SSASA » Overview

A Long History of American Studies Programs at Salzburg Global Seminar

Since Salzburg Global's founding in 1947, with the first American Studies program at Schloss Leopoldskron, the study of America has played a vital role in the history of this organization. For decades, scores of prominent intellectuals - academic and non-academic - have gathered in Salzburg to examine and debate American politics, foreign policy, economics, literature, history and culture, and America's role in the world. More than 30 American themed seminars have been organized, all are self-funded.

Session in 2016:

Images of America: Reality and Stereotypes
September 23 to 27, 2016


Interviews and coverage from our SSASA programs

What One Piece of American Literature Shaped You?
What One Piece of American Literature Shaped You?
Jonathan Elbaz 
In a new video, we asked Fellows from a recent Salzburg Global Seminar American Studies Association (SSASA) session to name one piece of American literature that shaped them. The Fellow were at Schloss Leopoldskron for the "Defining America: New Writing, New Voices, New Directions" session, where novelists, publishers and academics traced new developments in the American writing and publishing industries. And during one afternoon in the Max Reinhardt library, they reflected on the writing that was most influential in their lives. Watch the full video below.
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Writers, Academics and Publishers Unite to Trace New Directions in American Writing
Writers, Academics and Publishers Unite to Trace New Directions in American Writing
Jonathan Elbaz 
A diverse group trickled into Schloss Leopoldskron last Saturday: novelists and academics, Ph.D. students and seasoned professors, optimists and skeptics—all seeking the “new" in American literature. These 56 people from 26 countries were hunting for cutting-edge ideas at “Defining America: New Writing, New Voices, New Directions,” the twelfth session hosted by the Salzburg Global Seminar American Studies Association (SSASA). So what is new? That depends on whom you ask. Writer and professor Karen Tei Yamashita warned of the “future Asian cyborg” stereotype emerging in the Western consciousness, a day before Cornell professor Mary Pat Brady presented the poignant poetry written by victims of the U.S. border crisis. Publisher Julia Kostova heralded an era of digital and print coexistence, just a day after writer and academic Christopher Bigsby posited that really there's nothing new and we’re looking in the wrong places anyway. Evidently, it’s difficult to isolate the few major trends in American literature because contemporary writing is so varied and meanwhile entangled with identity, politics and technology. During four days of lectures and discussion at the Schloss, central ideas began in one place and eventually were pushed in a dozen different directions. Bigsby, a core faculty member who helped plan the session, owed this dynamism to the organizers’ emphasis on gathering diverse voices, not just a group of academics interested in promoting their doctoral theses.  “When we were planning the session, I said that there ought to be writers at the session, not just academics talking about writers, but actual living writers, moving amongst us,” Bigsby said. “And there ought to be someone from the world of publishing, particularly someone who knew about the new digital revolution. You have to disrupt the way academics can isolate themselves from the actual business of writing on the one hand, publishing on the other, and I’m tempted to say reading on the other.”  This diversity of people and ideas, matching the diversity of new American writing, was the propulsive force of the session. Because no final product or report was needed, many of the discussions were allowed to float into whatever areas the participants suggested. Fellows got insight into the creative processes of authors like Susan Straight and Karen Tei Yamashita, and later examined digital publishing platforms that could tectonically shift the roles of authors and readers. They investigated Bollywood representations of disability and American foreign policy, and meanwhile studied Chicano literature, mixed race novels and lizard, yes lizard, evolution. One defining aspect of the session was the mix of first-time Salzburg Global Fellows with the SSASA veterans who had attended sessions in the past. Salzburg Global—originally called the Salzburg Seminar in American Studies—was founded in 1947 to exclusively examine American Studies. One of the three founders thought the only way to get Europeans to talk to each other after World War II was to discuss something totally foreign: the emerging superpower across the Atlantic. “In 1947, how do you get people together who had been shooting at each other… and have a conversation about the future,” said Stephen Salyer—Salzburg Global President and CEO—during the session’s opening presentation. “Most of the people wanted to reach across the table and continue the war. So three young people came up with the idea that we’d use American Studies, something that almost nobody in Europe knew anything about, as a core curriculum.” Salzburg Seminar focused solely on American-themed topics until 1950, when the organization started integrating more global issues. In 1994, when only a thread of the American Studies foundation remained, “Defining America” co-chair Ron Clifton started the American Studies Center and subsequently held more than 30 sessions in nine years. Then in 2003, Marty Gecek sparked the creation of SSASA, which hosts annual American Studies sessions covering literature, foreign policy, economics and other subjects. Ultimately, the diversity of participants at “Defining America” was only constructive in a venue like Salzburg, where everyone isn’t itching to leave the site immediately after lectures end. Many participants praised the session as being totally unlike the conferences they’ve attended in the past.  “Usually you go to conferences and everybody has to give a paper, then there’s a Q&A, it’s over in a half-hour, and then everybody goes out to lunch somewhere,” said session participant Alexandra Ganser. “You stick with the people you already know. Here you have a joint lunch and you sit a table and there will be other people every single day. It really builds a sense of community."
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Christopher Bigsby: “There is an America. Believe me, there is an America.”
Christopher Bigsby: “There is an America. Believe me, there is an America.”
Jonathan Elbaz 

Christopher Bigsby, part of the faculty for “Defining America: New Writing, New Voices, New Directions” is one of the world’s most respected literary analysts. His definitively-British wit and skepticism are surpassed only by his panoramic understanding of literature. He wasn't afraid to sprinkle in some darker thoughts into the discussion when he addressed the participants one morning during the session. He says that while people strive to look for something new and exciting in literature, they often push many contemporary writers to the margins because they don’t fit a certain model of relevance. He also firmly denies others’ claims that you can’t isolate America and generalize about it anymore, because oh yes… there certainly still is an America.

Jonathan Elbaz, Salzburg Global Seminar: Much of your lecture at the session dealt with what the literary world is missing as it searches for something new. You’ve said that people are often looking in the wrong places.

