CUNY@ASA: Reflections on the 2011 ASA Conference

Two weeks ago I attended the American Studies Association (ASA) conference for the first time. It was also the first conference I attended where I did not have to present a paper. As a second-year student in the English PhD program who is still struggling through her coursework and first year of teaching, this was, needless to say, an incredible experience. Free from the pressures of having to prepare and give a presentation, I was able to take in the vibrant atmosphere and energy of the ASA conference and select the panels I wanted to visit with liberty. I had the opportunity to listen and participate in conversations about “Affective Histories, Critical Transformations,” “Queer Transnational Intimacies and Imaginaries,” “New Media and the Transformation of the Social,” among many others. However, the discussions that continue to resonate with me (and this is definitely spoken with a bit of bias) arose out of CUNY organized panels.

The Early American Matters Caucus on “Early American Methodologies,” organized by Sari Altschuler and Kandice Chuh’s panel on “What Constitutes ‘The Political’?” have sparked ongoing debates among close friends and colleagues, while also compelling me to reflect critically on my own research, illuminating new avenues for thought and exploration. For me, what these two incredibly diverse panels share in common is a dynamism, a desire to challenge conventional paradigms by pushing us to consider alternative frameworks for critical engagement, whether this takes the form of imagining new methodologies for Early American Studies or a re-conception of the “Political” itself.

Although my own research runs far afield from Early American interests, I was nevertheless captivated by what the panel had to offer. In particular, the intersections between Cristobal Silva’s paper on “Epidemiology and Early American Studies” and Altschuler’s own work on “Disability and Early America,” relying on “disease” and the study of diseased and disabled bodies as alternative methodologies for understanding the complex dynamics of the early national period were fascinating. They conveyed the tenuousness of bodies in global circuits, providing surprising insights and analyses that allowed me to perceive important linkages between the conditions of Early America and the contemporary context of globalization that I study. Their presentations have encouraged me to return with new vigor to a previous project that explores how burgeoning discourses on toxicity and the actual circulation of toxins in the global economy produce bodily vulnerabilities that nevertheless have the potential to generate different forms of relationalities across national and state boundaries. Altschuler’s assertion that the disabled body can be perceived as a “universality” that challenges every person’s status as “able-bodied,” even in the banal sense of “aging,” has definitely offered a different and unique perspective to my own work.

The other inspiring voice on this panel came from the Graduate Center’s own Duncan Faherty whose presentation on “Ugly Feelings: Affect, Canonicity, and American Literature 1800-1820” figured as a provocative call to consider neglected texts in Early American Studies, which experts in the field talk about, but never actually teach. The works that fall within what Faherty dubs the “inter-regnum” or “ugly” period in American literature are stories I have been fortunate enough to read in his classes both at Queens College and the GC, and I can vouch for the refreshing perspectives they offer on an era that is often identified in relation to a limited number of canonical texts. Faherty’s presentation, out of all those on the panel, probably provoked the most interesting debates during the Q&A session, which only attests to the force of his argument concerning the necessity of addressing the “ugly feelings” or discomfiting affects that often circulate around issues of canonicity, methodology and disciplinarity. For me, his presentation was particularly powerful, not only in terms of the content, but also in regards to the affect it stimulated, which created a public space for conversation about those issues we as scholars have most difficulty confronting alone. This is something I aspire to do in my future work, embodied in my own perverse desire to address radically negative issues, including betrayal, apocalypse and even questions of disciplinary death.

The panel “What Constitutes the ‘Political’?” moderated by Siobhan Somerville, with presentations from Samantha Pinto, Karen Shimakawa and Chuh herself, while vastly different from the Early American Matters Caucus, nevertheless achieved similar ends in creating a lively public forum for discussing politics within the immediate context of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) Movement. Each presenter’s brief comments enabled the session to function as more of a conversation space than a traditional panel that was truly a pleasure to participate in. Some of the questions that were raised during that session continue to inform the way I read and register news about OWS. For instance, one of the most interesting debates we had concerned what happens when we de-center New York and Wall Street from the Occupy movement. Considering the unique positionality of the ASA conference in Baltimore and thinking about various manifestations of Occupy across the nation forced me to recognize the different iterations of the movement in a way that I would have been unable to in New York. This debate spurred further talk about what it would mean to go even further and contextualize Occupy Wall Street in relation to broader genealogies concerning the history of strikes and even the movement’s place in a globalized context. What genealogies should we claim and how would such genealogies alter our perception of the movement as a whole?

But what echoes most vividly in my mind is Chuh’s assertion that there is a feeling of the possibility “newness” that attaches to Occupy Wall Street in a truly compelling and fascinating way, which we do not yet have a language to describe. Perhaps this elusiveness is the source of the movement’s power and, consequently, a sense of potentiality is what we must continue to perpetuate. This comment has most directly pushed me to continue my current investigations into the possibility of imagining an alternative temporality for politics that refuses the constant deferral associated with futurity. Instead, I wonder if we can imagine not “space,” but “time” itself as operating in alterity. Furthermore, how might we reorient ourselves to recognize this alterity and does Occupy Wall Street offer us some answers to these difficult questions?

As a result, ASA has definitely given me a lot to think about and hopefully this post will continue to spark new conversations and debates. Attending the conference has been an invaluable experience, both intellectual and professional. In fact, establishing new ties with other students and faculty at ASA has already spurred new hopes and thoughts about putting together a panel for next year. Moving forward, I guess I have to think seriously about the kinds of contributions I can make to this vibrant academic community.

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One Response to CUNY@ASA: Reflections on the 2011 ASA Conference

  1. Frances is far too kind to point out that she (and Chris Eng) were the ones who introduced me to Ngai’s work, and more importantly helped me to come to terms with what Ngai is suggesting about the ways in which we read and the ways in which we categorize affect and genre. The longer version of the talk I has a deep note of thanks to them both. But more broadly speaking this seems to be the advantages of thinking in an American Studies rubric, because larger discussions can animate sub-field ones in unintended ways – so while I will accept Frances’ “apology” for not being an Early Americanist, the fact that she envisions connections between her work and Sari’s and Christobal’s seems emblematic of the advantages of a conference like ASA.

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