Friday 11 December 2009

Special Guest Post: Josh Hanagarne, World's Strongest Librarian

Christmas has come early at Containing Multitudes. We are very proud to announce that as part of the Guest Post Ultra-Marathon that he undertook earlier this year, Josh Hanagarne, World's Strongest Librarian, has kindly agreed to write something for us.


Action Heroes and Huge Arms: Misguided Strength in American Culture
By Josh Hanagarne, World’s Strongest Librarian

Recently I watched the latest installment of the Rambo series. An increasingly elderly Rambo was hiding in the bushes, watching a group of monstrous Cambodian thugs torment some peasants by making them walk through a minefield. Finally, as always happens with good old Rambo, he had had enough.

Suddenly, one of the Cambodians gets an arrow through his leg. He screams and reaches down to grab it. Another arrow flies through his head, knocking him off his feet…and then he falls onto a land mine and explodes. Rambo emerges from the tree line and notches another arrow, his biceps flexing in slow motion with the effort.

This is a truly American moment in an action movie.

Strength, size, and fitness

Many Americans equate physical size with strength. Our image of a “strong” man is often that of a puffed-up bodybuilder posing on a stage. These bodybuilders go to great lengths to make themselves more muscular. Many of these methods are unhealthy; some are illegal, such as steroid use. And yet, many of these 300 pound monsters wouldn’t be able to do five pull-ups if their lives depended on it.

Too often, the American concept of strength is to make a body look more athletic, while actually reducing its athletic abilities. What we call “fitness” is often perceived as having abs that would be at home on the cover of a magazine.

As one of my coaches has said over and over, fitness is the ability to do a specific task. That task could be throwing a discus, swinging a hammer, pushing a truck out of the mud, or any other number of things. But real fitness is not about appearance. It is about being cultivating strength that can be used.


People were getting stronger long before the invention of fancy exercise machines. But walk into most gyms in America and your eyes will glaze over as you look at rows and rows of useless machines. Everything must be “cutting edge” and “new wave” and “hydro-this-or-that.” Argh. Nothing is necessary to get strong besides a barbell, some plates, and something to do pull-ups on.

Actually, not even that. There are people who have cultivated extraordinary strength with their own bodies alone. But it’s hard for anyone to make money doing bodyweight training, so they create products, the gyms buy them, and the people by and large accept them because they do not have the knowledge to sift the good fitness information from the bad.

The Heart of the problem

We worship action heroes instead of the guy who can do 30 pull-ups. We want to fight in the UFC instead of correcting our own posture and strengthening our bodies so that we can age gracefully. We prefer big arms to strong hearts and lungs, and six pack abs to a body that works well as a unit.

And the people at the top of the strength industry pretend that getting strong and healthy is confusing and esoteric. The normal American couldn’t possibly improve themselves without their help, and so they make a fortune selling magazines full of garbage information and supplements that do nothing.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Rambo, Conan, The Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rocky, John McClane, and GI Joe. But with the possible exception of Arnold, I don’t rely on any of them for my health needs.

Most Americans think that they need help to figure this stuff out. As long as they think that being on the cover of a magazine is the best proof that they are in shape, they’re not going to make much progress.

About the Author: Josh Hanagarne is the twitchy giant behind World’s Strongest Librarian, a blog about living with Tourette’s Syndrome, kettlebells, book recommendations, buying pants when you’re 6’8”, old-time strongman training, and much more. Please subscribe to Josh’s RSS Updates to stay in touch.

Tuesday 8 December 2009

Guest Speaker: Edward Wilson

This Thursday, as part of Ian Laws' "American and Vietnam" module, novelist and Vietnam War veteran Edward Wilson (A River in May, The Envoy) will be talking about "The Vietnam War: Imagined and Remembered." All are welcome, so spread the word.

Thursday December 10, 11.00-12.00 in ARTS 01.03.

Monday 7 December 2009

News: University Life, US

Two very different portraits of university life in America. First, as part of their Pinched: Tales from an Economic Downturn series, Salon presents "I live in a van down by Duke University", Ken Ilgunas' account of his experiences, well, living in a van by Duke University:
For some, van-dwelling may conjure images of pop-culture losers forced into desperate measures during troubled times: losers like Uncle Rico from "Napoleon Dynamite," or "Saturday Night Live's" Chris Farley who'd famously exclaim, "I live in a van down by the river!" before crashing through a coffee table, or perhaps the once ubiquitous inhabitants of multicolored VW buses, welcoming strangers with complimentary coke lines and invitations to writhing, hairy, back-seat orgies.

In my van there were no orgies or coke lines, no overweight motivational speakers. To me, the van was what Kon-Tiki was to Heyerdahl, what the GMC van was to the A-Team, what Walden was to Thoreau. It was an adventure.

