The Futures of American Studies

The Futures of American Studies

by Robyn Wiegman

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Originating as a proponent of U.S. exceptionalism during the Cold War, American Studies has now reinvented itself, vigorously critiquing various kinds of critical hegemony and launching innovative interdisciplinary endeavors. The Futures of American Studies considers the field today and provides important deliberations on what it might yet become. Essays by


Originating as a proponent of U.S. exceptionalism during the Cold War, American Studies has now reinvented itself, vigorously critiquing various kinds of critical hegemony and launching innovative interdisciplinary endeavors. The Futures of American Studies considers the field today and provides important deliberations on what it might yet become. Essays by both prominent and emerging scholars provide theoretically engaging analyses of the postnational impulse of current scholarship, the field's historical relationship to social movements, the status of theory, the state of higher education in the United States, and the impact of ethnic and gender studies on area studies. They also investigate the influence of poststructuralism, postcolonial studies, sexuality studies, and cultural studies on U.S. nationalist—and antinationalist—discourses. No single overriding paradigm dominates the anthology. Instead, the articles enter into a lively and challenging dialogue with one another. A major assessment of the state of the field, The Futures of American Studies is necessary reading for American Studies scholars.

Contributors. Lindon Barrett, Nancy Bentley, Gillian Brown, Russ Castronovo, Eric Cheyfitz, Michael Denning, Winfried Fluck, Carl Gutierrez-Jones, Dana Heller, Amy Kaplan, Paul Lauter, Günter H. Lenz, George Lipsitz, Lisa Lowe, Walter Benn Michaels, José Estaban Muñoz, Dana D. Nelson, Ricardo L. Ortiz, Janice Radway, John Carlos Rowe, William V. Spanos

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From the Publisher

The Futures of American Studies shapes a farsighted and richly provocative argument about the intellectual space, time, and politics of the cultures of American studies. It's a millennial work.”—Laura Wexler, author of Tender Violence: Domestic Visions in an Age of U.S. Imperialism

“Fascinating and provocative, this collection is sure to attract wide attention as the latest collective statement of the major directions in which ‘New Americanist’ scholarship is heading.”—Lawrence Buell, author of Writing for an Endangered World: Literature, Culture, and Environment in the U.S. and Beyond

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The futures of American studies

By Donald E. Pease

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-2965-4

Chapter One

What's in a Name? Jan Radway


In the spring of 1960, less than ten years after the founding of the American Studies Association, its first president, Carl Bode, of the University of Maryland, sat down to recall the moment of the association's founding. Assuming that the members of the American Studies Association might be interested in the story of how he started the organization, Bode intended his tale to provide guidance for the future. He hoped his narrative would point to both the strengths and the weaknesses of the American studies movement and of the American Studies Association itself. Although this short piece was not Bode's presidential address-at the time, such addresses were not required of as a presidents-it was, nonetheless, one of the first instances of the now familiar American studies genre, the genre conceived in response to the question, "does American Studies have a distinctive method?" Like so many others who have since followed his lead, Professor Bode sought to define American studies, to specify its peculiar method, and to lay out an argument for why American studies might, in his words, "lead a counterreformation in college curriculums."

I want to recall Carl Bode's essay for a particular reason. Indeed, I want to acknowledge it respectfully as a precedent precisely because it does not focus only on the scholarly andintellectual field of American studies. It also looks at the American Studies Association itself and deliberately asks about the role it should play in a larger social and political context. I, too, want to think about the American Studies Association as an organization fostering specific forms of knowledge production at this particular historical moment because I want to ask what the association should do now to build on the rich body of work that has developed in the last twenty years or so, work that has made the annual as a conference both possible and tremendously exciting.

That work-pursued by feminists, by those working on the question of race, by ethnic studies scholars, by people working on gay, lesbian, and queer histories, by those preoccupied with the lives of the laboring classes and with the achievements of the indigenous populations of this continent-that work has challenged some of the early assumptions that grounded the field of American studies. It has challenged what Donald Pease called "the disciplinary unconscious and field imaginary" of American studies, the presumption that American culture is exceptional in some way and that it is dominated by consensus. As nearly all recent presidents of the American Studies Association have pointed out in their presidential addresses, this new work has insisted on the importance of difference and division within American history, on the significance of "dissensus," in Sacvan Bercovitch's suggestive phrase.

But note the difficulties in expressing the point here, the problem of how to think difference and the idea of a specifically American studies together. My own sentence put it this way-"the importance of difference and division within American history." It is not easy to deal with either the most generative or the most limiting effects of difference if you already assume the unity and coherence of a distinctly American history. Is difference merely to be posed as a qualifier of some prior whole? Does the perpetuation of the particular name, American, in the title of the field and in the name of the association continue surreptitiously to support the notion that such a whole exists even in the face of powerful work that tends to question its presumed coherence? Does the field need to be reconfigured conceptually in response? Should the association consider renaming itself in order to prevent this imaginary unity from asserting itself in the end, again and again, as a form of containment?

