Prof. Dr. Jon Smith (Simon Frazer University, Canada): "Southern Modernisms"

Friday, 07.12.2018, 10:15-11:45 a.m., U5/00.24

Because the South has long been considered the backward exception to an ostensibly progressive American nation, “Southern modernism” has seemed an oxymoron, an impossibility that nevertheless took literary shape in the work of William Faulkner, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Tennessee Williams, Thomas Wolfe, Eudora Welty, and many others.  More recent scholarship, however, has begun to invert this picture.  As sociologist Donald Nonini writes, “the South historically may have led in constructing, and its elites certainly anticipated and led in creating, the design of the features of the neoliberal political and economic order that currently prevails more widely in the United States”—most prominently, its penchant for exploiting cheap labor.

This talk takes design literally, first examining the roots in plantation architecture of John Portman’s Westin Bonaventure hotel in Los Angeles (the paradigmatic example of “postmodernism” held up by Fredric Jameson), then working backward to a more speculative reading of southern modernism as similarly in dialogue with, or reflective of, the proto-neoliberalism Nonini describes.

Jon Smith is Professor of English at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia.  The author of Finding Purple America: The South and the Future of American Cultural Studies and coeditor of Look Away! The U.S. South in New World Studies, he is currently co-writing Against Cornbread Nationalism: How Foodways Partisans Misrepresent the South with Scott Romine of the University of North Carolina, Greensboro; coediting a collection on the South in speculative fiction; and codirecting a 2020 conference on “After the New Southern Studies.”