Sunday, December 26, 2010

Santa Brought American Studies Loot!

Finals are finally over! I hope every one is having a relaxing break with family & friends!

It's the day after christmas & I'm wondering: what did Santa bring all the American Studies Majors?

I had a particularly fortuitous christmas this year: lots of cookies and lots of american pop-culture paraphernalia! Or as news-satirist-extraordinaire, Stephen Colbert tweeted this morning "I got everything for Christmas! That's right: I asked for everything!"

Here's a run-down of the best gifts I found under my tree, hoping to see yours as well!

#1. The Best American Essays of the Century (edited by Joyce Carol Oates and Robert Atwan)

I never thought I'd say this, but boy was I glad to find this 568-page-book Christmas morning! This hefty collection includes the finest American essayists (some of my included favorites: E.B. White, Joan Didion, James Baldwin & Mark Twain) and aims to be "more or less a chronological story of America as the century unfolded." God-willing and sans-homework, I'll be able to make a dent in it before next semester. Perhaps the reading will prepare me for my American Studies class in the Spring, "American Voice"? Who says a Christmas present can't kill two birds with one stone?

#2. DVD Box Set of The Pacific

Produced by box-office-hit makers Stephen Speilberg and Tom Hanks, The Pacific (debuted on HBO in 2001) recounts the true stories of marines who fought against the Japanese in World War II. Now, I am no history or war- buff, but as a media junkie I can attest that this miniseries is exciting, moving and most of all: addicting. So it's probably best to get started watching now, seeing as starting it during the semester may become dangerous to your G.P.A.


In my opinion, definitely one of Mel Brooks' bests! This Star Wars parody hit the screens in 1987 and made fun of just about every American stereotype under the sun: no gender, race or religion was left mercy! Regardless, it's pretty hilarious. It also pokes fun at shameless product placement and Star Wars' movie merchandising: an important shift in the American movie business. Star Wars was the first film to prove that merchandising can make just as much, if not more than box office revenue. Here, director George Lucas decided to trade in a small writer's/director's fee for 40% of the Star Wars merchandising rights. A wise move on Lucas' part, as the film made 4.2 billion worldwide, the merchandise took in double that! This was actually a test question on my Media Industries final last year: What did the American movie business learn from Star Wars? I wrote: Merchandising = $$$ (Thanks Professor Brian Rose!)

Mel Brooks as the treacherous President Skroob sniffs 'Perri-Air'

Screenshot of Spaceballs: The Toilet Paper

Evil-Villain Pizza-the-Hutt

Now that I think about it, this post itself seems a bit like one big product placement. Apologies, I assure you no company has endorsed me to blog about this! It's just that since it's the holidays, expect me to be reading less primary (scholarly) works and more pop-culture media texts!

Friday, December 3, 2010


We were talking about cabritismo at dinner the other night. Cabrito is goat in Portuguese. A goat, when tied to a post, will eat all the grass in its reach, down to the roots, denuding the ground in a sweeping circle along the radius of his line. Cabritismo is this ultimately self-defeating greed.

Mozambican friends claim that it is standard practice in business here. An employee skims away at the margins of his or her employer's business, even at the risk of threatening his or her own employment by bringing down the company. Our dinner guest told us about a rather heroic newspaper editor here who's been running an opposition paper. Among many of the daily, petty thefts he dealt with, we learned about an elaborate scheme to steal a few hundred newspapers each week as they were delivered from the printer; not much in money, but enough to make it even harder for him to run his business.

Coincidentally, the next morning over coffee, I read this passage, from a piece by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker, on Adam Smith's archetypal idea, the invisible hand:

…one can't grasp the idea of the invisible hand without the balancing idea of the imaginary inner witness. All those [inner] moral judges are what let the invisible hand work….The narrow animal instinct is not to trade and exchange and invest; it is to hoard and guard and pillage. The acquired human trait is the market trait, and it depends on trust, sympathy. To see what happens in the absence of trust, one need only consider the recent history of the developing world; if there is not civic capital, a network of trust, already in place, "privatization" just produces kleptocracy.

So, here is Adam Smith in 1776 understanding perfectly the cabristismo that markets, without sympathy and trust, produce. My wariness of neoliberal American ideas about unregulated markets is rather unexpectedly confirmed by looking west from Mozambique.

Focusing my gaze here, in Maputo, I see something I understand as history in action, something known intellectually, but now felt and observed. "Market man" is nothing natural, but a being cultivated--out of cultural habits, daily practices, and regulated rules of the game. I watch this cultivation in Mozambique with perhaps the same ambivalence that Adam Smith watched the unfolding of early capitalist marketplaces. Mozambique is galloping along in its development, but will it do so in ways that spark trust more often than cabritismo?

Developing States & Developing Nations: More Comparisons

I like Kaylyn's post on developing states in the United States. Here in Mozambique, we have been talking about the release of the latest Human Development Index by the United Nations.

It's always interesting and worthwhile to look at how the United States fares. Fascinatingly the United States jumped up to number 4 on the HDI this year** (had not been in the top 10 before) because of a new way of calculating the index that takes into account the average years of schooling. (Mozambique still remains in the bottom 5 by they way--165th of 169 countries.)

But check out the Gender Inequality Index**, where the U.S. ranks only 37th. Note our much higher maternal mortality rates and adolescent fertility rates--all tied to the politics of health care and reproductive rights in the U.S. Also check out our 17% women in Congress, vs. 39% for #1 Netherlands, and 47% for #3 Sweden.

**Note: have to click through the links to download pdf for full index.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

American exceptionalism in the news

One of the more arcane of the keywords of American studies--"exceptionalism"--is currently in the news, as several Republicans have recently either denounced President Obama for not believing in American exceptionalism (despite the fact that he has publicly asserted that he does) or given speeches arguing for a restoration of a belief in American exceptionalism.

Here's a link to a front-page Washington Post story on the subject. I'd be interested in comments from readers of this blog, especially if you've read something about "exceptionalism" that you think would contribute to the discussion.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Wikileaks and the Cable Releases

Wikileaks- the website which brought us Collateral Murder, the Afghan War Diaries and the Iraq War Logs today released, according the the New York Times, a "quarter million confidential American diplomatic cables"

The cables could not be posted on the actual website,, because they were under a Distributed Denial-of-Service attack, an attack on the website in which multiple systems overwhelm the bandwidth of the site, preventing it from being accessed. Instead Wikileaks gave the releases to multiple news sources including the Times which released some of the cables on its website but with some redactions to protect sources or civilians. (I was unable to access the wikileaks site Sunday until around 8pm, and when I could there was no information on the cable releases)

No one quite knows what the effect these releases will have on foreign relations (the cables include everything from intel. on the leader of Libya to a wedding in the Caucus mountains). But this release, and just the existence of the site in general, is a dramatic example illustrating how information is discovered and distributed in the age of the blog.

