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Fall 2009 Abstracts

Felicia Caro
On Emergent Techno-Subjectivities: Convergent/Fragmented Identities in the Era of Globalization

This project is fundamentally about some of the processes of identity formation and subjectivity constitution in the era of globalization.  It is also a critique of Donna Haraway’s cyborg theory, a critique which argues for another type of subject(ivity), a (post)-cold war subject(ivity), or what Caro calls—for lack of a better word—“(the) techno-subject(vity).” Haraway’s cyborg theory, Caro argues, tends to overlook the importance of history and historical context. By engaging the texts of science fiction writer William Gibson, Caro maps out a new type of globalized individual-subject that is symptomatic of (post)-cold war politics. This new subject encounters—and has to live with—three kinds of crises: a crisis of history; a crisis of identity, and, finally, a crisis of community.

Devin Costello
Fantasy, Desire and the Surreal: Defamiliarizing the American Dream through Blue Velvet

This paper seeks to read the 1986 film Blue Velvet as an attempt to render the notion of the American dream as an ideological force of individual negation. Devin Costello argues that the discourse of the American dream is structured around the nuclear family, upward mobility, and home-ownership, but that the latter have been usurped by or have colluded with the powerful force of appearances. Blue Velvet’s setting is the archetypical American town seen in many other films or TV shows. Director David Lynch unmasks the pervading negative force of the dream by instilling motifs of surrealism and film noir into the narrative. Through a deployment of Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytical framework, the dream’s control over the subject becomes clear. The American dream is the language of Blue Velvet, trapping the characters in its undeniable grip.

Kaaren Fehsenfeld
The Viral Chupacabras: The H1N1 Flu, the Mexican State, Hegemony, and Cultural Resistance

In April 2009, the H1N1 flu broke out in Mexico.  The confused response of the Mexican government—closing of schools, random closing of businesses, conflicting reports, contradictory statements, and other flawed policies—in its attempt to contain this emergent epidemic—confirmed once again what many Mexicans knew all along: an ineffective, inefficient, and incompetent government, in a word, a ‘failed/failing state.’  Not only that, many people rejected the ‘official’ narratives produced by the state and media in the wake of this outbreak and became skeptical that the state might even take advantage of the outbreak.  This skepticism is nothing new and has a long history.  In this case, resistance to the state’s policies and discourses about the disease took various forms, including public protests.  In this project, Kaaren Fehsenfeld employs Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, Foucault’s ideas on discourse, power, and resistance to examine not only the specific policies and actions of the Mexican government in this context, but also the various forms that resistance to these policies took, from the most symbolic to the most real, and from the most organized to the most disorganized forms.

Samantha Hamlin
‘Everything I See, I Own’: The Erotics of Empire, Imperial Photography, and Gendered Sexual Violence against Women at Abu Ghraib Prison

The infamous images of torture from Abu Ghraib prison have become emblematic of the role of the United States military in Iraq.  The discourse around the photographs in the Western corporate media, and in most academic discussions, centers primarily around the torture of Iraqi men at the hands of white American women, despite overwhelming evidence that sexual violence was also committed against Iraqi women. In this project, Samantha Hamlin traces ‘Western’ colonial/imperial gendered violence against women through a genealogical interrogation of the pervasive role that colonial pornographic photography played in categorizing colonized subjects in the American occupation of the Philippines and the French occupation of Algeria. Employing a transnational, anti-racist feminist perspective, she examines the ways in which the production and circulation of the Abu Ghraib photos perpetuate a colonial declaration of the supremacy of a constructed Western white masculinity predicated upon the ideological construction of ‘inferior’ colonized subjectivities and racist sexual violence against women. Hamlin argues that European and American imperial powers use photography as a tool to establish psychological and physical dominance over colonized peoples through raced and gendered compulsory visualization.

Whitney Kathleen Pope
Consuming Cuteness: Kawaii, Escapism, and Popular Culture in Post-Modern Japan

In this project, Whitney Pope examines the ideology of cuteness—or what is called kawaii—as constitutive of Japanese culture and as central not only to Japan’s self-image but to its global representation, as well.  The proliferation of playful, sweet, innocent and childlike images of teddy bears, animals and imaginative monsters are the result of a commodified dream-world in contemporary Japanese society. The project tries to understand why, in a country of low birth rates, high suicide rates and a deep social crisis, kawaii consumption is highly successful and popular. Japan’s obsession with kawaii, Pope argues, is a post World War II phenomenon, attesting to the country’s deep-rooted nostalgia for childhood, as an escape from the contradictions and struggles of everyday life under (post)modernity.

