Fun, Fury, and the American Studies Association

By Sarah MesleNovember 6, 2014

Fun, Fury, and the American Studies Association
BEGINNING TODAY, November 6, 2014, the American Studies Association is meeting for its annual conference. The ASA has been much in the news this year because of its controversial resolution to participate in a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. LARB Senior Humanities Editor Sarah Mesle spoke with ASA President Lisa Duggan about the aims of this conference, what it means to hold the conference for the first time in Los Angeles, and how the conference relates to the ASA’s year of controversy.

The following has been edited for clarity and length.


SARAH MESLE: Tell me a little bit about the conference theme, and your sense of its significance: "The Fun and the Fury: New Dialectics of Pleasure and Pain in the Post-American Century." One of my favorite things about it is that I find it sort of funny —which is so unusual for a conference theme! Is that purposeful?

LISA DUGGAN: In a way! Putting together the program, we wanted to infuse the conference with the kind of spirit of queer studies. I think that my election was really part of an effort to honor the place of queer studies within American Studies; to recognize that it’s not a marginal project and that queer scholars are not marginalized scholars.

Queer studies combines political, economic, social, and cultural critique with a kind of spirit of playfulness. It emphasizes social relations, feelings, and intimacy, and the central importance of social relations alongside structural inequalities and political economies.

We wanted a conference that was infused by affect theory and queer work on intimacy, sociality, and utopia. We didn’t want this to be in opposition to the themes of the last two conferences, which focused on empire and debt. But we did want to put other ideas alongside political economy and forms of inequality; to include other sites of scholarship that we considered to be an essential part of American Studies.

So do you think that fun and fury go together? Is fury fun? Does fun make us furious? Does fun combat fury? How do they fit?

“Fun” and “fury” are terms for the two sides of the intensity of affect that comes up around social, cultural, and political relations. So the things we experience in our social relations are a lot of fun and a lot of fury! The terms are really two sides of the same coin. Putting them together acknowledges the intensity of the collective feeling we have in relation to the structures of our world.

Tell me a little bit more about what it means to have ASA in Los Angeles. I’m assuming that the theme and the location weren’t selected together, but it seems like a really great pairing.

We were really fortunate! It’s the first time we’ve ever had a conference in LA, even though our journal, American Quarterly, was published out of USC for 10 years. I was so delighted that this conference was going to be in LA because the theme actually works very perfectly with it. Our site resources committee put together some really great events to move people out of the hotel — to Human Resources, for example, and MOCA.

We really tried to make LA part of how we thought about the theme. LA is a site of commodified fun, and a site where people labor to provide fun for other people. So LA helps us see the negative side of what “fun” be — a sanitized and sold product. But LA is also the site of so many alternative worlds — those built by immigrant communities, for example, and by the migration streams of products and people through LA. Los Angeles is a site of US/Latino connection; it’s also Pacific Rim. It has so much going on that it’s a wonderful site for us to think about fun and fury, and it also has so many opportunities for being fun and furious! Our program committee and site committee have really worked unusually hard to link the conference to this location. I can’t believe we’ve never had a conference in LA before.

I want to ask about that — about how the hemispheric relations that Los Angeles represents connect to the questions American Studies asks. If we take the study of American literature as a counter example, despite many changes in the field, a particular genealogy of literature — one that emerges in New England — remains very powerful. So in the study of American literature, the questions and texts that Los Angeles creates are still somewhat marginal. Is that true in American Studies? How is it different?

Well, first, I think it’s important to note that American Studies is highly variegated: American Studies exists in K-12 schools, community colleges, the Ivy Leagues, big public research universities, and smaller liberal arts programs. The versions of American Studies that emerge in those different kinds of places can be quite different. So I don’t want overgeneralize about the field — as we found out in the wake of the boycott, there are some very different conceptions of what American Studies is or should be.

But I’ll go ahead and say that in this regard American Studies is quite different from the field of American literature as you describe it. American Studies has recently taken two major turns. First, there’s been a very dramatic transnational turn; American Studies has been focusing on the relation of the US to the rest of the world. So there is a lot about the US and Africa, the US and the Middle East, the US and Latin America — we have many, many, many scholars traveling abroad to do their research.

And, there is also a very strong turn towards understanding the United States as a kind of settler colonial state — meaning a place where European empires are crossed with existing native indigenous cultures in a series of very unequal relations. It’s a way to reframe the US as a nation-state.

