Beveiligd: Digital Lightning Short: FDR in American Memory

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Fall in New Haven

boomI am starting to receive admonishing messages saying that I didn’t even have to take off from blogging for this long when I had Ilias, so why don’t I keep it up now? So really quickly: I’m well and – surprise – busy. With work and with visitors: over October we’ve had to stay: my friend Isabelle and her 3-year-old son, my brother and his girlfriend, my parents-in-law (twice) and my sister-in-law. It was great, but not conducive to regular blogging. I’m a creature of habit and like things  normal, so to celebrate that everything is now back to normal, I’m off to a huge conference of the American Studies Association (#2014ASA) in Los Angeles (!) today.

I’m both giddily looking forward and somewhat tense about the undertaking, because I’ll be meeting lots of great people (including Emily Rosenberg at UC Irvine, author of A Date Which Will Live, Pearl Harbor in American Memory – a model for my own book, and Fulbright colleague Caglar Koseoglu at CalArts, both of whom I really admire, though in very different ways). And tense about not seeing the kids for four days (first time for Ilias) and about flying that far, and then renting a car and driving all by myself through LA.

Workwise, I am really deeply engaged in an article I am hoping to write about my theoretical take on self-fashioning, image-making and memory-making. Of course in that piece as elsewhere FDR will be my case study, but in a way it is rather far removed from him and more towards general theories of what I call autofabrication. It involves difficult theoretical texts by French cultural philosophers like Michel de Certeau and Roger Chartier. I am really grappling with it, and imagine I will reemerge at some point, but not enough yet to explain it all here. Which is not a bad thing, because just now I have a plane to catch to somewhere lush and summery. But I’ll be back, hopefully in time to catch the last of the truly beautiful New England fall.

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Foucault after 1984 and Jonathan Culler on Bad Writing

Judith ButlerYesterday I attended day 1 of a two-day conference at Yale titled Foucault After 1984. Michel Foucault is a very influential philosopher of the second half of the 20th century. To cut a long story way too short some of his most influential ideas include the idea that ideological institutions exert pretty much unlimited power over even our deepest inner selves (for instance by deciding who is mad or a criminal, and then “teaching” them a) that they are mad and b) how to behave, what to say, think and feel to be considered cured). Another famous Foucauldian insight is that power relations are embedded in and constituted through language. The fact that we have the word chairman is a reflection of the fact that people who preside over meetings are normally male, and the word perpetuates this situation. This is why many, when they do not refer to a specific chairwoman or –man, nowadays say chairperson (or just “chair”).

Foucault died young in 1984. I was nearly three so do not remember, but this was a big thing in academia and elsewhere, because he was a paradigm-changing figure. This weekend’s conference program was also made up of very big names, including Judith Butler, an important philosopher about half a generation younger than Foucault whose work learns a lot from and is almost always in conversation with his. Especially during her talk the auditorium was packed. About ten minutes into her talk security people came in (according to Foucault precisely the kind of identity-moulding, ideologically charged bearers of institutional authority that we must critically engage with and resist) to clear the aisles because they might pose a fire-safety risk. Judith Butler, rather neatly I thought, invited the attendants who were about to be thrown out of the room onto the stage (which of course was empty, except for herself – the photo was taken later on at a panel discussion when there were fewer people there).

I did find all the presentations very difficult to follow. Actually, I’ve lately been thinking that I should train myself more in the jargon of cultural philosophy and hardcore literary theory. Like many people, I tend to want to resist it, because it is very difficult to understand and operationalize (make useful or apply) in understanding concrete texts (or people, like FDR). I’ve often had the experience of working very hard to get to grips with philosophical texts (reading, rereading, looking up words I thought I knew, etc. ) and then thinking: “I get what they’re trying to say now, but I don’t believe it’s right”.

