Darmouth Futures of American Studies: Here Now, Thinking in Real Time

So I’m at the Darmouth Institute for the week, in my dorm room at the moment, furiously typing at 2:30 AM.  This makes sense. There’s so much to think about with 2 plenary sessions a day (6 presenters in total) and a seminar in the afternoon that meets daily. It’s only the second day and I’ve been so inspired by the talks I’ve heard that I think it’s worth scribbling up some things that have immediately struck me so far–I can’t turn off my thinking cap and feel compelled to write thoughts down, spit them out on my blog as a way of processing all of I’ve heard thus far.

I’m most struck right now by what seems to be a running theme throughout the plenary talks of the way separate bodies communicate, brush up against each other, and negotiate difference. Elizabeth Maddock Dillon emphasized the importance of the material occupation of space and its political ramification for the Occupy movement. To use her words: “Being alive requires taking up space.” The act then of convening bodies in spaces where they should not be is itself a statement. Most importantly, Dillon’s talk really pivoted on the enclosure of the commons and its virtualization in other spaces, namely the theatre. The commons (or maybe more fittingly, the virtual commons) is the space where bodies brush up against one another, where crowds form. But commons are often composed of strangers, which brings me to Lloyd Pratt’s talk on Frederick Douglass.  He articulates a new conception of the stranger, that it isn’t necessarily bad to be strangers to one another. People are different: one would hope that it would take time for two beings in relation to each other to even get a sense of what they are like. This got me thinking about the relationship between the stranger and desire. Shirley Samuels mentioned a scene in The Marble Faun of a character that kills with the eye, which is interesting to think about. Eyes may be capable of zapping amorous sparks, but that selfsame eye is capable of killing with the change of a glance. So how do bodies communicate with one another and specifically how do they communicate amorous desire? How is this historically related to scientific metaphors that attempt to biologize that seemingly unexplainable “electric spark” two strangers may have? Why do some people have instant “chemistry” and some do not? What does it even mean to express a connection in these terms? It seems particularly interesting to me that the language of the sciences becomes the way by which desire–a feeling, the excess of the scientific real, and perhaps the queer–is comfortably imagined with a scientific metaphor. When I refer to this desire as queer I mean the following: is it possible to conceive of the signaling of desire as something that exceeds traditional conceptions of sex? Why is the signal often bound up in a trajectory that culminates with “sex?” What if we were to treat almost ineffable circuits of desire as their own queer moments that suspend time, space, and the necessity of sexual?” These sorts of questions are very much part of an “After Eve” turn (shout out to Robyn Wiegman’s talk). A post on queer feminism will come later. Too much to write for now. Over and out.

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