Student Spotlight: Whitten Overby

Whitten Overby

Overby on the Coney Island boardwalk with a Vietnamese husband and wife dressed as Mickey and Minnie Mouse

What is your area of research?

I write history, theory, and criticism about the relationships between media—primarily film and television—the built environment, identity, and politics. My research focuses on how, why, and where television functions as an apparatus and an active agent in defining spatial tastes and behaviors, and I find that spatial taste-making and the attendant consumption have become key ways that Americans construct their individual and collective political identities. Television is the dominant media we consume, constructing a daily narrative that runs concomitant with our lives. As a medium, television is so American because it’s bound up with America’s obsession with the good life, with the American Dream. Every show constructs its own vision—and, key to my work, represents and reinforces this vision using domestic architecture—of this Dream, but every show’s Dream is a continuous thread with intended narrative coherence. My dissertation is called “The Seekers: Pursuits of American Dream Homes,” and the titular seekers are Americans searching for their Dreams together and apart. Such dreaming reflects a desire to belong with other Americans while also catalyzing a process of individualization. America was founded on the idea of rugged, self-reliant individuals making do only to rise up and insist upon the power of personal will to define and redefine not only one another but also our collective politics. Televisual imagery seems a flash point in all of this because it’s so pervasive—it’s a collective experience, even if largely narrowcasted now—and, at its best, depicts individuals who stand in for, suggest, or propose ways we may be stronger together.

What inspired you to choose this field of study?

I recently read an online interview of Elizabeth Warren and she said “I always poked at the things that scared me most.” There are certain prescribed national dreams and they metamorphose into personal fantasies. This process terrifies me because such dreams manipulate us into thinking only particular somethings constitute our worthiness. Such an American Dream lets Americans slip into a fearful amnesia. In 1931, Walter Benjamin identified this issue when he claimed “all Mickey Mouse films are founded on the motif of leaving home in order to learn what fear is,” which implies the American home is the national respite from fear, one bound up with and primarily conveyed through mass media. But there’s also such great potential, such optimism, invested in and perpetuated by both archetypal and individualized American Dream homes, defying prescriptive logics. It’s very easy, in academia and elsewhere, to get carried away with critique, to adopt chiding pessimism or wary distance, rather than to sympathetically embrace hope, grace, and potential. These latter concepts are almost scarier because I think that they challenge us to be better people, better scholars, better citizens rather than to luxuriate in our imagined distance from whatever “Dream” others are buying into or, worse yet, to turn into low-key, paper trail ideologues.

I’ve also always watched way too much television—anything talked about that I could get my hands on—and, about two years ago, I realized I should turn this dream-building leisure activity into work. There can be something scary, also, about losing yourself too much in a television show. My mom just had a nightmare that she was dating Dean, Rory Gilmore’s first boyfriend on Gilmore Girls, and I spent the first three years of graduate school trying to re-enact whatever Mad Men’s Peggy Olson did. A lot of people I know live in realities where fictional or ‘reality’ or ‘news’ television personalities dominate their psyches, and I began to see that these people coordinated their homes, and their other spaces, to take on these appearances. The obverse of labeling these momentary or sustained thoughts delusions is realizing, perhaps when tempered, they give us hope that we can makeover our lives and homes to realize greater potential. We tell ourselves stories in order to live goes the title of a Joan Didion volume, and, I think, we often tell ourselves stories about how television makes our homes in order to survive.

Why is this research important?

My goal is to make a place for this kind of academic research outside of the academy. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study by Stefano Harney and Fred Moten rocked my world and concerns how the American university is tantamount with neoliberal professionalization and how the most pressing political academic work should and will take place outside of the university. They’re talking about the role and place of black studies but I think these claims should apply generally to all scholarly fields, but I especially think they’re necessary when considering the humanities. I say all of this knowing that people accuse me of being too theoretical for a historian, and theoretical generally, but can we not make theory legible and prescient for wider social change? Furthermore, Martha Nussbaum has written about how the humanities are about building more self-conscious, service-and-humanitarian-oriented citizens. In my view, America is at its best when people have enough faith in themselves and in one another to at least try to realize their hopes and dreams. By focusing my research on how these two things are physically manifested and spatially emplaced, I hope I can get other academics, students, and, ideally, a popular readership to think about how, since the New Deal, our hopes and dreams have formed in relation to our homes.

What else has influenced your thinking as a researcher or scholar?

A lot of my influences are non-academic. I’ve been reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace while traveling across America doing my research and that book as well as his essays get at a lot of my preoccupations with a maximalist sensitivity for, or empathy towards, everyone’s fractured but ever-unfolding Americas. He jumbles all of these Americas up into a seemingly disparate, disjointed kaleidoscope that manages to cohere into a meditation on how there lies something more profound underneath the superficialities of media, addiction, competition, and so on that preoccupy every American.

