It has been a few years since I have been able to attend an academic conference. They have many social and cultural functions, among them mini-vacation from teaching, party and drinking, professional networking, etc. For me this month, having attended two conferences and having presented two pieces of my current research on ex-mormons, it has re-energized and motivated my “life of the mind” in unexpected ways. I have felt intellectually stunted the past few years, and like I’ve “fallen behind” or “out of touch” with intellectual conversation, scholarship, and what is for me personally, my life’s blood.
So here are a few key ideas, nuggets really, that sparked interest, provoked connections, gave that whoosh or excitement and energy as I’ve been listening to papers this weekend, in no particular order. It should be obvious, but these ideas belong to the scholars that presented them, and I cite their name and institution following my encapsulation of what I found stimulating so that if you want to explore further you can contact them directly and/or go to their published work:
1. Political moderation needs to be re-theorized as a political assertion, with concomitant political acts and power flows, in and of itself, rather than seen as merely splitting the difference between the two poles or as a wishy-washy fence-sitting. This was one of the conclusions drawn from studying Mainstreet Coalition in Johnson County Kansas, working to prevent or depose right-wing, religious Republicans with moderate, secular Republicans in state government.
—Alexander Smith, University of Huddersfield, UK
2. In a talk on a national organization for LGBT parents of children, the notion of “queerspawn” was raised as a self-identification of the adult children of LGBT parents. The children of LGBT parents are actually enculturated into gay culture, and when they leave for college and are immersed in hetero-dominant culture, they experience a cultural and identifying disjuncture, where even though they themselves are heterosexual, they feel they do not belong there. There is a growing movement among queerspawn to maintain spaces for them within queer cultural spaces and to create a way that gayness and queerness can be expanded to include them in the definition.
—Timothy Ortyl, University of Minnesota
3. Lesbian partners of trans-men who decide to stay with their partners during and after transition undergo acute identity crises in relationship to the masculinization of their partner’s bodies. This should have been a “no shit” idea, but it was like a light bulb going off in my head.
—Megan Tesene, University of Northern Iowa
4. Discussing Dr. Smith’s talk on moderate Kansans, Bob Antonio invoked a thread in Dewey’s theory of the public and democracy, where holding a position that is open enough to consider and handle ambiguity and respond to changes in the environment is a sine qua non of a functioning democracy. But there are moments when you’re facing muscular, ideological, inflexible opponents when a militant opposition is necessary to fight them (Dewey was framing his theory against the rise of totalitarianism in Europe and the anti-New Dealers in the U.S., wherein he saw what we would today call free-market ideologies as antithetical to democratic social intercourse). In other words, political moderation as a political strategy only works in a public where the constituents remain flexible and open enough to have the dialogue and to compromise. Neo-liberalism has become the unspoken ideological basis across the political spectrum, and the cultural and social issues that the “two sides” scream about obscure the actual ascendancy and dominance of neo-liberalism in american politics.
—Robert Antonio, University of Kansas
5. In an analysis of the rise and current fall of NASCAR as a cultural and economic phenomenon, the presenter referenced Guy Dubord’s work Society of Spectacle. Dubord argues that modern societies now create massive spectacles that function by dislocating an “authentic cultural core” and disembodying it, so that it no longer has locality, temporality, or sociality (i.e., a specific social context to which it belongs). The spectacle only works if there was at some point, somewhere an “authentic core” somewhere in the past. (In NASCAR’s case, it grew out of a formalization on competitions that southern bootleggers had with souped up cars to outrun the feds in the early 20th century…who knew?) NASCAR has successfully replaced that historical cultural core with a massified spectacle, imbricated in local economies (tracks are funded by local bonds) and serving as ideological pumps (military, government, and corporate sponsorships). So the authentic core ceases to have salience; in the end, all spectacles “look the same”. Holy Shit. The cool part was his analysis of how NASCAR is trying to maintain itself since its precipitous decline in attendance and revenues since 2007 (between 40 and 60% drop offs from track to track). But I’ll let you wait for the paper to be published for that part. Holy cow this one blew my mind.
—Dan Krier, Iowa State University [He also wrote a cool book on Enron and “speculative management.”]
6. Alienation, anomie, and the protestant ethic remain the defining characteristics of modern society. Modern society is a self-justifying and self-reproducing “force field” within which those three characteristics are reproduced and intensified from generation to generation, which makes them feel like they are intrinsic to our identities and thereby renders it painful to interrogate and criticize them, to see them for what they are.
—Harry F. Dahms, University of Tennessee, Knoxville
7. In a presentation on the rather sudden decline (yes I said decline) of the popularity of the Tea Party over the past year (according to 18 months of poll data), there was an intense (and rather humorous) discussion of the emotional and symbolic dynamics between tea party membership and adherence to tea party ideologies. There was some obvious discussion of its roots in right-wing populism and proto-fascism, but what really caught my attention were two observations: the obsession with death and violence in tea party rhetoric as a kind of necrophilia (Fromm), and the drawing out of that an explanation of necrophilia (an obsession with death and violence) as emerging out of moments or contexts where self-realization is no longer possible or is thwarted in some way. Second, a reference to Nietzsche’s ressentiment, which means not a mere resentment of those with power over you, but a hatred of that which you yourself desire as a way to explain the self-defeating politics of the populist right.
—Lauren Langman, Loyala University (Chicago)
8. The liberal imagination or liberal consciousness is undertheorized and studied. He proposed that there is a projectability to the liberal imagination that renders liberals incapable of fully groking (verstehen, in the Weberian sense) radically opposed world views. The liberal imagination tends to explain away radical opposition as a temporary effect of an emotional event, or as someone who simply doesn’t have all the facts. So the liberal is in some ways hamstrung from the beginning in a conversation with ideological opponents, because the liberal believes that there is an underlying rationality or consensus that isn’t really there.
—David Smith, University of Kansas