These are the questions I want to pose by drawing attention to Carl Bode's very brief anecdote about the naming of the association. I want to ask "what's in a name?" and "what do names do?" I want to take up the challenges issued by Mary Helen Washington in last year's presidential address, "Disturbing the Peace: What Happens to American Studies If You Put African American Studies at the Center?" In particular, I want to take to heart the caveat Washington provided in her recommendation of John Sayles's film, Lone Star, as a prophetic allegory about how to change the field of American studies. In recommending Lone Star's particular depiction of what she called "cultural menudo," Mary Helen Washington observed that, in Sayles's film, "the resolution of disputes is not as important as the freer play of long-silenced voices." She continued: "In Lone Star, cultural traditions and styles more often collide rather than intersect and interweave; and what I love about Sayles's depiction of this process is that he doesn't allow differences of language, politics, historical vision, etc. to dissolve in a soothing movement toward consensus; he presents the multicultural moment as one of tension, struggle, discomfort and disagreement" (16). The question I aim to pose is what the association can do at this particular moment, on the brink of a new century, and at the edge of the so-called American continent, to ensure that its very name does not enforce the achievement of premature closure through an implicit, tacit search for the distinctively American common ground. With this aim in mind, I want to note here that, in response to Mary Helen Washington's caveat, I have deliberately sought to avoid using the pronoun "we" throughout this essay as a way of refusing the presumptive and coercive enclosure it usually enacts when used in institutional situations of this kind. I have resisted the comforting assumption that there is an unproblematic "we" as a way of recognizing that the many who associate their work with American studies often have distinctly different interests, agendas, and concerns.

Carl Bode's mention of the naming of the American Studies Association is very brief. He first notes that a small group of literary scholars, historians, and nonacademics met on March 22, 1951, in response to his efforts to organize a society that "would help to define American civilization" (347). He hoped that its stress on synthesis would counter the increasing emphasis on "specialism." In this account, Professor Bode further reports that "business went briskly," and then he observes, "We argued about naming the society-American Civilization Society vs. American Studies Association-but few other things caused any debate." His reference to an argument about the worth of highlighting "civilization" rather than "studies" is tantalizing here. One wonders what the arguments were. I have not been able to recover the details of the discussion, but it does seem plausible given what I know about the debates of the time that disagreement might have centered on the validity of highlighting the unity of American society, on the question of whether that society actually had developed anything so coherent as a civilization, on whether it might be better to feature the looser, more contingent idea of multiple "studies" in the organization's title rather than assuming from the outset that those studies would amount to the history of an organic whole.

It is interesting to juxtapose the final choice of "studies" with what apparently didn't cause any debate at this first organizational meeting, that is, the question of whether or not to use the word American. If, as his omission of any reference to this point suggests, Bode and his colleagues did not debate the use of the term American, their application of it to quite diverse studies of the history and culture of the United States might be seen as a function of the precise historical context within which they worked. As many have observed, the American Studies Association was a product of a Cold War context that produced a desire to delineate what was exceptional about U.S. culture at a time when public debate was structured by the perceived opposition between the aggressive empire of the Soviet Union and the supposedly disinterested, democratic republic of the United States. It was this interest in American exceptionalism, really, that led to the desire for an interdisciplinary method that would be equal to the notion of American culture conceived as a unified whole, a whole that manifested itself as a distinctive set of properties and themes in all things American, whether individuals, institutions, or cultural products.

From the beginning, then, there has been a highly productive tension in both the field and the association, a tension exemplified by conflicting impulses embedded in the name. On the one hand, there is a strong tradition in American studies of asserting the exceptionalism of American society and of delimiting the extent of that exceptionalism geographically. Gene Wise summarized what he called this first "substantive consensus on the nature of the American experience" in his important article, "'Paradigm Dramas'." It was dominated, he suggested, by the assumption that "There is an 'American Mind.' That mind is more or less homogenous. Though it may prove to be complex and constructed of many different layers, it is in fact a single entity." He continued, "What distinguishes the American Mind [in this view] is its location in the 'New' world." Wise suggested further that the consensus assumed that the American mind could theoretically be found in any American, but it presumed further that it "comes to most coherent expression in the country's leading thinkers-Williams, Edwards, Franklin, Cooper, Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, Twain, Dewey, Niebuhr, et al." The "al," of course, was still white, straight, middle-class, and male.