Christopher Bigsby: There’s a tendency to look at one place within literature. There is kind of the ruling orthodoxy of the moment, as there is at anytime I suppose. And it has been recently to do with transnationalism, transculturism, and so on. There are a whole list of American writers who never get mentioned because they don’t fit into that model. A number of Nobel Prize winners are filtered out because people don’t think of them as Americans, even though they’re American citizens. And Jewish writers I find get excluded. There are an enormous number of exclusions because there’s a flavor of the month, a flavor of the last few years, which has had to with transnationalism.

SGS:
What else are we missing?

CB: We don’t look at genre writers or crime writers, a number of whom have been enrolled in television, something they would never have touched before. Largely because of cable, writers have had a dominant position. They’re very significant, and they’re regarding television as a place where they can tell their stories publicly. Very often they write social stories to do with the state of America and because they’re crime writers—The Wire for example—which covers homicide on the street, these come from non-fiction books, which is another area which I think we’re not looking at. Non-fiction books have been absolutely key and they’re beautifully written, and if you look at the cinema, documentaries are making a comeback.

There are people in literature who think of writers in a very restricted way so I was trying to say I think we’re slicing the cake too thin, that there are other major figures who we’re no longer looking at.

SGS
: What do you think causes this restricted view of contemporary literature? 

CB: We’ve had a succession of theoretical approaches to literature, or ways of understanding literature, and they follow fast upon one another. Each one has had its own jargon and restrictive language. Every time you do that, you exclude other things, and it’s the exclusionary nature of particularly American Studies that has slightly disturbed me. And they seem in America not to realize that transnationalism is fundamental to European Americanists. After all, they’re German or Dutch and they’re British and they look trans-Atlantically at America and see a different America. They’ve been doing it for centuries, going back to Alexis de Tocqueville.

SGS
: With what frame do you find academics theorizing about modern America?

CB: Because of this insistence on the transnational and the other, there is a feeling that you can no longer talk about America, that you can no longer generalize about America because it’s a series of contentions, disagreements, and tensions within the society. Yet if you move away from America and view it from Europe, there’s most certainly an America. If there’s a drone flying overhead, you don’t ask if it’s being controlled miles away by a white Anglo Saxon Protestant or by a Latina woman. It’s America. And you’re on the end of that.

There is an America. Believe me, there is an America. And it’s not like Europe. There’s never been a dominant socialist party, and there’s a reliance on religion, despite its alleged secular nature that you don’t find in many European countries. Also, it’s attitude towards armed citizenry. Somehow 89 out of 100 Swiss men have guns, amazingly they don’t end up killing each other or walking into schools shooting each other. There’s something going on there that is American.

It’s a society on the pursuit of happiness, it’s that tomorrow things are going to be better. People went to America to reinvent themselves. They didn’t go there on the hope that one day things would get worse. They went there because they believed they would get better, and they would no longer be the same person.

SGS:
At this SSASA session, there’s been an interesting balance of novelists and academics, coming from very different worlds. How do you think that has affected the discussion?

CB: When we were planning the session, I said that there ought to be writers at the seminar, not just academics talking about writers, but actual living writers, moving amongst us. And there ought to be someone from the world of publishing, particularly someone who knew about the new digital revolution. You have to disrupt the way academics can isolate themselves from the actual business of writing on the one hand, publishing on the other, and I’m tempted to say reading on the other. It was to disrupt those patterns.

There’s a feeling that you have to reject the past in order for the new to be born, which is again very American. Writing is circular, you go back to earlier influences, you build on the past, but you don’t reject it. I was quoting The Crucible, which is constantly produced around the world, and it would not be if it were a museum piece. It’s staged around the world because people see it applying to now, not to 1692 and not the 1950s and the House Un-American Activities Committee, which may have been the reason for it existing in the first place. Arthur Miller once said, “I don’t write plays, I write metaphors.” And the essence of a metaphor is that you’re constantly reinterpreting it. The past is not dead, and it can be new because every time you see a play for the first time, it’s new. It’s new to you, the observer, the audience. Every time you read a book it’s new to you.

SGS:
How has being at Salzburg Global Seminar affected you, and how has the discussions and the environment here influenced you?

CB: It can do one of two things. It can confirm you in what you’re doing already because you’ve found that there are other people doing that as a kind of community. The other thing is that you can be exposed to ideas that are different, and have your ideas challenged. And you can discover things are happening that you didn’t know about. I came here and met the stage designer of A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman. That changed me, because I hadn’t really thought about design very much. That changed the way I went about things. And I started attending rehearsals. As an academic, I kept myself pure, judging the text from a distance. Now for the first time, I got in there. I talked to the directors, the actors, recorded what went on rehearsals. I went to libraries and looked at earlier drafts of the same plays. And certainly it transformed things. That was kick started here at Salzburg and I think that was valuable.

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Paul Lauter: "You cannot do American Studies today and confine to the boundaries of the now-50 states"
Paul Lauter: "You cannot do American Studies today and confine to the boundaries of the now-50 states"
Salzburg Global Staff 

Paul Lauter is the Allan K. and Gwendolyn Miles Smith professor of literature at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He has served as president of the American Studies Association (of the United States), and he is general editor of the groundbreaking Heath Anthology of American Literature, now in its fifth edition.In the 1960s, Dr. Lauter served as peace education secretary and director of peace studies for the American Friends Service Committee, and executive director of the U.S. Servicemen's Fund. During 1964 and 1965 he worked in freedom schools in Mississippi, then in Roosevelt University's Upward Bound program, and in 1967 he became director of the first community school project in the nation, at Adams-Morgan in Washington, DC. He was also active in the faculty and staff union at the State University of New York, serving as statewide vice-president for academics, as chapter president, and as grievance officer, among other positions. He was also one of the founders of The Feminist Press and its treasurer and an editor for fourteen years. Lauter has served as director of American Studies, as English department chair, and has for many years been the director of the graduate program in American Studies. He served as the chair of the 12th Salzburg Seminar American Studies Association symposium Defining America: New Writing, New Voices, New Directions.


Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

I begin with this familiar quotation from Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852).  It nicely raises two kinds of questions I wish to address: first, what does it mean to 'make . . . history'?  And perhaps more to our point, what are the existing 'circumstances,' the constraints, of the present as well as of the past that operate on our ability to make our own history?  

