Dr John Wills’ research at the British Academy Summer Showcase

Between the 22-23 June this year The British Academy staged its first-ever Summer Showcase, ‘a free festival of ideas for curious minds’ which featured interactive exhibits by academics from 15 British universities, celebrating the fascinating research and ideas shaping the world in which we live.

The Centre for American Studies’ Dr John Wills was one of the researchers selected to take part, with a hands-on exhibit highlighting his research on how America has been depicted in popular videogames from the 1970s onwards.

Entitled, Playing Cowboys and Criminals: Videogame Depictions of the Frontier and Urban West, Dr Wills’ exhibition offered visitors the chance to try their hand at some iconic retro-videogames, while learning how these have shaped our lense on American history and culture. Focusing on ‘Wild West’ titles such as The Oregon Trail (1971), an educational adventure used to teach the history of the frontier, as well as games based on the modern American city, such as LA Noire (2011).

Said Dr Wills of the event;

Over 1,700 people visited the first British Academy Summer Showcase – a mix of families and school children, through to couples and special VIP guests. It was an amazing event.  Nicolas Blower, Hollie Bramwell, and I created an exhibit where visitors could try first-hand a range of vintage games (including Atari Pong and a 1966 Williams pinball machine) through to more modern titles such as Sega’s Crazy Taxi, and ask us questions about how games worked and how they depicted the United States. It was striking how positive people were over my research and how much they felt both excitement and nostalgia for the medium. I felt very privileged to be there.

Read more about John Wills’ research on how America has been depicted in videogames in his piece for the British Academy’s Summer Showcase blog, ‘How Far Cry 5’s depiction of a conflicted nation is subtler than you thought’.

Notes:
The British Academy is the UK’s national body for the humanities and social sciences – the study of peoples, cultures and societies, past, present and future. To learn more about the organisation and its work, please visit The British Academy website.

Dr John Wills is a Reader in American History and Culture at the University of Kent. He specialises in environmental issues and popular culture, and edits the journal European Journal of American Culture. His most recent publication is Disney Culture (2017) with Rutgers University Press, with a book on video games forthcoming with Johns Hopkins University Press.

 

 

 

 

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Americanist Postgraduate Symposium Report (June 2018)

Earlier this summer, the Centre for American Studies at the University of Kent hosted a one-day postgraduate symposium, Methods and Practices in American Studies. The event – aimed primarily at PhD students – provided an opportunity for students to showcase their own research, as well as being a forum to discuss various methodological and other challenges involved in writing a postgraduate thesis. The event first launched in 2017, and has now become established as an annual fixture in the American Studies community’s calendar, offering even more early-career researchers a chance to present in a friendly, informal environment.

The Symposium opened with a keynote from Professor Richard King (Nottingham), expert on American intellectual history and the acclaimed author of Arendt and America (2015) and Race, Culture and the Intellectuals: 1940-1970. In an absolutely fascinating speech bringing together the dialogue between “high” and “popular” culture, figures as diverse as Hegel and Hannah Arendt, and pressing issues such as race or the Marxist theory, Professor King set the tone for the entire day, making us ask, “What is American Studies and how can one define this field?”

The first panel of the day, themed “Presentation by Communication” was composed of Juno Sun (UCL), discussing the representation of the Chinese culture in mid-century American cinema as affected by the Second World War; Laura Alvarez Trigo (Instituto Franklin-UAH), speaking on how the texts by Don DeLillo can be analysed through the prism of media studies; and Megan King (Kent), revisiting the uneasy situation in secondary schools in Philadelphia in the run-up as well as the aftermath of 2016 presidential elections.

The second panel was dedicated to the more practical matters of archival study and various issues connected with it. Ellie Armon Azoulay (Kent) discussed archival work as an interdisciplinary phenomenon, whilst Dr Kostantinos Karatzas (Zaragoza) recalled his own experiences of archival work when researching the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots in Oklahoma, USA.

The third and final panel was dedicated to the evolving and changing ways in which we interpret American history. Daniel Avery (Kent) offered an exciting interdisciplinary interpretation of the political history of a particular location in colonial America, which combined historical and geographical aspects. This was followed by Hugh Roberts (Kent) speaking on dealing with historiography, which often proves to be elusive and complex; and finally, Chris Hurley (Kent) provided a fascinating insight into the Kennedy era whilst speaking about the position adopted by John F Kennedy in regards to the USA’s role on the world stage and the shaping of the American foreign policy at the time.

The Symposium was brought to a close by an inspiring endnote from Sara Arami (Strasbourg), speaking on the varied representations of Indiana in works of Mohja Kahf, and how America is seen through the eyes of a Muslim heroine.

