PhD Defense in 15 Pictures

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Very many people

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Vincent, me, Tobias & Beerd

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Hora est

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The Dress

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Dr. S.P.

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The line that wasn’t supposed to be

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no title

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Happy Days Are Here Again! (Champagne Charlie)


Many thanks to Maaike Warnaar and Tjerk Jan Schuitmaker for taking these and many other beautiful pictures, and to everyone in them for being there!

Happy holidays!


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Hora est!

diplomaI don’t have much photographic evidence yet, but this picture should suffice. I defended my dissertation, and I’m upgraded from Drs. P. to Dr. S.P. And, equally exciting, from PhD candidate/lecturer to assistant professor (it still means I teach and do research, though).

If you read Dutch, by all means check out twitter pal @DeDaanmans’s Storify of the defense: More photos to follow.

And to everybody here: thank you for your support, readership, comments, tweets, emails and good thoughts! Chatting to you – even if only in my mind – has been really important.

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A Statesman Is a Dead Politician

FDR_unfinishedThe final proposition – traditionally meant to be funny – is a witticism stolen from my father. It was also the final proposition to his doctoral dissertation, which had nothing to do with political leaders (it was about coins in the 17th and 18th century Dutch economy). Is it true though? I think there are statesmen (and stateswomen, although the word is tellingly awkward) who are recognized as such before their death, including Roosevelt. It is, however, important to realize that historical statesmen in their own present were – certainly in democratic systems, but probably elsewhere too – in the first place politicians whose power and elevation above common partisan (and intra-party) politics were by no means a given. Michael Kammen has argued that Americans tend to depoliticize their history, and this has contributed to the remembrance of FDR as a statesman. Had Roosevelt not already been regarded as a statesman during his life, one might even argue that his becoming a dead politician in office contributed to his elevation to statesmanship.

A statesman is a dead politician.

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Representation Is Always Also About What Is Not There

FFMemorialINDOCThe ninth proposition is a bit of a cliché, but a cliché that I am always happy to remind myself and others. When you study any text (in a broad sense, this also includes visual or otherwise non-verbal “texts”), it’s useful to look for what is missing. Even when watching the news or reading yearly business reports of companies it is usually rewarding to look out for silences. What don’t they say?

And FDR is a particularly grateful object for this type of inquiry, because there is a lot that he did not address, and much of what he did say could easily be interpreted as drawing up smokescreens to keep audiences’ attention away from what he did not want to be discussed. The wheelchair is an example – he did not lie about it, but did what he could not to direct attention to it, diverting it to other issues. But also in later FDR remembrance many things are not addressed – and in some cases the wheelchair may indeed have become the smokescreen by now. For a long time the internment of Japanese Americans was habitually omitted from FDR representations, for instance, while the compassion, strength of character and crisis management skills he learned from having polio were overemphasized. Another particular, but by no means unique, instance that intrigues me is the almost ostentatious absence of Eleanor Roosevelt from the Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island (NYC). She is not referred to at all, except that the memorial (with FDR’s bust) points to the UN Headquarters – and Eleanor Roosevelt was the first American delegate to the United Nations. It is as if she is hovering in the air between the Park and the UN building. My ninth proposal wants to draw attention to such prominent absences:

“Representation is always also about what is not there.”

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Cultural history & cultural analysis

Olympus-Lens-CollectionOne important argument my thesis makes is that methods from cultural analysis (and literary studies) can help historians to interpret the past. One aspect that is central to cultural analysis is the idea that through observing one’s own responses to an object, one can get at a better understanding of the object. This can be viewed as antithetical to what historians often try to do: establishing objectively, or at least as dispassionately as possible, “what really happened” in the past. Historians of course know that real objectivity is impossible, but the idea nonetheless usually is: the smaller the historian can make herself, the better it is.

Cultural analysts like Mieke Bal (e.g. in Loving Yusuf) take a very different approach: by establishing what it is in a cultural text that creates their own responses, and by tracing the trajectories of that text through times and contexts, they interpret it. Such interpretations are not asking what a text “really” or originally meant, but rather how and why it can take on particular meanings. This is not entirely what my thesis does, but it certainly argues for a more explicit acknowledgement and use of the researcher’s positionality in explaining its interpretive choices. Historians, like all researchers, operate in a context, and that context will influence how one reads the past, so to my mind, at least some attention to that interference – whether it is seen as disturbing or as productive – is necessary. So my eighth proposition is:

“Good historians are aware that they produce narratives that serve ideologies of the present. Reading both historical sources and historical analyses using the methods of literary studies can help to understand and make explicit this dynamic.”

