Carrie Andersen Wins Prestigious Granof Prize For Top Dissertation Across the University

20150408_9199edit Congratulations to UT AMS PhD Carrie Andersen!  She has been awarded the most prestigious prize for a PhD graduate at the University of Texas: the Michael H. Granof Award, given “to recognize the University’s top dissertation.” Carrie is also the recipient of the UT Graduate School’s Outstanding Dissertation Award in the Humanities and Fine Arts.

The title of Dr. Andersen’s dissertation is “Securing America:  Drone Warfare in American Culture After 9/11.”  We sat down with Carrie to learn more about about her work, her academic inspirations, and advice she has for current and future graduate students.  This is award-winning material, so please do read on!

 1.  First:  Congratulations on not one, but two major awards for your recently completed dissertation:  the UT Graduate School’s Outstanding Dissertation Award in the Humanities and Fine Arts, and the extremely prestigious Granof Award, for the best dissertation at UT!  Can you reflect on your feelings right now?

Thanks so much! To say I’m shocked would be an understatement; I certainly didn’t anticipate this sort of recognition. I’m incredibly excited, grateful, and honored.

2. Your dissertation is, broadly, on the subject of drones in America.  How did you come to this topic, and how did your work at UT leading up to your dissertation inform your topic and research question(s)?

When I enrolled at UT, I, like many American Studies students, had incredibly expansive interests, ranging from digital media to political theory to 1960s proto-punk in Detroit. So it certainly wasn’t a project that I planned on doing before I got to graduate school, and it took a few years of germination.

Eventually, a few things nudged me towards studying drones. My academic interests in media and technology were honed in coursework in our department as well as in the department of Radio-Television-Film, and I found opportunities through those classes to examine my growing interests in media, technology, and power. Later, I built on those interests in my orals exam lists, which focused on media, war and emotion, American cultural history, and political theory. The oral exam process was completely essential to figuring out how to approach a project that melded all of those disciplines. I also found myself most interested in the books that examined technologies through cultural lenses, so I wanted to pursue a project in a similar spirit.

So my path to a dissertation on drone warfare was of course informed by this general academic trajectory born of coursework and the exam process. But it was also heavily based on what was happening in American culture at the time when I was formulating my project. After about 2008, there was an increasing national and global focus on drone warfare in the news, and those conversations typically centered on the ethics or legality of drone strikes abroad, or concerns about surveillance and privacy at home in America. But beginning in about 2011 and 2012, I started noticing more nods to military robots and unmanned machines in TV shows like Saturday Night Live, films like Iron Man 2, and videogames like those of the Call of Duty series. By the time I was finishing orals and beginning to conceptualize my dissertation, this important national conversation about drones was increasingly happening in cultural spaces, not just political or legal spaces. Drones were suddenly everywhere. So I wanted to examine the meaning and consequences of the machine’s apparently sudden cultural ubiquity.

3. What projects, people, or “real life” experiences, at UT or beyond, inspired your project?

So many of the books I read in orals and in my coursework were inspirations. Paul Boyer’s By the Bomb’s Early Lightstands out as the clearest example of a cultural history of a military technology that provoked a broad range of complex emotional responses, from fear and anxiety to excitement and wonder. Patrick Wright’s Tank, a cultural history of tanks during WWI, offered a similar approach that I look to as a model (and some fascinating stories of Scottish churches decorated with tank-and-bomb emblazoned stained glass windows). And a broad body of literature on militarization, spanning scores of the disciplines, provided the most significant theoretical spine to my work.

And, like many graduate students in our department, I was fortunate to work with several faculty members whose work inspired my own. My adviser, Randy Lewis, pushed me to try to understand why drones were, and are, so culturally pervasive, and why they inspire such a range of visceral responses, from disgust to delight. His concern with understanding what makes Americans tick—as you’ll see in his forthcoming book on surveillance—is an impulse that I emulate in my project.

4.  Drones are a fairly recent technology (right?) in the US.  What does it mean to study drones from an “American Studies perspective,” or to study the cultural and political meanings of drones more generally?

Well, the drone’s relative newness depends on how you define a drone! In the 1800s, military officials were using “balloon bombs” to send explosives over to enemy territory, and WWI saw the use of pigeons with cameras attached to them—early surveillance drones, arguably—as well as unmanned airplanes operated with gyroscopes. So they’re arguably a fairly old technology.

