On Thursday in GWB 2.204 beginning at 5:00 PM and running until 6:30 PM, there will be a gallery talk and reception for In Heartbeats: The Comic Art of Jackie Ormes, a show curated by Rebecca Giordano on behalf of the INGZ curatorial collective, of which our own Natalie Zelt is a member. Featuring “selections from four comic series by the first African American woman cartoonist, Jackie Ormes,” the show tracks the cartoonist’s career “beginning in 1937 in the Pittsburgh Courier,” and displays a selection of her “irreverent and witty comics tackling major cultural events in newspaper comics that centralized the experience of African American women. From the House of Unamerican Activities to segregated train cars that enabled the Great Migration, Ormes’ vivacious and intellectual characters countered pervasive stereotypes with images of stylish, self-driven, and savvy women of color.” We spoke to Giordano about the thoughtful and exciting show earlier this week, and will run that interview in the next few days.
Today we’re pleased to feature an interview with another one of our incredible affiliate faculty members, Dr. Rebecca Rossen, professor of dance history in the Department of Theatre & Dance and Performance as Public Practice. Dr. Rossen has just published her first book, Dancing Jewish: Jewish Identity in American Modern and Postmodern Dance (Oxford). We recently sat down with her to talk about her scholarly and artistic background, her new book, and her future research and teaching.
What is your scholarly background and how does it motivate your current research?
Before I was a scholar I was a dancer and choreographer in Chicago. I did that for the decade after I graduated from college, my entire 20s. I went to graduate school to get a PhD, expecting to continue on making dance, but the experience ended up transforming me into a historian. I would say that as a scholar I’m a dance historian whose work focuses on identity, ethnicity, and gender representations in performance. Methodologically, I bring together my work as a dance historian with my experience as a performer. Those two threads are not only present in my research but are also present in the classes that I teach and how I teach them.
What has been your favorite project to work on so far?
As a scholar I’ve worked on one main project (with multiple side projects) for a really long time, which started as a dissertation–as many of our projects do–14 years ago. It was finally birthed as a book last spring. It’s both my favorite project as well as something that I have sometimes referred to as “the beast” because it was the project. Dancing Jewish has been an extremely involving endeavor. The book looks at how American Jewish choreographers, working in modern and postmodern dance, represent their Jewishness. I show how, over a 75-year period, dance allowed American Jews to grapple with issues like identity, difference, assimilation, and pride.
What projects are you excited about working on in the future?
Dancing Jewish considers various themes that are repeated in dances over time, like nostalgic depictions of Eastern European Jews or biblical heroism as a response to World War II or Jewish humor and stock characters. Because the book focuses solely on Jewish-American performances, it’s definitely an American Studies book. I’m interested in the next book in looking at representations of the Holocaust in performance, not focusing solely on American artists but including European and Israeli artists, and not just focusing on Jewish artists but also including non-Jewish artists who have responded to the Holocaust in interesting ways. The next project is a natural extension of the first one but takes a more global perspective and moves beyond considering just the work of Jewish artists.
How do you see your work fitting into broader conversation in dance history or American Studies?
Dancing Jewish is certainly an American Studies book, because when you are talking about Jewishness in America, you are talking about how a group of people balanced a very specific ethnic identity with their Americanness, which generally–especially in the earlier part of the century–was conceived as not-Jewish. There are some very interesting tensions that get worked out in these dances between Jewishness and Americanness and how choreographers are choreographically trying to balance these identities or converge them. It is ultimately a book about American identity with a specific lens looking at Jewish identity. But it is also a work of Dance Studies, so if you are interested in dance and performance, it’s a book that considers how identities are performed physically. Because of that, and because of my background as an artist, I think one of the contributions it makes is its use of embodied scholarship. I spent a lot of time in the archive, I did dozens of interviews, and there is analysis of photographic and video evidence and live performance. But I also use embodied methodologies, which means that at points in my research, I had physical and creative dialogues with my subjects. For example, I asked two of my subjects to “make me a Jewish dance,” and even though I didn’t have any money and they didn’t yet know me, they said okay. That process was a very interesting entre into my understanding of their work, because I didn’t just learn about their products on stage, but I also learned something about their processes and what Jewishness meant to them.
