U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A Specter is Haunting American Studies

marx-americaIn a provocative 1986 American Quarterly article, Michael Denning argues against the very question that informs American Studies: “What is American?” For Denning, using that question as a methodological starting point is problematic because it assumes that “America” (shorthand for the United States, or for the culture of the United States, or for the idea that animates the culture of the United States) is exceptional. American Studies, understood as such, is the product of American exceptionalism, and, since American exceptionalism is something that all correct-thinking individuals must reject, perhaps American Studies is something we should reject, too.

Of course, the idea of American exceptionalism has (at least) two meanings, and different political valences stem from these different meanings. To some, the concept of American exceptionalism means that America is better than other countries—a beacon of freedom or a “city on a hill.” America, right or wrong, but usually right. To others, it means, simply, that America is different, particularly in comparison to Europe. In this second meaning, “exceptional” is stripped of its normative claims. The fact that America is unique is not an indication that it is better; rather, it often indicates the opposite.

Denning divides the disciplinary genealogy of American Studies along these two meanings of American exceptionalism. On the one hand, Cold War consensus scholars like Daniel Boorstin articulated America as a stand in for the apex of civilization. In this, Boorstin’s multi-volume The Americans might be seen as a scholarly tribute to Henry Luce’s “American Century.” On the other hand, Denning locates another strand of American Studies that emerged from the less celebratory conception of American exceptionalism, best represented in its disciplinary origins by F.O. Matthiessen and Kenneth Burke. This side of American Studies—which evinced a Weltanschauung Irving Howe called “Emersonianism”—articulated a methodology premised on cultural criticism, and often demonstrated leftist political commitments at odds with the nationalistic triumphalism of Boorstin and his ilk. Perhaps appropriately, conservative Kenneth Lynn called this Anti-American Studies.

Although Denning is much more sympathetic to the more radical type of American Studies, he argued that, even in that form, American Studies is too provincial. This is primarily because American Studies in all of its forms emerged as an alternative to Marxism. Denning believes that the Marxists who formed the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies, particularly Stuart Hall, were far less parochial because, rather than ask, “What is British culture?” they asked, “What is culture?” Perhaps ironically to those conditioned to thinking about Marxism as a closed off ideological project, theirs was a more supple methodology. The international discourse of Marxism would open up the terrain of scholarly analysis beyond the narrow boundaries of America, both literally and figuratively.

Denning’s argument, as such, poses a set of paradoxes. In the first place, does following his suggestion lead us further into the “epistemological quagmire” that Ray Haberski recently isolated? Does it leave us incapable of analyzing and categorizing the very cultural conflicts we helped set into motion? Or does it better allow us to heed the methodological advice of Matthew Frye Jacobson, as relayed by Andy Seal, that we focus our scholarly lenses on empire and neoliberalism? Is it truly necessary to ditch the categories of “America” in order that we also extirpate American exceptionalist sensibilities? Is it imperative that we remove all vestiges of American exceptionalism from our scholarship—even the radical type exemplified by Kenneth Burke?

This last question points to a glaring irony. A conception of American exceptionalism has underwritten a preponderance of American left historiography and, more specifically, Marxist thought.

To begin with, the title of Denning’s American Quarterly article—“‘The Special American Conditions’: Marxism and American Studies”—uses an 1851 Engels quote about “special American conditions” that set the United States apart from Europe’s revolutionary past, present, and future. Moreover, most historians of the American left have felt compelled to grapple with Werner Sombart’s 1906 question: “Why no socialism in America?” No matter the answer to that question—religion, race, the frontier, consumer goods, etc.—the assumption was always that America was exceptional. Not better, just different.

Two recent historiographical examples bear mention: in his 1987 book (now in its third edition, with a new preface), Marxism in the United States: A History of the American Left, Paul Buhle writes (in prose that is characteristically poetic and cryptic): “Guilty Calvinism and innocent utopianism mixed strangely together in virtually every American radical reform movement from the seventeenth century. Perhaps they still do.” Buhle’s point is that European socialists had an extremely difficult time organizing alongside American radicals because of the vast cultural gulf that separated them. Radicalism, including Marxism, only had a chance on American soil when it sought to reconcile itself to American particulars, such as Calvinism and utopianism.

Michael Kazin has made some version of this point over and over again in several of his books, especially The Populist Persuasion, where, for example, he argued that the Wobblies failed to make a dent in American political culture because they were not “American” enough, and his more recent book, American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation.  In the latter, Kazin writes that American radicals, as Americans first and foremost, were most successful when they yoked their political visions to the Declaration of Independence—to “the modernist vision that Americans be free to pursue happiness unfettered by inherited hierarchies and identities.” When they argued for a more collective politics, especially during times of economic hardship, they appealed to an American collective wrapped in the American flag.

