Monday 16 February 2009

Research Seminar: Kathryn Napier Gray

At this week's research seminar, Kathryn Napier Gray (University of Plymouth) will be talking about: “From First Fruits to Dying Speeches: John Eliot, praying Indians and performances of faith in 17th- century New England.”

Monday February 16, 5pm, A2.51. All welcome.

Wednesday 11 February 2009

News: Lincoln Links

Tomorrow marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln. The event is being marked in a variety of ways and has given rise to a new interest in Lincoln, man and myth. Here's a selection of links - feel free to share your own in the comments.
  • The official site of the bicentennial.
  • The OUP blog is marking the anniversary with a whole host of posts, the first of which is an excerpt from James McPherson's Lincoln biography.
  • Was Lincoln a racist? That's one of the questions at the heart of a new PBS documentary, Looking for Lincoln, hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr. Gates himself explores the issue for The Root, whilst the New York Times reviews the documentary here.
  • The Library of Congress shares a flickr set of Lincoln photographs here.
  • President Obama will be marking the occasion at a banquet in Springfield, Illinois.
  • Also in Illinois on Thursday: there's going to be an attempt to break the world record for "Most People Reading Aloud Simultaneously in Multiple Locations." The text? Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.
  • Ford's Theatre - the scene of Lincoln's assassination - is reopening after an 18 month renovation. Its inaugural performance? "The Heavens are Hung in Black", a play about Lincoln.
  • Time spends some time with a Lincoln impersonator.
  • The extraordinary number of books written about Lincoln is proverbial. Where to start? The Washington Post gives you a reading guide; the Boston Globe reviews some of the more recent additions.

Friday 6 February 2009

American Psyche: Hyperreality!

‘Ravishing hyperrealism’? A ‘waltz of simulacra’? The ‘only remaining primitive society’? This latest installment of American Psyche discusses one of the most intriguing examples of travel writing ever penned about the American continent.

Arguably the most provocative postmodern theorist – one, indeed, who suggested that prisons exist merely to ‘conceal’ the fact that society is itself carceral – Jean Baudrillard swapped his study for the freeways of 1980s America. What followed was America, a highly ambivalent insight into the nation’s cultural landscape, a Tocquevillian account for the Reagan-era:

    It is a world completely rotten with wealth, power, senility, indifference, puritanism and mental hygiene, poverty and waste, technological futility and aimless violence, and yet I cannot help but feel it has about it something of the dawning of the universe.

Baudrillard was captivated by what he perceived as America’s chutzpah – its commitment to achieving Utopia – , and his remains (remarkably for a French Marxist) a largely uncondescending depiction of the nation. So while Los Angeles emerges as a neon-lit, palimpsest-like space reminiscent of “Hieronymus Bosch’s hell,” and Manhattan is a bewildering city in which “the mad have been set free,” Baudrillard is just as likely to celebrate the “magic of the freeways and the distance and the ice-cold alcohol in the desert and the speed”; even the nation’s kitsch ephemerality is indulged at times (51; 19; 1).

America is presented as the apotheosis of postmodern culture, a “marvellously affectless succession of signs, images, faces, and ritual acts,” beguiling Baudrillard’s Old World sensibility (5). The country as it is depicted here perfectly embodies a depthlessness which, according to Frederic Jameson, characterized the late twentieth-century western world: it is a surface culture, in which the screen has become the privileged site of human interaction. Society has become marked by a profusion of simulacra in the absence of genuine origins, blurring previously held distinctions between reality and fiction, subject and object. Baudrillard defines this state as hyperreality, and uses the example of Disneyland as a fitting parallel.

America abounds with such esoteric language and confusing analogies, and it is wilfully abstruse on occasions: Las Vegas, for example, is derided as “that great whore on the other side of the desert” (3). Baudrillard’s tongue is held firmly in cheek at such moments, however, and a liberal dose of humour underpins his intellectual road-trip.

If, at times, Baudrillard’s prose appears guilty of the same sense of excess that he identifies within America, noting “the orgy of goods and services” that facilitates an increasingly cybernetic society, America contains enough flashes of perceptive observation to sustain the reader: in this state of simulacra, for instance, Baudrillard wonders “whether the world itself isn’t just here to serve as advertising copy in some other world” (96; 32). Baudrillard’s writing is, moreover, beautifully poetic at times. He discusses Minneapolis, “with its sweet-sounding name, its gossamer string of vowels, half-Greek, half-Cheyenne,” for instance, and the text celebrates the diverse quality of America’s landscape, which combines “the earth’s undamaged geological grandeur with a sophisticated, nuclear, orbital, computer technology” (13; 4). Such lyricism is perhaps only appropriate, an aesthetic response to a profoundly artificial age.

