The following guest post is by Andrew Seal, a doctoral candidate in American Studies at Yale University.
I read Ray Haberski’s post, “How American Studies Matter,” with a great sense of appreciation, and with a more mixed sense of recognition and puzzlement. Since my graduate student home is American Studies, and since, with the annual American Studies Association a few weeks away, my mind has been taken up with definitions and redefinitions of the field, I am, on the one hand, extremely happy that Haberski praises American Studies for the contributions it can make to intellectual history as a case study in understanding the dynamics and tenor of the Culture Wars.
On the other hand, I am dismayed by Haberski’s argument that the “handwringing” which is now valuable as a record of culture war confusion is also, in his opinion, an obstacle to the field’s forward progress, giving primacy to internal debates about the politics of calling the field “American Studies” while losing sight of the empirical entity outside the conference room doors that “other people were actually killing and dying for.” American Studies is perhaps guilty of violating Melville’s admonition, staring at competing social constructions too fixedly:
Look not too long in the face of the fire, O man! Never dream with thy hand on the helm! Turn not thy back to the compass; accept the first hint of the hitching tiller; believe not the artificial fire, when its redness makes all things look ghastly. (1)
Haberski brilliantly and concisely reconstructs the outlines of the debate about the name of American Studies, putting his finger at precisely the right spot to check our vital signs, but I wonder if he is not pushing a bit too hard to detect the vigor of the pulse beneath.
Haberski argues that, within the field of American Studies, the culture wars produced an extraordinarily acute response: they “confirmed the relevance and nearly the epistemological core of American Studies,” but they also caused the discipline’s leading voices to turn even more than customarily inward, re-examining the field’s origins in the mid-century consensus-driven search for The American Mind, the adjudication of what was and what was not American. Eschewing this prior mission, American Studies scholars instead sought to replace it with a robust pluralism that hybridized and pluralized what had been the “America” in American Studies. Their deliberate acts of boundary-crossing, however, made the field’s title itself impossibly awkward and, according to Haberski, rather than confront this fact by returning to the original problem of (re-)defining “America” in light of its contested but very real existence, those in American Studies turned to “the paralyzing notion that America is [merely] socially constructed,” piously assuming that it could be challenged and replaced by deconstructive fiat.
Most graduate students in American Studies programs are encouraged to read relatively deeply in the essays which Haberski cites that have, over time, built up a rich legacy of field-definition and self-examination. I absolutely agree that these essays (2) are essential to understanding the evolution of American Studies over time, and through them we get a vibrant picture of the pressures and eruptions that constituted at least one side of the culture wars. Yet I read them not so much as essays on ontology—what is America? Is there a thing called America? Is it bad to believe that there is?—but rather essays on methodology—do we in American Studies have a method? Is it adequately distinct from other fields? Does it fit the empirical and discursive phenomena we hope to study? A name change was contemplated for American Studies not because we hoped that doing so would shrink “America” into a mere linguistic fantasy, but because we hoped to remain methodologically commensurate with the reality of an always already transnational entity: to say we studied “America” undercounted the breadth of our field.
Taking this view may be an instance of der Primat der Innenpolitik, or insider baseball. Certainly, as Haberski points out, serious political considerations weighed on the field: by remaining “American Studies,” did we seem to be indifferent to the historical exclusions that moniker had been used to cover? Did it support, against our will, an exceptionalist rhetoric that imagined that the USA was self-evidently unique as well as superior to other nations in the hemisphere?
Yet if we go back and read these essays, what is at stake is not really identity but method. Those categories are radically entangled in all fields, to be sure, but Haberski’s charge that American Studies’s preoccupation with its own name was “paralyzing” has much less bite if we see the internal debates as more orderly struggles over competing methods, or as the struggle to find a method in the first place. An emphasis on method also draws a bright line continuously back to the founding of the field: the first essay in the Lucy Maddox collection that Haberski cites is Henry Nash Smith’s “Can American Studies Develop a Method?” (1957).
