Futures of American Studies Institute 2012: Would You Like Some Speculation With That?

A few highlights from this year’s Futures of American Studies Institute, held June 18-24. The Institute, which takes place every summer at Dartmouth College, is a lively week jam-packed with plenary lectures and grad student workshops. It’s a great place for grad students to connect with top-notch scholars from around the U.S. and Europe, receive feedback on their own work, and generally take the pulse of the field. Sleep is optional. This year, a sizable crew of us tweeted the plenary lectures, which allowed us to share notes and discuss tangents while talks went on.

I was fortunate to be part of the workshop led by Alan Nadel. Over four days, ten advanced grad students presented work in progress and received feedback from each other, Alan, and other faculty whom we invited individually. (We were assigned to workshops roughly based on areas of interest; there was a foreign policy/governmentality theme in my group.) I invited Andy Doolen to join us when I presented my dissertation prospectus, and was grateful for the rich, detailed comments he provided. Alan and my workshop-mates also offered great suggestions.

Some of this year’s hot topics, in no particular order:

  • Race and speculative fiction. I know it’s been a while since white geekdom completely ruled the speculative genres. But these days, it seems like if you’re doing ethnic studies and haven’t at least thought about futurism or sci-fi, you might as well go live in a cave. Most memorable were Aimee Bahng on “queer Asian American futurity” in Larissa Lai’s Salt Fish Girl and Soyica Diggs Colbert on the prophetic in Octavia Butler’s Parable series.
  • The financial crisis, or, speculative everything. Speaking of living in caves, the housing market crash and general economic apocalypse have heightened interest in property, markets, and global capital. Indeed, the “What if?” that lies at the heart of “speculation” (financial and literary) seems to offer an exciting convergence of the material and the imaginative—and what do American studies scholars love more than that? Although I tend to get skeptical when literary critics put on their economist hats, I really enjoyed Annie McClanahan’s talk on photography and the foreclosure crisis.
  • Geography and territory. For better or worse (mostly better, I think), disciplinary boundaries don’t faze American studies scholars. Often borrowing theory and methods from human geography, scholars trained in literature or history are producing increasingly nuanced work on territory, space, and mapping. I especially liked Elizabeth Maddock Dillon’s talk on theater as a “virtual commons” and Andy Doolen’s on the “failed” explorer Zebulon Pike and the American geographic imagination.
  • Neoliberalism (or, I suppose, liberalism for the earlier period folks). The field of American studies tends to be, to put it mildly, critical of the faith in individualism and “free markets” that underlies today’s global capitalism. A good portion of the speakers related their topics to capitalism or uneven economic development. I especially liked Donatella Izzo’s talk on The Great Gatsby and “democracy to come” (à la Derrida).
  • Digital humanities. The final afternoon featured a digital humanities “unconference” (very fashionable, in case you didn’t know), with lightning talks on a wide range of DH projects. Major props to Lindsay O’Connor, who spoke on the new Praxis Program at U.Va., Mary Caton Lingold for her work with sound technologies at Duke (which you can follow on Twitter at #dhsound), and Jane Greenway for her archival project with the Schomburg Center.

There were also occasional hints about the rather sorry state of humanities higher education. A panel on (the end of?) academic publishing put a damper on things, even after John Carlos Rowe’s uplifting decision to go open access with his latest book. Also, in between (and, I confess, during) lectures, six of us from U.Va. were also checking Twitter and our overflowing inboxes for the latest on the President Sullivan debacle, which fortunately came to an end this past Tuesday.

Finally, and importantly, I want to extend a huge thank you to the U.Va. English Department for funding my and my classmates’ attendance. (But shhh—don’t tell the neoliberals who now run higher education that money is being spent on humanities enrichment.)


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