On the other hand, there has been an alternative tradition to this late 1940s and 1950s consensus, a tradition that Linda Kerber, Allen Davis, Martha Banta, Alice Kessler-Harris, Elaine Tyler May, and Patricia Nelson Limerick explored in their presidential addresses, a tradition that Michael Denning has recently shown was present in the earliest stirrings of what would become the American studies movement. In his important book, The Cultural Front, Denning has performed the immense service of telling another origin story about the development of the American studies field, a story that places the origins of the field not in the Cold War decades but much earlier, in the decades of the thirties and the forties. As George Lipsitz has pointed out, Denning recovers the diverse radical roots of the first practitioners of American studies and shows how those practitioners sought to understand the United States precisely so as to critique its racism, classism, sexism, and xenophobia. Denning demonstrates persuasively that cultural critique was not a new impulse in American studies when it began to dominate the field in the 1970s and 1980s. Rather, he suggests, some students of American history have always attempted to counter the notion of American exceptionalism both by pursuing the question of the place of the United States in an international context and by suggesting that the apparent democratic consensus in fact excluded many from participating in defining it or from enjoying its supposed benefits. This tradition has focused on what I like to call, after Stuart Hall, "the popular," that is, the everyday lives, political activities, and cultural productions of the subordinated populations of the United States. It has tended to focus on practices and structures of feeling that bind people to communities that are larger or smaller than the American nation, communities that have sometimes been international in scope, sometimes more locally based, and sometimes bound more to political goals than to space or territory. This work has been enabled and encouraged, I want to suggest, by the founders' judicious decision to highlight the possibility of multiple, different studies of things diversely American.

Despite the richness of this alternative American studies tradition, it was not until very recently that it managed to bring to awareness another piece of the disciplinary unconscious embedded in the choice of the word American to describe the association and the field it was meant to foster. Indeed, it has been less frequently remarked on in the accounts of the Cold War origins of American studies that, in addition to underwriting the notion of American exceptionalism, the early consensus in the field tended to elide the idea of the American with the culture of the United States. In so doing, it unconsciously erased the fact that other nations, groups, and territories had already staked their own quite distinctive claim to the concept and name American. Indeed there would be no mention in the American Quarterly for decades of the earlier, alternative account of the concept of American culture articulated by Jose Marti in his important essay, "Nuestra America," published almost simultaneously in January 1891 in Mexico City and in New York. The pronominal "nuestra," the "our" in Marti's title, referred not to the American culture of those born within the borders of the United States, but to a different America, the America of those who claimed South and Central America, the America of the Caribbean basin, as their home. As Marti makes clear, that America included both Haiti and Cuba, the sites of important revolutionary movements opposing European and United States imperialism.

In settling on the term American to delimit their area of study, then, the founders of this association, no doubt without intending to, compounded earlier imperial gestures. In naming the society in this way, they repeated a particular nation-state's claim to the powerful historical concept of America. Thus they repeated the usurpation by the United States of the right to employ a word that had originally been mobilized by Europeans to name geographically dispersed lands that they themselves had imperially expropriated for their own use from indigenous peoples who named the locales they occupied in their own, diverse and distinct languages. The apparent lack of self-consciousness about this gesture was almost certainly a function of the raw economic and political power wielded by the United States, which enabled it to obliterate by inattention other nations' or groups' claims to the term.

The elision of American culture with the United States and the consequent backgrounding of U.S. imperialism that it produced has now been placed on the agenda of the ASA by scholars and intellectuals building explicitly on the alternative traditions of American studies as well as on earlier critiques of imperialism produced by people like Marti, Jose Rizal, W. E. B. Du Bois, C.L.R. James, Franz Fanon, and others. They have taken to heart the fluidity embedded in that word studies that was highlighted in the field's title and then read that fluidity back into the once reified concept of an organic America assumed to be congruent with the borders of the United States. This new work made a particularly prominent intervention in the field of American studies with the appearance of the volume Cultures of United States Imperialism, edited by Amy Kaplan and Donald Pease. That volume provided the inspiration for the 1998 ASA conference in Seattle and suggested its theme, "American Studies and the Question of Empire."

I want to call attention to this rich body of work that has developed at the intersection between American studies' alternative traditions and certain strains in critical race theory, Black Atlantic studies, women's studies, postcolonial theory, subaltern studies, and transnational feminist and queer studies, to name only a few of the influences here. I would then like to explain why I think this turn to the question of American imperialism, both domestically and internationally realized, is not only important but potentially transformative of the field of American studies itself.


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What People are saying about this

Lawrence Buell
Fascinating and provocative, this collection is sure to attract wide attention as the latest collective statement of the major directions in which 'New Americanist' scholarship is heading.
— Lawrence Buell, author of Writing for an Endangered World: Literature, Culture, and Environment in the U.S. and Beyond
Laura Wexler
The Futures of American Studies shapes a far-sighted and richly provocative argument about the intellectual space, time, and politics of the cultures of American studies. It's a millennial work.
— Laura Wexler, author of Tender Violence: Domestic Visions in an Age of U.S. Imperialism

Meet the Author

Donald E. Pease is Avalon Professor of the Humanities and Professor of English at Dartmouth College. He is the author of Visionary Compacts: American Renaissance Writings in Cultural Context and editor of a number of books including National Identities and Post-Americanist Narratives and, with Amy Kaplan, Cultures of United States Imperialism, both published by Duke University Press.

Robyn Wiegman is Associate Professor of Women’s Studies and Margaret Taylor Smith Director of Women's Studies at Duke University. She is the author of American Anatomies: Theorizing Race and Gender and editor of Women’s Studies on Its Own: A Next Wave Reader in Institutional Change, both published by Duke University Press.

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