Month: October 2018

Get to Know Our Fellows: Four Questions with Aimee Loiselle

 

1. Tell us a bit about the project you are working on at UCHI.

My scholarship focuses on working women in relation to gender, race, and popular culture and the modern U.S. as a hub for global labor and capital.  In my current project, I argue that U.S. colonial experimentation with the labor of Puerto Rican needleworkers helped to propel a disaggregation of manufacturing by the early twentieth century, yet an American fascination with poor white southerners led the media to spotlight Crystal Lee Sutton in the 1970s.  The dissertation does not simply recover Sutton but reevaluates the context in which she labored, expanding it beyond the South to the Atlantic U.S. as a whole, including Puerto Rico.  The media attention on Sutton led to a Hollywood movie production, Norma Rae (1979), which recycled the narrative of a white working class in isolated, local circumstances.  The result elided a long history of southern labor activism and contributed to the erasure of Puerto Rican needleworkers.  In addition, the Norma Rae icon that emerged from movie publicity in the 1980s served the neoliberal turn in American society.  The icon’s embedded narrative of American exceptionalism and triumphant individualist rebellion converged with the rhetoric of leaders like Ronald Reagan.  As it reinforced that aspirational discourse of bold individuals free in the market, the icon did work to make neoliberal economic projects both more alluring and more rationalized.

 

The project makes interventions in three fields: cultural history with its attention to the power of narrative, history of capitalism and its consideration of political economy, and labor history with its interest in workers.  I use an intersectional frame of analysis to examine the ways gender, race, class, sexuality, and status shape and are shaped by cultural narratives and economic mechanisms.  The resulting history bridges common conceptual and historiographical divisions to set the U.S. into a transnational framework and to explore the connections between economic, cultural, and social structures in modern capitalism through the study of women, gender, and work.

 

2. What drew you to this topic and what exciting developments are you anticipating?

I had an interest in working women during the 1970s—popular representations as well as their labor and activism.  I am intrigued by the dynamics between women’s decisions, behaviors, work, and status and the cultural narratives about working women and “woman’s work.”  When I conducted several searches, images and articles related to the 1979 movie Norma Rae appeared over and over.  I decided to dig into coverage of the movie, explore the images contained in it, and find out who made the film.  I discovered a controversy regarding the woman who had inspired it.  Crystal Lee Sutton had participated in a 1973-1974 local membership drive as a member of the Textile Workers Union of America (TWUA).  That drive was part of the TWUA/ACTWU 1963-1981 national campaign to organize J.P. Stevens.  Due to her appeal as an attractive, married, working white mother and poor southern mill hand, two major media outlets centered Sutton, one in a long magazine article and the other in a television segment.  That attention led to the interest of two women producers and the esteemed director Martin Ritt.  When Sutton questioned certain aspects of their screenplay, the producers and Twentieth Century-Fox removed her from the production.

 

Movies cannot capture the complexity of historical legacies and contemporary circumstances, and they are usually products intended for sale to as wide an audience as possible for the highest return on investment.  So they cannot be measured for simple “accuracy”—but how a production team makes its decisions to condense or change life stories and the final results offer important insights.  They reveal power relationships and capitalist systems of labor and distribution within the culture industries as well as the ways such products participate in the dissemination, debate, reconstruction, and subversion of meanings.

 

When I described this project to a friend, she mentioned that her mother had moved from Puerto Rico to New York and then to Massachusetts for work in garment factories in the 1970s.  Her story contradicted the dominant historiographical narrative that I was reading of a direct linear relocation of manufacturing from the Northeast to the South to the Global South.  I began to research Puerto Rican women in the textile and garment industry and discovered they were integrated into the national economy as “Puerto Rican needleworkers” at the same time as “Southern mill hands.”  The various groups of women provided distinct labor markets for manufacturers.  Although the women did not interact personally, they were interconnected if not interchangeable labor markets at the macroeconomic level with differing wages, categorizations, and migrations.

