U.S. Intellectual History Blog

How American Studies Matter

fractureThe 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?”[1]

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.[2]

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.[3]

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.”[4]  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.”[5]  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.”[6]



[1] Alice Kessler-Harris, “Cultural Locations: Positioning American Studies in the Great Debate,” in Maddox, 339.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 346.

[4] Warren I. Susman, “History and the American Intellectual: Uses of a Usable Past,” in Maddox, 21.

[5] Michael Frisch, “Commentary,” in Maddox, op.cit., 41

[6] Susman, “History and the American Intellectual, 37.

12 Thoughts on this Post

  1. An excellent presentation made excellent essay, Ray! Thanks so much for it. I’m wondering if you could name any specific works that you think are “getting on with Susman’s charge,” or is paralysis the new normal?

  2. Let me add, Mark, that Susman’s comment came in regard to those such as Niebuhr, Schlesinger, and some among the New York Intellectuals who by the 1960s had lost faith in social change and had adopted a “tragic” view of history. This view, Susman noted, saw human nature as so fatally flawed that there was no hope of redeeming the nation in their time. While I don’t find a similar view being assigned to human nature today, I don’t think we are too far away from that view being assigned to the nation itself, that it is lost in a morass of imperial, neoliberal, neoconservative pathologies and essentially beyond redemption. As you know, I very much appreciate the critical edge that American Studies brings to analyses of nationhood and corporate hubris. But I think there is a way to make that critical edge function more effectively and less as yet another stage of the culture wars.

  3. Very nice, Ray.

    How American Studies Matter

    To whom?

    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.

    Ah, the double whammy: we are studying the studiers. These “American studies” are made by whom? Americans? Martians?

    This is not to be supercilious, but it is to echo the apocryphal Chou en-Lai on the French Revolution, that it’s too soon to tell. Those who purport to be studying our contemporary Culture Wars are usually litigants themselves, thereby disqualified from serving as judges.

    Historians. Or even journalists.

    • This view, Susman noted, saw human nature as so fatally flawed that there was no hope of redeeming the nation in their time. While I don’t find a similar view being assigned to human nature today, I don’t think we are too far away from that view being assigned to the nation itself, that it is lost in a morass of imperial, neoliberal, neoconservative pathologies and essentially beyond redemption.

      Yes. What the [Calvinist-influenced?] Founders knew was that no law, scheme or system can thwart human nature. [I would use the blander word “ideology” rather than the conclusive “pathology” above. Still, I’m confident that Messrs. Haberski and Madison agree that it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature, or even try.]

  4. I am going to ask, from the perspective of a Latin Americanist who has always been a bit confused by the field of so-called American Studies, what I know is a very simple but daunting question: how are the boundaries of the discipline established? Is so-called American Studies merely cultural and intellectual history, with interdisciplinary sprinklings? What US history (or literary studies, anthropology, art history, sociology, for that matter) is left out of this slippery discipline? Was there actually a unified “epistemology” to begin with, in the years before the Culture Wars? What are the connections of American Studies with the rise of regional studies in the post-WWII era, which had deep connections with Cold War politics and US government policy?

    I have to say also I found amusing how “America” has become the standard signifier for the U.S.A., even in this post. Beyond the obvious point that there is another America to the south and north of the United States, I have always thought this speaks to the very imperialist exceptionalism that Jacobson seeks to dispel. Yes, starting with works such as Cultures of US Imperialism, scholars of American Studies have been looking increasingly at the “south” as well as the “east” to explore the cultural, political, and military interventions of the USA across the globe, but sometimes I wonder if this well-intentioned work produces its own blind sights, if not imperialism, as it expands to cover the hemisphere, often without much engagement with the work being done among Latin Americanists, etc.

    • Kahlil, you ask the perennial question of American Studies–what are its disciplinary boundaries? Getting at that question is relatively easy for most other fields and by understanding it we know what those other fields are not. In American Studies, asking what it is not, is a big part of the problem. So if American Studies looks at the US then does it also not look at the influence of the US around the world? There are other fields that claim that identity and probably have more rigorous claim to it that American Studies, but of course we would be devaluing at least three generation of American Studies scholars to define the field as NOT international.

      What I find interesting is that for American Studies centers abroad, there is an assumption that their purpose is to study that thing many people over time have called America. It is problematic construction, no doubt, but one that produces an epistemological argument when studying it.

      And of course you are right America describes geographic regions beyond the US, something that people in the field of American Studies take pains to acknowledge. But if we look at the cultural usage of the term, does America get deployed in the same way outside of the US? For example, is there a historical legacy of people fighting for “America” who are not speaking about the US or the construction of that mythic America in the cultural lexicon?

      As for exceptionalism, I think a study of that term assigned to America and many other places around the world that have their own manifestation of it, is a productive line of inquiry. Without taking on such myths–the myths that people live as well as govern by–it seems to me we overlook a interesting area to study.