The cables were reportedly downloaded by an Army Pfc (for those who are not familiar with military ranks, a Private First Class is the second lowest rank) and talks of a possible leak had been going on in Washington for months. The editor-in-chief and spokesperson for Wikileaks Juilian Assange sent to the US government on the 26th asking for any particular redactions they felt would be necessary to protect lives, the response came overnight that if any cables were published it would endanger lives and that possession and distribution of the cables was illegal. The site went ahead with giving the cables to major news outlets, the Times published some of the cables with its own redactions on the 28th.

Wikileaks, internationally based, flew in the face of the US government by distributing these cables, and they became instantly available around the world. This information, though distributed through major news outlets, was collected on an individual level separate from the journalistic tradition, and would have been distributed via the Wikileaks site, an internet site run by a disjointed group reportedly consisting of Chinese dissidents, human rights activists, and former physicists and mathematicians.

The mediation between events and the public becomes smaller and smaller through sites such as wikileaks, the proliferation of blogging, and smartphones that can take and send pictures and video around the world at an instant's notice. Gone is the day of Watergate and the investigative journalism, now the power to reveal information lies in the hands of anyone with a computer and internet connection. Clay Shirky predicted 50 years of chaos surrounding the rise of peer-to-peer technology, and internet-enabled information sharing. Perhaps it will take that long to see the effects of Wikileaks in toto, but in the coming days and weeks we will undoubtedly get a glimpse into what this technology can do.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Friday at the ASA conference

I'm now blogging about the conference from back in New York, rather than blogging from the conference....but I was just too busy while in San Antonio to keep up!

Friday included two major highlights. The first was a morning panel specifically about the special issue of American Quarterly titled Nation and Migration: Past and Future...which just happens to be the central book we're using in the "Approaches to American Studies" course this year (For readers not in the program here at Fordham, that's the junior seminar on methodology for American Studies majors at Fordham). That's why I absolutely had to attend this panel, even though it conflicted with a panel discussion on "Critical Keywords for Early American Studies" that included as a speaker our own Senior Seminar co-instructor, Professor Ed Cahill.

The discussion was explicitly about how this special issue could be useful in the classroom and beyond (as opposed to simply being something that scholars in the field cite). On the panel were three people involved in editing the journal (Curtis Marez, who was the editor when it came out; Bruce Burgett and Grace Hong, who were on the editorial board) and three people who wrote essays in the journal (Elaine Peña, whose essay on a Guadalupan shrine outside Chicago provoked some lively discussion in the class a few weeks ago; Sarika Chandra, whose essay about Julia Alvarez we'll be reading right after Thanksgiving, and Sasha Costanza-Chock, whose essay on immigrant rights activists' use of the net we are not reading in the course). The first thing I got out of the panel was that I should have assigned Costanza-Chock's essay, because he made it sound amazing. It's hard to reconstruct the details of the discussion because it was so wide-ranging, but I will say that it was great to spend some concentrated time talking about teaching, and I got some great ideas for future assignments in this and other classes--and I think others in the room very much liked my description of what we do in the "Approaches" class. I hope it doesn't make you too nervous, juniors, to know that there are professors from a dozen or more universities around the country who may be checking out what you're writing in the Keywords Collaboratories....

The other highlight was the Presidential address by this year's ASA President, Ruth Wilson Gilmore. (I talked about her work briefly in my previous post). There's nobody out there who better combines meticulous scholarship with passionate activism, and who can better put them together into an inspiring, even theatrical lecture. (One reason: she started out studying you American Studies and Theater double major have someone out there to inspire you!). She managed to include in her talk some really compelling autobiographical narrative about growing up in New Haven, in the shadow of Yale, where her father had been a pioneering union and antiracist activist and she ended up attending as a student on a scholarship for children of employees; some amazing and disturbing statistics about the current economic and social situation in the U.S. (see Kaylyn Toale's recent post for an excellent source for such statistics); some practical advice about how to use our position in academia as a platform for activism (for instance, since the ASA organizes conferences that bring thousands of scholars to a hotel, it can use that clout to pressure hotels to treat their workers better); and some straightforward inspiration (it may seem an unlikely image, but there was a packed hall of perhaps 1000 academics whom she got to stand up and recite the last line of a poem that was her conclusion: "People like me will rise up)."

Two of many takeaways from this day. One is a pair of statistics that illuminate how extreme inequality has gotten in the U.S. in the past couple of decades.
  • The top 20% of Americans own 84% of everything there is to own (cash, consumer goods, real estate...everything)...while the bottom 40% currently have negative net worth. Think about that.
And here's one for you students:
  • Gross student debt in the U.S. just surpassed all consumer debt. In other words, students now owe more for their educations than everyone in the country puts together owes on their credit cards and related debt instruments. Think about that, too.
The other takeaway was more fun, and more personal. Gilmore's autobiographical narrative was all about growing up in New Haven, and I grew up there, too. Her reference points sounded familiar, and I remembered some of the events she mentioned, though I was a bit young to experience many of them directly. Later that evening, at the hotel bar, I ran into her and mentioned that I'd grown up in New Haven, too, and she asked me what street I'd lived on. "Oh, it's a tiny one-block street you've never heard of," I said, "Pelham Lane." She smiled; it turns out she grew up just about two blocks away from where I did, and that we'd gone to the same elementary school (though we hadn't overlapped there). Sometimes the world seems very small......

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Interactive Map: Do We Have "Developing States"?

I encountered something very interesting today while browsing the GOOD site, and as a result, I have been spending quite some time this afternoon playing around with this map feature. I thought many of you might be interested in it, since it seems very relevant to a lot of what we do in American Studies:

It is a map of the United States which rates each state on the Human Development Index (which usually designates developed and developing nations). It is put together by the American Human Development Project of the Social Science Research Council, and compiles data from the past three years separately. The Human Development Index (HDI) takes into account factors like life expectancy, educational attainment, political participation, and median income.