History, we know, consists not just of battles and elections, it has more to do with the stories we tell—to ourselves and others.  The story Thoreau tells about living at Walden Pond—and, not incidentally, the essay he wrote there, “Civil Disobedience”—is as much an historical construct as the soon-to-come Civil War.  And in fact, much of Walden consists of examining the constraints a man faces, deals with, and turns into opportunities, as he tries to simplify his life.  We can read Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/ La Frontera in much the same way—or an unlikely-seeming text like Keats’ “Nightingale”—but that’s another matter.  Many of you will recall the Bush administration official—Chaney or Rumsfeld perhaps—who claimed that when the US acted militarily and politically, it changed the conditions constraining history “on the ground.”  Of course, that was nonsense.  The inability of the Bushies to understand the existing constraints on the history they claimed to be creating led them to repeat history rather than make it.

Our concern here, however, is with that form of history, the narrative, the poem, the drama, created by writers, particularly those we call “American.”  And I want to ask the question: what are the distinctive constraints under which they labor today?  How do these—do these?—differ from those Thoreau or Keats or Anzaldúa contended with?  I want to emphasize three manifestations of circumstances, to which I’ll give the names “internationalization,” “technological change,” especially in the publishing industry, and class conflict.  You will, I’m sure, notice that these constitute central elements in the structure of our seminar together, which means, of course, that I needn’t—and couldn’t—cover them in any meaningful detail here.  So these remarks are gestures toward our subject.

But first, who is the “our” in my sentence?  I want to speak this morning about what I will call “literary people.”  I mean by that term not only writers of fiction, poems, plays, and other creations of words but teachers, professors, critics, even theorists.  We inhabit a terrain whose boundaries are often the subject of dispute, and whose laws—or at least whose principles—remain contentious.  I remember an episode at the university in Semarang, Central Java, where two students came to enlist me in a dispute they were having with their professors.  They wished to write their senior theses on books—one of them was Jurassic Park, the other named I, Robot—their professors thought about as trash, not worthy of a literature department.  I argued their case: Poe, I proposed, had often been thought of as a composer of trash, a “jingle man,” as I recall Emerson calling him.  Perhaps these books would over time emerge as valued—in any event, I said, they could be useful to study, as would virtually any cultural artifact.  That episode marked my first tentative step down the path—or perhaps I should say along the path From Walden Pond to Jurassic Park, as I represented it in one of my book titles.  So framed, the steps from literary to cultural study seem obvious and the path reasonable enough for literary people to tread.  But let’s recall the suspicion, downright hostility, of Frankfurt School gurus, Horkheimer and Adorno, toward industrialized, mass-produced cinema—could anyone designate it an art form?  Well, that question has obviously been answered in the affirmative for us.  But we today encounter a variety of new forms of expression in varied media that we may wish to imitate or borrow from or analyze or teach.  Or maybe not.

It is not, I need to emphasize, that our role as literary people, as concerned intellectuals, is to patrol the boundaries of our turf to keep out the rush of hoi-poloi culture, the tweets and blogs and You-Tube posts.  Once upon a time the term “literary people” might indeed have designated a kind of cultural police, keeping separate—in Dwight Macdonald’s memorable formulation—Columbia University from Columbia Pictures.  But our roles today are, I believe, more complicated precisely because the boundaries within which we work are so nebulous and shifty.  And so constrained by the circumstances to which I want now to turn.  

Internationalization takes many forms and is not exactly new on the terrain of American culture.  Take the early 19th century of Melville, wandering the world from Southampton to the South Seas; take Longfellow, sent to Germany by Bowdoin and Harvard to prepare more fully for teaching modern literature; take Irving of The Alhambra among other works; Fuller, becoming a Roman revolutionary; Douglass, winning hearts and minds in England.  America was never an isolato.  But there are differences today—some simply of scale.  The World Migration Report of 2010 estimated the number of “international migrants” at 220 million by 2013. [World Migration Report 2010 - The Future of Migration: Building Capacities for Change. International Organization for Migration. 2010. Retrieved 2010-11-30.]  and the UN in 2014 put the number at 232,000,000, approximately 3% of the world’s population.  That percentage has remained fairly constant over the past decade, but the numbers of migrants has increased markedly: “by 10.8 million between 2010 and 2013” according to the UN Secretary-General.  These are an enormous figures, and it is not at all surprising that immigration—its prevalence, its restrictions, its impact--is on the political agenda of virtually every country, especially the relatively wealthier ones of Europe and the Americas, but also countries like India, from which large numbers emigrate, but which also receives substantial numbers of immigrants from still-more impoverished neighbors.  

Sheer size is not the only feature of immigration today.  Consider electronic forms of communication, varied means of sending remittances, relatively cheap air transport, not to speak of the desperation of many migrants: today’s immigrants have a significantly different relationship to “home” as well as to the “host” country than those in previous centuries, many of whom left and seldom looked back.  Things are more complicated now, as you will quickly observe if you read books and articles about the preservation of the “mother tongue” or “heritage” language among immigrant populations.  There is no single pattern for linguistic assimilation or retention. It will vary depending upon several factors, like the linguistic “distance” between the language of a host country—say English or French—and an immigrant language—say Urdu or Spanish; or the roles played by women as teachers of children in immigrant families and communities.  Furthermore, for a variety of reasons English has become, for many with non-English origins, a preferred language of composition.  [See, for example, William Grimes, “Writing in English, Novelists Find Inventive New Voices,” New York Times, April 25, 2014]  This development has something to do with the pervasiveness of English as the on-line language of choice; also the economic and political power of major English-speaking countries, for better and for worse.  Some authors, William Grimes argues, “have left their native language behind after being displaced by political unrest or repression. Others have relocated and plunged into new cultures in a spirit of adventure, encouraged by the freer movement of people and ideas over the last quarter-century.”  What seems to me important here for our purposes is also what I would describe as the greater presence both of “heritage” languages, but particularly non-American cultures and historical circumstances in the text milieu of today’s “American” writers.  I would use as an instance Liyun Li’s, “A Sheltered Woman,” published in The New Yorker.  The story makes brilliant use of certain traditional Chinese assumptions and practices having to do with newborn infant care, and the roles of the nurse and the mother, but it sets them in the wildly different context of today’s San Francisco.  Li is interested in new world circumstances that utterly change the character of mothering as well as nursing.  Indeed, much of the effectiveness of the story has to do with the distance between Chinese norms and the new world realities that the nurse, Auntie Mei, faces.