Living in a van was my grand social experiment. I wanted to see if I could -- in an age of rampant consumerism and fiscal irresponsibility -- afford the unaffordable: an education.
In contrast, this week's This American Life profiles Penn State - recently crowned #1 party school in America:
So we wondered: What is it like to be at the country's top party school? This American Life producers spent a recent football weekend at Penn State to figure this out. There, we learned the definition of "fracket" (think frat plus jacket); the best way to clean up beer cans after a big party (snow shovel); and how hard it is to get college kids to drink less (really hard).
So how does these stories compare to your experiences, at home or across the pond?

Tuesday 1 December 2009

News: The Wire in the University

They say that three's a trend, but two examples will suffice as confirmation, if confirmation was needed, that HBO's The Wire is now fully ensconced within the university. First, the New York Post reported that "HBO's gritty series about life in the Baltimore ghetto, is about to become a course at Harvard [...] taught by sociology professor William J. Wilson." Then, for the Guardian, Steve Busfield produced two reports from "The Wire as Social Science Fiction?" conference hosted by the ESRC Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change - "What is The Wire?" and "The Wire: taking sociology forwards?". So, everyone excited about Treme?

Friday 27 November 2009

BAAS 2010: Provisional Programme

We are very happy to announce that the provisional programme for the British Association for American Studies Conference, April 8-11 2010 is now available here. Whilst still subject to change, it gives a tantalising introduction to next year's events.

A reminder: you can download the registration form for the conference here. Looking forward to seeing you all in 2010!

Wednesday 25 November 2009

News: Thanksgiving 2009

It's our third Thanksgiving at Containing Multitudes - so give thanks for our giant Thanksgiving link round up:
  • Our pick of the links: NPR offers up an enormous Thanksgiving playlist, streaming for your enjoyment; it also comes up trumps with this item about holiday desserts from times past.
  • At the Seattle PI Reader Blogs, Robert Gold begins "America after the Glory? [...] a series that accords with the original intent of the Pilgrims and subsequent Presidential Proclaimers of The Holiday. To give thanks, to enjoy and relax . . . but also to ponder the present and assess the future"; Rita Robison, on the other hand, suggests "Ideas for a fun, unique Thanksgiving Day"
  • The Wall Street Journal's Numbers Guy breaks down "Thanksgiving Myths"
  • Two views of family life around the holidays: Tara Parker-Pope examines "Food, Kin and Tension at Thanksgiving" in the New York Times; for Salon, Garrison Keiller considers "the challenge of Thanksgiving -- to gather among our kin who know us a little too well and have an amiable occasion enjoyed equally by all, at which nobody is stabbed through the heart with a carving knife"
  • Holiday controversy of a different kind is provoked by the Detroit Free Press, who report that "NBC passed on airing a PETA commercial on turkey cruelty during its Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade"; meanwhile, writing for College News, Daniel Bornstein argues that "Thanksgiving is a perfect opportunity to address a core component of the recipe to fix our broken agriculture system: food justice"; and for Slate, Brendan Koerner asks "Which kind of Turkey is best for the environment?"
  • And finally, celebrities: fills you in on what the great and the good are up to this Thanksgiving; opens its poll to find the celebrity Turkey of 2009.
Any Thanksgiving celebrations planned for tomorrow? Let us know.

Monday 23 November 2009

News: Calling all AMS alumni

If you're a UEA School of American Studies alumnus then this post is especially for you. We're very pleased to announce that we've just launched the American Studies Netcommunity site - an online home for alumni and friends of the University. This is a perfect way for you to keep in touch with both us in AMS and your friends and fellow alumni. If you haven't already registered for Netcommunity then why not take a minute and do it now? You can edit your personal profile to let us know what you're up to now, or find out what your contemporaries are doing. Rest assured, we'd love to hear from you. Please spread the word.

Sunday 22 November 2009

Research Seminar: Jennifer Terry

At this week's research seminar, Jennifer Terry (Durham University), will be talking about:
‘The Sea is History’: Imagining Atlantic Passages and Littorals in Writing of the Black Diaspora.

Wednesday 25 November, A2.51, 4pm. All welcome.

Saturday 21 November 2009

News: Keep Watching the Skies

With the release of The Men Who Stare at Goats earlier this month, talk has yet again turned to those irrepressible urban myths and tall tales that surround the US military - from alien autopsies at Roswell, TX, to experiments in mind control, and the psychic super-spies of the new George Clooney movie. Jon Ronson and Mark Pilkington have compiled their all time top 5 of military conspiracy theories for the Guardian. For those of you interested in finding out more about alien close encounters right here in Norfolk, check out this link to local ET-watchers.

So have you ever had a close encounter? Why not let us know?

