It is a strange time to be a UK-based researcher in American studies. The industrial action of the past few years speaks to the crisis of the modern university, and particularly in the humanities—finding a striking crystallisation in American studies, where enrolments decrease year on year and departments face sustained threats of closure or dispersal. But in 2023, studying the Americas seems as urgent as ever, as social polarisation and fraught political vacillations in the United States bear the marks of a waning empire. At the time of publication of this series, the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine roughly intersects with the 20-year anniversary of the United States’ invasion of Iraq. That China is suggested as peace-maker in the latest invasion speaks more than subtly to the shifting centres of global power as we reach further into the twenty-first century. And as these geopolitical tensions continue, the climate crisis looms larger and larger, pressing deeper into our field of vision to the point that it is now impossible to ignore. With interdisciplinary research in American studies — including in literature, history, art, scientific history, and anthropology — this series seeks to re-situate environmental critique alongside the shifting cultural, political, military and economic landscapes we are witnessing in the present day. In doing so, we seek to bring greater clarity to our positions as researchers, critics and teachers working in American studies.
It is apt, then, to begin the series by rooting its critique in pedagogical practice. Iona Murphy’s article, “Bringing Disability Studies into Undergraduate Seminars,” underscores the importance of attending to shifting pedagogical approaches to American studies. Taking the poetry of Sylvia Plath as her main point of analysis, Murphy traces the ways in which disability studies has been interpreted in the classroom. Responding to the shifting landscape of pedagogy in American literature not only enables disability to be brought to clarity in these texts, but enables new avenues of study of the twentieth-century canon as a whole.
We can also take the notion of ‘landscape’ literally, thinking about how artists and activists focalise the land to attend to competing tensions in the modern Americas. In “Juan Downey’s Dialectical Cybernetics,” Edward Christie takes up the work of Chilean artist Juan Downey to explore how artistic intervention might support overlapping environmental and Indigenous struggles by engaging in the project of rehabilitating, or ‘realigning,’ modern subjectivity. For Downey, Christie argues, technology is a key site upon which such struggles are fought. Downey’s work demonstrates the seemingly counter-intuitive intersection of technology and environmentalism, staking a defiant claim to the technological space as one in which a progressive politics can emerge. Similarly, Laurence Connell locates public space as a lens to competing social interests in the modern United States. Connell’s article, “A Nuisance to the University: Why People’s Park, Berkeley is Facing Oblivion,” looks to the People’s Park at UCB as a site of resistance to the militarisation and marketisation of public space. Tracing the park from the Vietnam War, to Regan’s governorship, to COVID-19, Connell discusses how the park has crystallised the tensions arising from rapidly shifting political and economic currents in housing, healthcare and the university system in one of the USA’s wealthiest states. Together, Christie and Connell’s articles demonstrate how tectonic shifts in technological, military and economic policy play out upon the land and our claim to it.
Film, too, acts as a lens through which we might consider shifts in representational politics. Lakkaya Palmer and Magdalena Müllers’ interventions consider how race is successively re-conceptualised and refracted through genre. In “The Changing face of black masculinity in American Horror Cinema,” Lakkaya Palmer looks firstly to George A. Romero’s 1968 horror classic Night of the Living Dead, and then to Jordan Peele’s 2017 modern classic Get Out, to explore the shifting political function of Black masculinity in American horror films. Palmer’s analysis of Peele’s subversion of classical horror tropes speaks to the malleability of genre-play to enact, as well as respond to, shifting cultural landscapes. Similarly, Magdalena Müller’s ““Maysville? That’s a white town”: The Harder They Fall (2021) and Blackness in the Western Landscape” looks at the playfulness of genre subversion in the contemporary Western. For Müller, the omission of Blackness from the frontier in the popular imagination not only erases Black representation; it also suppresses multi-faceted critique of how Blackness, whiteness and Indigeneity interact in this space. Resituating Black characters in the Western, Müller argues, opens new critical avenues through which to interrogate the processes of racialization that underpin the mythology of the frontier.
Indeed, our understanding of landscape is often informed by myth. Thomas Cornelius’ article “Greetings from Amarillo: Stephen Shore’s postcard play” takes up the photographer Stephen Shore’s depictions of Amarillo, Texas, in Greetings from Amarillo – “Tall in Texas” (1971). Speaking to these photographs’ reception among a New York audience, Cornelius explores the narrative imagination embedded within this set of small, boldly-coloured postcards. Representing less the place, and more the ‘slippage between place and image,’ these images render landscape at once particular and universal, finding the mythic in the quotidian. Samuel Hawksford-White takes a different approach to photographic representations of landscape by tracing a functional and ideological shift in land survey photographs from the nineteenth to early twentieth centuries. Hawksford-White argues that these photographs, along with the ‘vivid literary framing’ used to describe them by reporters of the time, reveal a pre-occupation with capturing the landscape’s formal and aesthetic qualities towards political ends. By registering the aesthetic, narrative and political qualities of primarily legal-scientific documents, Hawksford-White gestures to new ways of considering how environmental change, and crisis, is conceptualised both in the present and the past.
Finally, then, this series’ concluding work speaks to this sense of historicity, and of finding new approaches to parsing the entanglements of past and present via the land. Sam Thozer’s two-part long read blends historical research with memoir and creative writing to reflect upon the history of Pennsylvania, through waves of settlement, colonisation and development, to his own small space occupied in the state’s present day. The land is the main character in this story, and Thozer positions the small idiosyncrasies of experience equally alongside broad waves of human history, against a background of an enduring landscape.
Which brings us back, then, to this series’ overarching theme: of resilience and renewal. Read together, the articles in this series illustrate how interdisciplinarity continues to provide a generative lens through which to observe and critique the contemporary Americas, at a time of significant flux and uncertainty on a broad, geopolitical scale and in the university. More than this, the ideas brought together in this series underscore the importance of maintaining environmental awareness in our research. Alongside political, technological, military, social and cultural study, the articles in this series emphasise the key role of the land in framing this critique.