 

At this phase, I am most excited to concentrate on my material from the 1980s and the ways individualist cultural narratives like Norma Rae converged with the ascension of neoliberalism.  I have been reading extensively on neoliberalism as a nexus of economic, cultural, and political projects and hope to find more primary sources related to its culture of personal choice in the market and individuals as the principal locus of rights, responsibilities, and power.  The speeches and legislation of the Reagan years will offer rich research into the dynamics of neoliberalism and American pop culture.  I look forward to the time to immerse myself in the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan in particular, because he was so savvy at engaging the media and performance for political and economic policymaking.  The ascendance of neoliberalism was contingent not only on the economic crises of the 1970s and collapse of Keynesianism, but also on the ability of Republicans and right-wing thinkers to deploy cultural narrative and hold sway over national discourse.  America’s captivation with stories of individual heroism fit well with their rhetoric.

 

3. What are you looking forward to in regard to this year at UCHI?

This fellowship year at UCHI allows me the ability to dedicate intensive time to my scholarly pursuits and writing.  I am eager to read primary and secondary sources with the opportunity to move from reading to notes to writing with directed, consistent attention.  Exploring the subtleties and intriguing relationships between groups of working women and between economic and cultural structures has required sustained time and reflection.  Some recent scholars have shifted away from past divisions between cultural history and economic history and into a new history of capitalism that uses multiple angles and methodologies.  As scholars of contemporary history address the Internet, social media, and globalized pop culture, knowledge about the potent but slippery relationship between culture, labor, and finance will be crucial.  Old arguments about culture existing only in a distinct “superstructure” or as a set of aesthetic distractions from “real” structures will continue to give way to more nuanced analyses of how economics, politics, and culture interact.  The time at UCHI will help me contribute to this growing conversation.

 

I am also eager to join regular discussions with other humanities scholars who are diving deeper into their research and writing.  The opportunities for such dialogue exist in every department, but intermingle with teaching and other duties.  As a scholar with a working-class background, finances have been a persistent concern as well.  I feel honored and privileged that I will have the funding and institutional support for daily time and space with exciting scholars who are also fully engrossed in their research pursuits.  UCHI exists as a place of concentration and exchange that is unique to the campus and the local region.

 

UCHI has been a vibrant part of my graduate studies at UConn.  At events with visiting speakers, Publishing NOW, campus dialogues, and public humanities advocates, I have met interesting scholars, heard innovative research, and received guidance on writing and submissions.  Most importantly, the events foster community for faculty, students, and staff who often work in solitude or departmental enclaves.  The interdisciplinary links have enriched my thinking and scholarship, and I am anticipating more time at such stimulating events as a UCHI fellow.

 

4. Many people wonder what value the humanities and humanities research has in today’s world. What are your thoughts on what humanities scholarship “brings to table?”

Humanities studies have been at the center of my growth and explorations since childhood.  As an avid young reader drawn to stories of all types, humanities classes have inspired my educational, creative, and career pursuits and shaped my participation in daily life as a citizen and neighbor.  In my experiences, the humanities include rich documentaries, thoughtful investigations, biographies, and long-form essays as well as the courses, articles, and books of academia—all of which cracked open the world for me.  I was a girl from a working-class background who went to the public library and watched public television to hear stories, meet people, learn histories, and travel to places I could not go without humanities studies.  I later became the first member of my family to go away to college, to publish in magazines and journals, and to attend graduate school.  The humanities made that possible because at a young age I understood the wider world as a complex place filled with obstacles and catalysts, unforeseen consequences and power dynamics, wide-ranging languages and shifting traditions, so I could jump into it without unbearable trepidation.

