This coming weekend the American Studies Association descends on Washington, D.C. for the annual conference. The theme this year is “Beyond the Logic of Debt, Toward an Ethics of Collective Dissent,” and with thirteen concurrent sessions it promises to be a busy weekend. The ASA is not exactly a bastion of early Americanist work these days, but many of the overriding themes in current scholarship have their roots in early American history. Investigating the ramifications of colonialism and colonialist attitudes? check. Wrestling with (the legacy of) slavery? check. Questioning the role of gender in society? check.
For ten years, the Early American Matters Caucus has been sponsoring panels, and thanks to scrupulous program combing by Dennis Moore and the Working Committee, we can provide a guide to early (meaning, pre-1900) events at the conference.
You can start the conference off to a vigorous (and for those of us coming from the West Coast, early) start by choosing from one of the three early Americanist panels 8am sessions on Thursday: “Decolonizing the Indigenous Archive,” “Visions of Anti-Slavery,” and “Debts of Spirit and Substance” (featuring yours truly). After a quick coffee break, you can make your way to either “Nineteenth-Century Public Lecturing, New Media, and Technologies of Orality” or “Political Melville?” (After tackling Moby Dick for the first time last summer, I definitely will be expecting answers to that question). There is no rest for the dedicated early Americanist on Thursday: two noontime sessions compete for our attention. “Debts and Memories of Colonial Slavery” and “Elegiac Dissent and the Politics of Form” await those who are not papered out.
Friday offers a leisurely change of pace, with an off-site jaunt to the Library of Congress’s Pickford Theater at noon for a reading of Crèvecoeur’s Letters, and a 4pm session on “The Politics of Exigency: Dispossession, Petitions and the Limits of Legal Recourse.”
Saturday, we’ll be up early for another 8am session, “Commons Democracy,” one of the two sessions sponsored by the Early American Matters Caucus. Presumably at least some of us will be less jetlagged by this point, which means we’ll be ready to take in the papers by Joanna Brooks, Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, and Melissah Pawlikowski, with comments from Dana Nelson. At 10am, we’ll gird our loins for “Morbid Accumulation: The Body as Capital, Bodies in Debt, Embodied Resistance.” At 12:30pm, the Early American Matters Caucus gathers for a business meeting, although if you want to play hooky, you can head over “Hemispheres of Debt, Crises of Ecologies, Ethics of Collective Dissent: The Caribbean and Pacific Islands in American Studies.” Both options end in time for the last early Americanist session: a 2pm colloquy with Annette Kolodny on In Search of First Contact, also sponsored by the Caucus.
Your reward for attending 14 different events, some of which require you to either manipulate space and time to attend concurrent sessions, or to clone yourself (I’m going to do the latter)? A reception at 6pm on Saturday at the Board Room, where the only debts incurred will be from friendly bets placed on the board games, and where the collective dissent will materialize only when someone cheats at Settlers of Catan.