Doing Southern Studies Today

Thursday, January 14


11.00 a.m.-12.00 p.m.: Southern Futures in the Past


Rieke Jordan

Formulating the Speculation: Beverly Tucker’s The Partisan Leader and Southern Futures in the American Literary Imaginary of the Nineteenth Century


This paper turns to Beverly Tucker’s novel The Partisan Leader; A Tale of the Future (1836). It is a rather unknown political novel set thirteen years into the future (1849), imagining a ruptured political and societal landscape of the United States – the concept of North and South are well in place in this political utopia / dystopia. Envisioned in the story is the leadership of president-turnedtyrant Martin Van Buren and a plotted usurpation of Virginians against the measurements of the tyrannical government. At the root of these divisions lies the sexualization of family relations, making union and disunion a double entente. This is, to put it mildly, a curious novel, and Tucker was called the “architect of Confederate nationalism,” hailed as a visionary for articulating the wish to form the Confederate by way of fiction.

Published well before the Civil War, the novel was seen was a document to map and describe the south with its own distinct political and aesthetic destiny. The question lingers: Why do southern studies by way of a forgotten novel? What is the tale of the future? I argue that the novel is an attempt to find political and aesthetic congruencies during the Jacksonian era for an independent south. The angle of “formulation” and “visualization” is important here – it is where I see the challenges and potentials of the utopia / dystopia emerge. I would therefore like to take the opportunity to “think back” onto a utopia (or rather, dystopia) and discover the 1830s as a decade of formulating and visualize future political and aesthetic possibilities.


Siân Round

Exploring Southern Periodical Studies: Methods and Motivations in the Material Text


In a time when scholars are unable to access the physical archive, the potentials of the digital grow greater and greater. Since the millennium, the digital has facilitated the now-establish field of periodical studies, and large-scale projects such as the Modernist Magazines Project and the Modernist Journals Project have allowed scholars from all around the world access to millions of pages of (often searchable) material. Despite these developments, studies into Southern periodicals have been minimal. While there have been studies of particular magazines like the antebellum Southern Literary Messenger (Jackson) and the Agrarian Southern Review (Cutrer), there is currently no holistic work examining periodical cultures in the South. This paper will examine the potentials of studying the periodical in relation to the culture and idea of the American South, and specifically the interaction between the periodical and the Southern Renaissance. Focusing particularly on two 1920s Southern magazines, Richmond’s The Reviewer and New Orleans’ The Double Dealer, this paper will consider how the magazine as a ‘collaborative object’ (Latham and Scholes, 529) reveals not only the motivations of Southern authors but of editors, readers, and advertisersBoth magazines started, partially, in response to Mencken’s ‘The Sahara of the Bozart’, in these magazines’ editorials, we can read the desire to create something identifiably “Southern”. This motivation was matched, however, with equally strong desires to contribute to a national literature and to participate in trends of cosmopolitan avant-garde modernisms. Reading Southernness in the magazine offers insight into the development of Southern literature in the 20th century and furthers questions about what was exactly “Southern” about the Southern Renaissance. This paper uses the material text to analyse the relationship between Southern editors, authors, and readers, and thereby argues for the magazine’s potential to understand cultures of the South in a post-Covid world. 


2.00-3.30 p.m.: Imaginations of “the South” in Popular Culture 


Greta Kaisen

Southern Spaces in Video Games: Exploring Red Dead Redemption 2


The role of space and place in Southern Studies is still discussed widely today (cf. Romine 2000, Vernon 2019). In my talk, I want to argue for the inclusion of video games into these negotiations, and investigate how video games as a decidedly spatial medium represent the South. In doing so, I will focus on representations of a fictional Southern landscape in Red Dead Redemption 2, a Western-themed adventure-action game, which was released in 2018 by Rockstar Games. The game is set in 1899 and lets players explore an open world encompassing five fictitious U.S. states, among them the state Lemoyne, based on real-world Louisiana. The player plays outlaw Arthur Morgan and has to complete a series of missions to further the narratives revolving around him and his gang. In order to complete missions and side quests, the player has to travel the game world by going on long horseback rides through forested hills, swamplands, and bayous, coming across isolated shacks, settlements, and cities on the way. In this manner, RDR 2 seems to promise a return to a mythical South, ready to be explored by the player. However, the game mechanics, which allow for continuous and diverse interactions with the gamespace, at first seem to foster a feeling of an actual return to a Southern sense of place by means of immersion. Yet I argue that the same game mechanics also create moments of resistance and rewriting that, ultimately, make the game a postsouthern (cf. Bone 2005) text, remediating imaginations of the South in a conscious, at times almost parodic way. Thus, in this example, what the analysis of video games offers to the field of Southern Studies is not only a particular spatial experience of a Southern landscape, but a re/imagination of the South using means specific to the characteristics of video games.


