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CURRENTS: Humanities Work Now

The Dresher Center’s CURRENTS: Humanities Work Now lunchtime series showcases exciting new faculty work in a dynamic and interdisciplinary setting.  Designed to promote ongoing conversation and multi-disciplinary investigation, these works-in-progress meetings offer faculty and advanced graduate students an informal venue for presentation, conversation, and ongoing collaborative exchange.

CURRENTS presentations take many forms:

  • Discussion of a key research question at the heart of an article or major project,
  • Conversation about methodological issues surrounding multi- or trans-disciplinary work,
  • Presentation of a working draft of a new paper,
  • Exploration of opportunities and challenges surrounding digital and multi-modal scholarship,
  • Consultation with other scholars about a grant or other major project proposal.

Since conversation is at the heart of all CURRENTS events, faculty are encouraged to pre-circulate materials but not to present formal papers.

The Dresher Center appreciates the generous support of the Office of the Vice President for Research and the Dean of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.

All sessions begin at noon, with lunch available at 11:30 a.m., in the Dresher Center Conference Room (Performing Arts and Humanities Building, Room 216).

For more information, contact Natalia Panfile, program manager.

Fall 2014 CURRENTS Sessions:

Wednesday, October 22nd
Acting While Black (and Male) in Disney’s Land

Kimberly Moffitt, American Studies, Spring 2014 Dresher Center Residential Faculty Fellow

President Obama’s rise to the presidency is described as a post-racial moment when America moved past its preoccupation with race and elected who Americans believed was the better candidate. Using that moment, in particular, I consider the representations of young Black males on Disney’s television programming from 2009-2012. In order to do so, I have carried out a textual analysis that includes episodes of six programs featuring young Black male characters during the aforementioned timeframe. Although the textual analysis shows that Disney channels increase their representation of young Black male characters, those roles remain marginal and caricatured. To extend the exploration, I have decided to include interviews with young Black male viewers aged 7-12 years old who watch(ed) the specific television programs in an attempt to hear their voices regarding these characters and their identification with them.

Monday, November 3rd
The Hopkinson Hoax of 1763

Kevin Wisniewski, Ph.D. student, Language Literacy and Culture
Fall 2014 Dresher Center Graduate Residential Fellow

As a literary device, the hoax is a slippery term.  A popular maneuver among British writers like Jonathan Swift, Samuel Richardson, Daniel Defoe and Benjamin Franklin, hoaxes were used to mislead and mystify readers and to disrupt bureaucratic systems.  They inspired a number of young writers growing up in the era leading up to the American Revolution.  Before signing the Declaration of Independence, designing the American flag, and penning dozens of wartime propaganda including the famous “Battle of the Kegs,” Francis Hopkinson (1737-1791) was a poet and composer.  Scholars consider one of his earliest published poems “Science,” the first pirated work in the American colonies.  But what if the highly publicized quarrels following these pirated copies were part of an elaborate marketing scheme for not one but three separate Hopkinson titles?

An American Enlightenment: Political Theory and the Origins of American Feminism

Lisa Vetter, Assistant Professor, Political Science

I am currently working on a book project that makes the case that several pivotal figures in the 19th century American women’s rights movement deserve to be incorporated into the received narrative of American political thought. I argue that a more inclusive approach is necessary to fully appreciate the richness and diversity of the history of American political theory. The book focuses on several female writers and activists who are not typically considered political theorists, including Frances Wright, Harriet Martineau, Sarah and Angelina Grimke, Lucretia Mott, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  I show that these women were engaging in many of the same theoretical debates as their mainstream male counterparts and on many different levels.  Equally important, these women often innovated on and broadened traditional theoretical teachings to better accommodate women and the disenfranchised. For my talk, I will give an overview of the major arguments made in the book and discuss the challenges I have encountered in performing interdisciplinary research, broadening a male-dominated “canon” of political theory, and adapting scholarly work to a broader audience.

