The Origins of Cool: An Interview with UT AMS Alum Joel Dinerstein

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Joel Dinerstein, a graduate of the UT AMS PhD program and Associate Professor of English and American Studies at Tulane University, has just published his newest book: The Origins of Cool in Postwar America.   The book is a sprawling, engaging, comprehensive study of the concept of “cool” and its emergence in the postwar period as a challenge to entrenched anti-black racism, restrictive sexual mores, and other barriers to individual expression and creativity.  UT AMS doctoral student Kate Grover–a former student of Dinerstein’s at Tulane–sat down with Dinerstein for an extremely thorough and compelling interview about “cool’s” importance and meanings for the historical and contemporary fabric of American culture.

Kate Grover: First, congratulations on the publication of The Origins of Cool in Postwar America! After the American Cool exhibition and the publication of its companion book in 2014, I think many people were excited about the idea of cool in a way that they hadn’t been in the now almost thirty-year history of scholars studying the concept. American Cool is such an excellent introduction to understanding what it means to be cool in the United States, and as you explain in the new book, The Origins of Cool is really the “intellectual infrastructure” for that exhibition. The Origins of Cool has also been in the works for quite a while: you mention in the acknowledgements that that you’ve “been working on this book in some form for nearly twenty-five years.” What first sparked your interest in studying cool, and how did you come to this most recent exploration?

Joel Dinerstein: I have been working on the book since graduate school and in fact my very first seminar paper (for Dr. Abzug) was entitled, “Notes Towards a Study of Cool.” I’d already been thinking about it (abstractly) for a few years and there wasn’t much written on it then. I went to the PCL library catalog and put the word “cool” into search and 400+ titles came up; I looked at each one. I found at least one useful book scholars still rarely refer to, Gene Sculatti’s The Catalog of Cool (1982).

My inquiry for that paper focused on the one question that I’ve sustained ever since: what do we mean when we say someone is cool? What qualities does that person have or project through self-presentation? Here’s the key moment: one day on campus I asked the first five people I knew this question and I received five different answers. This confused me — I thought we shared the meanings and associations of cool, even if they were unconscious (in the “I know it when I see it” mode). So right then I knew I had a project: I had to figure out where and when cool began and how it diffused into the range of meanings I encountered in 1992 at UT.

I would later come to realize that my ideas of cool were from its distinctive origins in African-American culture: my high school and junior high in Brooklyn were both 80-90% African-American and Afro-Caribbean. In the pre-hipster Brooklyn of the 1970s, cool was very important to us all in an unstated-but-profound manner: someone who was cool was self-possessed, confident, smooth, had integrity, and cared little for social approval. So how did it come to mean its opposite and associated with consumerism and products? Here were my fellow students saying a cool person was superficial or popular or something like that.

In short, this isn’t a recent exploration – it started in 1992 and took 25 years to come to fruition. I am gratified to say, all small misgivings aside, it is the book I have been aiming for all these years.

KG:  In The Origins of Cool you theorize how cool developed and functioned in the post-World War II era through case studies of artists and intellectuals involved in postwar arts and culture—namely jazz, existential literature, and film noir. You argue that these figures created cool as a response to the trauma of World War II, the Great Depression, anti-black racism in the United States, and highlight the creative and individualistic ways each of these creators deployed a cool aesthetic to reinvent themselves at a time of existential crisis. In several respects, one could argue that Americans are experiencing a similarly anxiety-ridden moment now and could benefit from understanding the strategies of your cool figures in the book—which brings me to two interrelated questions: First, what is your intended audience for The Origins of Cool? Second, how would you describe the relevance of The Origins of Cool for readers today?

JD:  Cool is probably the most important cultural concept in American history – everyone should know this history, certainly everyone who uses the word. The term (and concept) was coined by African-Americans and diffused by jazz musicians: why is this cultural debt neither understood nor a cultural problem (e.g., appropriation, dilution, love and theft)? Cool is a byword in global culture, having traveled from the periphery to the center of capitalism, against all Marxist theory and in a unique case of the resistance/dominance models of popular culture. And this is true both for cool at its most profound – that is, for icons of cool emulated as ideals — and its most superficial (what is in-vogue or fashionable). In cultural studies terms, it was a new structure of feeling in postwar America: first in jazz, noir, and existentialism, and then in Hollywood film (Brando, Dean, Elvis), rock-and-roll, American style (more broadly) and African-American literature and music. In this period, an individual rebellious figure could create a change in consciousness. Is that still true today? I’m not sure.

I have always found cultural history most powerful when it can explain either the emergence or declension of a mentalité — a mindset, a worldview – during a given historical moment. In the American case, since the 1920s, it happens mostly through popular culture and this is where cool comes in. Beginning in the 1940s, it became the password for social change (and protest) in the second half of the 20th century. For example, our current political crisis is based as much in the audiences created by Fox News and right-wing talk radio as any other factor.

The relevance of the history also concerns an intellectual and scholarly inability to integrate African-American history and culture into major-key American narratives. In other words, we do not understand this history due to artistic and aesthetic racism (both of which I define in the book): in short, the inability to take African-American cultural production seriously as art. Why should readers take Thomas Frank, Naomi Klein, and Malcolm Gladwell seriously (in their work on cool) when they did not do the most basic research on the term’s origins and meanings? I have never seen serious intellectual work in which the authors did not start with the origins of their keyword. Frank starts with the ’60s and Kesey’s bus ride; neither Gladwell nor Klein nor McGuigan (in cool capitalism) address this history. It is even more damning given that the history is fairly easy to access: in jazz history, in Lewis MacAdams’ Birth of the Cool, in Robert S. Gold’s Jazz Lexicon, or in the history of the Beats.

