Thinking of the Patriot Act, the extrajudicial killing of Black people by American police, or Donald Trump’s demand for a border wall, anxiety appears to permeate American society. With this in mind, the annual Canadian Association of American Studies conference could not have come together under a better heading than ‘Homeland Insecurities’. In Fredericton, New Brunswick, a total of seventeen panels and fifty-three scholars addressed narratives of security and insecurity, internal and external threat, and neoliberalism and the Other across a range of disciplines.
The conference title strongly informed papers by Michael Epp (Trent University), Alison Kanosky (Lehigh University), and Rita Bode (Trent University), with all three panelists focused on (in)security and its relation to communities. Their presentations highlighted in surprising ways the extent to which communities and violence go hand in hand. While Epp focused on vigilante justice in the case of Trevon Martin, Kanosky turned our attention to Carroll County in Illinois, highlighting how the economy of an entire county depends on military and security development as a form of employment and financial stability. Bode offered yet another perspective, stressing that the secure homeland is illusory for Latina/o minorities, who experience the homeland itself as a threat. The synergy created by these diverse yet related papers sparked a vibrant discussion about gated communities and racialized threats, as well as the state’s use of people’s anxieties to create a dependency on security facilities.
The distinction between the homeland as threat and threats within the homeland was also drawn across panels, with several talks focusing on 9/11 from the position of the racial Other. David Calloway (University of Alberta) analyzed forms of containment of the Other in post-9/11 fiction, while Katharina Motyl (University of Tübingen) examined poems about 9/11 and the War on Terror by the Palestinian American writer Suheir Hammad. She offered the genre of poetry as a more complex medium for articulating September 11 and its aftermath, thereby continuing a conversation that Hilary Ball (University of British Columbia) and Michael Travel Clarke (University of Calgary) had started on the panel ‘9/11 and American Literature’ regarding which medium is best-suited for the representation of 9/11: images or text.
Conversations on poetry were resumed by Adam Beardsworth (Memorial University), Phillip Crymble (University of New Brunswick), and Ross Lecki (University of New Brunswick) who each dedicated attention to a different form of poetry. This led to a productive debate about meaning and context. In particular, the audience was keen to ask Beardsworth for more details about contemporary confessional poetry’s incorporation of pictures as a form of staging authenticity, as well as about Kenneth Goldsmith’s performance of Michael Brown’s autopsy report within the halls of an Ivy League university and whether Lecki considered that an act of racism or an attempt to provoke conversation. Crymble’s talk on the post-avant incited questions about Clinton’s role as well as about the characteristics that define the post-avant.
The panel ‘Academic Insecurities’ continued the earlier conversation about perceived (in)security, but this time addressing the precarity of working within the neoliberal university. In a format that more closely resembled a round-table than panel presentations, Geordie Miller (Mount Allison University), Erin Wunker (Dalhousie University), and Ross Bull (OCAD University) shared—in creative, personal, pragmatic, but always very candid ways—insights into the insecure job landscape of academia. Focusing on the cause and the symptoms of this labor crisis, the panelists noted that precarity pervades all levels of the academy, including the tenured members as well as those at the level of governance. The relevance of this topic was emphasized by the lively participation of the audience who also shared personal experiences at institutions across Canada and the US. This panel not only confirmed that the crisis in post-secondary institutions, where budget cuts and dwindling tenure-track positions make stable employment increasingly less likely, is ongoing but also provided a much-needed forum for discussion.
Insecurity on a personal rather than the communal level was also the theme of the panel ‘Growing Up Insecure.’ Naomi Morgenstern (University of Toronto) examined the insecurity that results when fatherly protection of children fails and the threat one needs to fear is internal, from inside the border or the community, rather than external. Jason Potts (St. Francis Xavier University) also focused on personal insecurity by analyzing neoliberalism’s invasion of the intimate sphere and the resulting inability to envision any form of ‘good life’. Peter Brown (Mount Allison University) then presented the narratives of several characters from Tropic of Orange (1997), contributing to discussions of insecurity by introducing the blurring of genres and narrative ambiguity.
The keynote that evening drew the day’s conversations together, as Timothy Melley talked about security fictions and the mutually constitutive nature of securitization and fiction. His keynote highlighted that representations of fictional disasters fulfill a prophylactic function, but that state security in turn is influenced by fiction in that fictional events are sometimes considered potential scenarios that then lead to precautionary measures. The fast-paced discussion that followed brought in more examples—such as risk management plans or active shooter training at North American universities—and returned to disaster movies, again observing that the presented risk is often racialized.
The next day’s panel ‘Prison State’ also grappled with the popularity of these narratives, as Jason Haslam (Dalhousie University) and Jason Demers (University of Regina) discussed the representation of the prison and its function as a spectacle that entertains the privileged subject. The follow-up questions delved deeper into the problems that a show like Orange Is the New Black (2013- ) encounters: not only must it fulfill the network producer’s requirements to get aired, but even when it lets the racialized Other inside the prison speak, it is still participating in employing the prison as a form of entertainment.
The containment of threat that a prison embodies—and the ways in which threat is employed by the state—had already emerged during Saturday’s keynote. Conversation had turned to the recent presidential election and the role that threats and anxieties played in securing votes, leading to the realization that Donald Trump was haunting thisannual gathering. But Trump—and politics in general—morphed from a mere specter to the prime focus in the ‘Conservative Insecurities’ panel. Where Patrick Manning (McMaster University) and Liane Tanguay (University of Houston-Victoria) discussed Trump’s success and its dependency on a rhetoric of threat, Stephen Schryer (University of New Brunswick) turned to the influence of conservatism and liberalism in shaping the literary canon. The papers enabled a conversation about the influence of 9/11 and the Iraq War in shifting the political alignment of authors and journals, as well as the voter history of regions like the Rust Belt.
This panel was also not the only one to cast its view outside of America’s borders to contemplate US involvement abroad. Earlier that day, Susana Araújo (University of Lisbon) had focused on American and British cooperation in the War on Terror, and Walter Hixson’s (University of Akron) keynote that evening turned to US support of Israel’s occupation of Palestine, drawing comparisons between the two nations based on settler colonialism and the self-understanding of being a chosen people. One of the questions which followed the keynote—whether settler colonialism thrives on the desire for a homogenous state—successfully evoked previous conversations about internal and external threat, risk management, and violence as a form of protection. The event demonstrated through the breadth of its papers and approaches that the theme ‘Homeland Insecurities’ was well chosen, emphasizing the timeliness and relevance of these discussions across disciplines.