Wednesday, 4 November 2015
‘Anne Frank? […] It’s funny’: Remembering the Holocaust in the Twenty-First Century in Shalom Auslander’s Hope: A Tragedy (2012) and Nathan Englander’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” (2012)
The 2015-2016 American Studies Seminar Series began at the Andrew Hook Centre with a thought-provoking presentation from Dr Rachael McLennan of the University of East Anglia. Dr McLennan focussed on the novel, Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander and Nathan Englander’s short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” to explore how Anne Frank and the Holocaust are represented in 21st century American fiction. Dr McLennan suggested humour may have an important place in how we consider both Anne Frank and the Holocaust, reflecting that Philip Roth’s novel, The Ghost Writer dealt with both topics irreverently. However, rather than being disrespectful, irreverence was used to challenge readers’ views and assumptions.
Through her discussion of Auslander and Englander’s work, Dr McLennan highlighted the ways in which both authors challenge traditionally held views of Anne Frank as a saintly figure who must be protected from impiety and criticism. Through deploying the use of humour, the authors remove the protective aura surrounding popular ideas of Anne Frank, thus enabling readers to identify a wider frame of reference. In ‘Teaching Anne Frank in the United States’, Ilana Abramovich suggests popular perceptions of Anne Frank can actually prevent people properly understanding the full-blown horror of the Holocaust because they identify with her to such a great extent. Perhaps Auslander and Englander’s approach is not unlike that of Anne Frank’s own approach in her diary. In ‘Critical Thinking: Scholars Reread the Diary’, Sally Charnow points out that Anne Frank critiqued her own parents and their generation in her diary. This enabled her to find her own voice, free from familial and cultural expectations. Authors such as Auslander and Englander use their creativity to keep Anne Frank and the Holocaust in the public consciousness while challenging widely accepted perceptions. This in turn prompts readers to actively think, rather than only passively accept.
Dr McLennan also discussed the work of Michael Rothberg who advocates ‘multidirectional memory’. Rothberg argues that collective memory, the way in which social groups establish a link between the past and present, is complex in multi-cultural societies. He believes memory becomes ‘competitive’, creating a ‘logic of scarcity’ in which groups contest who has been the most victimised, leading to a ‘hierarchy of suffering’, and notions of deserving and undeserving groups. Rothberg advocates the use of ‘multidirectional memory’ as a more productive way forward. By acknowledging all atrocities, each group can support the other to highlight concerns about what happened in the past, but also what is still happening in the present. He stresses the importance of observing the narratives which influence how atrocities are remembered as well as the facts. Rather than focussing on the Holocaust to demonstrate we remember the past, we should remember it in conjunction with current events which pose challenges to our identity. Rothberg’s views again highlight the active nature of remembering and that it carries responsibilities if we wish to be agents of change.
Dr McLennan concluded by observing that the work of authors such as Auslander and Englander demonstrate the need to find symbols of the Holocaust in 21st century America, particularly when many survivors are dying. This raises the question of whether Anne Frank is being used as a signifier but, in reality, how can one person be all things to all people? Has the exceptionalism which has arisen around Anne Frank obscured the real Anne Frank? Have popular perceptions of the Holocaust as the ultimate human tragedy ‘downgraded’ other atrocities and ironically provided us with a ‘comfortable’ signifier for human suffering on a scale which we cannot truly face? There are also wider questions about how American Jews identify themselves within America. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett and Jeffrey Shandler believe that Anne Frank’s life and work will soon “depend entirely on mediations” because anyone who remembered her, the Holocaust or World War II will soon have died. No doubt future authors and scholars will continue to challenge how we remember Anne Frank and the Holocaust. Dr McLennan’s discussion highlighted the importance of remembrance as an activity with which we engage, rather than passively accept.
