The following essay is the presentation I gave at the 2013 S-USIH conference at UC-Irvine. The panel was on the Culture Wars and the Problems of Doing History. My co-panelists were Niels Bjerre-Poulsen, David Hollinger, and fellow bloggers LD Burnett and Andrew Hartman. As the session played out, it appeared to me and others in the room that Prof. Hollinger and I had similar preoccupations–at least for the moment. We both spoke about the trials of American Studies in the context of the Culture Wars. While I did so from a scholarly distance (as you can read below), Prof. Hollinger provided personal experience of a scholar wrestling at the center of debates over American Studies in this age of fracture. I found his remarks to be revealing and grist for many mills, but I was especially struck by the way his critical take on his experience prompted others who I have known as primarily US intellectual historians to relate their own experiences as either graduates of American Studies programs or as faculty and directors of such programs. In other words, the session made clear to me that much more can be done on the recent history of American Studies and I wish for folks to read my essay as a very small step in that direction.
American Studies in the Age of Fracture
Attempting to historicize the Culture Wars entails, it seems to me, taking on one of the thorniest issues in scholarship—the social construction of America and the epistemological paradox of assuming that a thing called America can be studied. Indeed, to chase this mythical beast might even sound heroic, yet those deconstructing the hunt know all to well that tragedy unfolds the minute we believe the beast exists in the first place. To carry this metaphor out just a bit further, the pursuit of the mythical beast has nearly driven an entire field mad! I refer not to intellectual history but to American Studies—THE field that studies the fracture of America as its main pastime. The relationship between American Studies and the Culture Wars is wonderfully and, I want to argue, productively paradoxical. I think intellectual history can learn something from the way that American Studies has attempted to make sense of the Culture Wars while also enacting them. The crux of this situation lies in the struggle to acknowledge that such a thing as “America” exists while offering a way to investigate it without betraying scholarly integrity.
I am glad that my colleague Niels is on this panel since his work and that of many other centers of American Studies around the world seem to have avoided falling into the epistemological quagmire that has mired scholars in this country for some time. I think it is also important to note that Matthew Frye Jacobson has also demonstrated a way to avoid messiness of the studying the Culture Wars by simply disregarding the fractious debates that lead to the fracturing of American Studies. In his 2013 address as president of the American Studies Association, Jacobson offers American imperialism and neoliberalism as organizing principles that would remake American Studies by reinforcing anti-exceptionalism as an intellectual umbrella and theories of empire and economics as epistemology.
And yet while Jacobson’s argument is valid on its own terms it seems to me that he has disavowed at least a generation a really interesting and instructive handwringing about the field of American Studies by many of his colleagues. The imperative of American Studies to study the Culture Wars has consistently occupied leaders in the field, making anxiety about the epistemology of their discipline a touchstone of its identity. Over the relatively brief history of American Studies, it is extraordinary how many essays have been devoted to debates about the origins of the field, the methods of the discipline, and perhaps most crucially, the name itself. Such soul-searching grew more intense during the Culture Wars, a development that wouldn’t surprise intellectual historians who have written about this age of fracture, when the world turned inside out, and a war raged for the soul of America.
So with the stakes so high, American Studies as a field has something substantial to say about this era. And if we believe the Culture Wars revealed or perhaps reveled in battles over the meaning of America, then what might be revealed through a brief intellectual history of American Studies during the Culture Wars?
Long-time editor of the American Quarterly Lucy Maddox, edited a collection of classic essays in the history of American Studies illustrating that the lumping and splitting distinctive to the field is crucial to its capacity to historicize the Culture Wars. The volume has a familiar arc of traveling from unity and consensus to debate and deconstruction, from Henry Nash Smith writing about “American Studies” and its mishmash methods to essays of more recent vintage on, respectfully, Chicano history, the emergence of the Gay, and Chinese views of America. Yet, reflected in the title of the book, Locating American Studies, the essay that serves as the pivot is Alice Kessler-Harris’s ASA presidential address from 1991, entitled, “Cultural Locations: Positioning American Studies in the Great Debate.” At the height of popular interest in the Culture Wars, Kessler-Harris assessed what was at stake for a discipline that, she suggested, had in many ways created the Culture Wars. In the wake of real wars—cold and hot—a battle sparked by multiculturalism had left Kessler-Harris nearly bemused that the country had returned to a question taken up by the first generation of American Study scholars, what is America? “The issue is joined,” she contended, “how do we preserve cultural unity and still do justice to the multiplicity of American cultures?”
