After a multi-year absence, I’ve decided to return to this spot and see what happens.

In part, my return is prompted by three other returns I made last week: I went to ASA (I missed last year) which was in DC (a rare visit home!) and on one evening played hooky and headed out to a small venue to see Bonnie “Prince” Billy (although it might have been Will Oldham).




ASA 2013 (or, #2013ASA) has garnered substantial attention for its hotly debated proposed cultural and academic boycott of Israel.  It’s also been mocked for the heavy jargon and overtly political nature of the conference theme and the papers presented.  Tenured Radical Claire Potter has addressed both.  Jonathan Marks finds lots to mock.  More on this in a second.

I largely enjoyed the conference and found the dialogue stimulating.  I saw some great panels.  At a sound studies panel on sampling and covering I learned about John Coltrane covering Rodgers & Hammerstein, memory and loss in the sampling techniques of the RZA and DJ Premier, among other topics.  An Appalachian studies panel on the “hillbilly” helped me see how Appalachia is the south’s other (while the south is,  of course, the nation’s other) and, in Cari Massey’s sharp analysis of Lynddie England in visual culture, the textual and visual construction of the hillbilly as it intersects with gender, sexuality, nation.  Lastly, the panel I chaired was an exciting mix of work in memory studies, almost all of it by graduate students.  The papers explored traditional subjects of memory studies: Rosie Uyola of Rutgers-Newark on commemorations of the 1967 Newark riots and Kathleen Hulser of the New School on walking tours and radical feminist history in Greenwich Village.  Bryan Walsh of IU Bloomington presented a sharp, cogent theorization of toxic waste and U.S. military installations.  Walsh’s paper exposed the legacy of waste at bases within the national borders and argued that this legacy must be understood as an act of violence perpetrated by the U.S. military.  This analysis of how we under stand the “nation” resonated with Robyn Schroeder’s (Brown) analysis of the place of the nation state and federalism in disaster narratives on TV (Jericho, Revolution, and The Walking Dead).  Lastly, Katie Bausch of York presented an analysis of SDS activists’ appropriation of SNCC activists’ strategies for performing racialized masculinities.  Bausch’s paper was smart and very eloquently written.

All in all, I enjoyed the conference.  I learned things I didn’t know; I left rethinking things I thought I already understood.  I was exposed, often in individual papers, to sharp analyses of U.S. history and culture (literature, popular culture, media, political culture).  That is was ASA does better than any conference I know of: thorough, truly interdisciplinary analysis and critique of the U.S.

The recent critiques of ASA posted in CHE’s website seem to have two major bones to pick: the field doesn’t look like what American Studies seems it should be; and the BDS boycott of Israel.  I’m not sure that I know enough or have thought enough about the boycott to comment on it.  But, as to the concern that ASA doesn’t look like American Studies…  well, its current iteration certainly doesn’t look like to America Studies of Henry Nash Smith.  Or Leo Mark.  Or even Patricia Nelson Limerick.  American Studies has evolved rapidly and constantly.  It is always in flux.  Unlike the fields to which it is most closely related (English and History), American Studies doesn’t have a core subject (texts, the past) or a core method (close reading, historiography).  Rather, it’s core subjects are the U.S. and, I would argue, itself.  It’s core method is one of critique and analysis.  As the bulk of the participants in ASA are suspicious of the nation state and reject any notion of American exceptionalism, ASA’s analysis of the US quickly turns towards an analysis and critique of the field itself.  Thus, it is a field which is always in existential crisis.

Certainly, ASA hosts outstanding and important research.  Oftentimes its participants are also doing excellent work in other, more traditional fields of study.  Just as often, it provides an institutional basis for scholars in fields which are less stable, especially Women’s studies, LGBTQ studies, and Ethnic studies.  And, ASA’s impact on scholarly work may be most apparent by the recognition that traditional fields of study (English and History, but also Communications, Sociology, Anthropology, and Geology) now often include work which is very similar to the American Studies of the 1970s and 1980s.  American Studies has been the experimental lab for these larger, more conservative fields.

I’ve been reading Finding Purple America: The South and the Future of American Culture Studies by Jon Smith.  It’s a challenging, pointed, and oftentimes funny critique of both American Studies and traditional southern studies.  Smith’s critique of American studies and ASA seems to have three main points: its overuse and oversimplification of Birmingham CCCS approach to subcultures; its shallow and often empty appeals to social justice, which are rooted in a boomer-oriented mindset; and its unwillingness and inability to engage rural America.  I may have inverted the important points in item two.  Perhaps his critique is of a boomer mindset, which leads to a shallow and empty appeal to social justice.  Using Lacan and Zizek, he unpacks ASA’s drive and the pleasure derived from that process.  It’s a smart critique with much to admire.  I think he is especially right that ASA is dominated by urban academics from one of the coasts (as for non-coastal institutions which have heavy presences at ASA… Michigan and Minnesota could be considered “north coast” and Texas might be considered “south coast.”  That doesn’t really work, but whatever).  This leads to a disengagement from, disinterest in, and discomfort with the rural, especially the rural west and the rural south.  The excellent panel I attend on Appalachia was the only panel on the program listed under “regionalism.”  As an ASA-based scholar who thinks about the South (as opposed to a SHA- or SSSL-based scholar who sporadically attends ASA), I’ve often felt far out of place within American Studies (although, that hypothetical denizen of SHA or SSSL would feel even more out of touch at ASA than I do at ASA, SHA, or SSSL).

