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American Studies Association, You Got Hacked

I write in the hope of getting a message to members of the American Studies Association. The ASA is devoted to, let’s face it, a fusty mission. It is the “nation’s oldest and largest association devoted to the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history.” Academics so behind the cutting edge of scholarship are probably not even reading this because they would have to be on the Internet to do so. But perhaps a charitable reader who knows an American-studies scholar (they may teach on outmoded American-studies topics, like the thought of Emerson or Douglass) will share my concern: The ASA has been the victim of what may be the most elaborate practical joke ever played in academe.

I mean, look at the page for the ASA conference. The perpetrators of the practical joke tip off connoisseurs of such displays of wit by naming their fake annual meeting “Beyond the Logic of Debt, Toward an Ethics of Collective Dissent,” making it seem as if the ASA would jettison its admittedly antiquated mission and hand its scholarly organization to people interested primarily in political posturing. Then, in a move that, frankly, seems a little heavy-handed, they provide an elaborate description of meeting highlights that barely touches on the ASA’s mission.

The practical jokers must have asked themselves, “How can we invent the kind of American Studies Association that would exist in a bizarro world in which Allan Bloom and Roger Kimball were 110% correct about academe, one in which scholars devote themselves exclusively to the self-righteous rehearsal of left-of-center talking points?”

So they have created, let’s call it, an “ASA conference imaginary” in which topics like “indigenous land theft, home foreclosure, environmental devastation, health-care inequities, military violence, occupation, prison, and education” dominate. Panels are mainly about things like “settler colonialism,” “imperialism,” “carceral space,” “deterritorialized sovereignty,” and “racial capitalism.” In an especially amusing touch they sprinkle in multiple panels on Israel, even though Israel is not even in the Americas!

All this is comic gold, but I worry that some may not get the joke, and the credibility of the organization may be damaged.

But give these people some credit. It is easy to hack a web page, but it must have been difficult to arrange the array of tweets coming out under the hashtag #2013ASA. Did they really think observers would believe tweets like “drone media have catalyzed and made legible resistance to drone strikes, but also hide their groundedness and materiality” or “Resistance through multiplication of facts, through countermorality (contra moralization of indebtedness),” or “Rodney King appearance on Celeb Rehab disrupts usual logics of reality tv as about self governance, not state violence”? It’s as if the tweets were generated by some algorithm that translates banality into jargon!

Again, very funny, but if I were a member of the ASA, I would be worried that people unaccustomed to close reading—to what I like to call the embodied (dis)ruptive/iron(ic) gestural—might actually buy it.

Even the historian Claire Potter, whose Tenured Radical blog is hosted on The Chronicle’s website, was taken in by the impression, generated by the fake Twitter discussion, that “discussion on Israeli [occupation] … has completely taken over” the conference. The conceit here was that the ASA’s annual meeting could somehow be “taken over” by activists bent on an academic boycott of Israel—as if that could be a major topic of discussion at a conference devoted to American studies. Potter was even drawn into a discussion with one of the comedians who characterized her concerns about academic freedom as “pearl-clutching.” Memo to Potter: Lighten up. They’re just kidding!

So I call on those who are reading this to get in touch with an actual member of the American Studies Association. Let that person know the organization has been hacked. Remember, they are scholars devoted to the rather old-fashioned mission of studying “American culture and history.” It’s possible you may have to explain to them what “hacked” means. But if you can get my message through to some of them, please share my strategy for repairing any damage that may have been done: They should get together and organize a real American Studies Association annual meeting, devoted to the ASA’s stated mission.

But don’t be too hard on the practical jokers. I mean, that was pretty hilarious.

Jonathan Marks is a professor of politics at Ursinus College.

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