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Organizer: Joel Duncan

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No commodity has defined 20th century production and consumption more than the automobile. This seminar aims to explore the centrality of cars to artistic and literary experimentation, from the machine aesthetics of modernism to ecocritical reckonings with the car as the vehicle of environmental crisis. The car has been and continues to be central to wide-ranging political and economic transformations, which Antonio Gramsci began to describe with the terms Americanism and Fordism. Indeed, from the emergence of the assembly-line before WWI to the expansion of suburbs after WWII, it is impossible to think the American Century and its worldwide ramifications without the automobile. But do terms such as Fordism and Americanism remain the best ones for thinking about the cultural and political uses of the automobile in the 21st century, when there’s a Tesla floating through space? Since Gramsci, the car has more explicitly become a flashpoint for conflicts around whiteness and masculinity, dramatized in everything from Keroauc’s On the Road and Ballard’s Crash, to both Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar’s Black Lives Matter-inspired (and inspiring) videos “Formation” and “Alight,” respectively. The last two U.S. presidents have seen it fit, furthermore, to speak directly to the (mis)fortunes of the auto industry. Yet despite the centrality of automobility to the world we live in, the car tends—as Kristin Ross put it in Fast Cars, Clean Bodies—to be "consign[ed] to the edges of historical discourse,” a situation this seminar hopes to amend.

A major proposed theme for this seminar is how artistic and literary experimentation and political engagements meet in cultural reckonings with the automobile. Therefore, papers that not only address the car or road trip as a theme, but also explore the ways that automobility has spurred formal experimentation, are particularly welcome. The innovations of authors, artists, and movements as diverse as Gertrude Stein, the Futurists, the French New Wave, Robert Rauschenberg, and Ed Ruscha, are all difficult to imagine without assembly line production and the automobile as means of mass transport and symbol of mass consumption. While there exists a body of scholarly literature on the automobile in novels and movies, other genres such as poetry, painting, photography, music, experimental videos, and plays have often been neglected. The automobile has also served as a vehicle for artistic collaborations across genres, and contributions that engage with some of this diversity are encouraged. The car, furthermore, appears peculiarly situated for analysis through a wide variety of theoretical lenses, such as both old and new materialisms, petrocultures and energy humanities, as well as mobility studies. One might finally ask if it makes sense to distinguish the automobile from other commodities and technologies, and papers that productively challenge the premise of this seminar are also welcome.

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