Friday, November 14th
Neoliberal Globalization and the ‘Chinese Dream’

Fan Yang, Assistant Professor, Media and Communication Studies

I’m working to adapt part of the conclusion of my book, Faked in China, into a chapter for an edited volume titled Commercial Nationalism. My plan is to examine the discursive formation of the “Chinese Dream” (zhongguomeng, 中国) under the cultural conditions of neoliberal globalization. Installed in 2012 by China’s newly inaugurated president Xi Jinping as a new catchphrase for his administration, the “Chinese Dream” has taken the Chinese media by storm and garnered global media attention in turn. While Xi understands modern China’s “greatest dream” as the “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” which embodies “the integrated well-being” of the country and its people, observers in both China and the West are quick to notice the slogan’s semantic affinity to its American counterpart; after all, the “American Dream” remains the only “dream” that is globally recognized. It would be interesting, therefore, to explore the rise of this discourse as a global-national ideological formation, a concept that I’ve developed in my book to account for the reconfiguration of China’s state apparatus amidst the myriad forces of contemporary globalization.

Scribebamus epos: Identity and Confusion in Martial’s Exilic Poetry

Tim Phin, Assistant Professor, Ancient Studies

The assassination of the emperor Domitian in 96 CE brought an end to Flavian rule in Rome. An elated Roman senate damned the emperor’s memory. Subsequent Roman authors, Tacitus and Pliny, would write of the horrors and indignities of Domitian’s reign. This narrative juxtaposed terrible Domitian with the glorious reigns of Nerva and Trajan. My current research looks closely at that narrative, asking why and how it formed, and what it obscured. My present focus is the poet Martial, whose career began during Flavian rule and continued after Domitian’s death. Martial’s poetry provides the best example of an author struggling to reconcile the reality of regime change in the Roman empire. For my talk, I will discuss a series of emotional, ecphrastic poems written during Martial’s ‘exile’ from Rome. These poems reveal a man deeply concerned with his identity as a Roman; an identity complicated and unsettled by Domitian’s assassination.


Previous CURRENTS Sessions:
Spring 2014 
Monday, March 24th
Set in Stone? Posthumous Accounts, Epitaphs, and the Writing of
Mid-Tang Literati Biographies

Anna M. Shields, Modern Languages, Linguistics, and Intercultural Communication

I am in the early stages of a new project on constructions of Tang dynasty (617-907) literary culture that were written during the Five Dynasties (907-976) and Northern Song (976-1127) eras in China. In this project I will explore key works about Tang writers and literature from the tenth through early twelfth centuries — focusing on historical biographies, poetry anthologies, and anecdote collections. As the earliest, most influential portraits of Tang literary culture for later Chinese readers these texts represent the Tang as the ultimate “literary” dynasty, reading Tang literature and writers through an increasingly narrow lens that frequently excluded the social and political dimensions of Tang writing. I will present a case study of funerary texts for the mid-Tang literatus Han Yu (768-824) that were used by tenth- and eleventh-century historians to write Han’s biography, showing the ways that later writers selected and erased certain components of the texts to construct a “Han Yu” that suited their broader view of the mid-Tang era.

‘Pleading the Belly’: Convict Transportation and Motherhood

Teresa Foster, Language, Literacy and Culture

Women adjudged guilty of a felony and condemned to death could avoid the hangman’s noose by “pleading the belly” in eighteenth-century Britain. The respite of precious months offered by pregnancy was sufficient to receive a conditional pardon for transportation to the American colonies. The desirability of convict transportation as an alternative punishment to public hanging may appear obvious. However, much less obvious is the maternal sacrifice required of postpartum women forced to abandon their newborns to an uncertain fate. Removed by prison or parish officials, the children of convict mothers became fictive orphans. I argue that an examination of familial relations within the system of convict transportation reveals a codified pattern of gendered dehumanization through an abrogation of natal ties.

Friday, April 11th

Leah’s Dybbuk: A Feminist Adaptation of a Classic Yiddish Play

Susan McCully, Theatre; Eve Muson, Theatre; and Michele Osherow, English

We are collaborating on the production of a new play to be staged at UMBC in spring 2015. Our collaboration began as an adaptation of S. Ansky’s The Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds (1915) with the aim of recovering the voice of the young woman possessed by the dybbuk of her dead lover. As the project progressed, we became increasingly interested in hauntings of various kinds involving ancestral ghosts, cultural identity and beliefs regarding personal destiny. The romantic love at the center of Ansky’s play is replaced in Leah’s Dybbuk with the relationships of mothers and daughters whose complicated possessions of one another cross time and space. The characters move between worlds speaking English, Chinese, Yiddish and Hebrew. In turns realistic and expressionistic, Leah’s engagement with the supernatural frees her to explore her potential for self-possession and expression, echoing the rich history of young women who gained a rare cultural agency through the performance of a mystical experience.