Following the likes of de Tocqueville, Paine, Dickens and Nabakov, Baudrillard continues a transatlantic analytic tradition, capturting the essence of the nation that native intellectuals, “shut away on their campuses, dramatically cut off from the fabulous concrete mythology developing all around them,” simply cannot (23). After all, ‘America’ as a concept is arguably as compelling to a Frenchman, Russian or Brit as it is to a Californian; the only prerequisite for Baudrillard is that, in order to do so, one must disregard presuppositions and “enter the fiction of America”, a country that remains, as the recent presidential inaugeration attests, reliably aspirational (29).

“Simulacra and Simulations,” Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings. Ed. Mark Poster, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988

America. Trans. Chris Turner, New York: Verso, 1989

Tuesday 3 February 2009

Letter From America: Rachel Archer

In the first of a new series of Letters from America, AMS Student Rachel Archer details her experiences in New York. Rachel is currently studying at Goucher College.

This Christmas, rather than go back to Blighty, I decided to spend it in New York. I arrived fairly late on a Friday night, and was met by my good friend from Goucher College, Rachel, at Penn. Station. Rachel is a native of Brooklyn, but we spent the best part of that first night in New York being dragged around Irish bars in Chelsea by some of our Goucher friends. The moment I stepped out into the streets of New York I was completely blown away. I am from London myself and assumed that once you have seen one big city you have seen them all- false. New York is like no other place, it is literally the most amount of hustle and bustle you can ever imagine and I personally loved it!

I spent the first few days staying with Rachel in a cute little neighborhood of Brooklyn called Flatbush. Flatbush is a very ethnically diverse area, and it reminded me a bit of my own home borough in London, called Newham. You get a real feeling of community in these smaller Brooklyn neighborhoods, with all different people from all around the world. We traveled around the various areas in Brooklyn to meet up with her friends, including Bushwick, which was once one of the poorest areas. I walked past the project that Jay-Z grew up in. However, it is now what Americans call a “hipster” neighborhood, and we went to a party at her friend’s loft apartment. The next day we went to Brooklyn Heights, which has always been quite the trendy area in Brooklyn. The streets are lined with the most beautiful Brown Stone houses and it is there that you can get the famous view of the Manhattan Skyline. Unfortunately it was very very cold that night so my pictures are rather blurry since I was shaking as I took them. The day after we went to Williamsburg, this has again gone from being a very blue-collar area to a very fashionable (and in turn expensive) place to reside. Our main reason for going there, though, was to visit the world famous thrift store “Beacon’s Closet ” which was full of old designer wear, pretty cheap.

After a few days of Brooklyn I went over the Brooklyn Bridge, back to Manhattan, to meet up with fellow UEA student Michael Fincham. We booked into our hostel in Chelsea then hit the Manhattan bars. After a couple of watery American beers we took a walk down to Times Square. I had seen it a few years ago, but it was Michael’s first time. I will never forget the look on his face as he looked up at the most amount of advertising in one small space. There is literally NOTHING that does not have an advert on it. The economic crisis has not seemed to have hit Time Square just yet. Personally I think Times Square is modern day Babylon BUT it is pretty impressive.

Christmas was now fast approaching and New York was magical! We spent Christmas eve walking 60 blocks uptown. We saw the Empire State building (which due to my very irrational fear of heights we did not go up), Rockefellers and marched up to Central Park, which was snow covered and beautiful! The next few days were a whirlwind of Manhattan fun. One of the best things I saw was Wall Street, which in this current climate has a real panic stricken feeling about it. Everything from China Town to Battery Park, to the Statue of Liberty, to the Museum of Modern Art (which by the way, is free after 4pm on a Friday), to the Brown Stones, to the Village, impressed me. I did not see everything, and next time I go I want to see Harlem and the Brooklyn Museum of Art. But with its close proximity to Baltimore and my various friends that live there, I can see a fair few visits coming up.

Monday 2 February 2009

News: Research Seminar Cancelled

Today's research seminar has been cancelled because of the adverse weather conditions. Fear not: it will be rescheduled.

Sunday 1 February 2009

News: Super Bowl XLIII

It's time for Super Bowl 43: the Arizona Cardinals face off against the Pittsburgh Steelers at about 11.30pm UK time. USA Today outlines "Why the Steelers Will Win," whilst the Hartford-Courant lets the Cardinals know how they can bring home the Vince Lombardi Trophy. But the Super Bowl is not immune from its context: the economic climate means that the Super Bowl party circuit has been hit hard, and advertising revenues are down. Bruce Springsteen is providing the half-time entertainment, a choice that also feels in keeping with the spirit of the times. And President Obama? He's hosting a non-partisan Super Bowl party, but he's already declared his allegiance to the Steelers: "I am a longtime Steeler's fan. Mr. Rooney, the owner, was just an extraordinary supporter during the campaign. I wish the best to the Cardinals. They've been long-suffering. It's a great Cinderella story, but other than the Bears, the Steelers are probably the team that's closest to my heart." Left, you can see him waving one of the Steelers' iconic Terrible Towels.