But their incredible cultural notoriety is definitely new, and that’s what I intended to analyze in my project—why are these machines so pervasive both in military circles and in popular culture nowadays, and what could some of the consequences of the ubiquitous drone be on a cultural level? Scores of scholars and military officials have examined the former question, which has fairly clear answers: drones are cheaper than manned vehicles, they typically keep American fighters out of harm’s way, and unmanned vehicles can fly farther and longer than manned vehicles can. But an American Studies approach meant that I was more interested in the drone as a cultural object rather than the intricacies of military strategy. How are people encountering these machines if they aren’t members of the military? Why are they so prevalent in popular culture? What could the consequences of the drone becoming an increasingly mundane of everyday life be? What’s the deal with this SNL sketch?

5. What are three things about drones that readers of the blog may not already know?

I’ll tell my favorite historical story about drones. In the 1910s or 1920s, a man named Reginald Denny, a veteran of Britain’s Royal Flying Corps, moved to Hollywood to pursue acting. He found initial success in the silent film industry, and, by the late 1920s, he was acting regularly in films with sound. By 1934, he opened a hobby shop for remote-controlled aircraft, and, over time, started making unmanned machines that could be used for training gunners—these drones were for target practice, in other words. The U.S. Army gave him a contract, and Denny’s company manufactured thousands of drones for them.

So someone who was acting in films with Katherine Hepburn (like The Little Minister) and Laurence Olivier (like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca) was, at the same time, manufacturing military-grade target drones for the Army during the earliest days of World War II. His company was bought by Northrop, which eventually became Northrop Grumman, in the early 1950s.

Denny’s last film role was about 15 years later: he played Commodore Schmidlapp in the 1966 Batman movie starring Adam West.

As if all that weren’t weird enough, one of Denny’s employees was a woman named Norma Jeane, also known as Marilyn Monroe. She was discovered, so the story goes, after a young Army captain named Ronald Reagan (yes, that Ronald Reagan) assigned a photographer to snap some photos of her assembling the drones to celebrate America’s industrial power, and convinced her to become a model. The rest, as they say, is history.

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

I see this work as an extension of a long impulse in American Studies to excavate the cultural significance of everyday life and culture: the media we consume, the toys we play with, the marketing we encounter. My work also builds from and upon an increasing scholarly concern with interiority—the beliefs, feelings, and subjectivities we all have—that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s with the rise of subdisciplines like affect theory, for instance. This growing academic impulse to understand what makes people tick and why people feel the way they do undergirded my approach in this project.

6.   As a now-decorated graduate of the UT AMS PhD program, do you have any sage advice for graduate or undergraduate students in American Studies, or the humanities more generally?

Yes! Say “yes” as much as you can without overworking yourself. Broaden your skill set, your network, and your body of interests. There are so many fascinating people at UT (and beyond) to connect with, and so many opportunities in front of you to develop new skills and interests. Push yourself to do something that isn’t your dissertation or your class work. Even if you can’t devote a huge amount of time to endeavors beyond your core academic work, it’s healthy to engage in a diverse variety of projects—and those ancillary activities will likely confer benefits in the long run that you never anticipated.

7.     What projects are you excited to work on in the futureFirst things first, I’m excited to turn this project into a fully-fledged book. I’m also increasingly interested in the culture of hacking and cybersecurity, and anticipate a second research project about emotionally-charged rhetoric about violation, security, and protection that has come to infuse any discourse about cybersecurity. I imagine I’ll always want to study politically and culturally hot topics.

Announcement: A Princess Out Of Place, A Talk by Dr. Ebony Thomas

thomasWe are very pleased to announce A Princess Out of Place: Guinevere in BBC’s Merlin And Dark Fantastic Dreaming, a talk by Dr. Ebony Thomas, to be held on Friday, April 28th at 3:30 PM in CLA 1.302E. We have included a description of the talk, below:

Few recent fandom and social media reactions have equaled the objection to Angel Coulby being cast as Gwen, the servant girl who would grow up to become Queen Guinevere, on the BBC’s most recent televised adaptation of Arthuriana, Merlin. The presence of a Black woman as the eventual love interest of the main character was a source of continual controversy throughout the entire run of the series. Just as with other Black female characters in adapted and transmediated youth literature, such as Bonnie of The Vampire Diaries, and Rue in The Hunger Games, viewers had a very difficult time suspending their disbelief. This audience difficulty, created through lifetimes of reading and viewing narratives of the fantastic where the Dark Other is locked into place, was complicated because unlike most other Black female characters, Gwen does not die, but outlives her king and husband. In my book manuscript in progress, I have theorized the dark fantastic cycle that occurs as the Dark Other shows up in speculative fiction. What, then, happens if a diverse character does not go through the full cycle of spectacle, hesitation, violence, and haunting? How does its interruption complicate the narrative? How might it confuse – and frustrate – audiences?

