Self-fashioning and Autofabrication

self-fashioningIn 1980 literary critic and new historicist Stephen Greenblatt introduced the term “self-fashioning” in his book Renaissance Self-fashioning – From More to Shakespeare, to analyze how identities (selves) came to be more or less consciously produced (fashioned) in the sixteenth century and beyond. The idea is that the explicit molding of the self to suit social and cultural expectations is a strategy that evolved in early modern Europe. Although individuals were involved in their own self-fashioning, it was by no means a process over which they had autonomy: teachers, parents, bosses, kings, and peers through their different kinds of authority exerted influence over the shaping of one’s self, and one could, conversely, also contribute to the fashioning of other selves.

Greenblatt’s coinage clearly filled a gap in the market, providing a word for a process many wanted to discuss with regard to other persons than 16th-century English authors. Greenblatt himself already stretched the concept to include issues like the performance of a false identity or the fabrication of a public image, and later users of the term have gone further and further in doing so. Particularly in discussions of the production of politicians, self-fashioning is often used not to describe the process of the formation of the (internal) self, but the public image they project. But a consciously and autonomously projected public image is not the same as a socially and culturally molded self, even though many modern politicians would like you to believe that their public image is exactly who they “really” are deep down, because that would mean that they are authentic, “true to themselves” in their political role.

However, politicians in a mass-mediated, indirect democratic system can hardly be expected to “be themselves” when they are simultaneously expected to represent a constituency of thousands (or millions) of voters. Moreover, US presidents, particularly, also hold extreme power over the lives and deaths of millions of subjects, which as larger-than-life media personas they need to match with being at least seemingly personable. This production of political leaders’ public image, by themselves or their staff, I call autofabrication. Of course the self-fashioning of political leaders (the shaping of their character and internal selfhood) is important to their success as politicians and as mass-mediated public figures also, but to consider the two concepts to be identical implicitly buys in to the rhetoric of authenticity political leaders like FDR employ. And so my second proposition is:

“Stephen Greenblatt’s term self-fashioning is wide-ranging yet it has come to be used too widely to refer to too many diffuse processes of the making of identities, selves and public images by various agents. Autofabrication is the concept I propose to think about political leaders’ autonomous production of their own public image.”

Of course I hope that my coinage will be as successful as Greenblatt’s – that would be excellent for my own autofabrication.

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FDR on the Ground in the US American Landscape

Post office Athens PennsylvaniaI guess that every politician, and very many others, think about and plan for how they will be remembered. Augustus did so by issuing coins with his portrait, Louis XIV had many statues and paintings of himself disseminated in seventeenth and early eighteenth-century France, a tradition enthusiastically adopted by the Napoleons.

One aspect that these instances have in common, is that they represent the leader in question iconically. I use that term as American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce did, to denote that the representation looks like the original. The coins, statues, paintings and wall tapestries depict figures that bear (often flattering) resemblance to the actual people they represent.

However vain or self-important FDR may have been, he was no great fan of such iconic visual representation of himself. He did not wish to be remembered through visual representations of his body, partly no doubt because of his disability. However, many of the social and economic programs within the New Deal did employ makers of all kind: architects, builders, artists, writers, photographers, and some of its major projects created massive infrastructural improvements in the American landscape (roads, parks, post-offices, schools etc.), often with a specific and recognizable architecture. So ever since the 1930s you can see traces of the New Deal in practically every town in the US. Roosevelt did not hire artists or architects to blow his own trumpet in the most obvious way, but the presence of the New Deal in the American landscape does serve as a constant reminder of that time and his presidency. These roads, buildings, and mural paintings in a sense point toward the New Deal and FDR, but do not iconically represent him. Charles Sanders Peirce called this kind of representation indexical. And although the many indexes in the American landscape do not directly celebrate FDR, they do, my dissertation argues, contribute to his presence in American memory. Or as my first proposition has it:

“The many political, cultural and architectural traces of the New Deal function as indexes to Franklin Roosevelt, ensuring his continued presence ‘on the ground’ in the American landscape.”

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For months now, I have been looking for ways to use this blog, now that it is no longer a place to write-think about parts of my dissertation. Then suddenly Rolf Hut (@rolfhut) suggested to me – by way of twitter – I pick up a young tradition started by Félienne Hermans (@felienne) to write a blog post about each of the ten propositions that accompany my dissertation. So between now and 8 December, I will write 10 short posts about my 10 propositions

As Rolf and Félienne explain on their blogs ( (Dutch) & (English)) back in the day, it was possible to get the doctorate based solely on a set of propositions, defensible and opposable claims about – and sometimes beyond – one’s field of study. In due course, however, opponents granting the doctorate demanded explanations, arguments and evidence to back up the propositions, and this became what is now the doctoral dissertation, considered as proof that the candidate is able to independently conduct academic research. Many universities have even dispensed with propositions altogether, but at Leiden University propositions are still formally part of the dissertation. So here goes.