News: She's Back

Sarah Palin has just released her autobiography, Going Rogue: An American Life, and she's been dominating headlines all week. Her signing tour has been attracting large crowds - the National Post evokes 2008 by calling it "Palin Fever" - and she's been on Oprah, too, though was (unsurprisingly) coy about her plans for the 2012 Presidential race. Most controversial, however, was the Newsweek cover, above, which borrowed some shots that Palin had done for Runner's World. She accused them of sexism - and others, Jeffrey Goldberg at the Atlantic for example, agree. In the Guardian, Jessica Valenti also thinks it's sexist, but notes that Palin's is "a gender politics of convenience, one that insults all women in politics." At the Huffington Post, however, Andy Ostroy asks whether a comparable magazine cover of Obama is also sexist, whilst John Dickerson asserts that Palin is not the future of the Republican Party for Slate. Either way, she'll be around for a while yet.

Thursday 19 November 2009

News: For Sale - Lincoln Letter

In 1861, 8 year old George Evans Patten was taken to Springfield, Illinois by his father, journalist James Alexander Patten. There, he met the soon-to-be inaugurated Abraham Lincoln. Back at school, he boasted to his schoolmates about this encounter - but none of them believed him. In an effort to curtail their teasing, Patten's teacher wrote to the White House asking for corroboration of the meeting. Above, you can see Lincoln's response: "Whom it may concern: I did see and talk with Master George Evans Patten, last May, at Springfield, Illinois. Respectfully, A. Lincoln." This letter is now being put up for sale by the Raab Collection and according to the Guardian has been priced at $60,000 - which is pretty small beans compared to a letter written by Lincoln to a group of abolitionist school children in 1864 which sold for $3.4 million last April.

And in other nineteenth century correspondence news, Following the Equator reports that the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County is offering up seven original Mark Twain letters for perusal and download.

Tuesday 17 November 2009

News: Google Books

Since its launch in the middle of the decade, Google Books has become one of the most valuable online research tools. Offering full text searches of around 10 million books it has quickly become a vital port of call for researchers across the disciplinary range. For those working in the nineteenth century it has proven particularly valuable, offering up full editions for free download. But it has never been without controversy and Google's plans for the service have attracted lawsuits from a wide range of organisations including the Association of American Publishers, as Business Week reported in 2005.

Now, it seems that those disagreements might be at an end. As an official statement from Google makes clear, big changes are in the pipeline:
Out of print books
Until now, we've only been able to show a few snippets of text for most of the in-copyright books we've scanned through our Library Project. Since the vast majority of these books are out of print, to actually read them you'd have to hunt them down at a library or a used bookstore. This agreement will allow us to make many of these out-of print books available for preview, reading and purchase in the U.S.. Helping to ensure the ongoing accessibility of out-of-print books is one of the primary reasons we began this project in the first place, and we couldn't be happier that we and our author, library and publishing partners will now be able to protect mankind's cultural history in this manner.
Equally exciting is the suggestion that Universities will be able to "purchase institutional subscriptions", meaning that "Students and researchers will have access to an electronic library that combines the collections from many of the top universities across the country."

The catch? This service is only going to be rolled out in the United States - for now. Which is unfortunate. And as the BBC reports, complications remain. Elsewhere, the Times considers who might win and who might lose from this deal, and asks a reader and a writer for their responses. Hurry up, future. In the meantime, it's still an important research tool.

Friday 13 November 2009

News: Careers

Some careers news that you should all be aware of. First, AMS now has its own Careers Blackboard site which is full of useful information about what you can do with your degree and how best to display your skills to potential employers. It's also regularly updated with news of potentially interesting placements, jobs and opportunities to develop your skills. Worth checking out.

Also new is the CV Builder - a tool providing space to chronicle your activities and skills developed from academic work, employment and leisure time. There's a template to get you started - no time like the present!

Thursday 12 November 2009

BAAS 2010: Registration Open

We're happy to announce that registration is open for the British Association for American Studies Conference 2010. You can find the registration form here. We'll be making some exciting announcements about the conference soon.

News: Veterans Day

Joseph Kinney with his Purple Heart in hospital, Da Nang, Vietnam.

The Armistice Day commemorations won’t have escaped your attention this week. Over in the USA they have been holding their own annual commemorations – on Veterans Day (which, incidentally, is a public holiday). You can get a nice insight into American culture, particularly the esteem in which the military as an institution is held in public life, by checking out a collection of photographs and stories from the wars of the 20th century up to the present day, hosted by the New York Times.

Monday 9 November 2009

Research Seminar: A Regular Black: The Hidden Wuthering Heights

A reminder that this week's research seminar has different format and venue. The School of American Studies is very pleased to be hosting the screening of A Regular Black: The Hidden Wuthering Heights, a film by BBC Arena director Adam Low and producer Martin Rosenbaum, whose recent films for Arena include the The Strange Luck of V.S. Naipaul, The Hunt for Moby-Dick, T.S. Eliot and Calling Hedy Lamarr.

The screening should last about 25 minutes and will be followed by a discussion session with the film's creators.

Wednesday 11th November, Lecture Theatre 4, 4pm - all very welcome so please spread the word.

