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  • American Studies as Area Studies as Transnational Studies?A European Perspective
  • Heinz Ickstadt (bio)

That old concepts may regain vitality when put to new uses can hardly be doubted. It is therefore not surprising that the question of whether the concept of area studies could or should be (re)used for the organization of a new area of knowledge that has not yet found an adequate institutional home in the world of contemporary academia has recently become part of the self-reflections and self-definitions of a field still tentatively called "transnational" or "diaspora" studies.1 In what follows, I shall address the merits of such an application—of using old vessels for the storage of new wine—from the perspective of a European Americanist and as a member of an area studies institute dedicated to the study of the United States.2

I begin, therefore, by briefly sketching the institutional frame that has formed my experience (yet also marks its limits) and focus on the history and structure of the American studies institution that I know best. The Kennedy Institute for North American Studies at the Free University Berlin was founded in the early 1960s as a rather loose conglomerate of different disciplines (language, literature and culture, history, political science, sociology, economics, [End Page 633] and geography—but, so some early critics asked, why not also law, religion, and/ or philosophy?). These were barely held together by a shared location and by a common object of scholarly interest. From the beginning, the institute was beset by a number of structural problems. Of its eight sections, only three (language, literature, and culture) considered themselves as being part of a larger and rapidly expanding field: the field of American studies. But colleagues in the sections of history, political science, sociology, economy, and geography insisted on their primary affiliation with their respective faculty and considered close identification with either the institute or with American studies a professional hazard since it implied a possible loss of status in their own academic field.

Accordingly, the geographic union under one roof at first enhanced not cooperation but a desire for distance and distinctness. The main task of each section was to provide U.S.-related knowledge for the teaching and research programs of the faculty it was affiliated with. Therefore "interdisciplinarity," although expected, was not required. In consequence, it was rarely practiced, so that when it became the battle cry of a generation of younger scholars advocating Marxist theory as a common basis for interdisciplinary work, the institute was almost torn apart during more than a decade of generational and ideological conflicts and personal intrigue. It took years of intense individual engagement and patient trust building, the development of an integrated interdisciplinary degree program in American studies, and several successful research projects to unite the institute.

However, because of the institute's peculiar structure, interdisciplinarity in teaching and research was never dealt with in terms of integrated cultural studies (which has become the dominant American studies approach in the United States), but conceived in terms of cooperation between two or more of the disciplines represented at the institute.3 Although this has been an important factor in creating and maintaining much-needed inner cohesion and a sense of corporate identity, the structural imbalance between those disciplines persists as a potentially disruptive problem.

The Kennedy Institute was founded together with two other area studies institutions—the centers of Latin American and Eastern European studies—but held what turned out to be an advantage over them by being able to focus on an area that was identical with a single nation-state: the United States. (I should add that its original name, "Amerika-Institut," was changed to "North America" when Latin American scholars protested against the old name's imperialist implications. It took a while before it became apparent that now Canadians have a reason to complain unless the Kennedy Institute succeeds in becoming an institute for comparative North American Studies—which has not quite been accomplished yet.) Because of the fact that Latin America is at best a concept but in reality a conglomerate of rivaling nations, culturally and economically diverse and politically at odds, the...


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