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Save the date: December 8th, 2015

300px-Academiegebouw_Universiteit_LeidenMy PhD dissertation, “This is Roosevelt’s World” – Franklin D. Roosevelt as a Cultural Icon in American Memory, has been formally approved by the committee. The public defence is scheduled for December 8th, 2015, at 4:15 pm (sharp).

All followers of this blog, and all my students, colleagues, relatives, friends, and tweeps are invited to attend. If you would like to receive a formal invitation, and don’t think I have your address, or if you would like a copy of the thesis, or its summary in Dutch, please contact me.

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From Dissertation to Book – a Review

disstobookOnly a few blog posts since I left New Haven, and I am back. I have always loved New Haven, but now that I have submitted my dissertation, it’s even better. One major thing that finishing the dissertation has given back to me, is the ability to read for pleasure. The best so far has been Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah – read that book, even if you are still working on a dissertation, it’s easy, brilliant, and has a great opening sentence involving New Haven.

I also read a work-related book: William Germano’s From Dissertation to Book (Chicago UP, 2nd ed., 2013). The title is the best thing about it, which sounds like a mean thing to say, but I think Germano would agree that it’s not. The advice he gives in it – including about the importance of titles – is very good, and he practices what he preaches: be as clear as you can, make sure your book has a strong narrative voice and a ‘throughline’, make your book do something, don’t overuse passives/footnotes/semicolons. It makes me want to revise my dissertation straightaway.

On the other hand, again not necessarily negative, I also found it annoying. It has a remarkably low regard for the quality of the writing in dissertations. Are they seriously as bad as he suggests? My dissertation does not have hundreds upon hundreds of footnotes, or a dreaded “Review of the Literature” chapter, only a handful of semicolons, and not a single responsibility-dodging passive. This is not to say my dissertation is a perfect book manuscript, but rather that I found few of the revelations in From Dissertation to Book as novel and eye-opening as the narrative voice seems to assume. This assumption that recent or soon-to-be PhDs are oblivious about writing style makes the book sound patronizing, and thus made me childishly relish slip-ups like: “You’re shaping your writing happens every time you put a sentence down” (91) – I’m not a native speaker of English, but is this extremely colloquial or just incorrect? In a book about editing and revising! Ha! [Okay, go ahead and point out the twenty embarrassing mistakes in this blog post, I bet they’re there.]

And then a final point of annoyance – of the kind that I actually find irritating: Germano consistently speaks of writers keen to turn their dissertation into a book as female – and deeply insecure, paranoid, obfuscating, and what-have-you – or in one case determinedly ungendered (“Pat, the new PhD whose unrevised dissertation has just been rejected by a publisher, isn’t doing anything Pat hasn’t been led to believe is right.”, 17). Okay, I get it, this is an elderly white guy of the kind that gets to decide what is important and who will be heard, but he is politically correct about it. But then near the end, when he becomes all bleary-eyed and visionary about scholarship – which in itself is great, especially since so much one reads about this is downright cynical – “the rare scholar” who will be heard is suddenly male (“He writes as if he believes that the act of communication is crucial to his work.”, 151). Loaded issue, William Germano, maybe something for the third edition.

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Alternatives for a Blog Post

CovervGSM15_TDS_nr_1-webTo everybody who comes here regularly to see if I have written a new post recently: I am sorry! I am finishing my dissertation, and whereas blogging for a long time was a good way for me to start writing or to make sure I could still explain what I was doing, I am now just really caught up in editing, footnotes and solving small and not-so-small last-minute problems.

You are all invited to come and witness me defend the final product – I shall post the date and location here as soon as I know (autumn of this year, I hope).

If you want to still read some of my writing, and you read Dutch, you can instead read this piece which I wrote for Geschiedenis Magazine (formerly Spiegel Historiael): Artikel Geschiedenis Magazine jan 2015

If you don’t read Dutch, you could have a look at this blog post which I wrote for the US American Studies blog of the British Association for American Studies.

And please do bear with me – I will eventually revive this blog here too.

