IAAS Postgraduate Conference, ‘E Pluribus Unum: Out of Many, One’, University College Dublin, 28 November, 2015
The annual IAAS Postgraduate Symposium, held at University College Dublin’s Clinton Institute, took its cue from the Great Seal of the United States – E Pluribus Unum, or Out of Many, One. It invited voices from across a range of disciplines to offer fresh perspectives on American Studies today. Generating papers broad in scope, the maxim provoked many questions concerning the notion of ‘unity’.
One of the first panels of the morning, ‘Form and Function’, was quick to establish a material basis for the theme. All speakers were concerned in some way with the (in)stability of artistic media, especially the ways in which seemingly divergent forms might converge. The discussion was set in motion by Eoin O’Callaghan (University College Cork), who spoke about how William Faulkner regularly referred to one literary form in terms of another, claiming that, “the short story is always compared to poetry, and both forms are the antithesis of the novel”. Here, forms were discussed in terms of solids, liquids and gasses – they might move from one stage to another, or skip a step entirely. Taking us further into the visualization of form, Leah Reynolds (University College Cork) explored the dialectic between natural and artistic beauty. In her paper, ‘The Nature of Agnes Martin’s grids’, Reynolds discussed the possibility of subjective expression within abstraction, suggesting that Martin’s line drawings self-consciously trace her somatic experience within a kind of ready-made form. Martin’s hand drawn grids, which are suggestive of empty notebooks or staves, look as though they only wait for language. The discussion of these different mediums – the visual and the textual – was illuminating in both directions.
Papers later in the afternoon picked up on the more challenging sociocultural implications of ‘oneness’, particularly in relation to gender and race. On the ‘Resistant Multiculturalism’ panel, Leona Blair’s (Queens University Belfast) paper on Ana Castillo’s Chicana feminism stood staunchly at the intersection of these issues, exploring the problem of what Castillo describes as “the double sexism of being female and indigenous” (Massacre of the Dreamers, 1994). Blair’s nuanced treatment of Castillo’s racially conscious feminism (or Xicanisma) showed how her work poses a formidable challenge to Eurocentric and Phallocentric narratives alike.
This discussion paved the way for a lively panel of historians in ‘Race, Identity and the Self’. Hilary McLoughlin-Stonham’s (Ulster University) paper explored the dynamics of ‘street car segregation’ in postbellum New Orleans, demonstrating how the reintroduction of the ‘Star Car’ instigated protests that began to close chasms which had existed between upper, middle and working class Blacks before the war. Complimenting Blair’s earlier paper, oppression was seen as a way to make a united front of the oppressed. Yet, the new legislation for New Orleans also acted as a harsh reminder of continuing racial hatred and the lack of national unity. Troubling the heart of this panel was the concept of the democratic space, and the politics of (dis)location. Following on from discussions of segregation, Carmel Lambert’s (National University of Ireland Galway) paper, ‘The Love of Liberty Brought us Here: Writing an American Identity in Liberia (1830-1850)’, effectively demonstrated the issues at stake in translating white US culture and ideals (back) to Africa. As a whole, the panel brought to light some of many setbacks experienced by the US on its relentless crawl towards racial equality. Here, ‘oneness’, whilst being the resistant force of the oppressed, was also a suggestive ‘otherness‘, and a reminder of the marginalising capabilities of the State.
Taking this strain of skepticism further was the panel, ‘Dystopian Despair and the Cold War’. Here, Kelsie Donnelly’s (Queen University Belfast) examination of the crisis of sovereignty and an associated crisis of selfhood in James Sallis’ Death Will Have Your Eyes (1997) lead to an illuminating discussion of individual agency and the construction of meaning. Whilst for Ciarán Kavanagh (University College Cork), proliferation of meaning in a Cold War context came to equate to proliferation of reality. Speaking of Philip K. Dick’s Eye in the Sky (1957), he commented, “‘Out of many One’ relates to reality itself and the farcical, crack-pot world which results from the rule of ideological and political paranoiacs”.
In these two papers the individual was faced with enormous pressures – internal and external – as they attempted to exert their autonomy against the all-seeing eye of the State. Attendees might have gone home a little despondent if the final two panelists of the day had not so deftly reassured us of the necessity of sociality. In ‘The Artist’s Identity and Form’, James Hussey (Trinity College Dublin) spoke of the possibilities of ‘epiphanic discovery’ in discussion of Hawthorne’s ‘artist’, not as romantically isolated, but as a figure rooted in his sociocultural environs. Finally, Andrew Duncan (Trinity College Dublin) anchored us back in the present with his discussion of Kanye West’s legacy as rapper and everyman. In The College Dropout (2004), he argued, it was West’s “rapping about the concerns of everyday people that made his art extra-ordinary”, in fact it, “laid the foundations for some of the genre’s most celebrated and dynamic new performers”.
Papers throughout the day appeared to operate by a similar logic, and while demonstrating ‘academic rigor’ were unafraid to embrace more open and dynamic forms. In a time of academic consternation the chorus of voices at the IAAS Postgraduate Symposium showed us exactly why we must remain intersectional and variously unum.