabulary for American Studies, the imposition of a critique of that vocabulary by professors in the classroom often frustrates real intellectual growth and motivation, widening instead of narrowing the gap between the academy and the public. In her critique of critique, a concept many of the week's Q and A sessions kept alive, Wiegman called for and attempted to articulate alternative orientations we can take toward our objects of study. Hardly a naive optimism, Wiegman's stance was nonetheless one of the more utopian--perhaps progressive is a better word--taken at this year's institute.

This utopianism was contested sharply two nights later in a lecture by philosophy professor Nancy Fraser, who stuck resolutely to her grim, pessimistic critique of American economic philosophy and policy when Wiegman re-posed her question "What is the point of critique?" (That is, not to say that critiques such as Fraser's are incorrect, but rather to ask Where does critique get us? What effect has it ever had on society?) Fraser's answer, in effect, was to say that after a forty-year career her convictions simply wouldn't allow her to orient herself any differently, or allow her to observe and profess anything but the gloom and doom that is the American scene. In her talk, Fraser constructed a schema for understanding the failure of American economic policy in the twentieth century; we are trapped, she contends, by a polarization of two contending camps--those in favor of "marketization" (free markets), and those in favor of "social protectionism"--that prevents us from putting up any true fight against the social ills caused by capitalism. While we might see these camps as analogous to "Republican" and "Democratic" economic philosophies, she argues that both end up furthering the anti-democratic effects of neo-liberalism. There is a third pole, the "emancipatory" philosophy (one that represents a more radically egalitarian agenda), which she points out gets occluded in both public and academic discourse on economics, and she called for (in her most utopian moment) more energy to be put into thinking of strategies for combining the forces of the protectionist and emancipatory camps in order to curtail the negative effects of free market capitalism.

Many of the plenary talks interrogated the keywoord "race." J. Martin Favor used an anecdote about the news media's over-coverage of president Obama filling out the race section of his census form (question 9) to initiate a discussion of the slipperiness of the concept of race and the problem of the multiple meanings of "multiculturalism." Is multiculturalism a goal to be achieved or a name for the way things are? A discourse that acknowledges distinct social groups or one that merely "produces knowable differences"? His talk was complemented by Klaus Milich's discussion of "genetic genalogy and the humanities," which similarly pointed out the contradictions of multiculturalism and race, particularly in the case of the Obama family, in terms of the recent popularization of geneticism as a means to access identity through DNA analysis. At least two talks attempted to address the problematic concept of "African-American literature." John Ernest proposed chaos theory as a way to account for and map the coherence-resisting state of nineteenth-century African-American literature. Kenneth Warren, on the other hand, suggested that the category "African-American literature" has outlived its usefulness, and that we should use it to refer only to literary production that arose in reaction to the legalized Jim Crow era.

Maurice Stevens and Samuel Otter each attempted critical interventions that met with skeptical and combative reactions from the audience. Stevens, whose talk was on the relevance of trauma theory to American Studies, urged us not to "escape our bodies when talking about trauma," and even invited us to think about our breathing--to breath with him, at times--while hearing his lecture. While this promised a glimpse at something startlingly new, the talk itself disappointed--its dense abstractions frustrated his connection with the audience, dispelling for many the intimate connection he made in the preamble during which he had us breath together. Two nights later, Otter presented a different kind of intervention when he tasked the audience to account for what he sees as the commonplace neglect of formal unity or formal analysis when conducting American Studies-style analysis of literature, which he characterized as a "problem of the relation between parts and wholes." American Studies, he finds, often interests itself in parts of a literary work that offer windows into cultural history or that offer themselves up for a historicist reading, and in so doing ignore the formal unity--the whole--of the work itself. Skeptical responses from the audience ranged from the question of how one could assume to know what constitutes "literature" to why it is that formal unity is a necessary component of literary achievement. Otter, whose talk was on the "interpretive allure" of Herman Melville's writing for critical analysis--Melville's tales are open to a variety of critical methodologies, he observed, the least of which is American Studies, for whom he observes the imagery from a story such as "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" offers a number of ready parables-- continued his intervention with me and several other participants during Saturday night's final banquet by questioning why it was that none of the plenary talks had analyzed poetry. Perhaps, we speculated, it is because the brevity of most poems puts more of an burden on the analyst to account for the texts as wholes, and not just for particular parts or lines that promise an entry into a particular American Studies discourse. A provocative plenary talk by Sandy Alexandre on Richard Wright's haiku after the banquet--yes, we had a three-hour plenary after feasting--only added to the import of Otter's question.

I encourage you not only to think about attending something like the Futures of American Studies, but more importantly to use the summer, when school is not usually thought of as being in session, as a time to initiate new kinds of intellectual communities, ones that might be even more intense--if, in another sense, more relaxed--than those we are used to inhabiting during the fall and spring semesters.