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FROM WALDEN POND TO JURASSIC PARK ACTIVISM, CULTURE, & AMERICAN STUDIES
By PAUL LAUTER
DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS Copyright © 2001 Duke University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One RECONFIGURING ACADEMIC DISCIPLINES: THE EMERGENCE OF AMERICAN STUDIES
Few recent books have generated as much discussion as Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners. Reviewers have debated its evocation of "German exceptionalism," and historians have discussed the persuasiveness of the evidence it offers as well as the cogency of its explanatory framework. But one may also wish to ask about the role the book is playing in the United States today: what cultural work is it performing at a moment in which the Holocaust seems itself an ever larger presence on the American scene? This seems to me an absorbing, indeed major question. But I do not want to address it here. Rather, I wish to ask "where should such a question be studied within the academy?"
By "cultural work" I refer to the ways in which a book or other kind of "text"-a movie, a Supreme Court decision, an ad, an anthology, an international treaty, a material object-helps construct the frameworks, fashion the metaphors, create the very language by which people comprehend their experiences and think about their world. The question of the cultural work Hitler's Willing Executioners is performingtoday is not, then, a historical issue, strictly speaking; individual historians might venture answers, but most would maintain that it is rather more a matter for imaginative speculation than for the assessment of facts, logic, and alternative explanations-the historian's stock in trade. While the book is by any definition a "text," it remains unlikely grist even for the varied mills of English studies. A cultural anthropologist might take the issues on, but those who study the United States are rare, courses rarer, and their work has seldom "attained the scope of the concerns of cultural criticism."
Are we then to conclude that this is a matter not for the academy but for that fabled hero, the Public Intellectual, or for more mundane Sunday morning TV pundits? That conclusion sells the academy short. More important, perhaps, it ignores the fact that the question of a text's cultural work is not one restricted to a few exceptional volumes like Goldhagen's. On the contrary, the issue arises with any human production-the movie Jurassic Park, for example, or the 1994 Republican "Contract with America"-that mobilizes creative imagery and artful details that resonate with force in the society. Nor do such issues emerge only with respect to contemporary works. The question of where and how one studies the cultural work of texts comes up as well with Melville's "Benito Cereno," the Dred Scott decision, the racist tract, A Sociology for the South, or the stitching of a Virginia sampler. So the question remains: where-and how-do we study not so much the texts themselves as what I have been calling the "cultural work" they perform? Where, moreover, do we ask how and why certain texts or objects come into existence in the particular historical landscapes of the United States?
The brief answer, I think, is in American studies.
My longer answer to these questions, to the problem of the academic divisions of knowledge, derives from what may be a distinctive experience of student capacities in graduate and advanced undergraduate courses, especially in American studies and in English, as well as in reviewing American studies programs. What is very striking to me are the differences among even-or perhaps particularly-stronger students in English, history, and American studies. Whether or not they do it well, English students seem drawn inexorably to close reading formats, even when these are inappropriate to an assignment. Most have seemed to me deaf to entreaties, demands, or even lessons in how to "contextualize" through anything but the vaguest references to "historical background." On the other hand, most history students seem to think it strange, at best, to focus on the textualization of concepts, on the specific linguistic constructions that give form to ideas, much less on the ways in which language and form can come implicitly to contradict, or at least call into question, the very arguments being made. They seem used to more generalized discussions of a writer's ideas, or to questions of how well or badly a scholar has marshaled evidence and worked out the logic of an argument. I am, to be sure, making large generalizations, and I would not try to insist upon them too unequivocally. But they do suggest that after all is said and done, literary and historical study continue, adequately or not, to maintain what were their earlier methodological emphases.
Such methods are, of course, quite relevant to the varied forms of study that have come to dominate American studies as it is practiced in the United States. But such traditional approaches, and the subject matters they effectively underwrite, simply do not begin to cover what is now being done in American studies. It was once the case that American studies amounted to a loose amalgam of history, literature, and art (HLA, to use the Harvard formulation). No more. In fact, I think, the return to more traditional methods and subjects now often urged upon English and history departments needs to be understood as a response to newer forms of academic work pushing up between and within these older disciplines. I believe we are in the midst of a fundamental alteration in the academic division of what are sometimes termed the "human sciences."
How we divide academic knowledge is not altogether arbitrary, though it is deeply inflected by historical accidents. There is no necessary logic to the structure of English departments, for example, most of which are internally divided between literature and writing (and often further divided between "creative" and "remedial" writing), and many of which contain, or once did, areas like speech, film, and theater. Nor are these departmental divisions fixed, though the institutional structures in which they are embedded do persist, indeed tend to resist change. Still, as new ways of thinking about the world emerge, new disciplines like sociology and anthropology arise. Often such new areas of study develop within existing departments, from which, if they grow and flourish, they then separate as independent entities. But the place of such new programs in the academic system, their very right to exist, can long remain at contest. At my own institution, for example, anthropology emerged as a small independent department just three or four years ago. This is not surprising since much of the academy is conservative by design and exclusive in practice. Still, one cannot usefully pursue an inquisitional approach to new knowledge: one cannot exclude by fiat what intellectuals persist in asking about and what students find compelling.
Both intellectuals and students persistently ask about movies, Jurassic Park for instance (as I do later in this book). In a broadly constituted English department, one might approach it as yet one more "text," whose plot, characters, themes, and aesthetic tactics can fruitfully be analyzed in more or less traditional ways. But what if one wishes then to historicize this "text," addressing the conflict between its condemnation of commodifying dinosaurs and its real-life existence as one of the most successful commodifications of dinosaurs or, indeed, anything else in human history? Again, in light of the movie's thematic critique of technology applied to profit, how does one best study the origins, development, and use of the advanced technologies upon which the movie is so dependent? How does one explain the film's great audience appeal in the particular, post-Gulf War moment of its distribution and consumption; its role in salvaging the economic fortunes of the Matsushita Electric Industrial Corporation; or its function in the spreading internationalization of cultural production? Doesn't the pursuit of these historical, economic, marketing, even technological issues draw one away from any traditional discipline-even one as flexibly constituted as English-and into other, distinctly interdisciplinary fields, like film studies or, more often, American studies?
