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This year’s annual meeting of the German Association for American Studies had popular culture as its central theme. At the opening, speakers pointed to the apparent disconnect between the strong tradition of popular-culture scholarship in German American studies and the fact that, until this year’s 66th meeting, popular culture had never been the central theme.
My colleagues Katharina Gerund and Mareike Spychala invited me to speak in the panel “Images of War: Popular Culture as Militainment.” The panel was a good opportunity to get together with colleagues in the field of military life writing and military culture research. In German American studies, quite a few thesis projects addressed topics such as post-9/11 war memoirs, fiction, milblogs, or focused on aspects such as gender in first-person war narratives. More projects are currently underway.
Inspired by discussions on the proliferation of loaded terms such as “warrior” at earlier GAAS meetings, I drew on research for my recently published book to take a closer look at terminology and concepts. I presented examples from military parlance and institutions (e.g. the Soldier’s Creed, Warrior Transition Units), self-help books, and civic activism, where the term “warrior” has been fashionable since the early 2000s.
Although usage of the term “warrior” for US military personnel seems ubiquitous, diverse protagonists argue against its use and insist on calling military personnel “soldiers.” I cited a few examples of criticism from folks who believe that an association with “warriors” and warrior culture diminishes the emphasis on professionalism in the US military. These arguments, however, often employ an ethnocentric, ahistoric, sometimes even racist understanding of “warriors” in that historical warriors are portrayed as undisciplined, bloodthirsty glory hounds. This notion goes hand in glove with the popular understanding and usage of “tribal,” i.e. the notion that a ‘tribal’ group derives its identity from hatred and the resulting violence against any and all outsiders. Historical examples for such negative portrayals of ‘warriors’ are often ancient Greeks, medieval knights, or Indigenous groups.
In contrast, a lot of the activist scholarship and non-fiction I analyzed for Ceremonial Storytelling frequently refers to Native American warrior traditions and, thus, employs a positivist representation of ‘warriors,’ mainly through the perspective of social relationships. I discussed examples such as Sebastian Junger’s Tribe and Edward Tick’s Warrior’s Return to argue that these social activists see psychological war injury and veterans’ reintegration problems as signs of a social crisis in US society, rather than as mere individual afflictions. They seek inspiration and role models from the social responsibilities between Indigenous warriors and their communities (and are sometimes dismissed as “primitivism fantas[ies]” for that reason). Applying a social perspective to the concept of the warrior, these activist scholars and writers hope to develop civic ceremonies, such as town hall meetings with veterans and civilians on Memorial Day, to mend civil-military relationships and to promote veteran reintegration. In their understanding, a warrior is not a bloodthirsty individualist, but someone who sacrifices personal interest for the benefit of the group, and they call upon US civil society to acknowledge its responsibility for soldiers in return.
My fellow panelists presented work on the “metonymic war veteran” in cultural expressions such as Black Panther (David F. Eisler), on the soldier group as a symbol for US society in combat films such as Air Force and Full Metal Jacket (Martin Holtz), on the depiction of child soldiers in graphic novels (Tatiana Prorokova), and on the representations of violence and diversity in the children’s TV show Liberty’s Kids on PBS (Carsten Junker).
Our Leipzig-Dresden research initiative, running under the German title “Selbst-Bewusste Erzählungen,” announced the completion of its projects. The group has worked together since 2011. Its collaborative research resulted, among other works, in two essay collections and an international symposium in fields related to post-classical narratology, i.e., a cultural perspective on textuality and social relevance in contemporary US literature and culture.
A few weeks ago, my dissertation was published as a monograph. It is titled Fellow Tribesmen and was produced with Berghahn Books in New York in collaboration with the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC. The defense in 2010 was a major stepping stone, but this moment really feels like completion. I have developed first ideas for the project during my abroad year at the American Indian Studies Program at the University of Arizona in 2000, so these past fifteen years from inception to finished product felt like seeing a child grow up, cradle it, guide it, loose sleep over it. The analogy fails once I say ‘now that it has come of age I’ll let it go,’ but still, it has been my baby for quite a while.
I don’t even think I’ll completely let it go. Many other PhDs I discussed dissertations with grew tired of their project, and told me they could not stand talking or thinking about it any more once they had defended. However, the German perception of Native Americans, with all its fascinating aspects of Native visitors to Europe, transatlantic comparisons in imagery, identity formation, and stereotyping, as well as implications for German/American cultural history, media history, and the history of ideas will probably recur throughout my academic life and I cannot imagine becoming tired of discussing these issues.
Although, as a German researcher in American Studies, you’re supposed to put the dissertation project aside eventually and create a very broad portfolio rather than becoming a topical specialist, there are a few more aspects to the project that I’d like to investigate some time: More research should be done in German government documents regarding Native Americans. Back in the process of outlining the project, I believed I would write about German soldier’s encounters with Native American GIs. This proved to be a needle in the haystack. Then I became interested in the Nazis’ plans for occupying America, and how German Indianthusiasm would influence Nazi military planning. This proved to be way too big to pursue on top of the investigation of the range of published print sources, both journalistic, popular culture, and academic, that this project was already engaged with. “Keep it for the book,” some older colleagues said. Well, when I prepared the manuscript for publication, I was already mired in this new major project on milblogs, which left no time for extensive additional archival research for the first monograph. I hope that, some day, I can go after sources on German spies, colonial planners regarding German perceptions of Indigenous peoples in the Americas.
