Upcoming conferences: Mobilities, Literature, Culture and Hardboiled History

In between frantically writing up my thesis over the next two months, I’ll be squeezing in speaking at two very exciting conferences. Later this month, I will be at Mobilities, Literature, Culture at Lancaster University. This will be the inaugural conference for the new Palgrave Macmillan book series, Studies in Mobilities, Literature and Culture, and the two-day programme is filled with fascinating-sounding panels.

My paper is titled ‘He respects no boundary lines’: Suspect Mobility, Criminalistics and the Hard-boiled Novel. Drawing on material from my thesis, it considers the relationship between mobility and transgression in the early-twentieth century American city, and how this relationship, as framed by the criminological theory of the time, served to justify specific law enforcement tactics and inspire the development of new investigative techniques. I conclude by considering the cultural construction and interrogation of these practices in the ‘hard-boiled’ novel, taking Raymond Chandler as a case study.

In May, I’ll be attending a symposium at the University of Warwick that I’m very excited about – Hardboiled History: A Noir Lens on America’s Past. I’ll be doing my best to start the day off well with my paper, ‘Something is wrong here’: James Ellroy and the Historiography of Noir Los Angeles. Beginning with James Ellroy’s own understanding of ‘noir’, I go on to argue that his L.A. novels develop a specific vision of the city – a milieu in which both prominent and obscure moments in Los Angeles history are implicated in a single pessimistic vision of violent crime and ubiquitous municipal corruption. I’ll also speak a little about the influence of this vision on other works, including season two of True Detective and the 2011 videogame L.A. Noire.

As I’ve not been back to Warwick since I completed by MA there in 2004, I’ll also be wandering around the campus as much as possible, hoping that the feeling of the tarmac under my feet conjures the odd Proustian reverie. Or at the very least, I’ll be doing my best to avoid boring other attendees with my reminiscences.


The city is absent & geography is destiny

Source: Fiscal Year 1975-6 Statistical Summary, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, via NCJRS


Of the various maps of Los Angeles that I’ve referred to in my research, this is one of my favourites. It is taken from the LA County Sheriff’s Department 1975-6 report, and it shows LASD station boundaries throughout Los Angeles County. In other words, it is a map marking out territory under the jurisdiction of the Sheriff’s Department – either unincorporated county land, or incorporated cities that have contracted the LASD to provide law enforcement.

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Borders and Boundaries – Reflections on the BAAS PG Conference 2016

On Saturday morning, after wincing at a pre-6am alarm, I travelled up to Leeds for the 2016 British Association for American Studies Postgraduate Conference, ‘Negotiating the Borders and Boundaries of Americanism’.

It turned out to be one of the most enjoyable and stimulating conferences I’ve been to in the last few years. The whole event was very well run; programming a single-day conference so that it feels full of material but not rushed or overwhelming is a fine art, and the schedule at PGBAAS16 was just right. (Branded tote bags containing Kit-Kats and bottles of water was the icing on the cake.)

The panels and papers themselves were a great mix – nicely interdisciplinary, and consistently well-delivered and on-theme. Hannah Murray’s opening keynote explored the fluidity and boundaries of racial identity, moving from 19th century narratives to Rachel Dolezal, via Lois Lane. Papers from Nawal Zbidi, Joe Upton and Zohra Mehellou, reflecting on Arab-, Chinese- and African-American fiction and identities, complemented each other very well and prompted some interesting discussion.

I gave a paper on If He Hollers Let Him Go and Killer of Sheep, ‘Lines Burned into Minds: Negotiating and Transgressing the Borders of South Los Angeles’. And it was a pleasure sharing a panel again with Michael Docherty, whose paper on Raymond Chandler was a real highlight. His use of frontier imagery as a lens through which to read Marlowe’s function, and the spaces of LA more generally, feels like an approach with a lot of potential.

The day ended with a round-table workshop ‘Interrogating the Nature of Being an Americanist in Britain’. In a wide-ranging discussion, Professor Brian Ward, Dr. Katharina Donn, Dr. Peter Knight and Dr. Mercedes Aguirre shared their thoughts and experiences regarding American Studies as a discipline in the UK. It was a great way to end the day, and I found it particularly stimulating.

As I write up my thesis, and consider what might come next, I’m reflecting more and more on my own academic identity. Somewhat absurdly, it’s only recently that I’ve begun to consider what I’m doing in my research to be ‘American Studies’. When I was planning my initial PhD proposal, and working on my application, the disciplinary boundaries I had in mind were between ‘Philosophy’ and ‘Literature’, the two fields that my BA and MA covered. The decision I felt I had to make was whether my planned work – focusing on fiction and cinema of the city, but with strong conceptual and theoretical elements, would be better suited to a Philosophy department (of the interdisciplinary, aesthetically oriented type I’d studied within at Warwick) or a Literary Studies department and supervisor with a specialism in ‘The City’ (such as UCL English, where I ended up). The fact that my research proposal focused on a specific US city was, with hindsight, less of a factor in my decision than it perhaps should have been.

I think one of the reasons I enjoyed PGBAAS16 so much was that it is the first conference where I’ve felt such a strong sense of community between attendees, and of potential belonging; that can only be helpful as I prepare to cross the fluid and unstable border between doctoral candidate and whatever comes next.

The conference dinner of all-you-can-eat pizza definitely helped too.

BAAS Postgraduate Conference – 19th November

Next month I’m very much looking forward to giving a paper at the 2016 British Association of American Studies Postgraduate Conference. Hosted by the University of Leeds, the conference theme is ‘Negotiating the Borders and Boundaries of Americanism‘.