The ASA program made some mention of its 2013 meeting space: Dupont Circle in DC.  ASA seems to be in DC once every four years, usually a year after a presidential election–in this millennium it has met there in 2001, 2005, 2009, and again in 2013.  In years past ASA was housed at the DC Marriot on Mt. Vernon Square.  This year it moved to the Hilton between Dupont Circle and Kalorama circle.  The new location was an improvement.  The hotel has a better layout for conferences; and Dupont is an actual neighborhood with a nightlife.  However, Mt. Vernon Square is far easier to get to; it’s right by Union Station and right off the Red and Yellow lines, which will get one around DC our out to National Airport.  The biggest drawback of Mt. Vernon Square is that it is in the middle of a business district and felt less real and lived-in.  Mt. Vernon Square is closer to the great waves of gentrification which have crashed out of the federal district and out through Capitol Hill and along H Street.  Right now, the area around Mt. Vernon Square seems to have little to offer unless one is interested in NHL/NBA games or eating at an ESPN Zone restaurant.  Dupont Circle is a lovelier, livelier neighborhood.  Of course, Dupont is the product of older waves of gentrification.  There were some panels devoted to DC and screenings of films about social justice issues in and around the district.  I wish there’d been more dialogue about the actual location of the conference and our joy about being in a lovely neighborhood and happiness to have left behind a boring corporate neighborhood.  Because, as I see it, today the US has more areas like Mt. Vernon Square than it does Dupont Circle.  We’d do well to spend more time inhabiting and critiquing those neighborhoods.


Escaping ASA

Friday night of the conference two friends and I played hooky and walked two miles to Georgetown where we saw Bonnie “Prince” Billy perform a solo set.  He had been conducting a residency at GU, working with music students mostly.  The performance lasted over two hours and featured a few early songs (“Idle Hands are the Devil’s Plaything” “Riding” “West Palm Beach” “Pushkin” and “You Will Miss Me When I Burn” and  heavy doses of songs from Master and Everyone, Superwolf, The Letting Go, and Ease Down the Road.  Nothing from the Pitchfork favorite Viva Last Blues and only “Another Day Full of Dread” and “Nomadic Revelry” from I See a Darkness.  And, very little from his recent collaborations with Emmett Kelly.  I suppose that given their intricacies, the Kelly collaborations don’t work well for a solo performance.  Perhaps he tires of playing “New Partner” and “I See a Darkness” (when people insisted on requesting “I See a Darkness” he said no, that it was “no fun to play alone.”)  I was overjoyed to hear so many songs from Ease Down the Road, one of my favorite records.  He played solo acoustic guitar with a single mic picking up his voice and guitar.  His guitar playing has evolved into very solid rhythm playing.  His voice, especially over the past ten years, has evolved into a confident, full, commanding voice.  He’s a much surer, richer singer than he was twenty years ago.  

I’ve seen Oldham a number of times, usually with a full band.  But, it’d been nine years since the last performance I’d seen.  That was a 2004 show at the DIA.  During that show Oldham played two sets in the Diego Rivera room.  For one set he played an autoharp, for the other an electric guitar.  During that 2004 show and others he was fairly terse and seemed slightly uncomfortable on stage.

At Georgetown Oldham was the most gregarious and chatty I’d ever seen him.  He told stories about the songs, told funny rambling jokes about his career.  I was moved to laughter by the stories as often I was moved to awe by his voice.  It was a heck of a performance.

Oldham is a dangerously and infamously slippery artist.  He’s a difficult interview subject and can cause writers fits with his orneriness.  Musically, his roots are in country traditions–there’s a lot of George Jones and Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn in his songs.  But, he’s also heavily indebted to punk and post-punk.  He has close personal ties to Slint, Tortoise, PJ Harvey.  The Mekons seem to be his truest musical forebears.

At GU Oldham referenced a few of his influences.  He cited The Mekons as an influence for an entire record but also acknowledge that the record in question is rife with Emily Dickinson references (The Letting Go).  He covered George Jones’s “Little Boy Blue” but slowed it down, made it into a sweet love song.

Classic Nashville came up again when he explained that his song “After I Made Love to You” was written with Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn in mind.  Makes sense to me.

Most interesting, though, was his explanation that “Master and Everyone” is based on two sources.  The lyrics come from his reading of a friend’s explanation of the emotional impact a Verdi opera had on her; the music is Oldham’s interpretation of the Indonesian songs “Fajar Di Atas Awan” by Suarasama.  Who knew?

Oldham is a fascinating subject.  He’s a hell of a songwriter and a phenomenal singer.  He has an ambivalent relationship to the south and is worthy of further consideration as a liminal southerner.  I’ve done two ASA presentations which dealt with Oldham.  I wish more folks in American Studies and Southern Studies engaged him.  He’s as interesting as Johnny Cash or Sun Ra and possibly as important.

He’s also a slippery Southern.  Kentucky-born and bred, he seems resistant to being marked as “southern” but also relishes the opportunity to use “the southerner” as a performance which allows him creative space and independence.

I won’t go to ASA next year.  LA is simply too far of a journey.  But, the theme, “the fun and the fury,” is interesting.  If I went I’d do a paper on “The Other Side of This Life” and the transition from beat/folk culture to hippie culture.  There’s something interesting about Fred Neil’s melancholic celebration of the wayfaring life transforming into Jefferson Airplane’s high-speed, intricate celebration of, well, LSD I think.  And, the topic fits perfectly with the boomer-mindset that dominates the field.