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Research Initiative Announces Completion of Projects

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.

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American Indian Workshop in Leiden, NL – Poster Sessions in the Humanities

I recently returned from the American Indian Workshop, the annual meeting of scholars in Native American studies in Europe, bringing together scholars from literary  and cultural studies, cultural anthropology, and history. This year’s meeting, the 35th, was held in Leiden, the Netherlands on 21-25 May. Only belatedly (embarrassing for a historian) I connected the dots when a university dignitary said during the opening “Welcome to Leiden, where it all began”: the Pilgrims spent a few years in exile in Leiden before making their trip on the Mayflower and eventually establishing Plymouth colony (apparently because they felt that their children were becoming “too Dutch”). The local museum dedicated to the Pilgrims was closed both times I went to see it – maybe I should have memorized the opening hours the first time I stood at closed doors. More lucky colleagues told me a lot about the small but very intriguing collection of furniture, clothing, and books.

After a conference at Plimoth Plantation in 2011, I have now visited several places “where it all began”; and I might also add the Canary island of La Gomera, where Columbus’s ships took water before making the long haul across the Atlantic. There is even a well in the island’s capital San Sebastian de la Gomera proclaiming that “this water baptized America.

Back to Leiden and the AIW (I might come back to discuss my impressions of the old town in a later post) – I was curious about a new feature on the conference program. The organizers had set up a poster session in which MA-level students, but also a Dutch company and, if I’m not mistaken, NGOs presented their work. This piqued my interest because, as of now, I had heard about and seen poster sessions only in the natural sciences and social sciences, but not in the humanities. In the conferences I co-organized, we discussed the format as a way to accommodate an extraordinary number of presentation proposals but eventually decided against it. We were concerned that, particularly in literary and cultural studies, it would be impossible to express complex ideas with eye-catching visuals and that, eventually, posters would become what the German language calls a “Bleiwüste” (text-heavy; literally, a “desert of hot type”).

AIW poster session at the Arsenaal building

The posters I saw at the AIW, however, were nothing of the sort. Many  presenters neatly structured their posters into research questions, short notes on methodology, data collection, and conclusions. Some included photographs from field work or from their cooperation with local Native American scholars and communities.

Most important for the presenters was that, although you do not have a lot of space to formulate your argument in complex language, you had about two and a half hours time to get in contact with your audience and discuss your work in depth. A traditional conference presentation is 15-25 minutes long and you will have only about 10-15 minutes for Q/A which does not allow for in-depth discussion. Here, you could take the time to challenge, ask, or comment, in a one-on-one discussion

without having to fear that going deep at this point will dominate the floor and discourage other comments. I enjoyed this format very much and had the impression that the presenters were glad about the opportunity for such detailed feedback. It might also have helped that the session room also hosted the birthday cake – keynote speaker Henrietta Mann turned 80 that day and was presented with a song by all participants (sung in their respective languages), and with this wonderful Dutch cake. This is how I like academia: merrily munching and chatting away!

EAAS Biennial Conference on “America: Justice, Conflict, War” at The Hague

Between 3 and 6 April 2014, the European Association for American Studies held its biennial conference at The Hague. I was surprised to see so many conferences on war in so many different disciplines over the last few years. This cannot simply be related to this year’s Great War anniversary, but is probably also because the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have either officially ended or “Western” engagement draws to a close. In addition, the outbreaks of these wars are more than ten years in the past now which has given scholars a bit of time to reflect and connect the dots.

I went to The Hague because I co-chaired a workshop on “War Narratives and Web 2.0: Justification, Storytelling and Public Discourse” with my Danish colleague Morten Braender. We developed this workshop out of observations that, in recent years, a number of European scholars have reflected on the steep rise of war narratives in the new media from various methodological angles. We brought these different approaches into dialog and opened the topic to scrutiny for a variety of disciplines relevant for American studies within both the humanities and the social sciences. Our presenters’ academic backgrounds illustrated these different angles: Johanna Roering’s work centers on media research, Morten Brænder is a political scientist, Mikkel Bruun Zangenberg teaches comparative literature, and my own work uses historical, anthropological, and cultural studies approaches. These presentations supplement were mutually supportive in addressing the common theme of public discourse by deployed soldiers in online media.

The point of departure for Johanna Roering’s presentation was the shared experience of researchers within this field that studying web 2.0 technology is studying a moving object, and that scholarly conclusions about, say, early blogs from 2003 are likely to be outdated already because of the fast pace of changing information technology and corresponding cultural practices. By drawing on Henry Jenkins’s concept of ‘converging cultures,’ she demonstrated, however, that the challenges of studying the how the representation of a single person’s identity is articulated in different media (from blogs to tweets to YouTube vlogs) can be turned into an analytical advantage. Roering also explained the technological specifics and media-related aspects of a military blog, which constituted a common ground for all participants and thus further contextualized the field of research for the following presentations.

Morten Brænder’s talk centered on how blogs can be used in the social sciences as a source to explore different justificatory practices. He employed the concept of “sacrificial ideology” (Hubert and Mauss (1929); Girard, Violence and the Sacred, 1979) and distinguished between the sacrifice’s ‘explicit function’ (the justification itself), and its ‘implicit function’ (to show that something is perceived as worth dying for). He argued that the explicit function of sacrifice can only be maintained as long as its implicit function is not articulated. Drawing on this conceptual framework, Braender compared how two bloggers from the same American unit in Iraq perceived the deaths of three of their colleagues in an incident on 8 February 2008 and thus, how milbloggers discuss and and make meaning of death.

Mikkel Bruun Zangenberg’s presentation also emphasized the importance of justifying military action in blogs. His approach addressed that any justificatory practice articulates a particular view on justice, a view that does not cover what justice is in a genuine ethical perspective. Hence, Zangenberg illustrated in his reading of a blog featured in the New York Times how the blogger justified the war in Iraq but, at the same time, ignored the question of the civilian costs of the war by unequivocally focusing on the higher purpose of fighting terrorism.

My own contribution explored the cultural work and the therapeutic potential of milblogs by comparing them to Native American ceremonial narrative practices of re-integrating war veterans into their communities. Many Native vets employ their war experience in their continuing reciprocal relationship with their communities. Similarly, the interaction between bloggers and their audience negotiates the social contract between soldiers and civil society and thus facilitates an interpretation of war experience as an asset for the community.

The discussion following the presentations addressed Army censorship of online communication, identity construction in online narratives, reliability and source value in regard to the authors’ narratives and audience responses, blank spots and (mis-)representation in online communication, as well as notions of ritual and symbolism in online narratives.

The conference organizers announced that they requested short reports from all workshops and will publish them on the conference website – if you are interested in the many other presentations on such topics as war and food, women at war, human rights, international law, representations of trauma etc., please check back visit either http://www.eaas2014.org or http://www.eaas.eu/conferences. I am curious about information from all the panels I missed myself.