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What's in a Name? Presidential Address to the American Studies Association, 20 November 1998

From: American Quarterly
Volume 51, Number 1, March 1999
pp. 1-32 | 10.1353/aq.1999.0001

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American Quarterly 51.1 (1999) 1-32

I.

In the spring of 1960, less than ten years after the founding of the American Studies Association, its first President, Carl Bode, of the University of Maryland, sat down to recall the moment of the Association's founding. Assuming that the members of the American Studies Association might be interested in the story of how he started the organization, Bode intended his tale to provide guidance for the future. He hoped his narrative would point to both the strengths and the weaknesses of the American studies movement and of the American Studies Association itself. Although this short piece was not Bode's presidential address -- at the time, such addresses were not required of ASA presidents -- it was, nonetheless, one of the first instances of the now familiar American studies genre, the genre conceived in response to the question, "does American studies have a distinctive method?" Like so many others who have since followed his lead, Professor Bode sought to define American studies, to specify its peculiar method, and to lay out an argument for why American studies might, in his words, "lead a counter-reformation in college curriculums."

I want to recall Carl Bode's essay tonight for a particular reason. Indeed, I want to acknowledge it respectfully as a precedent precisely because it does not focus only on the scholarly and intellectual field of American studies. It also looks at the American Studies Association itself and deliberately asks about the role it should play in a larger social and political context. I, too, want to think about the American Studies Association as an organization fostering specific forms of knowledge production at this particular historical moment because I want to ask what the association should do now to build on the rich body of work that has developed in the last twenty years or so, work that has made this particular conference both possible and tremendously exciting.

That work -- pursued by feminists, by those working on the question of race, by ethnic studies scholars, by people working on gay, lesbian, and queer histories, by those preoccupied with the lives of the laboring classes and with the achievements of the indigenous populations of this continent -- that work has challenged some of the early assumptions that grounded the field of American studies. It has challenged what Donald Pease called "the disciplinary unconscious and field imaginary" of American studies, the presumption that American culture is exceptional in some way and that it is dominated by consensus. As nearly all recent presidents of the American Studies Association have pointed out in their own presidential addresses, this new work has insisted on the importance of difference and division within American history, on the significance of "dissensus," in Sacvan Bercovitch's suggestive phrase.

But note the difficulties in expressing the point here, the problem of how to think difference and the idea of a specifically "American" studies together. My own sentence put it this way--"the importance of difference and division within American history." It is not easy to deal with either the most generative or the most limiting effects of difference if you already assume the unity and coherence of a distinctly "American" history. Is difference merely to be posed as a qualifier of some prior whole? Does the perpetuation of the particular name, "American," in the title of the field and in the name of the association continue surreptitiously to support the notion that such a whole exists even in the face of powerful work that tends to question its presumed coherence? Does the field need to be reconfigured conceptually in response? Should the association consider renaming itself in order to prevent this imaginary unity from asserting itself in the end, again and again, as a form of containment?

These are the questions I want to pose tonight by drawing attention to Carl Bode's very brief anecdote about the naming of the association. I want to ask "what's in a name?" and "what do names do?" I want to take up the challenges issued by Mary Helen Washington in last year's presidential address, "Disturbing the Peace: What Happens to American Studies if You...


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