On the first Friday in February, Dr. Ramzi Fawaz, braving the relative cold, came to UT from Madison, where he teaches at the University of Wisconsin, to give a talk on queer theory and comic book superheroes. Called “Flame On!: Nuclear Families, Unstable Molecules, and the Queer History of the Fantastic Four,” the talk is drawn from Dr. Fawaz’s upcoming book, The New Mutants: Comic Book Superheroes and Popular Fantasy in Postwar America. After he left Austin, we spoke by phone about comics, the importance of interdisciplinarity in both scholarship and teaching, and about American Studies as the study of how people dream what it means to be American.
In your talk at UT, you discussed The Fantastic Four and their contribution to queer literary history in the 1960s. How did you come across this project?
That’s a great question. There is a combination of personal and intellectual reasons that I approached this project. The personal one that I always tell is that when I was thirteen I went through this incredibly difficult period of my own life, as someone who was coming out as gay, who was ostracized, made fun of, bullied, etc., and, during this period of difficulty, I discovered the X-Men. I began reading this comic book that was about mutant outcasts, that was racially diverse, and I felt this incredible kind of identification with these characters that I never found in any other form of popular culture. As I grew older and started exploring American Studies in college, I became really interested in the kinds of questions that we ask in this field, where we don’t really think about how “I” personally relate to this object but, rather, what the conditions are that allow me to relate to this object in this way.
The questions grew wider and wider over time, and I began to ask myself if I was the only person who identified in this way? Or was there something about the comic book that speaks to people who feel like outcasts? Through a series of research projects at the undergraduate level, I began to explore the history of the X-Men, and that history lead me back to the sixties, and the array of comics, including the X-Men, that exploded out of that moment, some of which of course included the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, the Avengers, and many, many others. I began to realize that, in that moment, comic book creators began to think critically about readers like myself, and geared their comic books to people who did feel like they were out of the social norm, not merely people who identified as gay or lesbian, but also people who felt politically out of step with the conservatism of the US after World War II. This is fascinating to me.
So, there’s kind of a personal history that lead me to a larger, intellectual set of questions, and I think as a scholar, invested in popular culture more broadly, I fell in love with this question as an undergrad: why would fantasy forms, why would popular cultural forms that seemed so escapist, so distinct from politics, why would they be the site in which people were doing political work? This fascinated me, as someone who felt a commitment to radical, left wing ideals, but also didn’t necessarily express those commitments through direct-action politics but rather through the forms of reading and interpretation. I started to ask why would that be one of the sites where people do that political work? Comics seemed like one of the great objects through which people engaged the political.
Is this work you picked up as a graduate student?
The kernel for this work began as an undergraduate. I was lucky as an undergraduate to be trusted enough by some of my professors to be asked to be their teaching assistant. I was an assistant for a class taught by Kathleen Moran, who was the chair of American Studies at the time at Berkeley. The class was on consumer society, and she asked me to give a lecture on comics and consumerism. She encouraged me to do a reading of a text rather than a history, so I ended up doing this reading of the X-Men storyline “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” which some people at UT actually read as a chapter, and we talked about how this storyline was about anxieties of consumption. After I gave that talk, Moran told me “I think you nailed it, and I think you need to pursue this as a project.”
Little by little I was lucky enough to win small research awards, I spent a summer at Yale as an undergraduate research fellow, and I began writing about comics in a scholarly way. When I became a graduate student at GW, I was still very committed to the project, but I wasn’t sure what my method would be. I took an extraordinary seminar with Robert McRuer, which was all about cutting edge interventions in queer theory, and I remember being very transformed and galvanized in that seminar, and it led me to realize that queer theory was going to be one of the primary nodes of intervention that I was going to make in this project, one that had not been done with the object of superhero comics. So, little by little I developed this project, and in graduate school it kind of took shape theoretically, and that was kind of the genealogy of the project.
