Monday, January 28, 2008

Whither American Studies?

Or should it be "Whence American Studies"? A special group post about seven essays navelgazing the field, spread over several decades. Listed here chronologically, for reasons which shall become clear.

Susman, Warren. “History and the American Intellectual: Uses of a Usable Past.” American Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 2, Part 2: Supplement. (Summer, 1964), pp. 243-263.

Warren Susman died in 1985 when he was only 56, of a heart attack, while commenting on a paper at a conference. Yike! At the time of his death, he was teaching at Rutgers. His essays were collected that year in Culture as History, which I will be reading but haven't yet. Other books include one called Herbert Hoover and the Crisis of American Capitalism and one called Culture and Commitment, 1929-1945, both paperbacked in 1973.

This essay puts forth a chronology of the ways in which historians have used mythic and ideological characterizations of the past, creating stories or narratives in order to justify future actions. (See Bercovitch on this, too.) Susman points particularly to Turner's frontier thesis as an example of ideological history which announced new directions for the society. 1890-1940 was a period in which historical awareness, wielded by individuals "removed from the seats of power", was seen as a tool for creating better futures (it seems like he approves of this period?) However, since 1940, historians have been too interested in creating myths or narratives, which do not assume that human problems could be solved by an analysis of the past. It seems that Susman wants a new public history committed to problem-solving.

Wise, Gene. "’Paradigm Dramas’ in American Studies: A Cultural and Institutional History of the Movement.” American Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 3. (1979), pp. 293-337.

Although Gene Wise has his name on a prize given by the ASA for the best student paper, along with Warren Susman's, so I know he was important, he is not very evident on Google. There should be a permanently cached area on the ASA's site with biographies of these luminaries. I couldn't even find books of his on Amazon.

Regardless, this essay describes several "eras" in the history of American Studies, as distinguished by episodes he calls "paradigms." First is the era of Vernon Parrington, who wrote Main Currents in American Thought in 1927 with very little institutional support and, Wise says, kicked off the tradition of American Studies thinkers who, "driven by concentrated fury," try to create order with the "materials of American experience." We then move on to Perry Miller, author of Errand into the Wilderness (1956), who, while he had plenty of institutional support, also tried to "think through America" - in his case, from the standpoint of Puritanism.

While Miller was in graduate school, various other schools began to offer interdisciplinary programs, including Harvard and GWU. Harvard was the first to award a PhD in Am Civ - to Henry Nash Smith. The 1950s began to look like a "golden age", because of the flush of cash influxed into the field from sources like the Carnegie Corporation, But, Wise says, we can't forget that this cash was dirty money, and in order to get it we had to reinforce some kind of status quo. Here the myth-and-symbol school flourished.

During the 1960s, of course, criticisms arose, culminating with Bruce Kuklick's essay (below) which pretty much dismantled myth-and-symbol as a viable category of analysis. Wise uses Robert Merideth, who taught a course called "Culture Therapy 202" at Miami U in the late 60s, as the representative actor from this time period - Merideth saw the role of teacher as an adversarial one, and viewed AMS as a discipline that must "save" people from the culture.

Then we experience...Fragmentation. Wise views the discipline as a growing one, but believes that other, "legitimate" departments have begun to take over AMS' territory (American lit, social history) and wonders what the future will be like.

Kuklick, Bruce. “Myth and Symbol in American Studies.” American Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 4. (Oct., 1972), pp. 435-450.

Kuklick is on the faculty at UPenn, in the history department. He's interested in political, cultural, intellectual, and diplomatic history of the US (well, what else is there? he doesn't do environmental history, I guess). He's written nine books, including Blind Oracles: Intellectuals and War, from Kennan to Kissinger (2007) and To Everything a Season: Shibe Park and Urban Philadelphia, 1909-1976 (1991 - that one's about baseball!)

This essay pretty much sounded the death knell of the myth and symbol school. Kuklick points out that conceiving of such a thing as a "myth" borders on accepting the idea of a Platonic "truth" - invests the "myth" with a life of its own, outside the minds of each person who believes in it. Moreover, myth and symbol indulges in the "what you mean, we?" fallacy - can a scholar really describe the function of a myth as it works for each and every person in the United States? and if not, which people are we talking about? Finally, who determines which works hold this mystical "myth" inside of them? Why pick Moby-Dick over any other novel? Just because you like it and think it's good? That's no way to operate, says Kuklick, referring specifically to Leo Marx and his Machine in the Garden, but also pretty much indicting the whole complex of ideas surrounding myth-and-symbol. Kuklick admits that he doesn't have another idea as to what American Studies should do to get around the problem.