PGR – University of Glasgow
 Ilana Abramovich, ‘Teaching Anne Frank in the United States’ in Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett and Jeffrey Sanders (eds), Anne Frank Unbound: Media, Imagination, Memory (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012)
 Sally Charnow, ‘ Critical Thinking: Scholars Reread the Diary’ in Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett and Jeffrey Sanders (eds), Anne Frank Unbound: Media, Imagination, Memory (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012)
 Michael Rothberg, Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonisation (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009)
Thursday, 14 May 2015
On Wednesday 13th May, the Andrew Hook Centre was delighted to welcome prolific journalist David Willis for the 15th Annual Gordon Lecture in American Studies. The lecture title was, “Hollywood and the American Dream”, which broadly discussed the changing concept of the ‘American Dream’ from America’s colonial beginning to the celebrity culture of the present day. Mr Willis has been the BBC correspondent in Los Angeles for fifteen years and, in a journalistic career spanning more than three decades, has covered events as wide-ranging as the Iraq War, the election campaign of 2000, American reactions to 9/11 and the Academy Awards. As a British journalist living and working in the United States, Mr Willis offered a unique perspective on American Studies, informed by his vast experience in translating American current events and issues to a British audience.
Mr Willis began his lively and engaging discussion with an anecdote concerning a recent conversation with an African American taxi driver named Jamal. The recent riots in Baltimore, Maryland was the topic of discussion, and, in Jamal’s opinion, these riots were less to do with racism and more deeply concerned with underlying issues of poverty and desperation in America’s inner cities. More specifically, Jamal considered these ‘race riots’ to be a direct response to the perceived disappointments of the Obama administration to make visible inroads into racial poverty in the United States. To be sure, the protests in Baltimore are only the most recent in a series of race protests arguably beginning (on a national level) with the shooting of unarmed black teenager of Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012, exacerbated by the judicial clearing of a white police officer in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, and culminating with the death of Freddie Gray in April 2015 following injuries sustained during his arrest. Willis proffered that these recent events could be seen as exemplifying the failure of the American Dream, at least among the clearly discontented participants of protests and riots across America.
In order to understand the failures of the ‘American dream’, Willis turned to its origin point. Far from being an abstract term used to define the national values of American citizens, Willis referenced the first Puritan settlers in the colonies, whose guiding purpose in the New World was made clear in John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon aboard the Arabella, during which he stated that the Puritans would create a ‘city upon a hill’, free from the religious persecution of the Old World, serving as a beacon to the rest of the world. In his sermon, Winthrop also declared that ‘we must be knit together in this work as one man,’ and that the settlers must ‘delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own […] always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work,’ thus illustrating the founding principles of communality and the importance of hard-work that was to be the cornerstone of life in the new colonies. Although the term the ‘American Dream’ was not used for a further three centuries, Willis’ illustrated, here, that the value system covered by the term could be traced back to the colonial era in these important historical documents.
The term itself gained popular currency following the publication of James Truslow Adams 1931 book, The Epic of America, which, taking its cue from The Declaration of Independence, sought to define the national characteristics that set America apart from the rest of the world. In his text, Adams stated that in America people could expect a ‘better, richer, happier life,’ where ‘opportunity [was available to] all in accordance with their ability or achievement.’ Willis went on to discuss the marketing of this concept, which was the work of the founder of publishing powerhouse TIME magazine, Henry Luce. These ‘American’ values were thus ‘packaged’ and became immersed, both visually and textually in American culture. Artist Norman Rockwell immortalised the ‘American Dream’ to the World War II generation of Americans who were exposed to his ‘Four Freedoms’ quartet of paintings, published in The Saturday Evening Post and acting as the visual counterparts to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous ‘Four Freedoms’ speech (1943).
Norman Rockwell, Freedom From Want or The Thanksgiving Picture (1943) as seen in The Saturday Evening Post
At this point in the lecture, Willis summarised the post-war boom in affordable housing, spearheaded by William J. Levitt and depicted in popular 1950s television programmes such as Father Knows Best and Leave It To Beaver. Interestingly, Willis noted that the characters in these television shows lived in bigger houses and drove flashier cars than the average American, fuelling an aspirational drive which led to the burgeoning culture of consumer credit that we are familiar with today. In this landscape, the American Dream came to represent prosperity and well-being, which culminated in 2000 with most monumental credit crisis since the Great Depression. Willis ended this segment of the lecture by noting that in contemporary American society, the gap between the wealthy and poor is both vast and ever-increasing. To illustrate this point, Willis showed the audience a cartoon commentary of this societal fault by Stuart Neiman (below).