While it is a little strange (and potentially problematic) to designate "developing states" since our standards of living are so vastly different from global standards, it is so interesting to compare the experiences of people living in different geographic regions within the nation.

For instance, I started out by looking at the human development statistics for all people in my home state:

What I found even more fascinating, though, is the capability of the program to recalculate HDI for specific gender and racial groups, and the map's color scheme looks a little different when it represents the measures as calculated for such groups. For instance, here is the map when it represents women (the highest HDI for women is in Washington, DC!) The darker the color of the state, the higher the index.

The information can also be organized by race, or by gender within race. You can also build charts based on certain demographics that interest you (for instance, life expectancy, rate of diabetes and other health indicators, or political participation based on age bracket,) based on what you hope to discover about each state, zip code, or congressional district.

Perhaps I'm a little behind the times in noticing such a useful tool, but I thought I'd pass it along just in case. I could post many more examples, but instead, if I may revisit our Keywords essay for just a moment, sometimes technology is pretty amazing.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Thursday at the ASA conference

The most interesting panel I attended yesterday was a plenary session on the conference theme, “Crisis, Chains, and Change.” As with any panel on such a broad theme, the papers were very different from one another, but the three I heard were all fascinating and illuminating.

In the first, Vijay Prashad (who has spoken at Fordham twice in the past few years, and may be known to Fordham American Studies students as the author of the Keywords essay on “Orientalism”) gave a witty and learned lecture that managed to tell a history of American capitalism—and various forms of resistance to it—over the course of more than a century. That he could do so in less than twenty minutes, and make his audience laugh multiple times, is a testament to what a great speaker Prashad is.

Then Christopher Newfield (also known to Fordham American Studies students as the author of the Keywords essay on “Corporation”) spoke. Newfield has been the great writer over the past several years on the history and present predicament of the American public university system, which was once the envy of the world and is now being de-funded and, basically, privatized. (None of the most prestigious state universities now get the majority of their funding from public sources). His blog, “Remaking the University,” is a must-read for anyone who cares about education in the United States, especially the ongoing evisceration of the University of California, which was once the best system in the country and is now losing its prestigious faculty by the dozen. Newfield’s talk showed—with more charts and graphs than one usually sees at an American Studies conference—how all the ideas we have about the way universities are funded are myths. The one that struck home for me was his demonstration that, contrary to our usual understanding that the sciences and engineering bring in grant money that subsidizes the humanities and social sciences—in fact, if you take into account the immense indirect costs of supporting the sciences, the low salaries of faculty in those latter areas, and the large numbers of tuition-paying students we teach, we are subsidizing the sciences.

The third speaker was Klee Benally, a Dine' (Navajo) artist and activist, who told amazing and disturbing stories about, for instance, how a ski resort is trying to expand in a way that would descrate a mountaintop that is at least as sacred to his people (and several other Indian nations) as any cathedral, synagogue, or mosque would be to adherents to other religions, and would cause enormous environmental damage by pumping thousands of gallons of water every day many miles up to a mountaintop for snowmaking. (As he said, "a ski resort in a desert doesn't make a lot of sense, does it?). He also made very vivid how the ongoing militarization of the US/Mexico border—something we’ve touched upon in this year’s “Approaches to American Studies” class—is affecting the indigenous groups who have lived for centuries on both sides of the border that was artificially drawn right through their land. By his account, these peoples are now living under virtual military occupation, and the U.S. government is doing things like building the new border “wall” right through their cemeteries and sacred spaces. The immigration debate tends to ignore the existence of indigenous peoples, as if there were only “Mexicans” and “Americans;” even the activists who came to Arizona to protest SB 1070 tended, Benally said, to ignore the input of Indians who had been working against the militarization of the border for years.

This was just one panel (and I had to leave before the fourth speaker spoke). It’s amazing the variety of things one can learn about at an interdisciplinary conference like this one.

Reevaluating Rubber Rooms

(Rubber Rooms: where New York City's teachers go when they “misbehave.” A sort of “paid detention.”)

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of watching the performance of a play written by one of our fellow American Studies majors, Ariadne Blayde. A double major in playwriting, Blayde was inspired to write her play “The Rubber Room” after reading an intriguing New Yorker article which exposed the inner-workings of New York City’s “Temporary Re-Assignment Centers” for public school teachers.

(Satirical cartoon on New York Rubber Rooms)

"Rubber Rooms", which were thankfully shut down in September, were places where “At a cost of more than $30 million a year, teachers and 90 other school employees sit for weeks, months or even years in the centers - reading newspapers, playing games or napping - while waiting for their cases to wind through the disciplinary system.” The scene described is the product of an unsatisfying compromise between the Teachers Union and the Department of Education. The Teachers Union wants to protect teachers and their jobs, while the Department of Education has an obligation to protect school children and keep accused teachers out of the classroom. Violations worthy for accusation range anywhere from “incompetence to sexual misconduct.” The absurd (yet real) situation possessed what Blayde calls great “dramatic potential” for a play.

“The Rubber Room”, which premiered in the White Box Theatre at Fordham Lincoln Center, is a witty and insightful play that delves into the personal stories of five teachers held inside a New York City "rubber room." Ariadne wanted to attribute a human aspect to the "rubber room" debates, and thus focused on the perspective of the teachers who suffer the consequences, she explains, “Some are innocent and some deserve to be there, it’s about people and their stories.” As each teacher’s story unfolds, one can see that that there is no easy solution to this predicament, if there is even a solution at all.

The New York City public school system is the largest school system in the nation and thus inevitably prone to complexities and complications. Eight-year leader of this system, Joel Klein was quoted in the New Yorker as saying “You can never appreciate how irrational the system is until you’ve lived with it” But Klien won’t have to “appreciate” the system any more, seeing as of about a week ago Mayor Bloomberg appointed magazine mogul Cathie Black to replace him.

(Sensationalized cover of The Daily News, reporting Black's appointment)

But many are questioning “Huh?” to Bloomberg’s decision, as some point out that Black has no technical credentials for the job, let alone shown any outward desire to work in education. However, the choice should come as no surprise, since Klein himself also had a seemingly ‘unsuited’ resume for a job in education (he was the assistant attorney general for the U.S. Department of Justice and chairman at Bertelsmann, a massive media corporation.) Bloomberg’s reasoning for appointing business honchos is that their management savvy is just what’s needed in the school system. Which in that case, Black seems a good fit: while spearheading Hearst (publishers of magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Esquire and Good Housekeeping), ad pages increased 12%, a percentage that “outpaced” the currently stagnant magazine industry. Whether Black can equally salvage New York City public schools is yet to be seen.