The University of Kent’s Americanist Symposium will return in June 2019, and any postgraduate or early-career researchers wishing to present, or those who did not get a chance to attend this year, will be most welcome to submit a paper for this forthcoming event.

For further information, about the Symposium or postgraduate study at the Centre for American Studies at Kent,  please email: centres@kent.ac.uk

– Conference report by Olga Ackroyd, PhD candidate, The Centre for American Studies

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Upcoming conference: ‘The Cartographic Imagination’, 18-19 May 2018

Hosted by the Centre for American Studies, The Cartographic Imagination: Art, Literature and Mapping in the United States, 1945-1980 will take place at the University of Kent’s Paris School of Arts and Culture between the 18-19 May 2018.

The conference explores the role of mapping in post-war American art and literature. With keynote lectures by David Herd (University of Kent), Stephen Collis (Simon Frazer University), and Lize Mogel (Independent Artist), it also includes speakers from over ten countries and a variety of disciplines – all aimed at creating dialogues between art history and literary studies. The conference is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art, the British Association for American Studies, the Centre for American Studies at the University of Kent and the Départment d’Etudes Anglophones at the University of Strasbourg. For further details, please see the conference webpage.

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Will Norman in Australia: Spaces of Complicity and Intellectual Breathing Room

Dr. Will Norman, Reader in American Literature and Culture and Director of the Centre for American Studies, recently undertook a Visiting Research Fellowship at the University of Sydney. He shares below an account of his trip, the ongoing project he furthered whilst in on study leave, and talks he gave at both the University of Sydney and the University of New South Wales.


Why would an American Studies scholar spend a month of their study leave in Australia? Besides the obvious attractions of escaping a snowy Kent for the balmy antipodean climes, it might seem a counterintuitive choice. The United States holds the vast majority of the archives relating to my field, and is a natural centre of gravity professionally. But this spring I spent a month as a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Sydney, working on my current project about the idea of complicity in post-1945 US thought and fiction.

Study leave, for those of us who have provision for it, provides an opportunity to escape from the maelstrom of teaching, marking, and administrative tasks that take up so much of our time and mental energies. It’s a chance to breathe intellectually, and to focus for a sustained period of reading and writing – not just essays and articles, but in my case dense monographs and absorbing novels – the kind of work I love and without which my research cannot get momentum. This time round, I had no need of archival trips and no conferences planned, but nevertheless I felt that physical distance from my habitual surroundings would help provide the mental space I needed to get this new book project properly off the ground. And so I applied to Sydney’s Visiting Fellowship scheme, in the hope that it would provide an auspicious environment for the kind of thinking I wanted to do.

In fact, Sydney has a vibrant research community of brilliant Americanists gathered around the United States Studies Centre, which provides a hub for research in the field, with regular talks and workshops. There I met with historians and film studies specialists, literary scholars and political scientists, poets and activists. Among them was Paul Giles, whose book Antipodean America explores the influence of Australia on American literature. Giles’ book takes as one of its starting points the comparative legacy of British colonial rule in the Americas and Australasia, and explores how Australia offered early US writers a sense of what the United States might have become. As an Americanist in Australia I constantly found myself thinking about parallels and divergences in the social and cultural imaginaries of the two nations in a way I had not anticipated. The inheritances of their colonial settlement include most prominently the histories of dispossession and violence against indigenous peoples, the political and social constitution of whiteness as a racial dominant, and particular ideologies of territorial occupation and the wilderness.

My project explores how complicity became an important and yet difficult subject for intellectuals and writers in the US from the end of World War Two up to the present. My starting point comes from complicity’s etymology, from the Latin complicāre – to fold together. To be complicit in a system is to be enfolded in it but unable to control it directly or take full responsibility for it. But how can one represent such a state, when one is already entangled in it? The part of the project I was working on at Sydney focuses on the late 1940s and early 1950s, and analyzes how writing from this period takes up in different ways the challenge of how to articulate complicity with racist and anti-Semitic prejudice. Two propositions crystalized for me in my reading and thinking. One was the idea that moments of complicity arise when one loses one’s attention on translating thought into language. The other was that complicity tended to be represented through particular configurations of racialized space.

I gave two talks during my fellowship, one at Sydney and another at the University of New South Wales. It was during the Q and A in the second, which concentrated on the “spaces of complicity,” that some of the resonances of my topic in the Australian context began to emerge. The spectre of complicity, it was suggested by one audience member, haunts several aspects of contemporary Australian culture, in relation to the long history of indigenous land rights and the treatment of migrants and refugees. The questions about racialized space I had been thinking about in the American context could also be posed here, where the policing of territorial boundaries and the way they are talked about play an important role in determining the visibility of complicity. In scholarly encounters such as this you find your thinking suddenly reoriented, demanding that you refine your conceptual horizons and think beyond conventional disciplinary boundaries. It is the kind of defamiliarizing yet illuminating moment that study leave is made for.

