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Post-Nationalist American Studies seeks to revise the cultural nationalism and celebratory American exceptionalism that tended to dominate American Studies in the Cold War era. The goal of the book's contributors is a less insular, more trans-national, comparative approach to American Studies, one that questions dominant American myths rather than canonizes them. Articulating new ways to think about American Studies, these essays demonstrate how diverse the field has become.
Contributors are concerned with cross-cultural communication, race and gender, global and local identities, and the complex tensions between symbolic and political economies. Their essays explore, among other topics, the construction of "foreign" peoples and cultures; the notion of borders—territorial, racial, economic, and sexual; the "multilingual reality" of the United States; the place of the Mexican-American War in U.S. history; and the significance of Tiger Woods in today's global market of consumption.
Together, the essays propose a renewed vision of the United States' role in the world and how American Studies scholarship can address that vision. Each contributor includes a sample syllabus showing how the issues discussed in individual essays can be brought into the classroom.
George J. Sanchez
Mankind - that word should have more meaning for all of us today. We can't be consumed by our petty differences anymore. We will be united in our common interests. Perhaps it is fate that today is the Fourth of July and you will once again be fighting for our freedom - not from tyranny, oppression, or persecution, but from annihilation. We are fighting for our right to live, to exist. And should we win the day, the Fourth of July will no longer be known as an American holiday, but as the day when the world declared in one voice, "We will not go quietly into the night. We will not vanish without a fight." We are going to live on. We are going to survive. Today we celebrate our Independence Day!
Actor Bill Pullman as President Thomas J. Whitmore in the 1996 movie, Independence Day
In the summer of 1996, the movie blockbuster Independence Day reflected many of the attractions, contradictions, and ironies of post-nationalism in the United States embodied in both popular culture and academic discourse. On one level, the previews for that movie enticed us to the theaters by depicting the explosion of virtually every important architectural symbol of nationalism in the United States: the White House and Capitol in Washington, D.C., the Empire State Building in New York (and in the movie a fallen Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor), and even Capitol Records Tower in Los Angeles-that odd mixture of national pride, phallic symbolism, and international capitalism embedded in popular culture. Once in the theaters, audiences were treated to the vicarious pleasure of watching the outer space invaders defeated by a polyglot team of U.S. citizens, most conspicuously headed by an African-American fighter pilot (played by actor/ rapper Will Smith) and a Jewish electronics/mathematical genius (played by actor Jeff Goldblum), while the rest of the world's fighting forces combine across all historical and socio-political divides to back up the American charge. It was in battle against alien invaders that, through the voice of the actor playing the President of the United States, July Fourth became everyone's independence day. As audiences cheered, nationalism, it seemed, had given way to a global internationalism in the wake of invasion from extraterrestrial aliens.
In truth, however, this film reflected a new-fashioned nationalism, one now ripe in its confidence of a multicultural future for the United States and America's lone role as a military and cultural superpower that could export its diverse, yet unified, values across all national boundaries. Multiculturalism seemed to have emerged as a quintessential American value, marking the United States as a unique society among nations, while giving it alone the status to lead all nations to a new future devoid of interethnic strife. This cinematic fantasy-ahistoric as it may be-is also a central vision of some leading Americanists in this country and, just as importantly, the rationale behind several new versions of American Studies on various campuses.
This essay intends to critically examine the relationship between the fields of Ethnic Studies, as it has developed in the United States since the 1960s, and a newly revamped American Studies, which hopes to cast aside older notions of American exceptionalism and contribute to a newfound examination of multicultural U.S. society. In an attempt to fully investigate the multiple meanings behind the movement toward a "post-national" American Studies, I will explore one particular ideological focus of much recent work in American Studies that purports to be "post-ethnic" in analysis and motivation. I argue that current discussions regarding the place of the two fields of American Studies and Ethnic Studies in academia and on specific U.S. campuses reflect the deep ambivalence toward difference and unity in discussions of nationalism among liberal/left thinkers in the United States struggling with how to conceptualize a new, progressive multicultural agenda for the nation.