Li’s is hardly alone among non-Native writers to appear in significant US journals, like The New Yorker.  I’ve done an altogether unscientific ramble through the pile of New Yorkers I have at home.  Some results: Of the fiction, 7 of 14 pieces by writers from overseas, plus one born in the USA to an immigrant parent.  Of the full reviews: 5 of 10 are of books by overseas writers or about overseas subjects.  Of the brief reviews (4 in each issue for a total of 40), 17 were of books by overseas writers, plus 2 by writers born elsewhere.   

What’s the meaning of such numbers?  When I was in graduate school, the study of English literature meant, really, the study of American and British writers.  One read, of course, Faulkner and Hemingway and Joyce and Foster, and even that odd Pole, Conrad and maybe Virginia Woolf.  One perhaps heard about writers from elsewhere who wrote in English, but they tended to be people like Doris Lessing and Olive Schreiner, basically British, though with a certain settler exoticism.  Only later would One Hundred Years of Solitude become a staple of the literary diet, and later still Midnight's Children, or Bharati Mukherjee’s, Jasmine and other texts from the many South-Asian writers in English familiar to you.  

My point is simple: what I have called the “text milieu” in which creative writers and teachers function today has expanded markedly.  You cannot do American Studies today and confine yourself to events that have occurred, or writers who have composed, within the boundaries of the now-50 states that constitute the US of A.  In issuing a call for a graduate conference at Yale on American Literature in the World, Wai Chee Dimock has written: “it is impossible to read the work of Junot Diaz and Edwidge Danticat, Robert Hass and Jorie Graham, Dave Eggers and Jhumpa Lahiri without seeing that, for all these authors, the reference frame is no longer simply the United States, but a larger, looser, more contextually varied set of coordinates, populated by laboring bodies, migrating faiths, generational sagas, memories of war, as well as the accents of unforgotten tongues, the taste and smell of beloved foods and spices.”  

In the 60s and 70s—and continuing into today—one primary task of American literature scholars was to recover forgotten and lost writers, like Charles Chesnutt, Mary Wilkins Freeman, Zora Neale Hurston, and so on.  That task continues.  But alongside the process of recovery is another: finding the manifold ways by which an international text milieu affects what is written and how it is read.  To say that that task complicates all of our lives is to put it mildly.  How can we be expected to know not only the American “classics,” the older canon of Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Dickinson, Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald, just to name a few, and then also the recovered new canon of women and men of color, and now, additionally, Gabriel García Márquez, Roberto Bolaño, Salman Rushdie, Lu Hsun, among so many others?  

It’s hard, yes.  But also, it’s fun—and, I would argue, increasingly necessary.  Five years ago, the New York Times ran a column pointing out that “three of the five candidates in the fiction category [of the National Book Awards] were not born in this country; two of those three live abroad.”  [Liesl Schillinger, “American Literature: Words Without Borders,” October 17, 2009.]  The author of the column, Liesl Schillinger, commented: “what does it mean to write an ‘American’ book, if you don’t need an American address to do it,” though you do need American citizenship?  We could, all of us, multiply these instances of the boundreylessness of what goes by the name of “American” literature.  Sam Tanenhaus in another New York Times article [“Looking for America Beyond Its Borders,” April 11, 2014] put it this way:  

But to others, the current thrust of American studies, known as “the transnational turn,” represents a necessary corrective in the new globalist era. As the country’s standing in the world has slipped, so has its claim to “exceptionalism.” One nation among others, it is best understood in relation to the rest of the world and through its transactions with it.

 To those who have been criticizing American studies today as being insufficiently American, too caught up in the world outside the States, I have to say that’s the way it needs to be if we would really understand what is going on within the States.  

I have already alluded to the technological changes with which we must also contend, the tweets and blogs and posts that seem to take up a good deal of our students’ waking hours.  We should remember that books are themselves a complicated—and not all that ancient—kind of technology.  < http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Cd7Bsp3dDo>  Students of the history of the book point to the changing forms of printing, like the rotary press that enabled large-scale book production.  Before that, Franklin reminds us, books were a relatively rare commodity in late 18th-century America; people read pamphlets, like “Common Sense,” and broadsides, and by the 1830s magazines.  And, of course, pretty much every European in English America was reading the Bible.  Creating a library, public or not, represented an effort to democratize the technology of the book.  For much of the 18th and 19th centuries, letters, shared among family and friends in homes and workplaces, brought news and views from elsewhere.  The technology of Facebook may be different, but in terms of content and in large measure function, it is not all that distinct from what Joan Hedrick has called “parlor literature,” writing shared among family and friends around a dinner table or in the parlor of frontier Michigan or back home in Massachusetts. 

Another element of print technology is the illustration, whose significance has once again been brought to the fore by the growth of graphic and visual fictions.  Once known as comics, these productions have, in the work of people like Lynda Barry, Alison Bechdel, Art Spiegelman (all of whom are included in the most recent edition of the Heath Anthology of American Literature), and Roz Chast of The New Yorker broken past the limitation of the term “literature” to words.  At an earlier point visuals constituted a kind of value added to basically textual books; now a book like Maus is a kind of hybrid production, opening the possibility of other hybrid forms.  So there’s a long history to the process of technological change, even within that technology we call “books.”

But “visuals,” pictures, of course, have a life of their own, quite independent of written texts, and here we engage a different kind of menace to the world of literary people.  A recent New Yorker carried a story by Nick Paumgarten about GoPro, the POV camera system responsible for a number of wildly popular YouTube videos.  The title of the piece, “We Are a Camera,” plays off the name of the John Van Druten play based on Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories.  In effect it poses the material produced by GoPro as an alternative to the experiences evoked by writing:

The short video synonymous with GoPro is a kind of post-literate diary, a stop on the way to a future in which everything will be filmed from every point of view.  Humans have always recorded their experiences, in an array of media and for a variety of reasons.  Not until very recently, with the advent of digital photography and video, and unlimited storage and distribution capacity, has it been conceivable to film everything.  As we now more than ever communicate through pictures, either still or moving, perhaps our lives come closer to Susan Sontag’s imagined ‘anthology of images.’” 