Thus, Willis argued that the communality of work and egalitarian principles of the first settlers and The Declaration of Independence have steadily eroded as the United States has come to depend on consumer spending and a capitalist market. Thus, the ‘American Dream’ has changed shape and, in the eyes of many, has proven unattainable as poverty and unemployment rates climb. Willis, at this stage, opened the floor to questions in what became a lively discussion forum. The audience raised a variety of questions ranging from Willis’ opinion on the current political climate as the United States prepares for the 2016 presidential election, to Willis’ personal experience as a journalist. In what proved one of the most interesting aspects of the lecture, Willis, responding to a question regarding the role of the media in Hollywood, answered that, in his career as a journalist, he has borne witness to rapidly changing journalistic practices. People, Willis stated, now access news stories in a different way, as the ‘6 o’clock’ news and print newspapers are superseded by instantly-available news online and via smart-phone apps. The 24-hour news cycle and the public demand for instant news has thus changed the playing field and has come to reflect the technological age in which we live. Hollywood’s role in particular, as the epicenter of the American Dream, concluded the lecture, in Willis’ reflection of the continued geographical hegemony of Los Angeles as the city of dreams – a place where thousands of people continue to flock each year from across the globe to chance their luck at stardom.
David Willis’ lecture had the effect of engaging the large audience with his journalistic perspective on the changing public understanding of the ‘American Dream’. In his evocation and discussion of several key moments in American history, Willis demonstrated the continuously evolving nature of this elusive concept, as countless generations have sought to attain the perfect, charmed life – a life which has often been the product of advertising agencies and other mediums of popular culture. With this in mind, it was fitting that the 15th Annual Gordon Lecture was delivered by a journalist, as it is often on the pages of the national press that the changing concerns of a populace is articulated and analysed. In a nation wrought with external and internal frissures, it will be left to future journalists and historians to determine the attainability of the American Dream as the twenty-first century progresses.
By Rebecca Dunbar
PGR at The University of Glasgow
Thursday, 26 February 2015
Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale (1800)
On Wednesday 25th February, the Andrew Hook Centre was delighted to welcome Dr Nick Guyatt for the penultimate lecture in the 2014-15 series. Dr Guyatt is the author of Providence and the Invention of the United States (Cambridge University Press, 2007) and the forthcoming Bind Us Apart: A Pre-History of 'Separate But Equal' (Basic Books, 2015). The topic of the discussion was Thomas Jefferson’s shifting position on black colonization during the period 1779-1826. More broadly, Dr Guyatt wished to demonstrate that colonization featured heavily in abolitionist discussions, an argument previously neglected by historians in the mainstream narrative of anti-slavery in the United States. In doing so, Dr Guyatt brought to our attention a noticeable gap in the extant historiography on Jefferson, race and colonization efforts in the early republic, absent even from Annette Gordon-Reed’s brilliant studies of the Jefferson and Hemings families - Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings (1997) and The Hemingses of Monticello (2008).
In discussing his reasons for choosing to examine Jefferson more closely, Dr Guyatt asserted that Jefferson held an extremely unique position – first as the Governor of Virginia and then as the President of the United States. Occupying as he did a prominent and influential place in American society, Jefferson corresponded with a multitude of high-profile individuals, many of whom were concerned with the topic of black colonization or the seeds of ‘developmental separatism’ in the aftermath of slave uprisings. As such, Dr Guyatt identified three distinct phases of Jefferson’s life, during which time discussions of colonization had figured prominently. Firstly, in the early 1780s when Jefferson wrote the (in)famous Notes on the State of Virginia (1785). Secondly, in the negotiations between Jefferson, James Monroe and John Page (both Governors of Virginia) in the aftermath of Gabriel’s Rebellion in 1800 and lastly, on Jefferson’s engagement with colonization during retirement.
Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1785)
Dr Guyatt began by pin-pointing the moment in which Jefferson first proposed the idea of the gradual emancipation of slavery in June 1779. In the years that followed, this idea fermented in Jefferson’s mind, until he put his views on slavery and colonization to paper in Notes on the State of Virginia (1785). In this document, Jefferson was explicit about the physical difference between slaves and their masters – more so, in fact, than any of his contemporaries. Where in Europe, slavery opponents believed in the unity of mankind and attributed the current intellectual inferiority of slaves to the social and environmental factors of slavery, Jefferson took no such approach. The inferiority of the black population, he believed, was attributable to ‘the real distinctions which nature has made.’ Comparing the problem of slavery in the early republic to that of the Roman Empire, Jefferson wrote:
Among the Romans emancipation required but one effort. The slave, when made free, might mix with, without staining the blood of his master. But with us a second is necessary, unknown to history. When freed, he is to be removed beyond the reach of mixture.
Thus, Dr Guyatt highlighted the fundamental difference between Jefferson’s inherent belief in racial prejudice and accompanying fears of miscegenation, juxtaposed with those of his contemporaries and enlightened European counterparts whose argument rested on natural rights. Moreover, Jefferson’s curious emphasis of black biology over social environment helps to explain why the Notes were not referenced by anti-slavery advocates thereafter. Nonetheless, close examination of Jefferson’s slavery ‘query’ is integral to inform an understanding of Jefferson’s belief that colonization be part of any plan to emancipate the American slave populace.
Dr Guyatt then turned his attention to the correspondence between James Monroe and Thomas Jefferson. The former sought the advice of the elder statesman over the appropriate response to the slave conspirators, which, up until that point, had involved multiple executions. Jefferson’s reply asked if it might be possible to ‘pass a law for their exploitation’ thereby using Gabriel’s Rebellion as a pre-text for his colonization plan. During the Secret Session of 1800, the legislative went on to pass a bill, where Monroe proposed that ‘persons dangerous to the peace of society’ i.e. all slaves, could be sold into Spanish slavery. After some delay, Jefferson’s response to Monroe’s letter was accompanied by five possibilities as to the relocation of slaves: north of the Ohio river, Canada (if Britain could be persuaded), Louisiana (if Spain could be persuaded), a new U.S. colony in North Africa, or in Saint-Domingue. In May of 1802, Jefferson contacted the British ambassador, Rufus King, suggesting that unruly slaves could be sent to Sierre Leone. However, this plan had one glaring problem, namely, that by securing passage for rebellious slaves, did such a plan not seem likely to incite widespread slave rebellions? Around this time, Jefferson appeared to back-peddle on his colonization plans, listing in his correspondence to Virginian politicians the great obstacles to colonization and questioning the overall soundness of the proposals.
In the final strand of the lecture, Dr Guyatt emphasized that during Jefferson’s retirement years his position on colonization during his retirement was much changed. Jefferson repeatedly stressed that he had no power or influence to enact such laws, and that ‘the national mind is not yet prepared’ for such government action. Interestingly, Dr Guyatt referenced a letter sent by Edward Coles to Jefferson on 31 July 1814, wherein Cole wrote of the ‘hallowed principles in that renowned Declaration of which you were the immortal author,’ in what was the sole example of Jefferson being directly confronted with the idea that the continuation of slavery was an affront to the founding principles of the republic. In his response, Jefferson lamented that Coles was a lone, dissenting voice, and that the fight against slavery was ‘an enterprise for the young,’ thus distancing himself once again from the anti-slavery movement.