I point toward American studies in part because the annual convention of the American Studies Association and its journal, American Quarterly, have become venues of choice in the United States for many of those active in cultural studies and related areas concerned with mass culture, the media and its institutions, the politics of communications, academic conventions and discourses, and the like. At the same time, though the process has been less apparent, distinctive theoretical paradigms as well as objects of study have emerged within American studies. To compare the reading lists of introductory graduate courses in English, history, and American studies (one is appended to this chapter) is to observe three very distinct domains, within which practitioners are asking rather different, if related, questions. Such a course in American studies will include work by people located in English and history, as well as in anthropology, art, music, political science, and sociology departments. But what is more striking are the number of works which are very unlikely to be central to either introductory graduate history or English courses, books like-to cite just two from 1996-Richard Ohmann's Selling Culture and Rob Kroes's If You've Seen One, You've Seen the Mall. Cixous, Culler, de Man, Derrida, Fish, Gilbert, Gubar, Hartman, Kristeva, Spillers, and Spivak continue to constitute meat and potatoes in literary criticism; work, that is, concerned predominantly with discourse, not history, and influenced by modes of philosophical speculation. A comparable American studies list would include Williams, Trachtenberg, Saldívar, Radway, Lowe, Lipsitz, Lenz, Hall, Denning, Carby, Anzaldúa.
Such core texts in American studies generally embody a number of distinctive methodological principles. One is embodied in Fredric Jameson's injunction "Always historicize," by which is generally meant focus less on the formal qualities and structures of a text or a material object and more on why it emerges as it does in its particular moment, how the forms of its production, distribution, and consumption materialize-what forces, social, economic, aesthetic, technological, have come together to produce this thing in this place at this time? The emphasis on historicizing texts extends to books in the field, including its "classics," works like Perry Miller's Errand into the Wilderness or Henry Nash Smith's Virgin Land, for example. These can be explored not only for their arguments but to understand why they emerged at a particular historical juncture and what were the roles they played in constructing an older, essentially cold war paradigm of American studies. Just as scholars wish to understand the origins and the work of such texts, they likewise seek to grasp the functions of their own intellectual labor within the changing shape of American institutions, like the culture industries and the university. In this respect, the central concerns of American studies promote a kind of intense self-scrutiny among its practitioners, an effort to situate one's own practice and assumptions within American institutional life.
A second principle has to do with the fundamental importance of textuality, not just of the written sort but, as I have suggested, in the variety of forms people construct for the many purposes to which we devote ourselves. Textual form as such is of less concern here than the ways in which such forms express various relations of power, and also how texts themselves, like all cultural phenomena, shape and are shaped by the material conditions of everyday life. Moreover, like their colleagues in literary study, Americanists are interested in how language and form often reveal what an argument tends, indeed wishes, to veil, or how imagery and details reenforce or contradict a writer's ideas. An Americanist teaching certain founding documents, like Tom Paine's Common Sense or Hamilton's "Federalist no. 6," might call attention to the differing ways both employ gendered imagery to suggest what constitutes "manly" forms of behavior in the distinctive moments of these texts' creation. One might point to how the language of the final sentence of Leo Marx's The Machine in the Garden opens a critique of the book's main argument about the centrality of American "high" culture to the sustenance of humane values. Or to Priscilla Wald's intense scrutiny of the revisions of the Declaration of Independence or the terms used in the majority opinion of the Dred Scott case. Similarly, Amy Kaplan roots a brilliant critique of how earlier forms of American studies had ignored American imperialism in her observation of how Perry Miller's brief African experience returns obsessively to Miller's account of the origins of his project to study America's "Errand into the Wilderness."
In thus separating textuality from what is sometimes called "context," I run the risk of reinscribing the old literature/history dichotomy within the picture of American studies I am constructing. That division, as Donald Pease has pointed out, underwrote a more fundamental political separation of culture from politics in the forms of American studies that emerged after World War II. It is important, therefore, to underline the ways in which current versions of American studies insist upon the political functions of textual forms, or, in Pease's words, "on literature as an agency within the political world." Moreover, texts need to be seen as constituting but one element of what Lisa Lowe has described as "discourse": "I do not intend to limit discourse to only these particular textual forms; by discourse, I intend a rather extended meaning-a network that includes not only texts and cultural documents, but social practices, formal and informal laws, policies of inclusion and exclusion, and institutional forms of organization, for example, all of which constitute and regulate knowledge about the object of that discourse, Asian America." I am not persuaded that "discourse" is the best term here, since as Lowe uses it, it encompasses the results not only of the close reading skills of literary critics, but also the practices of accumulating, classifying, evaluating, and interpreting empirical data central to the disciplines of the "human sciences," of economics, and of ethnography. Some Americanists do tend to emphasize the reading of cultural texts over the processes of tracking the economic or political work texts perform or the concentration of material factors that shape particular cultural moments and material objects. Indeed, current American studies practice can sometimes be criticized for restricting itself to the close and often clever readings of unusual "texts"-contracts, ads, legislation, organizational forms-detached from the worlds in which they perform their work. My perception is that many, particularly younger Americanists are turning toward ethnographic investigation to root at least contemporary cultural speculations in material evidence. It may well be that ethnography will emerge as a new methodological force within the American studies mix, and that anthropologists who focus their work on the United States will be among the more active claimants for room in the American studies tent.
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