As for the current existential crisis, that is another question entirely. Yet and still, the original strategies of cool can be of considerable use, personally if not politically. The revolution of cool was a response to the revelations of 1945: given the Holocaust, the atomic bombs, the recognition of colonial oppression, the figures in the book are quite aware of the implosion of Western Civilization (its values obviously moribund). We now have an analogous response to the American project: have we all been blind to endemic, ingrained American inequities (#BLM, capitalism)?; is the very concept of democracy moribund given our broken government and a violently divided population (politically, regionally, rural/urban)?

These will be long-lasting questions.  While you work for #resistance, build up your self-knowledge and ask the big existential questions. Stay calm, be aware of your limits, pursue deeper knowledge, create a public sense of composure, avoid emotional reactions to your newsfeed, be aware and vigilant rather than self-righteous and outraged at our current political maelstrom.

KG:  The majority of figures you examine in The Origins of Cool are men, and you mention several times that cool in the postwar era was first and foremost a masculine mode of being. At the same time, you focus briefly on female figures such as Billie Holliday, Simone de Beauvoir, Juliette Gréco, Bessie Smith, Barbara Stanwyck and Lorraine Hansberry to highlight the fact that women were (and are) cool, but are not often recipients of this compliment—at least not to the same extent as men. You give several reasons for this gendered discrepancy, but the one that most intrigued me was “the social conditioning of women and girls meant that women had much less opportunity for ‘individual rebellion’ than men.”

So rebellion is a major aspect of postwar cool and, as you explain, “without defying limits or social conventions….no cool.” On the other hand, I wonder if the associations between rebellion and men and masculinity made (make) it a lot harder for women to actually be cool—not just for others to recognize their cool. It seems to me that women have always rebelled and broken social conventions, but if they did so in a way that would have been coded as traditionally feminine, then people may not have labeled it as such.

I guess what I’m getting at, and what I want to discuss with you, is that cool is something that looks very different for women and/or people that are femme-presenting than it does for men and/or people that are more masculine in their presentation. Should scholars be differentiating between feminine modes of cool and masculine modes of cool—as you differentiate in the book between African-American Cool, Anglo-American Cool and Existentialist Cool? Or is “feminine cool” an oxymoron?

JD:  This is a great question and it has no simple answer. First, cool has always been a masculine aesthetic, the stylish stoicism of what I call the “ethical rebel loners” of American popular culture and the perceived ideal qualities of autonomy, rebellion, toughness, charisma, edge (edginess) and body armor. The emotional costs of cool are also traditionally male: violence, self-destruction, narcissism, substance abuse. If you look up articles entitled “Mr. Cool,” the exemplars are icons such as Johnny Cash, James Dean, John Travolta, Miles Davis, Frank Sinatra, and Clint Eastwood (voted “the coolest man in America” in 2010). As a rare counter-example, the British edition of the magazine GQ voted for the 20 coolest women in 2014 — yet the list is nearly interchangeable with the 20 sexiest women of the same year. Charismatic sexuality is nearly always an element of cool but the two are not synonymous. In addition, the Brit GQ has not done the list since, a sign that this association gained little traction with their readers

The only two women consistently labeled as cool in media are Deborah Harry and Kim Gordon (the bassist for Sonic Youth), and in both cases, the honorific has only been applied in the last five years are so. It helps that both are New York icons from once-underground music scenes. Yet surely, Patti Smith, Chrissie Hynde, Gwen Stefani and Missy Elliott qualify by analogous reasoning within the rock/popular music world, yet they never receive such attribution. And Gwen Stefani even had a hit called “Cool,” that used it within its original Black cultural meanings. So long as women are primarily (or ideally) associated with families and motherhood – and they still are, for a vast swath of the population — cool will remain a rare attribution for women.

Given the association of cool and a retro-tough masculinity – or a smooth sartorial style — perhaps, as you suggest, cool among women needs a separate word. I argued in a section on “Women and Cool” in American Cool that women control the future of cool as a concept within American culture. If women find the term useful, it will retain its vitality; if not, the cool sensibility may wind up being historicized as a twentieth-century masculinity.

A small caveat: I disagree somewhat with your assessment that I “focus briefly on female figures” above.  First, I created a set of specific definitions for a female version of artistic cool through Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday. Second, Lorraine Hansberry gets an entire chapter to herself (one of the only figures who does) and it is full of new, archival scholarship. Third, Simone de Beauvoir is a central figure in the book – in three separate chapters – and I assess her work on ethics, race and American culture as far more important to humanity’s future than Sartre’s. Fourth, I declare unequivocally that the music of blueswomen (in the 1920s and 1930s) constitutes the first school of American feminist literature – I find the lack of recognition to be an example of artistic and aesthetic racism. I also made an explicit call for scholarship that focuses entirely on women and provided a starter list. (Even in current popular history, Bogart, Robert Mitchum, Brando, and Sinatra always receive their Cool badge, but never Lauren Bacall, Barbara Stanwyck, Anita O’Day or Mae West.) Any junior scholar with the desire to start a project on female cool might add Bessie Smith, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Zora Neale Hurston to those four, and get started.

KG:  You’ve been teaching college courses on the history of American cool for almost twenty years now—and there are a few moments in The Origins of Cool in Postwar America (and in American Cool) where you allude to classroom discussions with your students. How have these interactions and your experience as an educator shaped The Origins of Cool and your research on cool more broadly?

