and Religion in American Culture
Olomouc, September 3-8, 2000
The eighth annual American Studies Colloquium at Palacky University traditionally took place in the ancient rooms of the Philosophical Faculty in the historical center of Olomouc. The colloquium was organized by the Center for Comparative Cultural Studies at Palacky University and co-sponsored by the U.S. Embassy and Charles Merrill. This year we focused on the theme Spirituality and Religion in American Culture.
While a typical conference program structure is based on several parallel morning presentations and a few afternoon workshops, our colloquium followed quite a different, yet tried and true model: only one morning presentation of a more general topic divided into two blocks, i.e. the lecture itself and the following discussion. Both participants and speakers appreciated this model for the more relaxed start in the conference day fraught with culture after the previous eventful day. A most welcome coffee break after the morning lecture also enabled them concentrate on the subsequent discussion properly, as the half-hour interval allowed them to collect their thoughts and formulate questions carefully. After the lunch break followed the afternoon program, usually consisting of two specialized presentations: an hour talk was immediately followed with a half hour of discussion.
The evening program offered a variety of different activities, including concerts organized by the town hall for the Olomouc Summer of Culture, videoprojections of topical films in the lecture rooms, the traditional "Tour of Olomouc" by Professor Jaroslav Peprnik, and some typical leisure-time activities. One of the highlights certainly was an organ concert and an excursion by Professor Schindler in the Church of Saint Maurice, and a poetry reading by Georgia Scott at a local gallery, accompanied by young jazz musicians of Olomouc, and "young wine" as a refreshment.
The spirituality and religion theme is very large and rich in any culture, of course, and is possible to be reflected on several levels. The opening papers were orientated theologically: ThMgr. Milan Klapetek from Technical University in Brno spoke in unconmpromising Moravian English on the pluralism of the American religious thinking ("Religion in the U.S.A. - Seen Through the Eyes of a Czech Theologian"), while doc. Milos Calda of Charles University examined the historical and social reasons for a high degree of American religiousness in "American Religion: Sectarianism versus Establishment."
The relation between religion and politics was the subject of a paper delivered by Professor David Goldfield ("Religion and Politics"), one of the two main American guest lecturers sponsored by the American Embassy. The other was Cheryl Malcolm with her talk called "Jewish Faith and American Identity: A Literary Perspective", partly based also on her own life experience as she had grown up in multiethnic neighborhood and has been living in Poland for many years. The relation between spirituality and literature was further surveyed by renowned scholars such as Boris Vejdovsky from the University of Lausanne, who offered a post-structuralist view of "The Sacred and the Secret: Religion and Responsibility in American Literary Culture", Professor Elvira Osipova from Saint Petersburg who gave us an overview of American Transcendentalism and the chief topics concerned ("American Transcendentalism as a Religion, Philosophy and Literature"), Justin Quinn from Charles University who focussed on Stevens´ poetry in "Nature, Spirit, and Ideology in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens", and finally Professor Josef Jarab who addressed the audience with his paper called "Spirituality and Ethnicity in American Culture and Literature." Some of the presentations specialized in perhaps more marginal, nevertheless very interesting themes: the spiritual aspects of modern music were the subject of exploration for Aachen scholar Bernd Herzogenrath in "God Is a DJ: Spirituality in Techno-Culture"; a look at voodoo was presented by Matthew Sweney ("In Gods We Trust: Voodoo and Santeria in the USA"), and the spiritualist practices in the United States of the 19th century were examined by Bridget Bennett from Leeds ("Sacred Theatres: The Spiritualist Performances of Shakerism in the 1830s and 1840s"). In addition, Jirina Smejkalová surveyed the history of Czech feminism in "Thinking Gender in Contemporary Feminist Theologies: Inspirations for Czech Intellectual Tradition?". The presentation by Tomas Pospisil from Masaryk University, "Spirituality and Religion in American Film", concerned several modern American film classics, and was honored by the visit of the Orthodox Archbishop of Bohemia and Moravia. Besides, the growing reputation of our colloquium was also acknowledged by the visit of the new American cultural attaché Mr. Christopher Midura.
One of the most positive aspects of the colloquium was the varied and diversified audience of almost four dozen participants from ten countries (e.g. Russia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovakia, Finland, Germany, England and others), consisting of college and postgraduate students, high school and academic teachers, literary and other scholars and all kinds of experts. Each member of the audience would probably mark out a different paper regarding his or her specialization and preferences, but it remains to be admitted that the closest attention was paid to papers presented from memory (as the written style remains too demanding to be fully comprehended) and to papers whose authors could bring some personal aspects into the subject and insert their human experience into universal context. Particularly these presentations with their openness and extension into other fields of human life literally invited participants to discussion and gave impulse for endless and heated discussions not only within the official program and the university lofts.
The American Studies Colloquium was and is supposed to work as a critical reflexion of the chosen aspects of such cultural phenomena as are the United States, as well as an opportunity to compare experience and exchange opinions in the area of American culture studies on both academic and informal levels. After all, the colloquium seemed to prove to be an event of social and scholarly importance particularly in terms of informal contacts. The success remains to be measured with new professional partnerships and personal friendships. The presented papers will not be forgotten, as an informative collection of their abstracts on the university web pages is being prepared, and later we also intend bringing into print a collection of this year´s presentations. So the discussion can continue... Next year´s colloquium will hold the perhaps controversial title "(Mis)Understanding Postmodernism". We are looking forward to a productive and stimulating colloquium once again.
||U. S. Embassy,
Hybernská 7a, 118 Prague1, Czech Republic
We would also
like to express our gratitude to Mr. Charles Merrill,
without whose support our colloquium would not be possible.