I know this experience is widespread because the journal Philosophy and Literature has a special Bad Writing Award (which in fact was “won” by Judith Butler years ago – unfairly so, I hasten to add, the sentence that won her the award was perfectly clear in the context of her three-page article). However, one of my many sub-projects here at Yale is to read a theoretical text every day (or as much of one as I can stomach in about an hour). As part of that I read Jonathan Culler’s great article “Bad Writing and Good Philosophy” in his book The Literary in Theory. Culler is a famous literary theorist and a crystal-clear writer himself, and this piece argues that it’s generally short-sighted to accuse philosophical texts of being badly written. I found it really convincing, which is saying something also about the question what my field is – historians usually hate cultural philosophy, or at least: don’t feel that it has a great bearing on their work, literary scholars usually do.

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Abel en Cornelius 4oktThis last week was really good, both in terms of work and play. I’m really in a flow here now. On Monday I had an inspiring conversation with Jay Winter, which gave me lots of things to think about and plans to make. He basically suggested I should write a theoretical article that outlines my conceptual contribution to the field of memory studies.

It came at a good moment, because the next morning my adviser in the Netherlands asked if he could use some of the concepts I have introduced in my so-far-unpublished work in an article he is working on. I love that idea! Even though I’m strongly convinced that I’m doing precisely what I should be doing, I always am also slightly uncomfortably aware of the lack of impact of my work on the world. Of course introducing vocabulary to think about cultural phenomena that others find useful too is not directly going to lead to the invention of a cure for cancer, but that was never realistic. And this does feel very good. I make up words that make sense to other people! I believe there are philosophers who argue this is the one true way of exerting power, and I just accidentally did it. All the more reason though to publish about them. Other than that, I am trying to make a summary of what my dissertation will look like, which is hard and sometimes painful because it means rereading it, but also nice in the way it’s nice to look behind you when you’re climbing a big mountain.

Then on Friday night my friend Isabelle and her son Cornelius (Abel’s age) came to stay with us. They’re German, and Isabelle and her husband are at Princeton at the moment, which is incredibly cool and lucky, because getting to see each other is always hard for us. They arrived late in the evening, but Cornelius obviously needed to play for some time after sitting still on the train for hours, and we obviously needed to talk. On Saturday it rained and rained and never really stopped raining, which was really unfortunate. We had been so keen to go to the seaside with them, or fruit picking, or at the very least to show off New Haven. Ilias and I did show them around the Yale campus, but it was not as beautiful in the rain as we know it. In the evening there was a short moment of less rain, in which Isabelle, the big(ger) boys and I went for a walk through Westville, which was lovely. Both boys are well-trained preschoolers so they ran several miles hand in hand. On Sunday morning we all went raspberry picking – probably for the last time. In between and during all this we talked lots and lots. It’s so good to have someone whose life is so similar, both in terms of situation and phase and in terms of outlook and attitude. Not every weekend, and not every friendship needs to be like this, but on some level it is what keeps me going.

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American Studies: The Easy Answer

American StudiesThis is the second installment in the “what is my field?”-series, and “American Studies” is definitely my favorite answer in most situations. Everyone, especially here, has a sense of what I do when I say I’m in American Studies, and at the same time the category is so broad that whatever it is I really do, it could easily come under the label of American Studies. American Studies studies America, but other than that, there is little specification. It includes American history, literature, anthropology, sociology, politics – just pretty much everything to do with the United States.

While this vagueness is comfortable as well as annoying to me – the label does not bind me to a type of question or method – it is also really true that I find America particularly intriguing. This is in part because it refers to both a nation and an ideology (think capitalism, democracy, Christianity, etc.) that remains dominant in the world, and that is obsessed with its own storytelling (and really good at narrating and indeed marketing itself). Really what I am interested in is storytelling, particularly entities (individuals, instituations, countries etc) telling their own stories, and America is one of the most successful and intriguing case studies around.

On the other hand, it is of course not the only one, and while this is a case I know better than most others, I am in principle no less interested in the others. So whereas “American Studies” as field doesn’t give much guidance or impose limitations about what questions I might be asking, it does rather obviously limit the objects I might wonder about in a way that I’m not yet sure I will stick to. But I might. There’s enough still totally incomprehensible to me about America to keep me busy for another 50 years at least.