There’s a lot of new work about those conflicts and encounters, there is a lot of new work on indigenous people, and a lot of new work on reframing the “frontier” as this site of often violent encounters between indigenous people and different Europeans empires, especially the Spanish and the British.

So both of those turns displace the kind of national narrative you described in American literature, a movement starting in the Northeast on the Mayflower and progressing through the revolutionary moment and to the Civil War. But maybe it’s better to say that that narrative has been somewhat displaced but still exists. And I don’t want to frame it as the past of the field either because it’s not gone — but the newer directions of the field in the past 10 years have been dramatically different.

That’s interesting. When I was first thinking about disciplinary issues in the early ’90s, I would have described American Studies as a department for boys who wanted to write about baseball!

Well we still have that! I’m laughing, but that does describe a part of the field. But, if you look through the conference program, you see primary contractions of work in black studies, ethnic studies, histories and politics of sexuality, in addition to more overtly political work on settler colonialism or on US relations with other parts of the world. And then, while I’m not sure there are panels on baseball specifically, remember that this is a conference on “The Fun and the Fury.” So there’s a lot of interest in play, and games, and leisure — there are panels on games, on drug cultures and economies, and so forth. I think American Studies is interested in pleasure, and also in political economies of pleasure. So, you know [laughs]: there are a lot of parties, and then there are panels about parties!

Let’s talk about method. My sense is that, initially, American Studies was a field that purposefully contained many disciplines and disciplinary questions within it. To what extent has that changed? Is American Studies a discipline, and what characterizes it as such? What would make a question an American Studies question, and what would make something an American Studies answer?

I wouldn’t say that it is its own discipline, exactly, because there’s a big part of the field that is antidisciplinary, as well as a part that is interdisciplinary. But, yes: it used to be that American Studies was primarily English and History based, and that those two fields were the most represented. That’s no longer quite so true: there’s growing participation from people in cinema and media theory, anthropology, among others.

But maybe it’s best to say that there’re two major approaches to American Studies: there’s the interdisciplinary paradigm and then there’s the kind of anti-disciplinary, or you might say trans-disciplinary, orientation. I would say that the latter mode describes me: people with this approach are critical about the disciplinary organization of knowledge, and are not as interested in bringing different disciplines together as they are in defining work according to the particularity of the project, rather than according to a kind of set of disciplinary standards.

So, my PhD is in history, but I’m an ex-patriot from the field! I turned to both American Studies and Gender and Sexuality Studies as the key places that I could do work that was not constrained by the methodological or theoretical constraints of individual disciplines. There are a lot of people like me who are “undisciplined,” shall we say. But then there are other people who are really self-consciously interdisciplinary. Both modes are very strong elements within the field.

Can you give me an example? My degree is in English, and in that field a compelling reading or interpretation of a text can count as evidence; in history, you would need to talk about a text’s representativeness, for example. (These boundaries are obviously a little hazy.) But in American Studies, is there a consensus on what counts as evidence?

No! There is no consensus on really anything. And it’s because American Studies comprises such different methodologies, and so many people who are refugees from the disciplines! And many of them have pretty strong and intense disagreements about what constitutes evidence. There are people who have a historian’s sense of evidence in maybe a “realist” sense, and there are also people who have a kind of post-structural critique of that kind of realist evidence. Debates over evidence are internal to the field.

Actually one of the panels that I’m excited about is called “I Want My ASA,” and it’s meant to highlight the disagreements and generational shifts in the field. The panel is meant to forefront this truth of the field: that we have different ideas of what this field is, and what it “should” do. We have different stakes, and different ideas of what we want it to be.

And I think that kind of disagreement is a strength of the field. Rather than having a kind of passively arrived at agreement, American Studies is always open to debate and discussion about methods, theory, what counts as evidence, and about the field’s major goals and projects.

This disagreement seems tied to the many different kinds of diversity that are, it seems to me, the hallmark of the ASA conferences experience: there’s diversity in interest, in identity. Is that a manifestation of American Studies itself?

Yes. Diversity is both a goal and a manifestation of what the field is. I think we may be one of if not the most diverse professional association in the US. We have significant diversity in all sorts of ways: tremendously broad and deep racial diversity; we have tremendously broad and different kinds of feminism; we have all kinds of sexual identities and relationships to those identities; we have people who have embraced identity politics; we have people who critique identity politics.

