EAAS Biennial Conference on “America, Justice, Conflict, War” at The Hague

18Apr

Between 3 and 6 April 2014, the European Association for American Studies held its biennial conference at The Hague. I was surprised to see so many conferences on war in so many different disciplines over the last few years. This cannot simply be related to this year's Great War anniversary, but is probably also because the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have either officially ended or “Western” engagement draws to a close. In addition, the outbreaks of these wars are more than ten years in the past now which has given scholars a bit of time to reflect and connect the dots.

I went to The Hague because I co-chaired a workshop on “War Narratives and Web 2.0: Justification, Storytelling and Public Discourse” with my Danish colleague Morten Braender. We developed this workshop out of observations that, in recent years, a number of European scholars have reflected on the steep rise of war narratives in the new media from various methodological angles. We brought these different approaches into dialog and opened the topic to scrutiny for a variety of disciplines relevant for American studies within both the humanities and the social sciences. Our presenters' academic backgrounds illustrated these different angles: Johanna Roering’s work centers on media research, Morten Brænder is a political scientist, Mikkel Bruun Zangenberg teaches comparative literature, and my own work uses historical, anthropological, and cultural studies approaches. These presentations supplement were mutually supportive in addressing the common theme of public discourse by deployed soldiers in online media.

The point of departure for Johanna Roering’s presentation was the shared experience of researchers within this field that studying web 2.0 technology is studying a moving object, and that scholarly conclusions about, say, early blogs from 2003 are likely to be outdated already because of the fast pace of changing information technology and corresponding cultural practices. By drawing on Henry Jenkins's concept of ‘converging cultures,’ she demonstrated, however, that the challenges of studying the how the representation of a single person's identity is articulated in different media (from blogs to tweets to YouTube vlogs) can be turned into an analytical advantage. Roering also explained the technological specifics and media-related aspects of a military blog, which constituted a common ground for all participants and thus further contextualized the field of research for the following presentations.

Morten Brænder’s talk centered on how blogs can be used in the social sciences as a source to explore different justificatory practices. He employed the concept of “sacrificial ideology” (Hubert and Mauss (1929); Girard, Violence and the Sacred, 1979) and distinguished between the sacrifice’s ‘explicit function’ (the justification itself), and its ‘implicit function’ (to show that something is perceived as worth dying for). He argued that the explicit function of sacrifice can only be maintained as long as its implicit function is not articulated. Drawing on this conceptual framework, Braender compared how two bloggers from the same American unit in Iraq perceived the deaths of three of their colleagues in an incident on 8 February 2008 and thus, how milbloggers discuss and and make meaning of death.

Mikkel Bruun Zangenberg’s presentation also emphasized the importance of justifying military action in blogs. His approach addressed that any justificatory practice articulates a particular view on justice, a view that does not cover what justice is in a genuine ethical perspective. Hence, Zangenberg illustrated in his reading of a blog featured in the New York Times how the blogger justified the war in Iraq but, at the same time, ignored the question of the civilian costs of the war by unequivocally focusing on the higher purpose of fighting terrorism.

My own contribution explored the cultural work and the therapeutic potential of milblogs by comparing them to Native American ceremonial narrative practices of re-integrating war veterans into their communities. Many Native vets employ their war experience in their continuing reciprocal relationship with their communities. Similarly, the interaction between bloggers and their audience negotiates the social contract between soldiers and civil society and thus facilitates an interpretation of war experience as an asset for the community.

The discussion following the presentations addressed Army censorship of online communication, identity construction in online narratives, reliability and source value in regard to the authors' narratives and audience responses, blank spots and (mis-)representation in online communication, as well as notions of ritual and symbolism in online narratives.

The conference organizers announced that they requested short reports from all workshops and will publish them on the conference website – if you are interested in the many other presentations on such topics as war and food, women at war, human rights, international law, representations of trauma etc., please check back visit either http://www.eaas2014.org or http://www.eaas.eu/conferences. I am curious about information from all the panels I missed myself.