CFP: [American] Inventing American Supremacy (ASA, November 5-8, 2009; deadline January 26)

full name / name of organization: 
Samuel Schwartz
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Inventing American Exceptionalism

With a note of mischevious irony, Ralph Ellison’s iconic narrator of
Invisible Man communicates to his readers early in the novel that he is
“in the great American tradition of tinkers. That makes me kin to Ford,
Edison, and Franklin. Call me, since I have a theory and a concept, a
‘thinker-tinker.” Juxtaposing his underground, invisible status with the
canonical figures of American history and industry, Invisible Man invokes
the folk-heroic image of the American inventor in order to place himself
in a lineage of prestigious, do-it-yourself amateurs who overcome their
obscurity with pluck, determination, and a keen feeling for satisfying a
Western, and a particularly American, desire: to overcome nature by
manipulating it to practical, useful ends. In the American imaginary,
inventors embody several quintessentially American traits: individualism,
pragmatism, and Emersonian self-reliance. Even when someone like Thomas
Edison completely submits his efforts to the dictates of the American
industrial complex, he remained, and still remains within popular culture,
a kind of populist folk hero. It could be argued, as well, that Benjamin
Franklin’s constant reinvention of himself, as described in his
Autobiography, could be inseparable from the material objects and
processes he helped to invent.

Yet the ease with which Invisible Man compares himself to these figures
threatens to subvert their accomplishments, and more importantly,
threatens to expose the myth behind the hero-as-inventor, the inventor-as-
hero. This panel solicits papers that interrogate inventors and
inventions in the same spirit. From Abraham Lincoln’s invention of an
“Improved Method of Lifting Vessels over Shoals” to Franklin’s lightning
rod, invention and inventor have long occupied a particular and sanctified
location in the American imaginary. Even marginalized groups seek to buoy
their own status by laying claim to their own inventors and inventions.
Indeed, a nation’s, a race’s, and even an individual’s ability to invent
practical, problem-solving, and time-saving objects, is often held up as a
sign of their cultural, historical, and intellectual validity. A group’s
collective citizenship, its sense of belonging to a nation, is often
legitimized via its ability to lay claim to invented objects that
represent their “advancement” into civilization.

For the November 5-8, 2009 ASA conference in Washington, D.C., whose focus
this year is on “Practices of Citizenship, Sustainability, and Belonging,”
this panel will attempt to make visible the practices through which
individuals and groups “invent,” and the means by which they legitimate
themselves (as citizens, as subjects) through inventions. Of particular
interest are papers that confront the argument, still waged to this day,
but especially prevalent in the 19th and early 20th centuries, that
inventions somehow function as a sign for, and evidence of, the “progress”
of American civilization, especially given the fact that some of the most
impactful American inventions have taken the form of “advanced” weaponry.

My own work involves placing invention and inventors in an epistemological
and aesthetic framework alongside literary authors who both react and
contribute to the cultural relevance of invention and experiment. Yet,
since the American Studies Association is an interdisciplinary
organization, I encourage work from any field including history, history
of science, American studies, and the social and hard sciences.

I am also in need of commentators.

Relevant topics may include:
• invention, creation, and art
• inventions, use-value, and pragmatism
• inventors as embodiments of the populist intellectual
• the process of invention as it relates to scientific experiment
• invention as a material embodiment of “progress”
• inventors as folk heroes
• invention, patent law, and copyright
• “tinkering” as an epistemological and intellectual process

Please submit 250-500 word abstracts, along with C.V., to Samuel Schwartz
at by Friday, January 24th.

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Received on Tue Jan 06 2009 - 22:16:41 EST