So what needs to change? Blayde says “We need a better way of evaluating students and teachers, not all students are the same. More importantly, we need to protect children’s welfare.”

Hopefully, with the dismantling of "rubber rooms" and a new chancellor in place, we can see some more of Blayde’s advice being put into action.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

2010 American Studies Association Annual Meeting

I flew from New York City last night to San Antonio, Texas, which is the site of this year's annual meeting of the American Studies Association. I'm not going to try to blog about everything that happens here--as you can see if you take a look at the program, it's an incredibly rich event, with a dozen different panels on different topics taking place at any given time--but I am going to try to post at least a couple of times about especially interesting talks, plenary sessions, and meetings.

Right now there's not much to say, since I got here late last night and haven't even had breakfast yet! But to give you a sense of what some of the panels will be about: Each year the conference has a theme. This year's is "Crisis, Chains, and Change: American Studies for the 21st Century." Something like half the panels at the conference deal explicitly with something related to the theme; the others are on any topic relevant to the study of American culture. The theme is determined by the conference planning committee, and is usually related to the work of the year's ASA President, who this year is New York's own Ruth Wilson Gilmore (she's recently moved from USC to CUNY), author of the award-winning book Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (which I taught in Fordham's "Major Developments in American Culture" class a few years ago). She'll be giving a plenary lecture on the topic of the conference theme tomorrow night.

So, here is the conference call for papers, which describes this year's theme in some detail (I'm especially fond of the first sentence of the first full paragraph):

The theme for the 2010 ASA Annual Meeting, to be held in San Antonio, Texas, is "Crisis, Chains, and Change: American Studies for the 21st Century."

Ever since 20 January 2009, the US has had one African American man serving a term in the White House and more than a million serving terms in the Big House. US prisons and jails hold more than two million prisoners, mostly of color, virtually all modestly educated women and men in the prime of their lives. In the midst of multiple global crises - war, finance capital, economies, climate change, hunger - it has come to this. What is it that this is? Change, surely. But what changed?

During the next few years the planet-wide struggle over remedy for crisis, and the attendant reconfiguration of social orders, will doubtless become deeper and broader in a range of sites and scales. In the midst of crisis what can American Studies do - as an association of scholars, and as both an intellectual and annual meeting-place for questions and methods that cut across disciplines, institutions, places, and material and conceptual boundaries? We know how to find things out. What do we know now?

While traditionally historians claim change as their specialty, in fact we all study change all the time. Specialists in narrative, culture, production, reproduction, ecology, political economy, and geopolitics encounter in their objects of analysis change, including what does not change.

The program invites participants to conceive of their work as the analysis of commodity and other chains in their fullest complexity - consumables, durables, FIRE (finance, insurance, and real estate) products, armaments, ideologies, aesthetic forms, narrative structure, analytical methods, life-ways, labor, people, migrations, rights, scale, space, garbage, carbons, deities, rules, group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death, justice. A chain is a process no less than a restraint, and every process is full of events - some repetitive and dreary, others exciting, all dynamic - which create along the way people, places, and things.

The program, thus, invites continued consideration of topics central to American Studies - indigeneity, gender, race, sexuality, laws and status, dispossession, documentation, wage and custom, boom and bust, primitive accumulation, love for and loathing of risk, and stretching or shrinking: states, glaciers, empires, horizons. We will be interested in projects that engage broadly with the ways ordinary people create power-- understood as the capacity to compel or help others do things they would not do on their own. Some examples are: alternative household formations, resistance to rent and mortgage evictions, workplace activism, communities that challenge polluting industries, informal economies, economic delinking, sitting in, sitting down, tossing shoes, sabotage, quilombos, queering politics, buying in, walking out, redefining sexuality and sovereignty, underground armies, implacable pacifism, territorial imperatives, total war.

The goal is to identify in our various projects, among other things, specific dialectics of homogenization and differentiation, persuasion and action, space and place, structure and agency, metaphor and materiality, expression and explanation, crisis and whole ways of life. Why? So that we might ask how our understandings of "there" or "then" inform the distinct yet densely interconnected geographies of the present.

Scholars of all specialties, methods, places, and periods are urged to submit paper and panel proposals. Taking our cue from the ground, the meetings will be an opportunity to hear from a variety of trans-border activists working around immigration, the wall, femicides, maquiladoras, and other aspects of the US-Mexico border?s political ecology.

We anticipate special focus on convergences and divergences in the Americas, in Islam in the Americas and beyond, and in the Atlantic or Pacific worlds, and hope as well to highlight comparative methods. Meeting plenary sessions will be designed for discussion and debate on the socio-spatial, cultural, political, educational, and economic dimensions of crisis, chains, and change in the spasmodic context of neo-liberalism's death-throes. What comes next is anybody's guess, but we should be working on life after the "n" word now not later.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Learning About Globalization from Mozambique: A Keyword Reconsidered

It doesn't happen very often, but the developing world, where I live, came up in my American Studies reading the other day. "Neoliberal policies" imposed by "international banking and financial institutions," this scholar warned, threatened developing countries. Land, previously used for subsistence agriculture was being handed over to large-scale agriculture for export crops. "Millions of people…[have been left] without their traditional means of livelihood." I admire this scholar's work greatly, so I hope she will forgive me if I use her words to quarrel more broadly with the field. In many ways her declaration reiterated a highly conventional critique in American Studies of neoliberal globalization--or of the spread of global markets with limited regulation of the flow of labor, capital, and goods.

However much I sympathize with this critique of globalization, these statements gave me pause. I spent early October in rural Mozambique, traveling across the country from the Indian Ocean up to Lake Niassa on the Malawi border. I visited villages reliant on subsistence agriculture. And I passed signs of corporate tobacco and tree farms.

Subsistence agriculture should not be romanticized. Too often scholars sketch out a story of land displacement, export agriculture, and foreign demands for open markets that have lurking within them an idealization of traditional ways of living. In all honesty, I find myself angered by such simplified schema. They seem to imply that we should just let poor people continue living on subsistence agriculture, as if they are happy with back-breaking manual labor on poor soils, remoteness of education and health facilities, and lack of access to cash to buy commodities like mattresses, pots and pans, and other consumer goods.