The title of my paper is ‘Lines Burned Into Minds’: Negotiating and Transgressing the Borders of South Los Angeles, and I’ll be discussing Chester Himes’s If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945) and Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977) in relation to the social and geographical borders and boundaries that constrained the African-American community in LA, from WWII to the post-Civil Rights era.

The programme has lots of fascinating-sounding papers, including discussions of Patricia Highsmith and Raymond Chandler, and a keynote on ‘The Borders of Belonging and Desires for Blackness in America’. And the conference dinner involves an all-you-can-eat pizza buffet – I can’t think of a better way to end the day.

Moonlight, Killer of Sheep and the Violence of Boyhood

Thanks to a generous friend, I was fortunate enough to see the UK premiere of Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight last Thursday. It’s rare for me to find myself a potential source of spoilers, and so I’m not planning to write much about the film for now. Other than to say it is wonderful – tender, gripping, beautifully shot and acted.

Writing up my PhD as I am, I’m almost certainly at risk of the seeing-shadows tendency to associate everything I view or read with my thesis. And watching Moonlight when I’m in the middle of writing on Killer of Sheep (d. Charles Burnett, 1977) – another film that depicts the lives of a working-class African American community with deep sensitivity – meant I couldn’t help but have the latter in mind when watching the former.

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Arrested Movement – ‘Killer of Sheep’ (1978)

My current writing focus is Charles Burnett’s film Killer of Sheep, shot in South Los Angeles in the early 1970s as part of his UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television Master’s course, and remastered and released commercially for the first time in 2007. Part of the ‘L.A. Rebellion’ school of filmmakers, or the ‘Los Angeles School of Black Filmmakers’ (Ntongela Masilela), Burnett collaborated with many of his peers in the UCLA programme, including Haile Gerima, whose Bush Mama (1979) is the third work analysed in this chapter of my thesis. Of the L.A. Rebellion filmmakers, Burnett has probably had the most ‘successful’ career in ‘mainstream’/Hollywood terms, insofar as he went on to direct several films featuring recognisable stars: To Sleep with Anger (1990), starring Danny Glover, and The Glass Shield (1994), featuring Ice Cube.

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Conferences and Symposia – ‘Masculinity and the Metropolis’ and ‘The Dream of a City’

mm-posterI’m very excited to be part of the programme for what should be a fascinating interdisciplinary conference at the University of Kent, ‘Masculinity and the Metropolis’, taking place on the 22 and 23 April. (Their website also shows very good taste in WordPress themes!)

I’ll be speaking after lunch on the first day as part of a panel on ‘Black American Masculinities’, giving a paper titled “Living every day scared”: Disorientation, Incrimination and Black Masculinity in Chester Himes’s If He Hollers Let Him GoI’m looking forward to speaking on Himes for the first time, and the paper is the fruit of recent research for the chapter of my PhD thesis provisionally titled ‘Arbitrary Incrimination, Restricted Mobility and Black Los Angeles’.

The following month, I’ll be giving a paper at the one-day symposium ‘The Dream of a City’, alongside many of my fellow UCL English scholars (including my thesis supervisor, Dr Matthew Beaumont, which will be a real pleasure and honour. My paper, “Confused about your jurisdiction, Deputy?” Territory, Identity and Los Angeles Law Enforcement will draw on material from an earlier thesis chapter, focusing on James Ellroy’s The Big Nowhere and Joseph Wambaugh’s The New Centurions.

An exciting and busy couple of months ahead!

The Discernment of the Reluctant Detective: Chester Himes’s If He Hollers Let Him Go

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Chester Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945) – detail from UK first edition cover

I’ve been working in earnest on Chester Himes’s 1945 novel If He Hollers Let Him Go over the last few weeks. His first published novel, If He Hollers… is set in WWII Los Angeles, and it focuses on Bob Jones, a black shipyard worker at the fictional Atlas Shipping. We follow Bob over several days as he experiences the complicated racial politics of wartime LA, and specifically the downward spiral of consequences that flow from him talking back to a southern white female colleague who abusively refuses to work alongside him.

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On Disorientation (II) – Completely Lost in the Modern City

Aerial view of I-110 and I-101 freeway interchange, Dodger stadium, ”Dick
Aerial view of I-110 and I-101 freeway interchange, Dodger stadium (detail), ”Dick” Whittington Photography Collection, 1924-1987, University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

Previous post: On Disorientation (I) – The History and Pathology of a Concept

In a sense my entire thesis is an explication of a single passage, one of the most striking, in Kevin Lynch’s classic 1960 work of urban planning theory, The Image of the City:

To become completely lost is perhaps a rather rare experience for most people in the modern city. […] But let the mishap of disorientation once occur, and the sense of anxiety and even terror that accompanies it reveals to us how closely it is linked to our sense of balance and well-being. The very word “lost” in our language means much more than simple geographical uncertainty; it carries overtones of utter disaster. (p. 4)

The primary concern of Lynch’s work was city design – with how we might build or remodel cities to be highly legible, thereby minimising their tendency to disorientate residents and making them more pleasant, satisfying places in which to live. His evocative descriptions of the trauma of urban disorientation are the point of departure for my own analysis of Los Angeles fiction and cinema.

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‘A malaise conveyed to the reader’

Edmund_WilsonEdmund Wilson (1895-1972), was a literary critic and essayist who wrote for Vanity Fair, the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. Wilson made a few contributions to Southern California literary history — as well as editing his university friend F. Scott Fitzgerald’s posthumously published and incomplete Hollywood novel The Last Tycoon, his essay ‘The Boys in the Back Room’ (1941) was a significant early discussion of expatriate California novelists like James M. Cain and Horace McCoy.

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