Faculty Research: Dr. Janet Davis on Jaws and First Blood

Amity Island

We love a good blockbuster action movie as much as the next guy and gal, so we’re thrilled to share with you some new research from Dr. Janet Davis. Recently, Dr. Davis presented a talk about the relationship between cultural memory, the Vietnam War, Jaws, and First Blood, and she also provided a write-up of the talk to the the blog Not Even Past. We’ve printed an excerpt below; the full shebang can be found here. Enjoy!

The theme of the abandoned soldier is blasted writ large in the film’s first sequel, Rambo (First Blood Part II): Rambo is released from prison to return to Vietnam on a special mission to search for American POWs. Released in 1985, the film was an international box office hit—the first of three sequels, which Morrell likened to “westerns or Tarzan films.” First Blood Part II’s celebration of Rambo’s massively muscled heroics and its erasure of ambivalence about the nation’s involvement in Vietnam, gave popular form to President Reagan’s full-throated declarations of whipping the “Vietnam Syndrome.”

At the time of First Blood’s publication in 1972, a writer named Peter Benchley was drafting an “Untitled Novel” about the social and economic chaos unleashed by a murderous great white shark that eats five people at a beach community on Long Island. A member of the celebrated Benchley literary family, Peter grew up watching marine life at his family’s summer home in Nantucket. His childhood fascination with sharks endured at Harvard, and his subsequent career as a journalist and a speechwriter in the Johnson Administration. Benchley’s privileged background gave him an intimate sense of the WASPY summer people who populate his fictional seaside community of Amity in the novel that he finally named Jaws. References to Vietnam punctuate the novel. In an early draft, Benchley describes the young adult summer people, the lifeblood of this struggling seaside community, as virtually immune to the shocks of war and socioeconomic upheaval because of their wealth and their ready access to college draft deferments, or through desirable draft assignments as naval officers or reservists: “If their IQs could be tested en masse, they would show native ability well within the top ten percent of all mankind…. Intellectually, they know a great deal. Practically, they choose to know almost nothing. For they have been subtly conditioned to believe (or, if not to believe, to sense) that the world is really quite irrelevant to them. And they are right…. They are invulnerable to the emotions of war.”

Grad and Faculty Research: see UT AMS at ASA in Toronto

City of lights.jpg

City of lights” by paul (dex) from Toronto – city of lights
Uploaded by Skeezix1000. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

We have a slew of participants in the annual American Studies Association meeting in Toronto next week (October 7 – 11). Here’s a schedule of panels and papers from folks at the UT American Studies community – we hope to see you there!

Thursday, October 8

Carrie Andersen, “‘Dwell, Detect, Destroy’: Marketing the Drone in the Post-9/11 Era” (8:00 to 9:45am, Sheraton Centre, Chestnut West)

Emily Roehl, “Oil Landscape Photography and the Performance of Resistance” (8:00 to 9:45am, Sheraton Centre, Forest Hill)

Caroline Pinkston, “Katrina in the Eye of the Beholder: Hurricane Katrina Tourism and the Commodification of Disaster” (2:00 to 3:45pm, Sheraton Centre, Yorkville West)

Natalie Zelt, “Out of Africa? Race, Olmec Colossal Heads and Contested History at LACMA” (2:00 to 3:45pm, Sheraton Centre, Willow East)

Cary Cordova and Amanda Gray, dialogue, “Cultivating Communal Sites of Knowledge Production in the Critical Latin@ Studies Classroom” (4:00 to 5:45pm, Sheraton Centre, Chestnut West)

Kerry Knerr, dialogue, “Committee on Graduate Education: Precarious Resistance to the University of Austerity” (4:00 to 5:45pm, Sheraton Centre, Chestnut East)

Saturday, October 10

Janet M. Davis, dialogue, “Caucus Environment and Culture: How American Studies Scholars Can Address Climate Change” (12:00 to 1:45pm, Sheraton Centre, Linden)

Elissa Underwood, “Pop-Up Prison Kitchens: A Food-Based Challenge to the Prison Industrial Complex” (12:00 to 1:45pm, Sheraton Centre, Leaside)

Sunday, October 11

Lily Laux, “Public Schooling as Social Misery: Students, Disability and the School-to-Prison Pipeline” (8:00 to 9:45am, Sheraton Centre, Rosedale)

Irene Garza, “‘War is an Ugly Thing’ Sgt. Eric Alva, Queer Latinidad, and the Disfigurements of Liberalism” (12:00 to 1:45pm, Sheraton Centre, Maple)

Susan Quesal, “Devastating Optimism: Landscapes of Renewal from Ida B. Wells to HUD HOPE VI” (12:00 to 1:45pm, Sheraton Centre, Provincial Room North)

Grad Research: Carrie Andersen publishes article on drones and Call of Duty in Surveillance and Society

A Reaper Remotely Piloted Air System (RPAS) comes into land at Kandahar Airbase in Helmand, Afghanistan.

