GKAT2020 Conference Report: Interdisciplinary and Comparative Perspectives on Authority and Trust in American Culture, Society, History, and Politics

by David F. Eisler

Three years after inaugurating the HCA’s research training group on “Authority and Trust in American Culture, Society, History, and Politics” (GKAT), the group’s first cohort of doctoral researchers marked the end of their term with a digital conference that served as an analytical capstone to discuss comparative and interdisciplinary perspectives on authority and trust.

What was originally planned as an in-person event for the summer shifted to an online platform that took place on 16 and 17 October. The conference’s digital format—a common occurrence for many academic events across the world this year—encouraged a lively atmosphere for debate and discussion that connected  nearly forty scholars participating from across Europe, and the interdisciplinary program covered a broad range of academic disciplines and topics, from history and political science to literature and media studies. Claudia Jetter, GKAT’s representative to the Graduate Council, opened the conference with a warm welcome and brief encapsulation of GKAT’s origins as a research training group of junior scholars and their work on issues of authority and trust during the previous three years. GKAT’s speaker, Prof. Dr. Günter Leypoldt, echoed the welcome and introduced the esteemed Prof. Dr. Dr. Aleida Assmann to give the introductory keynote on “The Search for Authority in an Age of Distrust: Fukuyama’s and Lepore’s Cases for the Nation.”

Professor Assmann’s presentation set the tone for the rest of the conference. In her talk, she stressed the importance of social cohesion and trust to address the deep political and cultural fractures in American society. “E Pluribus Unum has lost its binding force,” she said before exploring how Francis Fukuyama and Jill Lepore each tackle the question of American history and identity in their recent works. Both Fukuyama and Lepore look for sources of authority to form a foundation for historical consensus, Assmann pointed out, but they do so from somewhat opposing perspectives. From here, Assmann called for the development of new national narratives that acknowledge a shared history, one that incorporates the perspectives of a variety of groups whose contributions to American memory culture are often overlooked or ignored altogether. “The future begins with remembering,” she said.

For the conference’s second keynote lecture on “Global Order 2020: The End of U.S. Authority?”, Prof. Dr. Ulrike Gerhard, GKAT’s co-speaker, introduced Florian Böller, a junior professor of political science at the Technische Universität Kaiserslautern. Böller, who was GKAT’s first postdoctoral researcher, mentioned how many of the ideas presented in his talk originated during his time at the HCA. Building on this earlier work, Böller examined how American “hegemonic overstretch” has generated domestic discontent, leading to political gridlock as well as, to some extent, the presidency of Donald Trump. Mistrust has risen within not just the American polity but also globally as other states have become skeptical of the U.S.’ role in the world. Böller’s analysis of trust in international affairs identified three determinants for trust: predictability, legitimacy, and identity. Ultimately, Böller doubted whether the United States could quickly rebuild its global authority in the wake of such a stark period of distrust, noting that even under new leadership other states would question the United States’ ability to build domestic consensus for its foreign policy.

Over the conference’s two days, researchers delivered a series of diverse and fascinating presentations on issues relevant to authority and trust. Americans’ distrust in government took center stage in Sergey Vedernikov’s presentation on “The Lack of Political Trust and its Role in Post-Katrina Conspiracy,” Olga Thierbach-McLean’s work on “apolitical patriotism,” or the apparent discrepancy in American political culture whereby citizens tend to distrust the government’s authority but nonetheless profess a deep pride in America as a nation, as well as Lucas Mathis’s analysis of Woodrow Wilson’s political philosophy, especially his views on democracy and the idea that distrust is actually a core component of American democracy. Similarly, Sabine Aretz spoke about “The Anarchist Zeitgeist and Occupy Wall Street,” analyzing the writings of the movement’s founders to understand how trust and leadership function within a grassroots organization that brands itself as resistant to an existing authority. Kamila Mirasova’s presentation on nostalgia as a source of Ayn Rand’s popularity also indirectly dealt with Americans’ complicated conceptions of trust, showing how nostalgia prefigures a kind of historical mythmaking in Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” narrative that makes overtures to a historical moment that never truly existed but nonetheless resonates for many people who feel its loss.

Papers on literary and media studies also covered diverse aspects of authority and trust. Roman Bischof discussed “Negotiations of Trust and Authority in 20th century Mental Illness Narratives,” Lucia Toman examined “Autofiction and Fake Memoir in the Light of Textual-Authority and Reader’s Trust,” Jesús Blanco Hidalga’s presented an analysis of conspiracy as both a thematic element and a rhetorical device in the television series The Wire, Jessica Fuss took a closer look at “Changing Notions of the Heroic in Post-9/11 America” with a focus on Captain Chesley Sullenberger and his portrayal in the media as a morally superior foil to corrupt political leadership, and Mascha Helene Lange presented a provocative analysis of “The Transmedial Negotiation of Sexual Violence, Trauma, and Regaining Trust in the Elva-Stranger Case” that asked under what conditions trust can exist between a perpetrator and victim of sexual assault.

The depth and breadth of these presentations and discussions were emblematic of the kind of interdisciplinary scholarship produced within GKAT since its 2017 inception. The conference was a fitting end to the first round of GKAT research at the HCA, paving the way for the next group to build on a better understanding of authority and trust in American Studies.

Editor’s note: Worth a watch – the keynote speeches by Aleida Assmann and Florian Böller are available on the HCA’s website.

Keep an eye out for more detailed posts on individual conference contributions in the near future.

Thank you to David for writing this report! David is a member of GKAT and has been a loyal contributor to this blog, check out his article “The All-Volunteer Force and Contemporary American War Fiction” or his 2019 holiday reading list.

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