JD:  My students had a major influence on American Cool (the exhibit), especially in the last period covered (1980 – 2014). Since cool can be (very) roughly defined as rebellious self-expression with a social edge, I learned that, for my students, the primary rebel figures of the past twenty years were comedians (not actors or musicians, as for previous generations) and the icons of the tech world. Students also had a direct impact on debates between myself and my co-curator Frank Goodyear (also a UT AMS PhD): my classes literally voted on whether John Travolta had sustaining iconic power (yes, overwhelmingly) and between Missy Elliott and Queen Latifah as a resonant feminist artistic force in hip-hop. And yet, even among comedians, there was also surprising consensus on figures we considered – for example, two different classes voted down Tina Fey (even the women) and Chris Rock. To my surprise, my students were devastated by the sudden passing of Steve Jobs, for example, and not at all moved by the equally sudden deaths of either David Bowie or Prince.

Students had less impact on The Origins of Cool, since the book directly focuses on the period between 1940-1965.

As accessed through my students, public memory determined the tone and breadth of the narrative. For example, most students have never heard of Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum, and Marlon Brando is, at best, just a name from the ether of film history at best (despite that he was James Dean’s idol). With this in mind, when I introduce, say, the chapter on Bogart and noir cool, I tried to walk a narrative line between foundational introduction, iconic resonance, historical context, and cultural analysis. I did the same even for Elvis, who is more of a punchline to my students than a transformative figure of American culture. In my experience, students seem to believe rock-and-roll started (or started to matter) in the 1960s, with the Beatles, the Stones, and Dylan. In addition, they seem unaware that African-Americans have created nearly all American popular music, even when presented with testimonials from The Beatles, the Stones, and Dylan. For obvious reasons, students often sometimes seem profoundly uncomfortable with this historical facts, since it suggests cultural appropriation in their own musical tastes.

Due to these gaps, I end many of the chapters in the book with genealogies of cool: that The Rolling Stones are a blues band whose artistic work came from the foundations of Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Big Bill Broonzy; that The Beatles became musicians due to their love of (and debt to) Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Elvis, who in turn, was the prime mover of Springsteen and Tom Petty. And then there’s Bob Dylan’s recent tributes to Frank Sinatra, not to mention his debt to Marlon Brando.

KG:  The Origins of Cool is really the first comprehensive cultural history of cool in the United States, and in the book you lay a much-needed foundation for understanding the concept through its roots in various forms of postwar popular culture. Yet, as you mention in the introduction, “cool is not a transhistorical concept” and has evolved with each passing decade and with each new group that has claimed it. What is your advice for graduate students (like me) and other scholars interested in writing about American cool beyond the postwar era? Specifically, how can scholars affirm cool’s distinct postwar meanings while also acknowledging cool’s different valences in later years?

JD:  My book is both a cultural history and a comprehensive theory of cool. It is my hope that it will be – precisely – a foundation for other and younger scholars to create generational frameworks of cool for every other generation, whether the Boomers or the millennials. As you know, my idea of cool concerns figures of artistic, aesthetic or intellectual importance. There are other ways to research cool for graduate students, including its commodification, its representations in films (e.g., in Heathers, Pulp Fiction, Be Cool, Pump Up the Volume), its role in literature (e.g., William Gibson, Elmore Leonard) or advertising culture (“coolhunters”). In terms of my framework, you can start rhetorically with this phrase: “perceived authenticity.” Identify such figures for a generation and then trace that person’s first emergence into public consciousness and his or her artistic field of endeavor (through style, interviews, etc.).

I provide several definitions of cool throughout the book that are intended to apply cross-generationally. The first one is important: cool is a public mode of covert resistance. The best artistic example of this definition is Johnny Cash’s “The Man in Black,” since he explains exactly why he wears black: he wears it for “the poor and beaten down,” the people in prison, and the ones living in the shadows (or darkness) of society’s self-congratulatory mythology. A great model for this is HBO’s miniseries on Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre – The Defiant Ones – which focuses on how you find individual innovation that will play out in cultural and generational terms. Iovine worked with and/or created the path for Tom Petty, Patti Smith, Gwen Stefani, Trent Reznor, Dr. Dre, Eminem, and many others.

Cool is rebellion-for-others: this is its single most important definition. I extrapolated and distilled this three-word phrase from Albert Camus’ groundbreaking postwar cultural theory of individual rebellion, The Rebel: A Study of Man in Revolt (1951). I also use Camus’ five-word directive as the book’s key trope: “I rebel, therefore we exist.” For a rebel to access cool at its most profound level, his or her rebellion must galvanize an audience towards social change. In other words, my rebellion creates the conditions for yours. That is what cool means for any and every generation.

KG:  I was struck by your argument that even though “cool remains the supreme compliment of American culture,” it is a concept that “has been nearly emptied of generational and ideological conflict, of artistic risk and vision, of old transgressions and social change.” In other words, most people’s understanding of cool today is divorced from the postwar anxieties you outline in The Origins of Cool. You also write in the epilogue, “The recuperation of the deeper meanings of cool will require a reckoning of the past.” This reminded me of something you wrote in American Cool: that cool isn’t dead, “not so long as Americans take the word and concept seriously.” Do you think that many Americans today don’t take cool seriously? It appears to me that this is really the crux of The Origins of Cool, what one of the scholars in our department, Randy Lewis, calls “the basement” of a book—the motivation that’s below the surface, so to speak, the deeper meaning an author is really getting at. Would you agree with this observation?

