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The Fun and the Fury: New Dialectics of Pleasure and Pain In the Post-American Century
The call for proposals for the 2014 ASA convention in Los Angeles invited fun and fury, critiques of the good life, alternative realities, queer utopias and nothing short of a "new dialectics of pain and pleasure." It also encouraged participants to think about how to present their work differently in order to engage the pleasures of writing, intellectual exchange, oratory and learning. The material we received met those challenges, going above and beyond the alliterative connection between fun and fury to deliver passionate, ecstatic, intense, practical and whimsical responses to what some digital media scholars call the era of whatever. We were also pleased to have received a higher than average number of submissions: 743 total, almost evenly divided between panel proposals and individual entries.
Covering enormous ground ("From Furious Orientals to Funny Arabs," for example), engaging the serious ("Matters of Life and Death") and the flippant ("Eat Me: Consuming Urban Cultures"), not to mention the filthy ("The Filth and the Fury: The Cultural Politics of Waste in America"), the program represents this newly disorganized dialectic of pleasure and pain and spends considerable time outlining how and when and where a definition of pleasure for some might open out onto an experience of pain for others. Some papers clearly address the class politics of pleasure and others attend to the vexed issues of racial pain and the voyeuristic pleasures it provokes. A special roundtable on Steve McQueen's controversial film, 12 Years A Slave (2013), investigates the ways in which slavery has been transformed into visual (dis)pleasure and considers the function of spectacle within the film.
The program also works overtime to give us the opportunity to think collectively about recent political events of importance to American Studies. A special roundtable takes the SCOTUS's recent decision to uphold Michigan's ban on affirmative action as an occasion to reflect on the so-called "national dialogue" cited by SCOTUS: "the decision by Michigan voters [to ban affirmative action] reflects the ongoing national dialogue about such practices." Voter-based maneuvers, political disfranchisement by fiat, stand your ground laws, exonerated killing -- what, in this dialogue, is speech? Who can speak? Who is heard? By whom? How? And to what end?
The Program Committee and the Site Resource Committee have designed a special series of panels and events that will help bring into sharper relief the vibrant interaction of fun and fury in relation to local and global contexts. Of particular interest in the program will be the wide-ranging responses to the ASA membership's vote to endorse the boycott of Israeli academic institutions. We have created a pair of special panels -- "Scholars Under Attack" and "Students Under Attack" -- to address the vexed issue of academic freedom in an era of neoliberal management of dissent. The featured panel "I Want My ASA" will address the generational and political differences within our association, some of which were highlighted during the boycott debates. And "Black Radicalism, Insurgency in Israel/Palestine and the Idea of Solidarity" traces the history and the future of this important set of collaborations.
The events sponsored by the hard-working Site Resources Committee offer conference participants a wealth of cultural opportunities ranging from "An Intimate Concert with Artist, Dorian Wood" (Thursday), to "Fun and Fury with the Empty Orchestra: Karaoke Protest, Karaoke Pleasure" (Friday), to "#Not1More: Art, Music, and Immigration Reform in 21st Century America" (Saturday). These off-site events (all held at Human Resources Los Angeles) are complemented by film screenings at the Bonaventure hotel including a special screening of John Akomfrah's The Stuart Hall Project (2013). This screening will also serve as a memorial for Hall and will be followed by a panel discussion.
As most ASA participants will surely know by now, the theme of "The Fun and the Fury" has taken on a bittersweet inflection after the tragic death of program committee co-chair and beloved colleague José E. Muñoz last year. Given how much our theme reflects and was inspired by Muñoz's punk sensibilities and his unique, utopian scholarly inclinations, the whole conference serves as a memorial to Muñoz and to his scholarly legacy. Nonetheless, we have also chosen to memorialize Muñoz on Saturday with three special consecutive events: "Queer Horizons: The Fun and the Fury of José E. Muñoz"; a reception in his honor; and a staged reading of the play, Puto, written by one of his long-time collaborators, Ricardo Bracho, and directed by Ela Troyano, with a talk back facilitated by Richard T. Rodríguez. In addition, two other events are directly related to honoring Muñoz's lifework: the panel "Uncontrolled Substances/Altered States" (Friday morning); and the Minority Scholar's Coalition breakfast on Saturday morning, at which Muñoz will posthumously receive this year's Richard A. Yarborough Mentoring Award to honor a scholar who, like Richard Yarborough, demonstrates dedication to and excellence in mentoring underrepresented faculty, postdoctoral fellows, and/or college, university or high school students.
The spirit of Muñoz will also be evident in the interactive performance event, "Soapbox Manifestos." Manifestos are those declarations, platforms, long-held wishes, demands, pronouncements, and utopian longings that enact both a critique of the present and a casting of possibilities. Imagined as an opportunity to occupy the public commons with inspired oratory, the space outside the book exhibit will serve as the venue for the reading of manifestos, book passages, testimonios, poems, cherished quotes and other bursts of prose meant to rattle, provoke, commemorate and seduce. In addition to scheduled speakers, all conference participants are invited to bring and share their own prepared passages of 1-3 minutes.