We hope to see you there.

Announcement: All Things Bakelite!

AllThingsBakelite-AustinRevision_40x27-Poster.jpgPlease joins us tomorrow, Tuesday, April 25th, for one-hour documentary film entitled All Things Bakelite at 4 pm, in ART 1.120, followed by a panel discussion with the filmmakers (executive producer Hugh Karraker and director John Maher) and UT faculty members (historian of science Bruce Hunt, designer Kate Catterall, design historian Carma Gorman, and historian of technology Jeff Meikle). All Things Bakelite employs historical footage, still photographs, dramatic reenactment, and expert interviews (as well as a cameo by Austin’s cabaret troupe Esther’s Follies) to explore the invention, marketing, and subsequent history of the world’s first synthetic plastic.

Bakelite was the first totally artificial material with molecules previously unknown in nature. Invented in 1907 by Leo Baekeland, a Belgian émigré chemist, the new material immediately became indispensable for hidden electrical components of such new technologies as the automobile and radio. More to the point, as the first of many new synthetic plastics and polymers, Bakelite contributed to the expanding consumer culture of the 20th century by placing an infinite range of inexpensive, easily molded goods within economic range of ordinary citizens. By 1967, the cultural significance of synthetics such as Bakelite had become so powerful that movie audiences exploded when Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate was told, “Plastics… just one word… there’s a great future in plastics.”

This event is sponsored by the Department of American Studies, the McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering, the Design Division of the Department of Art and Art History, and the History and Philosophy of Science Colloquium.

Please address any questions to Jeff Meikle <meikle@mail.utexas.edu>.

Announcement: “Archives Against Annihilation: Imagining Otherwise,” A Talk by Michelle Caswell

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Please join us today at 11:00 AM in the Prothro Theatre in the Harry Ransom Center for a talk by Michelle Caswell entitled Archives Against Annihilation: Imagining Otherwise.

The talk, sponsored by the UT Chapter of the Society of American Archivists, is described below:

In the 1970s, feminist communication scholars first proposed the term “symbolic annihilation” to describe the ways in which women are absent, underrepresented, or misrepresented in mainstream media. Taking this concept as a starting point, the first part of this talk will examine the ways in which mainstream archival practice has symbolically annihilated communities of color and LGBTQ communities through absence, underrepresentation, and misrepresentation. In the face of such symbolic annihilation, marginalized communities have formed their own independent community-based archives that empower them to establish, enact, and reflect on their presence in ways that are complex, meaningful, and substantive. Based on interviews with dozens of community archives founders, staff, and users, this first act will propose a tripartite structure for assessing the impact of such archives on the individuals and communities they serve: ontological impact (in which members of marginalized communities get confirmation “I am here”); epistemological impact (in which members of marginalized communities get confirmation “we were here”); and social impact (in which members of marginalized communities get confirmation “we belong here”). In the second part, this talk will examine the relationship between symbolic and actual annihilation using the state-sponsored mass murder of Black people by the police in the U.S. as a prime example. Symbolic annihilation both precedes and succeeds symbolic annihilation in that communities are rendered nonexistent, invisible, or expendable before they are subject to violence, and then, after violence, such acts are often rendered invisible or expunged from the record, magnifying and mimicking the violence itself. Finally, this talk will end with a proposition for archivists to “imagine otherwise,” that is, to conceive of and build a world in which communities that have historically been and are currently being marginalized due to white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, gender binaries, colonialism, and ableism are fully empowered to represent their past, construct their present, and envision their futures as forms of liberation.

After the talk, we hope you join us for the American Studies Undergraduate Thesis Symposium, 4:00 PM – 6:00 PM in Burdine 436A. We hope to see you at both events!

ANNOUNCEMENT: UNDERGRADUATE THESIS SYMPOSIUM

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We would like to extend an invitation to all to attend our annual Undergraduate Thesis Symposium, tomorrow, April 21st, 4:00 PM – 6:00 PM in BUR 436A.

This year, we have a collaborative symposium, drawing together the work of two American Studies Honors students and one Religious Studies Honors student.  Rebecca Amelia Harris and Denise Hunt from American Studies and Taylor Dieringer from Religious Studies will be presenting their fantastic thesis research, which they have spent the last year developing. The presentations include:

— Rebecca Amelia Harris, “Mulan: Cherry Blossom or Woman Warrior?”