To Kessler-Harris, the Culture Wars confirmed the relevance and nearly the epistemological core of American Studies. “The political debate,” she declared, “calls on myths about a past that we, in the field of American Studies have helped to create and interpret, and then popularize among an unsuspecting public. The political battle that rages around us is partly our making. We, as historians, cultural critics, as intellectuals who shape image and self-image have…built the bombs being used in the battle we now seek to avoid.” In this sense, American Studies created the intellectual circumstances that threatened to undermine the epistemology of the field itself. A question that seemed to hang in the air was whether the fight to break apart a consensus that fostered injustice in American society also entailed breaking apart the subject of a field designed to study it.
Kessler-Harris acknowledged the inevitability of this question, observing that the “shift to a new pluralism was accompanied by a simultaneous disavowal of notions of common identity, a fragmentation of any unified meaning of the word ‘American.’” Of course, the struggle did not end with perpetual fracturing because the study of a contested term—and nothing seems more contestable than “American”—created new opportunities. Rather than ask why certain people, groups, and ideas were not “American,” the conversation moved, Kessler-Harris suggested, toward the “search for a democratic culture,” in which an older notion of “we” became reconstituted from being based on ethnic identities to public spaces. The American “we,” she concluded, was no longer merely list of characteristics but intellectual space in which “a tug of war over who gets to create the public culture” played out.
I think many of us who study some aspect of the Culture Wars have followed her lead, imagining that the Culture Wars is one of those “spaces” in which identities—even national identities—get worked out. Yet it seems to me that American Studies has continued to struggle with ways to historicize the Culture Wars in part because of its name. In her 1998 ASA presidential address, Janice Radway went so far as to offer three alternative titles for the society over which she presided. The cumulative effect of such deliberating was to demonstrate that American Studies came to depend upon a particular story it told about its past in order to bring epistemological shape to movements attempting to undo that past. But didn’t such action replicate the form (if obviously not the content) of the first generation of American Studies practitioners who many assumed had created a mythical America in order to study it?
Yet it remains crucial for American Studies to continue to grapple with its identity, because that struggle keeps alive the idea that America is more than a contested linguistic creation, it is an empirical thing in desperate need of interrogation. In other words, the core historical question raised by the Culture Wars resides in our ability to find an intellectual place from which to study the myths that gave rise to groups competing over constructions of America. Indeed, through the work of American Studies scholarship and the fracturing of American Studies into other studies programs, the power of myth did double duty—once for the dismemberment of national myths and another time for the myth that united once marginalized people into coherent groups.
I think a productive course for studying the Culture Wars is to reimagine the field of American Studies in a way that acknowledges the very real competition over defining and deconstructing America, while also studying the empirical (and yes, imperial) reality that other people were actually killing and dying for an entity called America. To accomplish this, though, would also mean considering the intersection between myth and history, “a special meeting ground,” Warren Susman observed in his 1964 essay, “History and American Intellectuals, that “frequently provides a key to the central tensions with in a culture.” It is here, he observed, “between the efforts of converting history to mythic ends and using history in its more traditionally ideological way, where much of the story will have to be told.” Michael Frisch pointed out in regard to the Culture Wars, “Susman’s terms help us see these conflicts as something other than Manichean struggles between various enshrinements of historical integrity and what are imagined to be its antihistorical opposites.” In short, let’s get over the paralyzing notion that America is socially constructed and get on with Susman’s charge to use history in all its ideological glory to overcome the “the mythic tragedy of our inability to solve our problems in any meaningful sense.”
 Alice Kessler-Harris, “Cultural Locations: Positioning American Studies in the Great Debate,” in Maddox, 339.
 Ibid., 346.
 Warren I. Susman, “History and the American Intellectual: Uses of a Usable Past,” in Maddox, 21.
 Michael Frisch, “Commentary,” in Maddox, op.cit., 41
 Susman, “History and the American Intellectual, 37.