The "Soapbox Manifestos" represents the effort we made this year to disrupt and alter the ways in which ideas circulate in an academic context. While there is nothing wrong with the three papers and a respondent format, there is also nothing right about it - in other words, there are many other ways of presenting work, engaging others, debating controversial topics and contesting intellectual traditions. It is unclear whether the conference program as a whole will represent a noticeable shift in the performance protocols of academic presentation, but we have found ways to, literally, manifest the new modes of presentation that we would like to promote.
In addition to the "Soapbox Manifestos" and plenary sessions on topics like "New Work on Slavery and Empire," then, we are also hosting a Typhoon Haiyan memorial event; a session on sex industries featuring sex workers alongside academics titled "Sex is...Sex Ain't: Working at the Critical Edge of Sex, Politics, Art, and Industry" and various sessions on food, drugs, and anarchy.
We also will feature a semi-serious session titled "Kill That Keyword." The title here tells you all you really need to know, but the session itself is not designed simply to critique. Rather, in the spirit of Raymond Williams's Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, "Kill That Keyword" recognizes how and why certain academic terminologies are overused and undertheorized, or overtheorized and underused, producing the effect of jargon. Jargon is not, as is commonly assumed, the use of unnecessarily technical language. It represents instead an inevitable reliance within critical theory on certain words that gradually lose their meaning. The event organizers ask us to consider: Does "neoliberalism" still mean something, or has it been so overused as to be evacuated of any specificity? How about "precarity" or "affect" or "crisis"? This session is designed to ask, both playfully and seriously, should certain terms be allowed (or compelled) to fall out of usage? What kind of work do the commonplace keywords of current American studies projects do? (How) Can critical leverage, incisive edge, be returned to commonplace terms or to the ideas to which they refer? What terms have fallen out of favor that might be reanimated in the face of the demise of others? Audience members will be invited to nominate terms for comment by the roundtable panelists and by other session attendees.
Ultimately, "The Fun and the Fury: New Dialectics of Pleasure and Pain in the Post American Century" serves as a venue for the reimagining and restaging of academic participation itself. Along these lines, we recognize the technological development in recent years of new modes of presentation that are enhanced, supplemented and extended by powerpoint, keynote and prezi style projections. Accordingly, beginning this year, ASA will feature wireless connectivity in all meeting rooms -- there will even be a conference app! Gone are the days where techno-challenged academics fumble for 30 minutes over projection equipment before lining up a few poorly produced video clips. And say goodbye to the clumsy last minute assembly of screens and projectors or the massive wheeled-in equipment carts blocking the entire front row. At this year's ASA, to better facilitate the fast and ferocious delivery of fun and fury, all rooms will include a Digital Equipment Package. Included in this package are: LCD/multimedia data projector with speakers; laptop (MS Powerpoint, CD, & DVD capable, PC but MAC compatible); screen, wireless internet, and on-site technical support.
So the challenge has been issued, the proposals have been made, and the venues chosen. In order to best prepare yourself for fun and fury we recommend the following: pay your ASA dues and register ahead of time; pick a fun hotel if the conference hotel is sold out - there are many options in downtown Los Angeles; plan to explore what revitalized downtown LA has to offer (new restaurants and cafés, galleries and bookstores) while attending appropriate panels on gentrification and urban capital; leave the conference every now and then and explore the city by bus, metro, bike or even car; go to the ocean at least once while in Los Angeles - you can swim in Venice, Santa Monica or Malibu, and you can eat fresh seafood up and down PCH; eat in a mini mall; spot a movie star; pretend to be unimpressed by the movie stars you see; take a run in Griffith Park or Elysian Park; visit Eso Won Bookstore in Leimert Park, The Last Bookstore in downtown, or the Downtown Public Library; take the Blue line metro to Watts Towers; take a bus to Judy Baca's mural: The Great Wall of Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley; go to a farmer's market; stay cool, relax, have fun, feel the fury!
We are deeply grateful to the hardworking and fun loving members of the Program Committee and the Site Resource Committee: Kandice Chuh, Eric Lott, Mireille Miller-Young, José Quiroga, Juana Maria Rodriguez, Sarita See, Riley Snorton, Shane Vogel, Jennifer Doyle, Josh Kun and Karen Tongson. Big thanks as well to crucial John Stephens, without whom the convention could never happen. Finally, thanks to T'Sey-Haye Preaster. She is a wonder of congenial efficiency.
See you all in Los Angeles in November!
J. Jack Halberstam, Fred Moten, Sandra K. Soto
2014 Program Co-Chairs