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Response to Marilyn Fischer, Jose Jorge Mendoza, and Celia Bardwell-Jones

From: The Pluralist
Volume 5, Number 3, Fall 2010
pp. 56-62 | 10.1353/plu.2010.0007

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It is an honor and also a pleasure to respond to the three philosophers who have devoted so much time and careful attention to reading and critiquing my paper "Nations of Immigrants: Do Words Matter?" As an interdisciplinary scholar who interacts more often with specialists in the social sciences, history, and Italian studies than with philosophers, I was unsure what to expect from the Coss Dialogue. Would it be possible to find words common enough to all that we could begin to address the complex issues raised by national mythology about the United States as a nation of immigrants? I believe that our panel discussions revealed the common ground we rather quickly found. But they also uncovered a few gaping chasms created by words that mean very different things even to speakers of English.

Since each of the papers by my commentators Marilyn Fischer, Jose Jorge Mendoza, and Celia Bardwell-Jones raised such a rich array of questions, I can, of course, respond only to a few of them. Many of the other questions will, however, I promise, remain with me for the years ahead, as I continue my work. My current research on "nations of immigrants" will be enormously enriched by my participation in the Coss Dialogue.

In her paper, Marilyn Fischer provides a wonderful series of examples of how contemporary meanings encoded in words such as "cosmopolitanism" or "social control" can blind researchers to past meanings and thus to the motives, subjectivities, and politics of the pluralists of the past. The Coss Dialogue surely convinced Fischer that her creation of a "phrase file" is by no means idiosyncratic. Across many disciplines, I think, scholars are keeping "phrase files"; they are struggling anew with the meanings resonating around our words and with the significance of words in shaping political and scholarly debates. I see in many places a renewed interest in etymology, in the history of ideas, and in the ways in which ideas, and words, "travel," both along with people and through disembodied media. Deconstruction is no longer the only path to awareness of the slipperiness or changing meanings of words. Nor must all scholars work with digital archives in the self-conscious manner that I chose in order to uncover the alternative histories and meanings of naturalized phrases such as "nation of immigrants." Across disciplines, it seems, there appears to be a shared commitment to making contemporary linkages of words and meanings "strange" and even "uncomfortable." It is interesting to think about why this is so, and why this interest has emerged at this particular time. I, at least, see in this interest in words a desire to find and to recognize our own human agency in language, thus to rethink the relationship between power and language as embedded in, rather than in merely constructing, everyday life.

At the heart of Fischer's paper, however, is an equally difficult and potentially divisive question: "What's an advocate to do with the words she's given?" To communicate effectively, it often seems that scholars have little choice but to use the received terminologies of our disciplines, theories, and historiographies. If I were to speak casually about emigrants in a class on American immigration history, undergraduates would leave the lecture hall deeply confused. Yet using today's words as if they meant the same thing in the pasts we study can also prevent us from asking new questions about the present as well as the past. It can prevent us from revealing how very different the past actually was. On this point, I can offer several examples of my own successes and failures in resisting the words I was given, and I can also call attention to a conflict over the meaning of ostensibly simple, clear words that emerged in the midst of our Coss Dialogue.

The transformation of what was once called United States immigration history into an interdisciplinary field (migration studies) focused on migrants or (more recently) on mobile people occurred slowly, over thirty years, as scholars questioned and resisted "the words they were given." Those words—mainly immigr* and, to a lesser extent, emigr*—were terminologies invented by states in order to regulate, control, categorize, and...

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