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A Very Normal Week

mannetjes met chocopastaAfter deciding that last week had been somewhat busy, and seeing that October is going to be super busy, we tried – unusually successfully – to make this a quiet, uneventful, normal week. So this is going to be boring.

On Monday the kids went to preschool, which they now both love. It is my impression the school is doing a very good job, in a very American way. There’s lots of staff (“teachers” even for the one-year-old “students”), who constantly tell the kids how terrific they are. They’re super careful (too much so, I tend to think). Every toy or game is extremely well thought through (“how can we use blocks to stimulate this toddler’s maths skills?”) and they are very focused on understanding each child’s individuality and personal interests and needs, which as a mother of outliers and an outlier myself I really appreciate. Every morning Abel hopefully asks “Am I going to EBJ today?” and his teachers give us daily updates of new English words and phrases he is using.

Anyway, back to the boring week. On Tuesday, the kids were home with Vincent, and I had my class on Civil War and First World War Memory. We discussed Geraldine Brooks’ Civil War novel March – a book I would love to teach in Leiden. On Wednesday I went to an American Studies lunch talk about sexuality and sexual normativity in 19th century Boston, which was good, and a nice setting to meet American Studies people. This was especially good since I am technically in the history department here, because Jay Winter is, but as I’ve previously argued here, I don’t really self-define as a historian. Also, it was pointed out to us that it was our anniversary, so we vaguely discussed the idea of doing something to celebrate that (but rather lamely, didn’t actually do it).

On Thursday however, we were given a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle of the Netherlands by our sweet neighbors. We joked that, really, what we would need is a puzzle with a map of the US (any tips on where to get those?!) but then spent all night doing the NL jigsaw like an old couple. The rest of that day, I was home with the kids, and signed them up to the local public library, which is actually fantastic – huge, free & lots of activities.

Friday was another workday, on which Vincent and I lunched together for two hours or so. Two hours in which we talked only about my work and the theoretical framework of my dissertation – perhaps no need to go to New Haven to do that, but still incredibly useful. On Saturday we picked apples and pears with a German couple and their one-year-old son, perhaps for the last time. The season for leaf-peeping is getting started, and you can already see how beautiful the fall is going to be here.

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Ken Burns’ The Roosevelts, An Intimate History

2014-The-Roosevelts-An-Intimate-HistoryOne event I had been looking forward to for a long time was the broadcasting of Ken Burns’ 14-hour documentary The Roosevelts, An Intimate History (PBS). It was on national television throughout last week, 2 hours per evening, starting at 20:00. This is the last piece of primary material I will include in my dissertation. Because it was broadcast at prime time, most people I meet here have seen at least part of it, so since it started on September 14th, whenever I tell people what my research is about, this documentary invariably comes up in conversation.

Ken Burns is probably the best known maker of mainstream historical documentaries in the US at the moment. Some other of his biggest and most famous documentary series are The Civil War (1990), Baseball (1994), Jazz (2001), The War (2007) and The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (2009). And now The Roosevelts. To me, the mere fact that the Roosevelts are part of Burns’ seletion of great American themes is interesting in itself. Moreover, in telling the stories of the Roosevelts, this documentary clearly aims at providing a keyhole perspective on the first half of the twentieth century in America in a broader sense. The three Roosevelts embody the country in that period both as individuals representing that period, and as personifications of it.

I watched the documentary mostly to see how the story is told:  what stories are told? Which ones are left out? What are the documentary’s central claims? How do its form and rhetoric bring home those claims? And so on. One thing that struck me immediately is how often very well-known popular tunes are used as extradiegetic music (i.e. background music) with a clear subliminal political message. For instance, I heard, Yankee Doodle, Auld Lang Syne, The Battle Hymn of the Republic and God Save the Queen. The last – the British national anthem – for instance, played in a minor key, while the narrator and the visual material (photos), told the story of Britain’s near defeat in 1940, and the United States’ (Roosevelt’s) crucial Lend Lease program. Of course the minor key was fitting at that moment in the narrative because of the German attack, but that same historical moment enabled America to overtake Great Britain in terms of world power. This last element is arguably even more clearly present in American cultural memory and definitely in The Roosevelts, so that playing the British national anthem in a subdued musical register actually takes on a somewhat sardonic tone. Such notes of American triumphalism are not overtly present in the explicit narration, but very clearly there in the music.