Now, though, I’m happy. I’ve learned a lot about editing and publishing, often became frustrated about specific aspects of the process, or felt that, instead of engaging with a lengthy editing process, I needed all my time for the new project. Colleagues and friends have frequently heard about this. These days, though, I celebrate.
The 62nd annual meeting of the German Association for American Studies convened in Bonn from 28-31 May. The conference topic “Knowledge Landscapes North America” gave me the opportunity to look at my milblog and PTSD research interest from a historiographical perspective. Working with sources on the history of PTSD to support my take on milblogs as ceremonial war narrations that conduct both cultural work and have a therapeutic effect, I became more and more interested in scholarly debates on PTSD and its constructedness in recent years.
My Tübingen colleague Axel Jansen and I organized the Workshop “Contested Science” to discuss how biology and biomedicine became the most visible sciences in public discourse after World War II. The contributions focused on very unique case studies but communicated well with each other, highlighting similar arguments, discourse patterns, and problems. Michael Hochgeschwender (LMU Munich) provided an intriguing theological background for Catholic Roman Church standpoints on issues such as abortion, Stephen Mawdsley (Cambridge) presented his research on the US youth campaign for the polio vaccine in the 1950s and 60s, and Axel Jansen discussed different approaches to and regulations on stem cell research in the US, the UK, and Germany.
After my presentation at the American Indian Workshop in March had scrutinized the clinical aspects and mental health care policies for Native American veterans, last week’s talk looked into activist PTSD scholarship during Vietnam. I have searched for social-support approaches to PTSD to compare with Native American traditions since the inception of this project, and I have been fascinated by how diverse research and therapeutic approaches have been since Vietnam. This presentation was thus a great opportunity to contextualize social-support approaches with a political interest to critically discuss the relationship between civil society and the military among both segments of the public and some researchers.
Some therapies and research schools neglect social issues and, instead, focus entirely on neurobiology or stress levels in their research and therapy. It seems as if they are not even aware of alternative methods (or that they discard them as irrelevant). In some therapy scenarios, there seems to be a mix-and-match situation: clients are sent to one therapy after another until something finally works, and this might be biomedicine now, hypnosis next, and alternative therapies like outdoors, guide dogs, or narrative/creative therapy after that.
Some scholar-therapists (e.g., Jonathan Shay, Ed Tick), regardless if they refer to anti-war activist scholars of the 1970s, argue that social support is necessary for successful veteran reintegration and that the social contract between civil society and its soldiers requires civilians to acknowledge and assume social responsibilities after the soldiers’ return. It is intriguing to see how many protagonists of this approach refer to Native American traditions of communalism and ceremonialism in this regard, a reference that initially piqued my interest in reading milblogs as forms of ceremonial storytelling in which civilians and soldiers discuss war experience and thus, construct meaning in a mutual negotiation of the social contract.
A few days ago on 3rd December, I have held my last lecture on this trip. While the earlier lectures discussed my work on German perceptions of Native American cultures and promoted the forthcoming book, this talk presented some of my current work on deployed soldiers’ milblogs. This guest lecture was hosted by University of Nebraska, Omaha’s English Department and the Office of Military and Veteran services.
I met Dr. Charles Johanningsmeier, who invited me to Omaha, during his Fulbright year at American Studies Leipzig in 2007. Since then, we have kept in close contact and frequently worked together. Omaha is very dear to me, for the friends and colleagues I know here but also because this is where I held my first lecture when my dissertation project took shape in 2007.
Last week’s lecture provided an overview of the interdisciplinary methodology of the project and contextualized Native American military traditions before launching into a close reading of an American soldier’s milblog from Afghanistan. I pointed out different elements of ceremonial storytelling in the interaction between deployed soldiers and civilian audience. Some of these textual elements led back to the presentation on “tribute and memorial posts” I held at the 2014 ASA convention in Los Angeles. Similar to my reflections on the longue dureé in Indianthusiasm for teaching due to the lectures on Nazis and the GDR that I held over the course of only one weekend in Oklahoma in late October, this lecture helped me approach the topic of death and mourning in milblogs from different angles, discuss it with a diverse audience, and thus extend the scope of my work from the ASA presentation in early November. This widened perspective will help me tackle another chapter of the blog project in the coming year.