Thursday 5 November 2009

News: Sesame Street at 40

As Google has been highlighting, Sesame Street has just turned 40. Is there another American export that's thought about so fondly? As the New York Times reported in 2002, it was even used as a potential bridge in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The New York Times profiles the show on its birthday, whilst Slate meditates on the meaning of the Cookie Monster. But one grouch always has to spoil the party. Sesame Street has often sat uncomfortably with those on the right, and as Mediaite reports, conservative bloggers are upbraiding the programme for a two year old joke about Fox News. Below, you can get a sneak peek of Michelle Obama's forthcoming appearance:

Tuesday 3 November 2009

Letter from America: Malcolm McLaughlin

I’m in Austin, Texas this week working at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library on the campus of U Texas, home of the famous college football team the Longhorns. Austin is famous – or infamous – for the live music and boozing scene downtown on 6th Street, old Pecan Street. In fact Austin claims to be the world’s live music capital and has a festival here every year. Unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately from a work point of view – it’s the book festival that’s on during my visit. That being said, when I went to see it they had a pretty fine Scottish Pipe Band marching about, in kilts, sporrans, and the whole enchilada. It took me right back to my ancestral homeland – except that the weather here stubbornly remains at around 25 Celsius, which one rarely finds in Edinburgh come November.

So, I’ve been working out of the LBJ library on Red River Road, a wonderful facility staffed by some excellent archivists. It contains a museum dedicated to President Johnson and perhaps the most intriguing exhibit is a reproduction of LBJ’s Oval Office. Walking in there you can imagine the big man sitting down to talk civil rights with Martin Luther King. I asked if I could sit behind the desk but no luck, sadly. I’ve attached a photograph of that room here and a couple of other snaps of Austin.Malcolm

Friday 30 October 2009

News: Happy Halloween

It's time for our third annual Halloween tribute post! But in keeping with the zeitgeist, USA Today reports that this year's celebrations might be a little muted: "The frightful economy is scaring many people into a thriftier, more homemade Halloween." Time doesn't lighten this mood much, asking "Is Trick-or-Treating Dangerous?" And in the Guardian, Tim Dowling berates the UK for its attitude to the holiday: "You have taken the tradition and given it your own twist, adding an element of threat and a general air of resentment at being coerced into participating." Fair enough. So why not ignore the hoopla and curl up with a good book this Halloween? And why not go back to basics? Below, you can enjoy "The Haunted House" from Washington Irving's Bracebridge Hall (1822).

Monday 19 October 2009

Research Seminar: Kevin Annett

A change from the norm: this week's research seminar will be a film screening and discussion of Kevin Annett's documentary about the North American residential school system, Unrepentant. Trailer below.

Please note time and location: Wednesday 21st October, Lecture Theatre 4, 4pm. All welcome.

Friday 16 October 2009

News: Race-Mixing, Mixed-Up Judge

We've all been enjoying the TV show Flashforward recently, but how about this for a flashback? A Louisiana Justice of the Peace has refused a man and a woman a marriage license on the grounds that they are a mixed race couple. But all for their own good, he says. Yes, he refused to issue a marriage licence to the interracial couple out of concern for any children the couple might have. Keith Bardwell, justice of the peace in Tangipahoa parish, said it was his experience that most interracial marriages did not last long. You’ll be glad to hear, though, that he’s not prejudiced: "I'm not a racist. I just don't believe in mixing the races that way," Bardwell said. "I have piles and piles of black friends. They come to my home, I marry them, they use my bathroom. I treat them just like everyone else." Coverage on this can be found in the Guardian, Salon, The Week and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Wednesday 14 October 2009

Invitation: Private Screening & Discussion

A date for your diaries: on Wednesday 11th November (in Lecture Theatre 4), everyone is invited to a private screening and discussion of A Regular Black: The Hidden Wuthering Heights, a 25-minute film examining the racial construction of Heathcliff.

The film is the creation of BBC Arena director Adam Low and producer Martin Rosenbaum, whose recent films for Arena include the The Strange Luck of V.S. Naipaul, The Hunt for Moby-Dick, T.S. Eliot and Calling Hedy Lamarr. Other films include The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema with Slavoj Zizek, described as “a virtuoso marriage of image and thought” by Variety and “an extraordinary reassessment of cinema” by The Times. For further information on LoneStar Productions you can visit their website, here.

Tuesday 13 October 2009

Research Seminar: Alison Stanley

At this week's research seminar, Alison Stanley (King's College London) will be talking about: "'The Reformation of their disordered lives': Portraying cultural adaptation in the 17th century Praying Indian towns."

Wednesday 14th October, A2.51, 4pm. All welcome.

