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.

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