This blog is a prelude—and, we hope, a prolonged afterword—to our session “War and the Visceral Imagination.”  The session convenes, as part of the American Studies Association 2011 conference, which engages the theme “Imagination, Reparation, Transformation.”

War and the Visceral Imagination
Sunday, October 23, 2011
8:00-9:45 a.m.
Peale A
Hilton Baltimore

Click below for abstracts:


David Brody
Associate Professor of Design Studies

Parsons The New School for Design

Kariann Yokota
Assistant Professor of History and American Studies

Yale University


This interdisciplinary panel will explore the political and social ramifications of multisensory engagements with the material world by asking how objects act upon the visceral imagination. Each of the papers considers embodied experiences of the material within the context of a wartime culture in the United States: the Civil War, the Spanish American War, and World War II. In each case, the material cultures we trace called on participants not just to look, but also to hear, taste, and feel differently. Taken as a whole, the papers argue that citizenship and obligation were refigured during wartime as people experienced national imaginaries through these multisensory engagements with the world. The material cultures we describe each facilitated racialized narratives of national belonging even as they revealed the entanglements of industries—whaling, sugar, and housing—in national and global politics.

Jamie Jones interprets nineteenth-century moving panoramas of whaling voyages and argues that the experience of viewing the distant whale fishery incited audiences to imagine the future:  the decline of whaling and the onset of Civil War.

April Merleaux argues that by displaying and tasting sugar and candy, people in the United States understood the victories during the Spanish American War in part through the visual and visceral experiences of sweetness.

Clarissa Ceglio, focusing on World War II, examines the Museum of Modern Art’s “Wartime Housing” exhibition and argues that its attempt to fuse viewers’ impulses for social reform with patriotic duty revealed the conflicting aims of its government, industry, and museum stakeholders.

Panelists draw on their own work with material objects during wartime in order to open a dialogue on new methodologies with which scholars in American Studies might deepen their analyses of the role that material culture plays in shaping our social and political worlds. The methodological lenses brought to bear on these case studies include material culture studies, literary criticism, visual studies, commodity studies, phenomenology, and affect studies. The conversations that this panel intends to generate include the following: How do sight, smell, touch, hearing, and taste serve as a means to transmit cultural values? What questions become possible when traditional Western classifications of the senses are challenged and what interdisciplinary approaches might then be pursued?

We have elected to convene this panel as a non-traditional paper session in the online format in order to expand the conversation to include material culture scholars—particularly representatives of museums—who are not able to attend the conference, as well as those who wish to engage our ideas more specifically. We will establish a web site to host the papers and online discussion, which we will promote through social media prior to the conference. The panel Chair and Commentator, whose work is grounded in design studies and history, respectively, will stimulate and facilitate an interdisciplinary dialogue both online and onsite.

For an American Studies conference dedicated to the themes of imaginations, reparations, and transformations, this panel promises to expand our perspectives on the affective, embodied experiences of imagination and national belonging.

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