56th Congress of the French Association of American Studies (AFEA)

Jul 11, 2024

Description: The term “resistance” has recently made a comeback in the United States. It was used during Donald Trump’s presidency to refer to those who opposed his policies: the hashtag #TheResistance was first embodied in the January 2017 Women’s March and later broadened to refer to a wide network of progressive groups made up mainly of Democrats, but also of independents and of a few “never-Trumper” Republicans. This represented a remarkable semantic reversal, given that the term had historically been associated with the opposite side of the political spectrum, and more specifically the campaign of massive resistance of the white population against the civil rights movement in the second half of the twentieth century. The changing meaning of the term reflects the rise of the conservative movement, which over the course of a half-century has gone from resister to resisted.

The fundamental meaning of the word remains the same, however. It describes a process that is most often decentralized, led by a group of people who may be well-known but who typically keep a low profile, and which is defined above all by opposition to a common enemy rather than by adhesion to a shared project. It is this last point that explains why the success of a resistance movement necessarily entails its dissolution, since the absence of a threat leads to the breakdown of the links between its various constituent elements. In the United States as elsewhere, the idea of resistance is therefore inextricably linked to the idea of domination, and refers to established dyads such as minority/majority, progress/conservatism, bottom-up/top-down, individual/group, and event/structure, to name but a few. One of these, disciplines/indisciplines, was the theme of our 51st conference in Nantes in 2019.

The multi-faceted nature of the term does not end there. It may also refer to something that endures, in a medical sense that can be related either to individuals (in terms of their resistance to germs, microbes or viruses, for instance), to an entire society, as we saw during the recent COVID-19 pandemic, or even to a political system. The debate over the “resilience” (a close synonym) of U.S. institutions to the stress test represented by the rise of populism has been a frequent presence in the media lately. The term “resistance” can also refer to the refusal to accept or endure the constraints, violence and/or vexations exerted by an authority against a person and more broadly the actions that result from them, such as the Black Lives Matter or #MeToo movements.

The history of the United States is full of such campaigns of resistance, on both the right and the left of the political spectrum. They differed from one another in their strategies, even though the boundaries between different approaches were often porous. The civil rights movement opted for non-violence in the 1950s and 1960s, for example, while a section of the anti-Vietnam War movement, the Weathermen, turned to terrorist action in the 1970s and the anti-fascist “cultural front” of the 1930s focused on the war of ideas. It might therefore be worth reflecting on the frequency of resistance movements in American history and trying to understand whether (and why) certain periods are more conducive to their emergence than others.

We might also ask how the concept applies to literature. Are some genres or textual forms more conducive to resistance than others? We might mention the role played by parodies, pamphlets, zines, open letters, petitions and other diaries in disseminating an alternative or subversive discourse. However, it is also true that a discourse of resistance is often hidden within the dominant discourse itself, which can be misappropriated, contradictory or ambivalent. One of the best examples of this symbolic intermingling is the U.S. Constitution. Cited in the nineteenth century by both critics and supporters of the Southern slavocracy, it remains the subject of intense debate to this day, between those who see it as the source of all the dysfunctions in U.S. society and those who regard it as a sacred document that cannot be surpassed.

Beyond the analysis of documents, resistance in literature also applies to movements that are critical of dominant tropes and stereotypes. One example is the effort to defend white trash in Dorothy Allison’s stories such as Trash (1988), or in Grit Lit in general, a genre that deliberately seeks to shock by evoking the brutal day-to-day reality of poverty, classism, family and domestic violence, addiction, etc. The extensive literature produced by African Americans is also part of the resistance against the erasure of their history of exploitation and systematic humiliation, as illustrated by the recent resurgence of neo-slave narratives in the work of Toni Morrisson, Charles Johnson, Colson Whitehead, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jesmyn Ward and others.

If we broaden our scope to include the arts, we can mention the many images of resistance produced by suffragist activists in the 19th and 20th centuries as well as the photographs of the civil rights movement – such as that of Emmett Till’s swollen face in 1955 – that were both intended to shock public opinion. Music can also contribute to this effort: resistance to conscription and the Vietnam War gave rise to new artists such as Joan Baez and popularized the genre of protest song. This protest went hand in hand with the search for alternative modes of expression, such as Frederick Wiseman’s documentaries without voice-overs, the non-narrative films of 1970s punk cinema, and Afrofuturism. Resistance movements have also taken place within the artistic community itself, as shown by the recent strike of Hollywood screenwriters and actors in response to the rise of streaming platforms and AI, or by Charlie Chaplin’s refusal to adopt the standards of talking pictures until the release of The Great Dictator in 1940.

These two examples suggest another potential angle of approach for this theme, namely the underlying tension between resistance as a collective movement and its embodiment through individual figures. This dynamic can be found in the arts, for instance in the many controversies stirred up by Beyoncé in recent years, from her references to the Black Panther Party during her Superbowl concert in 2016 to her $24 million concert in Dubai in 2023 to her vocal feminist positions. A similar dialectic applies in politics, as illustrated by the debates around the strategy of leaderless resistance adopted by many contemporary social movements on both the right and the
left. This method makes it easier to resist repression, but it can also prevent the emergence of a leader who can clearly articulate demands for the general public and negotiate on behalf of their movement. This brings us back to a more general question: is it possible to resist the established order from within, or is it necessary to break with the system entirely in order to reform it?

Panel proposals (written in both French and English) must be sent to amiensafea2025@u-picardie.fr by October 20th, 2024.

    Submission deadlines: 

    • October 20th, 2024: Deadline to submit panel proposals
    • November 8th, 2024: Publication of the list of panels selected and of the call for papers
    • January 19th, 2025: Deadline to submit paper proposals to panel organizers
    • February 9th, 2025: Deadline for panel organizers to send complete paper lists to the organizing committee
    • May 20th-23rd, 2025: Conference

    Institution: French Association of American Studies (AFEA)