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Dr John Wills latest piece for ‘The Conversation’

The narrative of the new Ubisoft video game Far Cry 5 speaks to what seems a powerful political moment, of an American nation literally at war with itself.

In an article published recently on The Conversation, The Centre for America’s Dr John Wills explores how the new video game Far Cry 5 speaks to today’s divided America:

You are a rookie law enforcement officer, on board a helicopter heading into the main compound of Project at Eden’s Gate, a religious cult operating across a huge stretch of Montana. A towering statue of the militia’s leader, Joseph Seed, rises into the sky. With a warrant for the arrest of Seed, you navigate a warren of buildings patrolled by aggressive white men and their snapping dogs, before entering a white-boarded church. A haunting rendition of Amazing Grace plays in the background as you meet Seed for the first time, in an almost dream-like sequence. From there, you are transported to an intense face-off between militia extremists and federal officials.

This is what you would experience on playing the new Ubisoft video game Far Cry 5 (2018). Its story speaks to what seems a powerful political moment, of an American nation literally at war with itself.

While already a huge financial success (with reports of nearly five million copies sold in its first week of release), Ubisoft’s title has been widely criticised for its overt lack of political message. The Montreal-based company may have promoted its game as a serious take on religious and political radicalism, but so far journalists have labelled Far Cry 5 a title unwilling to squarely take aim at Trump’s America, or speak directly to matters of contemporary racism, endemic gun culture, or right-wing extremism. Instead, reviewers have called it “totally unconvincing” (PC Gamer), “a missed opportunity” (The Outline), and a game that ultimately “says pretty much nothing about” modern America (The Guardian).

Are we being too harsh on the game? After all, most entertainment companies hype their products. Equally, would a film or novel tackling religious cults be criticised for not engaging with the wider problems of Trump’s America? In my view, video games do not need to make blatant political statements to be considered art or satire, nor do they need strong messages to have impact. Ultimately, gamers make their own readings and experiences, without the need to be constantly “billboarded”. Click to continue reading this article on ‘The Conversation’.

Dr John Wills is Reader in American History and Culture at the University of Kent’s Centre for American Studies. He will be exhibiting his latest research on videogame representations of the United States at the British Academy Summer Showcase on 22-23 June 2018.

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Kent Americanists hold Indigenous Art Event

A Public one-day symposium on Native American art will take place in Bristol on 6 June from 09.30-17.30.

The event has been organised by academics running the Beyond the Spectacle project, led by the University of Kent, which is investigating the impact of Native North American visitors to Britain over the last 400 years.

The keynote speaker at the event will be Native American artist Marla Allison (Laguna Pueblo) and the symposium will end with the official opening of her exhibition Painter from the Desert at the Rainmaker Gallery in Bristol.

Other speakers at the symposium include George Alexander (Muscogee (Creek)), Max Carocci, Stephanie Pratt (Dakota and Anglo-American), Joanne Prince, Pat Pruitt (Laguna Pueblo and Chiricahua Apache), Robbie Richardson (Mi’kmaq), Sarah Sense (Chitimacha / Choctaw), and Coll Thrush.

Tickets for the event are £40 and include lunch and refreshments. It will take place at the Lecture Theatre 1, Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, Bristol University
43 Woodland Road, Bristol, BS8 1UU.

Tickets and more information are available at: https://research.kent.ac.uk/beyondthespectacle/events

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New Publication: Will Norman on Hard-Boiled Literary History

The latest issue of American Literature (Volume 90, Issue 1, March 2018) features a new article by Dr Will Norman, Director of the Centre for American Studies and Reader in American Literature and Culture.

In this article, entitled ‘Hard-Boiled Literary History: Labor and Style in Fictions of the Culture Industry’, Norman argues for a new understanding of the term hard-boiled by tracing the relationship between literary style and historical shifts in intellectual labor in the mid-twentieth-century United States.

American Literature is published by Duke University Press, and the issue containing this article can be found here: https://read.dukeupress.edu/american-literature/issue/90/1.

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William Rowlandson on Sartre in Cuba

Dr William Rowlandson, Senior Lecturer in Hispanic Studies in the Department of Modern Languages and member of the Centre for American Studies, has published a new book titled Sartre in Cuba-Cuba in Sartre (Palgrave, 2017).