Lears, TJ Jackson. “The Concept of Cultural Hegemony: Problems and Possibilities.” The American Historical Review, Vol. 90, No. 3. (Jun., 1985), pp. 567-593.

Lears, on the faculty at Rutgers, wrote No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920 (1981), on my list for later, as well as Fables of Abundance: a Cultural History of Advertising in America (1994) and Something for Nothing: Luck in America (2003).

This particular essay looks at the ideas of Antonio Gramsci and asks whether they are applicable to American Studies' attempt to describe the functioning of culture. Lears likes Gramsci's reimagining of Marxian ideas of culture because it offers more wiggle room for the human element - rather than conceiving of culture as simply the false consciousness that the ruling class uses to convince everyone else to fall in line (the base/superstructure argument), Gramsci believes that each person renegotiates his/her relationship to the culture through an ongoing process. Occasionally, a person may act in a culturally "acceptable" way, even while thinking something different, or vice-versa. Lears argues that this works well in American culture, and believes that we should focus on studying language in order to understand these individual processes better. (Picture is of Gramsci, Lears' "wily Sardinian", not of Lears.)

Denning, Michael. "’The Special American Conditions’: Marxism and American Studies.” American Quarterly, Vol. 38, No. 3. (1986), pp. 356-380.

Denning, in the Yale American Studies department, writes on labor and culture in the US. His books include Culture in the Age of Three Worlds (2004), The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (on my list; 1997), Mechanic Accents: Dime Novels and Working Class Culture in America (1987), and Cover Stories: Narrative and Ideology in the British Spy Thriller (1987).

Following Lears, this is another essay about Marx's relevance in the study of America. Why, Denning asks, has marxist (he lowercases it) studies not made a mark (ha) on American Studies? First, theorists tend to focus on Europe, even American theorists. Second, since American Studies came of age during the Cold War, its "totalizing" explanations of American culture could be seen as an alternative to marxist understandings. (Here Denning cites Daniel Boorstin, who testified in front of HUAC, as an example of this school of American Studies.) However, Denning claims, certain American studies writers have been working in marxist ways without explicitly acknowledging their debts to that tradition. A complete revision of the understanding of America would have to set aside "exceptionalism" - only once this is done can marxism be seen to be relevant.

Kerber, Linda. “Diversity and the Transformation of American Studies.” American Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 3 (Sep., 1989), pp. 415-431.

Kerber is in the history department at the University of Iowa. She specializes in gender, citizenship, and legal history. Her books include No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies: Women and the Obligations of Citizenship (1998); Toward an Intellectual History of Women (1997); Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America (1980); and Federalists in Dissent: Imagery and Ideology in Jeffersonian America (1970).

This piece is actually an address to the ASA, given when Kerber was president. It's a look back at the places where American Studies has had "gaps", including histories of race, class and gender, but also takes care to point out that scholars *have* been working in those areas all along. Kerber calls for more work in the areas of science and technology (yay). In general, she calls on the ASA to move beyond the "constraints of cold war ideology" to study the workings of power in American society.

Lipsitz, George. “Listening to Learn and Learning to Listen: Popular Culture, Cultural Theory, and American Studies.” American Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 4. (Dec., 1990), pp. 615-636.

Lipsitz is the chair of the AMS department at UC/Santa Cruz, and got his PhD from the University of Wisconsin's history department. He's into race, culture, and social identity, as well as urban history and social movements. Books include American Studies in a Moment of Danger (2001; focuses on the effect of globalization on the idea of "the nation" and thus on American Studies as a whole), as well as The Possessive Investment in Whiteness (on my list; 1998) and Rainbow at Midnight: Labor and Culture in the 1940s (1994).

In this piece, Lipsitz calls for a type of American studies that could be flexible enough to look at culture in all of its permutations; resists "hypostatization into a method"; recognizes the way that nationhood plays a role in culture; and, interestingly, "understands that struggles over meaning are inevitably struggles over resources" (621). As of now, Lipsitz says, the most sophisticated cultural commentators in America are not academics but artists, writers, and musicians (David Byrne! Tracy Chapman?) This is partially because American studies has not really got on board with European cultural studies, clinging to questions of "what is American?", to the detriment of more interesting open questions.

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