In this “New Faculty Spotlight,” the UC Davis Humanities Institute interviewed two new faculty members in the Department of American Studies. Javier Arbona and Anjali Nath strengthen the department’s focus on transnational American Studies, militarization, space and power.
Javier Arbona, American Studies and Design
With a Ph.D. in Geography from UC Berkeley and career experience as an architect and designer, Javier Arbona joins the American Studies and Design departments as an assistant professor. His joint appointment speaks to the unique properties of Arbona’s academic and professional training, and to the strengths of both departments.
Arbona’s research broadly focuses on race, space, and memory, and his book manuscript, The City of Radical Memory: Spaces of Home Front Repression and Resistance in the San Francisco Bay Area, studies memorial landscapes in the San Francisco Bay Area and the erasure of Black resistance against segregation during World War II. Engaging a “tri-partite method” of archival research, oral history, and active movement through cities and spaces, the book interrogates the “papering over” of radicalism and racialization within Bay Area World War II memorials.
“The way we conceptualize space has a feedback loop to reshape the spaces we occupy,” Arbona said. “It’s easy to make a plaque somewhere,” Arbona said, “the value of the humanities is in asking questions about who has the power to make these determinations.”
Arbona is no stranger to UC Davis; he recently completed a two-year appointment as a University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellow working with American Studies Professor Caren Kaplan. During this time at Davis, Arbona presented research at the Cultural Studies Colloquium — titled “City of Radical Memory: reclaiming spaces of World War II home front repression and resistance in the San Francisco Bay Area” — in which his approaches to issues of the built environment, material culture, objects and technology in everyday life generated excitement and collaboration among faculty in Design.
Arbona’s academic and professional training provides a breadth of teaching opportunities. Beginning in winter 2017, Arbona will be teaching in both American Studies and Design, on technology and society, research for Design MFA students, and an undergraduate studio course on sustainability. In particular, his AMS 5 course on Technology and American Lives will focus on both spatial and material aspects of technology lifetimes — encouraging students to think about where technologies come from, how they circulate through bodies, and how their development has often involved shameful and racialized gendered histories of experimentation on bodies. Arbona notes that humanities-approaches make it possible to slow proscriptive tendencies within technology and design in order to ask careful questions about power and space.
Anjali Nath, American Studies
Anjali Nath joins UC Davis as an Assistant Professor of American Studies. Nath’s work explores the visual culture of military detention in the “War on Terror,” and draws from the fields of American studies, ethnic studies, and visual studies to examine a variety of artifacts that illuminate the visual politics of detention and disappearance.
Nath comes to Davis from the American University of Beirut where she was Assistant Professor of Transnational American Studies, and has thought deeply about her experience of teaching American popular culture—including war and media—in a transnational context.
“You can’t study the U.S. without considering its relation to the world—whether through settler colonialism, immigration, war, globalization, or trade,” Nath said.
Similarly, there is no way to teach U.S. history “as if it emerged in isolation from the world – the sheer diversity on our campus exemplifies this as our students come to the classroom with their own transnational stories and experiences,” she continued. Attention to the complicated place of the United States in the world is a growing focus of the American Studies Department at Davis, and Nath’s approach to studying war, popular culture, and media will undoubtedly strengthen this aspect of the department.
Her book project addresses the contemporary moment of intense militarization from the perspective of a visual culture scholar. Nath points to the prevalence of visual studies scholarship on texts that are already manifest, but her work addresses shadows, disappearances, and concealment in a visual way: “not only how ‘enemies’ or ‘targets’ are visualized and constructed through technologies and practices of narrativization,” Nath explained, “but what happens to the things you cannot see in this moment of intense surveillance?”
In particular, she focuses on the political work of absence and redaction, and questions that arise when we “dwell in the spectacular form of absence,” Nath said. Her book project works with redacted documents, legal efforts to make texts like Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s Guantanamo Diary visible, and how artists and media makers use redacted material.
Nath’s interest in the politics of concealment emerged from seeing how civil society demands for accountability often hinged on the presumption that increased government transparency inherently creates a more just social order. “In our increasingly documented and surveilled world, transparency is incredibly complex,” she said. Nath believes the humanities give a space of refuge to deliberate ethical issues, a space which gives students room to think, play and be creative in addressing the pressing concerns of our time.
– Stephanie Maroney, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral candidate in Cultural Studies