Anna Rogowski
Penetrating Our Most Private Lives: Reading the Consumption of the Sexbot as Technological Other

While it is true that sex dolls are very old phenomena, only recently—in late modernity—have they been so mechanical as to be considered robotic. In 2001, Michael Harriman designed, Andy Android, the first near-life-sized robotic sex doll, thus raising some fundamental questions about the nature of human relationships and the complex relationship between the human and the technological.  In this project, Anna Rogowski grapples with some of these questions.  More specifically, drawing on Zizek’s psychoanalysis and Haraway’s post-humanist feminism, she begins by looking at the larger historical and cultural context that the sex doll inhabits and then moves to interrogate the ‘emergent’ robotic form that this ‘commodity-fetish’ assumes.  Her guiding questions here are: What does this emergent object do to stereotypical, conventional gender roles and practices in our society?  Does it reinforce them, denaturalize them, or both?

Jennifer Spitler
Big Pharma and American Psychiatry: Constructing Insanity, Commodifying Wellness, and Psychiatric Slingers

In the move from modernity to post-modernity, the era of the asylum has given way to the Prozac era, dominated as it is by the American republic, the Prozac nation par excellence, where the psychiatric pharmaceutical industry has evolved into a billion-dollar capitalist cartel. The profits of the US psychiatric drug industry, totaling over $16 billion a year in antipsychotics alone, raise some alarming questions: What are the conditions of possibility of this so-called success? What specific discourses and rhetorical tropes of wellness and sanity are constructed and deployed to not only maintain the success of the industry, but also hide the contradictions and scandals haunting the history, development, and practices of psychiatry and the psychiatric drug industry? For example, why do uncontested scandals in the development of drugs like Zyprexa continue to go under the radar? In this Foucauldian genealogical analysis, Jennifer Spitler interrogates the concepts of wellness (and it’s binary insanity), and explores how wellness is constructed in late capitalist society in such a way to produce impossible norms of sanity, norms that turn what are otherwise “normal subjects” into “psychiatric subjects,” who are increasingly dependent on psychiatric drugs. This project will trace the complex processes through which the psychiatric drug industry has not only redefined what it means to be sane, but has commodified sanity itself, as well.

Willie Stein
Going Where the Action is: The Action Film Hero in the Era of Neo-Liberalism

The Reagan era in American politics was shaped in large part by the ideology of neo-liberalism. In this paper, Willie Stein demonstrates that the popular action films of the 1980s were shaped by this ideology as well. Motifs of privatization, deregulation, and individualism resonate through both the rhetoric of Reagan and the films of action’s biggest star, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Stein compares the significance of Reagan’s acting career and his public persona on the one hand to Schwarzenegger’s roles of the time as well as his political career as governor of California, on the other. Further, Stein performs a close textual reading of the films Commando and Predator. The covert foreign interventions these films depict are compared with real US interventions in Nicaragua and Grenada. In the final section, Stein traces the neo-liberal “action” tendency as it enacts itself in video games, recent foreign interventions, the rhetoric of military recruitment, the Schwarzenegger governorship, and the valorization of Reagan after his death.

Spring 2009 Abstracts

Katie Cooper
Postmodern Urban Famine: The Dialectic of Food Desertification and the ‘Emergent’ Communities of Resistance in Chicago

Food deserts have historically been defined as communities with very little or no access to fresh produce.  In this cultural intervention, Katie Cooper examines what she calls processes of ‘food desertification’ as symptomatic of the larger structural contradictions and antinomies of the post-modern metropolis.  More specifically, she looks at how ‘food desertification’ works in the context of the neighborhoods of Humboldt Park and Little Village, two predominantly Latino working class neighborhoods in Chicago.  Previous studies of ‘food deserts’ have treated the latter merely as a health issue and have failed to grapple with the social contradictions that constitute the very conditions of possibility of food desertification in the first place.  Cooper engages with but also departs from these conventional studies and seeks to interrogate the implicit racial and class elements and social contradictions of food desertification and gentrification in general. Drawing on Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony and its later appropriation by Raymond Williams, the project examines not only the genealogies and contradictory implications of ‘food-desertification’ in these marginalized neighborhoods, but also explores the ‘emergent,’ counter-hegemonic practices of resistance that have recently surfaced as a response to these hegemonic, marginalizing processes. These local communities of resistance—which the author has participated in—assume different forms, ranging from the building of community gardens and hydroponics subsistence farming to grass roots organizing and political activism.   