 

Beyond personal enrichment, the humanities enhance a society and all the people who speak, build, work, teach, parent, vote, open businesses, do public service, or run for political office.  The current ascendance of neoliberalism, with its entwined economic and cultural emphasis on deliverables and transactions, has pushed many humanities scholars to defend our studies in those terms.  We list articles, monographs, op-eds, digital archives, and online exhibits.  While we all must engage in both the rigorous peer exchange required for a scholarly pursuit of knowledge and the pragmatic demands of our institutions and employment, it behooves humanities folks to offer their significance and value in other terms as well.  These terms might bring academic humanities studies into unconventional realms where we do not produce deliverables but rather deepen conversations and shift understandings.  Humanities studies and public events shaped around them can encourage us to stop reacting with impulse, to slow our actions, and to share ideas and questions before our responses.  They guide us to face people and places unknown with a curiosity about similarities, differences, inspirations, and foibles rather than with angst; they help us to see familiar people and places with questions about our own assumptions, inertia, and attachments without the fear of losing ourselves.

 

At this critical moment of accelerating and intensified global technological change, the humanities are extremely vital.  When people address their societies primarily from the perspective of efficiency in productivity and digital technology, they cannot raise the necessary questions to consider broad possible implications and effects.  I have a side research interest in the recent history of Silicon Valley, information technology (IT) venture capitalists, and social media executives.  In articles and interviews, many of them make extreme idealistic comments about the ability of their IT programs, apps, and social media to create a utopia in which people no longer do manual labor and smart technology solves all manufacturing, service, education, transportation, and climate problems.  Humanities scholars recognize that technology is not neutral or inevitable.  We have the ability to connect changes in technologies to power, politics, economics, and culture in ways that IT professionals do not usually consider.  Revelations about Russian agencies and right-wing American digital consultants like Brad Parscale manipulating social media during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign have exposed the naiveté of many IT leaders and the shallowness of progressive politics disconnected from the critical perspectives of history, philosophy, literature, and cultural and political studies.  If Silicon Valley capitalists and executives had a more substantive background in such fields, they might have been prepared for the ways authoritarian leaders and the quest for power can infuse and bend technologies.  They might be prepared for the inability of smart technology and robotics to solve the problem of the inequitable distribution of resources, income, and wealth.  As digital, robotic, and medical technologies offer increasing capacities to intervene in organic processes, societies need humanities studies and scholars—not only for specific discussions that interrogate the contingency of “technological progress” and the diverse possibilities it raises, but also to enrich our societies to imagine and experience other priorities, people, and ideas outside the digital.  Humanities studies of any time period, society, school of artists, thinkers, or writers push for better questions and empathy and nudge us out of our entrenched reactions and into explorations of how other human beings have faced the dilemmas and joys of their existence.

 

 

 

 

You Should…WALK: Around Alexander Calder’s Stegosaurus

“You Should…

 

WALK

 

Around Alexander Calder’s Stegosaurus (1973) in downtown Hartford.

 

Alexander Calder (1898-1976) is best known for his mobiles, hanging sculptures comprised of abstract metal shapes that dance on currents of air. Stabiles such as Stegosaurus do the opposite: the sculpture stays put and it is the spectator who moves around the artwork. Stegosaurus is a good example of the large-scale, outdoor sculpture that became the primary focus of Calder’s work during the last two decades of the artist’s life. The 50-foot tall, painted steel sculpture is comprised of 45 steel plates bolted together to form an abstract, arced structure. The sculpture seems to encourage spectators to walk around and even underneath it by refusing to present a static, single image for contemplation. Instead our perception of it constantly changes. It demands to be experienced first-hand.

 

The sculpture’s five triangular fins invite comparisons with the Jurassic period dinosaur Calder referenced in the title, although Stegosaurus was commissioned in honor of Alfred E. Burr, a publisher of the Hartford Times. It stands in Burr Mall, between Hartford City Hall and the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. Stegosaurus isn’t the only example of post-war public sculpture worth exploring in downtown Hartford. Its neighbors include Stone Field Sculpture (1977) by Carl Andre, located adjacent to the Ancient Burial Ground, and Amaryllis (1965) by Tony Smith, which stands on the Wadsworth Atheneum’s front lawn. Studies and presentation models for all three sculptures, as well as two temporary outdoor works, are currently on display in a special exhibition at the museum through the end of October.”

