U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Please Allow Me to Introduce Myself…

(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.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Welcome aboard, Amy! Thanks for introducing yourself and your work. As an historian located for the last decade or so in a kinda sorta American Studies unit, I’d love to hear more about your disenchantment with AS.

  2. Welcome!

    I love your distinction between cultivating horror and cultivating empathy, and how each of these attempts to motivate action.

    A couple of unconnected thoughts:

    How would you place _Let Us Now Praise Famous Men_ in your work? It’s a strange book because James Agee felt incredibly burdened to do something to help the sharecroppers he was living with, but at the same time felt alienated and other as he tried to enter into their lives. In contrast, Walker Evans had no real sentimental approach to his photographic subjects and I don’t think he had a political motivation behind his images.

    One of the panelists with me at the recent USIH conference is also writing about empathy. His paper was entitled “The Psychological Turn in the History of American Justice: Segregation and Empathy from Plessy to Brown” Paul A. Dambowic, Pratt Institute.

    Also, a friend of mine, Brenna Greer, is writing her dissertation about the use of images in African American history. One of her chapters addresses the NAACP campaign to promote respectable images of black people in the 1950s.

  3. Thanks, Lauren. And thanks for the mention of Dambowic and Greer – both sound like interesting projects.

    As for Agee and Evans, I find Agee’s book to be deeply frustrating. I think it is a book that aims toward empathy – after all, he wants to move into these families’ lives not only because he wants to expose their poverty, but also because he wants to live life as they led it. In that sense, the book approaches its critique of capitalism and exploitative class relations from an empathetic position. But Agee is too profoundly self-involved with his own state of mind in this book to actually fulfill his own aims. For instance, he’s horrified by his experience, but to be moved by horror is to be still attached to one’s own feeling and experience. And he ultimately engages in his own exploitation of these families. Check out, if you don’t know it already, Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson’s, And Their Children After Them, a fascinating “re-do” some 50 years later of Let us Now Praise Famous Men.

    As for Evans – I do prefer his anti-sentimental photographs over, say, the emotionally manipulative images that Margaret Bourke-White did of sharecroppers in this same period, published in You have Seen Their Faces, w/ Erksine Caldwell. But Bourke-White’s photos had more of a dramatic effect on popular sensibilities about poverty than Evans’ ever did — just as Erskine Caldwell had more impact than Agee. Evans’ photos were under-recognized until scholars “re-discovered” them in the 1970s and 1980s. So what does that tell us?

    I have my students compare these two sets of photographs (Bourke-White and Evans) in one of my classes, and, interestingly, students initially respond more favorably to Bourke-White. They think Evans’ photographs look “too neat” and don’t show the depth of the suffering and the poverty. Once I give them a reading of the photographs, they switch over to Evans. But then, of course, Evans also manipulated his subjects, despite the fact that he did let them situate themselves, pose themselves etc.. If you look at the original photos (pre-editing), it’s clear how Evans cropped to highlight certain effects, and in some cases, moved furniture etc.. There’s a bit of sentimentalizing going on there after all.

    That’s a long answer to your question… Thanks for asking.

  4. Amy,

    I do look forward to your post about the drift away from American Studies, as well as a post about how you see the boundaries between cultural and intellectual history. That topic came up in several panels at the conference.

    I am also intensely interested in the boundaries between intellectual history and the history of emotions. Sadly, I have few to no outlets for my curiosity about the latter. I try to note new books here in that field, or related to that field, when I see them. Perhaps I’ll live vicariously through your posts here?

    On your project, I’d be interested in that thin blue line between photos that create empathy in the viewer, and those that feel like pornography of fill-in-the-blank. I realize this is a contemporary phrasing, but I mean, in the context of the Progressive Era, how someone like Riis understood taste to function in the context of exposure of some bad condition (e.g. poverty, cleanliness, sex trade, family/child abuse, workplace wounds). I bring this up because once the line of exposure is crossed, the opportunity for a lesson is also lost in one’s repulsion at the image. This line is, I’m sure, part of your conceptual work.

    Thanks for joining us. I firmly believe that your contributions will enrich the blog, our contributor team, and our readership.

    – TL

  5. Thank you, Tim, and sorry for the delayed response. I’m fairly new to the history of emotions too. I really tried to avoid psychological explanations in my first book, and I want to continue avoiding them as I move on, largely because I think they can only be speculative and often can border on the irresponsible. But I think of a cultural history of emotion as something quite different. I know exactly what you mean by the “thin line” between photography that elicits empathy and that which is sensationalistic and exploitative. There is a lot of literature on this problem in visual culture studies — John Taylor’s Body Horror: Photojournalism, Catastrophe, and War, immediately comes to mind. The problem is that sensationalism is, in many ways, a necessary ingredient in creating empathetic feeling, in that one needs to rouse the sensations in very visceral ways. Karen Haltunnen is really good on this problem in her AHR essay, “Humanitarianism and the Pornography of Pain in Anglo-American Culture.” Perhaps you were thinking of that article when you posed the question. -amy

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