Ask An Americanist

Ask An Americanist: Dr Diana Shahinyan

Diana Shahinyan received her PhD, “Authors at Law – the Jurisprudence of Investigation in the Detective Fictions of Dashiell Hammett and William Faulkner” from Sydney University in 2014, and currently works there as a casual academic. She has recently published articles in the Journal of Victorian Cultures, and the Australian Humanities Review. Her research straddles the nexus of law and literature, and she is currently working on a monograph charting a cultural history of contract law.

Q: Tell us a little about your background

As the first person in my family to attend university, I started a combined Bachelor of Arts / Bachelor of Law degree at Sydney University without much of an idea of what to expect. I took a year off my law degree to complete Honours in English, and my thesis looked at the representation of American Presidents in Film. I remember my honours supervisor, David Kelly, telling me to write about something I love, and then, after some light conversation about the deeply pleasurable Michael Douglas /Annette Benning film, The American President, it dawned on me that there was a whole lot to be said about the representational pact between Hollywood and Washington, and about how inherently cinematic / spectacular the role of president is. Barack Obama moves like he is being tracked by the smoothest Steadicam. Nowadays, of course, with our first reality TV president, it would be interesting to revise and reconsider some of those cinematic themes – after all, we’ve gone from silver screen presidents to a veritable boob tube president!

After becoming more and more interested in early American jurisprudence,  I discontinued my law degree in the final two years to complete my PhD in Law and Literature – specifically, I wanted to look at the ways in which the detective fictions of Dashiell Hammett and William Faulkner both shaped and were informed by the changing jurisprudential landscape of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I quickly re-enrolled in law after submitting my PhD – this time, at UNSW – to finally receive the law degree I had started in 2004 in 2018!

Q: How did you get interested in US fiction?

In second year uni, I did a course called Imagining America with Julian Murphet, who is now a professor over at UNSW, in which we read Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, Frederick Douglass and William Faulkner. During his lecture on Emily Dickinson I remember silently sobbing, mortified that someone would notice (the poem, for those interested, was “I Dreaded that First Robin So”). I had never in my life had such a startlingly affective response to literature. It did something to me. That summer, of course, I read Moby Dick, and every single Jack London novel and story I could get a hold of, and really, I wanted to explode, such was the surfeit of feeling. I loved, beyond the earnest intensity of the writing, that in every piece of classic American literature was this idea of America – one that was dynamic, being forged, in real time, within and alongside the new nation, and, more fascinatingly, ever towards an even more perfect idea of America. As an undergraduate, and one who was raised solely on American pop culture (Bruce Willis and Prince my childhood heroes – I learned to speak English watching Beverly Hills, 90210), it was endlessly absorbing to map its real and mythic configurations.

Q: What are you working on at the moment? How was this project conceived?

I’m currently working on a book project, which, broadly, traces a cultural history of contract law (as well as its representations, as they appear in literature, film, television, art and digital media) focusing on what it can tell us about sex, sexuality, and gender. Specifically, I am interested in the ways in which consensual and nonconsensual sexual relations have been traditionally interpreted by, written into, regulated by, and understood through, contract both as a coherent field of law and as a simple legal instrument. In doing this, this book project seeks, finally, to better understand the contemporary moment of #Metoo, in which questions of consent, power, and desire are increasingly being played out in public discourse, public spaces, and the digital commons, as civil rather than criminal wrongs.

The project was conceived, funnily enough, on Valentine’s Day, 2015, when my partner and I went, probably like so many other giddy couples, to see 50 Shades of Grey on its box office debut! I remember thinking, while watching the film, that, for a film about sex (and, importantly, kinky sex), the sexiest part of the film was a contract negotiation scene. I kept thinking, in neoliberal American culture, far from all the sex toys available to Christian Grey, his sexual consent contract is the sexual prosthesis that gets our (not to mention his love interest’s) hearts racing. I asked myself, how did we get here, from contracts that regulate sex to contracts themselves being sexy?

Q: Which theorist or writer has had the most profound influence on your thinking?

Too many to name! For the above project, Amy Dru Stanley, of course. Robert A Ferguson’s Law and Letters in American Culture is probably the first law and literature book I read and I still love it. Robert Cover is a name I think it’s important to, almost ritualistically, keep coming back to. Richard Posner is an obviously divisive figure but reading him has also been hugely beneficial for me, to, I suppose, formulate my own thoughts about how to read law, and how our interpretative strategies are deeply political.

Many distinctly non-American names stick out, for me, at the nexus of law and literature: the king, Giorgio Agamben, and two excellent Australians – Kieran Dolin, and Des Manderson. Finally, the last word on America always, for me, belongs to Jean Baudrillard. His America showed me that critical theory could also be the headiest love letter, and, maybe even, travel fiction.

Q: How has your geographical distance from the United States shaped your work?

That’s a good question. Distance has meant, for me, that I find myself, sometimes quite problematically, thinking about America as myth, as a rhetorical strategy, as a commitment to a set of ideals, as dreamy simulation, but rarely as a real, material, inhabitable place. Of course, Hollywood – as place and eponymous industry – doesn’t exactly help!

Q: What are your favourite & least favourite aspects of being an Americanist in Australia?

Favourite: the other Americanists here, who are all my dear friends. At the United States Studies Centre I am one of the convenors of the excellent American Cultures Workshop, which provides a warm but critically astute forum for the reception of unpublished work looking at any aspect of American culture.

My least favourite is just how far away we are from America!

Q: What has your relationship with ANZASA looked like over time?

I promise it’ll be more active in the future! The 2008 ANZASA Conference at Sydney University, just before I started my PhD, was the first conference I attended (as a mere audience member) and it was just about the most exciting couple of days for me – a real introduction to humanities scholarship at its richest and most earnestly investigative.

Q: Finally, what is the most valuable piece of advice you’ve been given?

My dear friend Sarah Gleeson-White once told me to write for fifteen minutes a day. Then, if, after that fifteen minutes have elapsed, you want to write some more, so be it.