Apart from the academic values gained from this final lecture, it was fascinating to observe the environment in which the event took place. The lecture was held at UNO’s Community Engagement Center, a brand-new building dedicated to community outreach. The audience was thus both “gown” and “town,” comprised of students of both English and Native studies courses, veterans, and members of the Omaha community. As my colleagues told me, UNO was recently rated the best four-year college in veteran services by the Military Times. It was thus particularly interesting to observe and discuss veterans’ affairs at this institution. This also brought back discussions and observations from last year’s conferences at UC Santa Barbara and Copenhagen where many discussions and presentations centered around the question of college veteran services, student veterans, and the role of the humanities in veteran reintegration.
Similar questions recurred during the last few days when I met with colleagues and representatives of veteran groups, such as The Mission Continues. The Mission Continues has recently become one of the best-known veteran support groups. They focus on community service and volunteerism as its founders have realized that many veterans are eager to continue serving and that volunteerism, i.e., helping others, helps veterans to help themselves in their efforts to reintegrate into civil society. I became interested in groups like TMC when looking at the warrior philosophy of Native American military traditions and their strong focus on ceremonialism, community relationships, and mutual aid. Native studies scholars argue that “warriorhood” is anchored in perpetual community relationships, while “soldiering” in the ‘Western’ sense is more perceived as playing a social role. The community engagement of The Mission Continues reminds me of relationships in changing tasks (from fighting to, say, charity or care-giving) known from native warrior philosophy.
Since both Native scholars and military psychologists have argued that ceremonialism and community relationships might support the reintegration of non-Native veterans and could play a role in working through their traumatic experiences, I have begun looking beyond milblogs to find other non-Native efforts to implement community and ceremony in my research during this year. The Mission Continues is a very good example for such efforts. Getting together with TMC representatives as well as social sciences scholars from Washington University and Lindenwood University in the St. Louis area helped me explore these veteran groups’ efforts. Their information and advise provided valuable social science perspectives for my project. I will continue to look into this and similar projects, although they are not deployed soldiers’ narratives, to look for ceremonialism and community interaction as ingredients for reintegration.
Between 6 and 9 November, I joined colleagues from Leipzig, Dresden, Albany, Wisconsin in Los Angeles to hold a workshop during this year’s American Studies Association convention. The conference was titled “The Fun and the Fury: New Dialectics of Pleasure and Pain In the Post-American Century.” Our workshop “Fandom and the Public Sphere: Textuality, Affect, and Social Relevance” addressed three distinct case studies of civic engagement via fan communities, i.e. how fan communities’ affect-driven activities invite civic engagement and social mobilization.
Kyra Hunting and Ashley Hinck analyzed the interrelation of celebrity activism and fan engagement in Ian Somerhalder’s (The Vampire Diaries) foundation on environmentalism and animal rights, arguing that Somerhalder’s celebrity status works as an inclusive mechanism to draw people towards civic engagement and political activism who otherwise wouldn’t become involved. Alice Hofmann presented her work on Dave Eggers’s Zeitoun, a novel depicting the turmoil in New Orleans during and immediately after hurricane Katrina, as well as institutional racist practices in the treatment of people suspected to be looting. She detailed how the charges of domestic violence against the actual person Abdulrahman Zeitoun overshadowed both the book character Zeitoun and the Zeitoun Foundation’s post-Katrina charity work in New Orleans. My own presentation explored the negotiation of war experience and general civil-military relationships in milblogs addressing soldiers’ deaths and the corresponding funeral and memorial services in Afghanistan and the US. Reading the blog audience’s interaction with the authors as “fan” activities, I analyzed the debates on death in war as a deliberate attempt of civil society to uphold its end of the social contract: to provide support, understanding, and guidance for the soldiers whom civil society sent off to fight (and risk their lives) on its behalf.
All three papers presented fan activities as new forms of civic engagement that, while less institutionalized than earlier forms, empowered people to become involved in political activism on an individual level, many of whom would not have been attracted to become involved via traditional channels. As some of the commenters in the workshop’s audience remarked, however, this new form of civic engagement, being “thoroughly neoliberalized,” carries the risk of remaining restricted to a mere notion of “cozy virtual likemindedness”: Affect may serve to get people to do something about a particular social problem, but will Internet-based, individualized activist communities like the ones described here have a significant effect (i.e., impact) to actually implement social and political change?
This interesting question harks back to a debate I had during a conference on historical comparative studies of veteran reintegration in Hamburg in October. Participants in this meeting questioned the effect of the myriad expressions of ‘Thank You for Your Service’ that I keep finding throughout my blog readings. While acknowledging them as a form of online civic engagement, the Hamburg symposium commenters labeled them the “lowest common denominator for an all-purpose, feel-good gratification that doesn’t cost the civilian blog audience anything and that, because it emphasizes emotion intertwined with patriotism, seems to stand above criticism.”
In addition to wondering how efficient fan-motivated political and social activism can be (which might also be a project for the social sciences as it suggests quantification for proof, while the presenters emphasized the cultural work of these texts and practices), workshop participants raised the question at which point, if civic engagement increasingly draws on these new modes of social mobilization, “fandom becomes a proxy for democracy?” This intriguing thought should offer diverse angles of observation and analysis for cultural-studies scholars interested in the interrelation of new media technology and cultural/social practices over the next few years.