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New York!

AenIon4freedomsWe’ve been way too busy to discuss all of last week, so I’ll limit myself to the 24 hours from Saturday night until Sunday evening. On Saturday night we had dinner with Jay Winter, my faculty sponsor (i.e. the person who supported my coming here), at his house in Guilford. Jay had also invited Pierre Purseigle, one of his postdocs, and Helmut Konrad, an Austrian visiting professor and another friend of his whom I had not met before. We had had a hard time deciding about whether or not to bring the kids. Our Dutch babysitter was not available, bringing then would probably be okay too – they would have been most welcome -, but it’s hard with a one-year-old and a three-year-old around to have any kind of conversation. In the end our lovely neighbors, who have three sons of their own so probably know this business better than we do, offered to watch them, which worked out really well. We had a great evening, with really interesting people, great food, in a beautiful house – a perfect way to spend my last hours of being 32.

The next morning we did what I had wanted to do for ages: go to New York City. We met some friends there who are visiting professors at Princeton right now (what a lucky coincidence!), and their three-year-old son. We went to a playground and then for lunch, and then to the most exciting part: the recently (well, almost 2 years ago…) finished Four Freedoms Memorial on Roosevelt Island. It’s a very intriguing FDR memorial, which I had already seen in 2010 when it was only half-built. It’s the last design by Louis Kahn that has now been built (not by him personally, he died 40 years ago) and it is a very beautiful and abstract memorial. It’s on the southern tip of Roosevelt Island (a tiny island east of Manhattan) and most of the memorial is somewhat park-like. At the very end is an “outdoor room” with a massive bust of FDR and an excerpt from his Four Freedom speech (“The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want (…) —everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear— (…) anywhere in the world. That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation.” January 6, 1941). It points more or less towards the headquarters of the United Nations – FDR’s great vision, which he didn’t live to see fulfilled, but in which Eleanor Roosevelt of course did play a key role.

Anyway, I immediately had lots of interesting work-related thoughts about the memorial, but in practice we played around there for a bit with the kids, took some photos and then went back to Manhattan with the Roosevelt Island cable car – literally and otherwise a highpoint for the kids. Then we went back to the car – the kids were actually already asleep before we even got there – and drove home which took FOREVER. All in all, it was a great day, but also one of those days that was in a way really too busy and too eventful  (especially in combination with the night before). We did all I had hoped to do, and I loved it, but it was a bit much of a good thing, especially for the kids. They were doing great throughout though, and so now they know FDR in extreme close-up.

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Ariella Azoulay and the Roles in Photography

9781844677535_Civil_imagination-max_221-32ab817d4171b45ca2f10ccf74dcfe84Civil contract AzoulayNext to blogging about my adventures in New Haven and what field I am in, I would like to blog weekly about one of the things that have inspired me in my research this week. It’s already nearly two weeks ago that I attended a class by Laura Wexler about Photography and Memory that drew my attention to the work of Ariella Azoulay. I have since been immersed in two of her books: The Civil Contract of Photography (2008) and Civil Imagination: A Political Ontology of Photography (2012). Her work is essentially about the role and ethics of photography as a practice. She is not only, and not in the first place, interested in the photograph (the picture, the thing) as such, but rather in the process of photography and in the relationship the photographer, the photographed and the spectator enter into through photography. Most of the photographs and photography situations she discusses involve people in the midst of disaster resulting from their “flawed”, incomplete or lacking citizenship – many are drawn from the Israel-Palestine conflict. Azoulay basically argues that through photography a photographed person, even if she has no civil rights or possessions whatsoever, can exert a kind of agency through the photographic process. A photograph in such a case is a kind of appeal to the spectator, eluding the power of any government or other dominant force. Thus photography can be used to reclaim power, and to subvert dominant power structures that deny (some) people civilian status and hence practically all rights and protection.