A Reaper Remotely Piloted Air System (RPAS) comes into land at Kandahar Airbase in Helmand, Afghanistan.

Summer may be winding down – it is August, after all – but we still have exciting news to share with you folks about our departmental community and its various projects. Ph.D. student Carrie Andersen has just published a journal article in the July 2014 issue of Surveillance and Society, entitled “Games of Drones: The Uneasy Future of the Soldier-Hero in Call of Duty: Black Ops II.” This work comprises part of her dissertation research: her project examines the cultural and political construction of the drone within the post-9/11 milieu.

Check out her abstract below. The full article can be found here (bonus: the journal is open-access, so have at it without logging into any databases!).

In this article, I argue that the first-person shooter video game, Call of Duty: Black Ops II, reflects the U.S. military‟s transition as it reimagines the soldier‟s role in war. In the age of drone technology, this role shifts from a position of strength to one of relative weakness. Although video games that feature future combat often “function as virtual enactments and endorsements for developing military technologies,” Black Ops II offers a surprisingly complex vision of the future of drones and U.S. soldiers (Smicker 2009: 107). To explore how the game reflects a contemporary vision of the U.S. military, I weave together a close textual reading of two levels in Black Ops II with actual accounts from drone pilots and politicians that illuminate the nature of drone combat. Although there are moments in Black Ops II in which avatars combat enemies with first-hand firepower, the experience of heroic diegetic violence is superseded by a combat experience defined by powerlessness, boredom, and ambiguous pleasure. The shift of the soldier from imposing hero to a banal figure experiences its logical conclusion in Unmanned, an independent video game that foregrounds the mundane, nonviolent nature of drone piloting. Instead of training soldiers to withstand emotionally devastating experiences of death and violence first-hand (or to physically enact such violence), games like Black Ops II and Unmanned train actual and potential soldiers to tolerate monotony and disempowerment.

Departmental Theme: The Music of [In]security

Marconi "Velvet Tone" Phonograph Record Sleeve - 1907

As part of our department’s 2013-2014 theme, we’ve compiled a collaborative Spotify playlist containing songs that relate to notions of security and insecurity. Today, we feature a few of those selections introduced by members of our departmental community, who opine on the relationships between sound and security. So kick your Wednesday off with some tunes and a little fancy scholarly footwork that sheds a little more light on some well-known (or not-so-well-known) favorites. The depth of some of these songs may surprise you. Enjoy.

And, if you’re a Spotify user, be sure to subscribe to the playlist at the link above.

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Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, “Nowhere To Run” (1965)

Ostensibly about the difficulty of walking away from a bad relationship, the jarringly upbeat “Nowhere to Run” is more of a ghost story.  The phantom lover haunts dreams, the bathroom mirror, and other people’s faces.  Reeves knows its time to go, but she can’t find a way out.  GIs took over the song as a metaphor for the quagmire of Vietnam.  Today, considering the quagmire of bankrupt Detroit, the Vandellas’ joyous romp through an auto plant in their promotional video offers an almost spectral image of a distant, happier past. – Dr. Karl Hagstrom Miller

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Steve Earle, “Rich Man’s War” (2004)

Steve Earle makes an appearance on the list. His “Rich Man’s War” is part of the most recent incarnation of Earle—a songwriter with politics on the sleeve and class consciousness in the heart. But it makes me think of an earlier, Appalachian-inspired Steve Earle—that of the “Copperhead Road,” bootlegging, fast cars, and law-breaking days. That Steve Earle had it the other way around, class on the sleeve and politics in the noisy heartbeat underneath. To my ears, both bring more layers to the question of security/insecurity. To “Are we secure or are we insecure?” Earle adds, “Did we build this prison ourselves?” and “How do we get out of this cycle?” As his “Satellite Radio” puts it: “Is there anybody listening to earth tonight?” Because it might just be us who are here to figure it all out. – Dr. Elizabeth Engelhardt

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Bruce Cockburn, “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” (1984)

Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight.   Everything about Cockburn’s piece screams the eighties—from its cheesy keyboard patches to its scathing critique of the US pursuit of the strategy of supposedly “low intensity conflict” in Central America.  The pacifist folkie’s mounting frustration leads to dreams of high-powered vigilantism two years after the first Rambo movie and two years before the Iran-Contra affair made Ollie North a household name. – Dr. Karl Hagstrom Miller