— Denise Hunt, “Examining Children’s Fictional Media Post-9/11”

— Taylor Dieringer, “Leading Ladies: Authorship and the Influence of the Pastoral Epistles on Women in Church Leadership”

The thesis symposium functions as an informal end of year celebration for our department, one which enables us to honor the work of our students and faculty and contemplate the year gone by. We hope to see you there.

Dr. Janet Davis in the Washington Post and at the Smithsonian

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Congratulations to Dr. Janet Davis, who recently had a short history of the Ringiing Brothers and Barnum and Bailey circus published by Zócalo Public Square, which was then picked up by the Smithsonian. We’ve included an excerpt, below.

When Barnum and Bailey’s ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ rolled into American towns in the 1880s, daily life abruptly stopped. Months before the show arrived, an advance team saturated the surrounding region with brilliantly colored lithographs of the extraordinary: elephants, bearded ladies, clowns, tigers, acrobats and trick riders.

On ‘Circus Day,’ huge crowds gathered to observe the predawn arrival of “herds and droves” of camels, zebras, and other exotic animals—the spoils of European colonialism. Families witnessed the raising of a tented city across nine acres, and a morning parade that made its way down Main Street, advertising the circus as a wondrous array of captivating performers and beasts from around the world.

For isolated American audiences, the sprawling circus collapsed the entire globe into a pungent, thrilling, educational sensorium of sound, smell and color, right outside their doorsteps. What townspeople couldn’t have recognized, however, was that their beloved Big Top was also fast becoming a projection of American culture and power. The American three-ring circus came of age at precisely the same historical moment as the U.S. itself.

Three-ring circuses like Barnum and Bailey’s were a product of the same Gilded Age historical forces that transformed a fledgling new republic into a modern industrial society and rising world power. The extraordinary success of the giant three-ring circus gave rise to other forms of exportable American giantism, such as amusement parks, department stores, and shopping malls.”

Dr. Davis followed that up last week with a second op-ed, published at the Washington Post. We have another excerpt, below:

Since Ringling Bros. announced its closure in January and the Big Apple Circus filed for bankruptcy last year, cultural observers have issued grim prognostications about the death of the American circus. “Without sugarcoating it, let’s accept the fact that the circus will not survive our generation unless the state comes to its rescue,” journalist Preetam Kaushik wrote for the Huffington Post. Author Naomi Schaefer Riley opined on “what the death of the circus means for today’s kids.”

The advance postmortem is nothing new. On July 16, 1956, Ringling Bros. performed its last show under a canvas tent, deciding to move to indoor arenas to reduce its labor force and transportation costs. The New York Times observed, “The big top, furled forever, started its funeral ride today.”

But the impending death of the circus has been greatly exaggerated. Although the biggest productions have had trouble attracting the large audiences they need to support themselves, smaller circuses are flourishing. Cirque du Soleil, the highly profitable Montreal-based one-ring show, is expanding in the United States. Other one-ring shows, such as Circus Flora and the Culpepper & Merriweather Circus, are still going strong. As a bellwether of the future, youth circuses are booming. According to the American Youth Circus Organization, there are 250 circus education programs nationwide, with growth projected at 10 new programs per year.

 

It’s been a busy few months for Dr. Davis, who earlier this year published an op-ed on CNN.com. You can read it here.

The World in American Studies Today Keynote: Dr. Anita Mannur

 

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We are pleased to announce that the keynote lecture for our biennial graduate conference, The World in American Studies Today, will be given by Dr. Anita Mannur at 6 PM on Thursday, March 20th in CLA 1.302B. Dr. Mannur is Associate Professor of English and Asian/Asian American Studies and Director, Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Miami University. She is the author of Culinary Fictions: Food in South Asian Diasporic Culture and the co-editor of Eating Asian America: A Reader and Theorizing Diaspora: A Reader.

In this talk, Dr. Mannur explores how the figure of the “enemy” is constructed in public culinary sites by examining social media, cook books and food trucks that are devoted to the dissemination of culinary knowledge. The spaces she examines are Michael Rakowitz’s performance art installation “Enemy Kitchen” and Conflict Kitchen, a take-out restaurant in Pittsburgh, PA. In juxtaposing these sites and exploring the performative politics deployed within each context, Dr. Mannur explores what it means to turn to the tactile, olfactory and consumptive to reflect on questions of US diplomacy and foreign policy that have taken on particular forms of cultural xenophobia, directed at the Islamic
subject, in the wake of the war on terror and 9/11. By focusing in particular on the use of “radical hospitality,” Dr. Mannur asks how meals are staged as spaces to provide a counternarrative to xenophobia and the discourse of the
enemy combatant.