 

-Dr. Amanda A. Douberley

Academic Liaison/Assistant Curator, William Benton Museum of Art

Publishing NOW: Peter Catapano

Publishing NOW speaker, Peter Catapano of the New York Times and UCHI Director Michael Lynch discussed publishing and careers in journalism.

Publishing NOW speaker, Peter Catapano of the New York Times and UCHI Director Michael Lynch discussed publishing and careers in journalism.

 

Peter Catapano, Editor, Opinion Section, New York Times
October 2, 2018 4-5pm, with reception to follow

Catapano began his career at The Times as an assistant to The Times Editorial Board in 1998. He became a copy editor in 2000 for The New York Times News Service and joined the Opinion section as an editor in 2005, where he began developing projects specifically for the web.

Catapano has created and edited some of the most popular New York Times online series — The Stone, Anxiety, Happy Days, Menagerie and Home Fires — which helped launch the careers of several writers. He received a Publisher’s Award in 2008 for his work in pioneering the online series.

Catapano has edited and published more than 1,000 pieces in The Times, and has worked directly with both beginners and highly accomplished thinkers and writers, including Arthur Danto, E.O. Wilson, Frans de Waal, Peter Singer, Simon Critchley, Thomas Nagel, Laszlo Krasznahorkai, Pico Iyer, Phil Klay, Roy Scranton, Steven Pinker, Siri Hustvedt and Oliver Sacks.

In 2015, Catapano was asked by Dr. Sacks to edit his final essays in The Times chronicling his illness and death, which were collected in “Gratitude” — now a best-selling book by Knopf.

Catapano’s The Stone, established in 2010, is the longest-running online series in Opinion, and draws millions of readers each year. In 2015, Liveright published “The Stone Reader: Modern Philosophy in 133 Arguments,” an anthology of essays from the series. Catapano has sold more than 15,000 copies. Since 2012, about half of the American Philosophical Association’s public philosophy awards have been given to essays published in The Stone. The series has helped bring philosophical thought back into the national conversation.

You SHOULD…See: A Taxi Driver

“You Should “See” Taxi Driver(2017) …  No, not Robert De Niro and Jodie Foster, the new South Korean one…

 

Lost in the barrage of news surrounding North Korean nuclear ambitions and Singapore dreams is the astonishing current history of South Korea. Throughout 2016-2017, hundreds of thousands of South Koreans marched in downtown Seoul leading to the rare—if not unprecedented—peaceful and democratic overthrow of a democratically elected national leader. Immediately coined, “The Candlelight Revolution”because protestors armed themselves only with small flames, a central demand was the government’s ongoing accountability for the country’s dictatorship era (1953-1993). Gone are the secret jails and “disappeared” family members. Throughout the past twenty-five years, South Koreans have transformed their society into a vibrant democracy with regular elections and the right to challenge government openly. Up for grabs now is writing the history that came before, and central in the mix is the 1980 Gwangju uprising during which South Korean troops slaughtered several hundred largely unarmed citizens who were demanding the release from jail of the prominent pro-democracy politician, Kim Dae-jung.

 

Last summer, acclaimed director Jang Hoon released Taxi Driver, starring South Korea’s George Clooney, Song Kong-ho, in a fictionalized work-up of a real-life cab driver who ferried German journalist, Jurgen Hintzpeter, to the center of the violence as it unfolded in Gwangju. Hintzpeter’s smuggled footage of South Korean soldiers shooting innocent students caused an international sensation and ultimately led South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan to reign in the massacre. More violence would come until his overthrow in 1987, and the real cab driver never surfaced despite Hintzpeter subsequent efforts to find him.

 

In the whorl of today’s debate about North Korea, Taxi Driver underscores why it is essential to include South Korea as an equal in any discussion concerning Korea’s collective future. ”

 

-Alexis Dudden
Professor of History
University of Connecticut