Lindsey Dietzler
James Dobson, Jerry Falwell and the Rhetoric of Hate: Enforcing Queer Exclusion and Heteropatriarchy through Biblical Inerrancy

In this project, Lindsey Dietzler performs a critical genealogical analysis of the rhetoric of hate produced by James Dobson and Jerry Falwell, probably the most prominent ideologues of the American religious right.  Under the proclamation of biblical inerrancy, these ideologues, Dietzler argues, have—throughout their careers—homogenized, dehumanized and demonized the queer community.  Their rhetoric not only reinforces and reproduces the dominant hetreopatriarchal ideology, but (and probably because of that) is also an incitement of hatred and violence toward the queer community. This paper is centered on the construction and origins of their ideologies and the use of such rhetorical tropes as “pro-family,” “family values,” and “culture war” which further deepen the fissure between the religious right and the Queer Liberation Movement. Employing a “juridcio-discursive” conception of power, Dobson and Falwell claim authority over sexuality.  Dietzler’s cultural study, informed by Michel Foucault’s discourse analysis and Judith Butler’s theories of sexuality, not only provides a powerful critique of the American religious right, but also goes further to propose new strategies of political practice and resistance for the queer community.

Levell Fleming
Inglorious Working Class Bastards: The “American Dream,” Popular Culture, and the Construction of Blue Collar Subjectivities in Contemporary American Culture

This project seeks to examine the (mis)representation of the American working class throughout popular culture and, more specifically, in the popular animated comedy television shows The Simpsons and Family Guy.  Here, Levell Fleming engages what Stuart Hall refers to in his classic “Encoding and Decoding in the Television Discourse” text as the dialectic of “dominant” and “subjective” (both negotiated and subversive) readings of media texts and applies this theoretical framework to these TV shows in order to expose the contradictory nature of the idealized construction of what it means to belong to the American working class.  In The American Dream, Jim Cullen presents the dominant view of the American Dream as the ability of American subjects to fully control and achieve whatever goals they set for themselves in life.  This paper interrogates this very ideology and the role it plays in creating what Antonio Gramsci calls in his Prison Notebooks a ‘hegemonic narrative’ constructed (in the context of this study) to undermine blue collar identity not through physical force or coercion, but through the ‘winning’ of popular consent.  Fleming concludes from this interrogation that in order for these hegemonic, stereotypical narratives, images, and tropes—which are based on and articulated to popular blue collar stereotypes—to be reversed and subverted, alternative, counter-hegemonic shows and narratives that engage the complexity of working class life and experience must be developed. 

Thomas Packard
New Christianities and the Politics of Resistance in Contemporary America: Towards a Critical Subcultural Approach to Religion

Religion in general and Christianity in particular have historically been central to contemporary American society, politics, culture, and national identity.  However, contemporary American Cultural Studies has hardly paid enough attention to religion or Christianity as an object of study, overlooking the latter in favor of seemingly more secular topics, such as race, class, and gender.  In this novel treatment of a very old topic, Thomas Packard claims that American Christianity is a complex phenomenon and that there are many Christianities, in fact as many Christianities as there are situations to sustain them.  Packard deploys Raymond Williams’s theory of cultural formations to distinguish between ‘dominant’ and ‘emergent’ Christianities.  Appropriating the Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies’ seminal studies on youth subcultures in the 1970s, he approaches ‘emergent’ Christianities as subcultures of resistance within the context of the contradictory world of global capitalism, a world where individuals feel marginalized, helpless, and even irrelevant and where seemingly dusty church communities are one of the few places which offer the hope to resolve individual alienation and social marginality. 

Sara M. Watson
Selling Hope, Buying Revolution: Critical Reflections on the Commodification of the Images of Che Guevara and Barack Obama

The artistic renderings of the photographic images of Cuban revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara and American President Barack Obama are now global commodities known and recognized throughout many parts of the world.  The images of these two major political figures have become ubiquitous, adorning t-shirts, buttons, posters and stickers as well as a plethora of other goods and artifacts. Drawing on the Frankfurt School theory of the culture industry, and on the work of Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Walter Benjamin in particular, Sara Watson examines these now mass mediated cultural images within the context of modernity and modern industrial production and argues that, like other commodities of the culture industry, they exhibit the same features as other products of mass production: commodification, standardization, massification, and branding. Further, Watson claims that the increasing commodification and subsequent branding of political images in general and these two images in particular not only provides ideological legitimation of the existing capitalist order and integrates individuals into its way of life, but it also effaces and elides their very original political value and content.