American Studies has diverse opinions about what diversity even is!

Yes! There’s a question about whether a focus on demographic diversity is a kind of limiting or limited goal. And those questions spring partly from our generational diversity, which is another important aspect of the field.

What is the relationship between American Studies and public engagement? Obviously American Studies is about "America," which is itself a political idea and in that way somewhat different from other objects of study. What’s the history of how political and scholarly work have related in the field?

First, let me say that these are questions and histories we’re trying to address with an initiative called “Scholars Under Attack,” which we’re also calling “Scholars Taking a Stand.” This initiative is about foregrounding how the field has always been directed towards public engagement.

Our website, for instance, gives a history of our organization’s resolutions and a long-standing engagement with civil rights and public policy, particularly around military action — Iraq, and so forth. This history speaks to the engagements of scholars in our field; and yes, “American Studies” is necessarily engaged in the study of US policies and their impact; there’s no way we can really remain aloof from policy debates.

Most of the time, our engagement has been uncontroversial; for a resolution to be controversial internally is the exception rather than the rule.

I think that I myself have sometimes felt — I know I felt this as an undergraduate — that American Studies was a field where the political work of professors was itself understood as potentially a part of scholarly progress. Do you think that’s right?

Well, there are certainly some members of the ASA who would strongly disagree with that — who do not think that the ASA should be making political statements in taking explicitly political stands. People do hold to the position scholarship should be disinterested and disengaged from the political.

But that is not the majority view in the field of American Studies, and it hasn’t been at least since the ’70s. American Studies has taken public stands as a routine course of business.

So yes, what you said is true: American Studies is a site where the engagement with politics is part of what the field does.

With that position in mind, let’s talk about the BDS controversy. There’s been so much discussion, including here in the Los Angeles Review of Books, that I don’t think we need to revisit the debate itself. But there are two things I want to raise. First, what pressures has the debate put on the conference itself?

And second, as I was getting ready to talk to you, one of the things I thought to myself was, "Wow, Lisa Duggan has really been a wartime president." My question here is: Is that a good metaphor? Have you been fighting the BDS war rather than engaging with "domestic issues" of scholarship?

That’s pretty funny. It actually would be [former president] Curtis Marez even more than me. Curtis was president during the storm of it; though, because I was the president-elect and because I’m in New York, I got a lot of, well, we’ll call it attention, as well.

One thing to say particularly about the moment of voting on the resolution, something that has to do with the relationship of the resolution to the conference, is that we were planning the conference right as we voted on the boycott. We had just decided on the theme, and then the boycott vote was announced on December 4, 2013, which was the same day that José Muñoz died. José was not only a close friend but he was also one of the program co-directors; he had written, co-written, the theme. He was a major force behind the concept of the conference. He died, and a few hours later we announced the boycott, so the intensity of those two things was incredible.

I do think it’s important to say that we got tremendous worldwide support for the boycott, in addition to the dramatic backlash that made it into the US press rather more prominently. We received statements from all over the world thanking us. What’s interesting, I think, is that the American Studies Association is made up of a few thousand scholar nerds, but — partly because of the name of the organization, I think — there’s a belief that we’re quite powerful, and so what we do has the potential to have a big impact. We had a way bigger impact than we thought we would have, really, and one of the things that’s been enormously positive is that we were able to get conversations into the mainstream press that haven’t been there before, at least not in this way.

So there was a lot of support, but of course there was also the tremendous outpouring of backlash and negative response. And that, compounded with José’s death, was a little crushing until we learned how to negotiate it. But we did learn how to negotiate it. We hadn’t really been in that fray before — not in the sense that other organizations have — and so for us it was a new experience. It took as a while to learn how to handle it, just at a logistical level.

It felt for a while that attention to just that one vote was going to just wipe out every other thing about us; it seemed like we were going to be known for this and only this, and people were going to decide whether they were for or against us based on this one thing. And it was relatively disheartening. So we are trying very hard now, a year later, to climb out of that and frame what we do as including but not confined to the boycott.

So, going back to my opening metaphor, to get back to domestic policy?