In the village I visited, residents walk several hours a day to reach their fields, have a school in which the teachers have changed five times in the last two years, and have until recently had to walk three or four hours to the nearest health clinic. Infant mortality is high. Girls marry young--12 or 13. When asked when they had last eaten meat, villagers laughed and thought it was normally three or four or more months earlier. Land is cleared by burning, and in the days that I was there air quality would have warranted a high smog alert in any urban center in America.
All of this is not to say that large-scale export-oriented farming is the answer. Still, Mozambique, as one of the poorest countries in the world, with rich agricultural lands available for development (a population of twenty million occupies a country about twice the size of California, which itself has a population of thirty-three million), needs more large-scale, capital-intensive corporate agriculture, or it will remain poor. Agriculture is a potential strong suit for its economy. But large-scale corporate agriculture cannot be even close to the only answer for lifting rural Mozambicans out of poverty. Nor should it be expanded without good labor controls, fairer global markets (such as fewer trade barriers to the country's products), and efforts to reinvest reasonable proportions of the profits back in the country. But for the vast majority of rural Mozambicans, other strategies are also needed. Proposals I have seen that make sense to me stress building up small and medium-sized agricultural production--building on existing subsistence production. To do that, rural Mozambicans need "inputs"--better seeds, fertilizer, help with improving productivity, and access to credit to purchase those supplies. They need a vital trading network that collects their small outputs, and joins them with others, for larger, even foreign markets.

I reside right now in a peculiar interdisciplinary borderlands between American Studies and international development. I have learned from it, however, to shift in my seat suspiciously and to long for nuance when I hear indictments of neoliberal globalization.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Paranormal Activity

So, those of you who know me may know that I am a movie buff. My older brother graduated from Fordham in 2008 and since then the two of us have gone to the movies about once a week as a way to keep up with each other and keep our eyes on what is going on with our favorite visual medium.

Last year we went together to see a low budget movie that had become somewhat of a cult phenomenon, Paranormal Activity. This film was made in 2006 for a reported $11,000 and was wide released in 2009 earning $194 million, making it one of the most profitable films ever made.

The movie is presented as "found footage" that is, the movie asserts itself to be actual home footage of two people who experience a great deal of paranormal activity in their house as a result of a demonic possession. Most of the movie is night-vision home-camera style footage of a couple sleeping in their bed while paranormal activities occur around them, reaching climax in a demonic possession.

Both my brother and myself left the theater last year singing the praises of this low-budget horror movie which proved itself to be more intelligent and terrifying then most of its big budget competition.

When I saw a trailer for a sequel the other week on the TV, I knew this was an event we could not miss.

This movie does not disappoint, the suspense and fear of the first movie remain and the sequel has one of the most ingenious plots I have ever seen to both include and inform the action of the first movie.

This is a movie that could not exist at any other time in history. It relies not only on the technological ability of handheld cameras which can record large amounts of footage in high definition, but also on a culture which is not only accepting but desirous of filming its every actions for future viewing.

The movie plays on the Myspace and Facebook generation's obsession with recording and presenting itself in a digital medium for a potentially limitless audience through the internet. This movie would have failed in the 1980s, a period in which home movies were easily produced but difficult to present to mass audiences. The rise in digital media as well as social networking and sites like youtube both inform and provide the context for a movie in which families record their daily lives while extraordinary (or paranormal) events occur.

If you have not seen Paranormal Activity, see it first. If you have seen it, go now to the nearest theater showing Paranormal Activity 2, you will not regret it.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Blackface and the VMAs

Earlier this week MTV held its VMA (Video Music Awards) ceremony and there was a slight bit of controversy when Will.I.Am of Black Eyed Peas fame arrived to the show with his face painted black (I don't own the copyright of a photo so to avoid legal issues, click here to see one).

Immediately this was condemned as a "blackface" performance by the media and there was a small bit of outrage over it, accusing Will.I.Am of being a racist, or setting back the clock or race relations in the US, however, those making the accusations, I believe, are completely off base.

So yes, his face was painted black, and although his fashion sense may be suspect, this was clearly not an example of blackface. Blackface Minstrelsy, once one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the US and now regarded as ignorant and racist (rightfully so), requires much more than just a blackening of the face.

Blackface performers were whites who would blacken their faces using make-up and then perform highly stylized versions of black speech and culture for white audiences. Yes, their faces were blackened, yes,'s face was blackened, no, they're not the same thing.

The blackening of his face does not make Will.I.Am's performance blackface because he was not intentionally performing highly stylized stereotypes of white perception of black culture for his audience. He was attempting some sort of futuristic look in which he was painted all black, the fashionistas can argue whether or not this was a wise choice, that's not my field.

If you want to be mad at Will.I.Am for something from these VMAs, your anger would be more appropriately focused at his tweet responding to accusations in which he says "I where" when in actuality he means "I wear," this, I believe, is the far grosser offense which was committed that night.

And now for a bit of unabashed self-promotion; Come see Amsterdam Abortion Survivor this Thursday, Friday or Sunday at the Soho Playhouse, I am the tech guy for this uproarious one man comedy show, and tickets are only $18!

Monday, September 13, 2010

On Education: Do We Need a Hero?

During one of the last hot days of August, I found myself in Brooklyn, where I finally had the opportunity to visit the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co.- which I’ve been hoping to do ever since I saw this Dave Eggers TED talk on the idea (entitled “Once Upon a School.”)*

In case you haven't heard of the center, Dave Eggers was inspired to open the center when he lived in Park Slope, Brooklyn. He had grown up surrounded by educators, and now, as he worked the unpredictable and irregular hours of a writer, he was aware of many others in Park Slope working similar schedules. Recognizing the need for one-on-one attention that teachers simply couldn't provide in their overpacked classrooms, he wished to create a center that would bring together writers- with their flexible schedules, their passion for creativity, and their wish to contribute to the community, and students- who otherwise might not get any one-on-one time with an educator.

But his idea didn't stop there. He moved to San Francisco, where he rented a space that would serve as both a tutoring center and a place that both adults and children would be attracted to, at least to stop by and visit. They also had to contend with the fact that the space was zoned for retail- so as a solution, they turned the front half of the space into a Pirate Supply Store, with a tutoring area in the back. The Superhero Supply Co. in Brooklyn followed suit, as did the Echo Park Time Travel Mart in LA, and Fighting Words in Dublin, Ireland, among others -and the energy behind all these centers comes from the idea that one-on-one attention makes all the difference.