JD:  To clarify, since cool is not transhistorical, that means no previous iterations of cool hold today, including rebellion itself as a positive valence of individuality. In other words, neither the postwar anxieties of The Origins of Cool nor the counterculture’s nexus of sex&drugs&rock-n-roll nor the hiphop and retro rebellions of African-American culture of the 1990s holds (Public Enemy, Quentin Tarantino films). Cool has certain elements that remain constant and others that are always in flux. This generation has made social activism a core aspect of any icon’s claim to cool — that is a new element as a requirement – but they don’t think of that as cool, per se. Yet cool remains framed by its historical emergence and that’s why The Origins of Cool is a foundational narrative rather than a “basement book.” In terms of a Gramscian idea of “common sense,” all of its previous meanings remain within the conceptual archaeology of cool.

I’ll be clear: I believe cool is the central American mythos of twentieth-century American life and, due to its assumed superficiality, it can now only be understood through a rigorous cultural history. Many of the alleged experts on the subject have the story wrong (Frank, John Leland) and yet intellectuals take this pat commodification story as fact even if it is, among other things, a whitewashing of African-American artistic and aesthetic influence on the dominant society. In such a case, it is common enough for a cultural historian to provide an intervention in the field.

In short, my motivation to write this was less that cool was disappearing and more that it has been misunderstood since the early ’80s. At that point, in amateur scholars like Gene Sculatti in The Catalog of Cool or Roy Carr’s The Hip understood its cultural meanings from 1940-1975. Now there are many books no capitalism and cool, and even neuroscience and cool (with regard to consumer behavior). Capitalism did not create cool and this mistakes “what’s-cool” – fashionable or in-vogue – for a far richer history.

To give an example, the African-American lifestyle magazine Ebony ran a cover story in 2009 of “The 25 Coolest Brothers of All Times” with eight different cover icons, including Muhammad Ali, Prince, Denzel Washington, Marvin Gaye, and Barack Obama. The article – a short historical theory of Black Cool as an “Afro-Zen,” as it came out of slavery and masking — was written by Jelani Cobb, now one of the nation’s best writers on race and American culture for the New Yorker. The concept remains quite vital within African-American tradition, according to its original postwar parameters. So there is an ongoing distinctive African-American cool while white intellectuals assume mainstream marketing meanings are the only ones that count. To be glib, apparently, concerning the history of cool, black cultural lives don’t matter.

The real intellectual question is why artistic and aesthetic racism persists within academic life when the facts are so readily accessible. I’ve asked myself this question many times. The short answer I’ve come up with is that scholars often refuse to research fields in which they have no expertise, even if it’s clear that area is central their analysis – in this case, jazz history, postwar history, Beat literature, and African-American culture more broadly, just to name a few. This is intellectual racism and, in my experience, it is quite prevalent in the exploration of American culture. In the reception of The Origins of Cool, I have been disappointed at the general avoidance of the racial and African-American issues of the book. Sadly, it only proves my point. Quite simply, cool could not and would not exist outside of its African-American origins in music, language, style, humor, dance, and iconography, and its continual renewal, whether in funk or hip-hop, sneakers or 70s style, or through sports exemplars from Muhammad Ali to LeBron James.

A final note. In the late 1930s, young African-Americans coined the term “cool” to mean a relaxed mode of performance; it was so important, white Americans appropriated it and eliminated its origins. In the early ’80s, young African-Americans shifted the original meanings of “cool” to a new and similar word – “chill” – since white Americans appropriated their vernacular term. This is surely another example of cultural appropriation that seamlessly takes place without recognition or appreciation.

Phil Deloria and Alexander Olsen Speak on New Book at Glickman Center: Next Thursday, 10/19, 3 P.M.

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In just one week, Dr. Phil Deloria and Dr. Alexander Olsen will be coming to the University of Texas at Austin to give a talk on their new book American Studies:  A User’s Guide.  Their book attempts to lay a theoretical, methodological groundwork for understanding the field of American Studies, and for making use of it as a tool of critical analysis.  There will be a reception in the Glickman Center, CLA 1.302B at 3 P.M., followed by a book talk and Q & A at 4 P.M.

Dr. Deloria is Carroll Smith-Rosenberg Collegiate Professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, and author of Playing Indian among many other distinguished works.  Dr. Olsen is Assistant Professor at the Mahurin Honors College at Western Kentucky University.

Please join us for the reception, talk, or both!



Dr. Lauren Gutterman Discusses the New Podcast, “Sexing History.”

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UT American Studies professor Dr. Lauren Gutterman, along with Gillian Frank (fellow at Princeton University’s Center for the Study of Religion), have started a new podcast called Sexing History, “a podcast about how the history of sexuality shapes our present.”  We asked Dr. Gutterman and Dr. Frank about their inspiration for the project, the first few episodes of the podcast, the relationship of podcast to pedagogy, and the direction they hope to take the podcast in the future. You can find the podcast at:  Please read on!    

Can you tell us a little bit about the podcast and how you arrived at the project?

GF: Sexing History explores how the history of sexuality shapes present day sexual politics, values, communities and identities. Lauren and I are the co-hosts. Our producers are historians Rebecca DavisDevin McGeehan Muchmore and Saniya Lee Ghanoui. We’ve all worked together in various capacities for years and all share a commitment to telling accessible stories about sexual diversity in the American past. We were able to launch Sexing History through the generosity of Allen Zwickler of the Phil Zwickler Charitable and Memorial Foundation.