Monday, April 21st
Explosive Figures: Population Projections and the Pill

Carole McCann, Gender + Women’s Studies

This talk offers a close reading of Ansley Coale and Edgar Hoover’s analysis of the 1951 All-India census, which is said to have proved that rapid population growth in the “third world” would inevitably outstrip economic modernization efforts. The paper illuminated the complex process by which scant data were extrapolated into a vivid portrait of explosive population growth. It highlights the cultural work performed by Coale and Hoover’s statistical figurations that fueled popular images of the world population explosion and the rapid global distribution of the pill in the 1960s.


Past Presentations:
Fall 2013
Emek Ergun, Language, Literacy & Culture student (Carol McCann, advisor), and Kevin Wisniewski, Language, Literacy & Culture student (Craig Saper, advisor)

Emek Ergun: “Doing Feminist Translation as Local and Transnational Activism: The Turkish Translation and Reception of Virgin: The Untouched History”
My dissertation, “Doing Feminist Translation as Local and Transnational Activism: The Turkish Translation and Reception of Virgin: The Untouched History” explores the ways in which the feminist virginity knowledges of an American book, Virgin, traveled through my politically engaged translation. At the Brownbag, I take up the question: How did the feminist readers in Turkey relate to a feminist book that was “originally” written for and about Western women and western virginities? That is, how did they manage to build bridges between the virginity stories of the west and their own geopolitically grounded virginity realities? My reader-reception analysis suggests that readers partly achieved this bridging through a universalizing gesture that allowed them to imagine a common ground of virginity oppression and resistance across histories and cultures. At the same time, they recognized the differences among women and their gender realities. It is my (tentative) contention that such a complex bridging gesture of “differential universalization” offers both promising trajectories and cautionary tales of transnational feminist politics.

K. A. Wisniewski: “Improving the Art of Paper War: The Literary Gambols of Francis Hopkinson”
Poet, author and satirist.  Signer of the Declaration of Independence.  First American composer.  Co-editor of Pennsylvania Magazine. Scientist and inventor.  Federal Judge.  And designer of the American flag, the Great Seal of the United States, the U.S. Treasury Seal, and colonial currency.  These activities represent only a few of Francis Hopkinson’s accomplishments.  But Hopkinson (1737-1791) has somehow escaped recognition from the public as well as in-depth scholarly inquiry from historians and literary critics.  This paper seeks to explain his absence in these spheres and to re-position him historically by investigating a few of his “literary gambols” and experiments, including his satire of newspaper quarrels, “A Plan for the Improvement of the Art of Paper War” (1786).  Targeted questions include the following: How does Hopkinson’s work correspond or clash with genres of humor and satire and political writings and propaganda of his age?  What was the eighteenth-century dialogue or scrutiny surrounding the role and visuality and textuality of the printed word and the process of reading?  Lastly, anonymous authorship and the use of pseudonyms were common in the eighteenth century, but how do we read Hopkinson’s abundant use of pseudonyms, especially those that “attack” his own work and published in politically-opposed newspapers?

Kara Hunt, Post-doctoral Fellow, Media & Communications Studies, and 
Rebecca Adelman, Assistant Professor, Media & Communications Studies

Kara Hunt: “Grin and Bear It: Humor as an Economy of Being”
The political and philosophical treatment of humor, as a matter of both function and prospect, has been restricted to empirical analyses. That is, in prioritizing the affective characteristics of humor in isolation much of the scholarship on the subject takes for granted its epistemic qualities. It is my position that the cognitive processes that inform and underscore humor are structural in nature and therefore have a profound connection to modern conceptualizations of human being. In considering a “sense” of humor as an economy of being through which jokes are exchanged as a matter of ontological security I argue, that certain bodies are restricted from presence via jest. To demonstrate this position, I will analyze the historical progression of humor alongside popular and accessible jokes about race, gender, and class in the immediate contemporary.