In early 1960, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir accepted the invitation to visit Cuba and to report on the revolution. They arrived during the carnival in a land bursting with revolutionary activity. They visited Che Guevara, head of the National Bank. They toured the island with Fidel Castro. They met ministers, journalists, students, writers, artists, dockers and agricultural workers. Sartre spoke at the University of Havana. Sartre later published his Cuba reports in France-Soir.

This book explores Sartre’s engagement with the Cuban Revolution. Sartre endorsed the Cuban Revolution, but his accounts became denounced as ‘unabashed propaganda.’ The  book explores such accusations. Were Sartre’s Cuba texts propaganda? Were they blind praise? Was he naïve? Was Castro deceiving him? Had he deceived his readers? Was he obligated to Castro or to the Revolution?

He later buried the reports, and abandoned a separate Cuba book. His relationship with Castro later turned sour. What is the impact of Cuba on Sartre and of Sartre on Cuba?

Find out more information about this book.

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‘The Cartographic Imagination’: Conference Announcement

The Centre for American Studies is delighted to announce a new conference, The Cartographic Imagination: Art, Literature and Mapping in the United States, 1945-1980, to take place at the University of Kent’s Paris School of Arts and Culture, 18-19 May 2018. The conference is organized by Dr Will Norman, the Centre’s director, and Monica Manolescu of the University of Strasbourg, previously an honorary fellow at the Centre.

This two-day international conference is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art, in conjunction with the Centre for American Studies at the University of Kent and the Département d’Etudes Anglophones at the University of Strasbourg. Please see the call for papers for a range of possible topics and details of how to submit a proposal.

The event investigates spatial representations and practices in postwar US literature and art, and their intersection with mapping. We are particularly interested in the ways in which American space is constructed, imagined, reconfigured, displaced, and questioned in writing and in artistic form. The conference will examine the specificity of the literary and artistic appropriation of cartographic tropes, as well as the possible points of convergence and divergence of literature and art in relation to mapping and the material culture of mapping.

Art and literature have rarely been treated together with cartography in the same equation. Literature and mapping, on the one hand, and art and mapping, on the other, have already been discussed in bilateral configurations, but this conference attempts to place them side by side, and ideally to inaugurate a dialogue between the two, with the aim to encourage the articulation and confrontation of literary, artistic, and cartographic thinking.

In the past decades there has been an ever-growing body of work on the intersections of literature, art, and geography (“the geohumanities” and “spatial turn”), and several exhibitions on “art and mapping”. The conference aims to draw on the conceptual foundations that have begun to coalesce around the figure of the map and to bring together these disciplinary strands. The conference would also like to offer an opportunity to reflect on the reasons for the explosion of the interest in maps and mapping in literary texts and artistic practice after World War II.

 

 

 

 

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The annual Bolt Lecture: 30 Nov 2017

The Bolt Lecture: Suffering, Struggle, Survival
The Activism, Artistry, and Authorship of Frederick Douglass and Family (1818-2018)

The Centre for American Studies is delighted to announce that Professor Celeste-Marie Bernier (Professor of Black Studies at the University of Edinburgh) will be giving this year’s Bolt Lecture on Thursday 30th November, at 6pm in Grimond Building, Lecture Theatre 1, The University of Kent, Canterbury Campus. All are welcome at the lecture and a reception to follow.

Abstract of the Lecture
While there have been many Frederick Douglasses – Douglass the abolitionist, Douglass the statesman, Douglass the auto-biographer, Douglass the orator, Douglass the reformer, Douglass the essayist, and Douglass the politician – as we commemorate his two-hundred anniversary, it is now time begin to trace the many lives of Douglass as a family man. In this talk I will trace the activism, artistry and authorship of Frederick Douglass not in isolation but alongside the sufferings and struggles for survival of his daughters and sons: Rosetta, Lewis Henry, Frederick Jr., Charles Remond and Annie Douglass. As activists, educators, campaigners, civil rights protesters, newspaper editors, orators, essayists, and historians in their own right, Rosetta, Lewis Henry, Frederick Jr., Charles Remond and Annie Douglass each played a vital role in the freedom struggles of their father.  They were no less afraid to sacrifice everything they had as they each fought for Black civic, cultural, political, and social liberties by every means necessary. No isolated endeavour undertaken by an exemplary icon, the fight for freedom was a family business to which all the Douglasses dedicated their lives as their rallying cry lives on to inspire today’s activism: “Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!”

About the Speaker
Professor of Black Studies at the University of Edinburgh, Professor Celeste-Marie Bernier specialises in the literatures, histories, politics, visual cultures, and philosophies of women, men, and children living in the African Diaspora over the centuries.

For the bicentenary of Frederick Douglass’s birth in 2018, she is preparing a new scholarly edition of The Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave in addition to numerous other activities that will include an exhibition as well as international symposia and public workshops.

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