LG: Gill really deserves credit for coming up with the idea for a podcast on the history of sexuality. He approached me about it this summer and brought our amazing team of producers together. While I’ve worked on digital history projects including a Wikimedia website on LGBTQ American history, and more recently Notches: (Re)marks on the History of Sexuality an international history of sexuality blog, I was excited about the possibility of engaging the broader public through audio recording rather than text.

How do you see podcasting as different from more traditional academic publishing? Why did you choose to work in this medium?

GF and LG: Writing for a podcast is quite different from writing for an academic journal. To begin with, the timeline is much faster. Over the summer and fall we’ve been able to write our first three episodes, whereas an academic journal article typically takes years to publish.

Writing for an audience of listeners, rather than readers, also comes with particular challenges and opportunities. With episodes of just twenty-to-thirty minutes, we need to get to the heart of a topic quickly and we have to leave out details that aren’t essential to the story we’re telling. We try to write shorter, more readable sentences, cut out academic jargon, and strike a more conversational, colloquial tone than we would in our other work. The podcast also allows us to highlight audio from the historical events we’re discussing as well as the voices of leading scholars and historical figures, which, of course, we can’t do on paper.

We chose to work in this medium because we suspected and hoped that people who might not have the time or inclination to read an article about the history of sexuality would find listening to a podcast more accessible and engaging.

Your first three episodes discuss the history of sexuality in relation to high school proms, abortion, and “breast developers.” How did you choose these topics? What bearing do these issues have on present-day American society?  

GF and LG: We discuss potential topics together with our producers Devin McGeehan Muchmore and Saniya Lee Ghanoui and then do some initial research to see if relevant audio is available. As our first few episodes suggest, we are thinking about the history of sexuality in a broad sense, including LGBTQ history, reproductive politics, standards of beauty and desirability, and more. We’re currently writing future episodes on cultural battles over interfaith marriage in the 1970s, and evangelical sex advice.

One of our major goals with Sexing History is to provide listeners with an historical context for contemporary events, and each of our episodes speaks to the present in some way. Our second episode, for example, examines the 1975 case of Dr. Kenneth Edelin, an African American physician who was convicted of manslaughter in Massachusetts for performing a legal second trimester abortion. His trial transformed the anti-abortion movement, which, following his trial, began to focus on limiting access to abortion rather than overturning Roe v. Wade. In a sad coincidence, just this month, the House of Representatives voted to pass H.R. 36, legislation that would make abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy a criminal offense, and would impose fines or prison terms for abortion providers who violate it. The similarities between the case of Dr. Kenneth Edelin’s case in the 1970s and the discourse of today is striking. 

What projects or people have inspired your work more broadly? 

GF and LG: Both of us are avid podcast listeners. Some of our favorites include 99% InvisibleCriminal, and The Moth, Radiolab, and You Must Remember This. We’re influenced and inspired by the ways these podcasts approach storytelling, unpack complex issues, and find ways to link American history to contemporary culture.

How do you see your work fitting in with conversations in academia and beyond?

GF and LG: Sexing History allows us to both highlight existing scholarly work on the history of sexuality and to push academic conversations forward. For our first episode on gay proms, we interviewed professor Amanda Littauer who is researching the history of queer youth activism in the United States. Several scholars have written about the case of Dr. Kenneth Edelin, and in our second episode we were able to interview professors Johanna Schoen and Mary Ziegler, about the case and the anti-abortion movement after Roe v. Wade more broadly. Our third episode about the Mark Eden corporation, which fraudulently marketed a piece of exercise equipment as a “breast-developer” for more than a decade in the nation’s leading women’s magazines, has not itself been the subject of scholarly examination, but professors Elizabeth Matelski and Natalia Mehlman Petrzela who write about post-war female beauty standards and fitness culture, respectively, helped us to contextualize this particular manufacturer’s history.

How do you think your podcast has affected your teaching? Or, conversely, how do you think your teaching has affected the podcast?

LG: In class and on the podcast I try to make the past more accessible and more relevant to students and listeners. Often in class, I’ll invite students to examine a particular object or text, like a political cartoon or a magazine advertisement, in light of broader themes we’ve been discussing. In some ways Sexing History takes a similar approach. By looking in-depth at Aaron Fricke’s fight to attend prom with a same-sex date or the Post Office’s legal battle against the Mark Eden corporation, for example, we’ve been able to explore much broader issues in American society and culture from gay oppression and youth activism, to oppressive beauty standards and mail fraud.

GF: In my teaching, I’ve found that people learn best when they find relevance in the subjects they study, are given ample and diverse opportunities to engage with a range of ideas, and through critical engagement and careful reflection, learn to negotiate the differences they will find in each other and society with intelligence and civility. These values underlie Sexing History, which strives to make connections between past and present while sharing sexually diverse perspectives and stories.

Hyperlinking and Retroactive Continuity: An Interview with AMS Grad Andrew Friedenthal on His New Book

AMS : ATX sat down with Dr. Andrew Friendenthal, 2014 graduate of UT’s American Studies doctoral program, to discuss his new book, Retcon Games: Retroactive Continuity and the Hyperlinking of America, out this year from the University Press of Mississippi.  It’s a time-bendy sort of conversation.  Please enjoy!

Retcon Games

Can you tell us a little bit about your book Retcon Games, and how you came to the project?

Retcon Games came out of my dissertation, actually. The dissertation was a much broader study that examined the ways in which superhero comics can be used to look at changing views of the past over time. As my committee rightly pointed out, though, the ultimate “so what?” of that study was more of a statement than an argument. For Retcon Games, I took the two strongest chapters from the dissertation, which both focused on the idea of retroactive continuity, and figured out how to extract their hidden argument.