Dr Guyatt thus demonstrated throughout his lecture that Thomas Jefferson had been an early advocate of colonization whose belief in the plans gradually eroded. In this way, Dr Guyatt suggested that colonization was Jefferson’s ‘orphan’ or, in other words, his brainchild - which he failed to execute. By way of explaining this, Dr Guyatt offered three possible explanations: First, that Jefferson was at the very conservative end of the anti-slavery spectrum, with little inclination to engage with the concept of natural rights. Second, that his lack of enthusiasm for the American Colonization Society, founded in 1816 during Jefferson’s retirement, was in part due to his constitutional issues with private societies and lastly, that, at the heart of almost all of Jefferson’s writings on slavery and colonization, lay a deep-rooted fear of miscegenation. In this line of enquiry, Jefferson’s determination that the United States avoid a mixed-race citizenry imbued all judgment, irrespective of the (now proven) racial-mixing of his own family.
Dr Guyatt’s discussion of Thomas Jefferson’s shifting position on the tangibility of colonization was both informative and enjoyable. Drawing attention to an oft-overlooked aspect of Jefferson’s illustrious life, Dr Guyatt exposed the colonization debate which came to the fore at various stages of Jefferson’s life and beyond. Jefferson’s unique engagement with the colonization debate exposes one complex sub-stratum of the anti-slavery movement. Namely, that in amongst the rhetoric of natural rights and the steadfast belief (held by some) that slavery was a plague of which the United States must rid itself, lay the deep-rooted fear, held by one of the nation’s most revered and respected men, that miscegenation was the curse most likely to befall the republic in the event of emancipation. Propelled by this fear, colonization was the ‘orphan’ of Thomas Jefferson’s career – a plan nurtured, measured and debated at length, though ultimately unattainable and unsuited to a country whose very fabric rested on the rapid economic expansion made possible through the institution of slavery.
By Rebecca Dunbar
PGR at The University of Glasgow
Sunday, 15 February 2015
Welcome back to the University of Glasgow’s American Studies blog. For the ninth instalment in our 2014-2015 seminar series, the Andrew Hook Centre for American Studies invited Dr. Zara Dinnen for an engaging lecture, ‘Hollywood, Software and the User Gaze’. Dr. Zinnen is a lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Literature at the University of Birmingham and presented this talk as part of the book she’s currently working on, American Culture & the Digital Every Day (working title).
Dr. Dinnen is exploring the way the digital, especially computer code, is represented on screen in film and television, and how we, as viewers, watch and are being made to watch this. She initiated her subject matter by showing two clips – a scene from Die Hard 4 and the trailer of upcoming film Blackhat, in which we hear and read lines such as “security infrastructure under compromise”, “hacking defence network”, and “our systems interconnected”.
The U.S.’s preoccupation with vulnerable security and dissident actions in the digital sphere has become quite apparent in film and television in recent years, and mainstream media too has developed a fascination with these topics, apparent from the coverage of Anonymous’ hacktivism or the Aaron Swartz case. There is however much about the digital sphere and its concepts that the mainstream media consumer is unaware of, and Dr. Dinnen’s talk focused on how this can be problematic when computer code and other digital technologies are represented and translated on screen. She considers the image of code as shown in fiction film or television, and how through its impenetrability for the unknowledgeable viewer, it is resistant to narrative. Within this context, Dr. Dinnen introduced the idea of user vs. expert – the users being the passive audience who let complex images of code and computation be translated by whichever mediating human character on screen (often the hacker or computer geek), and the experts being the small group who do not need this mediation.
Because of the passivity forced upon the user group, Dr. Dinnen emphasises the need to question how we are looking at these images and how we are being made to look at them. Relating to Die Hard 4, she aligns the viewing audience with action hero John McLane, who equally feels alienated and unknowing about the code appearing on screen when he is with his hacker sidekicks. Both McLane and the audience need and automatically expect whatever the code signifies to be translated to them. In the trailer for Blackhat, with a release date 8 years later than Die Hard 4, it appears that the on-screen roles have slightly changed. The hero and hacker are now the same character – Chris ‘Thor’ Hemsworth – and so the protagonist becomes both the character we aim to relate to but also the one who has to be our mediator, thereby also increasing the presence and importance of the ‘expert’.