Not only is it a fun space to visit (try not enjoying the Capery, the containers of "salted bravery," and the series of clocks along the wall telling the time in the five boroughs) but I have been thinking a lot about this project since my visit, and I think it is a really exciting development, and a positive way to respond to the extremely complicated and difficult matter of contending with our contemporary education system.

By getting professionals and students excited about what can happen when a student is given just a little extra attention, the Once Upon a School Project is helping get the communities they work with invested in the public education system, which is empowering, fun, and, it seems, pretty effective.

And sure enough, I soon encountered another link between education and heroism, when I saw this preview and then read this review of the upcoming documentary, Waiting for Superman. The film comes out on September 24, and they are using the website as a forum to pledge to see the film, with different companies promising to make donations to public education based on the number of pledges they receive.

I am hoping to learn more about the public education system, so this film looks like something I am interested in seeing, as well as consulting the future educators among my friends, including one over in Urban Studies whose thesis this year will be about charter schools. It is hard for me to tell whether the film will be explicitly pro-charter or take a stance on teacher's unions. I hope it stays true to what Thomas Friedman's New York Times Review calls its core thesis: "for too long, our public education system was built to serve adults, not kids," but that it also recognizes the need for teachers' needs to be met to keep as many good teachers as possible in the classroom.

The makers of the film have localized sites for particular cities (ie. New York's, found here) that, like "Once Upon a School," seek to make people both aware and active in public education in their home city. I am looking forward to seeing the film, and think it will provide a bit of background to my growing interest in the public education system. While it is probably purely coincidental that these two recent observations involve heroism, it doesn't seem entirely unreasonable to say that heroes might be what we need to fix the education crisis.

*If you are unfamiliar with the TED (Technology/Entertainment/Design) series, check out their archive here. Their conferences "bring together the world's most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes.)"

American Studies Aslant: Musings on Riots in Mozambique

8 September 2010

I have been driven around town this afternoon. It’s a cool Wednesday, and you would not know that summer is approaching in Maputo, Mozambique. We have a sea breeze, and the light is lovely. It is hard to believe that just a week ago I was sitting inside my house, unable to go out as mass protests spread around me. Billowing black smoke rose from the tires protesters were burning to block the road, and shots were coming from all directions around my house.

On Wednesday, September 1, riots broke out in Maputo, the capital city of Mozambique. People spilled into the streets to protest the rising cost of living. The government had raised prices on basic necessities—bread, water, electricity, gasoline. The local currency had also weakened making much of the city’s food that is imported from South Africa increasingly costly.

Why riots? Why now? Who was on the streets? These are the questions that have preoccupied Mozambicans since the riots ended last Friday, and they would be questions any student of American Studies would ask. Riots are a time-honored form of protest from “below,” and we often seek to explain them in those ways. Paul Gilje, author of Rioting in America, reminds us that riots have a rationality, and are not irrational explosions of antisocial behavior.

I have thought of the Boston Tea Party--the eighteenth-century one--as I read recent news reports here. The government dismissed the protestors as malcontents and “marginais”—marginal persons—not so different from how leading authorities in eighteenth-century Boston viewed those protestors.

In Mozambique, I see the protests as expressions of frustration and rage at the difficulties so many face here. In 2009, Mozambique ranked 172nd of 182 countries on the human development index formulated by the United Nations. This index combines measures of income, life expectancy, and access to education. (UNDP--Mozambique 2009 Human Development Report) Officially, Mozambique has a 54% unemployment rate.

The frustration and rage engendered by poverty has been compounded by glaring contradictions between ideology and daily experience that Mozambicans have faced. The government, officially socialist in its ideology, has benefitted handsomely from business investment in the country. The president is currently the wealthiest man in the country. So when President Armando Guebuza responded to the rioters that the people have to join together in “a luta contra pobreza”—the war against poverty—many saw only hypocrisy. It was painfully jarring.

Yesterday the Mozambican government backtracked, in a major way. It reversed virtually all of the announced price hikes. The protests have subsided for now. The lingering question remains: will these measures stem the tide of disillusionment, and can they be sustained to alleviate meaningfully the spreading urban poverty in Maputo?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

"We Have To Remember What Happened Here"

(Visitors looking out at Ground Zero)

Today, one day and nine years after the tragic events of September 11th 2001, I thought it would be timely and relevant to blog on the recent controversy surrounding the building of an Islamic Center near Ground Zero.

(Here: a New York Times Article on the heated debate:

But after a visit to Ground Zero today, it seems completely inappropriate to do just that.

I hopped on the Downtown 1 and took a visit to the Tribute WTC Visitor Center, which is less of an institution and more of a memorial. A documentary video that plays inside the center reminds us that the towers were icons: both symbols of the American dream of financial success and unity, as well as a home-away-from-home for all those who worked there every single day.

Tribute WTC emphasizes a “person-to-person history”: embracing the subjective and intimate perspectives of what happened that day. Our tour guide prefaced the tour by reminding us that just as on September 11th 2001, when there were no answers, still today there are no answers.

While the news and media reports (researching for underlying causes and revealing statistics), the people at Tribute realize that although nothing can be truly explained, something can indeed be learned.

Desiree, a survivor and guide at the center says, “We have to remember what happened here. We need to remember the people here.” Desiree lost nineteen colleagues (and friends) from her office space (the 101st floor of the South Tower) on 9/11.

At the center, you will find no information on the terrorists of 9/11 and the employees and volunteers at Tribute all respectfully refuse to make any political statements.

(Two of the many postcards written by visitors displayed in the center's gallery)

One of the guides said if there is one word to keep in mind from this event it is, “Intolerance.” His message was: “The point is that hatred caused this. This was intolerance, if we have the same kind of intolerance, we aren’t learning the lesson. Difference is the beauty of our world.”

I met a couple from Queens on the tour, Alex and Gerry (which was a delight, because Desiree said that it’s rare for local New Yorkers to visit the center.) Alex works for the Fire Department and lost many friends in the attacks. Gerry recalls that although “Strange and sorrowful” that day was great in that you got to connect with other people, “...on that day you really had to look at each other, no one had any other choice--cell phones didn’t work, no one knew what was going on.” Her advice? “Take a look around.”