Monday 12 October 2009

News: Ira Aldridge

For Radio 4, Kwame Kwei-Armah explores the life and career of Ira Aldridge, the New York born actor who managed to carve a place for himself on the nineteenth century stage. You can also read a good snippet of Bernth Lindfor's biography of Aldridge on Google Books:

Friday 9 October 2009

News: Barack Obama Wins Nobel Peace Prize

Barack Obama might have lost the olympics, but he has won the Nobel Peace Prize for 'extraordinary efforts' to improve world diplomacy and co-operation

Obama joins former Presidents Jimmy Carter (2002), Woodrow Wilson (1919) and Teddy Roosevelt (1906) in winning the prize. He is the third president to receive the award while in office, after Wilson and Roosevelt.

Jimmy Carter received the prize seven years ago for his international human rights work. Check out the Carter Center website.

Wilson won his prize for founding the League of Nations - although, ironically, the USA would not become a member of the organization. In 1919 Wilson became embroiled in a grueling battle with the US Senate over the issue and, while on a punishing tour of the nation to promote the League, he suffered a physical collapse and a debilitating stroke that left him partially paralyzed. A steely Senate nevertheless voted against membership in November.

Roosevelt’s part in drawing up the peace treaty that ended war between Japan and Russia in 1905 won him his prize. As everyone knows, the teddy bear is named after Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, but he was not a particularly cuddly character. He liked to project a tough, outdoorsy sort of image, and his Presidency is best known for his crusade against big business in the name of “progressive” liberalism. He is remembered today for his foreign policy aphorism “speak softly and carry a big stick” and he made a show of American military strength on the world stage at a time when the nation was emerging as a major power. Latterly, in 1912, Roosevelt became the combative Presidential candidate for the Progressive Party in his second run for the White House: he finished second behind future fellow Nobel laureate Woodrow Wilson.

Thursday 8 October 2009

News: Black Music?

From The Root, a discussion about the significance of the term "black music". First up, Greg Tate argues that it's still a valid and necessary term:
While I like parsing race semantics as much as the next philologist (not to be confused with a cat who studies all things outta Philly) at a certain point, one has to just know when you've entered the realm of the naively unscientific, the demonstrably ahistorical and the patently absurd. Dispensing with the rubric, black music is clearly such an endeavor where we'd risk not only losing our soul but our rhetorical edge and swagger and in the name of whut, Negro, whut? Some lame, nebulous and namby-pamby post-racialism, that's what.
And on the flip side, Cord Jefferson makes the case against:
Basketball was invented by a white physical education teacher for his white students. But no one would ever think to call basketball a "white sport;" to speak in those terms about something that's changed so much over the years would be silly. Similarly, Spike Lee has said that he takes directional cues from Italian-American Martin Scorsese, and Akira Kurosawa, the Japanese director of Seven Samurai, but would anyone say Do the Right Thing is a Japanese film? Of course not. Yet music critics, fans and historians don't think twice about calling the music of Aesop Rock, Eminem or the Mountain Brothers, an acclaimed Asian-American hip-hop group from Philadelphia, "black music."
So what do you think? Do you like black music?

Wednesday 7 October 2009

News: White House Art

Above, George Catlin's Catlin and Indian Attacking Buffalo (1861/1869) - which has just become one of the images that the Obamas have introduced to the White House. As The Times reports:
A cultural revolution is under way at the White House, where the Obamas are decorating their living quarters with modern and abstract artwork. Out have gone traditional landscapes, portraits and still life paintings. In have come new pieces by contemporary African-American and Native American artists, with bold colours, odd shapes and squiggly lines.
More on these artistic changes in The New York Times and First Things.

Tuesday 6 October 2009

News: What makes Gatsby great?

That's a question that AMS's very own Sarah Churchwell has been answering for The Times.

Here's an excerpt:
Gatsby is a connoisseur's guide to the glamour and glitter of the Jazz Age, but it's also a nearly prophetic glimpse into the world to come. Writing at the height of the boom, in the midst of the Roaring Twenties, Fitzgerald detected the ephemerality, fakery and corruption always lurking at the heart of the great American success story. Four years later, the market would crash - but the age of advertisement that Fitzgerald was among the first to condemn had only just begun. Nearly a century later, his cautionary tale has become all too apt once more, anticipating our own boom and bust, our tarnished dreams and tawdry failures.
The whole article is available here.

Monday 5 October 2009

Research Seminar: Linda Freedman

At the first Research Seminar of the year, Dr Linda Freedman (Selwyn College, University of Cambridge) will be talking about: "Blake, Whitman and Crane: The Prophet-Artist and Democratic Thought.

Wednesday 7th October, 4pm, A2.51. All welcome.

Friday 2 October 2009

News: Late Writing

Coming soon: a host of new works by dead writers, nearly all of them vital figures in the development of American literature - Vladimir Nabokov, William Styron, Kurt Vonnegut, Ralph Ellison and David Foster Wallace. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Alexandra Alter examines this new trend. She also speaks to the venerable Robert Hirst, general editor of the Mark Twain Papers, who defends the publication of such fragmentary, unfinished or fugitive works:
"You can learn a lot about how he thought and wrote that you can't learn from reading an edition of Huckleberry Finn," Mr. Hirst said. "I don't think anything we publish can damage his reputation."
So are you looking forward to the emergence of these texts? Or should they stay in the archives?