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FDR as a Public Historian

mount rushmorePublic history is a phrase that came up in the 1970s, to refer to the work of historians outside of academia – in museums, archives, the government, the media etc. Presenting history to the public, and perhaps even more prominently, doing history with the public, has become an important field within history and many universities now have MA programs in public history to prepare students practically and theoretically for the challenges involved in engaging the public in all aspects of history.

But of course public history as a field did not spring up out of nothing in the 1970s – it has a far longer genealogy, and one might even argue that ‘the public’ has always engaged with the past in one way or another, and professional historians have been involved in that process in a number of ways.

Historians of public history like Michael Kammen and Denise Meringolo mark the early decades of the 20th century as especially important for the evolution of public history in the US – in those years preservation of “Americana” (objects representing America or the American past) and American landscapes (particularly the National Parks) became increasingly popular. Another watershed moment in historical preservation in the US was the New Deal, when most of these efforts became federal. Moreover, the New Deal included many project that did not just preserve sites and objects, but also collected history and created future heritage. For instance, historians collected over 2000 narratives of black Americans in the South who were born and grew up in slavery – a massive oral history project that has produced important testimony and gave voice to a group that was usually denied one.

FDR was not a professional historian, and he did not conceive of carry out most of these historical and history-making New Deal projects (and insofar as he did, he did it in the first place because they provided jobs to unemployed historians/writers/artists etc). Yet I would argue that he was in some ways a public historian avant la lettre, who was highly cognizant of the importance and potential uses of the past, and who strongly believed that preservation of natural and historically important American landscapes ought to be a public task, and made it so.

I am currently preparing to make this argument for my paper at the National Council for Public History conference in Nashville in April. More about that argument – including the explanation of the picture accompanying this post – soon!

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FDR_unfinishedThe seemingly endless blog pause of the last three-and-a-half months completely happened to me. I was of course busy – first at Yale, then with moving back from New Haven to Amsterdam, then with getting back into the swing of things in Amsterdam – but also, I started to feel that, after such a long silence, I should come up with something momentous to say.

That took a while. The last months in America were fantastic in every way, but not momentous, just intense. Coming back from New Haven was momentous, but it was uninteresting blogwise (I taught the day after we got back, I was tired, we all got sick…). However. Today I submitted the first draft of my entire PhD thesis to my supervisors. Sure, there’s a long way to go before I’ll actually emerge as Dr. Polak, but still. Pretty momentous.

What would Roosevelt do? FDR actually died in the spring before he could finish his great project – winning World War II. Arguably that contributed to his heroic status afterwards: he became somewhat like Moses, as many people noted at the time. Also, he did not have to take the decision whether or not to use the atomic bomb against Japan.

Good autofabrication perhaps, but I don’t want to die just now. Given that nobody would probably finish my thesis if I did, it would seem especially wasteful. Instead, now that I can’t really do anything in the weeks my supervisors are reading my thesis, I have acquired a sudden obsession with what I want to research next. There is so much I would like to know, that it is hard to decide what one or two ideas would be worth developing further. How does one go about that? Many people at Yale asked me the dreaded “What’s next?” question, and I never found a satisfactory way out. Various very learned people advised me to just say something – “the third time you bluff it, it’s true”, but I don’t feel it works like that. Or does it? What’s your experience?

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Ferguson and the Humanities

system worked A while ago, when we just got here, I wrote something on my blog about how welcome we were made in New Haven’s Yale-affiliated community, and how there is also another New Haven that exists in the same space, but I realized I might never deal with directly. The Yale part of New Haven is beautiful, elitist (also in a good way), wealthy and abundantly lovely. It immediately recognized us as belonging there, and was incredibly generous in receiving us. Something for which I feel grateful every day.

The other part, I still don’t really know, other than from driving through it. It looks a great deal poorer and more African American and it is not that I am not interested in knowing it beyond this very vague impression, but rather that it is only too easy not to do so. I’m vaguely afraid of it and have no concrete reason to be there. Except last Tuesday, when I joined the march demanding justice following the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, the policeman who shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. I was scared and humbled. I knew of course that race is a thing here, and I know it is in the Netherlands, I’ve even “engaged” with it in my academic/public history work before, but I’ve never been forced to see so clearly how unheard people of color here feel. Are. Statistics proving this are easy to find on the internet: a black male is more than 20 times as likely to be shot by police than a white one; a black man with a clean record is less likely to get a job than a white man with a criminal record; practically never is a policeman indicted in comparable cases, but recently a black policeman received 30 years imprisonment for using non-lethal but unnecessary violence in a confrontation with a white man.