(Alex's Hat)

As students and scholars we critique and analyze the past, but often at the cost of missing the human side of events: the stories, the faces, the narratives that make up both the history and reality of the American experience.

Whether or not you have your own story of 9/11, it is a truly eye-opening experience to visit the center here in New York City.

(Visit the website here:

Friday, September 10, 2010

Introducing our other bloggers for 2010-2011

In Fall 2010 the Fordham American Studies blog greets one new student blogger and welcomes back two continuing students as well as two ongoing guest bloggers, in addition to Professor Swinth, who was introduced in a previous posting.
Continuing as guest bloggers are:
  • Martin Northrop, who is a Ph.D. student in the English department working on gay and lesbian pulp fiction. Many of you will remember Marty as the American Studies graduate assistant last year. He posted over the summer about his experiences at the "Futures of American Studies" institute.

If any Fordham American Studies undergraduates are interested in becoming regular contributors to the blog, please contact me. Becoming a regular blogger requires a commitment to post on a schedule. I am also trying to create a balance between campuses, class years, and other factors, so being accepted is not automatic. You can also propose a guest blog on a particular topic.

I'm also soliciting faculty for guest blogging gigs; please contact me if you're interested.

Introducing Kirsten Swinth

I'd like to introduce guest blogger Kirsten Swinth, who is an Associate Professor in the History department at Fordham and directed the American Studies program from 2003 to 2008. She is working on a study of the gender revolution accompanying the rise of a postindustrial service economy in the United States (Competition and Care in the New Economy: The Making of the “Working Family”, forthcoming). She has also written about the American art world, the Progressive Era, and social reform movements. She is currently on leave from Fordham, living and writing in Maputo, Mozambique with her two children and her husband, who works for the United Nations Development Program there.

I'm very much looking forward to seeing how Professor Swinth brings an American Studies perspective to a situation in Mozambique that--as you know if you're following the news--is fascinating and volatile.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Kagan Court

The Supreme Court begins its new term in a few weeks, and court watchers like myself will be eagerly searching for clues about how Elena Kagan’s recent confirmation will affect the Court.

Unfortunately, the confirmation hearings this summer were not much help. To no one’s surprise, Kagan proved to be just as skilled as other high court nominees at deflecting the senators’ questions about her policy views.

And really, who can blame her? While Kagan, in previous writings, has stated that she would like nominees to the high court to be more forthcoming about their policy views, in practice this type of candor was only likely to hurt her. Opponents of her nomination would have quickly branded her an activist and used her statements to build the case for a filibuster.

Now that the confirmation hearings are over, the only way we can learn about what sort of justice Kagan will be is by observing her behavior on the bench.

And, unfortunately, we will have to wait a while.

Supreme Court justices have stated that it takes about five years for them to adjust to the work of the Court. Developing a coherent judicial philosophy can take even longer, particularly for someone like Kagan who has never been a justice before. Recent reports indicate that the judicial philosophy of the Roberts Court is just beginning to cohere. So it could be many years before we know what sort of influence Kagan is likely to have on the Court.

At the moment, Justice Kagan is probably just trying to adjust to the staggering workload. Around this time of the year, the justices return from their summer recess and sift through the mountains of certiorari petitions that come in over the summer, making tough choices about which cases the Court will decide in the coming term. Even for seasoned justices, the workload is heavy, so for a new justice like Kagan much of her energy right now is likely to be devoted to sorting through all of these filings.

Once oral arguments begin on the first Monday of October, we may get some clues about Justice Kagan’s approach to the law. Most likely, though, we will see a deft questioner who will pepper opposing counsel on both sides with probing questions. It is often very difficult to predict how a justice will vote based on their comments at oral arguments.

More revealing will be Kagan’s votes on the merits, which we will learnwhen the decisions are handed down months later. Although freshman justices are usually assigned to write their first opinions in relatively noncontroverisal cases, in which the justices are all in agreement about the outcome, Kagan will have a vote in every case, and from these votes we can make inferences about her policy views.

Still, it will probably be at least five years, maybe more, before we will have a good understanding of what sort of justice Kagan will be. It would have been easier if, last summer, she had just told us.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Summer at the New York International Fringe Festival

So I ended up this summer working as a Venue Production Assistant for the New York City International Fringe Festival. For those of you who are unaware of it, the NYC Fringe festival this year was 197 shows in 18 different venues downtown over two weeks every August ( The festival is known for presenting audiences with new and exciting theatre (Like Jurassic Parq a musical retelling of the movie from the point of view of the dinosaurs which you can still see in encores this month). For the first time in the festival's history that some of the venues had Production Assistants, of which I was one.

I was assigned to work at the Soho Playhouse, which despite being an amazing little performing space has a history of being a Tammany Hall hangout, and was once under the direction of Edward Albee. As the PA I was responsible for getting the venue prepped before the festival started, which included hanging and focusing the festival light plot as well as installing a new light board and speakers to the venue, and then during the venue I was available to be hired by the thirteen shows in the venue to run sound or lights for their five performances and I was on standby in case anyone ran into any technical problems.

(A few notes on how the Fringe Festival runs- each show can store their set pieces, costumes, and props in an allotted storage space in the venue, in our case in the basement dressing room. Each show may enter the theater thirty minutes before their showtime, they have fifteen minutes to get their materials out of storage and set on the stage, the house is then open for fifteen minutes for seating and the show starts on time- always. Since the shows are usually understaffed and all hands are on deck prepping the stage, light and sound tests don't usually get done until the last minute of prep time so usually if something goes wrong the Stage Manager of show will come running down to the bar in the basement (where I am always to be found) frantically yelling about X, Y or Z not working at which point I would have to run upstairs scramble up a ladder and fix the problem in under thirty seconds so that the festival could stay on schedule, only once did I encounter a problem that caused us to hold the house.)

I ended up meeting a lot of great people during the festival, including my Venue Director who was in charge of keeping all of the shows on schedule and giving a house speech before every performance, and Joan Rivers who came to see one of the shows in my venue Just In Time: The Judy Holliday Story, which has also been selected for encores so you can still catch a performance (did I mention that all tickets for Fringe Festival shows are a mere $18?).