In a recent review of the institutional changes toward diversity in the national American Studies Association, 1997 President Mary Helen Washington reported,
None of these changes happened of its own accord, but at each critical moment in the history of the ASA, an individual has pushed for change, and the organization, with support from the presidents and executive boards, has responded. The pushing, protesting, and organizing of African American, Chicano/ a, and Asian American scholars from 1985 to 1997 has resulted in a sea change in the involvement of scholars of color in ASA.... If ASA finds itself now on the threshold of change, it is because of the efforts of individuals with extraordinary singularity of purpose.
Significant institutional collaboration on individual campuses, however, has been much more difficult than the changes in the American Studies Association described by Washington. She herself reminds us that a great deal of common interdisciplinary ferment in the 1970s and beyond "should have made, but did not make, African American studies and American studies natural collaborators, fraternal, if not identical, twins."
The failure of cooperation between Ethnic Studies and American Studies faculty and programs was especially the case at smaller college campuses that did not have the resources to engage in widespread faculty hiring that would diversify the traditional curriculum while also building much-needed Ethnic Studies programs demanded by students. At colleges such as Pomona, Oberlin, and Williams, new faculty of color were hired to offer new courses in minority history, literature, and culture, but also had to be able to teach larger surveys in their respective disciplines. These obligations, coupled with the larger demands placed on them for advising and mentoring minority and other students, meant that few of these new hires had the time or energy to contribute to interdisciplinary programs such as American Studies, which continued to rely on volunteer activity. Moreover, many of these faculty banded together to create new Ethnic Studies programs which better met the increased demand for coherency and regularity in course offerings made by students and administrators alike. While American Studies faculties often worked hard at these institutions to implement multiculturalism, they were usually stymied in their attempts to actually involve minority faculty in the inner workings of the interdisciplinary enterprise of American Studies.
Such institutional developments can best be explored by looking at local histories of this intersection between Ethnic Studies and American Studies at specific colleges and universities, rather than less concrete, but more recognized, trends at the national level. Over the past few years, the ground has continued to shift at several U.S. campuses struggling with the academic and institutional boundaries between American Studies and Ethnic Studies. At the University of Michigan, the Program in American Culture uncomfortably fits three Ethnic Studies programs inside a larger American Studies program, combining efforts toward a multicultural vision of U.S. society while uncomfortably competing for resources and often distinctly separate academic agendas under one national umbrella. At the University of Minnesota, an interdisciplinary program operates a tension-ridden alliance with three underfunded Ethnic Studies departments, while the larger administration is paralyzed to move forward for fear of bringing offense to one or more of the parties or having to respond with monies in this belt-tightening era. These umbrella-style programs, although at the forefront of local multiculturalism in American Studies nationwide, exist often in tension with campus efforts at promoting Ethnic Studies.
At these and other institutions, American Studies programs have tried to promote the hiring of faculty who concentrate on racial minorities in order to lead campus efforts at diversification, as well as diversifying their own curricular offerings. Yet even the best attempts to create a "home" for Ethnic Studies within American Studies inevitably bring both successes and frustrations for programs. At the University of California at Santa Cruz, tenured white faculty combine with untenured minority faculty in trying to reshape an American Studies program and promote a new Ph.D. in the field, yet their efforts are often stymied by departing ethnic faculty, a growing anti-U.S. nationalist sentiment among other faculty, and the very power differentials in appointment and prestige that they hope to examine in American society. All these "ground-up" efforts at reform and diversity should be commended, but none has been an unqualified success at removing pressures and frustrations over the state of Ethnic Studies on its campus.