Even Matthew Frye Jacobson’s presidential address from last year is, I think, better read as a reflection on method rather than a worrying of the issue of disciplinary identity. While Haberski sees Jacobson’s address as attempting to “avoid the messiness of studying the Culture Wars by simply disregarding the fractious debates that lead to the fracturing of American Studies,” I read Jacobson’s conjoining of American imperialism and neoliberalism less as a way of defining what the field is—stipulating that it is about those two things—than about what it does, and I think it’s best just to turn over the mike to Jacobson here:
Part of what I want to urge tonight is a bringing together of these two lines of inquiry (US empire and neoliberalism), these two distinct interpretive paths. I said earlier that history is not merely sequential but sedimented or layered. These are two of the most important layers, or strata, in the historical ground we now occupy—the frankly imperialist history of militarism, projections of state power, and violations of sovereignty in the ages of mercantilism, industrialization, and fossil fuel, and the overlapping history of geo-economics, aggregations of capital, and the power structures of global finance in the age of the corporation, and particularly this latest, neoliberal chapter…
And so, emphatically, my call tonight is not a call to turn away from the cultural analyses of empire that have been the hallmark and the signal contribution of American studies scholarship in recent decades. But this complicated moment in the evolving shape of US power globally does challenge us to develop an invigorated scholarship equally devoted to political economy, to the structural landscape of corporations and financial institutions, to policy and the institutions of governance, to legal frameworks, to tax codes, to trade agreements and the import-export infrastructure, and to naked economics, alongside the iconographies, narratives, tropes, poetics, images, rituals, media spectacles, and cleansing acts of erasure and forgetting that have long been the subjects of American studies scholars’ focus and interpretive creativity. (3)
Jacobson’s call is not for a redefinition of the field, but for a renewed commitment to what has often been the method that American Studies scholars have, faute de mieux perhaps, claimed as their own: the interpretation of the ways that different “strata” of history are articulated one to another, the illumination of the shadowy no-man’s land where different modes of life—economic, cultural, political, religious, intellectual—intersect and overlap.
This is, definitively, not a new development in American Studies: Jacobson’s use of the idea of sedimentation recalls, in fact, the first and second prefaces to Henry Nash Smith’s germinal classic Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth. In the first, Smith attempts to define his usage of the terms “symbol” and “myth” as imaginative constructions which, while often “exert[ing] a decided influence on practical affairs,” nevertheless exist “on a different plane.” (4) In the Twentieth Anniversary edition of Virgin Land, Smith elaborates this enigmatic metaphor:
[The metaphor of different planes] encourages an unduly rigid distinction between symbols and myths on the one hand, and on the other a supposed extramental historical reality discoverable by means of conventional scholarly procedures. The vestiges of dualism in my assumptions made it difficult for me to recognize that there is a continuous dialectic interplay between the mind and its environment, and that our perceptions of objects and events are no less a part of consciousness than are our fantasies. (5)
For me, this manifesto is congruent with Jacobson’s assumptions: American Studies doesn’t have a methodological home in the mind or its environment, but in the interplay of the two; American Studies is neither all culture nor all political economy, neither (surprisingly) only American imperialism nor only neoliberalism, but the space shared, contested, or disavowed by both, where they meet and often refuse to look eye-to-eye.
So I would say yes, American Studies is an ideal location for the study of the culture wars, but don’t come only for the handwringing. Stay for the interplay!
1. The passage continues: “To-morrow, in the natural sun, the skies will be bright; those who glared like devils in the forking flames, the morn will show in far other, at least gentler, relief; the glorious, golden, glad sun, the only true lamp—all others but liars!”
2. In addition to those cited by Haberski, I would add Michael Denning’s 1986 “‘The Special American Conditions’: Marxism and American Studies”, Gene Wise’s 1979 “‘Paradigm Dramas’ in American Studies: A Cultural and Institutional History of the Movement”, Leo Marx’s 2005 “On Recovering the ‘Ur’ Theory of American Studies,” Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s 2005 “Crossroads of Cultures: The Transnational Turn in American Studies,” and Michael Bérubé’s 2003 “American Studies without Exceptions.”
3. Matthew Frye Jacobson, “Where We Stand: US Empire at Street Level and in the Archive,” American Quarterly 65.2 (June 2013): 282-283.
4. Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth Twentieth Anniversary Edition (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970; 1950), xi.
5. Smith, Virgin Land (1970; 1950), viii.