The Fun and the Fury: New Dialectics of Pleasure and Pain In the Post-American Century

This elaboration of the theme for the 2014 American Studies Association conference was written by Lisa Duggan, Jack Halberstam, Fred Moten and Jośe Muñoz.

We need to get serious about fun, pleasure and happiness. On the way to global financial meltdown, the collapse of the housing market, the rise of the neoliberal university, the end of social justice and the solidification of racial capital, we stopped attending to our experiences of, and capacity for, joy, bliss, ecstasy. Meanwhile the owners of the administered world did all they could to monopolize (and therefore deaden) those experiences and to privatize (and therefore attenuate) that capacity. Recent ASA conferences have rightly focused on the formative historical contexts for the neoliberal present—Empire and Debt. This year we will augment that focus by considering the structures of feeling and the practices and discursive grammars that generate alternate ways of living against austerity and immiseration. Fun is a category of thinking and doing that serves as a counterweight to institutional logics that devalue academic labor and scholarly production. To feature fun as a concept, one that is intrinsically organizing and disorganizing, we call attention to the melee, the necessary turbulence of collaborative undertakings, the joys of thinking that place us beside ourselves and one another.

Fun is a category of thinking and doing that serves as a counterweight to institutional logics that devalue academic labor and scholarly production.

We are interested in showcasing work that tracks various flows of feeling good, furiously good. What are the modes of feeling that resist capital’s brutalities, but that also fantasize, describe and believe in living otherwise? How have recent and historical uprisings been fueled by exuberant and morphing forms of connectedness as well as by misery and organized politics? What forms of convivial refuge, and experiences of playful recess, are created in times of crisis and recession? Where are the spaces of common assembly and undomesticated intimacy unsanctioned by the established institutions of capital’s rule? What aesthetic forms and performative energies express popular social creativity and rebellion, historically and in the present? Fun can serve both as an aim and an object, a practice and a goal. And while institutionalization as a mode of structural adjustment is most generally described as regulative reduction (a kind of impoverishment, a sequestering of wealth and resources), we can still smuggle resources out of the institution and find less regulated spaces of play. To oppose institutionalization with play, however, is not to confirm the seriousness of these processes of regulation and, by contrast, the ludic quality of resistance. Play can easily be incorporated into business ethics and structures; maverick modes of oppositionality are often deadly serious. The critical power of “fun” in this unconventional convention theme seeks nothing less than the reimagining of possibility, impossibility, probability and freedom.

Can we think of fun as both an important political practice and a utopian horizon?

We expect to draw on the work of American Studies scholars on public feelings, political affect, and notions of “the good life” that shape alternative worlds in the shadow of capital—worlds of the marginalized, the criminalized, the disabled, the indigenous, the queer and transgender, the impoverished. We are also interested in scholarship on aesthetic forms, expressive culture, everyday practices of enjoyment and the performance of politics in and for these and other alternative worlds. Furthermore, what should be the place of pleasure in our political commitments to rethinking work, labor, economy, households, collectivities, histories and futures? Why does even academic labor require the alibi of pain and misery to order to legitimate itself? Can we think of fun as both an important political practice and a utopian horizon? Can we imagine a radical pedagogy that seeks to infuse learning with pleasure while providing a critical history of fun, leisure and excitement that does not stand in opposition to the necessary, the urgent, the relevant and the complex?

To live and die in LA

To live and die in LA: What forms of pleasure and furious passion does Los Angeles itself stand for? From Disneyland to Downtown, from Koreatown to Little Tokyo, from Boyle Heights to the Valley, Los Angeles offers multiple sites of fun and revelry: many are hidden away in non-descript mini malls, others advertise their wares in loud neon colors and gaudy neo-classical architecture. We welcome papers and presentations that address LA as a site of culture, politics, migration, environmental activism, off the grid communities, food culture, street culture, animal cultures, pleasure and pain.

Obviously Hollywood represents one hyper-commodified form of fun and Los Angeles itself has served in the past as a site for the projections of dreams of the “good life,” of escape, sun and sea. But in what ways have those dreams produced and indeed demanded racial and economic stratification and segregation? What has been the fate of the multiple histories of the future that have, Blade Runner style, congregated in Los Angeles? What happens when fantasies of different futures meet and clash? As a city perched upon the Pacific Rim and situated in close proximity to the US/Mexico border, Los Angeles is a destination for fugitives from the aftermath of NAFTA and the wars in Asia, and it is a place where cultures clash, where many immigrant cultures with many different relations to pleasure and pain live side by side. And as some immigrants, many undocumented, work hard to create spaces of conviviality for others, we may well ask hard questions about global divisions of labor, leisure and longing

Histories of Struggle

Histories of struggle: What histories of struggle leave their traces in the west and how might these histories be addressed in a conference on pleasure, fun and feeling good? How have fun and fury been combined or opposed in modes of rebelling and living otherwise?

The university beyond crisis

The university beyond crisis: This year’s conference will also highlight the practice of study in and beyond the university. What are the ways we find to sidestep, augment, disrupt the forms of discipline and reward as well as punishment that organize the academic production of knowledge? Within the setting of the university we are nourished by the uninstitutionalized forms of contact and play in the realms of the social, informal, intellectual and cultural contexts where we encounter each other. We form adjacent sites of knowledge creation—blogs and reading groups, the dinner after the lecture—that produce collaborations across lines of discipline and job status within and outside the academic setting. We intend specifically to address the form of the conference, in order to break down the lines between the professional, social (hotel bars) and cultural sites (offsite events) where we interact, and encourage the development of innovative formats for conference presentations.

A presentation in a ball gown with piano accompaniment, commenters arrayed like backup singers, interacting during the course of the lecture?

So how do we have fun at the ASA conference, or let fun leak from the various recesses (the off-site parties, the hotel bars) into the panels as both object and method? The ossified form of the conference panel, with three unevenly related papers read aloud in sequence, a pro forma or perfunctory comment and a usually desultory and brief Q&A, needs some creative attention. We encourage experiments with the aesthetic form and performative nature of the presentation, with an emphasis on the live spoken word setting and the possibility of more extended engagements than are possible when simply reading aloud the publication ready paper. One paper and three responses perhaps? A presentation in a ball gown with piano accompaniment, commenters arrayed like backup singers, interacting during the course of the lecture? A new book encounter with video presentation and live reviewers? An affectively rich presentation in the spirit of punk rock? What, indeed, would a punk conference presentation look like? Or a classical, jazz/scat or operatic paper? Though conventional panels are welcome, we aim to inject new energy into the conference formats and engage both presenters and audiences in new ways to invigorate, stimulate, provoke, agitate, generate buzz and disorganize settled conventions, all on behalf of thinking well and feeling good.

Lisa Duggan, President-Elect
J. Jack Halberstam, Program Committee Co-Chair
Fred Moten, Program Committee Co-Chair
José Esteban Muñoz, Program Co-Chair

American Studies Association
Conference 2014