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Critical American Studies

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Critical American Studies

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American Pietàs

Visions of Race, Death, and the Maternal

Ruby C. Tapia

In American Pietàs, Ruby C. Tapia reveals how visual representations of racialized motherhood shape and reflect national citizenship. By means of a sustained engagement with Roland Barthes’s suturing of race, death, and the maternal in Camera Lucida, Tapia contends that the contradictory essence of the photograph is both as a signifier of death and a guarantor of resurrection.

Tapia explores the implications of this argument for racialized productions of death and the maternal in the context of specific cultural moments: the commemoration of Princess Diana in U.S. magazines; the intertext of Toni Morrison’s and Hollywood’s Beloved; the social and cultural death in teen pregnancy, imaged and regulated in California’s Partnership for Responsible Parenting campaigns; and popular constructions of the “Widows of 9/11” in print and televisual journalism.

Taken together, these various visual media texts function in American Pietàs as cultural artifacts and as visual nodes in a larger network of racialized productions of maternal bodies in contexts of national death and remembering. To engage this network is to ask how and toward what end the racial project of the nation imbues some maternal bodies with resurrecting power and leaves others for dead. In the spaces between these different maternities, says Tapia, U.S. citizen-subjects are born—and reborn.

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American Studies in a Moment of Danger

George Lipsitz

What becomes of "national knowledge" in our age of globalization? If dramatic changes in technology, commerce, and social relations are undermining familiar connections between culture and place, what happens to legacies of learning that put the nation at the center of the study of history, culture, language, politics, and geography? In short, what remains of American Studies? At a critical moment, this book offers a richly textured historical perspective on where our notions of national knowledge-and our sense of American Studies-have come from and where they may lead in a future of new ideas about culture and community.
   
The America that seems to be disappearing before our very eyes is, George Lipsitz argues, actually the cumulative creation of yesterday’s struggles over identity, culture, and power. With examples from statistics and history, poster designs and music lyrics, Lipsitz shows how American Studies has been shaped by the social movements of the 1930s, 1960s, and 1980s. His analysis reveals the sedimented history of social movement contestation contained in contemporary popular music, visual art, and cinema.

Finally, Lipsitz identifies the ways in which the globalization of commerce and culture are producing radically new understandings of politics, performance, consumption, knowledge, and nostalgia; the changing realities present not so much a danger as a clear challenge to a still-evolving American Studies-a challenge that this book helps us to confront wisely, flexibly, and effectively.  

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At Home in Diaspora

Black International Writing

Wendy Walters

Although he never lived in Harlem, Chester Himes commented that he experienced “a sort of pure homesickness” while creating the Harlem-set detective novels from his self-imposed exile in Paris. Through writing, Himes constructed an imaginary home informed both by nostalgia for a community he never knew and a critique of the racism he left behind in the United States. Half a century later, Michelle Cliff wrote about her native Jamaica from the United States, articulating a positive Caribbean feminism that at the same time acknowledged Jamaica’s homophobia and color prejudice. 

In At Home in Diaspora, Wendy Walters investigates the work of Himes, Cliff, and three other twentieth-century black international writers—Caryl Phillips, Simon Njami, and Richard Wright—who have lived in and written from countries they do not call home. Unlike other authors in exile, those of the African diaspora are doubly displaced, first by the discrimination they faced at home and again by their life abroad. Throughout, Walters suggests that in the absence of a recoverable land of origin, the idea of diaspora comes to represent a home that is not singular or exclusionary. In this way, writing in exile is much more than a literary performance; it is a profound political act. 

Wendy W. Walters is assistant professor of literature at Emerson College.

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Cannibal Democracy

Race and Representation in the Literature of the Americas

Zita Nunes

Zita Nunes argues that the prevailing narratives of identity formation throughout the Americas share a dependence on metaphors of incorporation and, often, of cannibalism. From the position of the incorporating body, the construction of a national and racial identity through a process of assimilation presupposes a remainder, a residue.