      • Thanks for your generous reply, Ray. Regarding the lexicon of America, there’s quite a fascinating long history, beginning in the late nineteenth century, of how Latin American peoples have sought to imagine an “other” America, or as José Martí put it in his famous phrase, “Our America,” in explicit opposition to Manifest Destiny and so forth. A common, quotidian quip Latin Americans direct at the US is that, hey, we are also “Americans.” A question I often point out in jest is that, well, how else would the people from the US call themselves, United Stateseans? It would be interesting to see, like you say, how the lexicon is deployed in other regions, a global history of the concept if you will.

        Regarding the disciplinary boundaries, this reminds me, like I suggested in my comment, of disciplines and programs designed around regions, such as Middle Eastern Studies. As somebody who works for the most part on the Caribbean, I am deeply invested in what one could term “critical regional studies,” for lack of a better term. What is most essential when we delve into the connections (and conflicts) between nations and regions, is to also build bridges with the other cultures one is engaging, especially intellectually, the conceptual frameworks they bring to they table and how they might rearticulate our own approaches to how, for instance, “America” travels to Latin America.

  5. Great post, Ray. I’m wish I could have been there to discuss this with you further. I’m left with two questions:

    First, why is social construction so paralyzing? It seems to me the recognition that “America” is an imagined community sustained through empirical/imperial institutions like “Census, Map, and Museum” (H/T Anderson) and the interrogation into the construction and maintenance of particular articulations of “America” over others is a continual wellspring for the field. The more paralyzing notion, for me, would be the scholarly community’s support for a unified and potentially ahistoric notion of “America.” I’m not convinced that resources and bodies devoted to (or dying for) this thing called “America” is evidence that it is an empirical reality (by which I understand you to mean “not socially constructed”).

    Second, I’mstruck by the quotation “how do we preserve cultural unity and still do justice to the multiplicity of American cultures?” It reminds me of previous debates had in Religious Studies and Russell McCutcheon’s _Critics Not Caretakers_, which brings me to the question: Why are “we” responsible for cultural unity? I take your point that scholarly work shapes discourse and the way Americans understand themselves, but if we are bringing a critical edge to these subjects for other scholars, our students, and the general population, then we cannot also make ourselves responsible for maintaining its cohesion (my assumption here points back to my first question–to do so would implicate us directly and explicitly in the production and maintenance in perceptions of a “America” as natural rather than socially constructed)

    • Hi Cara: I don’t think that paralysis sets in with debate over the idea of America. I am referring more to the professional debate within American Studies over the name of the field itself. My hope is that the contested nature of America never dies–as you say, that tension gives life to the field. But I get a sense that there has continuously been an irony at the heart of trying to get beyond the crisis of the name itself–as if, as Ben wrote in his post earlier this week, that the terms we study define our analytic vocabulary. When I say that there is an empirical thing called American that people kill and die for, that is not my analysis of wars in the name of the country, that is how the actors in the historical episodes I study describe the thing they represent. So, I use their terms but I don’t leave my analysis at the level of chronicle but question what they have invested in this mythical America and how such investments change over time, influence culture…you know the drill.

      I think that question you raised about cultural unity is a good one and I didn’t justice to the whole talk. For me the talk was so interesting for its self-conscious way it saw AMST at the center of the Culture War struggle over identity.

      Can’t wait until the next S-USIH conference!

      • I can’t wait either!

        This is an important phenomenon to consider. As you know, Amanda Porterfield discusses a similar sort of occurrence with “spiritual but not religious.” And, I think, but don’t want to speak for him, Mike Altman does the same with “World Religions.”: scholarly terminology influences popular perception to see a socially constructed category as a natural. In this regard, I think the introduction to Hugh Urban’s _The Church of Scientology_ (drawing on David Chidester) provides a helpful reminder that often our academic categories (in this case, “religion” but I think “America” certainly qualifies as well) take on a life of their own outside of the academy, where “we” are no longer in control of how it is constructed (as, say, toward a unity) but participants in multiple contestations of it. Since I’m entering into the conversation late, perhaps we can talk about it more at AHA/ASCH.

  6. I really like how you phrase this idea: “I am deeply invested in what one could term “critical regional studies,” for lack of a better term. What is most essential when we delve into the connections (and conflicts) between nations and regions, is to also build bridges with the other cultures one is engaging, especially intellectually, the conceptual frameworks they bring to they table and how they might rearticulate our own approaches to how, for instance, “America” travels to Latin America.”

    If we apply that approach to the study of what generations have called America and invested it with everything from blood to prayers, I think we get at a point Robert Greene made in his post today. This is not to say that scholars in American Studies have not been doing this or do not propose to do this, but judging from the hand ringing that has occupied *some* of the debates in the field, there seems to be more difficulty in feeling settled on an approach that fits easily. That unease is something I think is worth studying, though, as you suggest Kahlil, it can also focus to much on the trees while the forest needs to be understood.

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