Rupture, Crisis, Transformation

New Directions in US Studies at the end of the American Century

A one-day conference

22 November 2014

Confirmed keynote speakers:

Professor Wai Chee Dimock (Yale University)

Caryl Phillips

9.30am-6pm, Birkbeck Cinema, 43 Gordon Square




With panels curated by Dr Rick Crownshaw (Goldsmiths, University of London) and Dr Zara Dinnen (University of Birmingham).

This event is free but places are limited. You can reserve a place at Eventbrite:

If you would like any more information about the conference, please contact Anna Hartnell,

Project blog:

Hosted by the Centre for Contemporary Literature, Birkbeck, and sponsored by the Arts and Humanities Research Council


The twenty-first century has opened with a series of disasters closely associated with the United States:  9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the economic crash. Disasters political, cultural, environmental and economic suggestive of the possibility that US power is on the wane. These ongoing crises, with deep historical roots, contradict the triumphalism of the so-called ‘American Century’, that brief moment of post-war optimism, when the dream of rising living standards for all was briefly fired by a national culture that presented itself as an example to the world. While US action at home and abroad consistently challenged the nation's claim to moral exceptionalism, the gap between the ideal and the reality seemed possible to navigate, inspiring a host of progressive political and cultural movements. According to Lauren Berlant, investment in narratives of progress are now fading as the mirage of the American dream is increasingly shown to be an instance of ‘cruel optimism’, an investment that has repeatedly failed to come good.

For Donald Pease, the events that defined the opening decade of the twenty-first century have delivered an unprecedented blow to the narrative of American exceptionalism. For Amy Kaplan, the embrace of the US as ‘Homeland’ in the post-9/11 period signals an emergent national investment in roots that contradict the defining mythology of the US as a nation of immigrants uniquely committed to a boundless future. For Paul Gilroy, the roots of the architecture of the so-called war on terror can be traced back to the European colonial administration, the spectre of which flies in the face of the claim that the United States represents a fundamentally anti-imperialist national project. For Michelle Alexander, ‘the age of Obama’ continues to bear witness to a ‘new Jim Crow’. Given that the African American experience has long acted as whistleblower in relation to national myths and their progressive unfolding, the image of the plantation transformed into the site of mass incarceration for disproportionate numbers of the nation’s black population speaks powerfully to the lingering narrative of US triumphalism.

This conference seeks not so much to assess the veracity of an emergent narrative of US decline, but rather to explore its representations in literature, film, political and journalistic discourse. It seeks to explore the implications of the unravelling of American exceptionalism for a discipline that has been so dependent on this concept, however critical its engagement with it may have been. What happens when, as Wai Chee Dimock suggests, we read US culture not as a ‘discrete entity’ but ‘as a criss-crossing set of pathways, open-ended and ever multiplying, weaving in and out of other geographies, other languages and cultures’? How can the field of US studies respond to the apparently changing status of the United States in the twenty-first century? What new narratives are emerging in response to new understandings of cultural, economic and environmental threat? What might it mean to inhabit a post-American world?



Image by Pamela Andrade under a CC BY-ND license.



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