 

Nunes addresses works by writers and artists who explore what is left behind in the formation of national identities and speak to the limits of the contemporary discourse of democracy. Cannibal Democracy tracks its central metaphor’s circulation through the work of writers such as Mário de Andrade, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Toni Morrison and journalists of the black press, as well as work by visual artists including Magdalena Campos-Pons and Keith Piper, and reveals how exclusion-understood in terms of what is left out-can be fruitfully understood in terms of what is left over from a process of unification or incorporation.

 

Nunes shows that while this remainder can be deferred into the future-lurking as a threat to the desired stability of the present-the residue haunts discourses of national unity, undermining the ideologies of democracy that claim to resolve issues of race.

 

Zita Nunes is associate professor of English at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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Chains of Babylon

The Rise of Asian America

Daryl J. Maeda

In Chains of Babylon, Daryl J. Maeda presents a cultural history of Asian American activism in the late 1960s and early 1970s, showing how the movement created the category of "Asian American" to join Asians of many ethnicities in racial solidarity. Drawing on the Black Power and antiwar movements, Asian American radicals argued that all Asians in the United States should resist assimilation and band together to oppose racism within the country and imperialism abroad.

As revealed in Maeda's in-depth work, the Asian American movement contended that people of all Asian ethnicities in the United States shared a common relationship to oppression and exploitation with each other and with other nonwhite peoples. In the early stages of the civil rights era, the possibility of assimilation was held out to Asian Americans under a model minority myth. Maeda insists that it was only in the disruption of that myth for both African Americans and Asian Americans in the 1960s and 1970s that the full Asian American culture and movement he describes could emerge. Maeda challenges accounts of the post-1968 era as hopelessly divisive by examining how racial and cultural identity enabled Asian Americans to see eye-to-eye with and support other groups of color in their campaigns for social justice.

Asian American opposition to the war in Vietnam, unlike that of the broader antiwar movement, was predicated on understanding it as a racial, specifically anti-Asian genocide. Throughout he argues that cultural critiques of racism and imperialism, the twin "chains of Babylon" of the title, informed the construction of a multiethnic Asian American identity committed to interracial and transnational solidarity.

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Death of a Nation

American Culture and the End of Exceptionalism

David W. Noble

In the 1940s, American thought experienced a cataclysmic paradigm shift. Before then, national ideology was shaped by American exceptionalism and bourgeois nationalism: elites saw themselves as the children of a homogeneous nation standing outside the history and culture of the Old World. This view repressed the cultures of those who did not fit the elite vision: people of color, Catholics, Jews, and immigrants. David W. Noble, a preeminent figure in American studies, inherited this ideology. However, like many who entered the field in the 1940s, he rejected the ideals of his intellectual predecessors and sought a new, multicultural, postnational scholarship. Throughout his career, Noble has examined this rupture in American intellectual life. In Death of a Nation, he presents the culmination of decades of thought in a sweeping treatise on the shaping of contemporary American studies and an eloquent summation of his distinguished career. Exploring the roots of American exceptionalism, Noble demonstrates that it was a doomed ideology. Capitalists who believed in a bounded nationalism also depended on a boundless, international marketplace. This contradiction was inherently unstable, and the belief in a unified national landscape exploded in World War II. The rupture provided an opening for alternative narratives as class, ethnicity, race, and region were reclaimed as part of the nation’s history. Noble traces the effects of this shift among scholars and artists, and shows how even today they struggle to imagine an alternative postnational narrative and seek the meaning of local and national cultures in an increasingly transnational world. While Noble illustrates the challenges that the paradigm shift created, he also suggests solutions that will help scholars avoid romanticized and reductive approaches toward the study of American culture in the future.

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Debating the End of History

The Marketplace, Utopia, and the Fragmentation of Intellectual Life

David W. Noble

Why do modern people assume that there will be perpetual economic growth? Because, David W. Noble tells us in this provocative study of cultural criticism, such a utopian conviction is the necessary foundation for bourgeois culture. One can imagine the existence of modern middle classes only as long as the capitalist marketplace is expanding. For Noble, the related—and relevant—question is, how can the middle classes believe that a finite earth is an environment in which infinite growth is possible? The answer, which Noble so painstakingly charts, is nothing less than a genealogy of the uses and abuses of knowledge that lie at the heart of so many of our political problems today.