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Jeff Buckley, “Grace” (1994)

Jeff Buckley’s “Grace,” the title track from the artist’s only self-released album, embodies the emotional volatility of nineties alternative rock. At once a driving hard rock anthem and a surprisingly tender expression of a man’s resignation to his own demise, “Grace” is a nexus among uncertainty, alienation, and shrill-but-powerful panic stoked when death knocks at the door. Such themes are well at home in the disaffected Gen-X musical world also inhabited by the pre-emo likes of Nirvana and Pearl Jam. But fear not. That messy snarl of ostensibly inevitable misery is ameliorated, at least in part, by the power of love (no Back to the Future allusion intended, although Marty McFly certainly had reason to feel insecure). Much as love provides some semblance of stability, the raw finality of death is, sez Buckley, perhaps the greatest source of security we can hope for. – Carrie Andersen

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Security/Insecurity: Our Departmental Theme, 2013-2014

Two weeks ago we announced that our department’s theme for the 2013-2014 school year would be Security/Insecurity. On this first day of school, we’d like to share some lengthier commentary on that theme from Dr. Randy Lewis.

We’ll continue sharing content related to security and insecurity over the course of the year, so stay tuned. (and, as many of you eagle-eyed readers might have noticed, we’ve changed the logo of AMS :: ATX to align with the theme).

Security Circus

Everyone craves security in some form: emotional security in our relationships, job security at work, food security for our communities, or national security in the “war on terror.” Yet many Americans are still bedeviled by deep-seated feelings of insecurity–and understandably so. When we turn on the television, we often find politicians shouting about “securing the border,” reality shows celebrating backstabbing insincerity, and advertisements prodding us to feel hopelessly inadequate. Even in the placid imaginary world of Peanuts, Linus needs his security blanket.

Providing security in every sense of the word has become a massive business in this so-called “culture of fear”. Feeling a little freaked out? Build a panic room that would make Jodie Foster proud! Sign up for that new undergraduate major in “crisis management”! Or hunker down at night in a gated community designed to ward off “stranger danger”… Still feeling uneasy about the crisis du jour in “fortress America”? Why not stock up on anxiety meds and meditation apps for your iPhone? Have you considered “building a secure faith” in a megachurch equipped with armed guards? How about buying a 13,000 pound armored vehicle to drive around town? You can never be too careful—especially if you’re a member of group that is “profiled,” followed, and harassed for simply wearing a hoodie on the way home from a convenience store.

More than a decade into the “war on terror,” the issue of security seems to haunt every aspect of our lives, yet we rarely have a chance to explore its deeper impact on our psyche and culture. One exception is in the work of artists such as the playwright Eve Ensler, who has described the underlying paradox of security in these terms: the more we pursue security, the more we feel insecure. Sociologists have illustrated this paradox in relation to surveillance cameras: we install them to make us feel secure and protected, but their unnerving presence makes many people feel anxious and exposed. Does the camera suggest “this is a secure place where I can relax” or “this is an insecure place where bad things happen”? We could ask the same question about the NSA reading our email or the Department of Homeland Security sending drones overhead: does it make us feel protected or violated? Liberated or oppressed? Secure or insecure? These questions have particular poignancy in the case of individuals whose basic legal rights are insecure: undocumented workers who are afraid to report unsafe working conditions, indigenous people whose treaty rights are often violated, convicted felons who cannot serve on juries or possess a firearm, or transgendered individuals simply trying to use a public restroom.

Voting: Own Risk

Security and insecurity have so many different meanings that can be explored through the interdisciplinary prism of American Studies. We hope you’ll join us in a conversation this year as we weave this important theme into our teaching, research, and special events. It is one of the many ways that the American Studies department is trying to connect its faculty and students to the wider world beyond the Forty Acres.

Randolph Lewis teaches in the American Studies Department. He is writing a book on surveillance in the contemporary US as well as teaching a seminar on the subject this fall.

Stories from Summer Vacation: Andi Gustavson Launches Personal Pin-up Project

Andi Gustavson describes the launch of a digital archive on war and photography to which servicemembers of all kinds can contribute – take a look!

from the Personal Pin-up PRoject

from the Personal Pin-up PRoject

This summer I launched the digital humanities portion of my dissertation on Cold War snapshot photography, the Personal Pin-up Project. I am collecting the private photographs that servicemembers carried or kept with them during their time in the military. These personal “pin-ups” can be snapshots of loved ones taken by the soldiers themselves or pictures of women or men who posed for the camera and then sent that snapshot off to war. I am looking for the photograph kept in the pocket, or worn in the helmet, or hidden in the gear of each servicemember. These images of loved ones do not often make their way into archives or art galleries. And yet, if most military members had one special photograph with them when they went away to war, then there must be thousands of these snapshots—in shoeboxes under beds, tucked into the back of closets, left in journals or letters, or stored on cellphones. The Personal Pin-up Project brings together the private images scattered across thousands of homes into a public and digital archive.

