Popular Culture and Democracy:
An Easy/Uneasy Relationship
10th International Colloquium of American Studies, Olomouc, August 31 - September 5, 2003

Popular Culture and Democracy: An Easy / Uneasy Relationship
Palacký University, Olomouc
August 31 - September 5, 2003

The launching of this annual Colloquium, an international American Studies seminar, was possible again this year most importantly thanks to the generous help and financial support of the US Embassy in Prague who deserves our outmost gratitude. The Colloquium was jointly organized by the Center for Comparative Culture Studies (CCCS) at Palacký University and the Czech and Slovak Association for American Studies, represented by the program coordinator Robert Hýsek and the chief coordinator Michal Peprník, both teachers and researchers at the Department of English and American Studies, and by the Conference Center of Palacký University, namely Jitka Hýbnerová who was in charge of accommodation management and accountancy.

The strategy we have adopted and developed in the previous years is to distinguish between regular and prominent, so-called plenary speakers, and to offer them appropriate space and time. The plenary speakers, traditionally our distinguished American guests, invited and sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in Prague, are given sixty minutes for their talks and another thirty minutes for discussion with the audience, while the presentations of regular speakers take forty-five minutes and are followed with thirty minutes of discussion. The plenary speakers usually occupy the whole morning which is the prime-time, while groups of three regular speakers present their talks in the afternoons. This model has proved to be very efficient and appropriate as the selected American speakers present the highest academic standards.

Another very specific aspect of the format of our Colloquium is the extended space we give to discussions after the papers. Our guests repeatedly praise the advantages of this format in comparison to most other academic events where dozens of extrashort papers are followed with one another, and the result is the preference of quantity to quality, while our week-long Olomouc encounter of international scholars offers plenty of opportunities for both formal and informal debates, and this intense sharing of ideas leads not only to our mutual professional development, but also encourages new friendships among the scholars in American studies all over the world. The annual Colloquium thus constitutes a unique global web of highly motivated and co-operating individuals who deepen their understanding of the U.S.A. and its culture and politics, and of their own cultures too, on the background of exploring America and through mutual meeting.

The title of this year's colloquium - Popular Culture and Democracy: An Easy / Uneasy Relationship - was an attempt to define the relationship of these two very important, perhaps typically American phenomena whose intertwinement is much more complex than it seems, and the relative broadness of this comparative theme ensured a copious variety of topics brought into discussion. The complexity of our task was appreciated by Ms. Evelyn A. Early from the U.S. Embassy in Prague who was so kind to come to open the Colloquium on Monday morning. The key-address was delivered by Professor Josef Jařab, the President of the European Association for American Studies.

The highlights of this year's conference, not too surprisingly though, were all American speakers: Jim Grove from Mount Mercy College, Iowa, who has participated two years ago, in his extremely interesting, revealing and provocative paper Thinking about Evil in America spoke of the difficulty recognizing, defining and facing evil in American culture. Then Charles Gannon from St. Bonaventura University, New York, in his Tuesday morning paper called Down and Out(ré) in the Cultural Ghettos: America's Underprivileged Arts spoke of the links between the military technology and science fiction. Charles has visited us for the second time in row, and the organization team was very proud to welcome this very exceptional, erudite and witty scholar. His paper was an excellent academic show, both highly informative and entertaining. This is, after all, the quality shared by all American professors - their talks are very well organized in structure and content, while the form of their presentations is very dramatic, vivid, full of energy and enthusiasm.

This also was the case of the key-note speaker, professor John Stauffer from Harvard University, who proved to be, in the first place, an extremely willing and cooperative person when he agreed to replace the original key-note speaker Elisa New from Harvard who had to cancel her attendance for serious family reasons. In his paper Frederick Douglass and the Aesthetics of Freedom, John Stauffer absolutely enchanted the audience with his analysis of how the representation of freedom creates a crisis of language and aesthetics.

The fourth speaker of American origin, Tom Clark from the University of Kassel in Germany, gave an interesting speech called No Masters, No Masses: The American Dream of a Republican (Political) Culture on Friday morning. As well as his colleagues from the United States, he belonged to the most active and inquisitive members of the Colloquium who participated in every discussion.

The overall standard of the Colloquium was very high again, and among the most successful contributions of non-American speakers were Democratic Ideals in Popular Culture by Michal Peprník and High Western, High Fantasy by Marcel Arbeit from Palacký University, The Centeredness of the Peripheral, the Periphery of the Center by Alena Smiešková from the University of Nitra, Slovakia, Images and Words in Popular Culture - Identity Formation of the Musical Icons by Norbert Gyuris from the University of Pecs, Hungary, Tod Browning´s Freaks: Democracy of the Dismembered by Bernd Herzogenrath from University of Cologne, Germany, or Violence, Death, and Redemption: Paradox in Cinematic (Re)Presentation of the Burgeoisie in ´American Beauty´ and ´A One and A Two by Pi-hua Ni from Taiwan - not mentioning the other interesting papers by speakers from Slovakia and other countries. Even this short list shows how incredibly international this low-budget conference is; this year's 45 participants came from 9 countries, including USA, Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Romania, Taiwan, and of course the Czech Republic, who was also represented by a surprisingly large number of postgraduate and undergraduate students.

The academic program, however, did not stop here and was complemented with a highly appreciated guided tour of Olomouc with Senior Professor Jaroslav Peprník from Palacký University, two screening sessions where relevant films were shown, a poetry reading by Charles Gannon and other participants, followed with a truly heated discussion over the poetics of a popular Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal, and the last but not least, the field trip to Kroměříž, historical town listed by UNESCO, where the participants visited the castle that hosted the First Constitutional Congress of the Hapsburg monarchy in 1848. The field trip was also sponsored by the American Embassy in Prague.

The Colloquium, as an event bringing together experts, teachers and students in the field of American studies from the Central, Western, and Eastern Europe and other countries, proved the efficiency of its long-year strategy. During this week-long session overflowing with fascinating ideas and intense debates, the professional development of many of us, teachers, was accelerated by seeing the top American and European scholars in action, by being in constant dialogue with them, and in addition to this professional inspiration, some very valuable genuine friendships extending any national and cultural boundaries were made.

Our special thanks go to Ms. Markéta Kolářová, our tireless, incredibly helpful and indispensable link with U.S. Embassy.

For the organization team,

Mgr. Robert Hýsek, program coordinator

Department of English and American Studies
Philosophical Faculty
Palacký University
Křížkovského 8
771 80 Olomouc
e-mail: colloquium@centrum.cz




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