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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.
36th American Indian Workshop in Frankfurt, and a Presentation on Mental Healthcare for Native Veterans
Preparing this post I realize two things – first, I have been behind in writing and need to catch up because more items and events are down the road. Second, it seems not so long ago that, this venue of a research blog being all new to me, I reported from the 2014 AIW in Leiden, Netherlands. So, a year has passed surprisingly fast.
The AIW is the annual meeting of an interdisciplinary network of scholars in American Indian Studies in Europe. This year’s convention, held 24-27 March 2015 in Frankfurt, Germany, was titled “Knowledge and Self-Representation.” I was excited to hear a number of presentations on Indigenous knowledge and applications thereof, in disciplines such as philosophy, literature, political science, and anthropology. I particularly enjoyed Rainer Hatoum’s presentation on his work with Franz Boas’s shorthand notes, especially since I missed his lecture on that topic during an exhibition and lecture series in Dresden in 2013. John Gilkeson and Suzanne Berthier-Foglar offered intriguing overviews on how scholarship in Native American history and the Southwest, respectively, has developed and how Native voices and perspectives have gained more ground and influence during the recent decades.
Birgit Hans’s presentation on reservation day schools in North Dakota during the Reservation Era struck a chord with me. She discussed the amount of data that teachers and school supervisors had to collect about their’ students’ families. I found this especially significant because a colleague of mine is currently busy with a major research project on how Americans developed a sense of information as “data” during the nineteenth century, and how the systematic collection, storage and analysis of information affected US culture. The idea that day school teachers recorded the number of windows and chairs in their students’ families’ houses, the number of bales of hay the men made per year, whether or not the women attended sewing circles, whether families approached schools to obtain medicine, and other seemingly unrelated information collected here, in order to devise a key to tell school boards and BIA authorities whether these Native families were “progressive” or not, struck me as very odd. This was especially so since Birgit Hans worked out convincingly how inconsistent these teacher-statisticians were with their numbers and the conclusions drawn from them. In many cases, they simply seem to have gone through the motion of counting, because even the higher-ups did not seem to have known what to do with all the data, and simply wanted to have it for the sake of having it. This opens up quite a few parallels to today’s governments’ culture of collecting data about the citizenry.
This year’s focus on knowledge at the AIW was an opportunity for me to extend my own research in the milblog project from investigating how military psychology and US mainstream representations of war trauma and PTSD refer to Native American warrior and veteran traditions. I have become interested in how mental healthcare services for Native American veterans have evolved since Vietnam, and in how far they reflect the interest in traditional and alternative approaches and in storytelling for healing apparent in mainstream discussions of trauma in the last few decades.
I was intrigued by the number of (medical) studies focusing on mental healthcare services related to the 1999 report of the US Surgeon General on mental health and its 2001 supplement on the role of “Culture, Race, and Ethnicity” in mental healthcare, how many studies stated the need and made suggestions to improve care for Native veterans. Yet it is sad to see that, in the fifteen years since, so many difficulties remain, if only to improve the collaboration of mental healthcare providers, such as VA and IHS. In addition, my presentation discussed successful projects, such as the VA’s institution of Tribal Veteran Representatives, which was instigated in the early 2000s, to provide better access to and engender trust in the VA’s services among Native veterans in rural areas.
With a perspective of my overall project on cultural transfer and veteran and trauma issues, I was inspired to see how the VA and the Indian Health Service gradually became aware of and began to integrate traditional healing methods regarding war trauma, and how they tried to integrate such services in their practice for Native veterans. A number of comments to my presentation pointed me to specific projects in which these traditional methods, such as sweat lodge ceremonies, are offered by the VA. It will be interesting to compare these projects to approaches that try to integrate Indigenous knowledge into the practice of mental healthcare for non-Native veterans, such as the work of John P. Wilson (see his essay in chapter four of Raymond Monsour Scurfield and Katherine Teresa Platoni’s collection Healing War Trauma), or Ed Tick’s Soldier’s Heart. In addition, I recently became aware of the website veteranceremonies.org, in which Native Studies scholar Lawrence Gross proposes that Native Americans should actively help non-Natives develop their own rituals for reintegrating returning soldiers into civil society by discussing ceremonial storytelling, community activism, and Native approaches to humor. I add this here because next year’s AIW in Odense, Denmark, will focus on humor. I hope that, apart from presentations on Native comedy and stand-up, there will be discussions and presentations on the role of humor in healing, as well.
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.