One of my personal favorite shows to run in the Soho Playhouse this Festival was Dear Harvey a show based on letters and memories of Harvey Milk the first openly gay man to be elected to a public office in the United States whose story was recently the subject of the Gus Van Sant film Milk. The cast of this production were some of the nicest to come through the Soho during the festival (to be fair, all of the casts were friendly and courteous, but these men and women were especially so) and the production won an award for ensemble performance at the closing night ceremonies.

The festival proved to be a great learning experience for me since (as my Venue Director would attest) I don't consider myself a "sound guy" but had to become one for festival (thank goodness usually the sound problems were usually the channel being muted or something being unplugged). Also I made some great connections within the Technical Theater world (which is a world I might be inhabiting in a year's time) and saw some great theatre. For the next two weeks there are encore performances of shows that were chosen by a panel out of the 197 total shows for the festival so I recommend trying to get downtown and check some of them out (I get in free with my staff badge, Jurassic Parq here I come).

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.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Professor Saul Cornell writes in the New York Times about the recent Supreme Court ruling on the Second Amendment

Professor Saul Cornell of Fordham's History Department (and the Fordham American Studies executive committee) was one of seven scholars asked by the New York Times's "Room for Debate" to comment on Monday's Supreme Court ruling that the Second Amendment’s guarantee of an individual’s right to bear arms applied to state and local laws. Professor Cornell, who joined the Fordham faculty a year ago, is the author of A Well-Regulated Militia: The Founding Fathers and the Origins of Gun Control in America.

Click here for a link to the full discussion, and click here to go directly to Professor Cornell's contribution.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Kagan Nomination

President Obama yesterday nominated Elena Kagan for the Supreme Court.

For me, it is not a surprising choice. It is also a pretty safe choice. A Solicitor General basically has the same professional qualifications as a sitting federal judge, so some of the talk about her lack of experience is misplaced. What better training in constitutional law can you get than arguing the government's cases before the Supreme Court?

The big question mark is her ideological leanings. It is well established that Supreme Court justices vote based on their policy preferences, so knowing these preferences is important. Will Kagan be willing to talk openly about her policy views during her confirmation hearings?

Let's hope so. In a 1995 article appearing in the University of Chicago Law Review, Kagan criticized confirmation hearings for lacking "seriousness and substance." Hopefully this means that Kagan is willing to bring some substance to her own hearings and answer questions about her views. After all, this is the only opportunity that we have to evaluate her before putting her on the Court. (If you are on campus and can access jstor the link to the article is here.)

But these hearings are weeks away. For now, what is your reaction to Kagan's nomination?

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Letter of the Law

I was reading this article in The New York Times today about the qualities that President Obama is looking for in a Supreme Court nominee. The focus of the article is on “empathy” and whether it is appropriate for presidents to seek this quality or not. The gist of the concern critics have about “empathy” is that justices should not let their personal biases influence their decisions. “Empathetic” justices, critics maintain, might end up “twisting decisions to reach a desired outcome rather than the one mandated by the letter of the law.”

We are so steeped in myths about the Court that even the Times is suggesting that adherence to “the letter of the law” is a reasonable quality to seek in a Supreme Court nominee. But the idea that case outcomes are “mandated” at the Supreme Court level—or that they can be—is not something that political scientists take very seriously.

This is not to say that Supreme Court justices do not care about legal values, like maintaining consistency in the law or making good legal policy. Certainly justices can exhibit a respect for precedent and make law that harmonizes with the holdings of previous decisions.

The myth is in assuming that the “rule of law” mandates particular case outcomes, at least at the Supreme Court level. At the lower court level, this might be so, but the majority of cases that Supreme Court justices decide have already divided the lower courts. There are rarely “right” answers to these legal questions because the cases present genuine legal uncertainties. In the end, a justice must make a choice.

Instead of worrying about whether justices will maintain the “letter of the law,” we should be asking whether nominees to the Supreme Court will make decisions that reflect our values. Every justice will make choices that have profound policy implications. Now is our opportunity to influence the choices that our justices, inevitably, must make.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Are There Too Many Judges on the Supreme Court?

I want to thank Professor Hendler for his warm welcome and the invitation to post on this blog. It really is an exciting time to be studying the Supreme Court.

I want to elaborate on a few points from my San Francisco Chronicle article, which Professor Hendler posted below. As a political scientist, my primary interest is not so much in who President Obama should be appointing to the Supreme Court, but in what influence different types of nominees are likely to have on the Court.

For example, right now we have an unusual circumstance in which all nine Supreme Court justices (including Justice Stevens) was a sitting federal judge at the time of appointment. As a political scientist, I want to know what happens (if anything) when there is so little diversity in the professional qualifications of the justices. Would it matter if President Obama appointed another sitting federal judge, instead of someone from the political branches of government? In previous decades, presidents used to seriously consider governors, senators, and even former presidents for the Court. Now it has become much less common.

I think there are at least three consequences to this trend. The first two I discuss in the article. I think there is a real problem if justices come to the Court without any sense of what the policy impact of their decisions is likely to be. Without political experience, justices may have no foundation for understanding how their decisions will affect the lives of the people who must abide by their judgments. It surely helped Chief Justice Earl Warren, as the former governor of California, to understand how local school boards were likely to react to Brown v. Board of Education or how local police forces where likely to respond to Miranda v. Arizona. Without this type of practical experience, justices might end up writing decisions that are out of touch with the lives of Americans.

Second, justices who lack political experience might be less skilled at forging the coalitions that are necessary for the Supreme Court to conduct its business. It takes a majority of five justices to reach a decision, and it requires five votes to agree upon a majority rationale. Most federal appellate judges sit on tribunals with no more than two other judges, only occasionally meeting in larger groups. Politicians, however, must routinely work with other actors to make policy. A distressing number of Supreme Court decisions in recent years have had no majority rationale, including the landmark Seattle School District Case, which involved the use of race in school assignments. These are important cases, and we need the Court to be able to speak with one voice. Perhaps the justices would be more capable of doing so if they were skilled at political negotiation.

A third problem, which I do not discuss in my article, relates to research conducted by political scientists Lee Epstein, Jeff Segal, Andrew Martin, and Kevin Quinn (linked here). They find that lower court judges are actually more likely to affirm lower court opinions than judges with other backgrounds. What is more, justices have a particular bias for their home circuit.

In the next few weeks, I look forward to having discussions about these and other topics related to the appointment process. Feel free to email me with any questions that you have (