Janina Wedig

More Southern than the South – Gillian Flynn’s Imaginary Town of Wind Gap


Gillian Flynn’s 2006 novel, Sharp Objects, is set in the fictional small town, Wind Gap, in the southernmost tip (“boot heel”) of Missouri. While Missouri belongs to the Midwest rather than the South, the specific location of the town in the very bottom of the State underlines a Southern rather than Midwestern character that the narrative repeatedly seeks to highlight and exploit. Camille, the protagonist of Flynn’s story, emphasizes that the town has “been around since before the Civil War” (Flynn 6), thus relating it explicitly to the “Old South”. The townsfolk consist of the “typically” Southern mix of “[o]ld money and trash” (7). Indeed, the 2018 TV adaptation of the story was shot in Georgia rather than Missouri order to ensure the “right Wind Gap” atmosphere, which the producers decided could not be found in the actual state of Missouri (“Finding Wind Gap, MO in Georgia for HBO’s ‘Sharp Objects’”). 

The South presented in Sharp Objects can be regarded as a performance of a specific cultural imagination of a fictional, white South that does not exist outside of media representation and is essentially a modern 21st century iteration of the “Old South” which has been around since the 19th century. The TV series emphasises the performativity of Southernness not only in the characters’ strong accents but also their dress, mannerisms and celebration of the confederacy. Holding on to outdated traditional values and embracing all things Southern, they end up exaggerating them. This grotesque parody of Southernness opens these values up to critical examination; the southern setting with its evil cliché characters serve to legitimize of the series’ excesses and “weirdnesses,” which would be implausible were the series set the North. 


Ella Waldmann

Aural Imaginations of the South in the Podcast S-Town


The podcast S-Town, a nonfiction audio series about a rural small town in Alabama, broke downloading records within days of its release in March 2017. Some critics argued that the show’s cultural traction relied on “redneck chic” (Burr 2017), the voyeuristic fascination of a supposedly liberal Northern audience with representations of the rural “Deep South” and its poor white inhabitants which only increased in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election and its polarized context. 

S-Town arguably relied on Southern tropes and capitalized on the exoticism of a space commonly seen as a backward and dysfunctional (Caison 2017). Regional differences are highlighted, if only on an acoustic level, by the juxtaposition of the journalist’s polished studio-recorded script with instances of “hillbilly lingo” heard through interviews and phone calls (Rooney 2018). Moreover, the producers’ emphatic use of Southern Gothic motives confirms Scott Romine’s thesis that there is no such thing as a “Real South,” because it is always primarily a cultural production and a fictional space (2008).

For all that, should S-Town’s staging of the South be dismissed as a mere caricature? In this paper, I suggest that the podcast, as a purely sonic medium, has the potential to go beyond a univocal representation of the South by sounding it out, both literally and figuratively. Radio, and podcasts in its wake, have been defined as a “blind” medium (Crisell 1993). In the absence of visual representations, we are given to hear a plurality of voices and perspectives coming from complex characters, literalizing what Mikhail Bakhtin defined as a “polyphonic” structure (1963). But because the reporter frames and controls the entire narrative, S-Town also runs the risk of ruling out the other protagonists, fading out their voices in favor of an authoritative narrator, and ultimately sounding them out of their own story.


4.00-5.30 p.m.: Plac(ing) Place


Scott Romine

No Place in Southern Studies


In The Attack on Leviathan, Donald Davidson argued that the “indigenous materials” of literature “will derive some of their shape and force from the genius loci--the region itself,” just as “regions will develop their arts as they develop their people and ways of life,” a relationship he described elsewhere as the “autochthonous ideal.”  This straightforward blood-and-soil romanticism had scaffolded the initial assembly of the southern people in the antebellum period, and it would underwrite the development of southern literature as an academic field, such that Frederick J. Hoffman, in an 1961 essay, could ground “sense of place” in things like “the Southern character,” “Southern tradition,” “the Southerner” (assumed to be white), “the Southern mind,” “the Southerner’s love of place,” place’s “specific Southern quality,” and the “atmospheric quality of the Southern place” (of which heat, but not humidity, is said to be “always present, even if momentarily it may not exist”).