[Nick Paumgarten, “We Are a Camera,” The New Yorker, Sept. 22, 2014, p. 50]

Now there is no question that such videos can be vividly interesting http://digg.com/video/world-trade-base-jump-freedom-tower.  Like good writing, they can extend our experience beyond the daily world.  Whether they adumbrate a desirable future is altogether another question.  As the clip I have shown illustrates, even well-edited, they can sink into the mundane and are rather too much taken up with the exceptional moments of life—the current GoPro cameras are called “Hero 3+.”  Do they challenge us to think, to perceive new forms of experience possible for us, to conceive an imaginable world different from our own, which is crucial to any work for significant change?  Do they do the work of poetry, which Francisco Goldman compares with prayer: “Why do humans pray?  And does it much matter who or what you pray to?  Just reciting or reading a poem can be a prayer, I knew from my own experience.  Poetry is faith, devotion, and desire too; sometimes it’s a spiritual humbling, sometimes an uplifting.”  [The Interior Circuit.  New York: Grove Press, 2014, p. 212.]  After his wife, Aura, died in a freak accident, Joan Didion told him to “read a lot of poetry,” which he did.  So did I—Donne and Keats.  I shall have more to say on this subject in a moment.  Here, I am led to ask: do the videos present endless opportunities for elaborating on the selfie, the altogether appropriate representative of much of western culture?  Do they encourage challenges to risk, rather than to live?  Can we return to them for discovery, dread, or hope?  Perhaps for literary people the question may be how such visual technologies interact with the written word and what we can learn from them, especially about the problems voice and point of view present to students who often find it difficult to place themselves into the consciousness of narrative characters.    

But my concern here is less with the nature of such new technologies, represented by the internet or by electronic reading devices, though I am aware of the fact that as writers and as teachers we must engage these technologies.  I am, rather, concerned with their impact on reading itself—and other behaviors like driving.  Many of you will be familiar with the argument made by Nicholas Carr, first in an article in The Atlantic and then in his book, The Shallows.  Carr maintains, and here I’m quoting from an internet blurb about his book,  

that every information technology carries an intellectual ethic — a set of assumptions about the nature of knowledge and intelligence. He explains how the printed book served to focus our attention, promoting deep and creative thought. In stark contrast, the Internet encourages the rapid, distracted sampling of small bits of information from many sources. Its ethic is the ethic of the industrialist, an ethic of speed and efficiency, of optimized production and consumption — and now the Net is remaking us in its own image. We are becoming ever more adept at scanning and skimming, but what we are losing is our capacity for concentration, contemplation, and reflection.

Carr models for us an analytic approach by examining his own reading habits as these have been affected by an increasing involvement with the internet.  We need to do the same.  In particular, and especially for those of us with relatively free access to internet sources, we need to ask: is our reading of texts being attenuated by the operations on our brains, as Carr contends, of internet technologies?  If so, what then shall we do with respect to encouraging, much less requiring, students to use internet technologies like e-mail and Twitter for classroom work?  Are we then doing the work of the industrial devil?  Are we preparing students to be speedy and efficient drones rather than careful creative readers?

It is hard to overestimate the powerful appeal of some electronic technologies. Driving Interstate 684 between New York and Danbury, CT.  I notice new signs warning against texting while driving, promising fines and revocation of license for three offenses, and then signs advertising a “text stop” coming up, along with the admonition that “it can wait.”  Perhaps it can, but I have been struck by what appears to be the difficulty some texters encounter, which was manifest in two recent New York Times articles (Sept. 13, 2014) about the phenomenon.  One, titled “Trying to Hit the Brake on Texting While Driving,” has to do with a so-far unsuccessful effort to create and market a device to prevent texting by a driver.  The other, “A Texting Driver's Education,” concerns a particular death on the highway caused by the distraction of texting.  What is the attraction or, perhaps more accurately, the compulsion?  It would appear that the consuming need of young Americans is to stay in touch, whatever exactly that might mean.  A recent survey of college students found “that nearly half of respondents (45 percent) couldn't go longer than 10 minutes without using some form of technology.”  [Dian Schaffhauser “Survey: Digital Textbooks Gaining Esteem in Student Eyes,” Campus Technology (on line),  09/02/14]  A classroom experiment conducted by Julie Dalley at Montclair State University is illuminating [https://blogs.montclair.edu/creativeresearch/] :

At the beginning of each semester, I ask my Freshman Writing students to scroll through their texting history and estimate how many texts they send in a day.  In some cases, they couldn’t even estimate how many, as it was well into the hundreds.  I then ask them to write down who they texted most. Usually it was about 5-10 of the same people, all day long (mostly parents and girlfriend/boyfriend). Then I ask to them to look at their texts. What was the most common topic, or exchange? Surprisingly, they were very mundane texts, saying little. Most students couldn’t even recall what they texted to each other. It was a form of communication that existed just to establish or reinforce a connection, but it communicated very little. This exercise was very illuminating to my students, because it showed them how much time and energy they put into a practice they had never stopped to question.

Dalley’s conclusions are reinforced in the work of Sherry Turkle [See Alone Together. New York: Basic Books, 2012], who talks about the ways “technology actually increases our solitude and our inability to focus on relationships.”  