Even Denning himself, in his magisterial 1997 book, The Cultural Front: the Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (the topic of my very first USIH blog post over seven years ago), makes clear that the cultural radicals of the Popular Front (such as Kenneth Burke!) were successful at getting the national culture to better reflect radicalized working class values when they mixed small-“c” communism with Americanism. Since Denning’s book was published over a decade after his American Quarterly essay, perhaps he had a change of mind. Or perhaps there’s some nuance I’m missing? Is it possible to study this thing we call America, even from a Marxist or leftist vantage point, without reifying the American nation as an exceptional cultural and political category?

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Great post, Andrew! I remember reading (and admiring) Denning’s essay at the time it came out. I do think that Denning’s argument reproduces the very thing he criticizes: America (or at least American academia) is exceptional (in the non-celebratory sense) for avoiding Marxism.

    We are also not the only nation whose academic self-understanding is haunted by notions of exceptionalism. See, for example, all the discusses of a German Sonderweg among students of Germany.

    Discussions of exceptionalism in this sense are premised on, or at least encouraged by, teleological notions of history, of which Marxism is a prime (though not the sole) example. If all countries are supposed to end up with socialism and eventually communism (or liberal democracy or Hegel’s Prussian absolutism), what explains it when some country doesn’t?

    Finally, I can’t remember whether or not Denning mentions Stuart Hall’s subject position, but I think it’s important. As a Black British Jamaican immigrant, his relationship to British culture was necessarily different from, say, Boorstin’s or even Matthiessen’s or Burke’s (though the latter two were political and, in Matthiessen’s case, sexual, outsiders to the dominant American culture).

  2. I’m confused. Andrew, are you saying that Buhle, Kazin, Denning reified American exceptionalism or that their subjects did? Or, that these historians became complicit WITH their subjects in so reifying? I guess, to me, I thought Kazin and Denning in particular were merely observing that radicalism in America has been most successful when it has been an “American” radicalism–or do you see them applauding that history of accommodation?

    Your post reminded me of Reinhold Niebuhr’s “adjustments” of Marxism in his World Tomorrow essays of 1933-1934–especially his argument that a successful radical movement (a farm-labor party) had to move to the “left politically” and to the “right culturally.” Simultaneously more Marxist to win over urban workers and more populist/conservative evangelical to court the “plain folk.” This was part of the “Americanization” of Marx that Richard Pells talks so well about. So, are Denning and Kazin exceptionalists for pointing this out?

    Simon Hall’s American Patriotism, American Protest similarly observes of 1960s radicals (even Black Power!) that they tried to cast themselves as quintessential Americanists.

  3. I second Mark’s questions above–I am not sure who you are lumping together under the American Exceptionalist label. On the one hand, the answer to whether or not we can study America is, yes, we can, we have, we continue to do so because it exists both as an empirical reality and as a subject that others have reified or vilified (and thus we should study why they did so).
    There were a series of addresses from presidents of the ASA that propose different names for the professional association as an attempt to avoid the collusion with exceptionalism they assume follows. None stuck, of course, but that exercise, it seems to me, begs an interesting question about the productiveness of the exercise–I mentioned that in my talk at the last S-USIH conference and spoke to Allison Perlman about this for a while. I think it is a sign of professional health when an organization questions its identity with some verve.

    I have question for you that many in American Studies have asked: if studying American diplomatic history or social history or political history does not, by default, reify the nation, is our problem with American Studies that unlike other scholarly fields its methodology is not universally apparent and therefore too closely associated with the subjects it studies?

    Andy Seal and I hope to spark some more discussions about these questions as well as we write our posts on Fridays in the future.

  4. This post reminded me of an argument I got in with my fiancé once. The crux of the disagreement, if I recall correctly, is captured in your aside here:

    “…since American exceptionalism is something that all correct-thinking individuals must reject…”

    He more or less agreed with this stance (which to me sounds like you said with some sarcasm, but maybe I’m wrong), while I said, “not so fast.” And in fact, the whole discussion began over whether it is even a useful or not-stupid question to ask, “Why is there no socialism in the United States?” (He said no, I said yes.) And the interesting thing about these kinds of debates, it seems to me, is that while we engage in arguments about whether or not we are committing said intellectual sin or cognitive error, (the sin in question here being “reifying the American nation as an exceptional cultural and political category”) we often forget to stop and ask if there is any truth to the mistake; ie, if it’s really as inaccurate as the whole discussion appears to presume it is from the outset.

    Of course, I am not intending to argue against the well-documented history of American exceptionalism – of both the patriotic and critical tradition – leading scholars to make mistakes. Clearly that has happened a lot and has been a very real problem. But by the same token, the extent to which some historians (although not so much scholars who work in other fields) protect against this impulse – as though nothing could be worse than participating in some American exceptionalism – seems a little odd given that it runs up against another major inclination of historians, which is to parse and parse between different places, times, cultures, etc; to insist, in other words, that nearly every place/country/culture is exceptional.