That argument, boiled down, is that decades (and, in some cases, centuries) of retroactive continuity in popular media have paved the way for a new mode of understanding history that allows for more malleable interpretations of the past.

Retroactive continuity, or retconning, is a storytelling tool used in long-term narratives wherein creators deliberately alter the story and/or characters’ history in order to create new story opportunities in the present/future. I argue that being familiar with this trope makes audiences more receptive to the concept, expressed most eloquently by Hayden White, that history is not a purely factual “chronicle” of events, but rather a “narrative” constructed out of those events by whomever is ordering them.

When I wrote the book, I had an optimistic view of all this. I felt that the growth of Wikipedia, and the increasing acceptance of it as a legitimate source of information when used properly and constantly interrogated, meant that our society was becoming more adept at understanding that history, fact, and narrative are all constructions. Then, of course, came the era of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” and I now see that there’s also a much more pessimistic side to explore.

What projects or people have inspired your work?

I was particularly inspired in this text by several scholars of Media Studies, a field that is as multidisciplinary as American Studies (and which crosses over with AMS quite frequently). In particular, Retcon Games was heavily influenced by the work of Henry Jenkins, by Michael Saler’s As If, and by Mark J.P. Wolf’s Imaginary Worlds. I was understandably quite excited when I found out that Dr. Wolf was gracious enough to write a cover blurb for the book!

How do you see your work fitting in with broader conversations in academia and beyond?

One of my intentions with this book was to bring together American Studies and Media Studies, by analyzing the history, usage, and impact of a particular media trope in order to have a broader discussion about the ways in which the historiographic questions discussed within American Studies are represented by popular texts in everyday life. Now that the connection between media and politics is more vital to unpack than ever, I hope that the book can be the starting point of a lot of useful conversations about constructed history and interpretations of truth.

How is this work you’re doing now, as a scholar, teacher or both, informed by the work you did as an American Studies student at UT?

This work entirely arose from my dissertation, the advice that my dissertation committee gave me, and the conversations and suggestions I received from my peers in the department along the way. Looking back on my time as an American Studies student, I can see the arc of how I moved further and further into the realm of Media Studies, to the point that today I define myself as a Media Studies scholar as much as I consider myself an American Studies scholar.

Do you have any advice for students in our department about how to get the most out of their experience at UT?

Don’t let the department be your life. Austin is an amazing city in which to be young, so spend your time exploring, making friends, and cultivating interests outside of academia. My work has been extremely informed by so many things I’ve seen and done outside of the academic world, and my career opportunities after graduating have come as much from outside connections and skills as they have from my graduate training. Grad school is tough, and it’s undeniably a tough job market out there right now, so if you don’t enjoy your life at UT while you’re going through it, you’re going to look back with regret.

What projects are you excited to work on in the future?

The next project I want to start on is a book about “immersive entertainment,” a subject that’s been a part of my work since my Masters thesis about Walt Disney World. I want to look at sites like the Disney theme parks, Las Vegas hotels, civil war reenactments, LARPing, and other ways that people try to immerse themselves in an alternate reality, in order to discuss the values and dangers of escapism that those immersive opportunities often embody.

I also write about theater for the Austin American-Statesman and the upcoming Time Out Austin, which harkens back to my pre-UT theater background, and I have a day job in marketing, so it might be awhile yet before that book sees print. Nevertheless, I’m sure it will be percolating in the back of my head until I finally can’t help but get it out.

“Five Questions” Returns with First-Year PhD Student Sarah Carlson!

It’s a new academic year, and it’s a new round of “Five Questions” interviews with the VIPs of the UT American Studies department!  Since our interviews with last year’s first-year PhD cohort were such a success, we’ve decided to make it a tradition.  So, first up in the 2017-18 “Five Questions” series is Sarah Carlson, who traveled all the way down I-35 from the Twin Cities, Minnesota to study here at UT, and also to see how it felt to walk into a grocery store in January and not see a single snow shovel.  Here, Sarah details her experience working as an archival project manager for the Umbra Search African American History project, and her plans for her doctoral work here at UT.  Read on!
Sarah Carleson Image Blog
1) What is your background, academic or otherwise, and how does it motivate your teaching and research?

Until now, I was a lifelong midwesterner. I spent my childhood in Wisconsin and then earned my BA in English at the University of Minnesota. I stayed in the Twin Cities for two more years after graduation working in the University of Minnesota Libraries’ Archives and Special Collections as the project manager for Umbra Search African American History ( Umbra Search is a digital aggregation of African American history materials from libraries, archives, and cultural history institutions across the country.

2) Why did you decide to come to AMS at UT for your graduate work?
No snow! But in all seriousness, I was totally energized by the engagement of this department. I don’t think I’d ever encountered an entire department so earnest and joyous in their work, and the work of their colleagues and students. The diversity of specialities was another major draw. There is a great camaraderie here that is built on a variety of interests. Everyone is learning from each other! That sealed the deal.

3) What projects or people have inspired your work?

Naturally, a lot of inspiration comes from Umbra Search: the project itself, the project team, and the countless partners at libraries. Folks from projects such as the Colored Conventions Project, AADHum at University of Maryland, Diversifying the Digital Historical Record, and Mukurtu have shaped how I want to approach engaging scholarship and archival projects.

It’s an understatement to say I’m inspired by Paula Rabinowitz, an incredible writer and captivating teacher. Paula has the ability to bring the entire world into a single piece of scholarship. It’s beautiful and a little intimidating! She supervised my thesis project and is the reason I ended up in grad school.

