Scottish Association for the Study of America Annual Conference, University of Edinburgh, 4 March 2017
For new postgraduates, the number of regional American Studies associations and their accordant annual conferences and symposia is perhaps surprising. Yet these organisations facilitate much needed networks of established scholars, early career academics, and postgraduates beyond the London-centric nexus. For a range of reasons—from travel costs to constraints on time—many find it difficult to make it to meetings and events in or around London. This is one of the reasons that the annual Scottish Association for the Study of American conference is a welcome addition to the conference calendar. Held at the University of Edinburgh, this conference brought together a range of researchers, based in the north and beyond, for a day of engaging panels and discussions. The openness of the call for papers attracted a variety of disciplines, representing exceptional new work in the field. Indeed, in a stark contrast to many of the issues and concerns discussed, openness and inclusivity somewhat characterised the day.
In what has become an—albeit necessary— staple of recent American Studies events, the contemporary US political landscape often dominated the conversation. Nowhere was this more evident than in the aptly named roundtable, ‘Making Historical Sense of the Nonsensical: Reflections on the Trump Era’. Mark McLay (University of Glasgow/Glasgow Caledonian University) began by questioning whether Donald Trump was an aberration or a continuation, in terms of the history of the Republican Party. He commented on the fact that, in the Republican context, it was Trump’s presidential nomination—rather than his election win—that was the biggest shock. Demonstrating commonalities between Trump and Nixon, including central claims to restore ‘order’, exploitation of racial fears, and the deployment of ‘the Bogeyman’, McLay made a solid challenge to the assumption that Trump represents a radical departure from Republican ideology. Following this, Malcolm Craig (Liverpool John Moores) moved on to the topic of Trump and nuclear proliferation, with the ominous title ‘It’s Only a Question of Time’. In light of Trump’s permissive comments on nuclear proliferation, Craig commented that the lack of awareness of the issues when combined with a vitriolic hatred of certain nations was something of a perfect storm in terms of instability. Finally Fraser McCallum (Imperial War Museum) addressed Trump as ‘Conspirator-in-Chief’, tracing conspiratorial thought back to the founders, through to JFK and on to Trump, arguing for the consideration of Trump’s message in this context. The emotive and emotional nature of Trump’s rhetoric and behaviour emerged as a theme in these different short papers, leading to discussions of the ways in which the phenomenon can be understood as a manifestation of a wider rejection of postmodern irony and scepticism in favour of unreasoned emotion.
This apparent privileging of emotional appeals and responses was also addressed in the ‘Race and Violence in the Modern US’ panel, where Robert Nartowski (University of Aberdeen) noted the prominence of emotional appeals made by Trump ahead of the primaries last year. His comparative analysis of Trump and Hillary Clinton’s speeches highlighted some unexpected differences in their rhetoric, including Trump’s considerable amount of time on making emotional appeals to voters. These appeals often hinged on the positioning of the US and its citizens as being under threat, a point that connected with Norma Hervey’s (Charles University) discussions of the ongoing cycles of racism in the US in the 21st century. Hervey commented that perceived threat has been repeatedly mobilised as a justification for the numerous recent police shootings of black Americans, the action alleged as defensible as an emotional response. In this respect, it was not dissimilar to the reactionary response which resulted in the 1921 Tulsa Race War, discussed by Konstantinos Karatzas (University of Zaragoza). Karatzas made a compelling case for the event to be understood as a war, as opposed to the common definition as a riot, pointing out that the Red Cross was present in the city for around six months to a year, arguably defining it as a warzone. This discursive distinction, he argued, is crucial in accurately acknowledging the series of events and its consequences. The analytical and discursive approaches provided by the panellists demonstrated the continued need for detailed interrogation of these phenomena.
This is not to say, of course, that discussions did not go beyond the immediate political context of the US. A number of panels addressed particular forms of American literature and their intersections with constructions of identity, including ‘Mid-19th Century Biographies’ where conversations ranged from Cathal Smith’s (NUI Galway) paper on John A. Quitman and the Antebellum Sectional Crisis, to Devin Grier’s (University of Edinburgh) analysis of Robert Watt’s quest for gold. These analyses resonated with papers throughout the day, which often dealt with hybrid ‘American’ identities and the complex tensions these both generated and responded to. Steven Bembridge’s (University of East Anglia) paper, which won the Adam Matthew Digital Essay prize, was a particular example of this. Bembridge commented on the ways in which the magazine The Moslem Sunrise (1921- ) championed Ahmadi Islam—promoting the values of socialism, humanity, and brotherhood—using as a starting point their review of Upton Sinclair’s ‘They Call Me Carpenter’ (1922). In the short story, Christ preaches against the church and consumerist American culture and Bembridge addressed the deployment the narrative and image of Christ for varied ends. The review represented an unexpected connection, which speaks to contemporary discussions of print networks and media ecologies, and the construction of distinct identities in the context of US culture.
Throughout the day, discussions adopted a range of approaches which sought to deal with the complexities and contradictions which appear to underpin debates on the United States. The transnational and interdisciplinary approaches reflected contemporary methodological trends in the field. From the political landscape to literary production to the construction of hybrid national identities, it was apparent that for the majority of scholars a purely US-centric view was considered somewhat insufficient. Thus an interdisciplinary forum in which to further interrogate these complex events, texts, and phenomena proved highly beneficial. The focus on the tensions inherent in the US in individual papers often highlighted divisions and exclusions, a contrast to the highly inclusive nature of the day. This inclusivity served to further the interdisciplinary engagement witnessed throughout the day between papers and presenters, providing in post-panel discussions new perspectives on emerging work in the field.