Truly, I was lucky to have undergraduate mentors who said, you know, “go ahead,” and then to work with graduate mentors who said, “if you’re going to run with this project, let’s make it as precise, as theoretically innovative, as possible.” I think that’s part of the reason that the book has gained so much traction, even before its publication, is because the people I worked with knew that I knew that it wasn’t merely a history of comics, but rather about locating superhero comics in this larger conversation about liberal and radical politics in the post-war period. So that’s been my broader commitment.
In that project, are there particular scholars whose work has been really helpful for you?
Absolutely. I’ve said this many times, but I think a really transformative moment for me was when I read the work of Julia Mickenberg in Learning from the Left. I think Julia modeled for me what it mean to take a particular object, in her case children’s literature, and place it in this really deeply elaborated and thickly researched network of relationships. She not only thinks about children’s literature as a text, but also its relationship to its creators, its producers, its sites of circulation, and then to the broader political context in which it was circulated. So that allowed me to think about an object that was similarly denigrated or thought of as kind of escapist, meaningless, not intellectually worthy, and, instead of thinking of it that way, to actually place it in a context. I also think the work of people like Christina Kline and Melani McAlister, in Cold War Orientalism and Epic Encounters, also do really extraordinary interdisciplinary work in talking about the relationship of political theory and policy to cultural production. Those are some of the books I feel most moved by in American Studies.
I also have to say that, over the course of this project, I was so galvanized not only by queer theory, but also by the uptake of political theory in queer studies. I read some unusual work that would not normally fit into this realm; I read a lot of work by people like Hannah Arendt. I read the work of political theorists like Linda Zerilli, sociologists like Debbie Gould writing about ACT UP and its radical politics, and I read an unbelievable range, in addition to the comic books themselves, of actual primary sources from the radical politics of the sixties and seventies; the Port Huron statement, the radical statements of women’s liberation, gay liberation. All of these together allowed me to see that comic books were not merely entertainment, they were a way to theorize politics and people’s relationship to public life through fantasy figures. I love being able to engage a broad range of work that normally wouldn’t be thought of as political theory. Those thinkers were really central to me.
And I’ll admit to you something that really blows my mind: when I look back it, I read something like 3,000-4,000 pages of comics for every chapter that I wrote. And I wrote seven chapters. I would not only read and reread the actual thing that I was going to look at, let’s say The Fantastic Four or Green Lantern/Green Arrow, I would read many comics that were coming out at the same time, and the political discourse of that moment. So I tried to invest comics in this kind of wider language that’s going on. I was influenced from many, many different directions.
I was going to ask you a question about interdisciplinarity, but you’ve already answered it…
I’m actually happy to elaborate on that, if you want to talk a little bit more about it.
After a long and delightfully restful hiatus over winter break, AMS :: ATX is back in action! We’re kicking off the semester with an announcement about Ph.D. alum Jessica Grogan, who will be speaking about and signing her new book, Encountering America: Humanistic Psychology, Sixties Culture, and the Shaping of the Modern Self, at Austin’s own BookPeople (603 N. Lamar) on January 16 at 7pm. Copies of the book will be available for purchase at the event.
Here are some more details about Grogan’s book from BookPeople’s announcement:
The expectation that our careers and personal lives should be expressions of our authentic selves, the belief that our relationships should be defined by openness and understanding, the idea that therapy can help us reach our fullest potential—these ideas have become so familiar that it’s impossible to imagine our world without them.
In Encountering America, cultural historian Jessica Grogan reveals how these ideas stormed the barricades of our culture through the humanistic psychology movement—the work of a handful of maverick psychologists who revolutionized American culture in the 1960s and ’70s. Profiling thought leaders including Abraham Maslow, Rollo May, and Timothy Leary, Grogan draws on untapped primary sources to explore how these minds and the changing cultural atmosphere combined to create a widely influential movement. From the group of ideas that became known as New Age to perennial American anxieties about wellness, identity, and purpose, Grogan traces how humanistic psychology continues to define the way we understand ourselves.
Grogan is also blogging regularly at Psychology Today about the book and related topics.