The Personal Pin-up Project is a public digital archive of the private images taken and kept by many American veterans and their loved ones. There is currently no archival repository to collect such a specific subset of war-related photographs that were, nevertheless, very common. Over the last several years as I was working on my dissertation about snapshot photography and the Cold War, I kept coming across references to these personal photographs of loved ones that were treasured by servicemembers and carried with them while they were deployed. Tim O’Brien, for example, notes in The Things They Carried, “Almost everyone humped photographs. In his wallet, Lieutenant Cross carried two photographs of Martha. The first was a Kodacolor snapshot signed Love, though he knew better. She stood against a brick wall. Her eyes were gray and neutral, her lips slightly open as she stared straight-on at the camera” (3). These snapshots are incredibly common and yet I had not come across many–I kept searching and muttering to my dissertation group that “surely these photographs are out there, so why can’t I find them?” After several failed attempts to discover the type of snapshots I knew existed, I decided it might be a better use of my time to just create the archive I hope to find.

Hopefully, The Personal Pin-up Project can become a way for servicemembers to preserve their collective memories about the role of photographs carried overseas. This is not an archive of professional photojournalism nor it is a catch-all for thousands of soldier snapshots. This collection of treasured photographs will document the private experience of war, making publicly available for the first time images that were highly valued and extremely personal. By exploring the personal snapshots taken by servicemembers into warzones and overseas, we can learn more about the intimate and daily experiences of war and its relationship to love, hope, longing, desire, frustration, admiration, and nostalgia.

Please consider contributing to this archive or encouraging someone you know to contribute to the archive at www.personalpinupproject.com.

Stories from Summer Vacation: Andrea Gustavson in the Archive

Today’s story comes to us from Ph.D. student Andrea Gustavson, who has spent the past two years as a Public Services Intern at the Harry Ransom Center here at UT:

This summer has been my final semester in the graduate internship in Public Services at the Harry Ransom Center, a program that has provided me with access to one of the world’s best collections and has given me the opportunity to think about my own research and career in new and dynamic ways.  In the two-year program, graduate interns spend the first year answering research queries for remote patrons, teaching visitors how to access the collections, and preparing presentations on collection highlights to visiting guests and classes.  In our second year, we are encouraged to develop an extended project that connects our own research to the needs of the Ransom Center.  My summer has been spent digging through the Ransom Center’s Magnum Photos Photography Collection, working closely with Steve Hoelscher to develop six short sections of the forthcoming book on the print archive.

The Magnum press print library evolved as a very practical tool for the distributing of photographs to potential clients. There are more than 1300 boxes in the collection, some labeled to indicate the photographer and year, others designated as images of various political figures and celebrities, including Richard Nixon, Ernest Hemingway, and Miles Davis.  There are also a few boxes labeled a little less intuitively with titles such as, “Historical Emotions 1970s,” “Monkey Research,” “Nifty Pics” or “Neon Lights.”  The Ransom Center has retained the original organizational structure of the press print archive and one of the more fascinating elements of my work requires me to trace Magnum’s distribution process back through the collection as I search for a single photograph relevant to many subjects that may have been placed into several different boxes. For example, an image of kids playing in ruins taken by David Seymour as part of his series on children in post-war Europe might appear as a press print in a box marked “Children of the World,” in another marked “International,” and in a third marked “War.” The backside, or verso, of many of the prints in these boxes have been stamped, annotated, stickered, dog-eared, and captioned by editors and Magnum librarians as they were distributed to news agencies, picture magazines, galleries, and book editors.

Robert Capa, Magnum Photos, Inc. Collection. Harry Ransom Center. The University of Texas at Austin.

Robert Capa, Magnum Photos, Inc. Collection. Harry Ransom Center. The University of Texas at Austin.

It is the reverse sides of the images that I’ve been using to track down the publication history—the subsequent life of the image—for sections of the forthcoming book and exhibition. For example, this iconic photograph (see above) taken by Robert Capa is one of several photographs taken during the second wave of American troops to invade Omaha beach on D-Day June 6th, 1944.  On the verso of the print that we have at the Ransom Center are indications that, in addition to its publication in Life Magazine, the photograph was also distributed to Popular Photography and slated for use in Robert Capa’s book Images of War. Tracing Magnum photographs back through their publication history and following Magnum librarians back through their organizational and archival decisions has made for an occasionally maddening but also incredibly fun summer project.