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More Prosthetic Memory

C-Leg Red Dot BewerbungThe seventh proposition to my thesis goes back to the third, and responds to Alison Landsberg’s theory about prosthetic memory. While Landsberg suggests that prosthetic memories created through watching, say, a movie about slavery, can work like “real” lived memories. Such medially imbibed memories according to her do more than just create an image of what happened, or a memory of a cinematic narrative: the produce memories – prosthetic memories, that are artificial, can be put on or taken off, and are adjustable to the body that they are fitted to.

Although I really see Landsberg’s point – in the age of mass media most of what we experience reaches us in mediated form, and those are often very visceral experiences that produce memories – the nuance that I would make to that, is that the ‘distance’ between the mediated event or experience and one’s own social, geographical and temporal location does matter a great deal. For instance, when I see Amistad or Twelve Years a Slave I do take in and assimilate a prosthetic memory of slavery, but it is not really a memory (rather than an artificial memory). However, when I see footage of 9/11, which I experienced as an adult, although I was thousands of miles away from New York, and didn’t even see the television footage on the day itself, it does work like a memory – as if I was there and had seen this happen in some more immediate sense than was the case. Which events can and can’t produce real prosthetic memories (constructs that function as memories, even if not directly ‘lived’) depends on the positionality of the person remembering.

“People have memories of events they did not live through. They are aware of the artificial nature of their memories, yet the memories can still culturally, ideologically and politically function as lived memories, particularly when the person remembering could have been present at the remembered event.”

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for a new dealThe sixth is by some distance the longest proposition. It engages political theory and gives an explanation for why Roosevelt has also been virulently hated by opponents. In common-sense terms: he was a slippery rhetorician. This is related to the previous proposition, in which I claim that Roosevelt’s success depended – and the success of his memory continues to depend – upon his malleability, and his flexibility to fit into many different, sometimes politically antithetical, narratives. When asked about his political beliefs, he once famously said: “I am a Christian and a democrat.” The two labels he explicitly espoused are so broad that they say nothing that would not be true for all American presidents (unless we hear Democrat with a D, but since this was said rather than written, there is no knowing which he meant). However, judging not from his words, but from his political deeds, he moved on the left of the political spectrum, and many of his New Deal policies were considered radical. His rhetoric tends to deny that, or at least does not acknowledge it in concrete terms. Through his consensual and often soothing rhetoric he in a sense avoided conflict.

Political theorist Chantal Mouffe argues that the space at the heart of politics – a space that once used to be filled by absolute monarchs – in a democracy should be open, and should be allowed to work as a space for “agonistic” (political) conflict, to avoid “antagonistic” violence. My thesis argues that Roosevelt’s rhetoric tended to fill up this open space at the heart of politics too much, and thus did not give room to necessary agonism. This irritated his opponents – not to the point it provoke outright violence, but enough to ignite an intense hatred, as well as to invite accusations of tyrannical behavior. Thus, my sixth proposition is:

“Through his rhetoric Franklin Roosevelt could appear more inclusive than his politics really were. Accusations that his behavior was regal were in a sense justified, not because he occupied the heart of god-given power as medieval kings did, but because his jovial non-committal presence filled the space at the heart of power which should have been a site for political agonism central to democracy (Mouffe, Lefort). Roosevelt’s remembrance has continued and strengthened this occupation.”for a new deal

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Plasticity and vagueness

FDR with his advisers Louis Howe and James Farley (1932)

FDR with his advisers Louis Howe and James Farley (1932)

The fifth proposition represents, I would say the most high-level, over-arching conclusion to my thesis, the idea that FDR through his rhetoric, autofabricated a public image that is profoundly plastic. I don’t use plastic here to mean “fake”, but flexible – although the creation of a flexible public image does call for a rhetorically astute approach to authenticity that allows audiences to believe it is artless, but is not itself naïve.

Franklin Roosevelt often presented himself as informal, and open about his thoughts, strategies, and personal experiences, while being very selective about the precise details of what he was open about (for instance, with regard to his private life, his dog Fala showed up regularly in relative details, but not his experience of being disabled). A famous example of the simultaneous frankness and deviousness of his rhetoric is this quotation about his role in the American war effort:

You know I am a juggler, and I never let my right hand know what my left hand does. I may have one policy for Europe and one diametrically opposite for North and South America. I may be entirely inconsistent, and furthermore I am perfectly willing to mislead and tell untruths if it will help win the war.