This paper argues, contentiously and somewhat tentatively, that efforts to rescue southern “place” from the crude romanticism of Davidson and Hoffman, for whom a southern people and a southern poetry rise in organic concert from the southern soil, risk reproducing the essentialist and exceptionalist assumptions underlying their claims.  Tracing a number of efforts to treat place as (mere) space, the South as “just the Southeastern U.S.,” I argue that the appearance of “place” usually marks the covert reintroduction or stipulation of some essentialized South.  To think geographically, I argue, is to avoid thinking regionally, since presupposing the region usually signals reversion to older blood-and-soil discourses.


Marco Petrelli

A Theory of Southern Time and Space: Memory, Place and Identity in Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard


Although contemporary critical discourse fragmented monolithic, essentialist assumptions of southern place, the southern literary imagination is still fascinated by its possible declinations. Scholars like Martyn Bone and Scott Romine have considered place as a discursive entity and an identitarian simulacrum. Precisely because of its textual and psychological connotations, and in spite of the necessary desecration it endured, the traditional conception of place can’t really be pronounced dead. On the other hand, since the hegemonic post-agrarian construction of space has often effaced other possible spatial dimensions upon which it has been forcefully superimposed, the South is also composed of “dead” places—some quite literally so. The southern landscape is loaded with trauma. As Patricia Yaeger writes, “the depths of southern ‘place’ yield the remains of foundation-bearing black folks who lie beneath the earth”: there is a macabre geography right beneath the southern pastoral delusion. As in a palimpsest, some texts are erased, but their ghostly traces survive and haunt the agrarian chronotope. Southern literature has often reacted to the postmodern condition by going back to the myth of place, but some writers set instead to investigate these deathscapes in an attempt to unearth the silenced dimensions of southern place and restore it to its rightful complexity. Among these, there is Natasha Trethewey, whose poetry collection Native Guard encompasses family and society, remembrance and history in order to reconstruct her experience as a biracial woman in the post-segregation South. As a response to the obliteration of memory and the dispossessing powers of the hegemonic spatial-identitarian discourse, Trethewey’s poems goes deep into her native Mississippi’s soil, conjuring forgotten ghosts and giving them a voice. Situated at the intersection of hauntology and the spatial analysis of literature, this paper seeks to analyze the finely intertwined threads of place, time and identity in Native Guard.


Corin Kraft

Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing and the Place of “Place” as Memory


Memory in Jesmyn Ward’s novel Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017) is where “place” takes place whereas the material reality of place – in other words, present day Mississippi – is reduced to a sheer endless experience of the road as a vacuum, a non-place without a future. 

Looking at place in the sense of Pierre Nora as lieux de mémoire (1990), means defining place as a physical space, but also as a material or non-material object that can have a functional or symbolic value for specific communities. Memory, according to Maurice Halbwachs’ (1950) refers to both individual and collective memory. Combining these two notions of place and memory shows that place in Ward’s novel only finds expression in the characters’ individual and collective memories of the past and not in their experienced present. As in the present, place means being stuck in a car, on a horrible and seemingly endless road trip, that symbolises the inevitability of drug abuse, police harassment and violence in face of the void that is called the present and does not hold a future for the individuals and communities as depicted in the novel. Therefore, Mississippi as a place in Sing, Unburied, Sing, only becomes tangible through memories of the past.

What individual and collective memories have in common is the ability to evoke places, to root Ward’s African American characters within a multiplicity of communities: as descendants from slaves, abducted from the African continent, as survivors and preserver of old spiritual and medical traditions, as a community experiencing interracial love and hate alike. Without these memories, place – and with it the South – is reduced to the experience of the void, the lack of a future.


6.00-7.00 p.m.


A conversation with E. Patrick Johnson

(with Evangelia Kindinger and Anne Potjans)


E. Patrick Johnson, Dean of the School of Communication and Annenberg University Professor of Performance Studies and African American Studies at Northwestern University, performance artist and author of books such as Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South (2008), Black. Queer. Southern. Women. – An Oral History (2018) and Honeypot: Black Southern Women Who Love Women (2019) joins Evangelia Kindinger (HU Berlin) and Anne Potjans (HU Berlin) in a conversation about his oral history projects and the intersections of African American Studies, Queer Theory and Southern Studies.