I am, no doubt, beginning to sound, at least to some of you, like an internet Luddite.  Perhaps I am: I almost never access my Facebook account—though I do, unhappily, have one.  I’ve never, ever tweeted nor accessed a tweet.  Twittering, like birds, comes, I suspect, with lots of droppings.  And while I know that a RSS feed is not something you do at the zoo, what it is I cannot tell you.  All the same, I spend many, maybe most, waking hours before my computer and I have used a variety of electronic technologies in my classes: I once had the students in my American lit survey post a comment on each day’s readings and also on one of the other student’s comments; in the course of the term I read some 750 such posts—good night!  I learned thereby that such posting probably subtracted from my students’ involvement with the literary texts we were studying.  Thus I came to perceive a need not to be swallowed by such technologies, however much they were being touted by so-called educational reformers and managers.  Rather, I had to think through the ways in which they might be deployed—or perhaps not—in varied settings.  So when I taught a first-year seminar a year or two ago on “Literature for the 99%” I made the texts we were discussing available on line through Blackboard—and so I was faced with fourteen open Macbooks around the seminar table.  I used that reality as an opportunity to challenge the students to look up words and allusions, which, of course, they had not done before.  At the same time, I assumed that they were likely victims of the phenomenon that Carr described—the inability to read in depth, the loss of our “capacity for concentration, contemplation, and reflection.”  So I began the term with very brief assignments, mostly poems, devoted much class time to them, and only slowly increased my expectations about what my students might be asked to read with care.  I do not know whether that was a successful strategy; I was not inclined to invent tests to see.  The point is this: technologies like the internet, GoPro cameras, or chalk boards are tools, and like all tools, they can be used well or badly, for creative or for exploitative purposes.  In some hands, they will be used to enhance how we read and talk about a line like “Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.”  In other hands, they can become mechanisms for cheapening the processes we call “education.”  Our problem is to be alert to the not-always obvious designs the makers, and especially the managers, of such tools have on us and on our students.

Which brings me to my third subject: the changing character of the institutions most of us—to use Michelle Russell’s categories—work in, around, or in spite of.  Shall I name it “class struggle,” or is that terminology too fraught with echoes, or perhaps the geist of another time?  Still, I would be derelict if I did not get into the subject and into the internal conflicts roiling colleges and universities in the U.S. and, I think, elsewhere. It was never true that universities were so significantly removed from everyday life to deserve the label “ivory towers.”  Certainly in America they had from their beginnings practical goals: the production of ministers for various Protestant sects, the development of mining and agricultural technologies, the training of teachers.  And they were subject to shifting political winds and social forces that endangered professorial militants—that’s why an organization like the AAUP came into existence, along with the concept of “academic freedom.”  But the changes today are, all the same, profound and affect very directly what we and our colleagues do.  These changes have imperiled the humanities in particular, and they have already altered the teaching of literature.  

The principal engine of change, in my view, is the transformation of higher education into a profit center.  I will fill in the meaning of that ugly phrase in a little bit, and its implications for what we do as teachers of literature and American Studies.  But allow me a moment first to pose some of what I denominate “theory,” having to do with the uses of the past, and especially the past as rendered in imaginative writing.  

It has often been said that the main characteristic of capitalism is its ability to turn anything into a commodity.  In fact, many of us came into university teaching precisely because it seemed that the institutions were exempt from the powerful forces of market capitalism.  And perhaps for a time they were . . . more or less.  But no more.  What does that have to do with commodification, markets, history or literature?  As we all know, ours is a culture that promotes historical amnesia; “history is bunk,” that quintessential American success story, Henry Ford, is supposed to have said.  Or, rather, our culture assimilates history, as one more commodity, to entertainment, in the style of Disney World, trash movies like "Mississippi Burning," or in more subtle instances like Steven Spielberg’s "Saving Private Ryan.”  But of course, there are vast stretches of our history that have remained largely unassimilable to movies or indeed, to popular culture in almost any form.  Consider, for example, vivid and exciting events like the labor rebellion of 1877 sparked by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad workers, in which workers rolled flaming boxcars into roundhouses occupied by scabs, the Pullman strike that pitted the U.S. Army against railroad workers, the Flint sit-down strike, which established the power of the United Auto Workers, or even the sit-in movement of the 1960s in Woolworths across the country, much less the Newark or Watts urban rebellions.  On the whole, what characterizes such unassimilable moments and places is political activism, labor activism in particular, but not only that.  Those moments are marked by human interventions into historical processes, the making of history, the idea with which I began this talk.  They register our agency as actors who can make a difference rather than as the passive recipients of instruction from those who, presumably, count.  Democracy has to do with the extension of agency, first it may be to the ballot box, but critically beyond that to other social institutions: the jury, the mortgage or real estate agency, the company or firm, the police force as we have all seen from Ferguson, MO–and, of course, the educational institution.  Needless to say, the extension of agency is always resisted--surprise–by those who already wield power.

The exercise of agency depends upon many factors, but surely one of them—to return to literature--is imagination: the ability to envision alternatives to existing structures of power.  If you cannot imagine “a better world in birth,” it is very unlikely that you will be able to “stand in [your] place” in the “final conflict” (to use the words of “The Internationale”), commit yourself to the creation of that better world.  To be sunk in the slime and degradation of what Jack London called the Abyss is to be disabled; but so is it to be caught in the cotton candy of consumption, or for that matter some of the endless skeptical coils of post-structuralism.  And so is it with most of our students.  We often decry their passivity, their desire to sit back and be entertained, to turn into consumers of curriculum.  How would they know differently, when citizenship has seemed to consist of dialing a yes or no into some simpleminded CNN poll or, at best, pulling a lever for some Tweedle-dee or Tweedle-dum candidate?  Very little in their entertainment diet, and little enough in their education, alas, offers them images of purposeful, political action as in Tahrir Square, or very much that illuminates the motives of people who do act outside the terms of a what’s-in-it-for-me culture.  Martin Luther King, Jr. becomes a holiday instead of a revolutionary.  A college diploma transforms into a ticket to Goldman, Sachs. What offers them ways of understanding, of imaginatively experiencing, the operations of power?  For that, do we not turn to Melville’s “Benito Cereno,” Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” or “Plea for Captain John Brown,” Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s “Nat Turner,” Frances Harper’s “Aunt Chloe’s Politics,” Mary Wilkins Freeman’s “The Revolt of Mother” or “A Churchmouse,” Kate Chopin’s “Desirée’s Baby,” or, perhaps, Jack London’s The Iron Heel or “Koolau the Leper”?   