Thursday 1 October 2009

Guest Post: Alex Jenkins

Translating Ecclesiastes: Some remarks on deconstruction, language, and thought

Alex Jenkins

With regard to scholarly writing, authors generally fall into two camps: those who insist on the importance of articulating one’s ideas as clearly as possible, and those who claim that complex ideas demand a similarly complex prose style. Both camps are, to an extent, correct. Jacques Derrida’s Limited Inc demonstrates the tension between John Searle’s maxim “if you can’t say it clearly you don’t understand it yourself”, and Derrida’s commitment to linguistic uncertainty, an uncertainty he delights in incorporating into his prose. Critiquing the axioms underpinning language and questioning what it is to “mean” something is a tricky business, and is often necessarily abstruse; moreover, the rigorous critique of assumed critical axioms can be a profitable enterprise.

Nevertheless, this piece contends that scholarly writing is sometimes over-reliant on deconstruction, and this affects both the quality of prose and the quality of critical thinking. (Its title is a reference to George Orwell’s infamous translation of a passage from Ecclesiastes, which transforms the poetry of the original into stultifying abstractions.) An example: I have in front of me a book chapter, by Robert Stam, entitled “Beyond Fidelity: The Dialogics of Adaptation.” As a piece of writing, and as a piece of critical thinking, it is both persuasive (if overwrought) and unintentionally silly.

It is relatively easy to demonstrate the former claim. The chapter begins with a sensible, if pedestrian, discussion of the problems of fidelity in film adaptations, and makes the inarguable, if obvious, claim that the mechanics of film-making are necessarily different to the mechanics of novel-writing. There follows a summary of the tenets of deconstructionism, which for a novitiate to cultural or literary theory is confusing but is at least short. Where “Dialogics” really hits its laboured stride, however, is when its author proudly coins the phrase ‘diacritical specificity (59).’ (And the author really is proud of his creation: he calls it ‘A more satisfying formulation….’) This jargon is inexcusable for two reasons: firstly, it’s mentally horrifically taxing to parse; and secondly, the subsequent explanation of the term does little to elucidate it. To cut some prolix short, Stam’s coinage refers to film’s ability to marshal numerous visual and auditory resources, whereas a novel must stick to words.

Things get worse. In particular, one sentence ends with the pleonastic clause, ‘thus insinuating a deeper subterranean unity linking these apparently antagonistic characters (61).’ Deeper subterranean? As in sub-subterranean? How far below the Earth’s crust are we talking here? And I know that it’s stylistically clunky to use the same word repeatedly in a short space, but I am more than willing to grant an exception to Stam; to use anthropophagic to avoid repeating the word cannibalism tempts me to take the “death of the author” concept more literally than Barthes intended. I am not against complex, polysyllabic words, nor do I mind jargon, providing it’s not wincingly self-aggrandising. Often, one long word either saves writing several, or it offers precision of meaning that the latter cannot.

And so, as a proleptic response to potential “he who is without sin” type arguments, I will admit to being seduced by critical jargon. I once argued that, with reference to Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, post-structuralist critical theory offered an opportunity for a culturally nourishing “ludic Luddism.” In my defence, however, I was gunning for assonance. Now witness the following sentence: ‘in the cinema the performer also brings along a kind of baggage, a thespian intertext formed by the totality of antecedent roles (60).’ Translation: actors have been in other movies; people watching a film will therefore remember their previous roles. What initially sounded recondite is now a facile observation of fact. It is the examination of how this “previous acting experience” epiphany influences an audience’s viewing of the film that is the most useful and interesting part of the paragraph, not the tortuous stuff that introduces and surrounds it.

This brings me to my second claim, that excessive recourse to deconstructionism negatively impacts critical thought. For decades, scholarly writing has incorporated the concepts of diffĂ©rance, presence/absence, readerly/writerly texts etc., and also the hellaciously turgid, pleonastic, euphuistic, and sesquipedalian prose style excerpted above. The grand old men of deconstruction don’t get a free pass here, but they are exculpated to some extent by dint of the fact that they articulated the theories first. The thing is, though, that the axioms of Western philosophy and literature have been rigorously scrutinized since the sixties, and it therefore becomes harder to create fresh approaches. Often the critical game feels rigged so that the conclusion is established before the premises: i.e. ontology is dicey, intertextuality runs riot, meaning is not fixed, and relativism is all that can be established. Against this backdrop, it is difficult to construct a novel interpretative opinion.

