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Bubble Publics and Geographic Affect in the Age of Trump

Thu, November 9, 8:00 to 9:45am, Hyatt Regency Chicago, Skyway 260, Skyway Level East Tower


Over the course of the 2016 presidential campaign, popular voices and political analysts warned against the effects of “bubbles” for shaping political attitudes and orientations. These exchanges contextualized “bubbles” as a problem endemic to the digital age of communication and social media platforms in particular. In constructing the idea of political bubbles, analysts warned of the calcification of circulation, polarization, and fragmentation. Other constructions of bubble publics however, made slippages between the spatial metaphor of the bubble and broader cultures of circulation, in addition to specific places within a seemingly antagonistic rural/urban imaginary. More so, ideas of political bubbles reiterated dominant discourses of rural and urban spaces: stagnation and idleness versus complexity and dynamism. In turn, the idea of “bubble publics” also constructed incommensurabilities between spaces—political, geographic, or otherwise. If the metaphor of the bubble allowed for American voters to perceive political distinctions, then the bubble would be an instructive resource for partisan engagement in the early days of the Trump administration.

In the wake of Trump’s ascent to power, the digital circulation of public reading lists provide lessons about civic techniques of popping the bubble. Despite lamentations of the death of print culture and literate publics, the digital circulation of public reading lists privileged reflexive reading practices cultivated by print mediums; begging the question of how we appear together in public together. Moves to “pop bubbles” can be interpreted as investments in discursive mobility, enabled by distinct cultures of circulation, communication infrastructure, and imagined communities of national identity. Published in the summer preceding the November election, Hillbilly Ellegy became a New York Times best seller on the promise it could illuminate how “the other half lives.” Vance was praised in part because of his ability to evoke a visceral sense of place. Yet, in the context of bubble publics, this sense of place addressed audiences in different ways: for those “outside” the bubble, the memoir operates as a sort of contemporary version of Raymond Williams’ Border Country; for those “inside,” Daddy Vance provides moralizing self-help. The latter perspective orients those in rural Appalachia (and rural spaces more broadly) towards authoritative institutions geared toward straightening their degenerate bodies.

This paper explores how this collision of genres—memoir, self-help, and place as structure of feeling--characterizes an American mode of resilience in the age of Trump. Vance’s exploration of what Kathleen Stewart calls the “other America” enables popular audiences to feel with the landscape of Appalachia, enabling the potential for rupture in geographic divides. In contrast to this perspective, however, I argue the genres of memoir and authoritative self-help consolidate affective investments within an American style of individualism that conflates structures of authority with freedom. Hence, Vance’s memoir consolidates the bubbles of already existing cultures of circulation despite the promises of its rupture. Following, I examine alternative cultures of circulation and community story-telling located in resistance at Standing Rock. These narratives of place emphasize ecologies of resilience rooted in generation, asking how freedom is a practice of a just transition.


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