Please understand: I am not arguing that the function of literary writing is simply or solely to foster revolution, though I think there is a good deal more to be said for that view than for formalist paradigms which dismiss the function of literature as irrelevant or, more often, the painfully naive illusion of overheated radical imaginations.  What I am pointing to, however, is the important role imaginative writing can play in extending the horizons of the possible, in our coming to understand, to feel, even to appreciate how and why other human beings have acted as they have, or as writers have imagined them to be acting.  A usable past does not, that is, consist of a set of calls, battles, manifestos, resolutions, decisions, compacts, or even Declarations or Constitutions.  It consists, rather, of a kind of emotionally charged knowledge about how particular human beings encounter such documents and their manifestations, encounter the actual operations of power, encounter the world in all its force and fragility.  That kind of knowledge is the province–is it not?--of art.  Particularly for us of literary art.  And most particularly, engaged literary art.  

In the current moment what we most have to be engaged with is what few are still willing to name: class.  The fundamental discourse established by the Occupy movement a couple of years ago, that of the 99% against the 1%, (or even a happy 6%), is a discourse of class.  Not, perhaps, in traditional Marxist or even American social science terms, but for all that a discourse of class conflict.  Understanding that discourse presents both a language and a conceptual difficulty.  The language by which we conceive class has atrophied.  For my students, a “scab” is something you pick at rather than a person who helps break strikes, “boss” is the nickname of a singer, Bruce Springsteen, and “wobblies,” far from being a revolutionary labor union, is what you suffer from at the fraternity party late Thursday night.  More seriously—maybe—class struggle in American political parlance has more to do with whether Bill Gates of Microsoft or Arne Duncan of the federal Education Department will tell you what to teach and how, rather than whether a “boss” will hire “scabs” or mobilize cops to break up your picket line.  

Given such changes in language and social ideas, it may be hard to see why I want to talk of the university as a profit center.  Obviously, universities serve the economic, industrial, and ideological priorities of corporate America.  They have, after all, done that for a century and a half.  Now there are relatively new developments in the university that we understand less well and that affect directly our work and the futures of our students.  Neo-liberalism as a doctrine and economic pattern emerged in the early 1970s, precisely the moment in which the phenomenon of the widespread employment of adjunct faculty members began to characterize college and university hiring practices.  What that shift in employment design produced was a slow but very steady upward migration of income and power to those who manage–in fact, run– institutions of higher education.  It is not just members of the board of trustees who represent the 1% on campus, but the presidents and an increasing number of other senior managers, not to speak of those who see their futures as identified with them.  You do not need to own a company that produces widgets or to run financial scams to have seven-figure incomes and the perks that come with them.  Nor do you need to clean the campus toilets to be eligible for food stamps; you can do that teaching first-year writing as a “casual” employee.  Universities in America—and elsewhere—share with the rest of society an increasingly radical division of income and wealth, more and more flowing upward out of the very pockets, so to speak, of the “casually” employed.  We tend to think of neo-liberalism as coming late and slowly to higher education.  To the contrary, the neo-liberal policies of defunding public institutions, privatization, casualization of employment, and managerial control were tested out and refined in public post-secondary institutions during the years following Nixon and company.  Universities were–and remain--in significant ways testing-grounds for the processes by which neo-liberalism has transformed America into the class-conflicted society the Occupy movement challenged.  

A related phenomenon has had to do with the emergence of for-profit institutions, especially those conducted on line and supported by huge government stipends to sometimes non-existent and too often non-educated students.  The phenomenon here is analogous to that we saw unravel in the housing market.  So it has been among too many of the for-profit institutions: so long as government loans passed through students’ accounts, it has mattered very little, and often not at all, if the students learned anything useful, got a job, much less finished a degree.  Those ostensible objectives are not the driving force in this business called “college.”  One of these institutions, Corinthian Colleges, according to the Associated Press (Sept. 16) is being sued by the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau “for what it calls a ‘predatory lending scheme.’  The CFPB is seeking more than $500 million for borrowers who used the for-profit education company's private student loans. Corinthian misled students about their job prospects, in some cases paying employers to offer temporary jobs to graduates, the agency said Tuesday.  Corinthian charged as much as $75,000 for a bachelor's degree and pushed students into private loans with interest rates of roughly 15 percent, more than double the rate for a federal loan, the CFPB said. More than 60 percent of Corinthian students with those loans defaulted within three years.”  

Student loans are, in fact, perhaps the major scandal of today’s universities. In the U.S. what were once grants from the government or from institutions have been turned into debt for students and their parents by shifting financial aid toward borrowing and away from subsidies.  It is part of a corrupt ideology of privatization, converting what was once understood to be a public good–post-secondary education–into a private commodity.  There are institutional practices that illuminate the loan process as a major element in transforming higher education.  Thirty-some years ago, a bank offered a California university a deal: it would provide students with loans at a bit of a discount, but the university had to agree that only that bank’s money machines could operate on campus.  Small potatoes.  Now institutions are directly involved in channeling students to particular loan providers, those willing to offer a kind of finder’s fee to universities.  We do not know the detailed operations or the full implications of this system, or of others through which universities and loan sharks are turning students into intellectual peons--with  unaffordable and long-term debt.

I could talk also about how Penn State, according to Henry Giroux, in 2010 made $70.2 million in total football revenue and $50.4 million in profits.  Or about the multiplying links between big sports programs, corporate media, well-heeled alumni, and the like.  About how the expansion of universities like NYU have enormously enhanced the value of properties owned by trustees and sheiks.  And that’s to say nothing about the multi-million dollar contracts for military as well as corporate research.  

But why talk about higher education as a profit center, and what has that to do with why we teach literature?  Another brief moment of theory: literacy, the ability to read a particular kind of text, is not a permanent social acquisition.  One can lose that ability if certain kinds of texts are pilloried or ignored and therefore marginalized; they then become as obscure as cuneiform.  We can in fact lose the ability to read such texts.  That, we know, was the history of sentimental texts, especially by women, of the 19th century.  Or of left literature of the 1930s.  It took a powerful social movement to make texts like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, “The Revolt of Mother,” and the like available to us.  And such texts in fact helped foster that social movement.  There is, in other words, a kind of dialectic between the dynamics of social change and the power of literary expression.  The Occupy movement, to say this differently, has helped enable us to read texts like those of Jim Daniels, or Jack London, or Mary Wilkins Freeman, or Frances Harper; likewise reading those texts enables us better to understand, and perhaps identify with and participate in movements for change.  Which is not, to say the least of it, what corporate or political leadership want from university education.  They want, rather, the hysteria of competition for jobs and the training supposedly necessary to obtain them.  A different dialectic operates here: between the university as profit center and what students come to see as necessary for them to study to make their way in that institution and the other centers of profit universities have come to model.  What students have been learning from what we might call the university’s “silent curriculum,” is I fear that studying literature or even American studies leads to marginal or no employment, whereas other forms of study lead to wealth.  Just look at the structure of employment at the very universities in which students work: who is making it and who is marginal?  Who teaches first-year writing as an “adjunct” being paid maybe $3,000 per course, and who, as an administrator or a professor in certain business-related areas, makes six and now even seven-figure salaries?  