Rebecca Adelman: “Beyond Representation: Approaching Violence and the Visual”
For most scholars of the visual it is axiomatic that traumatic experiences—war, terrorist attacks, and other forms of violence—might resist visual representation or appear obliquely or incompletely. This does not mean, however, that these phenomena cannot be given a visible shape.  Rather, that shape might be a shell, an outline, a reflection, an aurora, or a negative of itself, less apparent in a visual artifact than in its social, cultural, and political echoes, resonances, and functions.  And so I want to think about how we might capture, account for, and analyze the visual cultures orbiting around these objects. In this presentation, I’ll consider two methodological and conceptual interventions that I’ve been endeavoring to develop in my recent work.  The first, which forms the foundation of my forthcoming book, Beyond the Checkpoint: Visual Practices in America’s Global War on Terror (University of Massachusetts Press, 2014), is a turn toward the study of individual and institutional visual practices rather than textual analysis of visual objects.  This wider view facilitates an exploration of who is using the visual, how, for what purposes, and with what material consequences.  Building from, rather than lamenting, the notion that war might not be fully representable, this method transforms that impossibility from a constraint into an essential element of knowledge production about how, precisely, visual cultures of militarized violence organize themselves.  The second, which I am exploring in a series of collaborations with Wendy Kozol (Oberlin College), is what we describe as an “asymptotic approach” to the study of images—and related practices of image production and consumption—that get close to the scene of war or violence, but never actually or fully depict it.  We adopt the notion of the asymptote from geometry, where it is employed to describe a line that a curve approaches as it moves toward infinity, and use the figure of the asymptote to model the relationship between the truths of war and images that purport to document them.  Rather than casting images that do not provide graphic documentary records of war as failures, we argue that instead they visualize unrepresentability itself, providing a record of the dynamic relation between events and images, and querying what kinds of spectatorship are possible in the gap that separates them.  Ultimately, this scholarship is intended as a response to the cultural, political, and ethical exigencies that arise as militarized violence and visual technologies commingle in increasingly intimate ways.

Spring 2013

“Methodological Approaches and Questions in Place-based Research”
Kate Brown, History and Dresher Center Fellow, and Preminda Jacob, Visual Arts and Dresher Center Fellow

Dene Grigar, Director of the Creative Media & Digital Culture Program at Washington State University Vancouver and Curator of the Library of Congress: “Electronic Literature and its Emerging Forms”

Carole McCann, Gender and Women’s Studies: “Remaking the Malthusian Couple for the Contraceptive Age: Calibrating the Risk of Pregnancy”
In the 1930s, after nearly a decade and half of public agitation in support of the legalization of contraception, questions about contraceptive effectiveness continued to linger. What little information did exist came out of birth control clinics. Population science, or demography as it would be called by the end of the decade, coalesced around a set of statistical tools with which to describe pregnancy risk and contraceptive effectiveness. I juxtapose close readings of the numeric figures produced through the statistical procedures developed in early demographic contraceptive-use studies with affect-laden stories of pregnancy risk and contraceptive practice told by women and recorded in birth control literature. The contrast of these two textual/conceptual practices illuminates the aspects of women’s experiential knowledge of reproductive processes that are displaced by the actionable objects of twentieth century fertility control discourse.

Kate Brown, History and Dresher Center Fellow: “Being There: The Adventures Most Historians Would Rather Not Admit”

Amy Zanoni, History MA student: “One Baltimore Block from Inside Out”

Pilar K. Rau (Ph.D. candidate in Socio-cultural Anthropology, New York University UMBC Alumna (B.A. with a double major in Visual Arts and Modern Languages and Linguistics, & M.A. in Intercultural Communications): “Trade Networks and Tourist Messiahs”

Joe Tropea (M.A., UMBC Public History): Hit and Stay
The filmmaker screens clips from Hit and Stay, his documentary about the Catonsville Nine, which won the audience award at the Chicago Underground Film Festival. Theo Gonzalves, American Studies, will introduce the film and talk about related 45th anniversary Catonsville Nine events, including:

  • Sunday, April 28th: “C-9 Bus Tour”
  • Friday, May 10th: Hit and Stay Film Screening & Panel Discussion

Preminda Jacob, Visual Arts and Dresher Center Fellow: “The Painted walls of Chennai: Street Semiotics in an Indian City”