2020 - AFEA conference - Post(-)America

AFEA 2020 Conference – Lille, France

Michel Feith (Nantes University)
Delphine Letort (Le Mans University)
Marie-Christine Michaud (Université of South Britanny, Lorient)

Post(-)America

The history of the United States has been defined by an ideology of motion : a belief in collective and individual progress has prompted political reforms, technological innovations, cultural revolutions, economic transformations. This ethos of progress and improvement has fed a mythology – the Conquest of the West in the 19th century or that of space in the 20th and 21th centuries – which tends to overshadow the dark side of American history. A “Post-America” would expose the contradictions between progressive discourses and nationalistic, even conservative, trends, between ethical principles and Realpolitik, which have been made manifest by the societal impasses of the last few years.

This polymorphic, ambiguous prefix, “post-,” can first be understood in the chronological mode : it designates a temporality of aftermaths, reminding of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), traces of a past that does not pass, cannot be forgotten, and keeps haunting the present. The post-slavery period marked a new transition for the emancipated slaves, whom the abolition of bondage had not yet endowed with full citizenship rights. The Post-Reconstruction years witnessed the emergence of a revisionist discourse, crafted by the historians of the Dunning school. The prefix “post-” evokes an “after,” sometimes an anticlimax, and invites a close reading of years that are often not considered highlights of the national narrative. For example, the Post-World War II period was characterized by a real backlash for women, brought to light by Betty Friedan. The Post-Cold War era signaled the end of a world divided between East and West, and the rise of new global geopolitical forces.

Besides, the prefix “post-” is often employed as a critical particle, commonly designating what emerges when belief in the great metanarratives (like Progress, for example…) starts to wane. The “post” is an era of suspicion, inaugurated by the debates on postmodernism and postmodernity. Since the 1960s, the United States seems to have entered the era of “post-truth” or “post-facts,” a moment of crisis when the prophecies of a “desert of the real” appear to have been confirmed, not only by the works of aesthetic avant-gardes, but even by the disciplines of political science and history. Is a refoundation of democracy and its language still possible, or has the current conjunction between populism and “big data” ushered in an irreversible paradigm shift ?

The question of the “post” is also that of the transplantation of foreign concepts or artistic movements. The 1913 Armory Show introduced postimpressionism to New York, as a prelude to the appropriation of an avant-garde, which would a few decades later lead to the American preeminence – or will to preeminence – in artistic creation and the art market. The trans-lation into U.S. universities of European poststructuralism can partly be represented as a “creative misprision” of French Theory, in response to local power stakes (François Cusset).

The “post” can also herald utopian claims, in the present or future tense. The problematic affirmation of a postracial America seems discredited by the increasing visibility of unreconstructed racism, whereas the proponents of a “post-soul” or “post-black” aesthetic advocate a creativity emancipated from predetermined identity canons.

Could the “post” represent the future of humankind, as suggested by discussions of the posthuman condition, which may usher in a new society promising to transcend not only racial boundaries but also, thanks to technologies of augmented humanity, the limits of the body ? One could interrogate the problematic relations between the post- and trans-human, in a time when some critics announce the passing of posthumanism, and “cyborg” ethics and aesthetics (Haraway) may have encountered their own “post-.”

On the dark side of utopia, postapocalyptic fiction in literature, film and videogames envisages this future as an epic of destruction and – possibly – renewal, often by dint of special effects that reinvent science fiction in a 3-D format. Does it mainly represent a comeback of the inaugural Frontier myth, or does it acknowledge the programmed obsolescence of History, the coming of a “post-history” ? Does it dimly sense the transition from the 20th, the “American Century,” to a post-American century, when the geopolitical and cultural center of gravity of the world has shifted towards Asia, or space ?

If the “post-” encapsulates this quest for self-surpassing, for procedures to master the unknown, for the “beyond” typical of American society, culture and arts, it is also the signifier of a haunting aftermath worth interrogating. Is the current fashion of variegated, motley “posts” only a language game, a posture – or imposture – destined to give the illusion of motion ? Conversely, do the questioning and multiple attempts to surpass the “post-” merely duplicate or square it : in other words, does the post- of the “post” amount to a more radical or reactionary move ? The potentialities and limits of this particle – which is not so elementary after all – will be the focus of the inquiries and debates of the 2020 AFEA Conference.