Of course it is all far more complicated than I am suggesting here, but it seems important to my research, because it makes the trajectory a particular photograph travels over time a subject of study in itself. There are millions of photos of FDR and his staff closely followed what happened to which photos, and also had many photos taken by specifically appointed photographers (a way to control both the photographed and the photographer positions of the triad). In the long run the spectators have of course also changed, as well as the distributors and their reasons for showing a particular photograph. A key element of what particular images can be made to mean or suggest, is who of these actors had what intentions and interests.

Thinking in that manner about the wheelchair photo, it is interesting to regard it from the perspective of the photographed subject FDR, who clearly allowed this to be taken, indeed posed for it. Not perhaps initially with the intention of distributing it widely, but as it happened it is widely distributed and presents a particularly dignified image of his disability. From the perspective of the photographer, Margaret (Daisy) Suckley it could, if we adopt Geoffrey Ward’s account of her, be takes as a palpable proof of the fact that she was as Ward’s book is titled his Closest Companion, the only one allowed to see and photograph him here (Top Cottage, Hyde Park) and in his wheelchair. Viewers’ perspectives change over time and each viewer notices different things. But I would argue that the fact that many (post-1982) viewers have recognized the girl (incorrectly, as it happens) as Annie from the movie Annie, or have been reminded of that film, is meaningful. That movie and its portrayal of FDR inflect the way this photo is regarded, casting FDR’s disability in a particularly positive and ennobling light (because the movie does so). As such, the photograph, even though it predates the movie, becomes intertextual with it in the eye of many beholders, not because of any intention on the part of the maker or the subject, but because a new context has emerged in which spectators can view it. Interestingly, these viewers do not empower the real historical FDR (who hardly needed empowerment) but they do contribute to the popular perception of him as an iconic figure representing how people with disabilities can be powerful and gracious despite or perhaps because of their disability.

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Why I am not a historian

trust_me_historian_apparelMost people believe history is my discipline. I think this may be a result of my elevator pitch, which usually includes “Franklin Roosevelt”, who is obviously a historical figure. The one time I was on tv I had a really hard time avoiding being called a historian in the national media, and overall there is a persistent sense among people who have to introduce me that I am a historian. I do not think so. I have taught in the history department at the University of Amsterdam, am affiliated to the history department here at Yale, and am interested in close-reading historical sources, events and people. But I was not trained as a historian, and I think my methods and aims are fundamentally different from “real” historians, like, incidentally, both my parents.

I am not super interested in finding sources to prove what precisely happened in a particular historical situation. I do not in the first place look for archival evidence to back up an interpretation of the past that does it justice, although I see that that really needs to be done as well. Rather I read historical documents, events and people as literature. More specifically, one might even argue that I read all forms of memory-making (including historiography and historians) as literature. Historians are far more aware than most people of their own positionality and the vantage point from which they are selecting what is important to remember – “history is written by the victors” is a stale cliché especially among historians – but it is still that positionality that intrigues me, rather than the honestly, and no doubt often successfully, attempted objective accounts of the past that true historians are looking for. What about the past do “we” consider relevant now and why? Who are “we”? What linguistic and visual rhetoric is employed in narrating the past? What ideologies underlie those narratives, and what ideologies do they in turn support?

This discussion of course takes place within the historical discipline as well, but there it is usually limited to the projects, theories and methods of (professional) historians and historiography. I am, however, interested in all remembering, all interpretation and invocation of the past, also outside of academic history and even outside of what is commonly called “public history” (museums, archives, historical education etc.). All this remembering obviously differs widely in character, purpose and quality, and historians form one category within this. Viz-a-viz Franklin Roosevelt a number of categories of storytellers narrating his stories all with different aims and strategies, are, for instance, academic historians, documentary makers, historical fiction writers, and very importantly: FDR himself, and the later self-declared representatives of his legacies and ideals.

So perhaps I am a historian after all, but if so, I’d be a public historian. Not in the sense of a historian doing history in a museum, archive, or civic engagement project (although I have done the latter too and sometimes think I should go back to it), but someone researching a radically inclusive range of memory-making processes from a literary theoretical, sociological and political perspective.

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