(Perhaps that’s an inauspicious beginning, making an RS allusion like that…)
Thanks to my colleague Andrew Hartman for inviting me to join this blog. I’ve been a “lurker” for quite a while now, checking in now and then, and I’ve always found the conversations enlightening.
I am an assistant professor of history at Illinois State University. I teach courses in American Cultural and Intellectual History, Film History, as well as Southern History. Last Spring, I published my first book, Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2009). My book explains the ritualistic and often public violence of lynching by situating that violence within a broad range of other cultural practices, both traditional and modern, including public executions, religious rituals, photography, and cinema. I show how lynching and its spectacular representations played a critical role in constructing white supremacy in southern towns and cities lurching into modernity. I also show, however, that as they spread out of local communities into national political and commercial culture, lynching spectacles eventually contributed to the decline of lynching, through the efforts of anti-lynching activists and their liberal allies in Hollywood.
I received my Ph.D. in American Studies from Emory University, and I see myself as much more of a cultural historian than an intellectual historian. I have drifted away from American Studies as a field, however, a process that began in graduate school, even before I landed a job in a History department. The reasons for my disenchantment with American Studies could perhaps be the topic of another blog posting. Nevertheless, I do think my background in American Studies has shaped my approach to cultural and intellectual history, most certainly in my teaching of these subjects. I entered into the field of American Studies from the field of literary studies, and I shifted then to visual culture/film studies. So I tend to conceptualize intellectual history not just in terms of its wider cultural history, but also in terms of literary and artistic movements.
My next book project, however, will be more grounded in traditional intellectual history, with a cultural history/visual studies bent. That project, which I am just beginning to conceptualize, will consider the ways in which compassion and empathy operated as political and social principles in the early-to-mid twentieth century U.S. It is tentatively titled, “Social Engineers and Bleeding Hearts: Compassion and the Rise of Modern Liberalism.” I am interested in an intellectual tension that I perceive existed in early liberalism between more rationalistic or so-called “technocratic” arguments for a more just and efficient democracy and those that relied on a sentimental and empathetic attention to human suffering. The latter emphasis is especially apparent in new photographic media, specifically photojournalism and cinema, which played a significant role in focusing public attention on issues of social injustice or human misery by insisting that viewers see the world through another’s eyes. My interest in this topic stems from the last two chapters in Lynching and Spectacle, which analyze how anti-lynching activists used photography and cinema to stir up public disgust toward the practice of lynching. What I noticed was that, although they relied heavily on gruesome photographs of lynching, the NAACP and the black press rarely attempted to cultivate feelings of compassion for lynching victims (this was a significant turn from the Abolitionist movement’s reliance on compassion and sentiment some 80 years earlier). Instead, they posited more rationalistic arguments about what behaviors are acceptable in a civilized, modern democracy. When Hollywood filmmakers took up the charge against lynching in the 1930s, however, they created characters and scenarios that would elicit the sympathies of viewers, and they based their filmic arguments against lynching on the impact it had on its victims and their families. This tension between the rational and the sentimental (which is also a gendered tension) existed, I hypothesize, not only in anti-lynching activism, but in other like-minded efforts in this period to address social inequality and injustice. I think it’s arguably a tension that still exists today in liberalism.
I would welcome any thoughts or suggestions you might have on this topic, especially since I am only loosely thinking it out at this moment. Meanwhile, I look forward to participating in this blog.