    Of course, the question always is, how different is America then, given that every place is different from another? This is where my disagreement with Eran came in about the particular question of socialism. I find it helpful to try to avoid the “epistemological quagmire” by dumbing the question down to a Sesame Street level, and then seeing if it holds up on closer examination – in terms of other similar Western, industrialized nations, does one thing here look different from another? It seems to me it does. So, let’s start there; the question from that point on seems legitimate to me. From there, we can error in many directions; we can think America is too particular or not particular enough. We can over-emphasize class while under-emphasizing race or, really, forgetting how interrelated they are in American history; but we can also get so stuck in our little ponds of the utter weirdness of American culture that we mistake the trees for the forest. (Or, deny the existence of a forest at all).

    But at least, then, we are back on the terrain of trying to look at what we’ve got, and talking about whether our assessments are correct or not. When discussions start with lists of intellectual sins to avoid, however, this is hard to get done (not that I think that is what you are doing here in this post!, it just reminded me of those who have done so, especially as you made a slight aside at that), as arguing about whether or not we are violating the commandants distracts us from the task at hand. Of course, we should always be aware of and careful about what discourses we contribute to — on some points I am even more leery about this than most, I think — but if a question or framework is useful and legitimate and can be used to grope towards an accurate understanding of the past then, well, go for it.

  5. I confess that I may be taking things in different, mixed, and incompatible directions in what follows, but here goes:

    I don’t think there’s any question that an unorthodox Marxist can make a Marxian-based and Gramscian-based argument that American socialism would *have* to be small ‘e’ exceptional. Socialism, or Marxian communism, is always rooted in the particular historical conditions of a society. And Stuart Hall’s reading of Gramsci reinforces the historically-sensitive understanding of how socialism develops. As Kurt Newman outlined in his two excellent posts about ‘articulation’, that Gramscian idea explains how small differences are overcome (via forms of translation) to obtain larger solidarities. So the question about how Marxian thought has developed in American centers on how small, local differences have been overcome, in certain historical circumstances, to create occasional left-socialist/Marxian-style movements. What differences were minimized, and what have been too big to overcome? What exceptional circumstances have prevented larger labor and cultural solidarities here? Maybe some ones that are too big to overcome are outlined over in Mike O’Connor’s post—pro vs. anti-gov’t interventionists?

  6. This is a most interesting discussion. Let me be very clear about my biases so as to give context to my comment and question. I am an ex-Marxist though I still have patience with and respect for certain aspects of Marxism. I am also a big fan and follower of American Studies so obviously have little patience for arguments against that discipline. I think nobody would or could argue that America is unexceptional in the descriptive sense. This very discussion here indicates all of these unusual cases about American ways of religion and understanding the role of government ways that set it apart from other nations. It is an entirely separate question that it is an ethical exception. It seems to me that the only sensible attitude to take towards America is one of great ambivalence. It is a country that gave us such flowering of arts, letter, music, popular culture, entire genres, great creativity, much underrated and maligned by others. It is also a country of massive domination of other parts of the world and great injustices of the kind catalogued by Chomsky, and in that sense is unethical. Conversely, it played a role in destroying Nazism and was, in my opinion on the right side concerning actually existing socialism, and fostered important social movements and leaders. My question to the panelists and professors here is the following: Do scholars of American studies see themselves as part of a more general field of studying the history and culture of particular place or do American Studies scholars see themselves doing an “American” style of work a la William James or John Dewey. And if the latter, what practical difference does that make from other fields of research. And in what might this difference consist?

  7. Hey thanks everyone for the comments–sorry to be late to returning to the thread.

    Several of you seem confused about my own actual argument here. I blame myself for being too cryptic in my attempt at irony. Indeed, Robin Marie is right to say that this sentence was sarcastic: “…since American exceptionalism is something that all correct-thinking individuals must reject…” I think hyper-sensitivity to not reifying American exceptionalism often leads into the types of epistemological quagmires Ray points to. Even in our efforts to distance ourselves from the political project of American nationalism we can’t help but focus our studies on “America” or the American nation. Which is why even Denning, I think, ignores his own advice in his book “The Cultural Front,” because there’s no other way to study America, and that’s OK.

    When I write about the culture wars, I’m analyzing the debates over: “What is American?” I don’t necessarily think this is a good question. It’s not one I personally ask. But it’s a really good debate to historicize. It allows us a compelling view on US history.

    P.S. We had a plenary on the subject of American exceptionalism at the 2011 S-USIH conference. Most of the participants denounced the very idea of it (including Eric Foner and Rogers Smith). But Kazin argued the opposite, from a leftist vantage point, that it was worth thinking about America as a unique or even exceptional political project. His scholarship is consistent with that position.

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