Meeting Notes, Memory
It’s the middle of February, and it’s bitterly cold in Bloomington. But the cohort has reconvened in Itter Objects Study Room atop the Eskenazi Museum, and the mood inside is warm and jovial. There is a familiarity among the cohort now, and the room is full enough that some people can’t sit at the table and instead, line up chairs along the windows that look out over campus.
Faculty Director Arthur Liou starts the meeting off with announcements, including introducing our invited guest speaker for this meeting, Professor Adam Ochonicky from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. Arthur reminds the group that Ebb & Flow, a project done by a funded group from the previous Indiana Studies cohort, is up for display in Wells Library.
PI Ed Dallis-Comentale makes an announcement about an upcoming event that he is working on with the campus at large, as part of the alumni bicentennial celebration slated for June. John Mellencamp is hoping to throw a legacy-defining event on the IU Bloomington campus, including scholarly papers on Mellencamp and his body of work, interviews done by industry colleagues, and a performance. The hope is to depict Mellencamp as a nexus for Midwestern identity, style, and ideology, and there is hope to include both the Indiana Studies team and the Global Popular Music team in this three-day celebration.
Jonathan is up first, and tells us that the genesis of his project came when he saw the call for funding for this group. He had recently devised a theatre piece set in small-town Indiana, based around addiction, and the whole process of creating that piece set him to thinking about the small towns you drive through, and what might be going on behind the closed doors there. That line of thinking drew him to Michael Martone, an Indiana native who writes often about the Midwest. So starting with the book Winesburg, Indiana (and supplemented by monologues that Martone sent along), Jonathan has started creating a script. He passes around small pieces of paper, with a monologue written in the voice of a city manager typed up. He asks each of us to read a line, so we go around the room, lending voice to this character. He wants to hear the rhythm, the words that resonate with us.
Tanya is up next, and she moves us briskly through the history of the rise and fall of a utopian society founded in southern Indiana called New Harmony. In the 1820s, it was a thriving religious community. Ultimately, the founder, George Rapp, decided to relocate and sold the entire town to another uptopian, Robert Owen. Owen had a much more intellectual ideal of utopia, and unfortunately, his experimental community failed almost immediately (due mostly to the fact that more people were interested in having complex theoretical debates and not in actually working in the community). New Harmony is unique among American utopian sites in that it has been preserved by the descendants of these founders. Tanya is primarily interested in exploring the history and the lives lived in this place across many years, and developing a site-specific theatre production that casts these utopian desires in a modern context.
Finally, Adam Ochonicky. He was invited, in part, to celebrate the publication of his book “The American Midwest in Film and Literature” which was just released this month by Indiana University Press. Adam is thinking specifically about memory, how stories connect the past and the future, and for him, he says nostalgia is that access point: the meeting of time, space, and culture. The Midwest faces a problem of often being considered anachronistic, a place that is a Not Place, an absence. It is often understudied or wholly absent from some disciplines, though Adam argues that in film, the Midwest has been treated critically for quite some time. He goes on to do a close reading of the film “Badlands” from 1973. Set in the 1950s and loosely based on a story of two teens who went on a killing spree, the Midwest here is treated as a place where memory cannot penetrate, a place where people move to forget the trauma of their previous lives. In the final sequence, the main characters are fleeing town, driving across the flatness and trying to escape. They appear to make no progress.
The conversation bubbles after this, with questions coming about how memory and nostalgia are functioning in America at this moment in time, for good and for ill. What does it mean to imbue a place with imagined ideals? What do you lose when you confront the reality of the place? What do you gain?