“I am a juggler, and I never let my right hand know what my left hand does,” reminds of the liar paradox (“This sentence is false.”) because Roosevelt is actually compellingly honest about his own dissimulation. “You know” in the full quotation enhances this effect, because it makes the addressee complicit in the performance of enchanting deception. Thus Roosevelt assertively licenses himself to “mislead and tell untruths,” a claim that would perhaps only have been acceptable in 1942, in the context of the war. However, this quote is remembered, explicitly through Warren Kimball’s book The Juggler, and implicitly also in the film Hyde Park on Hudson, as speaking to an admirable quality. Many of his best remembered words have this same vagueness – “the only things we have to fear is fear itself” is a case in point – and therefore allow for re-appropriation in a wide range of contexts. Or as the fifth proposition has it:

“Franklin Roosevelt remains relevant to the present and future because he positioned himself as a, not limitless but malleable, space into which needs, desires, ideologies, even aversions, can be projected.”

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Autofabrication as a Double Act


Eleanor Roosevelt is often hailed as the first politically active First Lady and, in reference to her internationalism, as “First Lady of the World.” She clearly established herself in the public sphere and political arena as an active agent, contributing to her husband’s autofabrication. Before FDR was president, when Franklin Roosevelt was recuperating from his polio attack, she often physically substituted for him on the campaign trail, holding speeches, and expanding his network throughout his home state New York and far beyond. During FDR’s presidency Eleanor Roosevelt worked hard on the margin of the political establishment. From that vantage point she could get political or public attention for some of the needs and interests of traditionally politically underrepresented groups. For instance, she was in close contact with representatives of various African American communities, and could give them access to the White House (sometimes literally) they did not otherwise have. At the same time this allowed FDR to cater to the white Southern right wing within the Democratic party. In a sense, Eleanor Roosevelt represented the White House in areas of society that were not the traditional domain of politics, for instance, in women’s magazines. After his death too, she kept representing her husband and what she considered to be “his wishes” – however, this increasingly became a way for her to assert authority without necessarily representing what Franklin “really” would have thought. In short:

“Eleanor Roosevelt has been instrumental in broadening the arena of politics, which was politically advantageous for Franklin Roosevelt, and contributed to her power as well as her invisibility in the traditional political domain.”

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Wheelchairs and prosthetic memory


The third proposition to my thesis is probably the hardest to defend, but it’s also one of my favorites. FDR was wheelchair-bound, as most people nowadays are aware. This is not something US members of the public would have known during his presidency – it was well-known Roosevelt had had polio, but every effort was made to keep the wheelchair, and the fact that FDR could not walk, out of the public view. He “walked” to the rostrum using leg braces, a crutch and the arm of his son, the rostrum had to be screwed to the floor so he could lean on it, and he had a gentleman’s agreement with the press that they would not photograph him in his wheelchair.

And he was very aware of how cultural memory was based on elements of things that were said, photographed, broadcast over the radio, and otherwise mediated, pieced back together by future audiences with their own stake in remembering and representing the past in a particular way. This form of memory based on mediated material, which we don’t even need to have witnessed in person, but which do nonetheless constitute building blocks of what we re-member, has been called “prosthetic memory.” It is not meant to  mean “memories of prosthetic devices” but memories that we put on as if they were prosthetic devices. However the cultural memory of FDR in a wheelchair is largely a prosthetic memory, not just of a prosthesis, but also acquired through the internalization of fictional images of FDR using prosthetics. I would even go so far as to suggest that Roosevelt, even though he did not know the term prosthetic memory, was peculiarly apt at engendering prosthetic memories. Partly this may have been his own personal talent, developed in the wake of his affliction: because he had to suggest things to audiences’ imaginations (e.g. that he could walk just fine) he knew how to create ‘gaps’ in his narrative for other mediators to fill in. But also on the side of the beholder, it is an important insight in narratology that disability in stories almost often has the function of inviting more story-telling (to explain or ‘resolve’ the disability) and therefore, if the stories are about a historical figure, to produce prosthetic memory. Thus, the third proposition to my thesis is:

“To support his disabled body, Franklin Roosevelt depended on a range of prosthetics – particularly a wheelchair which only emerged into cultural memory decades later – and he was highly attuned to the possibilities and advantages of engendering prosthetic memories. The wordplay here is not merely fortunate but meaningful in understanding how his self-fashioning enabled his autofabrication and vice versa.”

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