Stam’s chapter does a reasonably good job of wielding the aforementioned deconstructionist tools, and his insights, when stripped of their verbiage, have merit. His conclusion, however, is somewhat predictable, and sneakily disingenuous. He writes:

    By adopting the approaches to adaptation I have been suggesting, we in no way abandon our right or responsibilities to make judgments about the value of specific film adaptations. We can – and, in my view, we should – continue to function as critics; but our statements about films based on novels or other sources need to be less moralistic, less panicked [sic, really?], less implicated in unacknowledged hierarchies, more rooted in contextual and intertextual history. Above all, we need to be less concerned with inchoate notions of “fidelity” and to give more attention to dialogical responses – to readings, critiques, interpretations, and rewritings of prior material (77-78).

Given that Stam begins by deconstructing fidelity, and continues to do so in various guises throughout the chapter, it is redundant to write, in case we hadn’t already noticed, that strict adherence to fidelity is not a good idea. But the sneaky bit of his argument is his reassurance that ‘We can… continue to function as critics’; the subtext of this statement is that our critiques must incorporate the same deconstructionist techniques that he uses. The critic always interprets a film through her subjective lens, which is influenced by race, cultural background, sexuality, etc. etc., all of which can then be deconstructed again. The “dialogical” approach that Stam argues for risks being internalized by the critic and her inbuilt prejudices; and the result is worryingly solipsistic.

Nevertheless, deconstruction is not itself evil, or damaging; it’s just a theory, and much like evolutionary or atomic theory it is often unfairly judged on the supposedly bad things it has produced. Yet its current usage tends to reproduce the same tired tropes again and again. Historical, social, and cultural contexts do tend to affect audiences in similar ways, and therefore reasonably confident critical assertions can be made. Yes, ambiguity is always going to be present, but, as Ezra Pound commanded, make it new. Then again, he was a fascist, and they tend to have definite opinions.

Works Cited:

Stam, Robert. “Beyond Fidelity: The Dialogics of Adaptation.” Film Adaptation. ed. and intro. by James Naremore. Rutgers UP, 2000. pp. 54-78.

Wednesday 30 September 2009

News: Postcard from China

Here's one of last year's MA students Tong Xiong at the 6th American Studies Network Annual Conference, "The Obama Phenomenon: Reassessing Our Understanding of America", in Beijing. Tong's had a busy time of it this summer: he also presented his dissertation at the International American Studies Association 4th World Congress, with its theme of "Decoding American Culture in the Global Context". Whilst there, Tong reports that he saw new U.S. ambassador to China Jon Huntsman talk about the potential importance of China's American Studies scholars in the process of improving U.S.-China relations.

Friday 25 September 2009

BAAS 2010: Plenary Speakers

As promised yesterday, an update about the British Association for American Studies Conference, taking place at the UEA April 8-11 2010. We're very happy to announce that our plenary speakers have now been confirmed. It's an impressive line-up.

Professor Wai Chee Dimock (Yale University) will give the Journal of American Studies Lecture.

Professor Bruce Michelson (University of Illinois) will give a lecture sponsored by the School of American Studies at the University of East Anglia.

Professor David Reynolds will give the Eccles Centre Lecture.

More updates soon - remember: the deadline for paper and panel proposals is October 16. Our call for papers is available here. We hope you can join us in April 2010.

Thursday 24 September 2009

News: Literary Lists, Day Three

It's the final day of our back-to-business run through recent literary lists. And this list is still a work in progress. Over at The Millions, a mob of "regular contributors and 48 of our favorite writers, editors, and critics" are putting together a list of The Best Fiction of the Millenium (So Far). In itself, this list is something of a response to an earlier literary list:
"When The New York Times named “The Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years” in 2006, none of the finalists was younger than 69, and the most recent publication date was 1997. But the ’00s have introduced us to new voices, spurred others to new levels of achievement, and ushered in the late masterworks that have capped distinguished careers."
So far, they've reached number six: Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Number seven was the UEA's very own W. G. Sebald. Any guesses as to what will claim the top spot?

Tomorrow: exciting updates about the British Association for American Studies Conference 2010.

Wednesday 23 September 2009

News: Literary Lists, Day Two

Yesterday, we took a look at Oxford American's Southern literature lists. On today's list, one of the winners of that sift - William Faulkner - crops up again. The Bear is listed as the fifth most important book for our times, according to Newsweek's run through "What to Read Now. And Why." And out of the "fifty books for our times" that they select, what do they think is the most important book to be reading right now? Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now, published in 1875. Does that make you think any differently about your nineteenth century courses? According to Newsweek:
The title says it all. Trollope's satire of financial (and moral) crisis in Victorian England even has a Madoff-before-Madoff, a tragic swindler named Augustus Melmotte.
Another list tomorrow.

Tuesday 22 September 2009

News: Literary Lists, Day One

To ease us into the new semester we're embarking on a three day project highlighting recent literary lists of interest to American Studies students. To kick things off, Oxford American's Southern literary lists. They count down the best Southern novels of all time (winner: Absalom, Absalom!) and the best Southern nonfiction of all time (winner: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men). For good measure, they run through the most underrated Southern books. Another list tomorrow - but for now, any thoughts about this list?