I also always find myself returning to James Baldwin’s essays and early novels, and really to as much black American literature as possible. Baldwin’s prose is searing and woke me up to queerness so long before I ever knew what queer meant or seriously read queer theory. More contemporary black authors like Toni Morrison (a cliché by now, but I stayed up all night reading Song of Solomon), Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Claudia Rankine also get at the heart of the potentiality embedded within our national American tragedies. I’m equally indebted to a lot of recent rappers—mainly Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar—with whom I practice yoga most mornings. I guess I just listed a lot of men, which is odd because I’m far more influenced by feminine and trans people, on television and in everyday life.

I understand you received this year’s Distinguished Master’s Thesis Award from the Northeastern Association of Graduate Schools. Congratulations! What does this award mean to you?

I almost daily have trepidations about doing work that’s as interdisciplinary as mine. My Ph.D. is in the history of architecture and urbanism, and you don’t really see much interdisciplinarity or even populism there, so I know and am afraid that I’ve been transgressing a bit too much. I think there’s value in still handling whatever we call the canon in, at the least, introductory survey courses, but I don’t want to dedicate too much of my research to rethinking it. In some ways, I’ve already spent too much time doing exactly that, and I find it regrettable. So, the only reason I want to write about the Seagram Building ever again is to discuss how Larry went to therapy there in season eight of Curb Your Enthusiasm. I just want to ask questions not about style, learnedness, or allusion nor about superimposing a theoretical term onto a built structure. I’d like to think the thesis used history to tell a theoretically rich story about my experience of a building, to tell an intimate history about a mass mediated space.

Can you speak a bit more about your thesis and its focus?

Well, I think the abstract I first submitted to be considered for the award best sums it up:

Every day at the Holy Land Experience, a Christian theme park in Orlando, Florida that recreates the architecture of ancient Jerusalem, pilgrims flock to see the life of Christ performed in anthemic song and dance numbers. Drawn into rapturous firsthand scriptural reenactments produced by the American televangelical corporation Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), most of the Holy Land’s pilgrims profess to attaining grace, enacting a simplicity of movement through the Experience in order to receive virtuous blessings from a Christian God.

“Postcards from God” redefines the conventional bounds of architectural, urban, and television history, theory, and criticism. It argues consumer agency and taste rather than formal refinement or other elite factors should determine what, how, and why we examine built and televised spaces. Theme parks, and the Holy Land in particular, represent not the corporate brainwashing of consumers but their active deviation from branded architectural narratives to attain individuated transcendence. Immersing pilgrims in an extensive television set, the Experience allows visitors to determine their course within that mass medium’s flows, cast members of a lavishly produced New Testament that proffers sensory experiences enhancing their Christian television viewership.

I use the Holy Land as a case study to politicize the architecture we choose to document and narrate. TBN’s theme park embodies the waning power of conservative evangelical America and its suburban strongholds, a key chapter in national and international politics. Ethnography—conducting interviews, recording my own experiences, and extensively documenting the spaces in which both transpire—rather than conventional archival work furnishes a history of the immediate present that assesses and salvages this political movement’s seemingly cheap, mundane, and diurnally inhabited spaces; ethnography complicates rather than judges the Experience’s thrall, using spatial understanding to mediate between American academic leftist and populist conservative politics.

What’s next for you?

I’ll catalog some of my American Dreams: writing and producing a pilot for a television show about academia; publishing my dissertation as a book; writing for popular online and print media sources; teaching media studies courses; living in a dense urban area and not always having to drive; finding a partner; being able to afford cable and a DVR without compromising my food budget; doing Ashtanga Mysore yoga every day but moon days; reading more non-academic prose; and going on vacations completely unrelated to research or conferences.

Any advice for incoming graduate students?

Don’t stick too hard or fast to any idea, topic, theory, ideology, or otherwise singular thing. Beware of people who do, and beware of professors who superimpose their own singularities upon students. Don’t become too swept up in literature reviews or slavishly responding to discursive precedents; learn enough to teach and to be wise but not so much that you risk becoming a lemming. Beware advisors who emphasize these things. Make connections between completely unexpected things and then construct arguments around them. Logic can be bristly and unexpected. Do some serious and critical internet deep dives on the contemporary state of academia. It is not an American Dream and it is for many of us a temporary resting place. Think about the ways in which your degree could be spun into other careers while trying to enjoy the good fortune of being given five to seven years to learn exactly what you’ve always wanted to learn. If you’re just applying, then consider and re-consider exactly what you want to spend the better part of a decade studying and have candid conversations with current graduate students and professors. I chose Cornell because the kinship between professors and students in my program was apparent when I visited. Also, go somewhere interdisciplinary and avoid hermetically-sealed disciplinary boxes because, while they may land you a job at a like-minded institution, they won’t lead you to your own version of the undercommons.

Interview by Sally Kral, communications and outreach assistant in the Graduate School