Indeed, attempts to jumpstart relatively new American Studies programs at institutions with longer histories of established Ethnic Studies departments and/or programs have often led directly to tension. At the University of Colorado, a fledging American Studies program tries to assert itself with a decidedly pan-American vision stretching across both northern and southern boundaries of the United States, but is looked at suspiciously by an embattled Ethnic Studies faculty and moves forward with little contact with an established Latin American Studies program. Similar situations have erupted at both the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Washington, even though Ethnic Studies faculty at both institutions are heavily involved in the national American Studies movement. On the local campus level, particularly at institutions in the American West, it often appears (and sometimes is) as if cautious administrators are attempting to "pacify" Ethnic Studies by placing the study of race and ethnicity solely within the confines of a more nationalist, if still interdisciplinary, project.
These fears of containment have, in fact, been actualized when one looks at the state of student politics for academic diversity in the 1990s. At Columbia University, undergraduate students protesting for an Ethnic Studies department were, instead, offered an umbrella American Studies program with appointments in traditional departments as this administration talked of combating intellectual separatism among ethnic faculty when established departments were noticeably lacking in racially specific courses or scholars of color. As administrators at East Coast institutions struggled with calls for ethnic programs that went beyond traditional Black Studies efforts, they increasingly sought to minimize what they perceived as "duplication" of departments born of newly recognized American racial diversity that extends beyond a black-white paradigm.
The latest American Studies program to declare itself as guiding the way to the future in the study of race and ethnicity is that of Princeton University, headed by historian Sean Wilentz. After students occupied the main administration building in 1993 demanding an increase of Latino Studies and Asian American Studies faculty, the university responded by placing these demands within the context of a newly diversified American Studies project. A university committee assigned to respond to these student demands advised the administration that "the intellectual leadership for bolstering its teaching and scholarship in Latino-American and Asian-American studies" should come from the American Studies program, which it deemed "particularly well-suited to encompass studies of the comparative experience of the peoples of America, broadly defined."
Wilentz, while carefully avoiding mention of the almost total lack of faculty in either of these teaching areas at Princeton and of the student protests which led to this report, did take the time to assail the field of Ethnic Studies for its supposed parochialism:
Studying one ethnic group, or even a collection of ethnic groups, in isolation can easily obscure ... and rob the study of ethnicity (as well as of the United States more generally) of some of its most profound complexities. The simplification of American culture can become especially dangerous when assessing a particular work of art, literature, or music. Is it not fallacious to believe that any cultural artifact, from a symphony to a folk painting, is representative of an entire social category, let alone one as diverse as an ethnic group? Is it not equally fallacious to believe that individual artists or writers are beholden only to their specific ethnic or racial backgrounds?
While refusing to confront the lack of diversity among Princeton's faculty and academic programs, Wilentz pretends that the American Studies program at Princeton will be among the first academic units in the nation to do comparative studies and cross-cultural analysis. Princeton's solution is to require students "to study other aspects of American life" besides their own ethnicity, while requiring those with "more-traditional interests" to "rigorously study the many varieties of American culture"-a practice long-established in Ethnic Studies programs around the country. While it is easy to dismiss this elitist perspective, it is important to analyze more carefully the total mischaracterization of Ethnic Studies by the director of an American Studies program at one of the most prestigious institutions in the country. Indeed, how can "integration now"-a call Wilentz uses to begin and end his article-proceed in American Studies, if Ethnic Studies is so belittled? More importantly, why do some in American Studies seem to feel the need to diminish Ethnic Studies in order to incorporate the study of race and ethnicity?
Indeed, white scholars of American labor history like Wilentz have been among the most prominent supporters of this new attempt to corral the "excesses" of Ethnic Studies-often equated with a turn to "identity politics" since the 1960s-within American Studies because of their overdetermined need to understand the way that race has, in their interpretation, circumvented a full discussion of class in American society. Largely emerging from the shadow of mentor Herbert Gutman, these new labor historians have been particularly concerned about the ways in which culture and community promote or forestall alliances around labor and class issues in the United States.
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John Carlos Rowe
George J. Sánchez