British Association for American Studies Annual Conference, Day Two, Canterbury Christ Church University, 6-8 April 2017
The 2017 incarnation of the British Association of American Studies conference brought together academics from a diverse range of backgrounds for three engaging days of panels and discussions. Following Thursday’s schedule, reviewed by Coco d’Hont, the second day of the conference engaged with some of the most pertinent questions facing the United States today, concerning marginality and oppression in terms of race, class and gender from a range of disciplinary perspectives.
This was certainly the case with the ‘Performances on Either Side of the Camera’ panel, which explored issues of racial, economic and political marginality in the films of Benicio Del Toro, Jennifer Lawrence and MGM producer David Schary. Hannah Graves’s (University of Warwick) presentation detailed Schary’s troubled career as a film producer at MGM as he came under fire from both the left and right of the American political spectrum in the 1950s. Graves elucidated that while Schary’s documentary The Hoaxters (1952) was praised by the FBI for its anti-communist message, it was criticised by right- and left-wing organisations for occupying the political middleground. Andrew Dix (Loughborough University) then delineated Del Toro’s indeterminate territorial roles in film in the context of the ambivalent cultural and political status of Puerto Ricans as American citizens. Citing Diana Taylor’s contention that Puerto Rican liminality is associated with terror, Dix stated that Del Toro’s disembodied performances in films such as Sicario (2015), Che (2008) and Escobar (2014) serve to convey this state of mind. Gregory Frame explored issues of liminality in an economic context, arguing that Lawrence’s roles in Winter’s Bone (2010), The Hunger Games (2012) and Joy (2015) reflected the economic marginalisation of the millennial generation. Frame highlighted that the breakdown in familial stability in Winter’s Bone signifies a sense of precariousness that has come to characterise a nation in distress. However, he showed that The Hunger Games trilogy offers a diluted critique of neoliberalism while in Joy we have a celebration of the American neoliberal dream when Lawrence’s character becomes a multimillionaire through her entrepreneurship. The themes presented in this panel established broader based questions of marginalisation within American society that would be further explored in the plenary addresses.
The first plenary address of the day was given by Marjorie Spruill (University of South Carolina). Based on her recently published book Divided We Stand: The Battle Over Women’s Rights and Family Values that Polarized American Politics (2017), it detailed the feminist movement in the U.S., its efforts to garner federal support for women’s rights, and the reactionary backlash this provoked among conservative factions. Using the Equal Rights Amendment as a case in point, Spruill detailed how it resulted in the conservative activist Phyllis Schlalfy organising a political movement to contest its ratification. Echoing the themes explored earlier in the day, Spruill demonstrated how women moved from political marginality to a position of political clout, although this was tempered by the efforts of individuals like Schlalfy to stymie their progressive agenda. Furthermore, Spruill made an intriguing argument for the idea that the battles fought between feminists and the conservative women’s movement played a role in defining the culture wars between liberals and conservatives in the U.S. today. The question and answer session which followed, though brief, elucidated how racial and gender marginalisation overlapped and how the organisers of the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston challenged this by taking affirmative steps to foster multi-racial representation.
Moving from the medium of film to graphic novels, the panel ‘Graphic Novels, Memoir and Adaptation’ provided interesting analysis of often overlooked genres. Lyndsay Miller’s (University of Glasgow) presentation provided an interesting formal analysis of the Marvel universe according to the theory of supertexts, namely texts across different media that contribute to each other’s narratives. A significant proposition in this analysis was the idea of authorial control over the Marvel universe and the combination of disparate storylines into a form of retrospective “intelligent design”. Mike Witcombe (University of Southampton) then discussed issues of belonging and American Jewish national identity in Sarah Glidden’s graphic novels. He emphasised Glidden’s non-didactic narrative approach in her travel memoir of Israel, Sixty Days (2010). Using an image where Glidden imagines herself as a tour guide, the weight of history exerting a pressure on her head, Witcombe highlighted how her work does not shy away from criticising Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Nonetheless, it emphasises how Glidden’s views of Israelis themselves are challenged, in accordance with her self-questioning, journalistic style. Extending this theme of home, history and multiple viewpoints, Martin Dines (Kingston University) interrogated the experimental graphic novel work of Richard McGuire, exploring how McGuire depicts history as a superimposition of changing states. This is particularly evident than in McGuire’s Here (2014), in which we are shown a woman in a room circa 2014 which is juxtaposed with the same location where the house does not yet exist in the sixteenth century. In some cases the images spoke to each other thematically and, in this sense, were reminiscent of Miller’s supertext conceptualisation of the Marvel Universe. Furthermore, the cause-and-effect nature of historical legacies discussed by Witcombe regarding Glidden’s Sixty Days was arguably paralleled in Dine’s delineation of the aesthetics in McGuire’s work.
Trudier Harris (University of Alabama) provided the second plenary talk on the subject of race and liminality. In it she discussed how African Americans have a complicated understanding of home in a society that seeks to dispossess them of it. Returning to slavery as the origin point for a sense of loss with regards to belonging, Harris explored how home is a disrupted concept in the African American consciousness. From a psychoanalytic perspective her discussion of “African fever” was particularly notable concerning Paule Marshall’s The Chosen People, The Timeless People (1969) and Marita Golden’s Migration of the Heart (1983). Using Golden as an example, she argued that African fever, namely the idea that African Americans should return to the ancestral motherland, is a palliative for a lack of belonging and the memory of fragmented identity generated by the historical schism of slavery. Such topics were further clarified in the discussion which followed. In response to a question that highlighted how people born into homelessness lacked an understanding of home, Harris pointed out that a sense of community was an integral aspect of home as an overarching concept, which would explain, in part, the appeal of African fever. Another exchange emphasised that African fever posited a romanticised, monolithic conception of Africa which replicated European colonial African discourse. In this respect psychoanalytic implications were raised, concerning the possibility that African fever constitutes a melancholic negotiation with the historical memory of slavery, expropriation and continued alienation.
The panels and plenary addresses during the second day of the BAAS annual conference grappled with significant issues that characterise contemporary America concerning racial, economic and gender inequalities. Furthermore, the presentations were distinguished by the variety of approaches they adopted to a diverse range of topics. They also emphasised the imbrications of past events with present cultural trends. Consequently, the conference raised questions as to whether the societal culture of the United States is in fact capable of liberating itself from historical legacies of discrimination and oppression, an issue that has become all the more pertinent with the current trend towards nationalism and a more bellicose foreign policy.