These statistics are important evidence, but do not explain how institutional racism works. The humanities and social sciences have an important task here. “The System” denies its own unfairness, but in practice it uses double standards. I am not the first or the most articulate to say this, but Darren Wilson’s testimony is rife with cultural cliches dehumanizing Michael Brown. Below Wilson describes his confrontation with Michael Brown, after having already called him a “hulk hogan” and a “demon” earlier on in his testimony:

As he is coming towards me, I tell, keep telling him to get on the ground, he doesn’t. I shoot a series of shots. I don’t know how many I shot, I just know I shot it.

I know I missed a couple, I don’t know how many, but I know I hit him at least once because I saw his body kind of jerk or flenched.

I remember having tunnel vision on his right hand, that’s all, I’m just focusing on that hand when I was shooting.

Well, after the last shot my tunnel vision kind of opened up. I remember seeing the smoke from the gun and I kind of looked at him and he’s still coming at me, and he hadn’t slowed down.

At this point I start backpedaling and again, I tell him get on the ground, get on the ground, he doesn’t. I shoot another round of shots. Again, I don’t recall how many it was or if I hit him every time. I know at least once because he flinched again.

At this point it looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him.

And the face that he had was looking straight through me, like I wasn’t even there, I wasn’t even anything in his way.

Well, he keeps coming at me after that again, during the pause I tell him to get on the ground, get on the ground, he still keeps coming at me, gets about 8 to 10 feet away. At this point I’m backing up pretty rapidly, I’m backpedaling pretty good, because I know if he reaches me, he’ll kill me.

And he had started to lean forward as he got that close, like he was going to just tackle me, just go right through me.

Q: Can you demonstrate for us how he was leaning forward?

His hand was in a fist at his side, this one is in his waistband under his shirt, and he was like this. Just coming straight at me like he was going to run right through me. And when he gets about that 8 to 10 feet away, I look down, I remember looking at my sites and firing, all I see is his head and that’s what I shot.

I don’t know how many, I know at least once because I saw the last one go into him. And then, when it went into him, the demeanor on his face went blank, the aggression was gone, it was gone, I mean, I knew he stopped, the threat was stopped.

There is considerable contradiction between the various testimonies, and we obviously do not have Brown’s, but let’s concentrate for the moment on Wilson’s perception of events. It seems clear that Wilson was extremely afraid. He said earlier in his testimony that he thought Brown might deal him a fatal blow, and there is sheer terror in his repetition here of his perception that Brown was about to go “right through me”. According to his testimony, throughout this confrontation, Brown was unarmed, and Wilson was shooting at him, hitting Brown at least three times, but Wilson describes himself as the one under attack. “I knew he stopped, the threat was stopped”, casts Brown, not as a human being, but as a monster who is only getting stronger from being shot at and hit. To say that a human being “stopped” rather than “died”, implies you don’t really think of him as a person, but rather, as he indeed says, as a threat. Especially “he was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him”, reminds me of bull-fighting narratives, in which the bull becomes more dangerous as he is more severely wounded. This kind of narrative in fact also has a long tradition with “giant” black men instead of bulls. There are many many examples of scary black giants around in popular culture – I remember one from the A-team, another in Pirates of the Caribbean, and various in The Wire (Omar Little, Wee Bey, Chris) – check out >Scary Black Man to find ones you’re familiar with. For now, I will take a closer look at some examples from historical news of similar situations as the one Darren Wilson describes. Googling “giant negro” I found the following three newspaper clippings:

Screen_Shot_2014-11-25_at_2.11.59_PM.0 NYTimes 15 mei 1916

New York Times, May 15, 1916

Giant negro

Found on, no further reference.

Rodney King trial

Found on Twitter: (Rodney King beating happened in March 1991)


The first thing to note about the first is that there is no indication in the headline that the “armed negro giant” who “goes mad” is a human being (who is most probably suffering). What would the headline have been had this concerned not a black “maniac”, but a psychotic or very angry rich white man? Would there even have been a headline? The second point to make is that this article stresses, that any attempt to interfere in the situation only made the “giant” more dangerous, which is also an element in Darren Wilson’s statement (the more Wilson shoots the more dangerous Brown supposedly became).

The”Battle to Death with Giant Negro” is at least equally free of compassion for the “maniac”. The suggestion is that the two policemen nearly died (“were covered with blood and nearly prostrated”) and survived – phew! – as “the negro finally fell dead with five bullets in his body”. “A battle to death” suggests heroism, or at least equal strength on both sides, but here the apparently unarmed man was in a room with two policemen who shot him. Like Darren Wilson, the journalist sees the policemen as brave humans under attack, and the person killed as a deadly monster. Rodney King in the next excerpt is described as an “incredible hulk” and a “Tasmanian devil”, amazingly close to Wilson’s qualifications “hulking hogan” and “demon” (a point several people have made on Twitter, I take it from Imani Perry (@angryblacklady).