What I am arguing here is reasonably straightforward: universities are sites of an increasingly bitter struggle over what constitutes an education, what are its goals, and who are its shapers.  New books and articles arguing these issues seem to emerge every week.  I want to say that what we are doing here is part of that struggle.  What we teach and how we teach is no casual, nor a fully private, matter.  These decisions are freighted with the imperative with which I began: the making of our own history.  My purpose in examining the constraints within which we labor has been to help us understand better how we might free ourselves to pursue the goal of a liberal, by which we once meant, a liberating education.

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Defining America: New Writing, New Voices, New Directions
Defining America: New Writing, New Voices, New Directions
Jonathan Elbaz 
Ask American high school students to name examples of great American literature and they’ll likely respond with decades-old novels like The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird or Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The nation’s literary canon is a solid rock, but what’s more unclear is where American writing is headed.  This question will be examined deeply as Salzburg Global Seminar American Studies Association (SSASA) hosts its twelfth session from September 27 to October 1, entitled “Defining America: New Writing, New Voices, New Directions.” The program gathers 56 participants from 27 countries at Schloss Leopoldskron, home of Salzburg Global, and mixes many young PhD students with senior American Studies professors. As the demographic character of the United States becomes more fluid, new literary voices are sparking a dialogue about “American” identity and writing. Meanwhile, as new technology creates challenges for the writing and publishing industry, we must reconsider the role of paper books, physical bookstores, and emerging online media as facilitators of literary expression. During the session, participants will hear from two highly celebrated novelists, Susan Straight and Karen Tei Yamashita. Straight will speak about the “mixed-race novel” and its implications for a multicultural world, while Yamashita will speak on “Game Theory, Race and a Global Third World.” SSASA Chair Marty Gecek directs each session and is responsible for selecting themes and inviting faculty and participants. She said one major purpose of this year's session is to give American Studies professors from outside the US the latest information so they can return home and spread the knowledge to their students. “Most of the people in this discipline come to American Studies through literature,” Gecek said. “That’s why this program has been especially popular. I had to start a waiting list because people were just dying to come and meet at this particular session.” Alongside Gecek, Ron Clifton, a former vice president of Stetson University, and Paul Lauter, the editor of the Heath Anthology of American Literature, will serve as co-chairs. Other faculty include Mita Banerjee, Christopher Bigsby, Mary Brady and Julia Kostova. Salzburg Global has examined American Studies since the organization’s first ever program at the Schloss in 1947. Salzburg Global has organized more than 30 sessions that have explored American literature, foreign policy, history, cultural studies and popular culture. Last year, SSASA hosted “Sustainability and the City: America and the Urban World,” focusing on the social, economic and political challenges cities face in becoming sustainable. Many SSASA faculty and participants are returning this year after attending previous sessions.
Follow discussions from Defining America: New Writing, New Voices, New Directions on Twitter on the hashtag #SSASA12 and on the session page: www.salzburgglobal.org/go/ssasa12
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Salzburg Global 2014 Program now available online
Salzburg Global 2014 Program now available online
Oscar Tollast 
Salzburg Global’s 2014 Program will feature over 25 distinctive sessions and workshops inspired by three interdependent values: Imagination, Sustainability and Justice. The three values underpin Salzburg Global’s new program ‘clusters’ and aim to form the foundations for global citizenship. Under these ‘clusters’, a number of topics will be discussed. For example, participants will be asked how societies can renew their education, how to improve life chances for present and future generations, or examine how societies can reframe responsibilities. The 2014 Program brings together distinctive multi-year projects and partnerships with the common goal of promoting vision, courage and leadership to tackle the most complex challenges of a globalized society. The Salzburg Academies – covering Global Citizenship, Media and Global Change, and the Future of International Law – will continue to prepare outstanding young people with the skills to drive change. Salzburg Global Seminar remains determined in breaking down barriers separating people and ideas. It spans the world’s regions and challenges countries at all stage of development and institutions across all sectors to rethink their relationship and identify shared interests and goals. The program is available for download as PDF. 2014 Program Brochure
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Deljana Iossifova: “There is no time to spare”
Deljana Iossifova: “There is no time to spare”
Oscar Tollast 
Deljana Iossifova, a participant at this year’s Salzburg Seminar American Studies Association 2013 symposium, has called for policymakers to address the issue of sustainability.In light of the symposium’s topic, ‘Sustainability and the City: America and the Urban World’, Ms Iossifova spoke to Salzburg Global about some of the priority areas of concern. In our latest podcast, the lecturer at the Manchester Architecture Research Centre suggests managing coexistence and diverging lifestyles present two of the main challenges for cities in the future. She also states that a consciousness of these particular issues needs to be developed, particularly when cities from all corners of the earth are at risk from climate change. Ms Iossifova adds how the special atmosphere and range of opinions at the symposium led to fruitful discussions.Unlike other sessions, a manifesto wasn’t produced at the end of the symposium to outline a list of objectives to take forward.With that in mind, we ask Ms Iossifova what participants can take away from the symposium and how ideas generated can be implemented into their work.
This is the final episode in a series of podcasts stemming from the Salzburg Seminar American Studies Association 2013 symposium on ‘Sustainability and the City: America and the Urban World’. In our first episode, Professor Saskia Sassen, discusses the environmental challenges city face. In our second episode, Professor Richard Sennett calls for more work for local architects in cities.
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