Dr. Zinnen also focused on the animated ways digital technologies are represented on screen, for example the now-familiar manner in which the ‘camera’ guides the user on a rollercoaster through imagined connections and wires, or animated 3D visualisations of technology, as often unrealistically portrayed in series such as CSI. Again, as audience we become passive, being made to accept the representations of the digital because we are unknowledgeable. This was illustrated once more with the trailer of Blackhat, which uses live action and animation to create an image of the digital technologies in the film, and with the 2011 art video by Faith Holland, RIP Geo Cities, which is a montage of several of these ‘rollercoaster’ animations taken from the last decades of Hollywood cinema. After showing RIP Geo Cities, Dr. Zinnen argued that the reason these images are alienating is because of the absence of bodies and monitors that we as viewers tend to expect and need to translate information for us. By cutting the mediator out of her video, Holland has taken away the human aspect, the person who is on screen staring at a screen and relaying digital information.
Quoting Dr. Stephanie Ricker Schulte, who stated that “we need to understand how culture has influenced our ideas about the digital world”, Dr. Zinnen then argued that her focus on this topic comes from her consideration that it is important for us to understand the technologies we use on a day-to-day basis.
Ricker Schulte further questioned why we tend to consider and contextualise digital culture a part of American culture, while digital culture plays a global role, and through its very nature this raises legal and ethical conflicts. This was illustrated with a recent case in which Microsoft argued that it could withhold data from American courts because its server was located in Ireland. However, Dr. Zinnen did emphasise that for her own research, she is approaching this topic in the context of American Studies, via a focus on Hollywood.
In her development of the concept of the ‘user gaze’, Dr. Zinnen referenced the influential ideas Laura Mulvey explored about the male gaze in cinema. ‘The user’ is defined as being someone who uses a personal computer as a means rather than an end, someone who is passive and asks ‘silly questions’, who doesn’t solve or explore issues in-depth. The user is unknowledgeable. The user might not be able to see the difference between authentic and inauthentic code when shown in a film, while an expert will be able to tell. Mulvey stated that it is built into the spectacle itself how we look at the spectacle. Regarding the user gaze and the digital on screen, Dr. Zinnen argued that the user (is being made to) glaze(s) over representations of computation, since to the mainstream viewer they are incomprehensible, thus leaving them with no other ways to look at them.
Dr. Zinnen illustrated her ideas further by showing a clip out of Netflix series House of Cards. Season 2 of the series contains a hacker subplot in which the government uses a previously detained hacker’s services against his will. U.K. experts advised on the creation of this storyline. The series’ way of representing this topic is pedagogical; it is helping educate the U.S. public about the hypocrisy in criminalising hackers. Meanwhile, it also creates a ‘usergate’ through the inauthenticity of the hacker plot.
In a talk which provoked thoughts about viewers’ acceptance of representations of the digital on screen and the assumption that we will get accurate information relayed to us, ‘Source Code in TV and Films’, a blog which claims ‘expert spectatorship’, was an interesting addition to the lecture. The blog points out flaws in the accuracies of representations of the digital in film and television. Its contributors are clearly profiling themselves as not the normal ‘user’, they are not passive in receiving this information on screen, they have the privilege of being an expert. Through this position, experts are acting ‘for’ the users, to make us aware that we do not just have to accept being made to watch a certain way.
Dr. Zinnen’s talk was engaging and provoking in the sense that it makes us consider what we accept as authentic on screen and how our gaze is controlled. These are not new concepts in film theory, but they are fresh and fascinating applied to this relatively new topic of the digital and representations of the digital in film and television. The lecture also made us question whether it is problematic that users (the majority of the audience) do not have more awareness about the technologies they use every day, and are in essence unknowledgeable about. This issue is emphasised through the user gaze and its passivity.
In an interesting Q&A session, Dr. Zinnen commented on questions about (amongst others) representations of the digital in fiction literature and the idea of a ‘satirical user gaze’. Considering the continuous developments in both screen media and digital technologies, it will be interesting to see how her research will develop and expand, and what its relevancy will be in the future.