4) What projects do you see yourself working on at UT?

I’d like to expand on what I was doing on Umbra Search while I’m here. I want to keep thinking about silence and absence in archival collections, something that is fundamental to African American collections, and how digital projects might not just fill in the gaps, but also call attention to them. I’ve also been interested in copyright: how it’s used and abused in the name of access. The conundrum of copyright is particularly thorny, again, for African American collections; collections often filled with materials that were stolen or their authors denied copyright. Ultimately, these two questions — copyright and absence in African American collections —  are also wrapped up in the infrastructure and administration of cultural heritage institutions. I’d like to think about how these all (copyright, collections, and infrastructure) intersect and try to identify a more responsible and sustainable approach to collection development and access.

So — I certainly hope I’ll find ample opportunity to work in collections at the Harry Ransom Center. After attending Humanities Intensive Learning and Teaching on campus this summer, I’m also eager to get involved in DH projects. I’m eager to take advantage of the interdisciplinary opportunities on campus.


5) What are your goals for graduate school? What do you see yourself doing after you graduate?

My primary goal is to become more sophisticated in my scholarship: honing my research skills, improving my writing, and learning to think broadly while probing deep in one particular niche. I’m considering an alt-ac track, so it’s a real mystery what I’ll be doing after graduate school. Ideally, I’ll be working in the realm of cultural heritage and public scholarship (whether that’s in an archive/library, academic publishing, or funding institution for the former).
Bonus Question:  In your own words–what is American Studies?
This was my other goal for graduate school: get through it without having to answer this question! This question is why I’m here. I like to think about American Studies as a source of real talk and self-reflection, a place out of which understanding and empathy flourish. It’s idealistic, but American Studies provides an opportunity to see how the pieces fit together, and if they don’t fit nicely, ask why.

What I Did on My Summer Vacation: Kate Grover on Volunteering with Girls Rock Austin

I’m a rock fan. I listen to rock music, go to rock concerts, watch rockumentaries, and write about rock culture as a graduate student. In fact, I’m more than a rock fan—I’m a full-blown rock nerd. So you can imagine I was pretty flippin’ excited to volunteer with Girls Rock Austin (GRA) this summer.

GRA showcase poster

Flyer for the GRA showcase. Image courtesy of the Girls Rock Austin Instagram page (@girlsrockatx).

A nonprofit and local chapter of the Girls Rock Camp Alliance, Girls Rock Austin puts on a variety of annual programs to empower “girls and women through music, education, and performance.” This includes weeklong day camps for girls, gender fluid/non-binary and trans youth (ages 8-17) every summer. At its core, GRA’s rock camp builds on the DIY ethos of punk rock feminism: anyone can do anything with the resources they have, including play instruments, write songs, and form bands. But the camps are more than an introduction to musical culture. Along with instrument instruction and band practice, campers engage in a range of workshops covering topics such as healthy relationships, identity, and intersectional feminism. Every aspect of camp is volunteer-run, and many (if not most) of GRA’s volunteers are musicians themselves.

GRA first day

Campers participate in an icebreaker activity on their first day of rock camp. Image courtesy of the Girls Rock Austin Instagram page (@girlsrockatx).

Since I’m a pretty mediocre guitarist at best, I volunteered in roles that were much more suited to my abilities: band counselor and workshop leader. Along with band coaches, or volunteers who have experience playing live music (in bands or otherwise), band counselors provide a support system for the campers throughout the week. We’re the cheerleaders, the clowns, the hype-people, the confidants, the referees, the whatever-the-campers-need to have a blast at rock camp. After the campers form bands on the first day, a coach and counselor pair is assigned to each band and sees them through the week. I worked with The Giants, a band of four teenagers who named themselves such because they were all about six feet tall.

GRA zines

Campers’ creations from the zine-making workshop. Image courtesy of the Girls Rock Austin Instagram page (@girlsrockatx).

Sitting in on band practice everyday and witnessing young people work together to write songs and find their creative voices reminded me of the radical potential of music. As cheesy as this sounds, it also filled me with an incredible sense of hope for the future. This feeling only intensified during the Women Who Rock workshop, a rock herstory lesson that I co-lead with fellow volunteer, Eryn. We discussed Madame Gandhi, Miriam Makeba, Alynda Segarra (Hurray for the Riff Raff), Libba Cotten, Sadie Smith (G.L.O.S.S.), and Wendy Carlos, six women of various backgrounds, eras, body types, and musical styles that all rock in their own unique way. While this was great experience teaching the material I hope to cover at a collegiate level, it was even more awesome to see the campers get inspired by these women—to make the connection that their own diversity and creativity is what makes them special, what makes them truly rock.


At the end of the week, the campers performed in the Girls Rock Austin showcase at the North Door. Friends, family, and supporters gathered to watch each band play the original song they had written and practiced at camp, and GRA staff exhibited other projects the campers had produced in the various workshops. Girls rock camp was a week of music, feminism, and fun that I feel incredibly lucky to have experienced, and I can’t wait to volunteer again next year.


GRA Camp Song

Campers and volunteers close the day with the camp song. Image courtesy of the Girls Rock Austin Instagram page (@girlsrockatx).