Yes, domestic policy! It’s the broader stakes of American Studies that the “Scholars Under Attack” panels are meant to address. What’s happening right now under austerity budgets and budget caps is that American Studies, Women’s Studies, and Ethnic Studies programs are being cut, supposedly because of budgets, but those budget cuts are being very selectively applied; you’ll have university presidents recommending cuts, but meanwhile those presidents are making enormous salaries.

There’s a phenomenon where administrator salaries go way up and then the funds for programs — and the programs are selectively targeted — dry up. We’ve seen many examples of this recently. And we’re trying to connect these events in universities with other phenomena — the attempts to organize students on the ground in Ferguson, Missouri; the response to the affirmative action decision in Michigan; the firing of Steven Salaita at the University of Illinois.

So maybe my metaphor is better than I actually realized, in that the "domestic policy" of the ASA actually involves specifically addressing the domestic policy of the US: thinking about the way funding works on the ground; what legislators are doing; how we allocate resources and what motivates those allocations.

Yes exactly; we’re trying to think about what’s happening to the university system as a whole: tuition is going up, financial aid is not, et cetera. We want to look at the things that are affecting us, and to look at them in a connected way.

The one limit I would say about the “domestic policy” metaphor is that it may make it seem as though we are not actually transnationally engaged. But we are: there are American Studies departments globally, from Beirut to Germany to Latin America and so on. We’re concerned with those programs, too, so we’re not “domestic” in that we’re US bound. Our international committee is very active.

But it is true that rather than focusing all our energies on this one giant battle, we’re interested in framing the broad range of challenges that our members face.

Let’s return to something you already mentioned: the relation of this conference to José Muñoz. Can you describe who he is, his contributions to the field, and why he’s such an important figure for this conference?

José’s work had an enormous influence. His two books, Disidentifications and Cruising Utopia, both had tremendous groundbreaking impact. Though they came out of Performance Studies, and out of Queer of Color critique, they have influenced and shaped many fields, including American Studies.

So his work had an enormous impact on so many of us — he’s someone who has had whole panels devoted to his work. But it’s not just his work. He was a kind of impresario figure; he was a very widely beloved mentor. He had many, many students, many graduate students, and was very beloved by them.

And he had a gift of creating context — of creating conference and journal issues that encouraged people to produce new and different work. He made alternate scholarly worlds possible, beyond the effects of his own writing, through the way he created spaces and occasions, especially for students of color. And in all these ways he’s been so enormously important: his mentorship; his example to queer studies; his support for students of color; his work for students of color in the field. There’s just no way to overstate it. His loss was unbelievable.

One thing to say, to tie it back to the conference, is that the memory of him is both fun and furious. And he would hate any kind of sentimental memorializing; he was a real snarky guy so we’re going to try to both commemorate him and stay away from that.

I guess, then, that’s a good transition to the last thing I want to talk about. One of the things I like about ASA is that it’s the conference with the best parties. Why do you think that is?

That’s totally true! One of the projects of this year’s conference was to break down the distinction in between the parts of the conference: the intellectual work, the socializing, and the cultural experience. We wanted to bring these things together in different ways. So for instance there’ll be a flash mob, and we’re setting up space for “soapbox manifestos” outside of the book exhibit — anyone who wants can read a three-minute manifesto. There are events called “Kill This Keyword” that will talk about jargon in the field; these panels will be spontaneous, with terms introduced from the audience.

We’re really trying to enliven the conference by creating new kinds of engagement, and also by having an unusually integrated relationship with our location, Los Angeles. This year’s site committee organized such a range of events — film screenings, musical events, even karaoke. The work of our site committee — Jennifer Doyle, Josh Kun, and Karen Tongson — has been amazing and is really essential to the conference.

So we are trying not to have the party be something that’s totally off to the side, but rather to bring it and the intellectual projects together.

And that’s also the spirit of José. His role on the initial program committee was really crucial. We’re hoping these new formats will be fun as well as, you know, furious.


Sarah Mesle is Senior Humanities Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

LARB Contributor

Sarah Mesle (PhD, Northwestern) is faculty at USC and Senior Humanities Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Prior to arriving at USC, she held postdoctoral fellowships in English at the University of Michigan and the University of California, Los Angeles. She is a 19th-century Americanist by training and is interested, generally speaking, in the long history of the American popular novel and in the many ways pop culture can excite, estrange, and surprise.


With Sarah Blackwood, she is co-editor of You can follow her on Twitter.


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