To summarize, there is a cultural trope with a long history of scary – evil or mad –  in any case extremely strong and unpredictable black men, seen by white policemen, journalists and the public as non-human threats. I don’t think Darren Wilson realized he was part of a tradition of sorts, indeed he probably did not think he was influenced by racial stereotypes at all, in judging the situation. But the language of his testimony bears witness to a culture in which blackness is directly associated with danger and evil. Based on his testimony, Wilson appears to me to be an unselfconscious product of a culture that sees black males as a threatening and hardly human Other, not because of anything in the concrete situation at hand, but because of historical constructions that still pervade (white) society and thinking. The unfairness in this is in a sense doubled by the non-indictment: not only does it seem clear that racial prejudice contributed to Wilson’s choice to use lethal violence in this case, but the legal system also implicitly confirms the faulty assumptions underlying his actions, based on the same kind of reasoning.  And the fact of the non-indictment is especially frustrating because the legal system’s conclusion is precisely that there is no reason to try this case, that is, to publicly question what happened why.

Practically every text and photo I see about “Ferguson” could do with close-reading to bring out its ideological implications, and the false but old stereotypes it invokes. And I think we all, but especially literary theorists, art historians, anthropologists, sociologists, historians etc, should do such close readings, and try to research and understand how cultural constructions (of race, but also sexuality, mental illness, leadership, to name just a random selection) WORK. Who makes them? Who has power over them? What power do they have over us? How do they survive and travel? And most importantly: how do we get our students AND EVERYBODY ELSE to be aware of these mechanisms? That won’t end inequality, but being more aware of how it works at least gives us all more choice and less space to deny the unfairness that is there.

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LA through dirty window The Almanack title pageThese photos refer to the two highlights of last week. 1) I was at the American Studies Association’s conference in LA (the picture is te view from my AirBnB appartment) and 2) Simultaneously in Baltimore the Mid-Altantic Popular American Culture Association held its annual meeting, at which its journal The Mid-Atlantic Almanack appeared, with my article “Does My Cock Still Work? Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Prosthetic Masculinity in FDR American Badass!” The image you see is a photo of the title page, I don’t have the hardcopy, or even the digital journal yet, however, I have blogged about the topic here, and I will let you know once I have the article in full-text.

But back to Los Angeles, where the weather was characteristically lovely, which was nice, even if I spent most of my time in the Westin Bonaventure hotel, one of those humongously massive hotels you can stay in without ever having to leave the building (at least as long as your creditcard is working), because anything you might want to consume can be bought on the premises. I have only ever seen this kind of hotel in the States and they present a depressing picture of capitalism. In fact Frederic Jameson, one of the big theorists of postmodernism wrote his essay on late capitalism and postmodernism while attending a conference at this hotel, and also wrote about it, which made it all rather funny.

The conference itself was really great. It struck me how activist all the participants and the general atmosphere were. Not just keenly aware of the ideologically charged constructedness of cultural phenomena, but also engaged in emancipating underrepresented groups. There was, for example, a gender-neutral toilet, and when it emerged that there was no good place to breastfeed or pump, lots of people, most of whom didn’t breastfeed (or even have breasts), joined in general indignation, and one was set up in a matter of hours. Lucky me.

I went to several panels that were more or less far removed from my own field (and some that were closer to home for me), but it almost didn’t seem to matter. There were many very good speakers, like Libby Anker, Kristin Ann Hass and Angela Smith, and also many non-classical sessions, like one in which PhD candidates could practice their elevator pitch on advanced researchers, and a panel at which 15 or so people presented – in 3 minutes each – their Digital Humanities projects. I presented there too, not because I have a digital humanities project, but because I am thinking of starting one, and wanted to crowdsource. If you’re interested in reading more about this, you can access the previous, password-protected post using the password #2014ASA – and let me know if you have ideas!

I also spent one evening at an event of the California Institute of the Arts, where a friend of mine from Leiden is currently doing an MA program, also on a Fulbright scholarship. It was a somewhat odd, but very nice evening. Odd, because there were various artists who discussed their work to a group of academic art critics, mostly in cultural analysis, who were generally rather more articulate about the artwork than the artists themselves. Understandably, I suppose, but also a bit awkward sometimes. I did not, as I had hoped, get to meet Emily Rosenberg, but it was nonetheless a very inspiring and fulfilling trip.

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