What I Did on My Summer Vacation: Zoya Brumberg


As I admired a display case of 18th-century chastity belts, specula, butt plugs, and mysterious medical equipment, the proprietor of the antique shop in the tourism center of town inquired what I was doing in Taos. I told him that I was there for a research trip. Though he must have been in his 60s or 70s and living in the United States for quite some time, the antique store owner told me through his thick French accent that he too had received a PhD (in geography) when he was younger but decided that collecting antiques was much better. I asked the man what he thought of the Earthships located just outside of town; he spit and cursed and told me that “Michael Reynolds is a con artist. People in Taos should not be living in the ground! Why would you want to study him?” He did not seem to want an answer and continued on his tirade, then said “fuck you” as I left the shop, which he assured me was a traditional French way of saying “good luck.”

Taos is a surprisingly lush, mountainous area located in the northeast corner
of New Mexico. In the valley west of the Rio Grande gorge, a vast expanse of
sagebrush desert is home to hundreds of off-the- grid homes known as Earthships. Made of brightly tinted concrete adobe and decorated with recycled glass accents, the Earthships are built half underground, with the exposed façade covered in floor-to-ceiling greenhouse windows. “Earthship” is a trademarked term coined by architect Michael Reynolds, who invented the particular architectural forms of what were intended to solar-powered, off-the- grid homes with complex gray- and black-water systems, built in such a way as to regulate temperature without heating or air conditioning, in an aesthetic congruent with the surrounding landscape and the human body. Despite the hippie aims and aesthetics, the Earthship Biotecture headquarters in Taos is more of a gated community than a commune, speckled with independent homes of varying luxuries that share a water cistern, internet router, and hiking trails.


Michael Reynolds’  confidence in Earthship technology was not amenable to improvements or adjustments, which caused him to lose his architectural license for a number of years in the 1990s. The first Earthship designs were not all structurally sound, nor did they function the way they were supposed to—especially in more severe climates than Taos. Compacted dirt over tires cracked without more supple binding; homes overheated in the summer and froze during the winter; and solar panels were insufficient to establish energy independence for inhabitants of darker or rainier climates.

The mystical beliefs touted by Reynolds in his teachings, his adamance that Earthships are the answers to everything from the housing crisis to global warming to human spiritual alienation, and the profits that he earned from hocking technologies that had not passed the test of time, all point to Reynolds as a cult figure con artist. That said, the improved Earthships of today—at least in climates like Taos—function as they ought to and could potentially be used as prototypes for the housing problems posed by current economic and environmental conditions. Reynolds now uses the Earthship Biotecture Headquarters as an architectural school, a museum of Earthship technology, and a somewhat luxurious ecohotel.


I drove through the desert to find the museum at the headquarters–a prototype built in the Taos Earthship community to educate the public about Earthship technology—where I was also to check into my Earthship AirBnB. I had originally intended to stay in the modest “Hobbit House,” the first Earthship ever built in 1979, but as history might have predicted, the house was under construction, and my stay was upgraded to a much more recently-built, luxurious Earthship called “Phoenix.” One of the students of the Earthship Biotecture school gave me a guided tour of the house, which was much more exciting and demonstrative of the possibilities of Earthships than the educational model. He talked me through the ways that electricity, heated water, filtration, and even the internet service were optimized to preserve energy. All of the materials presented at the museum—Reynolds’ books, documentaries about the Earthships—were available in the AirBnB, making a visit to the museum unnecessary for anyone staying at one of the Earthships.

As a student of American Studies with a background in literature and architectural and art history, understanding the subtleties of the home’s eco technologies was mostly above my head. However I really appreciated learning about the physical construction and aesthetic decoration of the decadent Earthship to which I had serendipitously gained access from someone who had helped to build it. The interior of the home was sculpted cement abode, decorated with Gaudi-like art nouveau accents. The bedroom was an Oscar Wilde opium lounge, the quarters of an odalisque, with peachy-pink textured walls, backlit stained glass, Persian rugs, and Tiffany-esque lamps on either side of the bed; natural light spilled in from the glass doorway to the otherwise windowless room. The bathroom bridged the space between the interior cave and exterior greenhouse, painted aqua-green, speckled with glass bottles, the tub sculpted out of the wall itself; above it was the greenhouse ceiling with vines dangling over the upper edge. The living and dining rooms were full of plants that grew up from the floor, as though a jungle had been brought inside the home, circling a fireplace evoking a yonnic mouth that, with a flick of a switch, produced a waterfall from the filtered gray-water.


Perhaps the most magnificent feature of the Earthship’s architecture was the
greenhouse surrounding its exposed exterior. Tropical plants of all sorts—palm and fig and mandarin and banana trees, orchids, hanging vines—lined the walkway that stretched the distance of the interior garden. A second dining table was bookended by ponds, inhabited by koi fish and turtles. There were even cockatiels living in the greenhouse, flying freely as though it were an aviary. A second garden grew outside the greenhouse in an enclosed yard full of hardy desert plants, providing a home to a small group of egg-laying chickens. These plants and animals required constant care by Earthship Biotecture students and volunteers, and upon further research, it became clear to me that this kind of living home is not the sort of thing that most people could maintain. For all the effort and additional knowledge it requires, the reward is living in a house that sounds and smells and feels alive. The air is fresh and floral, combating the dryness of the desert. Stars are more visible through the ceilings of these Earthships than they are in most of the United States.

I left the next morning sobered by the knowledge that “Phoenix” is on the market for $1,500,000—not exactly the price tag you would expect based on the intents presented by Earthship technology—tempered with the unshakable urge to follow the footsteps of my Earthship caretaker and attend the Earthship workshops and build my own. Earthships are not the revolution Reynolds touts them to be, but they are a most appealing repose from the coldness and alienation of the world by whichwe are so often surrounded.