As far back as Plato and as recently as Alan Greenspan, Noble finds proponents of the idea of a world of independent, rational individuals living in timeless simplicity, escaping from an old world of interdependence and generations. Such notions, although in sync with Newtonian science, have come up against the subsequent conclusions of geology, biology, and the physics of Einstein. In a survey of the responses to this quandary of historians, economists, literary critics, and ecologists, Noble reveals how this confrontation, and its implications for a single global marketplace, has forced certain academic disciplines into unnatural—and untenable—positions.

David Noble’s work exposes the cost—not academic at all—of the segregation of the physical sciences from the humanities and social sciences, even as it demonstrates the required movement of the humanities toward the ecological vision of a single, interconnected world.

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Distant Wars Visible

The Ambivalence of Witnessing

Wendy Kozol

In our wired world, visual images of military conflict and political strife are ubiquitous. Far less obvious, far more elusive, is how we see such images, how witnessing military violence and suffering affects us. Distant Wars Visible brings a new perspective to such enduring questions about conflict photography and other forms of visual advocacy, whether in support of U.S. military objectives or in critique of the nation at war.

At the book’s center is what author Wendy Kozol calls an analytic of ambivalence—a critical approach to the tensions between spectacle and empathy provoked by gazing at military atrocities and trauma. Through this approach, Distant Wars Visible uses key concepts such as the politics of recoil, the notion of looking elsewhere, skeptical documents, and ethical spectatorship to examine multiple visual cultural practices depicting war, on and off the battlefield, from the 1999 NATO bombings in Kosovo to the present.

Kozol’s analysis draws from collections of family photographs, human rights photography, independent film production, photojournalism, and other examples of war’s visual culture, as well as extensive visual evidence of the ways in which U.S. militarism operates to maintain geopolitical dominance—from Fallujah and Abu Ghraib to the most recent drone strikes in Pakistan.

Throughout, Kozol reveals how factors such as gender, race, and sexuality construct competing visualizations of identity in a range of media from graphic narrative and film to conflict photography and battlefield souvenirs—and how contingencies and contradictions in visual culture shape the politics and ethics of witnessing.

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Ends of Empire

Asian American Critique and the Cold War

Jodi Kim

Ends of Empire examines Asian American cultural production and its challenge to the dominant understanding of American imperialism, Cold War dynamics, and race and gender formation.
 
Jodi Kim demonstrates the degree to which Asian American literature and film critique the record of U.S. imperial violence in Asia and provides a glimpse into the imperial and gendered racial logic of the Cold War. She unfolds this particularly entangled and enduring episode in the history of U.S. global hegemony—one that, contrary to leading interpretations of the Cold War as a simple bipolar rivalry, was significantly triangulated in Asia.
 
The Asian American works analyzed here constitute a crucial body of what Kim reveals as transnational “Cold War compositions,” which are at once a geopolitical structuring, an ideological writing, and a cultural imagining. Arguing that these works reframe the U.S. Cold War as a project of gendered racial formation and imperialism as well as a production of knowledge, Ends of Empire offers an interdisciplinary investigation into the transnational dimensions of Asian America and its critical relationship to Cold War history.

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Mythohistorical Interventions

The Chicano Movement and Its Legacies

Lee Bebout

Mythohistorical Interventions explores how myth and history impacted the social struggle of the Chicano movement and the postmovement years. Drawing on archival materials and political speeches as well as music and protest poetry, Lee Bebout scrutinizes the ideas that emerged from the effort to organize and legitimize the Chicano movement’s aims.

Examining the deployment of the Aztec eagle by the United Farm Workers union, the poem Yo Soy Joaquín, the document El Plan de Santa Barbara, and icons like La Malinche and La Virgen de Guadalupe, Bebout reveals the centrality of culture to the Chicano movement. For Bebout, the active implementation of cultural narrative was strategically significant in several ways. First, it allowed disparate movement participants to imagine themselves as part of a national, and nationalist, community of resistance. Second, Chicano use of these narratives contested the images that fostered Anglo-American hegemony.

Bringing his analysis up to the present, Bebout delineates how demographic changes have, on the one hand, encouraged the possibility of a panethnic Latino community, while, on the other hand, anti-Mexican nativists attempt to resurrect Chicano myths as a foil to restrict immigration from Mexico.

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