‘We Hold These Truths to Be Self-Evident’: Post-Truth & American Myths, BAAS/CHASE Postgraduate Conference, University of Essex, 25-26 November 2017 – Day One
Rounding off 2017 (the year of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’), this year’s British Association for American Studies postgraduate conference was a timely, enlightening scholarly event, centred on concepts of ‘truth’, myth-making, and cultural fact and fiction in American society.
The day began with a keynote by Patricia Malone of Queen’s University Belfast, entitled ‘We Hold These Truths to Feel Self Evident: Post-Truth and American Myths, or “The Tyranny of Intimacy.”’ Malone’s paper was an intellectual tour-de-force, deploying a range of topics concerning truth and individualism. Drawing upon Richard Sennett (The Fall of Public Man, 1974) and David Foster Wallace (‘E. Unibus Plurum: Television and U.S. Fiction’, 1993), Malone interrogated the influence of social media on the American popular imagination and the idea of ‘the American self’, arguing a confusion has arisen between public and private ‘selves’ in the late twentieth century. Indeed, the circulation of the ‘self’ has become a form of cultural capital, argued Malone, through platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and, of course, Twitter. Malone’s keynote was a thought-provoking, theoretically charged paper, setting the groundwork for the panels throughout the day.
Indeed Malone’s comments were further explored in ‘Contemporary Contexts: Donald Trump and the Post-Truth Zeitgeist’, which featured two papers on economics and religion, from Simon Sherratt (Essex) and Kate Pickering (Goldsmiths). Sherratt’s paper, ‘The Economic Foundations of Post-Truth’, was anchored in the work of Walter Lippmann, and defined ‘post-truth’ in the context of the propaganda in the realm of public opinion in the early twentieth-century. He effectively applied these propaganda techniques to the present-day, providing a refreshing, passionate critique of the Obama Administration and the circumstances leading to Trump’s victory, particularly Obama’s military spending and economic disenfranchisement in the Rust Belt. Pickering’s paper was an intriguing interrogation of the importance of Evangelical Republican voters on Trump’s election. Evangelicalism, Pickering outlined, is founded upon the creation of communities, and the platform for Evangelical expression is the mega-church. Pickering argued that, by courting Evangelical votes, Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and Senator Pat Buchanan are the vessels through which Evangelical politics are enacted. Pickering painted a compelling portrait of the idea of church and state at the heart of American conservatism.
After lunch, ‘“Memory Believes Before Knowing Remembers”: Myth and Public Memory in the US’, expanded upon the issues of the previous panel and the keynote, discussing the supposedly changing attitudes towards race relations, gun-control, and ‘reality’ in the United States today. Speakers included Grace Mallon (Oxford), Francis M. Agnoli (UEA), Christine Okoth (King’s College London), and Keren Goldberg (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem). Centring her paper around James Madison’s ‘Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention’ (1787), Mallon explored the effect of historical evidence in the changing perception of slavery in the mid-nineteenth century. Mallon made the case that state sovereignty was a subterfuge for the advocacy of slavery and, as such, Madison’s historical evidence failed to make a case against slavery. Mallon concluded that ‘facts’ cannot erase long-held socio-cultural biases. Agnoli’s paper, ‘The Ramifications of Recreating Historical Events in Animated Documentaries: Tower (2016)’, was a fascinating argument for animated documentaries to process social tragedy and trauma. Using the 1966 University of Texas tower shooting as his case study, Agnoli persuasively argued that Tower provides a successful oral, subjective account of a national tragedy. Okoth’s paper, on ‘Reparative Reading and Immigrant Fiction’, emphasised the worth and impact of immigration on contemporary American literature. Focalising through President George W. Bush’s Immigration Reform Act, Okoth explored the works of authors such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Okoth’s paper highlighted the significance of immigration in our socio-cultural moment, gesturing towards the conference’s key strength – its focus on art forms to ‘read’ reality. The session ended with Goldberg’s witty, engaging paper on ‘Parafiction vs. American post-truth’, which deployed an array of fake political websites and comedy sketches to make the point that parafiction has intersected with and become reality. Overall, this was a fascinating panel that both revealed the blur between art and reality, and provided plenty of fruitful insights on truth via its inter- and cross-disciplinary focus.
‘Historical Amnesia: Race, Myth, and Misrepresentation’, offered an explicit, climatic focus on distortion and untruth in American culture, issues which the previous panels had all gestured to, with illuminating papers by Sara Taylor (UEA), Laura Burnham (Edge Hill), and Laura Ryan (Manchester). Taylor’s paper was a highly entertaining oral history of controversial high school textbooks, which deliberately perpetuated myths between the American ‘self’ and the racialised, immigrant ‘other’. Taylor made the case that textbooks were used as a tool to spread ‘fake news’ throughout much of the twentieth century, advocating nationalism and erasing racial tensions during the Civil Rights era. Taylor concluded that notions of untruth and misrepresentation have been actively embedded into the American secondary curriculum for decades. Following Taylor, Burnham explored the wilful misrepresentation ofthe Old South across a range of mass-media, including Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) and Fleming’s Gone with the Wind (1939). Burnham interrogated the impact of the misrepresentation of the Old South on presidential elections throughout history, mistruths which have fundamentally altered the direction of the United States. Ryan rounded out the panel, exploring the emergence of a black aesthetic in Harlem post-World War One. Ryan argued the Harlem Renaissance fashioned a sense of black selfhood through art forms such as music and literature. Discussing writers such as Claude McKay and Langston Hughes, Ryan highlighted that these writers actively subverted the idea of ‘blackness’ in white America, depicting the often tragic lives of African-Americans in their fiction, which was a neat conclusion to the panel’s concerns.
The day ended with a roundtable discussion on ‘Activism, Academia, and American Studies’, featuring four distinguished speakers: Kate Dossett (Leeds), Francisca Fuentes (British Library), Colin Samson (Essex) and James Wilson. Dossett challenged the notion of equality in academia as seen through ‘narratives of progress’, acknowledging that marginalised academics have actually been excluded from higher education in their lived experiences. Dossett urged genuine inclusivity, change, and progress. Fuentes highlighted academic work on and about America in other languages, particularly the role of activism in Chile and the creation of documentaries as radical, subversive acts. Fuentes argued that archiving lost documentary materials was a form of activism, and advocated the inclusion of marginalised voices in American studies. Wilson explored Silicone Valley as the pinnacle of the post-truth world, criticising the lack of transparency around social media headquarters like Facebook or Google. Wilson gestured towards greater transparency by these social media giants and for their users to reconsider their approach to and consumption of technology. Finally, Samson provided an account of the Standing Rock protests, which he argued were open rejections of social contracts. Highlighting the efforts of 6,000 activists against the Dakota Access Pipeline, Samson challenged the idea that these activists were domestic terrorists, as they were considered to be by the U.S. Government.
The roundtable was a fitting end to the conference’s first day, an informative, topical academic event that invited fascinating contributions from a range of disciplines and interrogated our current understanding and performance of truth. The conference provided fertile ground for future debates on the subject, and Jessica Houlihan and Maria-Irina Popescu must be commended for their stellar achievement.