Monday 21 September 2009

News: Welcome Back

Welcome back, one and all. As the new semester begins, Containing Multitudes will return to its regular routine of posts. All contributors are welcome - just drop us a line. And remember that you can also follow us on Twitter at

Monday 7 September 2009

News: The Future of Music

Left, you can see a graph, produced by the New York Times in June, highlighting music sales by medium across the decades. According to Charles M. Blow:
The music industry’s deathwatch kicked off about a decade ago, but it seems the vigil could soon be over. According to data from the Recording Industry Association of America, since music sales peaked in 1999, the value of those sales, after adjusting for inflation, has dropped by more than half. At that rate, the industry could be decimated before Madonna’s 60th birthday.
Whichever way you break it down, it's clear that patterns of music access and consumption have already changed for good. On the day that Spotify launches its mobile app, streaming seems to be the inevitable writing on the wall - something that a survey from July also supports.

If you want to participate in the debates surrounding the future of music, a postgraduate at Nottingham Trent University is currently undertaking a survey into the use of music blogs. And once you've done that, you can read Nick Hornby's thoughts on the subject in the Guardian: "All I know is that if you love music, and you have a curious mind, there has never been a better time to be alive."

Tuesday 1 September 2009

News: as|peers Call For Papers: Crime and America

Back in November 2007 we reported about the launch of as|peers, "the first and currently only graduate-level peer-reviewed journal for European American studies". They've now put out a call for papers for their third issue. Here it is:

Call for Papers on "America and Crime"

aspeers: emerging voices in american studies
calls for submissions by November 1 2009

The past year has seen an unprecedented interest in white-collar crime. From the presidential election that pitched an honest Main Street against a criminal Wall Street to the trial of Bernard L. Madoff, crime, it seems, has become a central metaphor for the American public to reevaluate long-standing dogmas of neoliberalism. This recent surge of interest arguably is a consequence of the current economic developments, but it also reflects a more fundamental connection between American (self-)perception and 'crime,' a connection that is expressed in a wide range of cultural artifacts and texts. We are thus calling for submissions scrutinizing the role of crime from various disciplinary perspectives. Contributors are invited to explore the role of crime as a cultural signifier, a social reality with complex ramifications, an analytic category, or from other angles.

Different notions of crime have served as master tropes both for American culture's self-portrayal and for outside readings of the United States. From the celebrated lawlessness of the Frontier to the global appeal of gangsta rap, from the 1970s panic over serial killers to the perception of the US as a criminally imperial power, a wide range of discourses testifies to the significance the category has assumed. This cultural productivity of crime begs a wide range of questions. For example, how has crime been represented in different literary genres? How does fiction impact definitions and perceptions of crime? Have new forms of technology altered the way crime is being represented?

Apart from such a literary/cultural studies angle, crime is also an immensely productive field in the social sciences, history, and law. Here, the complex nature of 'crime' becomes most apparent: It is at once a central, well-defined category of social interaction and a continually changing, fragile agreement. A number of questions arise: How have efforts at social control criminalized previously legal behavior? How has city development intersected with law enforcement efforts? In how far are advances in technology both an impediment to and an enabler of crime?

In that an interest in crime modifies more traditional interests in race, class, and gender, it can be utilized not only as an object of inquiry, but as an analytic category that opens up interdisciplinary dialogues. In this sense, crime becomes a critical lens through which core concepts of American studies, such as the body, the nation, the border, etc., can be reconfigured.

aspeers, the first and currently only graduate-level peer-reviewed journal for European American studies, invites fellow graduate students to reflect on these issues. Please note that the contributions we are looking for might address but are not limited to the topical parameters outlined above. We welcome term papers, excerpts from theses, or papers specifically written for the occasion by 1 November 2009.

Please check out our submission guidelines and an editorial timetable at

Friday 21 August 2009

News: Matthew Owen and the Warren Adler Short Story Contest

AMS student Matthew Owen is currently up for the People's Choice Award in the 2009 Warren Adler Short Story Writing Contest - "fast becoming the most prestigious online short story contest." Congratulations are in order. But this means that he now needs votes. Voting closes September 1st. Head there now. Read the story. You know what to do.

Tuesday 18 August 2009

News: Kind of Blue at 50

A break from the summer hiatus to mark the 50th anniversary of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, released in August 1959. Features on the album and its significance abound, but the best can be found in Slate by Fred Kaplan, here:
"The album's legacy is mixed, precisely for this reason. It opened up a whole new path of freedom to jazz musicians: Those who had something to say thrived; those who didn't, noodled. That's the dark side of what Miles Davis and George Russell (and, a few months later, Ornette Coleman, in his own even-freer style of jazz) wrought: a lot of noodling—New Age noodling, jazz-rock-fusion noodling, blaring-and-squealing noodling—all of it baleful, boring, and deadly (literally deadly, given the rise of tight and riveting rock 'n' roll). Some of their successors confused freedom with just blowing whatever came into their heads, and it turned out there wasn't much there."